When Moses was forty years old, there came this momentous turning point in his life. We all have turning points in our lives, decisions we make that affect what happens afterward. But it is hard to imagine any turning point in anyone’s life more monumental than what happened with Moses when he threw in his lot with his people and turned his back on the pleasures of Egypt.
We’re not told much about it here in Exodus, but there are two texts in the New Testament that are important, and we ought to have them in our minds because it is the authoritative New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament event. In Acts 7:23-25, Stephen said, “When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his fellow Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not.” That verse tells us that Moses’ early training in all of the years he spent in the palace of the pharaoh had not eclipsed his knowledge of his origins. He knew who he was. So when he decided to go visit his people, he knew they were his people, and the texts tell us that. And they tell us also that, even at this point, maybe he was thinking that he would be the deliverer whom God would use.
The second passage is in Hebrews 11:24-26. Now that is a great chapter that lists the heroes of the faith and tells us what they did by faith. The writer says, “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.”
Those verses add something else, something we don’t see in Stephen’s speech in Acts. They tell us that he made a deliberate choice to reject his Egyptian privileges in order to identify with his own people for what he understood to be the purposes of God in history. Now as I say, that was a monumental choice and it was a noble one. But how he acted did not go so well. He got ahead of God. But let’s not forget how noble his initial decision was.
In Moses: The Servant of God, F. B. Meyer comments on the significance of what Moses did when he struck down the Egyptian who was mistreating the Israelite. First, Moses made this decision in the full maturity of his powers. He was forty years old, which means that he was old enough and experienced enough to know what he was doing. He did not analyze his situation and conclude that since he would most likely not get ahead of some of the other nobles around him, he may as well join the Israelites and be their leader. His decision to murder the Egyptian did have a level of rashness, but he did consciously decide to side with his persecuted people.
Second, Moses’ choice was made when the fortunes of the children of Israel were at their lowest ebb. When the leadership changed in Egypt, foreigners were now viewed with suspicion. Thus, the privileged position the Israelites had enjoyed was taken away. Moses turned his back on the palace, with all its advantages and comfort, to identify with his oppressed people and the God of his ancestors. How many of us would be willing to pay that price?
Third, Moses’ choice was made when the pleasures of sin seemed most fascinating. Moses may not have understood all the pleasures that were open to him when he was younger, but he certainly came to realize what he could have as he got older. He was on what we would call the inside track; he was part of the establishment. He could have anything he wanted. But he rejected all of it.
Fourth, Moses made his decision decisively. Now this is where I say that the silence of these years is significant. We have to remember that Moses is the author of these books. He is writing his own story. Why doesn’t he tell us anything about this first third of his life? Why doesn’t he tell us about his Egyptian mother? We don’t even know her name! Why doesn’t he tell us about his companions and his early childhood? And if he really was a military man, why doesn’t he boast about his victories?
The only reasonable explanation is that when he turned his back on Egypt, he did it for good. He didn’t even want to bring it up again. Most of us want to compromise. We want to keep a foot in both camps, we want to be in the world, and we want to be a Christian too. In this case you might say, “Well, Moses could have tried to keep his foot in both ethnic camps, be both a Jew and an Egyptian” But you see, he didn’t do it. When he turned his back on Egypt, he did it. He shut that door and he never opened it again. Never once anywhere throughout the Pentateuch do you find him longing for the pleasures of Egypt. The people did. He pointed out they wanted to go back and be slaves so that they could have onions, leeks and garlic to eat. But Moses, who had all the privileges, didn’t long for that at all. He left, and he left permanently. And yet you see, in spite of his training, in spite of the nobility of his purpose, his first act when he actually took it into his head to identify with his people, ended in failure. He killed the Egyptian, and as a result of that he had to run away.
This was not the right thing to do. Whatever that Egyptian was doing, he didn’t deserve to be killed. And even if the circumstances were such that the Egyptians behavior did deserve death, Moses wasn’t called to be the judge or the executioner. That wasn’t his role.