The book of Genesis ends with the sons of Jacob living peacefully in Egypt, where Joseph has provided for them and their families through his position as viceroy of Egypt. It would be easy to imagine Joseph and his brothers picturing a long, comfortable future flourishing among the riches of Egypt. But Joseph, though his hard-won wisdom and trust in God, sees by faith a different future:
And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”
Egypt is not to be the home of the Israelites. The promises God made to Abraham and his descendants must be fulfilled, which means that the Israelites will at some point go out from Egypt and return to the land of Canaan. They will not return as nomads living in tents like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but as residents who will live in and rule the land. Still, two questions remain: when will this happen, and how?
Characters and Themes
Think for a second about what it means to be an American. Probably words like “freedom” or “equality” come to mind. You may think of a phrase from the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence or the Star-Spangled Banner. These defining features that unify us were made explicit and embedded into the American psyche during the formation of the United States. This is why debates about what the founding fathers believed continue to carry so much weight, despite the fact they lived almost 250 years ago. They are really debates about what it means to be American.
The book of Exodus functions in a similar way for the people of Israel. Since it is the origin story of the nation of Israel, the events and characters in the book are going to help define what it means to be an Israelite. So it’s going to be very important for our reading of the rest of the Bible to understand the characters and themes that form the identity of this Israelite people that we will be following throughout the Old and New Testament.
First, we need to mention the George Washington of the story, Moses. Moses is the first and greatest Old Testament leader of the Israelite people. He is not only the leader of the Israelites through the Exodus and their wanderings in the wilderness, but he is the also the person who mediates the relationship between God and the Israelites. His position is so unique that Deuteronomy 34:10 says that there has not arisen a prophet like Moses in Israel since his death. Since Moses is the archetype of a great Israelite leader, it is important to notice as you read what is it that makes Moses great, and what patterns he laid down to establish what it means to be a great leader in Israel.
Though Moses is the main human actor in Exodus, the story is unrelentingly focused on God. It is God who hears the cries of the Israelites, and who appoints Moses (despite his protestations) to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. It is to show God’s power and glory over the gods of the Egyptians that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened during the plagues. And it is to forge the relationship between God and Israel that God delivers Israel from Egypt the way that he does: through miraculous works of power.
Indeed, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt is such a defining event in the relationship between God and Israel that when God gives the preamble to the Ten Commandments, explaining why he has the authority and relationship to order these commands, he says “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2). Over and over throughout the Old Testament, God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt will be the event that the Israelites are called to remember. This will be critical in the formation of Israel as the people of God. Remembrance in the Old Testament is not simply about recalling a fact or event; it is building one’s life and identity on a historic reality. This remembrance/identify formation happens through the special instructions on worship and corporate life that are outlined in Exodus.
Exodus answers these questions for us. If Genesis is the origin story of creation and the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), Exodus is the origin story of the nation of Israel. Up to this point, God has worked among and revealed himself to mostly individuals: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Now, God will establish a relationship with a whole nation of people, the descendants of Israel.
The establishment of this relationship is going to play out in five parts of the book. The first section, Exodus 1-12, describes the raising up of Moses, the greatest leader in Israel’s history, and God’s deliverance of the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. Chapters 13-18 show the Israelites in a highly transitional (and vulnerable) time, wandering in the wilderness coming out of Egypt heading for Mount Sinai, where God will meet with them. The third section, Exodus 19-24 takes place at Mount Sinai, where God meets the Israelites as a raging storm and establishes his covenant with them. Exodus 25-31, the fourth section, focuses on the establishment of the Tabernacle, where the presence of God will dwell with the people. The final section, Exodus 32-40, will show us the fall and restoration of Israel as a result of their worshipping idols instead of God.
Religious Practice in Exodus
For modern readers, one of the most difficult features in reading Exodus is the sections establishing the religious practices of the Israelites, especially found in chapters 25-31, the instructions on how to build the Tabernacle. The book moves from a fairly quick paced, general narrative overview of Moses and the Israelites to super-specific, architectural details for an elaborate tent. Whenever Scripture shifts like this, it is important for us to ask, what is it trying to show us? Why is it going into this kind of detail?
For the Israelites, the presence of God with them was all-important. In Exodus 33, Moses pleads with God after the Israelites have disobeyed God, that his presence might continue to go with the people, otherwise they will be destroyed. This theme of the divine presence, and the tension of holy God being in the presence of sinful people is a thread all throughout Exodus. Moses learns the intimate name of God, Yahweh, at the burning bush, but before this intimate revelation he is asked to remove his sandals, because where he is standing is holy ground. God makes a covenant with Israel to be their God and they his people, but before the covenant is given the people are so terrified of God’s presence that they beg to move away from Mount Sinai where God is. How can God dwell with his people without his holiness consuming them?
The answer is the Tabernacle. As you are reading through the section describing the details of the Tabernacle, think back to the Genesis account, where God’s relationship with Adam and Eve was close. Look for symbols that take the listener back to that place. What did it require then, and what does it require now for God to be with people? What does the Tabernacle, its position in the camp, its design, and its features teach us about the relationship between God and sinful people? These will be critically important reflections on the theme of God’s presence that will continue throughout the Old Testament.