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Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif

I am very grateful to the editors of Credo for inviting me to explain a little bit about the history of the development of my new book and some of the main ideas of my recently published book, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif. Frankly, at the beginning of the book, I quote the famous southern writer, Flannery O’Conner, who described writing a book as “giving birth to a sideways piano.”[1] To be candid, I thought my publisher would never let that quote fly, but they did. That quote pretty much sums up the process. Working on this project was painstaking. However, let me give a little more history to the development of the book and the ideas contained therein and maybe you will even be intrigued to read it. The book developed out of an elective class I gave at the Seminary when I first started teaching.

The Birth of a Book

When I was first appointed to my present position at the Seminary teaching biblical literature and languages, I was asked to develop the class. Inspired by my friend, Tremper Longman, I saw that he had offered an elective class on this subject at other educational institutions. Furthermore, I noticed he had written a book on the subject with Dan Reid, who would become my future editor. I was fumbling along, merely tracing biblical passages (in both the OT and the NT) making reference or teaching on the exodus. Then, I also began thinking seriously about motifs in literature and in the Bible in particular. Providentially, I was fishing commercially in Alaska for a man who was working on a second Ph.D. under Shemaryahu Talmon and Emanuel Tov in Israel at the Hebrew University. In addition to working on the Dead Sea Scrolls, he was working on and writing about biblical motifs under these scholars. He and his wife made me aware of Shemaryahu Talmon’s work on “motifs” in Hebrew Bible studies. I was mesmerized and fascinated. I am grateful to all of them. I continued thinking about the issue.

As I began to mine, dig, explore, and research, I traced a “vein of gold” that led me to this full length book. My editor, Dan Reid at Intervarsity Academic, was pure joy to work with and enthusiastic about the project. What a blessing. As a developing scholar, I was (of course) interested in selling my projects and interested in developing relationships with publishers in hopes that they might be interested in my work. Dan asked me if I had any interest in publishing my project with IVP, and I replied that I would consider it, after dealing respectfully with others I had already engaged in possibly publishing the project. In short, it all worked out and I came under contract with IVP Academic. Frankly, I have no regrets. Moreover, I am so thankful for the privilege of publishing with them and the professionalism IVP Academic exemplified throughout the process.

To be honest, at times I did not know where this project was leading me; however, the deeper I drilled, the more I realized that there was no one book that was trying to “tie it all together.” I had found many disparate and disjointed studies about the motif, but realized that no-one, to the best of my knowledge, had tried to present a unified approach to the topic across the scripture, both Old and New Testaments. Moreover, no-one, to the best of my knowledge, had tied this “motif” or “theme” together with the goal of helping people understand the grand narrative of redemptive history demonstrated by tracing this beautiful motif. There were many disparate stories, many technical monographs and journal articles, with many insights about individual passages; however, no one had put it all together.

The Method: Intertextuality

At the same time, I was learning more about a new approach to biblical studies called intertextuality. The Bible constantly reuses earlier portions of inspired scripture. Sometimes contemporary books in the Bible are alluding to one another as well. I became fascinated with how this works. Sometimes there are even slight changes in the “quoted” or “alluded to” earlier passages of scripture in order to drive home a point. That is to say, later passages allude to earlier passages and even add to or subtract from the quoted passages at times. My view is not that a subsequent biblical writer is rewriting an earlier author in the Bible, or even handling the earlier author in a “sloppy” or “loose” kind of way; rather, one must consider exactly what the human author(s) as well as the divine author in this whole complex relationship is doing. Every echo in scripture is occurring deliberately under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. Every echo in scripture is occurring deliberately under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. Click To Tweet When one understands or begins to grasp what the Bible is doing, constantly referencing itself internally, then a beautiful and coherent narrative begins to emerge. Additionally, new flashes of light emerge from the process. That’s what I noticed the Bible (both the OT and the NT) was doing with this rich theme, i.e., the exodus. Understand how subsequent authors were quoting earlier authors and you will have a “thick” and rich description of the story. Only note what a later author is doing in its own book without reference to earlier authors in the Bible and you might still understand the narrator’s or author’s message; however, your view may be reduced to a “thin” description of what that author is trying to communicate. And that means not just the human author(s) but especially the divine author of Scripture.

The more I researched, the more I began to think I was on to something. Of course, no one can say everything. Dan Reid (my editor at IVP), and others, began to press to me to choose a manageable corpus (e.g., Hebrews or 1 Peter, John or the Synoptic Gospels) to work on, and so I had to cut the whole project down to a manageable size. Nevertheless, I became convinced that this was a neglected theme, and we needed to pay attention to it. There were others that had found this vein of gold, but they did not share the same orthodox or conservative biblical convictions I did. I thought their narratives were full of lackluster. What would happen if I told a narrative from another angle? For example, what if the Exodus really did occur? What difference did that make to the narrative and the overall picture from a canonical standpoint, that is believing what the all of Scripture had to say about the theme? Moreover, I found that the ones who had drilled deep, so to speak, on this topic were the new perspective(s) on Paul and Christian soteriology, with whom I had significant differences. Additionally, I was not interested in politicizing this theme of the exodus motif as so many had done previously. I was curious what this theme taught about liberation from sin and Satan. Finally, I found that my biblical theological inquiries cohered with my systematic theological convictions: hence, the two should not be pitted against one another; rather, they should cohere and support one another.

Are Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology Complementary?

As a professional biblical scholar, it doesn’t take long to notice that biblical studies and biblical theology, or even systematic theology, are often pitted against one another as methodologies. In my view, the Bible must cohere in its biblical and systematic teaching. In other words, biblical theology should not contradict our systematic theological claims. How could one legitimate theological methodology ultimately conflict with another legitimate methodology when studying Scripture? Shouldn’t different methodological approaches ultimately cohere in trying to plumb the depths of biblical teaching?

The Exodus is Synecdoche for the Whole of Salvation

As I pursued my study, this lead me to see that the motif of the exodus is synecdoche (the part for the whole) for the story of salvation as understood by the Christian church for centuries. Since the story is ultimately about the escape from the blasting furnace of Pharaoh and slavery (read “Satan and sin”), gaining communion with the Almighty God (at Sinai which represents his presence with his people but ultimately communion with Christ), and finally pilgrimage into the promised land (read “Canaan” first but ultimately “heaven”), then the exodus motif story is ultimately about the way in which one may secure entitlement to the world to come. It is the grand story of salvation itself. The goal was the land of Canaan first; however, the eschatological goal was not the geopolitical land of Israel, but something far greater. The final goal was the world to come where one may worship God forever and ever in the New Jerusalem. The data I uncovered in my research supports that claim.


[1] “Baboons Differ with Giraffes,” interview with Flannery O’Conner by Celestine Sibley, The Atlantic Constitution, February 13th, 1957, 24. Reprinted in Conversations with Flannery O’Conner, ed. Rosemary M. Magee (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987).

Bryan D. Estelle

Bryan D. Estelle (Ph.D., The Catholic University of America) is professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California. Dr. Estelle is the author of Salvation through Judgment and Mercy: The Gospel According to Jonah and Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif. He is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and prior to his position at WSC, he was a pastor in an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation in Maryland and was involved in planting a church in Oregon for the Presbyterian Church in America. Dr. Estelle and his wife, Lisa, have two sons and one daughter. He and his family enjoy outdoor pursuits.

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