1. The deliverance from Egypt is not the first example of the exodus pattern in the Bible.
The story of the exodus is anticipated in various ways and through several stories in the book of Genesis. For instance, in Genesis 12-14 there was a famine in the land and Abram went down into Egypt to stay there. Pharaoh took Sarai, threatening the woman and the promised seed. Pharaoh was deceived by the woman, Sarai. God then plagued Pharaoh on account of her, while Abram received many gifts from Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Discovering that Sarai was Abram’s wife, Pharaoh commanded Abram to leave. Abram returned to Canaan, where the Promised Land was divided between him and Lot and God instructed him to walk throughout the land, as God would give it to him. Finally, Abram fought against kings of the land and was victorious. An exodus pattern is also found in the story of the deliverance of Lot from Sodom, or Jacob’s sojourn with Laban.
When God delivers Israel from Egypt in the book of Exodus, they are walking in the footsteps of the patriarchs. From a different perspective, God’s deliverances of the patriarchs are ‘reality-filled promises’ of the greater works that he will accomplish for their descendants.
2. The exodus is a pattern that can be broken down into many stages.
The exodus pattern appears with varying degrees of prominence on a great many occasions in Scripture. Like a recurring theme in a piece of music, sometimes its presence takes the form of subtle and tantalizing hints, only perceived by the most alert listeners; on other occasions its presence is pronounced and highly developed.
The pattern of exodus can itself be broken down into a number of connected stages. James Jordan, whose work has, perhaps more than anyone else’s, inspired my attention to this theme, lists some of these in his book Through New Eyes:
- A threat drives the people of God from their home.
- There is an assault upon the Woman and her seed by the Serpent.
- Deception is used to outwit the Serpent.
- God’s people are enslaved.
- God blesses his people while plaguing their oppressors.
- God intervenes to save his people.
- The Serpent shifts blame and accuses the righteous.
- God humiliates the false gods.
- God’s people depart with spoils from their enemies.
- God’s people are brought into the Holy Land.
- A site of worship is established.
We generally don’t see every one of these stages in any given exodus story, but we will usually see several of them.
3. It is an event in which God discloses his identity.
God revealed his covenant identity to his people in the context of the exodus. In the appearance and declaration of the divine name at the burning bush, in the plagues upon Egypt, in the theophany and deliverance of the Law at Sinai, and in his accomplishing of his people’s deliverance, God reveals himself through the events of the exodus. God is disclosed in his actions and the story of the exodus is one in which God is displaying his character and his commitment to his people.
At the burning bush, God declares his divine name to Moses and his commitment to deliver his people. It is as if God began by placing his signature firmly in the corner of the still-blank canvas titled ‘Exodus’, before proceeding to produce a work exceeding anyone’s imagining. Through the exodus, God demonstrates that his power is above all other supposed gods. Taking on all of the gods of the Egyptians, God proves his superiority in every realm of creation.
From the life-giving Nile to the sun in the heavens, God displays his power and shows that there is no one above him. By the time that the people arrive at Sinai, they have received a new revelation of the depths of God’s faithfulness and concern for his people, the immensity of his power, the unlimited scope of his sovereignty, and the fearfulness of his majesty. The Law begins with a reminder of God’s work of exodus, constantly reminding Israel of this knowledge.
4. The exodus is institutionalized and made foundational for the future self-understanding of the people of God.
The exodus isn’t merely an event that occurs in history, then steadily retreats into a distant past. In the midst of the story of the exodus, God instructs Moses and Aaron to establish the month of the exodus as the first month of Israel’s calendar and to celebrate the Passover every year within it, memorializing the deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 12). The memorialization of the exodus in the yearly Passover celebration grounds Israel and its self-understanding in that great deliverance.
5. The exodus and the exodus pattern help us to understand the meaning of and connections between events.
Part of the power of figural reading and of recurring patterns such as that of exodus is that they enable us to bring events, persons, and things into illuminating relations and juxtapositions. For instance, there are a number of connections between Moses and Joshua as a pair and Elijah and Elisha as a pair. Like Moses, Elijah is a prophet who spends most of his ministry in the desert, who delivers God’s judgment against an oppressive Pharaoh-like king (Ahab), and who encounters God at Mount Horeb. Like Joshua, Elisha’s comes to prominence with a miraculous crossing of the Jordan near Jericho. He then performs several miracles and achieves victories in the land. Recognizing an exodus pattern in the ministry of Elijah and Elisha helps us to get a firmer grasp on what God accomplished through them.
The ministry of Christ involves Elisha-like miracles (multiplying loaves, raising a widow’s son, etc.) and succeeds that of the Elijah-like John the Baptist (a man who dresses like Elijah, struggles against a wicked king and his manipulating wife, and ministers chiefly in the wilderness). Having recognized such similarities, we can explore the comparisons and contrasts between such characters and events to get a better sense of their significance. For instance, Jesus is like Elisha, who is like Joshua, bringing the work of Elijah to completion, conquering the land through miraculous works. In other senses, Jesus is like Elijah, ascending into heaven while his successors watch, the mantle of his Spirit descending upon them at Pentecost, equipping them to continue his mission in his power.
6. The exodus is a basis for prophetic expectation.
The memorialization of the exodus isn’t merely backward-looking but anticipates a greater exodus yet to come. Prophets like Isaiah presented the exodus as the model for a deliverance that God would bring about for his people in the future. The exodus was a declaration of God’s good purpose for his people—that they, being liberated from their enemies, might serve him without fear all the days of their lives—and each celebration of the exodus looked forward to the day when that purpose would be fully realized. The memory of the exodus was charged with hope and expectation.
Exploring the theme of exodus throughout both the Old and New Testaments, this book sheds light on Scripture’s unified message of redemption from slavery to sin through Jesus Christ.
7. The exodus provides us with a framework within which to understand the work of Christ.
In introducing us to the figure of Christ, each of the gospels employs exodus themes in various ways. Christ is the son called out of Egypt. He is the boy child rescued from the murderous king. He is the man who passes through the water and spends a period of forty days being tested in the wilderness. He is the manifestation of the Father’s glory that eclipses the glory of the Mosaic revelation received at Sinai. He is the one who authoritatively teaches a new ‘law’ from a mountain.
Exodus themes are prominent throughout the ministry of Christ, especially in association with his death and resurrection, which occur in the context of Passover. Christ is the Passover Lamb, the firstborn Son, the prophet like Moses. Once we appreciate the presence of an exodus pattern, the picture can be filled out. For instance, Pentecost is like Sinai, the giving of the Spirit like the giving of the Law. In both cases, the leader of the people ascends to God’s presence then gives a new revelation and establishes a new dwelling of God with his people.
All of these themes help us to get a clearer sense of who Jesus is and what he does.
8. The exodus reveals the unity of Scripture and of the work of redemption to which it bears witness.
The presence of the recurring themes of exodus throughout the biblical text, in both Old and New Testaments, manifests that Scripture is not a collection of detached stories of miscellaneous acts of God in the past, but is a unified drama of redemption. Such patterns should increase our confidence in the Scripture as a divinely inspired and integrated whole. The unity of the biblical witness and of the drama of redemption to which it bears witness also underlines the relevance of Old Testament narratives of exodus to the people of God in the twenty-first century.
9. Both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper draw upon an exodus pattern.
The story of Christ could be described as a story of three baptisms: his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan, the ‘baptism’ of his death (see Mark 10:38), and his baptism of the Church at Pentecost. Each one of these baptisms draws upon the pattern of exodus in various ways.
The baptism by John recalls both the crossing of the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan, the bookends of the period in the wilderness. It occurs before forty days of testing in the wilderness, akin to Israel’s forty years of testing in the wilderness. It is also the transition from the ministry of John in the wilderness to the ministry of Jesus in the land, much as Joshua (whose name Jesus shares) succeeds from Moses at the banks of the Jordan.
The ‘baptism’ of Christ’s death recalls the events surrounding the Passover, at which time it occurs. Christ tears open the deep of death in his resurrection, allowing the faithful to pass through to the other side, unharmed by the evil one who is pursuing them.
The baptism of the Church with the Spirit at Pentecost recalls the giving of the Law and establishment of the tabernacle at Sinai. It could also remind us of the Pentecost-like event of Numbers 11, where the Spirit of Moses is given to the elders of Israel, or of Joshua’s receiving the Spirit as Moses’ successor.
The Lord’s Supper was instituted at a Passover meal and draws heavily upon the meaning of the Passover to interpret the death of Christ. The elements of bread and wine are elements taken from the existing ritual of the Passover meal.
When Paul speaks about the Church’s practice of Baptism and the Supper, he relates both to the exodus. We are baptized into Christ much as Israel was baptized into Moses. Like the Israelites, we are delivered through water and led by the Spirit to the Promised Land. Our celebration of the Supper is compared to the Israelites eating the manna and drinking from the rock or is compared to the celebration of the feast of the Passover, with Christ being the Lamb sacrificed for us.
10. The exodus gives us a sense of our place in God’s work of redemption.
The presence of the exodus pattern in the New Testament, not least in its teaching concerning Baptism and the Supper, is a means by which we are brought into an understanding of where we stand in relation to God’s purposes. We are to perceive the ways in which the story of Israel resonates with our own, to see ourselves as bound together in the greater drama of God’s redemption, and to act accordingly. We have been delivered from the dominion of the Pharaoh of this world, Satan. We are pilgrims in the wilderness of this present age, being led to the Promised Land of the new heavens and the new earth by the Spirit. We are being led by Christ, the prophet like Moses and the true Joshua. We face the temptation of returning to Egypt, and are tested in a great many ways, yet are called to follow our Master, who has overcome the ruler of this age.
When we read the story of the exodus, we are not just reading about some events that occurred in the distant past, but acquainting ourselves with patterns of divine redemption that are still being worked out in the world today. Paul wrote of the exodus story in 1 Corinthians 10:11, ‘Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.’ In the exodus story and the many other stories that share its patterns, the Scripture looks us directly in our eyes in the present day. The themes of redemption disclosed in such narratives resonate with those of the New Exodus that we have been caught up into by the work of Christ. When we hear exodus stories we are listening to variations within the one great Story, a Story that finds its climax in the Great Exodus, as through the Passover sacrifice of his Son, the Father delivers us from the kingdom of Satan, leading us by the Spirit into the new creation.
Alastair J. Roberts (PhD, Durham University) is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and a fellow of Scripture and theology with the Greystone Theological Institute.