The Global Message of Exodus
The Continued Story of Redemptive History
The book of Exodus continues the story of the redemptive history that God began in the book of Genesis. The original purpose of Exodus was to help the people of Israel understand their identity as God’s special people, and to learn about their covenant obligations to him. They were to see themselves as God’s “firstborn son” (Ex. 4:22–23) and as a “kingdom of priests” (19:5–6), called to bring God’s blessings to the nations. Exodus describes how the Lord delivered Israel from Egyptian oppression (chs. 1–15), brought her into covenant relationship with himself at Mount Sinai (chs. 16–24), and came to dwell in her midst in the tabernacle (chs. 25–40).
The Meaning of the Exodus
God’s main purpose in delivering the people of Israel out of Egyptian oppression was so that he “might dwell among” them (Ex. 29:46). To understand why God desired to dwell in Israel’s midst, we must consider the book of Exodus within the larger framework of redemptive history. The Creator-King’s original intention was that he might dwell among his people, who would be a flourishing human community in a paradise-kingdom beginning in Eden and spreading throughout the whole world (see “The Global Message of Genesis”). The book of Revelation shows that these original creation intentions remain God’s purpose for his people, and his purpose will be fulfilled at the end of history (Revelation 21–22). In those last two chapters of the Bible, as in the Bible’s first two chapters, we see God dwelling with his people. In the book of Exodus we see this as well, as Israel learns about their covenant relationship with God, and as he dwells among them through the tabernacle.
The narrator of Exodus clearly states that the reason why God established the Mosaic covenant with Israel at Sinai was to carry forward his purpose as expressed within the earlier covenant with Abraham (Ex. 2:24; 3:6, 15, 16; 6:2–8). God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3 function as his solution to the problem of the human sin and rebellion that we read about in Genesis 3–11. In Exodus, God advances his solution to the fall by establishing Israel as a theocracy (a nation governed directly by God). Through the Mosaic covenant, Israel becomes the initial fulfillment and next stage of the promise that in Abraham’s lineage all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3).
God’s “Firstborn Son”
In Exodus 4:22–23, God announced to Pharaoh that Israel was “my firstborn son.” In the worldview of ancient Egypt, the firstborn son of a king would inherit the throne and would be under obligation to manifest the rule of the supreme deity of his father upon earth. Pharaoh thought of himself as the son and appointed representative of the supreme god of Egypt, and he believed that his own firstborn son would inherit this role.
Israel became the Lord’s adopted firstborn son, and so was under obligation to manifest the Lord’s rule upon earth. The original calling of humanity to be God’s image-bearers, his appointed representatives, who establish and extend God’s heavenly rule upon the earth, is now to be carried forward through the chosen people of Israel. Although Israel largely failed in this mission, Jesus ultimately suffers the punishment deserved by God’s people and secures the success of this mission through God’s new people, the church (Matt. 28:18–20).
Universal Themes in Exodus
The main theme of Exodus is the Lord’s self-revelation in faithfulness, grace, and power, especially in supremacy over the false gods of the world.
The faithful God. Exodus 3:10–15 is the revelation of the personal name of God, YHWH, which is rendered in most Bibles with small capital letters, as “the Lord.” The name is connected to the Hebrew verb “to be,” and its meaning becomes clear throughout Exodus. First, the Lord is the God who “will be” with his chosen people to enable them to fulfill their God-given task (Ex. 3:12). Second, the Lord is the God “who will be who he is” (see 3:14). God will be what he has always been. He is the unchanging, self-consistent God. He will be faithful forever to his own character and covenant commitments. Third, the Lord is the God who “will be” sufficient in his people’s moment of crisis (3:14b). God is faithful and powerful enough to carry through on his promise to deliver his people from Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt.
The gracious God. In Exodus 34:5–7, the Lord further unveils the essence of his character and the significance of his name to Moses, who had asked to see God’s glory (Ex. 33:18). The context is crucial, for Exodus 32–34 concerns Israel’s golden calf rebellion. It is in the midst of this crisis that God reveals that he is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (34:6–7). Because of Israel’s idolatry, the mission to rescue the world nearly collapses as God’s people forsake him. Yet due to his grace and covenant love, the mission to bless the whole world (Gen. 12:1–3) continues to advance. The golden calf incident, however, has revealed that Israel, the one through whom worldwide blessing was to come, is herself part of the problem. God’s own people have evil hearts (Ex. 32:9–10, 22; 33:5; 34:9).
The all-powerful God. In the exodus deliverance from Pharaoh, the Lord reveals himself as the only true God and king of the earth (Ex. 9:16; 15:11, 14–15, 18). In his victory over the world’s most powerful nation, the Lord demonstrates that its most powerful “gods” were not gods at all (12:12; 15:11). The book of Exodus shows that the God of Abraham is the only true God of all the earth.
The Global Message of Exodus for Today
Nations, political power, and oppression. Israel’s exodus from Egypt must be understood as the unique event that it was within the history of redemption. It would be wrong, therefore, to interpret the book of Exodus as declaring that God’s primary purpose is to liberate all oppressed people from political or economic enslavement. If we read Exodus in this way, we may begin to see the church’s primary mission as working to bring about political freedom and social justice. This is certainly a worthy and important goal, and Exodus does demonstrate vividly that God’s ear is drawn to the groaning of the oppressed (Ex. 2:23–24). God is compassionate and cares for the widow, the fatherless, and the poor (22:21–27), and the church is called to do likewise. Yet this is not the main message of Exodus. The church’s primary mission is the proclamation and living out of the gospel of Christ—for the fundamental problem plaguing humanity is not political oppression but its root cause, the evil human heart. And this fundamental problem is cured only in the work of Christ in dying and rising again. In doing all of this, Jesus accomplished a greater and final exodus deliverance for all who will put their trust in him.
The sojourner and the resident alien. In a time when economic crises, wars, and natural disasters compel individuals and whole peoples to flee their homelands and seek security in foreign countries, the issue of the resident alien has become acute throughout the entire global village. In Exodus, God commands Israel not to oppress the sojourner. He reminds his people of their own historic experience as oppressed sojourners in Egypt (Ex. 22:21; 23:9). While the book of Exodus is not a manual for dealing with the issue of illegal or unwanted immigration, the book certainly teaches that solutions must be sought with justice and compassion. And above all, global Christians must remember that they are resident aliens on earth and, most fundamentally, citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20; 1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11).