Israel’s exodus from Egypt is a central theme in biblical theology.1
Copyrighted image used with permission from ebibleteacher.com
The imagery and language of Exodus has a pervasive prominence in the OT via (1) the recasting of ancient traditions, (2) the expression of contemporary circumstances, and (3) the articulation of future expectations.2 An objection might be that the lens of the Exodus does not illuminate or enlighten some OT literature, such as the Book of Job. Nevertheless, it does explain the existence of the canonical niche in which such documents reside. In this respect, the Exodus arguably qualifies as a central theme of OT theology in particular and biblical theology as a whole.
The center and significance of the Exodus is easy to identify (Ex 14:28-30; Dt 4:34), but its limits are not. Does “the Exodus” begin with Jacob’s descent into Egypt or with the mistreatment of the Hebrews? Does it end on the Red Sea’s eastern shore, at Sinai, in the wilderness, or at the Jordan? I am taking a broad view beginning with Jacob’s descent and ending with Sinai. A necessary tradeoff will be an inability to adequately treat various sub-themes (e.g., Moses, “chaos,” the wilderness, Sinai, etc.) within a short work.
Christoph Barth rightly connects the significance of the Exodus theme with its presence in almost every confession of Israel’s faith.3 Examples are the Song of Moses (Ex 15:1ff), the Song of Miriam (Ex 15:21), the “wandering Aramean” confession of Dt 26:5ff, and the liturgy of the Psalter (e.g., Ps 66). The Exodus was the occasion of God’s greater self-revelation to his people and to the world. In Ex 7:5, God declared that “the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD [Yahweh] when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it” (also see Lev 22:32-33). The “creation” of Israel in the Exodus, provided the Israelites with a model for understanding all of God’s creative and redemptive acts. The “deep” that gave birth to Israel in Ex 15:4-8 was the same “deep” that gave birth to (1) the whole world in Gen 1:2, (2) the redeemed world of Noah’s day (Gen 7:11), (3) the “new Israel” of Joshua’s day (Josh 3:15ff), and (4) the “new Israel” of the 2d Temple period (Zech 10:9ff).
In Jacob’s day, Egypt was to become the womb from which Israel would emerge as a nation. With that in mind, God advised Jacob, “do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there” (Gen 46:3). Later on, Moses told the Israelites, “Your forefathers who went down into Egypt were seventy in all, and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Dt 10:22). The Lord brought them “out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance” (Dt 4:20). In the words of the psalmist, “when Israel came out of Egypt, …Judah became God’s sanctuary and Israel his dominion” (Ps 114:1-2)– but all was not well.
Israel relived the oppression of Egypt at the hands of the Canaanites, and as a result, the motif of oppression found in the Exodus was extended to later experiences and institutions. For example, “no Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants …was to enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation” because “they did not come to meet…Israel with bread and water on…their way when…they came out of Egypt” (Dt 23:3-4). In Judges 6:8-9, an unknown prophet declared that God had snatched Israel “from the hand of all…their oppressors…and had given Israel their land” (Judges 6:8-9).
The Exodus marked “Day 1″ of Israel’s calendar; it was the beginning of time for Israel as a nation, theologically and historically. In terms of simple history, the impact flowed in only one direction; e.g., Solomon’s Temple was begun “in the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt” (Num 6:1). From a theological standpoint however, the Exodus affected Israel’s recollection of the past as well as its view of the future. More specifically, God’s self-identification as the one “who brought…Israel up out of the land of Egypt” is probably reflected back onto the Abraham stories in which God identifies Himself as the one “who brought…Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans” (Gen 15:7). Later on, the prophets adapted this refrain to the Captivity by declaring that God would soon be known as the one who “brought Israel out of the land of the north.”
The image of “bringing up” is just one element of the Exodus theme. Zakovitch notes numerous parallels between the Exodus stories and other narratives.4 Specific examples are as follows:
- The story of Jacob and Laban has numerous parallels to Israel’s descent into Egypt, subsequent enslavement, and final escape.5 More specifically, both accounts involve (1) warm receptions from their eventual captors, (2) service at hard labor, (3) dramatic increases in the captives (flocks/humans) that disturb the hosts, (4) futile attempts by the captors to limit increases among the captives, (5) God’s concern for the captives and desire for them to return to their homes, (6) requests for release by the captives, (7) departures of the captives with great wealth, and (8) interventions by God to prevent the captors from reclaiming their victims.
- The stories of various charismatic judges have parallels with the Exodus narrative. In the account of Deborah and Barak, Zakovitch points out similarities in (1) the descriptions of God’s miraculous intervention to defeat Israel’s enemies (Pharaoh/Sisera) in battle, (2) the references to Mt Sinai, (3) the roles of male saviors (Moses/Barak) and their prophetesses (Miriam/Deborah), and (4) the songs of victory by the prophetesses.6
- The capture of the Ark by the Philistines and its return echo the Exodus tradition in terms of (1) the captivity of God’s possessions (Israel/the Ark), (2) requests to the leaders of the oppressors for release of God’s possessions, (3) plagues of disease and death to effect release, (4) judgments on the captors’ gods, and (5) release of God’s possessions with great wealth.7
- The story of Esther parallels the plight of Israel in Egypt and their subsequent escape from danger in terms of (1) positioning of the hero (Moses)/heroine (Esther) in the royal court, (2) fears on the part of oppressors that spark attempts to annihilate Israel/the Jews, (3) ten-fold judgments (plagues/death of Haman’s ten sons) on the oppressors, (4) deaths of the oppressors, and (5) the existence of Amalekites as enemies of Israel/the Jews.8
- The story of Ruth parallels the descent/return of Israel into/out of Egypt in terms of (1) migrations to a foreign lands because of hunger, (2) marriages of prominent males (Joseph, Moses, Naomi’s sons) to Egyptians, (3) death or threat of death to the male members of the clan, and (4) returns to the land of Israel.9
- The story of David in Saul’s court parallels the descent/return of Israel into/out of Egypt in terms of (1) warm receptions from their eventual enemies, (2) marriages to women of noble/priestly standing, (3) fear and capricious hostility on the part of their hosts, (4) escapes into Midian until the death of the king/pharaoh, (5) portrayals of the hero as lawgiver,10 and (5) prominence of Amalekites as enemies.11
The Exodus affected Israel’s legal system as well as its literature. Most prominent is the introduction to the “Ten Words” which contains the overarching justification for Torah, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Ex 20:2ff). Holiness itself was predicated on the “separation” God had wrought in the Exodus; i.e., “I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy” (Lev 11:45). The Israelites were to “use honest scales and honest weights…because Yahweh was the LORD who brought…them up out of Egypt” (Lev 19:36). Such stipulations were invested with emotional power with the admonition to “remember what the Amalekites did to…Israel along the way when…they came out of Egypt” (Dt 25:16-17). Israelites could not be sold as slaves because they were God’s “servants, whom…He brought out of Egypt” (Lev 25:42). The motivation for putting false prophets to death was rooted in the outrage of “rebellion against the LORD…, who brought…Israel out of Egypt” (Dt 13:5). As a final example, careful attention to legal requirements was cautioned because of “what the LORD… did to Miriam along the way after…Israel came out of Egypt” (Dt 24:8-9).
On a happier note, the Exodus symbolized God’s lovingkindness. It gave Israel courage in battle (Dt 1:30; Dt 7:18; and Dt 20:1). God “loved…Israel’s forefathers…and for that reason, He chose their descendants after them…and brought…them out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength” (Dt 4:27; Dt 7:8; Hos 11:1; Hag 2:5). In bringing about the Exodus, God’s intent was to “dwell among” His people (Ex 29:46) and to give them confidence that He was with them (Hag 2:5).
In matters of the heart, the Exodus provided the Israelites with a motive for love of God and love for their fellow-man. In Lev 19:34, the Israelites were told to “love…the alien as themselves, for they were aliens in Egypt.” In releasing their slaves, they were to “give to…their slaves as the LORD…had blessed…them” because they “were slaves in Egypt and the LORD… redeemed…them” (Dt 15:14-15). They were forbidden to “deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge” because they “were slaves in Egypt and the LORD… redeemed…them from there” (Dt 24:17-18). When they harvested their vineyard, they were directed to “leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow” because again they “were slaves in Egypt” (Dt 24:21-22). As a final and somewhat surprising example, the Israelites were not to “abhor an Egyptian, because…Israel had lived as an alien in his country” (Dt 23:7).
“God brought Israel up out of Egypt” via a military victory, but the ultimate goal was for “His people to worship Him” (2 Ki 17:36). From that standpoint, the Exodus served as a rich source of etiologies for Israel’s religious celebrations and the mechanics of their observances.12 For example in Dt 5:14ff, observance of the Sabbath was necessary because the Israelites “were slaves in Egypt” and slaves needed rest. In Ex 12:17, the rationale for celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread is because on that “very day,” God brought Israel out of Egypt. In v.27, the etiology of the Passover is tied to the day in which the Lord “passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt.” In observing the Passover, the Israelites were to “keep vigil to honor the Lord…because the LORD kept vigil that night to bring them out of Egypt” (Ex 12:42). They were commanded “not to eat…the Passover with yeast-filled bread…because…they had left Egypt in haste” (Dt 16:3). The father of the house was to tell his son, “I…celebrate this Passover because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Ex 13:8). During the Feast of Tabernacles, the Israelites were to live in booths because “they lived in booths when…God brought them out of Egypt” (Lev 23:43). In the Tabernacle, they were to keep an omer of manna “for the generations to come, so they…could see the bread…God gave…them to eat in the desert when…He brought…them out of Egypt” (Ex 16:32). As a final example, all of Israel’s firstborn belonged to God because “when He struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, …He set apart for…Himself every firstborn in Israel” (Num 3:13).
In rescuing “His Firstborn” from Egypt, God show His hatred of idolatry (Ex 12:12: Dt 29:16-17), yet Israel persisted in the very thing God despised (Dt 9:6-7; Josh 5:9; 24:14; Ps 106:7-9) with disastrous results. Why did the LORD, cast away his people? The Exodus theme has the answer. Dt 29:24ff says, “it is because this people abandoned the covenant…God made with them when he brought them out of Egypt.” On one hand, the Exodus reminded the Israelites of relief from misery (Ex 3:17), slavery (Lev 26:13), poverty (Dt 11:10), and “horrible diseases” (Dt 7:15) that were “incurable” (Dt 28:27), but on the other, it served as a symbol of punishment for breaking God’s covenant. The threat of such punishment also appears in Dt 28:68 where God said that he “would send…Israel back in ships to Egypt on a journey…that …they should never make again.”13 In v.60, the Israelites are warned that God “would bring upon…them all the diseases of Egypt that…they dreaded, and that those diseases would cling to Israel” (Dt 28:60). In Hosea, “punishment for sins…via a return to Egypt” is picked up as a metaphor for captivity in another place (Hos 8:13). In Hos 9:3, the true identity of this new “Egypt” is illuminated by the threat of eating “unclean food in Assyria.”
Hosea used the Exodus theme as a cipher for redemption as well as for punishment. In Hos 12:9, God told Israel, “I am the LORD your God, out of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, as in the days of your appointed feasts.” Isaiah used similar images when he spoke of “a highway for the remnant of…God’s people that is left from Assyria, as there was for Israel when they came up from Egypt” (Isa 11:15-16). In Isa 43:15ff, Israel’s Creator, “he who made a way through the sea,” speaks of “a new thing…which would be a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” so that the people He formed might “proclaim His praise.” In v.2, Israel’s “Redeemer” tells them, “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” In Isa 51:9ff, the “drying of the sea” is for “the ransomed to pass over.”14 In more concrete terms, Micah looked forward to the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and in Micah 7:11ff, God spoke through him to say, “as in the days when…Israel came out of Egypt, I will show them my wonders.” Jer 16:14ff is more dramatic in the announcement that a new “Exodus from the North” would overshadow the Exodus from Egypt– an event that had informed Israel’s faith for almost one thousand years.
Space limitations have limited the present discussion to only a few ideas, but they should be sufficient to show that the Exodus had a tremendous influence on the life of Israel and its literature. Over time, it equipped Israel with a veritable dictionary of theological expressions and images that explicitly or implicitly comprehends almost all of the OT. The Exodus theme was prominent in Israel’s confessions and had an obvious and profound effect on the collection and transmission of Israel’s traditions. Israel’s national identity was inextricably rooted in the Exodus, from which it derived and justified its laws, celebrations, liturgy, and chronologies.
The Exodus shaped Israel’s worldview by answering fundamental questions about the nature of man, history, the world, God, and morality. As might be expected, NT writers adopted the Exodus theme wholeheartedly. Matthew depicts Jesus as a “new Moses” who gives “new Israel” a “new law” via the Sermon on the Mount. With a similar purpose in mind, Luke alludes to the first Passover and Moses at Sinai with stories of the Last Supper and Jesus’ transfiguration. From the Creation in Genesis to the “wilderness” preaching of John the Baptist in Matthew to the “new heavens and new earth” of Revelation, few themes provide such strong continuity within and between the testaments as the Exodus motif.
1All scripture quotations are from the NIV and have been adapted to fit the grammatical context in which each passage is quoted.
2The effect of the Exodus on Israel’s literature was probably an uneven phenomena of increasing intensity over a long period of time. This complicates the problem of detecting traditions that have been reshaped in light of the Exodus experience (versus those that were originally conceived in that light). Endorsement of a particular theory of document development is not within the present scope or purpose.
3Christoph Barth, God with Us: a Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), 57.
4According to Zakovitch, the Exodus theme has an interesting twist in the relationship between Solomon and Jeroboam in that the latter represents downtrodden North Israelites who are being oppressed by an evil “Pharaoh” in the persons of Solomon/Rehoboam.
5Yair, Zakovitch, “And You Shall Tell Your Son…”: the Concept of the Exodus in the Bible, (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991), 46-48.
10See 1 Sam 30:25. Also, consider the five books of the Psalter as David’s “Torah.”
11Yair, Zakovitch, “And You Shall Tell Your Son…”: the Concept of the Exodus in the Bible, (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991), 83-84.
12Opposing traditions were also justified via the Exodus theme; e.g., Jeroboam “made two golden calves…[and] said to the people, ‘It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt’” (1 Ki 12:28).
13See Dt 17:16. Abraham’s stay in Egypt created a threat to God’s promise (Gen 12:14ff). The threat of a “return to Egypt” was designed to evoke the same imagery.
14Despite the apparent contradiction, the “passing through the waters” of chapter 43 actually agrees with the “drying of the sea” of chapter 51 if one understands that in both cases, the “waters of chaos” are vanquished.
Barth, Christoph. God with Us: a Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.
Zakovitch, Yair. “And You Shall Tell Your Son…”: the Concept of the Exodus in the Bible. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1991.
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