Often we wonder why God does not seem to be answering our prayers. But I learned an important insight from some older members in African-American churches that I was a part of: “God may not come when you want him to, but he’s always right on time.”
As Israel cried out for deliverance in Exodus 2:23, they may have wondered why deliverance took so long. They could not know the irony that God had already been preparing a deliverer even when Pharaoh was killing their children. Moses’s future role as deliverer is already foreshadowed in Moses’s survival in Exodus 2:3. Moses’s mother rescued him from Pharaoh by putting him in something like a basket—the Hebrew term is used elsewhere in the Bible only for Noah’s ark. Then she placed it among the reeds—a Hebrew term that is later used in connection with the place where God brought his people through the sea. The narrative looks back to Noah and God’s rescue of a remnant to perpetuate all humanity; it looks forward to Israel’s deliverance at the sea.
Surprisingly, God chooses to use Moses as an outsider rather than when he was a prince of Egypt. The narrative prepares us for that outsider role not least by leaving the Pharaoh unnamed, yet subverting his evil purposes by comparatively less powerful women. These women include the named Hebrew midwives who protected children (1:15-21), Moses’s mother and sister who rescued him (2:2-4), one of Pharaoh’s own daughters (2:5-10), and in a sense even Zipporah and the other female Midianites who were Moses’s first contacts in Midian.
Israel’s expectations of a deliverer may be shaped by how God raised up Joseph generations before. But God does not always do things the same way, and we see some contrasts between Joseph and Moses:
• Whereas Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, Moses’s sister helped him escape slavery
• Whereas Midianites sold Joseph into Egypt, Midianites welcomed Moses when he fled Egypt
• Whereas Joseph became like a “father” to Pharaoh (Gen 45:8), Moses became a son of one of Pharaoh’s daughters
• Whereas God exalted Joseph from slavery to rule Egypt, Moses abandoned his royal position on behalf of slaves
• Whereas Joseph made Egypt Pharaoh’s servants (Gen 47:19), God uses Moses to free Pharaoh’s slaves
• Whereas God used Joseph to deliver Egypt economically, God used plagues through Moses to devastate Egypt economically
• Whereas God used Joseph to bring Israel to Egypt, God used Moses to return them to Canaan
Nevertheless, there are important parallels between these figures, for example:
• Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest; Moses, fleeing Egypt, married the daughter of a Midianite priest
• Both Joseph and Moses gave their first son names recalling that they were staying in a foreign land
Both these factors underline a deeper parallel: both deliverers were initially rejected by their own people. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery; one of Moses’s fellow Israelites complained, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” (Exod 2:14). Many prophets and deliverers, and ultimately the Lord himself, faced the same resistance.
God did not act in the way his people would have expected, and they did not initially recognize the one who would be their deliverer. In fact, many complained about his leadership even during their forty years in the wilderness. Sometimes we don’t recognize that God is at work even when it is right in front of our eyes, because he is not working the way that we expected.
Nevertheless, God’s deliverance did come, and it sent a clear message when it did. Israel had suffered for a generation in bondage, but God’s purposes are often worked out over the long run. Too close to our sufferings and our daily life in the present to see beyond, we often miss the larger picture of God’s faithful work over time.
Yet how much clearer could the message finally be? Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile; the first plague later turned the Nile to blood. Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile; the last plague struck Egypt’s firstborn. Pharaoh drowned Israel’s babies in the Nile; God drowned Pharaoh’s army in the sea.
Those wise older believers who had been through much yet had seen God’s faithfulness were right about how God works in the long run. “God may not come when you want him to, but he’s always right on time.”