Exodus: Understanding One of the Bible’s Major Themes
The Exodus of God’s people out of Egypt is “the greatest redemptive event in the Old Testament,” says Don Carson.
To let that sink in for a moment, imagine this: If our publishing age is marked by the cross, it is because the cross the shorthand for the death and resurrection of Christ. His cross marks the centerpiece of redemptive history. But before the cross there was the Exodus. And so if the world of publishing today talks about the cross-centered life, and the cross-centered church, it would seem that a fitting analogy would be to perhaps imagine Old Testament era saints to have been inspired to write and publish books on the Exodus-centered life and the Exodus-centered synagogue.
It is a major key to understand the Old Testament, and it is a major key to unlocking the meaning of the entire Biblical plotline.
To explain I called Dr. Don Carson. On occasional Fridays I call him up as part of our relationship with our friends at The Gospel Coalition. Carson is the co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition, and also the editor of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, which is the study Bible version of what we’re doing in these occasional Friday podcasts.
Here’s what Carson said.
The exodus is simultaneously the escape of the people of God, the Israelites from Egypt, the land of slavery — they exit out of slavery into the Promised Land: it is the exodus — and, at the same time, it is a one-word way of referring to the events surrounding the exodus that includes, therefore, the judgment of God on the Egyptians, the plagues. It also eventually includes the giving of the Law, the years of wilderness wanderings, and eventually entrance into the Promised Land.
So, sometimes when people speak of the exodus, they are referring to the narrow event of the escape and sometimes they are referring to the much larger event that includes, for example, the giving of the Law and the revelation of God at Sinai and the whole Mosaic code. So, one has to be careful as to how the word is used in a particular theological context.
“The exodus is simultaneously the escape of the Israelites from Egypt, and the events surrounding the exodus, like entering the Promised Land.”
What is clear is that, in the Old Testament, the exodus is bound up with at least two huge controlling themes. The first is that in some ways this is the reconstitution of the Israelites. The beginning of the Hebrew-Israelite heritage is, of course, with Abraham. And God makes a covenant with him, which we have subsequently called the Abrahamic covenant, which itself could be nicely traced through the Old Testament and into the New in a variety of ways.
But at that point, the land promises, for example, are still referring to things way off in the future. And even when Abraham does finally have a son, and a son begets two more sons, and one of them begets twelve patriarchs and so forth, yet this fledgling people is not in any sense a nation. And before they become a nation, they end up in Egypt at the time of the famine where, in the providence of God, Joseph provides all the food they need until hundreds of years later they are enslaved and they have never been a nation.
So, the exodus reconstitutes them, as it were, but this time making them a nation. So, this is not only an exit from slavery and from Egypt; it is reconstituting the people with a new covenant — the Sinai covenant or the Mosaic covenant or the Law covenant as it is variously called — and gaining entrance into the Promised Land and the beginnings of their pilgrimage as a nation. That is the first thing that is obvious, right on the surface of the text.
“The exodus is the reconstitution of the Israelites, making them a nation.”
The second thing that is stunning is how the exodus controls a great deal of the discussion of the entire rest of the Old Testament. Think, for example, the way the Ten Commandments begin in Exodus 20. And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (verse 2). And then the commandments begin: “You shall have no other gods before me” (verse 3).
So, although the commandment to worship God and adhere to him is sometimes grounded in creation — God’s sovereign, providential, kingly rule; he is their Maker and their Judge — here in this case it is grounded in their redemption; that is, their redemption from slavery. And that becomes the basis for a very large number of prophetic appeals for psalmic meditation and so on. And it is striking that God has freed them. He has led them out and, on that basis, then, he gives them the Law and instruction. It is not that he gives them instruction and, if they obey the law adequately, then God will spare them. He reaches down sovereignly and saves them, in fact, from slavery and leads them out. And in the course of doing so, then, he says: I am the God who has freed you from the land of slavery. Here, then, is the covenant I impose. Here is the contract, as it were, the covenant that I make.
And that way of thinking returns again and again and again in every part of Scripture. I have in front of me literally scores of passages that I have accumulated over the years on that point. Let me pick up just a couple of them so that you can get a feel for this. Here is Psalm 77:13–20,
”Your way, O God, is holy. What god is as great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. You with your arm redeemed your people,” that is a reference to the exodus — “the children of Jacob and Joseph. When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”
Now, the specificity of Moses and Aaron and leading the people through the mighty waters and that sort of thing is transparently referring to the crossing of the Red Sea and the like. And that sort of thing happens again and again and again. That is Psalm 77. Psalm 78 has a similar passage. But then prophetic warnings can be cast with reference to the exodus. Like what? For example, in Jeremiah 7:21:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ But they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and the stubbornness of their evil hearts, and went backward and not forward. From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers.”
And so on and so on. You find similar passages in Isaiah and in Ezekiel and in the minor prophets and so forth. And then later on, it is a question about coming back from the exile, the return from exile being a kind of mini-exodus all over again. Then you see it again in the prayers of confession in Nehemiah, for example, Nehemiah 9. Again, there is a reference back to the exodus as the great redemptive turning point in the people’s history from which they have strayed.
“Here is the greatest redemptive event in the Old Testament to which subsequent revelation points to again and again and again.”
So, the exodus is the greatest redemptive event in the Old Testament to which subsequent revelation points to again and again and again. And sometimes the references are in elusive language. There is the very famous passage, of course, from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” The first reference there, of course, is quite clearly to Israel. As early as Exodus 4:22 God says, “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go,’” — that is, in the exodus — “‘that he may serve me.’” And then centuries later Hosea records God’s words, “out of Egypt I called my son,” looking back on the event. So, that is all part of the background that dominates the Old Testament storyline before you get to the New Testament.
Then in the New Testament it is not long before this is picked up. In Matthew 2:13–15, for example, Jesus is transported down to Egypt by his mother and his stand-in father, escaping the wrath of Herod and then eventually he returns. And this, we are told, fulfills the word, “out of Egypt I called my Son,” referring to Hosea 11:1. And what is being established there is what might be called an Israel typology. The ultimate Israel is Jesus himself.
“The ultimate Israel is Jesus himself.”
And that is why, for example, in Matthew 4 when Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil, he quotes Deuteronomy two or three times. In one passage, for example, he says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). That, of course, is directly from Deuteronomy 8:3, given to the people of Israel. The people of Israel heard that word, but unfortunately did not value God’s word even more highly than their own food. But Jesus, the ultimate Israel, does. And so, Jesus turns out to be in Matthew, Mark, and Luke the ultimate Adam, but also the ultimate Israel and also the ultimate David. And on the Israel side, then quite clearly to apply Hosea 11:1–10 means that the son language is purposely being used in a slightly different way.
Or the most striking passage is, perhaps, Luke 9:31. This is the account in Luke’s Gospel of the transfiguration in Luke 9:28–36. And as part of that spectacular event we are told two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor talking with Jesus (verse 30). They spoke about his departure (verse 31). The word is exodus. And there are other ways of talking about departure. To speak of this as the exodus is meant to be evocative. It is meant to call the biblically literate reader’s mind back to the exodus. So, Jesus as the ultimate Israel is going to depart. He is going to leave. He is going to exit.
And we begin to see what it means a bare twenty verses later when in Luke 9:51 we read, “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up,” — that is, his departure through the cross, the burial, the resurrection, and the ascension, taken up to heaven — “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” And then from there on — and this is chapter 9: you are barely a third of the way through the book of Luke — from there on, you are reminded five times that Jesus has resolutely set his face to Jerusalem.
This is sometimes called Luke’s travel narrative. And that is put in your face again and again and again until he arrives in Jerusalem in Luke 19. And so, everything that is said and done, all the parables, all the miracles, everything that is said and done is under the impending anticipated exodus. His travel to Jerusalem means he is heading for the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, his exodus as the true Israel, taking his people, as it were, in triumphant array into the new heaven and the new earth.
So, this becomes part of the way of thinking of Christ as the one who effects our exodus, likewise, from sin and judgment and who brings us into the Promised Land. And that is why, without even pausing for a blink of an eye, the apostle Paul can say, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The Passover, of course, is what takes place at the time of the exodus. The people of God are instructed to sacrifice the Passover lamb and then put the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and the lintel. Those in the house are safe, but everywhere else families lose their firstborn son.
Now, Christ is our Passover in that he has guaranteed that the angel of wrath, the destruction of right judgment, passes over us because Christ has borne our place. This is an exodus theme. And then sometimes the exodus theme plays out slightly differently. In 1 Corinthians 10:1–11 and Hebrews 3:7–11 we discover that the people of God at the time of the exodus, the Israelites, constitute a kind of moralizing lesson for us. “They escaped from, but they did not get into,” that is, God rescued them from the land of slavery. But that first generation, 20 and older, they died in the desert because of unbelief and disobedience. So, they never did get into the Promised Land. It was the next generation that got into the Promised Land.
And so, both 1 Corinthians 10 and Hebrews 3 draw an applicable moralizing point for the people of God today. Make sure that you persevere to the end. Don’t fall away for lack of perseverance. Hebrews 3:14 goes so far as to say that we are made sharers in Christ. We are truly Christians if we hold our beginning confidence, our beginning conviction, our beginning faith steadfastly to the end, which is precisely what so many of the Israelites did not do after the time of the exodus.
“We are truly Christians if we hold our beginning faith steadfastly to the end, which is precisely what so many Israelites did not do.”
So, there are all these sorts of connections. But now, of course, the New Testament Christians look back at their great redemptive event, even greater by far than the event of the first exodus; namely, the cross, resurrection, and ascension, which is the exodus of Jesus himself as the ultimate Israel in whom we, the people of God, Jew and Gentile alike, are caught up.
Let me mention two things. This theme shows up in not only specific texts like the ones I have mentioned — and I have mentioned a small handful of them — but in subtle ways.
For example, in Mark’s Gospel there was for many, many decades an ongoing lingering debate about whether Mark constantly refers allusively to the exodus of the Old Testament. And one side said: Yes, yes, the themes are transparently there. They are on the surface of the text. And the other side said: Yes, but every time that he seems to be talking about these exodus themes, in fact, he could use the language of the Old Testament, the Greek Septuagint. He could use that language, but, in fact, he seems almost to avoid it. He rates his own way, choosing his own words. If he really wants to make an allusion to the Old Testament exodus narrative, why doesn’t he use the actual words drawn from Exodus? And so the debate went back and forth.
But a friend of mine nailed it 20 years ago now. He did a doctoral dissertation at Cambridge and his name was Rikk E. Watts. And what he shows, in my view very convincingly, is that the exodus themes are truly there, but the language is Isaiah’s. That is, Isaiah picks up on the exodus theme again and again and again, sometimes referring to it in the past and sometimes using it as a way of talking about the impending exile where, because of sin, the people are going to be cast out of the land again and be drawn back by God. This is all exodus motif, but now in Isaiah’s words. And when Mark refers to the exodus themes he does so repeatedly using Isaiah’s words.
And what that suggests, then, is that, borne along by the Spirit of God, Mark in writing Scripture is thinking profoundly — he is thinking in a way that we would call biblical-theological. He is seeing the trajectories in Scripture himself. And he is choosing to use the words of Isaiah, knowing full well that they are referring back, in the first instance, all the way to the exodus itself, and that becomes the matrix out of which he talks about what Christ is doing.
In other words, these trajectories that we find throughout Scripture by the time you get to the New Testament, you find again and again that the New Testament writers themselves have seen the trajectories and are working from them, thinking about them, using language that reflects them, and so on. Therefore, all of these things become ultimately a spectacular way of anticipating and pointing to the greatest redemption from slavery imaginable as God’s people are prepared by Christ’s exodus to enter into the Promised Land of the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness.
The last thing I will mention is that this exodus theme has, in the last 40 years, been used in another way that we should at least be aware of. It is not nearly as dominant now as it once was, but in an era of global theology, it is still pretty important. About 40 years ago there was, first of all in Latin America and then it spread elsewhere, the rise of what came to be called liberation theology. It was promulgated by a number of Spanish-speaking, occasionally Portuguese-speaking, largely Catholic, somewhat liberal theologians.
They saw the injustices in the land: the extreme poverty, the corruption, and so on. And they looked for biblical warrant to escape all of this, and they settled on the exodus. And this included people like Gustavo Gutiérrez and “El Chapo” José Bonino and a number of others, some of whose works were eventually published in English, although some of them remained only in Spanish. And they started Bible studies and action groups and so on largely in the Catholic church in terms of what they call themselves liberation theology, the theology of liberation.
What they meant by this was that the account of God saving his people from slavery at the time of the exodus ought to become a kind of paradigm event for the people of Latin America to escape their oppression and slavery at the hands of endless, petty dictators and corrupt politicians and governments and so on. And if you ask them, “What warrants you choosing that particular story? Why are you basing all of your theology on the exodus account?” then their argument was what they called praxis. That is, this is where we are in our life, and the demands of where we are must be aligned most closely with a biblical account that gives us hope and a pattern for escape.
And so, the ultimate control of what story prevails to warrant liberation theology is itself not shaped by reading Scripture as a whole, but shaped by the experience of the people, by praxis. And eventually — evangelicals were a little late to get into that discussion — but eventually there was some serious reflection upon it. The question can be raised: What warrants that story as opposed to, let’s say, the story that is taking place at the time of Jeremiah where what God is telling the people through the prophet Jeremiah is, “Stay where you are. Don’t rebel. The Babylonians that are oppressing you and taking over, they are God’s messengers to chastise you. Don’t rebel against them, because then the destruction of Jerusalem will be all the worse”? And so, the question then becomes, biblically, “What warrants choosing the exodus account where you end up with liberation versus the Jeremiah account where you end up being told to stay where you are, and if you head for liberation, you are rebelling against God almighty?”
And the answer again and again was simply, praxis. But what was seen eventually by a lot of evangelicals who were wrestling with these things was that the exodus account needs to be put within the framework of the entire biblical storyline, a whole biblical theology. And the ultimate liberation is achieved by that to which the exodus points; namely, Christ himself. Otherwise, one can go through the Scripture and pick up a story that seems to fit best by circumstances and merely apply it without further thought without seeing what other stories might apply that seems to run in a different direction. In other words, the stories of Scripture have to be fit within the context of the Bible’s storyline itself. Otherwise, we are constantly controlling Scripture by focusing on our situation and then randomly taking passages and applying them to ourselves.
“The stories of Scripture have to be fit within the context of the Bible’s storyline itself.”
So, in this connection, the proper use of exodus is shaped not only by how exodus functions in the Old Testament, but how it is picked up and is completed by what is disclosed in the New Testament. Even in the Old Testament, however, the exodus account looks a bit different from what Gutiérrez and Bonino were arguing for. After all, God takes action for his people in the exodus. They seem rather slow to latch on. Every time there is a discouragement, they are ready to abandon ship. It is not as if the people were incited to revolution and revolt and, thus, kick off into some new adventure and seek out a Promised Land. Rather, God reaches down and saves them, which is not exactly what Gutiérrez and Bonino had in mind. In other words, they were domesticating the Scripture admittedly for the sake of the freedom of the people, but nevertheless the cost of domesticating Scripture was far, far, far too high and it ended up never pointing to Christ and the liberation that we have received from him.
We have to remember that people have done this sort of thing with Scripture many, many, many times. At the time of the American Revolution, of course, there was a lot of usage of Scriptures to justify the American Revolution. It was understandable, but it is an ironic fact that those who didn’t want to revolt, but who chose, instead, to remain faithful to the crown, they were called United Empire Loyalists, who traveled north into Canada to stay there instead. They had their servants and tried to justify their abandoning the American cause and escaping to Canada by appealing to a whole lot of Scripture again, which reminds all of us that we must be careful in our application of Scripture to work, first and foremost, within the Bible storyline to see how things come to Christ before we draw applications that sometime are shaped much more by praxis than by a humble and attendant reading of the Word of God.