What was the Exodus about?

I’ve written before about the Exodus, but Phillip’s recent post (and this post at Triablogue) has sparked me to revisit the topic. My post today is not about the prophetic significance of the Exodus in the first and second comings of Christ (but I am excited about a new book on the topic by Joel Richardson, which is confirmed to come out in the spring/summer of this year). Rather, it is about what the Exodus meant in its time. The strands of meaning in this post are not arranged in any particular order.

The King of All Creation

Part of the polemics of the Book of Exodus – a very big part – is showing that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is the Creator, and is superior to all other Elohim. Scholars have already shown that the 10 Plagues are directed at gods of Egypt and at Pharaoh himself, who was understood as a son of a god (such as Ra or Amun) and as an embodiment of a god (such as Horus).

Pharaoh was also supposedly protected by the divine throne guardians commonly given to rulers and deities in the Ancient Near East. Commonly his crown would bear the protective uraeus serpent and/or the protective vulture. When Judah in subsequent years came back within the ambit of Egyptian cultural, economic, political, and military influence, Isaiah would understand God’s throne guardians (in his day the seraphim) in similar terms (note the Egyptian ankh on the seal).

The Egyptian gods were powerless to stop Yahweh from punishing Egypt and leading the Israelites out. The powers of nature deployed on behalf of Israel showed: (1) that the God who fought on Israel’s behalf was the Creator Himself, since only the Creator could use such powers and in such variety; (2) that the gods of Egypt were inferior to Israel’s god; and (3) that it was foolish to worship nature itself when the Intelligence behind nature was infinitely greater in every possible respect.

The name of God, Yahweh, was also unlike any other divine name the Egyptians or Israelites had encountered. The revelation of this name served as a call to true religion, true religious philosophy, and away from the conceits of paganism and idolatry, for this name was an essence name, a name that revealed the God of Israel as the only necessary being, the true God (in the way that the English language uses the word “god”). The Israelites did not have have the kind of linguistic power that the European languages of the Enlightenment possessed, but they had enough in their day to be able to explain this. Egypt was on notice and paganism and idolatry stood exposed as the foolishness they are.

It is important in the midst of this rhetoric to remember that the god(s) of Egypt was/were real (though Egyptian mythology and theology is not to be accepted as a reliable guide to truth). The Israelites understood that at Babel, when God divided the Seventy Nations, He allotted them to the sons of God (Deuteronomy 32). There were, therefore, real spiritual powers behind the idols of Egypt. If there had not been, the rhetoric of Exodus would be meaningless, since God would be triumphing over nothing.

The forging of a nation

Israel began as one man with sons. As time went on, these sons had families, and Israel became an ethnic group, a collection of families with a common genetic origin, sharing the same language and culture. In Egypt, the Israelites, though no doubt largely keeping to themselves residentially, mixed with the Egyptians. As a consequence, they took up Egyptian gods, Egyptian names, and Egyptian practices.

In bringing Israel out of Egypt, into her own land, under the guidance of Moses, the law code (Torah), the elders, and Moses’ judges/administrators, God was continuing the process of salvation history. He was forging a nation that would be the vehicle for Messiah, who would come to redeem and transform the world. The Israelites would not have grasped this in all its fullness (traditional Christian theology holds to a theory of progressive revelation), but various core elements were in place in the Israelites consciousness by the time they entered the Promised Land, even if they could not relate all the pieces properly to each other.

The Exodus meant purifying the nation, turning her eyes to the Creator, and demonstrating the human need for salvation. Humanity had gone astray, but God in His faithfulness was committed to bringing humanity back to the right path. He began by preserving Noah, a righteous man, and then calling Abram out of Chaldea (the land of Babel, where post-Flood humanity had demonstrated a recapitulation of the Fall). God would use Abraham (the new Abram) to bless the nations, restoring what was lost in Eden.

The Israelites, through Moses, understood that this process would continue through them. Leading Israel out of Egypt was not only literal, it was also metaphorical; it was a picture of repentance and transformation, of abandoning the ways of the nations to take up the ways of God. Israel was to be a covenant community, to model how humanity was supposed to live with God and interact with the spiritual world.

Ending oppression

Israel had been made into a nation of slaves. The Pharaohs who did not know Joseph feared and hated Israel, and were determined to keep them oppressed and productive. By leading Israel out, God showed the world what he thought of such manipulative, dehumanising behaviour.

It is true that slavery was not abolished in Moses’ day: debt slavery was retained. The story of mankind’s moral transformation is a progressive one, not an immediate, single event. We must remember that God worked with Israel as they were in their day: a Bronze Age group to which transformative concepts were introduced, but which would need to process those in a way it could understand.

Even so, we must remember that debt slavery was there to reinforce the principle of contract. It was not supposed to be a vehicle through which people were to oppress their neighbours. It was left in place so that people could pay their debts, to keep their promises and have promises still mean something. When a man has no assets to speak of, but must needs keep his house/tent so that his family will have some protection from the elements, we can understand – if not condone – that he would sell his labour on terms unfavourable to him, as a way of preserving his family.

The Torah was transformative, however. While tolerating a form of slavery, it essentially upheld the Exodus rhetoric of ending oppression. Israelites were to treat debt slaves with compassion and could not retain them beyond the year of redemption or year of Jubilee without mutual consent. The Israelites were also to treat resident aliens with respect, because to do otherwise would be hypocrisy and contrary to God’s principle of benevolence. They had been oppressed in Egypt.

The Day of the LORD

The Exodus was understood as a judgment on Egypt and her gods. Moses foresaw that one greater than he would come (Deuteronomy 18:15). It is doubtful that all Near Eastern groups had a world eschatology. Most, if not all, had a personal eschatology, a belief in an afterlife or underworld to which the souls of the dead went. But few had any developed or permeating notion that the world as they knew it would one day end.

Israel was different. They had the promise of the true Sabbath (which John the Revelator wrote about, drawing upon Isaiah and other Prophets). To get to the Day of Rest, the world would first have to pass through the judgment, a period of accounting and transformation. The 10 Plagues were a foretaste of this, a regional judgment that was a pledge of the final judgment to come. The Israelites knew the world had been changed by the events of the Exodus, but they knew that this was not the end – not yet.

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