The Great Divorce

picture of a divorce decree


Pharaoh cut a covenant with Joseph in a ceremony described in Genesis 41:39-45.

All subjects of a kingdom are in blood covenant with the king, but the ceremony described and the resulting relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh clearly go far beyond that of a normal subject of the crown, to a blood covenant in which Joseph was treated as an equal to Pharaoh.

What a celebration of a God-ordained event!

Joseph was given a new name, new clothes, a gold necklace, new authority, and Pharaoh’s own signet ring!

The new clothes and new name carry significant meaning in a blood covenant ceremony, and the signet ring, in particular, gave Joseph full authority to speak on behalf of Pharaoh. A command issued by Joseph, under the seal of Pharaoh’s signet ring carried the full authority of Pharaoh’s own signature. Pharaoh said that Joseph was now ruler over all the land of Egypt, and equal to Pharaoh in everything except the throne.

Though the word covenant is not explicitly used in this passage, it is clear both by reference to covenant rites and by transfer of trust and authority, that Joseph was now in blood covenant with Pharaoh, King of Egypt.

Later, Joseph’s father, brothers, and family moved to Egypt, in order to escape starvation during the seven years of famine. By accepting Pharaoh’s provision, they accepted the protection of Pharaoh’s covenant with Joseph, placing themselves under obligation to that covenant.

Moreover, since covenant is an inheritance passed down from father to son, all of Israel’s descendants and all of Pharaoh’s descendants were in blood covenant with each other. They were family, blood-brothers.

But something went wrong…

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)

The Hebrew word translated here as know (yada`) is used almost exclusively to denote either the intimate personal empathetic understanding of a covenant partner or special God-given perceptive understanding of a specific topic. This is the same word used, for example, in Genesis 4:1 (NKJV), “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…” In this case, it is clearly a covenant reference, indicating that the new Pharaoh was not empathetically disposed toward the family of his covenant partner, Joseph.

The new Pharaoh chose not to honor the covenant with Joseph (did not know Joseph). Rather than acting on behalf of his covenant partners, as was his obligation by sacred oath, he chose rather to enslave them. Because of the change of attitude on the part of the new Pharaoh, Israel was now in a covenant that had become bondage. They were in need of redemption, and they had no means of redeeming themselves.

God told Moses, “Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments’” (Exodus 6:6).

Note that God listed deliver and redeem as two separate actions He would perform on behalf of His people, Israel. To this day, Jewish Passover traditions, designed by God to commemorate this historic event, include four cups of wine to be drunk at specific intervals in the meal, with the cup of redemption and the cup of deliverance recognized as two separate acts to be celebrated. Nor is this unique to the Exodus story. The words deliver and redeem are often paired in scripture as two separate but closely related events (Job 6:23, Jeremiah 15:21).

Deliverance speaks of God’s protection as Israel was brought out of Egypt and journeyed to the promised land. Redemption speaks of Israel being justly released from their covenant obligations to Pharaoh.

God’s plan, as revealed to Moses, was to redeem Israel from their blood covenant with Pharaoh. When Israel left Egypt, they were to leave with no covenant ties, no covenant obligations, no debts or allegiance owed to Pharaoh.

But what was the redemption payment? At what price was the covenant obligation fulfilled? How can a price even be set for a blood covenant? Did God pay Pharaoh some ransom price for the freedom of Israel?

God said He would redeem Israel, “with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.”

In reading the Exodus story, three truths stand out clearly:

  1. God was in complete control from start to finish. Even when Pharaoh appeared to be in the position of authority, God was working out His plan through Pharaoh’s choices.
  2. Israel was not leaving Egypt without Pharaoh’s permission, not even for a few days. Over and over, God sent Moses back to Pharaoh asking permission for Israel to leave Egypt for just a few days.
  3. Israel was not leaving Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing. Each time, God caused Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened, so that Pharaoh refused to let Israel go, even as plague after plague continued to roll over the land of Egypt.

God could have delivered Israel without Pharaoh’s permission. So, why was Pharaoh’s permission required? And why, if Pharaoh’s permission was required, did God cause Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened, so that he consistently refused to let Israel go, until after the plague of the death of the first-born?

The answers are found in Exodus 6:1, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land.’”

When Pharaoh chose to “drive them out of his land” Israel was released from their covenant obligation. At that moment, Israel was divorced from Egypt. The covenant was dissolved, and Israel was free to proceed to the Promised Land with no obligation of allegiance to Egypt.

In fact, the Hebrew words translated here as the phrases let them go (shalach) and drive them out (garash) are both translated elsewhere as divorce (Malachi 2:16, Leviticus 21:14).

By the manner in which God redeemed Israel from Egypt, He gave new meaning to the word redemption. No ransom price was paid, yet the covenant of bondage was dissolved, in a manner that was just. As their redeemer, God justly caused Israel’s blood covenant with Egypt to be dissolved, so that Israel was no longer in a covenant of bondage to Egypt.

God brought about the divorce of Israel from Egypt, and God called it redemption.

Thank God, He is still in the business of redeeming His children from covenants of bondage!

From what covenant of bondage has God redeemed you?


[Note: This post is comprised largely of excerpts from my book, So You are a Believer…Who has been through Divorce… To read more, click here.]

[Note: This post is linked to God Bumps , Beholding Glory , Graceful , Seedlings , Wellspring ]

18 thoughts on “The Great Divorce

    • “So thankful for His redemption from all bondage!”

      Amen! Thank you, Christina!

      Loved your post, this morning, too!

  1. Joseph–(aptly named). I so enjoy your exegesis of the Scriptures each week. I just finished Exodus a few months ago and found it all so powerful.
    What do I love about this story? One–covenant–a God held up agreement that HE keeps in place regardless of my performance.
    and two–that Joseph’s family ‘just so happened’ to have to move because of the famine which got them down to Egypt and well, God’s plan continued to unfold.
    Famines moved a lot of people to the right places–Ruth and Naomi come to mind.
    God is so faithful.
    Praise Him for the Redemption Story!

    • Jody, The Great Exodus is a story I often return to. I love seeing the story unfold according to God’s plans. I love how so many aspects of human behavior simply become a part of God’s story. Sort of a chance to see a God’s-eye view of the great drama of human history.

      Yes, He is so faithful!

  2. Fantastic post. I’ve never had it explained in quite this manner and it sure is awesome that God still delivers from bondage! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you, Bryan! I’m so glad it was a blessing to you. I just love finding new perspectives from which to view the truth of God’s word.

      Yes, our Redeemer lives, and He still delivers us from bondage!

    • Yes, I like the idea of a new name, too, David. Something about acquiring a new name really speaks to being a new person, doesn’t it?

      The New Testament example of Saul becoming Paul shows such a striking change that it is easy to think of him as having become a completely new person in Christ…because He did.

      Of course, even in our culture, when a woman enters a marriage covenant she usually takes her husband’s name. We retain so many ancient covenant rites in modern wedding ceremonies, yet seem to have largely forgotten their significance.

  3. Joe, I continue to appreciate your insight about covenants. I love your perspective on this story. It has application to so many aspects of our lives, even associations that can be more binding than we realize. God is always leading us towards freedom, because that’s what resurrection life is. It’s taking the graveclothes off our lives so we can walk in abundant life.

    • “God is always leading us towards freedom, because that’s what resurrection life is.”

      So true! Thank you, Gina!

  4. I’m amazed at the depth of study you provide for us here, Joe. I’ve gone to seminary and taken many a theology class, but never knew any of this before. It certainly brings about some interesting implications. Great post as always!

    • I’m glad it was a blessing to you, Beth.

      There is so much to learn about God’s heart of loving redemption…fortunately, we’ll have a long time to continue learning! =^)

  5. In need of redemption, they had no means to redeem themselves. Love that…easily applied to my own life. What a good lens to view Easter through. He redeemed ME from Satan (Pharaoh), too.

    • Yes! Jesus redeemed us from the kingdom of darkness, just as God redeemed Israel from Egypt. The Second Great Divorce!

      Thank you, Pamela!

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