The Exodus and Our Faith

I’m sure I knew about the Exodus before a memorable Vacation Bible School in 1967, when I was 10, at the Methodist Church in my small Illinois hometown, Vandalia. But the coincidence of the Six Day War lent an additionally epic quality to the stories of Moses and Pharaoh. Not only that, but we also took a field trip to the area’s nearest synagogue, Temple Solomon in Centralia, Illinois. While I remember little of the visit, I do remember being interested, and I credit the trip with a lifelong appreciation of Judaism and the Jewish heritage into which, Paul writes, Christians are incorporated solely because of God’s kindness and righteousness (Roman 11:17-22).(1) As an adult, I’ve been involved in ecumenical and interfaith efforts over the years; currently I’m a member of two interfaith groups, although neither meet this month because of Passover and Easter.(2)

We all know the story of the Exodus, of course. In my imagination the word “exodus” makes me immediately think of the splitting of the sea, but that event actually was a part of God’s greater accomplishment of saving Israel from Egypt, including the plagues, the escape, and finally their safety on the sea’s far side. A Midrash states, “it is said that the rescue from Egypt is equal to all the miracles and deeds that God performed for Israel.”(3)

Coincidentally, as I was originally working on this post, “The Ten Commandments” was released on a new Blu-Ray and DVD edition.(4) Unfortunately, the movie gives us a love story (Moses and Pharaoh are both in love with Anne Baxter) and also God’s spectacular possibilities (wonderful as they are) without clarifying what the Exodus means for us Christians. But that’s our responsibility to figure out, not Cecil B. DeMille’s.

So….what does the Exodus mean for us? (I’m leaving out the interesting topic of liberation theology for the time being.) We know the Exodus is an important subject in the Passover holiday and thus is important for Jews, but the miracle means quite a lot for Christians, more than you might think. It is a profound theme within the Bible and part of the indispensable framework for both testaments! As scholars have discussed “the Christological unity of the Bible,” there is also (to coin a terrible term) an exodusological unity of the Bible.

1. The Torah

I found a 1962 article online by R. E. Nixon, “The Exodus in the New Testament,” originally published by the Tyndale Press: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/exodus_nixon.pdf Nixon elucidates the importance of the Exodus. He notes a line of development from the call of Abraham through the Exodus, the giving of the Covenant at Sinai, the wilderness years, the conquest of the land, and eventually David’s capture of Jerusalem, all of which have to do with God’s creation of the people and God’s promise to them of the Land. Nixon points out that Moses serves as “the essential link between Abraham and David,” and the Exodus itself is “the great moment at which Yahweh is revealed as who He truly is….It is through this mighty deed of salvation that Israel came to know Him in his essential nature.” Furthermore, he writes, the Exodus and the Covenant comprised the events that truly begin Israel’s scriptural history, and by which everything earlier in the scriptures is understood.(5)

The escape from Egypt and the splitting of the sea do not form the climax of the biblical drama but leads us straightway to God’s creation of his people and his covenant with them (Ex. 19-24). The covenant, in turn, is so momentous that the scriptures even connect it to Creation itself. First, the covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. Also, the building of the sanctuary parallels the six days of creation (Ex. 24:15-18), alerting us that God’s work, after resting on the seventh day, continued in the creation of God’s special people. (6)

We find several other interesting connections within the Torah. All “those” laws of Leviticus, though which many of us fear to tread, connect back to the covenant events of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-24. (7) God’s covenant promise of the Land for Israel connect us to the stories of the spies and the rebellion of Israel in Numbers 12-14, which in turn connect us forward to the book of Joshua and set the stage for the long sojourn in the wilderness (which is not recorded but which happens between the end of the story at Numbers 17:13 and the beginning of Numbers 20). The story of Numbers 20 connects us back to Exodus 17, two similar rebellions of Israel.

Deuteronomy circles back even further, toward the Patriarch stories. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” says Deut. 26:5, meaning Jacob, and the passage 5-10 remembers Egyptian bondage, God’s salvation, and circles back again to the promise of the land, which the Israelites are about to enter.

The conclusion of Numbers circles back even further, for as commentators note, the passage describing the land of Canaan and its settlement (chapters 34-36) belongs to the “priestly source” which was the source of Genesis 1. Thus the promise of land for God’s people reflects God’s love of all creation and God’s desire for new human relationships.(8) Not only that, but the covenant and law comprise a new “Eden” in which the people can live, close to God.(9)

We also see connections of the Exodus and the Covenant toward the future. In Deuteronomy, Moses gives a long farewell message, instructing the people again about the importance of following God’s will and commandments. In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24), and sets the tone for Israel’s future. As Anderson puts it, “…Yahweh’s initiative evoked a response from the people. It placed them in a situation of decision, summoned them to a task within the divine purpose. What Moses had experienced earlier at Sinai … was experienced by all the people at the same sacred mountain, and with far-reaching implications for the future.” (10)

If a Bible explorer has a good commentary at hand as she studies this material, she can also understand the hypothetical documents that preceded the finished narrative and the theological emphases of each source.

2. The Old Testament

We find many references to the Exodus throughout the Old Testament. Like the many prophetic connections to the New Testament, the historical and prophetic references to the Exodus are sufficient to keep a Bible explorer busy for quite a while! Interestingly, the prophets do not evoke Abraham and his covenant so often, but instead evoke the Exodus as the great event by which God established his covenant people (e.g., Amos 2:9-11, 3:1-2, Hosea 2:15, 11:1, 13:4, Isa. 43:16-21, 51:9-11, Ez. 2:5-6, 20:33-44, and also Deut. 5:6, 6:20ff, 26:5ff, Psalm 78, 81, 95, 105, 106, as well as the allusion in Joshua 3:1ff, and later in Neh. 9:6ff, Daniel 9:15, 1 Chr. 6:5, 7:22, and also references to the plagues and rebellions in Psalm 78, 95, 105, 106, and in Wisdom of Sol. 17 and Sirach 45:1ff.(11).

In his article, Nixon notes that the “Former Prophets” “use [the Exodus] as the starting-point of their era and a constant basis for moral and religious exhortation” (and he footnotes these passages: 1 Sam. 2:27; 8:8; 10:18; 12:6, 8; 15:2, 6; 2 Sam. 7:6, 23; 1 Kings 6:1; 8:9, 16, 21, 51, 53; 9:9; 12:28; 2 Kings 17:7, 36; 21:15). But “the Latter Prophets” also use the Exodus “as the point where God acted in history to make Israel his people,” and thus the focal point for Israel’s obligations to God and others (and Nixon footnotes these passages: Amos 2:10; 3:1; 9:7; Micah 6:4; 7:15; Hosea 2:15; 11:1; 12:9, 13; 13:4; Is. 11:16; Jer. 2:6; 7:22, 25; 11:4, 7; 16:14; 23:7; 32:21; 34:13) (12).

3. Gospels and Paul’s Letters

Brevard Childs writes generally, “[I]t is characteristic of the New Testament to place the redemption of Egypt into a new context which radically alters its meaning and function for early Christianity…Jesus not only participates in the history of the nation, but, as the true redeemer of Israel, he ushers in the messianic age which the original exodus from Egypt only foreshadowed. Moreover, it is characteristic of the New Testament to shift the emphasis away from the first exodus to the ‘second’. This is to say, the Old Testament exodus tradition has been heard primarily through its eschatological appropriation in Ezekiel and II Isaiah.”(13) Thus, we think more strongly of God’s rescue (salvation) of us through Christ, the water of baptism, the meal of the Lord’s supper, and the covenant of Christ, rather than the Passover meal, the escape through the sea, and the Sinai covenant.

But if you want to appreciate how the Exodus and Moses stories function as typology and framework for the Gospels, Nixon gives examples: Zechariah’s “Benedictus,” Jesus’ very name (Joshua) and parallels in his life to Moses (his endangered life as an infant, his parents’ exile to and return from Egypt), Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (compared to the Israelites’ forty years), the parallel between Moses and the mountain and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the parallel of the wilderness manna and Jesus’ bread of life, and others. A Bible explorer interested in digging into these texts can find numerous passages cited by Nixon in his article.(14)

In Paul’s letters, Nixon finds Exodus typology in 1 Corinthians 5:7f, 1 Corinthians 10:1ff, and 2 Corinthians 3.

Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:7-8).

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-10).

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:12-18).

Paul’s words are painful for those of us who cherish friendships and dialogue between Jews and Christians but we need to remember the first-century context. Paul was validating his own ministry to the fickle Corinthians, compared to other ministries of the time, as the tone and content of the whole letter makes clear. Paul was also not denigrating Judaism per se but comparing two small, persecuted kinds of Judaism (followers of Jesus and those who did not); Paul could not have known the hostility, prejudice, and persecution that Christians would eventually harbor toward Jews, partly based on texts like these. Based on his own love of his people and heritage, he surely would’ve been horrified. Paul was also preaching the power of the Holy Spirit who makes possible both a knowledge of and a relationship with God, whether for Jews or Gentiles. For Paul, the fact that God had granted everyday people an even closer relationship to God, through the Spirit, than even Israel’s greatest prophet could experience, was something unbelievable and momentous.

Paul’s use of the Exodus and Covenant does not stop there. While working on a freelance project, I noticed a fascinating connection made by N. T. Wright in The New Interpreter’s Bible. I noticed it partly because studying Romans 5-8, when I was a worthless-feeling young person struggling with faith, was quite momentous for me and helped me understand again how liberating is God’s unearned love.

N. T. Wright notes that a common and traditional exegesis of Romans is to consider chapters 1-4 as addressing “justification,” chapters 5-8 as addressing “sanctification,” and chapters 9-11 as addressing the role of Israel within this new era of Jesus Christ. Wright, though, believes that the Exodus can be seen as forming the framework of Paul’s letter! “Paul has retold the story of the exodus, the freedom story, demonstrating that the Egypt of sin and death has been decisively defeated through the death of the Messiah, and that the Spirit is now leading God’s redeemed people to their promised inheritance.”(15) Similarly, “The theme of ‘new exodus’ is a major topic in Second Temple Judaism. It is a central way by which Jews in Paul’s day expressed, symbolized, and narrated their hopes for the future—for the time when, as the prophets had foretold, that God would repeat, on their behalf, the great acts whereby their forebears were liberated from Egypt (e.g., Isa. 11;11; 35:3-10; 51:9-11; 52:4-6; Jer. 16:14, 15; 23:7-8; Ezek. 20:33, 38; Hos. 2:14-23).”(16) Wright then quotes Jeremiah 23:5-8 as particularly pertinent for Paul. (17).

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’.
Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt’, but ‘As the Lord lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.’ Then they shall live in their own land (Jer. 23:5-8).

As Second Temple Jews looked with hope toward the fulfillment of God’s promises, so Paul, the Second Temple Jew who now preached Christ, saw the righteousness of God revealed in Christ, and the liberation of God’s people accomplished in the “land” of Christ’s salvation.

4. Hebrews

We also find Exodus typology very strongly in the letter of Hebrews, in ways similar to Paul’s. Read Hebrews 3:16-4:11: here, the author warns about disobedience, using the Israelites as a guide. Although the two situations were quite different—the Israelites in the wilderness, and the persecuted second-generation Christians (possibly in Italy) to whom the Hebrews author wrote—the salvation of God came to them and could be understood by the term “rest.” The risk is losing God’s rest; for the Israelites, the offer came to them and was verified by God’s miraculous salvation, but the people lost their rest (i.e., lost the chance to enter Canaan); thus the Hebrews author quotes Psalm 95: “As in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Heb. 4:3). For the Christian congregation, the threat was the possibility that they’d give up their faith in the face of persecution.

If you’ve patience to dig into the epistle, you’ll notice that the author mixes metaphors and scriptural references as he goes: for instance, in 4:3, he uses rest in two ways, the Promised Land and God’s Sabbath rest. (Hebrews is a Bible book that especially opens up with a good commentary in hand!) But as we saw in the book of Exodus itself, the Hebrews author links God’s Creation, the Sabbath, and the Promised Land by linking together the Genesis 2 with the Exodus stories and also with Psalm 95. The Promised Land and the Sabbath are, for this author, kinds of rest that now point to a new kind of rest: Christ’s salvation.(18)

5. Other New Testament Passages

I encourage people who might be interested in this subject to find Nixon’s article online; I’ve cited and paraphrased a good deal of his interesting reflections already. Let me cite him one more time when he points out how rich in Exodus imagery is the book of Revelation! You may not realize that Revelation cites or alludes to more Old Testament passages than nearly any other New Testament writing. For instance, Nixon cites these passages: Rev 2:14 and Num. 31:16; 25:1; 2:17 and Ex. 16; 3:5 and Ex. 32:32; 4:1 and Ex. 19:19f; 8:5 and Ex. 19:16; 8:7-9:21 and the plagues in Ex. 7-11; a possible allusion in 8:11 to Ex. 15:23, and in 12:16 to Num. 16:32; plus, the reference to the song of Moses in Rev. 15:3.

Altogether, Nixon writes, “The first triumphant Exodus has prefigured the second and we are to look ahead to its fulfillment in God’s victory at the end of time” (19).
Thus, in important ways, Christians share a similar position as the Israelites. In Paul’s imagery, sin and death are our “Egyptian slavery” from which we’ve been rescued. The Israelites were rescued by God, not because of their superior faith and deservedness but solely through God’s love and grace. But even though rescued, they had to look to a future redemption in the process of being fulfilled. Like the Israelites, we are called to respond with confidence to God’s grace, since we too are prone to failure and forgetfulness. We risk God’s sternness, too, when we persist in faithlessness (20)

6. An Exodus Social Ethic

A further connection of the Exodus and our faith. I’ve been enjoying an excellent book called Journey to the Common Good by Walter Brueggemann (Westminster John Knox, 2010), which I recommend people read in more detail than I can present here. As I’ve thought about the Exodus and Passover this past week, I returned to the book, wherein he points out that “The exodus-Sinai memory produces an uncommon social ethic” (p. 39). His examples are:

The prevention of a permanent underclass through debt cancellations (Deut. 15:1-18), with the reminder of Egyptian slavery.
Openheartedness and generosity toward one’s neighbor (Deut. 15:7-11)
No interest on loans within the community (Deut. 23:19-2)
Runaway slaves are always extended hospitality (Deut. 23:15-16)
Collateral-free loans to poor people (Deut. 24:10-13)
Poor people cannot have their wages withheld (Deut. 24:14-15)
Resident aliens and orphans receive justice (Deut. 24:17-18), again with the reminder of Egyptian slavery.
An economy structured for provision for the needy and marginalized (Deut. 24:19-22), yet again with the reminder of Egyptian slavery (pp. 39-41).
An ethic of neighborliness, generosity, and the common good are rooted in the nature and salvation of the Lord of the exodus (pp. 42-43). The experience of liberation from Egyptian slavery is supposed to lead to an economy and society in which people are cared for.

Interestingly, Brueggemann connects King Solomon with Pharaoh! He argues that Solomon, with his accumulation of power and wealth, comprise a “nullifying [of] the vision of Sinai” wherein the common good is provided for (pp. 53-55). Thus the prophetic tradition of Nathan, Amos, Jeremiah, and others call the people back to the Lord of the exodus (p. 57). Jeremiah, for instance, calls people to “praise” or “boast” of the Lord rather than their own wealth, wisdom, and power—the qualities of Pharaoh and Solomon (Jer. 9:24) (p. 61). Both Jeremiah 9:24 and Hosea 6:6 remind the people that God is a God of lovingkindness (hesed), justice (mispat) and righeousness (zedaqah), and God desires and delights in these things more than sacrifice and burnt offerings (pp. 62-63).

Brueggemann connects these verses and traditions to the New Testament. For instance, Hosea 6:6 is referred to in Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7. God continues to love justice, lovingkindness (or “steadfast love, which in turn is connected to the Sinai covenant and its social ethic), and righteousness (connected to the social well-being) (p. 64). That notion of “boasting the Lord” is a favorite saying of Paul (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:31), even if we don’t realize it is a quotation of Jer. 9:24, which in turn is a reminder of the will of the Lord of the exodus (pp. 66-67).

All these have contemporary relevance, Brueggemann argues. “[T]he U.S. national security state thrives on wisdom, might, and wealth. That triad of commitments, moreover, gets articulated among us not as savage militarism but as consumer entitlement in which liberals and conservatives together take for granted our privileged status in the world as God’s most recently chosen people….[T]he coming troubles of our society call us away from our internal struggles in the church in order that the church may address these great public missional issues. It remains to be seen how the church can fashion an intentional alternative to the national security state, which [comparing it to Israel and Judah during the prophetic era] is itself a path to death” (p. 68).

*****

Temple Solomon closed a few years ago because of dwindling membership, but the shul certainly blessed me during our brief encounter 44 years ago. In its memory, and for the upcoming Passover, let me appreciate Moses. Biblically, Moses stands as the great Old Testament lawgiver and the greatest prophet. He tends to be downplayed in the New Testament because of the concern of the writers to preach the primacy of Christ (Heb. 3:1-6); in Christ God has revealed the purpose and goal of salvation and has revealed a new attitude toward the law. But what a tremendous figure of intercessory love and compassion! He takes the side of the people, stands up for them, refuses to let God wipe them out. His own descendants became, in one writer’s words, “just garden-variety Levites.”(21) Any leader who identifies with Moses as an example of flock-leading must be willing to accept intercessory suffering and to identify fully with the people. Moses is an honored teacher and true shepherd.

Notes:

1. Several good books explain the anti-Jewish roots of Christianity, for example, Julie Galambush, The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); and Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
My reminiscence of my rabbi friend and mentor is found at:http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2010/02/albert-plotkin.html

2. I’m sensitive to the fact that, although Christians can appreciate Passover, Jews find Good Friday and Easter, with all the holidays’ anti-Jewish aspects, off-putting and even traumatizing. For an example of the tensions felt by interfaith families, seehttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-katz-miller/interfaith-passover-no-pr_b_842483.html

3. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 485.

4. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/movies/homevideo/cecil-b-demilles-ten-commandments-on-blu-ray.html

5. R. E. Nixon, “The Exodus in the New Testament,” originally published by the Tyndale Press: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/exodus_nixon.pdf Pages 5-6 in the source.

6. Brevard S. Childs, in his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 112, notes that both Genesis 1 and Ex. 24:15-18 come from the “priestly source” that is incorporated into the narrative of Genesis through Numbers and also influenced Chronicles.

7. Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 53.

8. Thomas B. Dozeman, “The Book of Numbers,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 2 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998), 267-268.

9. Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 37.

10. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, third edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 9-10; Child’s Biblical Theology, 82-83.

11. Anderson, 131.

12. Nixon, 9.

13. Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1974), 233.

14. Nixon, p. 13.

15. N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 585.

16. Wright, 510

17. Wright, 511

18. My own lesson series, “Hold Fast to the Faith” for the Daily Bible Study curriculum, June-July-August 2004 (Abingdon Press, 2004), the June 19 lesson.

19. Nixon, p. 29.

20. Childs, The Book of Exodus, pp. 238-239.

21. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2261/what-became-of-mosess-sons

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