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God At Work Through Common Means

The Exodus Era is famous for the drama of God’s supernatural deliverance of Israel from Egypt with the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the provision of water, manna, and meat in the desert. The shattering moment of God’s descent to Sinai to give the Ten Commandments has captured the imaginations of believers and nonbelievers alike since Israel began its trek toward the promised land. It is easy, with the weight of these amazing stories, to lose sight of the ways that God works through common people and common moments to bring about his promises.

The early stories in Genesis show us people for whom God does extraordinary things because they stand out among their generations. While everyone else in Genesis 5 dies, Enoch has a unique account in the pre-flood genealogy: “Enoch lived 365 years, walking in close fellowship with God. Then one day he disappeared, because God took him.” (Genesis 5:23-24, NLT). The Septuagint version and Hebrews 11:5 add that God took him because he pleased God. Likewise, in a world completely filled with violence, Noah has this testimony: “But Noah found favor with the LORD. This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, the only blameless person living on earth at the time, and he walked in close fellowship with God” (6:8-9). We don’t see this with Abraham. God chooses him from among a family of idolators (Joshua 24:2), and the only uncommon thing about him in the narrative is that he has no children.

God uses common means to set the course of Abraham’s life—he speaks, and he makes promises, just like we all do. God’s promises mostly pertain to common human concerns, like the desire to leave a legacy when we’re gone, and to have someone to leave it to, or the desire to be protected from our enemies. Even the signs of God’s promises to Abraham are exceedingly common—everyone can see the dust of the earth, and everyone can see the stars. Everyone uses at least one name, so Abraham’s new name isn’t that unusual, and even circumcision was practiced in Egypt and other parts of the ancient world. When Abraham splits the animals in half to make a covenant, he is participating in a common rite, and even the images God uses to symbolize his presence—a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch (Gen 15:17)— are household items.

In Isaac’s life, God uses an ordinary ram caught in a common thornbush to save him from being sacrificed, and then he uses Abraham’s oldest servant to bring him a wife, Rebekah. He uses normal childbearing in an ordinary, even dysfunctional, family to bring about the next generation. Then God doesn’t even pick the firstborn son but the less-loved second, and he uses jealousy, theft, and family conflict to send him away to Northwest Mesopotamia. 

Jacob’s common human lust and greed keep him trapped in Laban’s household for years, where he eventually marries two wives and takes two concubines, and the stability of over twenty years in one place with Laban allows Jacob’s family to grow in safety. With natural human reproduction and a little help from common polygamy, God expands Jacob’s family from one man to eighteen people by the time he returns to Canaan.

In Canaan, God uses ordinary sibling rivalry to move Joseph to Egypt as part of the slave trade, one of the most normal fixtures of the ancient world. In Egypt, Joseph experiences life as a slave and the predatory lust of his master’s wife. He suffers false accusation and betrayal, and he goes to prison. These experiences are so common a part of our sinful world that we could call them vulgar in the classical sense. He lives thoroughly under control of the powerful, like the majority of his world. 

After twenty-two years in Egypt, Joseph sees his brothers again because God has used food scarcity to get them there—a common reason for human migration. This famine eventually brings Joseph’s whole family to Egypt, now multiplied to 70 people by normal reproduction. They make a treaty with Pharaoh to live in Goshen to act as common shepherds, and they eventually sell themselves to Pharaoh with the rest of Egypt in exchange for food—a normal recourse when all that someone has left is his body.

This little group of people lives in a corner of the mightiest empire of its day, and the family multiplies under slavery to become an invisible nation of brick-makers, rock-movers, and carriers of burdens. They are so unimportant to the eyes of their world that not one of their names is preserved for posterity. They live and die with no memorial, and, as is common for so many people under the hands of the mighty and cruel, they live and die in pain.

Even when God begins to move on Israel’s behalf, he uses common means. A cruel tyrant attempts genocide—which happened several times in the 20th century alone—and ordinary midwives refuse to kill the babies they’ve spent their lives delivering. Two unimportant people from the tribe of Levi, who have already had two children, have one more. He’s a beautiful child, to be sure, but he’s just another baby. They keep him till they can’t, and then they float him down the Nile in a reed basket coated with pitch. Pharaoh’s daughter saves the boy, but God uses the baby’s sister to suggest that his mother be his nurse. We don’t even get names for any of these people until Pharaoh’s daughter calls the boy Moses, a common part of an Egyptian name meaning “drawn out.” 

Moses grows up in power in Pharaoh’s court, but God doesn’t use him from this vantage point. An impulsive act of violence turns him into a common murderer and sends him running for his life. He escapes to Midian and spends 40 years as just one more wandering shepherd among many until God uses an uncommon sight to catch his eye—a bush in flames but not consumed by them.

We know the rest of the story. We get excited about that part, but the reality is that this story, and most of the rest of the Bible, consists of years and years of life’s grind. Israel experiences deliverance from Egypt but spends 40 years—longer than I have been alive as I write this—wandering in the desert. Miracles attend their arrival in Canaan, but then the test for them is the years it takes to make the land their own. For most of the Judges era, Israel exists as just one more people group under the thumb of conquering tribes; and for most of the kingdom and divided kingdom eras, the majority of Israel experiences life as usual under kings like those of the nations. Even in the captivity, return, and silent eras, Israel is just one nation among many to experience the violence and tyranny of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. 

Even with the miracle of the virgin birth, God uses ordinary people. The Jewish religion and temple are one among many in the empire, and Zachariah and Elisabeth are just one more priestly couple, even within Judaism. As Rebecca McLaughlin puts it, Jesus’ mother is “just another Mary,” a name so common that one woman in five held it at that time.* Jesus picks unremarkable disciples—men other rabbis hadn’t chosen—and his church is composed of common people with normal problems. These people will change the world.

So much of our culture values prominence and influence, and I am no different. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to be given opportunities to speak or been frustrated that no one seems to know my name. I’ve wished for God to do something dramatic through me, or for my story to be told. I think we all want our stories to be told—and some day, they will be, in the Lamb’s Book of Life. In the meantime, God moves under the surface of our lives and through moments so common we don’t even notice them, like our ordinary jobs, or griefs, or joys. He gives us stories of ordinary people in the Bible to give us perspective on our own ordinary lives. As in the life of Abraham, everyone else saw the dust, but Abraham saw God behind the dust; and everyone else saw the stars in the sky, but Abraham saw God behind the stars. The invitation for each one of us, then, is to see God behind the ordinary moments of our lives, and to live in countercultural hope in the ordinary work of God.

—Jennifer May

*Rebecca McLaughlin, Jesus through the Eyes of Women: How the First Female Disciples Help Us Know and Love the Lord (Austin, TX: The Gospel Coalition, 2022), 25.


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