What The Iliad and The Odyssey were to the Greeks and what The Aeneid was to the Romans, the book of Exodus was to the Hebrews. It was the story within which they defined their own lives as a story. Let the reader understand: the Exodus event was paradigmatic or world defining for the ancient Hebrew. It is a lens through which the Israelites understood their relationship with God. It became a grammar for how they understood and explained the connections and disconnections in their lives.
My purpose in this brief article is to introduce the reader to this major biblical theme that permeates the Bible, and I want to instruct the reader about how individual books within the Bible use, adapt, and develop this theme throughout the Scriptures. As there is diversity within a unified plan, my goal will be to do justice to the particularities while not losing sight of the overall integrity and unity communicated through this theme.
What Does the Exodus Mean?
One of the key issues to be addressed before we earnestly begin tracing the Exodus theme is the following: When we are alluding to the Exodus event, what exactly does that event include and encompass? Does it include only the deliverance of the Israelites from the blasting iron furnace of Egyptian oppression? Or does it also include the wilderness wanderings through the desert, the provision of manna during such pilgrimage, and the arrival at the sacred mountain of Sinai? However, it is not even merely to Sinai that God—the divine warrior—guided the people whom he was crafting as his own. By tracing the Exodus theme in its ongoing repetitions and disclosures in Scripture, we see it had another goal—namely, the goal to bring the people of God to Sinai and then deliver them up to the Promised Land. This goal was the land of Canaan first; however, the final goal was not merely the geopolitical land of Israel—it was far greater. God had his goal for the royal priesthood that he was crafting as his own (Exod. 19:6). He wanted them to ascend to a much greater height: entitlement to heaven itself. Peter says, "But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Pet. 3:13 NIV). This was the ultimate bliss envisioned by the story: union with God as a "turfed" people who would no longer be able to sin. "Enlandment" was the ultimate goal. And remarkably, according to New Testament writers, nothing less than heaven was meant by that land promise.
There is a continuing thread of the Exodus theme that shows not only the inner connectedness of the Scriptures, but also how these connections are brought about through subsequent allusions to this foundational theme in such a manner that the fabric of both the Old Testament and the New Testament is maintained in a coherent fabric. Therefore, the Exodus motif is a cornerstone upon which the structure of the story of Scripture is developed. One of the best ways to see this theme and better appreciate the story of the Bible is to follow a "dia-canonical approach." Simply stated, we need to read through the Scriptures.
In the Psalms, we begin to see the function of the Exodus theme: Israel is called to a new level of understanding in light of God's faithfulness in the past (e.g., Ps. 77-78, 105-106, 114, 118). Many other psalms were influenced by the Exodus as well (e.g., Ps. 74, 81, 135, 136, etc.). God as the divine warrior will now conquer the enemies of his people just as he subdued the ancient tumultuous waters of chaos. Another purpose is served in this section as well. The Psalms teach us things that will be further explained by the prophets.
Prophets Major and Minor
The prophets use the Exodus theme as well, especially Isaiah. The main point they drive home is that something "new" is going to take place. From different vantage points and in various ways, they teach us that the foundational salvific event of the Exodus now becomes a paradigm to announce a new salvation event altogether. Biblical scholars call this the Isaianic New Exodus (INE). What was merely shadowlike in the past is going to break on the horizon of the future with new brilliance. Something much greater than ever imagined is going to take place at a future time. In Isaiah 40-55, there is a fusion of creation and Exodus redemptive themes in over thirteen passages (40:3-11; 41:17-20; 42:14-17; 43:16-21; 44:1-5; 44:27; 48:20-21; 49:8-12; 50:2; 51:9-10; 52:11-12; 55:12-13). I do not have the space to touch upon Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Hosea, and many of the other prophets, but the Exodus theme is prominent there as well. In short, by tracing this theme through the prophets, we see that God was faithful in the past when he demonstrated his care and protection of his people by delivering them from Pharaoh and his minions. He is the self-same God; but he will now do something different in a new Exodus, somewhat like the old Exodus, but newer and greater in magnitude.
During the biblical post-exilic period (after the Israelites returned from captivity in Babylon), the Exodus theme continues to influence the manner in which the authors (e.g., Ezra and Nehemiah) describe salvation history. Ezra's march from Babylon, for example, is considered a second Exodus and, in part, the fulfillment of the expectations of the prophets. Indeed, the references to the Exodus theme during this period of redemptive history serve as the antechamber to the New Testament realities. The "new thing" the prophets anticipated will become realized in the coming of the new King David, who will inaugurate his kingdom. Scholarship has recognized this especially in the use of particular Hebrew phrases and formulas having to do with the Exodus and also an analysis of the prayers of Nehemiah. Reading Nehemiah 9, a theological high point of Ezra and Nehemiah, shows many references to the Exodus theme. This leaves the door ajar to show how the Exodus pattern will become the very structuring paradigm of the Gospels to describe this new and profound realization of the biblical story.
When we come to the Gospels, we observe the mediatory role that the paradigm of the Exodus plays in formulating the message of the arrival of king and kingdom (see Mark 1:1-11). Biblical scholars have written whole dissertations showing how the Exodus theme is the template for organizing at least two of the Gospels. Here, the INE paradigm is evoked to demonstrate that the Exodus theme has become "eschatologized." That is to say, the Exodus has become a future event promised on the basis of God's past action in delivering his people. Now there is a reformulation of the Exodus event along earthshaking lines: the new Exodus is a creative event answering who the true Israel is. Not all who are of Israel (descendants) are true Israelites. Moreover, why would Jesus, at his transfiguration, discourse with Elijah and Moses about his own Exodus (exodon)? The narrator could have chosen other ways to express himself if he had merely meant to talk about his departure. This was a deliberate allusion, at least recalling theophanies on Mount Sinai. It is a confluence of many other Old Testament passages demonstrating that Christ is about to bring the Exodus to a new level of fulfillment at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). Although other interpretations have been offered, it may be said at the very least that Luke deliberately connected the work of Jesus with God's earlier deeds in the Exodus rescue from Egypt.
The Apostle Paul
As one would expect, all this evocation of the Exodus event could not possibly leave the apostle Paul untouched. Indeed, the influence of the Exodus theme upon the apostle is evident especially for two of Paul's most important and doctrinal books: Galatians and Romans.
What we see specifically in the book of Galatians is a reworking of the Exodus event for both ethical and salvific reasons. Recently, biblical scholars have also shown how Psalm 143 has directed the apostle's thinking to understand the ethically oriented guidance of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament age vis-à-vis the age of theocratic Israel, which was "under the law." This use of the Exodus theme has profound and far-reaching ramifications; there is the restatement of the first Exodus in new Exodus terms with Christian application. Additionally, the Exodus theme may actually influence the very narrative substructure for Romans 3-8, obviously some of the most important passages in the New Testament corpus. Numerous other passages in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Colossians, and 1 Thessalonians may also contain Exodus themes and allusions. This is only scratching the surface of how important the Exodus theme was for the apostle Paul.
The Writer to the Hebrews
The book of Hebrews is unique among the writings of the New Testament in its use of the Exodus theme. The author of Hebrews interacts with the Exodus theme in a new and significant manner. Although some of the major personages of the Exodus events are not explicitly mentioned, Moses does play a major role in the author's writing, and a variety of Exodus events showcased in the book of Hebrews reveals a widespread concern with the Exodus themes. Many of the themes of the Exodus tradition—such as priesthood, sacrifice, and others—are derived out of the Exodus background and therefore the Exodus plays a crucial role in the mind of the writer of the book of Hebrews.
Peter and John
The apostle Peter also makes prominent use of the Exodus theme, especially in 1 Peter 1-2. Peter focuses on the Exodus from a churchly perspective. In other words, in 1 Peter 1 and 2, Christians are now redeemed by the spotless blood of the Lamb and become the new people of God, the fulfillment of the promise of that royal priesthood (Exod. 19:6). Moreover, we begin to see the special function of the Exodus unfolded with new clarity in the apostle Peter: the people of God are caught up and participate in the new Exodus so that they might serve God and one another while the promised royal priesthood of God is congealed in a new and dramatic manner; they are to live holy lives in the world.
At the end of the biblical corpus, we note the Exodus theme in the Apocalypse of John. The book of Revelation shows similarities to Peter's Epistle, but there are advances upon Peter's contributions as well. Indeed, Christians are seen as the new kingdom of priests in reality.
Here, all the strands come together in the consummation of the ages. John's prophetic vision is based upon themes found in Israel's Exodus experience. Jesus is repeatedly referred to as the Lamb of God (with obvious references to the lamb of Passover), and he brings about the consummation of the new Exodus. Furthermore, many have noted the correspondences between the plagues of the first Exodus and the punishments poured out in Revelation. Now the divine warrior themes resurface: Christians' victory is seen as complete, the Scriptures are now fulfilled, and the consummation of the ages is come. Themes derived from the Exodus—such as redemption, judgment and inheritance—are incorporated to demonstrate that they are the focal point of John's interest. Key passages (e.g., 1:5-6, 5:9-10, 7:1-17; 14:1-5; 15:1-5; 21:1-22:5) all demonstrate Exodus typology in the book of Revelation.
Tracing the theme of the Exodus through the Scriptures demonstrates that it includes the plan of salvation in microcosmic form, a synecdoche painted on the canvas of history. In other words, the Exodus includes God's plan to accomplish salvation by means of deliverance from Egypt (i.e., the tyranny of sin and the devil), guiding the Israelites to the mountain of God and into God's presence (first Sinai, but then later applied to other centers of worship). Since the mountain of God is associated with his presence, this was definitely one of the goals of the Exodus. But is not the only goal: the anticipated legal outcome of the Exodus includes "enlandment" after a period of wilderness wandering. For the Hebrews this story is told in the Pentateuch. For New Testament Christians, our entire Christian life is one of pilgrimage toward the heavenly city. Nevertheless, God's people must eventually be "turfed" in a land where God can rule. Everything must be holy—holy people in a holy space.
Conquered Canaan pictures for us a shadow of heaven on earth, in what biblical scholars call "typology." That is the ultimate goal of the Exodus because that is the shadowy picture set forth in the Old Testament for us to see: God accomplishes his original goals in the Garden through another means. God has given us a grand picture through the Exodus—a picture that includes liberation from tyrannizing forces, ushering us into his presence, and finally into a land; but this will not be fully realized until the final consummation of the ages. Individual salvation is indeed important, but we are saved as a people—a royal priesthood worshiping together in the heavenly Zion is what God has ultimately in mind. The upshot of all this is that the Exodus story line is the salvation story line in miniature.
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Issue: "How To Read The Bible: Reading with the lights on" Nov./Dec. 2013 Vol. 22 No. 6 Page number(s): 28-33
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