Approaching Exodus

The word ‘exodus’ means ‘exit’, ‘departure’.  In some ways, the book of Exodus is the most important in the whole of the Old Testament.  Whether we consider the saving acts of God (the exodus), the centrality of corporate worship (the Passover), or the importance of moral law (the ten commandments), Exodus is pivotal.

Exodus forms part of a larger part of Scripture, known as the Pentateuch (or ‘Torah’), comprising Genesis to Deuteronomy.  Strictly speaking, these books are anonymous, and the history and date of composition is uncertain.  They are traditionally attributed to Moses.  Certainly, this attribution holds in some passages (see, for example, Exodus 17:14; 24:4), but there are some sections (most obviously, the record of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34) where this is clearly not the case.

Exodus and the Bible

Reading Exodus as Christian Scripture means realising that it is not a self-contained story.  It is part of a bigger story that is not complete until we come to the cross and resurrection of Jesus – indeed, not until his final return.

How, then, does Exodus relate to the rest of Scripture?

Exodus and the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy).  Genesis ends with the death of Joseph (note especially his words in Gen 50:24).  In the original Hebrew, Exodus begins with the word, ‘And…’, demonstrating continuity with the end of Genesis, which records the death of Joseph.  Exodus ends abruptly, showing that the story is by no means finished.  There is more law to be given, more journeying to be undertaken.  Moses would later stress that remembering God’s deliverance and provision in the past exodus was the means of trusting God for the future (Deut 5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22; 26:5–9; Josh 24:5–8, 14).

Exodus and the Psalms.  A number of psalms retell the story of the exodus in order to remind readers of the tendency to resist God and also to hope in God’s deliverance (e.g., Pss 77:16–20; 78:9–16; 81:1–16; 95:1–11; 105:23–45; 106:6–33; 114:1–8; 136:10–16).

Exodus and the prophets.  The prophets, especially Isaiah, apply the exodus to the exiles in Babylon, holding out a new deliverance from bondage (e.g., Isa 43:1–3, 9–10, 16–21; 52:7–12; also Ezek 20:33–42).

Exodus and the Gospels.   The coming of Christ does not make the old obsolete, but rather adds to it, and fulfils it, Mt 5:17.  The tabernacle represented God’s presence amongst his people.  We read in Jn 1:14 that ‘the Word became flesh and tabernacled [literally] among us’, and in Mt 1:23 that Jesus is Immanuel, ‘God with us’.  When Moses and Elijah are portrayed as discussing Christ’s coming death, in the story of the transfiguration, the Evangelist uses the Greek word ‘exodus’ to describe that death, Lk 9:31.  Whatever the exact day of Christ’s death, it was clearly in the general context of the great passover feast, Lk 22:13.  John alludes to the passover when he reports that no bone of Christ was broken on the cross, Jn 19:33, 36, just as no bone of the passover lamb might be broken, Ex 12:46.

Exodus and the Epistles.  Paul calls Christ the passover lamb, 1 Cor 5:7.  Just as Passover came at the beginning of the feast of unleavened bread: so the Christian must eat the “unleavened bread” of sincerity and truth, free from sin’s corruption, 1 Cor 5:6-8.  Christ’s death is viewed as a new covenant, 1 Cor 11:25, sealed with blood just as the old covenant had been, Ex 24:6.  If the old covenant led to law, then the new covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31), leads to the law of love, Rom 13:8.  Hebrews 3 makes a clear link between Moses and Jesus, regarding the former as a forerunner of the latter.

Exodus and the Revelation.  Moses is not forgotten even by the redeemed in heaven.  On their lips is ‘the song of Moses and the Lamb, Rev 15:3.

Egypt as a ‘type’ of the world

‘Egypt, the scene of the Exodus, is a type of “the world,” in the morally evil sense. Egypt is a type of the world

  1. in its material wealth and power (Heb 11:26);
  2. in its fleshly wisdom and false religion (Ex 8:7, etc.; 1 Kings 4:30);
  3. in its despotic prince, Pharaoh, who himself is a figure of Satan;
  4. in its organization on the principles of force, human aggrandizement, ambition, and pleasure;
  5. in its persecution of the people of God (Deut 4:20);
  6. in its overthrow by Divine judgment (Ex 12:29; 15:4-7).’

(J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book)

Key themes

God is faithful to his covenant.  Exodus demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his promise recorded in Genesis see, for example, Gen 15:18; 17:1-8), that all peoples of the world would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants.  In fact, notwithstanding the towering figure or Moses, it is God himself who is the ‘hero’ of Exodus.  It is he who fulfils the covenant promise made to Abraham and his descendants (Ex 2:23), he who demonstrates his superiority over all human powers (Ex 7:1-5, 14-17, 25; 7:26-29 [8:1-4]; 8:8-11 [8:12-15]; 8:17-20 [8:21-24]; 9:1-7, 12, 13-18, 23-26; 10:1-6, 12-15, 16-20, 27; 11:4-7; 12:12-13, 23, 27, 29-30, 36, etc.), he who guides his people by his presence (Ex 13:3, 17-18, 21-22), he who leads them safely through the sea (Ex 14:19-31), he who provided for his people’s needs in the wilderness (Ex 15:22-27; 16:4, 9-16; 17:4-7), he who gave them principles to live by (Ex 20:1-23:33), he who promised good things in the promised land (23:20-33), he who gave detailed instructions for worship (Ex 25-31), and so on.

God’s people first experience freedom from, and then freedom to.  Freedom from oppression, followed by freedom to serve the living God.  The law at Sinai was not given in order that people might obey it and be saved; rather it was given to a people who had already been rescued.  In other words, we find in this book the working out of a great Pauline teaching, namely, that faith in God was the true spirit of the Old Testament as well as the New.

The ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ are intertwined.  This book, like much of the rest of the OT, is very much concerned with God’s activity in this world, and in the here and now.  We have a tendency to distinguish between the sacred and the secular.  But this is not a biblical distinction: the biblical way of thinking is to contrast between the sacred and the sinful.

God forms his people over time.  The Israelites had been delivered from bondage.  They had received God’s law.  But they would continue to falter and fail, and would need to experience God’s discipline and forgiveness all over again.

Hope for the oppressed.  The book of Deuteronomy repeatedly looks back to the exodus in order to give hope for the future.  Many oppressed groups have found comfort and courage in this ancient text.  However, we ourselves need to reflect on which group we and our hearers most strongly identify with: the oppressed, or the oppressors?

Challenges

Over the past two centuries, some scholars have expended copious amounts of time and energy in trying to uncover the separate documents they think lie underneath the text of the Pentateuch as it has come down to us.  Others, more positively, have emphasised the oral tradition on which the text as we know have it is based.  Still others take a ‘canonical’ approach, stressing the importance of reading the text as Christian Scripture.

The book of Exodus poses many unanswered historical questions.  We are not sure, for example,

  • in which century the Exodus took place
  • the name of the pharaoh of the Exodus
  • what route the Israelites took
  • the location of Mount Sinai

It is, perhaps, because of this lack of firm historical ‘anchors’ that there is such a wide range of opinion amongst biblical scholars about the historical value of Exodus.

There are theological and ethical questions, too.  Is the God of Exodus, who sends plagues and requires sacrifices, consistent with the God of the New Testament?  Are the Ten Commandments applicable to us today?

It is worth reflecting briefly on why Christian preachers take (or should take) a ‘believing’ approach to these historical, theological, and ethical questions.  Is it because we think that scholarship has no place in the study of Scripture?  No!  Is it because we have an inherently ‘conservative’ mindset?  Not really.  Rather, it is because we are committed to approaching Scripture first and foremost as Christian disciples.  We believe it to be ‘God-breathed’ (and therefore a divine word, and not merely a human word); we we seek to understand it in the light of its central theme (Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God); and we study it in order to better love, worship and serve the one true and living God.

‘Were the narrative written or read as fiction, then God would turn from the lord of history into a creature of the imagination, with the most disastrous results. The shape of time, the rationale of monotheism, the foundations of conduct, the national sense of identity, the very right of the land of Israel and the hope of deliverance to come: all hang in the generic balance. Hence the Bible’s determination to sanctify and compel literal belief in the past. It claims not just the status of history but, as Erich Auerbach rightly maintains, of the history—the one and only truth that, like God himself, brooks no rival.’ (Sternberg, cited by Alexander)

Preaching from the book of Exodus

Preachers are sometimes encouraged to ‘go back to Corinth‘ – considering what the biblical text meant in its original setting and to its first hearers and readers.  This is good advice.  But it is even more important to ‘signpost to Jesus‘ by showing how these earlier Scriptures form part of the trajectory leading to his coming.  Only then will we be ready to ‘bring it home‘ by showing how it relates to our lives today.

Peter Enns remarks that we tend to approach the question of application by thinking of ourselves as the ‘fixed point’ and asking how the Scripture can be made to fit into our lives.  Rather, we should seek to enter into the world of Scripture, and ask what it tells us about its God and about how we fit into his story: ‘The story of Exodus…is designed to tell us what God is like, how he thinks of his people, the lengths to which he will go to deliver them, and the proper response of God’s people to this great deed.’

When preparing to preach from a passage from Exodus, it can be helpful to look at it through three ‘lenses’.

  1. The ‘close-up’ lens – looking at what the passage itself teaches or implies.  For example, Exodus 1 touches on ‘fear of outsiders’, the dehumanising effects of brutality, civil disobedience, and so on.
  2. The ‘middle-distance’ lens – looking at the passage in the light of its place in the overall narrative of Exodus.  For example, we see in Exodus 1 how a family (Ex 1:1-5) is becoming a nation (Ex 1:6-10), and how .
  3. The ‘long-distance lens’ – looking at the passage in the light of God’s redemptive purposes, leading to the coming of Christ.  For example, Exodus 1 shows how God’s purposes in creation (to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, Gen 1:22) and redemption (to ‘crush the serpent’s head’, Gen 3:15, and to fulfil his promises to Abraham, Gen 12:2-3) are moving forward.

Outline

Perhaps the simplest way of outlining the structure of Exodus is like this:-

  1. Rescue (chapters 1-19)
  2. Responsibility (chapters 20-40)

In more detail:-

  1. The Israelites in oppression and slavery in Egypt, ch. 1.
    1. Picking up the story from Genesis, 1-6
    2. The Israelites come under Egyptian oppression, 7-14
    3. Pharaoh’s plan to kill the newborn Hebrew boys is thwarted by the midwives, 15-21
  2. The preparation of Moses, God’s deliverer, ch. 2-6.
    1. Moses is born, and rescued from Pharaoh’s cruel edict, 1:22-2:10
    2. Moses flees to Midian, 2:11-22
    3. God hears the groaning of the Israelites, 2:23-25
    4. Moses’ call: the burning bush, 3:1-12
    5. God’s self-revelation to Moses, 3:13-15
    6. Summary of Moses’ commission, and assurance of success, 3:16-22
    7. God gives Moses three signs, 4:1-9
    8. Moses objects: ‘I am not eloquent’, 4:10-12
    9. Moses pleads: ‘Send someone else’, 4:13-17
    10. Moses returns to Egypt, 4:18-31
    11. Moses’ first meeting with Pharaoh; Israelites treated even more harshly, 5:1-14
    12. Negative response of the Israelite foremen, 5:15-21
    13. Moses complains to the Lord; the Lord promises deliverance, 5:22-6:12
    14. Family record of Moses and Aaron, 6:13-27
    15. God reassures Moses and Aaron, 6:28-7:7
  3. Confrontation between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt, ch. 7-11.
    1. Preliminary sign: Aaron’s staff becomes a snake, 7:8-13
    2. First plague: river turned to blood, 7:14-24
    3. Second plague: frogs, 7:26-8:15
    4. Third plague: gnats, 8:16-19
    5. Fourth plague: flies, 8:20-32
    6. Fifth plague: death of livestock, 9:1-7
    7. Sixth plague: boils, 9:8-12
    8. Seventh plague: hail, 9:13-35
    9. Eighth plague: locusts, 10:1-20)
    10. Ninth plague: darkness, 10:21-29
    11. Tenth plague: death of firstborn, 11:1-10
  4. The passover, and the freeing of the Israelites and the crossing of the Red Sea, ch. 12-18.
    1. The passover and the tenth and final plague, 12:1-30
    2. The exodus, 12:31-42
    3. Further instructions for passover memorial, 12:43-51
    4. Exodus memorials: consecrating the firstborn and keeping the feast of Unleavened Bread, 13:1-16
  5. The covenant at Sinai, ch. 18-31.
  6. The people rebel, ch. 32.
  7. The covenant re-iterated, and the tabernacle constructed, ch. 33-40.

Select bibliography

Bruckner, James K. – Exodus (New International Biblical Commentary, 2008).  Strong on the theology of Exodus.

Chester, Tim – Exodus for You (The Good Book Company, 2016).  The ‘God’s Word For You’ series aims to be Bible-centred, Christ-glorifying, relevantly applied, and easily readable.  Not a verse-by-verse commentary, Chester’s work places Exodus firmly in the context of God’s unfolding plan of redemption.

Cole, Alan – Exodus (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, 2008).  Workmanlike, but rather brief.

Enns, Peter – Exodus (New International Version Application Commentary, 2000).  Whatever we might think of Enns’ more recent work, this commentary is rightly regarded as one of the best available.

Merida, Tony – Exalting Jesus in Exodus (Christ-Centred Exposition, 2014).  A helpful work, written specifically to aid the Christian preacher.

Motyer, J. Alec — The Message of Exodus (The Bible Speaks Today, 2005).  From a veteran Old Testament scholar and expositor.

Reid, Andrew – Exodus: Saved for Service (Aquila Press, 2013).

Ryken, Philip Graham — Exodus (Preaching the Word, 2005).  Useful to preachers, based as it is on the author’s own public teaching ministry.

Stuart, Douglas K. — Exodus (The New American Commentary, 2006).  Provides a robust defence of the Mosaic authorship and the historicity of Exodus.  Detailed verse-by-verse explanations of the text.  Not so strong as Enns and Chester on the relationship between Exodus and the New Testament.

Also worth considering…

Childs, Brevard S. – Exodus (Old Testament Library, 1974).  A classic, so has to be included in this list.

Durham, J. I. – Exodus (Word Biblical Commentary, 1987).  A major technical commentary.  Sceptical about some historical issues.

Fretheim, Terence – Exodus (Interpretation, 1991).  Historical and theological stances are not always convincing.  But teeming with helpful suggestions for the preacher.

Goldingay, John – Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone (SPCK, 2010).  Goldingay offers his own (fairly literal) translation of the text, along with brief but helpful comments that emphasise narrative flow.  Although he affirms the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, Goldingay does not see it as pointing to Christ so strongly as, say, Enns or Chester do.  Too brief to be a top choice for preachers.

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