Fundamental to understanding the bible is understanding the worldview from which it is written. Without proper knowledge and understanding of who wrote the bible and whom it was written for, we believers will struggle to grasp how it continues to be relevant to us as in the present day. In my opinion, the book of Exodus is one of the most helpful books of the bible for understanding the worldview of the Israelite people because the Exodus from Egypt was one of the central events to the founding of the kingdom of Israel. Therefore this story more than any other shaped the way that the Israelites knew YHWH (Yahweh).
In addition to helping to further understand the worldview of the Israelites, Exodus is a book which contains many themes that span the entire bible. Therefore understanding Exodus will advance knowledge of the entire Bible and how it is one big (true) story. With this in mind, here are eight (yes, eight!) of the key themes from the book of Exodus which are central to the biblical narrative.
1. The Messiah
At the beginning of Exodus Moses emerged as the key leader of the Israelite people. He was a prophet that communicated the word of God, bringing forth God’s law from Mt Sinai to teach the people how to walk in obedience to God. Moses also performed miracles through displays of power and supernatural provision and delivered the people from their slavery to the Egyptians. Furthermore, he was without the natural gifting or charisma that would position him for such a role of leadership. Moses went on to say just before his death in Deuteronomy 18 that God would raise up a prophet like himself from among the Israelites whose words must be listened to. This foreshadowed the role that Jesus would play as the Messiah of Israel, being a leader cast in the mould of Moses.
These “echoes” in the scriptures would have been discernible to the ears of the Israelites who grew up hearing the stories of old…
Jesus also was a prophet that communicated the word of God. He reinterpreted the Law to the people at the Sermon on the Mount, explaining what it was meant to achieve in the people of God; and he also performed signs, wonders and miracles before the people. His life, death and resurrection would also be the means of deliverance for not just the Israelites, but for all mankind from the power of sin. And like Moses, Jesus had nothing about him in the natural that would make him stand out as a leader (see Isaiah 53:2).
There are other notable similarities in the lives of Jesus and Moses that can be observed. God speaks to Moses from a cloud on Mount Sinai so that the people will hear the voice of God and trust him (Exodus 19:9); and God also speaks to Jesus from a cloud at his baptism and at the transfiguration – with emphasis to Peter, James and John of the importance of listening to Jesus. Even the attempt of Herod to try to kill Jesus among the male infants of Bethlehem in Matthew 2 mirrors the way that Pharaoh killed the Hebrew male infants in Exodus 1 and 2.
These “echoes” in the scriptures would have been discernible to the ears of the Israelites who grew up hearing the stories of old, making it easier for them to recognise that he was the promised prophet and messiah that Moses represented and foretold.
2. The Passover
There are many ways in which The Passover alludes to specific details in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion
Perhaps the greatest foreshadow and allusion found within the Old Testament is that of The Passover in Exodus 12. The last plague that God pronounced upon the Egyptian people was the death of every firstborn throughout the land. From the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the Egyptians livestock, all were to be struck down by this plague. The Israelites were treated differently from the Egyptians, however. God commanded the Israelite people to sacrifice a lamb or a kid (young goat) and smear the blood of this sacrifice upon the tops and sides of the doorposts of their houses. This would distinguish them from the Egyptians. Whenever the Angel of Death sent by God saw the blood of the Passover lamb on an Israelite’s house, it would pass over this house and its inhabitants would be spared from suffering the same fate as the Egyptians.
Therefore it was by the sacrifice and blood of the Passover Lamb that the Israelites were spared from the final plague. It was the blood of the lamb (or kid) that covered them and bought their passage out of slavery in Egypt. This is an allusion to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus, and how his blood covers our sins and spares our lives from the destruction that we deserved.
Paying close attention to the instructions given by God for the sacrifice, there are many ways in which The Passover alludes to specific details in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The animal that was sacrificed was to be a male without defect (v 5), and Jesus was a man who was perfect and without sin. None of the sacrifice was to be left till morning (v 10), and Jesus died and was buried before morning. None of the bones of the animal were to be broken (v 46), and Jesus did not have his legs broken to speed up his death like the criminals who were crucified either side of him. Furthermore, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a town which for centuries had been raising Passover lambs which were sacrificed in the Temple, and Jesus, himself, was crucified at the time of The Passover festival.
When the Hebrew listeners heard the accounts of the crucifixion, they would have been reminded of The Passover and that God had used this as a means of foretelling Jesus’ death many years prior. This would have helped cement the truth that Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t an accident, but that it was God’s plan to redeem a fallen world.
3. God revealing Himself to mankind
God always intended for us to know Him and to be close to Him. Before The Fall Adam and Eve knew God and dwelled in His presence, walking with Him in the Garden in the cool of the day. But after The Fall, people drifted away from God and the intimacy that was once shared with Him was lost. God set about restoring this relationship and revealed Himself to Moses and to the Israelites and in a way that surpassed the knowledge of God held by the Patriarchs.
God chose to reveal Himself and His character to the Israelite people because He wanted them to know Him and to trust Him
In chapter 3 of Exodus God appears to Moses from the burning bush and commissions him to be the spokesperson for the Israelite people and to appear before Pharaoh. One of the questions Moses asks of God in reply is, ‘If the Israelites ask for your name, what do I tell them?’From the eyes of a 21st Century Westerner this hold little significance. Of all things to ask of God, why ask for His name? Why is that of utmost importance instead of other more straightforward questions like, how are you going to deliver us from the oppression of the Egyptians? To answer simply, names held more significance in biblical times than they do today.
Biblical names were more than just something to call someone, the name itself was often closely associated with the character of the person in question. A name would ascribe character, often prophetically, stating what the person was like and they way they would act. A good example of this is Jacob. The name Jacob translates from Hebrew as, ‘he grasps at the heel’, which is an idiom meaning someone who deceives. We see this displayed in the early life of Jacob in the way that he deceived his father and brother to claim blessings for himself. After Jacob wrestles with God he is given the name, Israel, by God. Israel in Hebrew means ‘he struggles with God’. Jacob was given this name as he had struggled with God and humans and had overcome them (Genesis 32:28). The old deceptive character of Jacob had been replaced by the new spiritual and victorious character of Israel through the name he was given.
Returning now to Exodus 3, Moses asks God what His name is, and in effect, what He is like. God responds by saying that His name is Yahweh: ‘I AM WHO I AM’ or ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE’. The name of God is an emphatic declaration of His unchanging and eternal character. He is the same God yesterday, today and forever. He can be relied upon because He is unchanging and consistent. This revelation that God gives to Moses is the first time within scripture that we see God share His name with mankind. He chose to reveal Himself and His character to the Israelite people because He wanted them to know Him and to trust Him. He wanted to restore the intimacy He once shared with people in the Garden of Eden; He wanted people to be close to Him once again. This theme is central to the bible, meaning that today is no different: God still wants people to know Him and be close to Him.
4. A people after God’s own heart
Although all of the heavens, all of the earth and all that is within them is His, God always wanted a people after His own heart. Despite laying claim to all people by being their creator, God wanted a people who would willingly choose to be His possession and act in accordance to His ways. He revealed Himself to the Israelites and saved them from their oppression and slavery so that they would choose Him to be their God just like their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did. ‘I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.’ Exodus 6:7.
Israel was the prototype, the chosen people who would pursue a life with God. They were instructed to live a completely different lifestyle to the surrounding people. They had a different diet, wore different clothing and observed different cultural and spiritual practices to show that they were distinct. But because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, the way is now open for not just one ethnic group, but for all to come and know God. God invites people from all countries, classes, ethnicities and backgrounds to be His people and for Him to be their God. He is still looking for a people after His own heart – a people set apart from the world who will choose to live in accordance to His ways.
1 Peter 2:9-10, ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.’
5. The vulnerability of God
God poured His heart so readily and so fully into His people, that when they betrayed Him by making The Golden Calf to worship instead of Him, He was devastated
In Exodus 32 we find a story about God that is harder to read. The people of Israel, after seeing that Moses has not returned from the summit of Mount Sinai, decide to fashion a God for themselves. They approach Aaron who takes their gold earnings and casts an idol in the shape of a calf, proclaiming to the people, ‘This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.’ God, still speaking to Moses on the mountain, says that he ought to go back down to the people who have turned away from Him. He confides in Moses and says that He wishes to destroy them in His anger and make him into a great nation instead.
What this story illustrates is that God has made Himself so vulnerable to us that our sin and disobedience deeply hurt and offend Him. As a passionate lover, God made Himself completely vulnerable to the one He loved. He poured His heart so readily and so fully into His people, that when they betrayed Him by making The Golden Calf to worship instead of Him, He was devastated. After everything that He had done for Israel – taking them out of Egypt and leading them by the hand through the wilderness – they still turned their back on Him and made a “god” for themselves. This hurt God deeply and He was grieved to the point where He was ready to destroy all of the people and make a great nation out of Moses instead.
God has given us the choice to love Him or not. He doesn’t impose His love upon us at all, but let’s us decide for ourselves whether we will follow Him
God’s vulnerability to mankind would meet its climax in the person of Jesus. The fullness of God became constrained within the weaknesses and limits of humanity, as Jesus, the son of God, laid aside his divinity and took on flesh. God lived among His people as a man and sought to reconcile them to Himself. He came to offer up his life willingly – being beaten, humiliated, shamed and rejected by the ones he came to save. Finally he was crucified, taking the punishment we deserved upon himself and opening up the way for us to know God if we choose to accept Jesus’ sacrifice. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ 2 Corinthians 5:21.
Here again God made Himself vulnerable to our rejection of Him and the life He has offered us. We have the choice to accept Him or reject Him. God has given us the choice to love Him or not. He doesn’t impose His love upon us at all, but let’s us decide for ourselves whether we will follow Him. And if we do choose to reject Him, it grieves Him deeply because He has made Himself completely vulnerable to us.
6. God’s enduring faithfulness amidst man’s rebellion
The events of Exodus 32 discussed above also demonstrate a pattern which will persist throughout the entire bible: God continues to remain faithful amidst the ongoing disobedience and rebellion of mankind. Whist being the chosen people of God, Israel’s obedience to God was consistently volatile, yo-yoing between the passionate pursuit of Him and the unfaithfulness of worshipping idols. Moments of faithfulness were fleeting and were followed by prolonged periods of prostitution to foreign gods – something that would characterise Israel as a nation. But despite all of this, God’s love and passion for Israel maintained its intensity and He stayed faithful to them through it all, just like He does for us.
We are all broken and flawed people who have turned away from God. Romans 3:22-23 says, ‘There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. We have all fallen short of God and His goodness. We have all rebelled against Him and gone our own way. We are all in need of a saviour because we cannot attain perfection through our own means. Thankfully God remains faithful to us when we don’t deserve Him to:
‘You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Romans 5:6-8.
God has continually remained faithful to the unfaithful throughout time, evidenced in scripture and the lives of believers today. Because of our failings we are completely undeserving of His love, but in His grace and mercy, we receive forgiveness of sins and adoption into His family because of His faithfulness and goodness to us regardless.
7. God’s provision
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…”
Having previously written an article on God’s provision in the book of Exodus (which can be found here), I shall brush over this theme briefly. God supernaturally provided for all of the needs of the Israelites while they wandered through the desert for forty years. He provided manna and quail for food, twice provided a stream of fresh water from a rock and even ensured that the clothing and footwear that they were wearing did not decay and wear out. All the provisions the Israelite people needed to survive were met by God and they lacked nothing.
When teaching about worry in the Sermon On The Mount, Jesus says to the people, ‘”Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? … So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”‘ (Matthew 6:25, 31-33).
Jesus mentioned the same three things that God had supernaturally provided to the Israelites in the wilderness – food, drink and clothing – so that he could reinforce the understanding of the listeners who would have been familiar with this story. Recalling God’s faithfulness to their ancestors, they would be reminded that they too can trust Him to provide for them. And because God was faithful to the people of Israel we can and should trust Him to be faithful to provide for all of the needs that we have in our life. God supernaturally provided food, drink and clothing for an entire nation while they wandered through the desert for forty years, surely He is equipped to provide any needs we have.
8. The importance of the presence
‘If we are not full of Him we have nothing to offer to anyone else.’
In Exodus 33:15-16 Moses says to God, ‘“If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”’
The implication of these words is that our relevance as believers is entirely dependent upon the presence of God in us.
Jesus told his disciples after he had risen from the dead and before he had ascended to the right hand of the Father that they needed to wait in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high. The fact that the disciples were commanded to wait until they had received the Holy Spirit before they fulfilled the instructions left by Jesus indicates how essential the presence of God is to functioning as a believer.
If we can function without His presence, then it is likely that we have gone astray from our calling.
There was no way that they would have been able to perform the miracles and feats that they did without the presence of God, and likewise there is no way that we will be able to fulfil the Great Commission in Matthew 28 without it either. The presence of God is not an optional extra, but rather it is the essential component of our walk with God, for it is only by the presence of God that we are able to live the way that Christ intended us to live. If we can function without His presence, then it is likely that we have gone astray from our calling. We need His presence and so does the world.
What the world desperately needs, whether it is conscious of it or not, is the presence of God. As Heidi Baker once said, ‘If we are not full of Him we have nothing to offer to anyone else.’ Whilst we are able to contribute to society in positive ways outside of His presence, if we as the people of God are not characterised by the presence of God, then we have nothing unique to offer the world. It is only the presence of God that distinguishes us from all of the other people who inhabit the earth, and it is only the presence of God that can transform lives, cities and nations. Only Jesus can make something beautiful out of something broken like that.
If you have managed to get this far through this article, hopefully you have seen that the book of Exodus is rich in teaching and in life, and in many ways, establishes themes that will span the length of the scriptures. I pray that you may be inspired to search out the Bible in its entirety – not just the New Testament – for the truth that it holds, knowing that in the process, you will find life and God himself.
A big thanks to Ryan White for his editorial and advisory contribution to this article.