(19) The Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.”
(20) So Moses took his wife and sons, mounted them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God with him.
(21) And the Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go.
(22) Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son.
(23) I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.’ ”
(19) The Lord said to Moses in Midian: In this passage Moses’ departure from Midian is recounted anew, but from a completely different perspective. At first it was told from the internal point of view – Moses’ doubts and the problems he faced. But the description here is from the external point of view, as the surrounding world sees it.
“Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.”: From the outside it seems that Moses fled from Egypt because he was in grave danger for having killed the Egyptian overseer. And that he was always waiting for an opportunity to return there, just as soon as opportunity to do so would present itself.
(20) So Moses took his wife and sons … and went back to the land of Egypt: It would appear that Moses, after he had created a family in Midian, originally had no plans of remaining there.
And Moses took the rod of God with him: As seen from the outside, this gives the impression that immediately upon receiving God’s instruction to assume the role of leader, Moses accepted the mission with no doubts or hesitation whatsoever.
(21) And the Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power: There is no mention here of signs for the Jews, but only marvels for Pharaoh. That is, there is no trace of Moses’ serious doubts concerning the Jews in Egypt and what they are prepared to believe.
I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go: Pharaoh’s adamant, protracted refusal to allow the Exodus to happen was presented earlier (3:19) as a necessary step for destroying the Egyptian worldview by means of plagues, to “take Egypt out of the Jews.” Indeed, that is the internal view of the goings-on. But from the outside it appears to be a pretext for punishing Pharaoh.
When God’s stiffens Pharaoh’s heart, this by no means deprives him of his freedom of choice. On the contrary, as the plagues progress he can avoid panicking, and continue to decide freely how to react.
(22) Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son”: The Exodus is essentially a struggle for the primacy of Israel vs. Egypt: Who will lead the future development of mankind? We will address this point in greater detail below.
Israel is My first-born son: The paternal aspect of God’s relationship to man is inherent in Judaism from the very beginning. God, in relation to all people, is Creator, Lord, and Father. But this finds its absolute expression only in those individuals, nations, and cultures who themselves regard God as their father and behave toward Him like sons. In times to come, however, after all nations master the pure language of communication with God and recognize the Almighty, all people will become children of God in absolute form (Zeph. 3:9).
But even in that future era, Israel will remain “God’s firstborn son,” because it is Israel who first accepted God as their Heavenly Father. Even then, God’s connection with Israel will be realized at a higher level than that of other nations. Although all sons share in their father’s inheritance, the firstborn receives a double portion and enjoys a special status.
(23) I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me”: The departure of the Jews is presented to Pharaoh as necessary for the performance of a religious ritual as required by God. There is no mention of the Patriarchs or the Promised Land.
Yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son: In the “external view,” Pharaoh is seen as doomed from the very beginning. God himself hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not allow the Jews to leave, and then God punishes Pharaoh for that! Thus, the purpose of the entire exercise is to show the world that Pharaoh has forfeited his status as an independent world leader. That is, Egypt’s leading role in world history is no more, and supremacy on the world stage now passes to Israel.