How to Read Exodus Theologically
The book of Exodus records the greatest salvation event in the Old Testament. The record of God’s rescue and rendezvous with the Israelites at Mount Sinai is theologically rich. It models the salvation story of the whole Bible, as God redeems the Israelites from the grip of evil, ransoms them from the power of death, cleanses them from the defilement of sin and consecrates them for holy living so that they may enter into a friendship treaty with God, with the possibility of becoming a ‘kingdom of priests and holy nation’ (Exod. 19:6 NIV). Exodus reveals how one nation comes to know God personally, reversing in part the alienation created by Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-24). God’s rescue of the Israelites foreshadows a more effective and more universal divine rescue, for the Exodus story pre-figures the coming of Jesus Christ to redeem, ransom, cleanse and sanctify people from every nation, who under a new and better covenant with ultimately dwell in God’s holy presence on a renewed earth.
The theme of knowing God relationally runs throughout Exodus, as God reveals himself through word and action. From being a distant deity, God comes to live among the Israelites. The concept of knowing God is highlighted when Pharaoh says to Moses: ‘Who is Yahweh that I should heed him by releasing Israel? I do not know Yahweh and moreover I will not release Israel’ (Exod. 5:2; author’s translation). The continuing narrative abounds with references to how God makes himself known to both Egyptians and Israelites through signs and wonders (Exod. 6:3–7; 7:5, 17; 8:10, 22; 9:4, 16, 29; 10:1–2; 11:7; 14:4; 18).
For the Israelites the process of coming to a personal knowledge of God involves various stages that are theologically significant. The Israelites transition from being under the control of a vicious, xenophobic dictator, who is considered a deity by his own people, to becoming the ‘treasured possession’ of a gracious and merciful God. They exchange one king for another, but the two kings are diametrically opposite. From the outset of Exodus, Pharaoh is portrayed as being anti-God and demonic in nature. He typifies the powers of evil that incarcerate and exploit people. Against this background, God comes to free the Israelites, a motif that is reflected in the use of the Hebrew verb ga’al ‘to redeem’ in Exodus 6:6 and 15:13. Exodus 1-15 illustrates powerfully how divine salvation involves setting free those who are enslaved to the evil one.
Redemption from evil is, however, only the first stage in the process of coming to a personal knowledge of God. Other barriers need to be overcome before people can live in the presence of a holy God. Only those who are holy may know God relationally.
Emphasizing God’s holy nature (e.g. Exod. 3:4-5; 19:10-25), Exodus records three consecration rituals that shed light on the process by which sinful people may become holy. To deliver the Israelite firstborn males from death, the Passover ritual sanctifies them so that they belong to God (Num. 3:13; 8:17; cf. Exod. 13:1). Exodus 12-13 implies that the firstborn males are ransomed from death through the sacrifice of the Passover animals (reflected in the use of the verb padah ‘to ransom’ in Exod. 13:13, 15), ritually cleansed through the sprinkling of blood, and made holy through eating sacrificial meat with unleavened bread. Later, the firstborn males are ransomed by the Levites (Num. 3:12-13, 45-51; 8:16-18), enabling the Levites to serve God at the portable sanctuary. Passover illustrates important theological concepts associated with salvation. Only those who are holy may know God relationally. Click To Tweet
A second consecration ritual, involving sacrifices and the sprinkling of blood, occurs when the Israelites seal the covenant with God at Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:3-8). Consequently, some of the Israelite elders and others ascend the lower slopes of Mount Sinai and see God (Exod. 24:9-11). Instructions for another consecration ritual are recorded in Exodus 29:1-46; this concerns Aaron as high priest and his sons as priests. Parallels exist with the previous consecration rituals, but Aaron’s consecration ritual is the most complex because of the high priest’s role in meeting daily with God. The process of knowing God relationally requires the Israelites to be made holy by God (cf. Exod. 31:13; Lev. 20:8; Lev. 21:15, 23; 22:9, 16, 32).
Before God comes to dwell with the Israelites, they must solemnly promise him their exclusive allegiance (Exod. 24:3, 7; cf. 19:8). While Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites against their will, Yahweh invites them to submit voluntarily to his rule over them. To confirm this commitment, the Israelites seal a covenant or friendship treaty with God. Since God’s holiness is reflected in his moral perfection, the covenant obligations place important ethical demands upon the Israelites. These are encapsulated in the Ten Commandments (cf. Exod. 20:2-17). The sealing of the covenant leads to the construction of a special portable sanctuary so that God can reside among the Israelites, reflecting this new relationship that has been established at Mount Sinai.
Exodus: Paradigm of Salvation
Although Exodus illustrates how alienated humans are reconciled to God, the Sinai covenant does not remove all the barriers that separate the people from God. Even Moses cannot see God’s face (Exod. 33:18-23). The expectation develops that there will be another and greater exodus.
The OT account of Israel testifies to the inability of the people to keep the obligations of the Sinai covenant. Centuries after their rescue from Egypt, various prophets announce that God will establish a new covenant with his people (e.g. Isa. 54:10; 55:3; 61:8; Jer. 31:31–34; 32:40; Ezek. 34:25; 37:26-27). This new covenant is later initiated by Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6), with the author of Hebrews boldly asserting its superiority over the older Sinai covenant (Heb. 8:8; 9:15; 12:24). Importantly, NT writers embrace the Exodus paradigm of salvation to explain the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet
Importantly, NT writers embrace the Exodus paradigm of salvation to explain the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul encapsulates this when he writes, ‘For Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed’ (1 Cor. 5:7; ESV). Describing Jesus Christ as ‘a lamb without blemish or defect’ (1 Pet. 1:19), the apostle Peter states that those who are ransomed by Christ’s blood (1 Pet. 1:18) become ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession’ (1 Pet. 2:9), echoing Exodus 19:6. All the Gospel writers place the death of Jesus at Passover, with John observing that Jesus’ bones were not broken, like those of the Passover sacrifice (John 19:31–37; cf. Exod. 12:46; Num. 9:12). Reflecting the consecration dimension of Passover, the author of Hebrews states that Jesus is ‘the one who makes people holy’ (Heb. 2:11). Later, he writes, ‘We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all’ (Heb. 10:10; cf. 13:12). The Lord’s Supper draws on the OT image of Passover and the sealing of the covenant at Mount Sinai (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; cf. John 6:53–58).
Whereas at Mount Sinai, God comes in all his glory to dwell among the people in a tent, John records how ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Subsequently, due to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers become an organic temple (Eph. 2:19-20), replacing the tabernacle/temple of the old covenant. Concurrently, the priesthood and practices of the old covenant are made redundant as Jesus becomes high priest in the heavenly temple (Heb. 7:12). As God empowered Israelites with gifts to construct the tabernacle through the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit endows believers with grace-gifts to build God’s organic temple. Like Bezalel, who oversaw the manufacture of the tabernacle, the apostle Paul describes his apostolic ministry as being that of a master builder who lays a foundation on which others can build (1 Cor. 3:10; cf. Exod. 31:2-5; 35:30-35).
These broad-brush strokes give a general sense of how the book of Exodus is theologically rich, but they do not exhaust all the ways in which the Exodus story enhances our understanding of God’s redemptive activity on our behalf.