The disclosure of God in the Book of Exodus develops from a distant deity of an oppressed people in Egypt to one in intimate relationship with the people of Israel on their way to the promised land. A theological goldmine results, impacting the concepts and theological ideas of the rest of the Old Testament.
Perhaps the best way to approach the book's theology starts with its literary development, for the revelation of God unfolds in different ways as the book progresses. It begins with God delivering the Israelites from oppression in Egypt (chaps. 1-19). Deliverance leads to responsibility on the part of God's people (chaps. 20-40). Geographically, the first part takes place in Egypt, while the second part begins and ends at Mount Sinai in the wilderness. Themes include deliverance (chaps. 1-19), covenant (chaps. 20-24, 32-34), and presence (chaps. 25-31, 35-40).
Literary Development of the Theology. The book begins by tracing the growth of Jacob's family in Egypt. As a nation, Israel suffers oppression from Pharaoh ( 1:8-10 ). Despite the terrible conditions, the nation continues to grow ( 1:12 ), a hint that God is blessing them. New measures are taken to stop their population explosion, but the midwives become instruments of salvation rather than death because they "feared God" ( 1:17 ). The text states that God blesses them for their actions in preserving life ( 1:20-21 ).
Starting in 2:10, the narrator follows one child. He is named Moses, for Pharaoh's daughter "drew him out of the water." His name could also mean "deliverer, " suitable to his role as a human agent to resolve the repression by Pharaoh. His zeal to alleviate oppression leads to misfortune and personal discouragement ( 2:11-15 ), but sets up the divine initiative leading to complete liberation. Chapter 2 ends with the cries of Israel to God and the message that God hears them (vv. 23-25).
A dramatic change takes place when God appears to Moses. The disclosure of God's will and plan revolves around the conversation with Moses. First, God appears in a burning bush ( 3:2 ), producing a sanctified space ( 3:5 ). Then God speaks directly with Moses. God reveals that he is the same deity that the patriarchs knew ( 3:6 ), is concerned with the deliverance of Israel ( 3:7-9 ), and wants to use Moses in the task ( 3:10 ).
In the process of the conversation, God also discloses a personal name, Yahweh ( 3:15 ). Based upon the enigmatic phrase in 3:14, "I am who I am, " this name reveals that God exists as a deity who is active and will work in behalf of his people. Mere existence is not in mind, but the willingness to work for Israelite deliverance. The name Acts as a word of assurance to Moses and to the Israelites. Additional confirmation of this deity's ability surfaces in the signs given to Moses to answer his objections to God's call ( 4:1-9 ).
Further clarification of the name "Yahweh" occurs in God's speech of reassurance to Moses in 6:2-9. After Moses' initial attempts at deliverance from Pharaoh fail, Yahweh puts the scene into theological perspective. The paragraph revolves on the self-identification formula, "I am Yahweh" ( Exodus 6:2 Exodus 6:6 Exodus 6:8 ). In the past, the patriarchs knew God as God Almighty. They did not understand the full capacity of the name "Yahweh." This limitation will now change. Continuity with the past rests in the covenant made with their forefathers ( 6:4-5 ), but full revelation of the name will involve liberation from the slavery of Egypt, redemption by God's own mighty deeds, election as his people, relational knowledge of Yahweh as their God, and the completion of the promises involving the inheritance of a land ( 6:6-8 ). Although the people are not impressed with this report, the book records the fulfillment of the speech and thus the revelation of the full capacity of this deity, Yahweh.
The ten plagues display the power of Yahweh. Nature bows under the will of this God. Each plague becomes more dangerous. They come in waves of three, the third one confirming the previous two. Although the Pharaoh's magicians imitate some of the plagues, human powers soon fade.
The conflict with Pharaoh, and probably with all that he stands for, is emphasized by the narrative. Almost every plague account notes the obstinate attitude of Pharaoh, an attitude that outwardly may give in to the danger of the moment, but resurfaces when the plague abates. God uses this hardness for his purposes (see Exodus 7:13 Exodus 7:22 ; Exodus 8:15 Exodus 8:19 Exodus 8:32 ; Exodus 9:7 Exodus 9:12 Exodus 9:35 ; Exodus 10:20 Exodus 10:27 ). What are those purposes? The narrative recounts one purpose with the words: "The Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh" ( 7:5 ; 8:22 ; Exodus 9:14 Exodus 9:16 ; 10:1-2 ). God's Acts point to a reality who is able to work in powerful ways. Of course, Israel would also see this deity at work. A second purpose emerges in the direct contrast of Egypt's gods and Yahweh. Each plague addresses a deity of Egypt's pantheon (some five hundred to two thousand gods), including the tenth plague against the firstborn son ( 12:12 ). Yahweh is God of gods.
Liberation from oppression results from the contest. Israel leaves Egypt. A pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, representing the presence of the Lord, lead them. The Egyptians follow and attempt to destroy them by the Sea of Reeds (chap. 14). Instead, deliverance comes from Yahweh through the parting of the sea. The Egyptian army drowns when they try to follow. Their words before destruction explain the intent of the events: "for Yahweh is fighting for them against Egypt" ( 14:25 ). The Lord "saves" Israel; he "is a warrior, " fighting for the people of Israel ( 14:30 ; 15:3 ). As a result, the people believe in Yahweh and in his servant, Moses ( 14:31 ). Chapter 15 recounts in song the victory of the Lord.
God continues to provide for them as they march toward Mount Sinai. When they suffer from bitter water at Marah and no water at Rephidim, God provides ( Exod 15:22-27 ; 17:1-7 ). When the Amalekites attack, the Lord again fights for them ( 17:8-13 ). At last, they arrive at Mount Sinai and experience the presence of the Lord in a theophany of lightning and storm (chap. 19). The people "fear" God as they prepare to meet him through the intermediary role of Moses. This deity is their God, and they are now to meet him.
As God's people, Israel must be responsible to the covenant stipulations given at the mountain. Israel agrees to obey ( 19:8 ). After the covenant commandments and ordinances are presented, the covenant is established with blood sprinkled on the people ( 24:8 ).
Relationship with Yahweh requires obedience. No other rationale is given except that the Lord requires it. A survey of the Ten Words or Commandments ( 20:1-17 ) and the "Book of the Covenant" (20:22-23:33) indicates that God's instructions cover both vertical and horizontal dimensions, involving both correct attitudes and actions toward God and toward humanity. Every area of life must yield to the relationship of covenant with the Lord, so family, social, individual, and corporate rights are presented.
While Moses and Joshua remain on the mountain to receive the tablets of Words, the people act in rebellion by making a golden calf for worship and leadership ( 32:1 ). The covenant is broken within forty days after it is initiated. After all the Lord has done for Israel, they turn away. As a result of their idolatry, God threatens to abandon Israel ( 32:7-10 ). Moses intercedes in behalf of his people ( 32:11-14 ; 33:12-16 ). He realizes that Israel is nothing without the Lord. In some inexplicable way, probably because of the covenant, God's character now is tied up with the destiny of Israel, God's people ( 33:13 ). God Acts in graciousness and does not destroy Israel ( 33:19 ; 34:6-7 ). The covenant is renewed ( 34:10-28 ).
On this occasion, Moses receives a special revelation of Yahweh's character. He requests a look at God's glory ( 33:18 ). The audacity of the request is overlooked, and Yahweh promises to reveal all his "goodness" ( 33:19 ). Whether the "glory" and the "goodness" are the same is not explained. But when Yahweh passes Moses on the mountain, six words or phrases are proclaimed that provide one of the fullest descriptions of the Lord's character, no matter whether glory or goodness. Yahweh is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, abounding in faithfulness, and forgiving ( 34:6-7 ).
Woven between the chapters on covenant and its breach stand the Lord's instructions on building a symbol of the presence of Yahweh in the midst of Israelthe tabernacle. Precise guidelines for the sanctuary's materials and the priest's garments are given. These instructions serve as the template for the actions of chapters 35-40 when it is erected.
The tabernacle fulfills the Lord's promise to dwell in the midst of Israel (cf. 6:8 ). It provides a place where worship and instruction take place. At Mount Sinai, the glory of the Lord came as smoke enveloped the mountain ( 24:16 ). But the mountain was not the permanent home for Israel; the sanctuary would move with Israel. The Lord would always be in the midst of his people by this dwelling.
When the tabernacle is dedicated, the glory of the Lord settles upon it ( 40:34 ). The book closes with the presence of Yahweh leading from the sanctuary. The God who met Moses at the burning bush (chap. 3) and the people on the mountain (chaps. 19-20) now resides in the midst of Israel.
Theological Reflections. The Book of Exodus is rich in theology. Its main significance lies in God's deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Confessions of faith and corporate worship in the Old Testament from this point on derive from the exodus events. Almost every part of the book yields reward to theological reflection. Some theological aspects stand out and must be noted.
"Name" Theology: Yahweh. In Israel, a name stood for character. The personal name of Israel's God is revealed in this book. Moses supposes that the people are going to ask God's name. What is he to say to them? His question assumes more than a name, for the name would answer what this deity could do for Israel. God answers, "I am who I am" ( 3:14 ), a sentence that continues to beg interpretation. In the context, the name signifies that this deity will act in behalf of Israel.
How will this God act? Yahweh's reassurance speech in Exodus 6 states that he exhibits continuity with his actions in the days of the patriarchs and will reveal himself more fully as a God who liberates from oppression, redeems, elects, establishes a relationship, and fulfills his promises ( 6:6-8 ).
Yahweh confirms his statements by action, evidenced by the events in the book. Pharaoh, the Egyptians, Moses, and the people of Israel witness the quality of the name. For this reason, the name is not to be used in an empty way, according to the third commandment ( 20:7 ). When God passes by Moses on the mountain, the proclamation begins with a twofold repetition, "Yahweh, Yahweh" ( 34:6 ), and is followed by theological terms that explain God's character of glory or goodness, all part of the content of who this deity is. Yahweh is the name of Israel's God with full meaning for them.
"Power of God" Theology. The Book of Exodus exudes the power of Yahweh. In the ten plagues, Yahweh pits his power against the power of Pharaoh. Each plague shows God's control of this world. Moses participates as the messenger because he has witnessed some miracles to affirm God's call ( 4:1-9 ).
Parting the Red Sea stands as a great example of God's power (chap. 14). The event not only saves Israel, but also destroys her enemies, the Egyptian army. Chapter 15 celebrates this power of God to bring victory (see 15:6 ; cf. "right arm" imagery in Isaiah ). Salvation comes from the mighty Acts of God, best seen in the parting of the sea.
In addition, God's provision for Israel shows his power. Water, manna, help in combat, and guidance display his abilities to provide for Israel's needs.
"Holiness" Theology. Exodus 15:11 asks, "Who is like you, majestic in holiness?" At the burning bush, Moses is warned to take off his sandals because the area is "holy ground" ( 3:5 ). Moral quality exemplifies this deity. The commandments assume God's holiness. In light of who God is, Israel is to be "a holy nation" ( 19:6 ), obeying the commandments and ordinances (see Leviticus and the word, "holy"). The Book of the Covenant (chaps. 21-23) outlines expectations for the extent of Israel's holiness: all of life must be lived in its light.
"Faithfulness" Theology. Exodus phrases God's faithfulness in terms of "remembrance." God remembered his covenant with the "fathers, " Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob ( 2:24 ; 3:6 ; 6:3 ). To remember his promises means that he Acts in light of his remembrance. In this case, he sends a deliverer (Moses) who will lead Israel to the land promised the patriarchs ( 6:8 ; 15:17 ).
God's promises to Moses and to the people of Israel also come true. The book records his faithfulness. In return, Israel is to be faithful to Yahweh. The first commandment states that they are to have "no other gods before" this deity ( 20:2 ). No idols or images are to replace this deity ( 20:4 ). After all, there are no other gods who can stand with this deity ( 15:11 ). Victory over the gods of Egypt confirms this viewpoint.
Israel's failure to be faithful to Yahweh leads to God's judgment ( Exodus 32:10 Exodus 32:28 Exodus 32:35 ). Israel knows that Yahweh is to be feared, for they witnessed his work in Egypt and experienced his presence on the mountain ( 20:19-20 ). However, their memory appears brief. God's anger may be averted by intercession ( 8:8 ; 32:30-34 ) and repentance holds the possibility of aversion of God's wrath, although Pharaoh does not do so in a meaningful way. Failure to obey may lead to a sin offering, an act that satisfies God ( 29:10-14 ). Atonement by blood cleanses the priests ( 29:35-37 ) and the people ( 24:6-8 ), satisfying God's wrath.
God holds Israel responsible for obeying his instructions. Psalms 78 and 106 recount what God did in the Book of Exodus and how Israel knew the commandments, but failed to obey. Relationship demands that both sides act faithfully.
"Salvation" Theology. God Acts to save Israel from their plight. Salvation has a tangible side, namely, deliverance from Egypt. God initiates his salvation by observing Israel's groanings ( 3:7 ). He then takes steps to realize change, first by choosing a deliverer (chap. 3) and then by bringing out the children of Israel from Egypt ( 15:13 ).
Redemption leads to a permanent relationship with the deity who worked for Israel. Although the redemption could be limited to political and economic conditions, as liberation theologians argue, the account in Exodus includes and goes beyond these areas. The relationship with their benefactor will impact their whole existence. "Covenant, " the biblical word that indicates the relationship, demands total commitment from both parties, though God has already worked and will prove faithful in the future. Remembrance of the way God has worked takes place in the festivals ( 23:14-17 ), the Passover being the one that rehearses the exodus events (chap. 13). The festivals say to Israel that the God who worked in the past will continue to work in the present and in the future.
Israel has been chosen by God ( 6:7 ). They are his people, and he is their God. He has brought them out of Egypt, saving them, and now asks for their obedience to his instructions ( 20:2 ). This establishes the covenant upon the foundation of God's actions, actions based on his choice and grace.
"Presence" Theology. The revelation of God's presence develops from hiddenness to a permanent site of presence, the tabernacle. The narrator indicates that God lurks in the background in the first two chapters. In chapter 3 the Lord speaks with Moses, revealing himself and his plans. He even dialogues with Moses, showing that he speaks in ways humans understand.
As the book unfolds, God's presence takes tangible directions with specific instructions to Moses in Egypt and at the mountain. Israel witnesses God's presence in the storm at Mount Sinai. As the people draw nearer to the deity who has been working in their behalf, they fear for themselves and ask Moses to continue to intercede for them ( 20:18-21 ). It is as though they need distance from God; presence draws near, but the people cannot take it. God continues to speak through Moses, but Israel is held responsible for the words from their leader.
To more clearly demonstrate God's presence, the tabernacle is built. The presence of God rests in the midst of Israel in the tabernacle. It veils God's presence in a way that the people can handle. Yahweh meets with Moses there. The people understand the implications because of the specific symbolism of the sanctuary in the center of the camp.
With Yahweh at their core, Moses as intermediary, and the people in covenant relationship, Israel may advance beyond the Book of Exodus to experience the Lord's will. The book begins the great adventure of a nation in relationship with their deity, Yahweh.
G. Michael Hagan
Bibliography. B. S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary; R. Alan Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary; J. J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt; T. Fretheim, Exodus.
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