An Introduction to the Book of Exodus
The Book of Exodus is the second of the five books of the Bible written by Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These five books are called the Torah by the Hebrews, which means “law” or “instruction.” The Greek name is Pentateuch which is derived by the Greek word for “Five.” The translated name of the book means “These are the generations” which are the words which begin the book. The Greeks called this book “Exodus” which is the same as in English. This word means “the way out” which is the central theme of the book. It records the liberation of the People of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Yahweh calls them out into the desert to lead them to the land He had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham.
Exodus has to be understood in its contexts. One of these is that the Torah was written to prepare the children of Israel for the occupation of the land of Canaan. Genesis sets up Exodus in telling the history of God from Creation until the journey of the sons of Jacob from Palestine. History gives identity to a group of people. In fact, when an enemy wants to destroy a people group, it first destroys its history. We see this happening in America today with the tearing down of statues, the failure to teach civics, and to replace the American History curriculum with the mostly fictitious 1619 project. The first gift of Yahweh to his people was to tell them their story. Genesis is a special kind of history. Men write history to establish their identity. The feminists were not happy with “his story,” so they added “her story.” History is a mixture of science and art. Certain themes are selected and others rejected to promote the narrative the historian wants to present.
God has a story as well. But unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey which mixes historical happenings with myth, God’s story does not contain myth. We are presented with real people who lived in real times. God’s story actually dispels commonly held myths of the people of the Ancient Near East and the practices derived from them. But the events are not an exhaustive history of the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for example. That book would take several lifetimes to read. God knows all the details just as He know us. Let this be sufficient. Rather, the narratives and other material in Genesis are selected to present a worldview for the Children of Israel. They had been in Egypt for 400 years. They had lost much of their identity there and also picked up Egyptian worldviews and identity. The Canaanites in the land they were going to also had their worldview and customs. For Israel to survive as a people, they would need their own distinctive identity. This is what would happen in the wilderness. They needed to know God’s story, not history or herstory. When we put together God and the old English work for story which is “spell,” we end up with “gospel.”
Genesis records Abraham having to go with Lot into Egypt because of a famine. There he falls into favor with Pharaoh. Bu later he falls out of favor due to his deception over Sarah. He is thrown out of Egypt and takes many riches with him. These riches would later become a snare and cause a division between Abraham and his nephew Lot. The Children of Israel would also find their spoiling of Egyptian goods to be a snare which led to the worship of the Golden Calf. This is just one of the examples how certain events were selected by God. History seems to repeat itself. What is necessary to learn from them. Abraham was one who lived his life between Babylon and Egypt. This also seems to be the history of the Children of Israel as well.
Genesis transitions smoothly into Exodus, even though hundreds of years had passed. Genesis ends with Joseph’s death. He gave command to have his bones taken to the family burian cave in Hebron, which was the only piece of real-estate owned by Abraham who had been given the promise of Canaan land for his descendants to live in. But instead of taking Joseph’s bones there, they mummified him and put him into a sarcophagus in Egypt. He wanted to be counted with his brethren in Canaan, but instead was given the rites of the Egyptians. So there is a sense of prophetic expectation at the end of Genesis. The story does not end by Joseph’s brethren failing him. Joseph’s bones would be taken home by Moses. His final identity would not be as an Egyptian but a Hebrew. God’s promise would come to pass, although not as fast as would be hoped. Likewise, in our lives, we don’t make the transition from our old man to the new man as quickly as we might like. Moses was raised in all the wisdom and learning of Egypt. We will see as we go through Exodus that God also prepared him his Israelite identity in having been given by Pharaoh’s daughter back to his own birth mother to nurse. In the end, Moses would identify with Israel and not Egypt.
A total of seventy-five people made the journey to Egypt to escape the famine. God had prepared Joseph beforehand in the most unusual of ways. It was a time of great trial for Joseph as he was a slave who would suffer wrongly and then be elevated to the highest position short of Pharaoh in Egypt. This anticipated the slavery of all of Israel in Egypt and the cruelties they would suffer.
When the Children of Israel came to Egypt, they were welcomed by Pharaoh. But now the text says that after a time, another Pharaoh arose which did not know Joseph or what he had done. The Greek translation for another is “heteros” and not “allos.” This means a different dynasty of Pharaohs and not just another Pharaoh of the same line. It is hard for us to pinpoint the events of the Bible into Egyptian history. The Egyptians were fond of cancelling historical events that were embarrassing to their narrative. For all we thought we know about Egyptian history, we were amazed to find out that there was actually a female Pharaoh in Egypt. Her own son hated her, and had her cartouche and history expunged from their history and monuments. This Pharaoh was ambushed by the Hittites at the battle of Har Megiddo (Armageddon in English) and barely escaped disaster. Yet he would go back and carve out his triumph in the Temple of Karnack in which he singlehandedly saved his army from defeat through his massive strength and bravery. Certainly, the Egyptians would have been careful to expunge any account of the Exodus.
Having said this, there are a couple of events which may allow us to pinpoint the stay of Israel in Egypt. The first of these involves the time in which the Hyskos, a Semitic group ruled over lower Egypt. These would have been close kin to Joseph and might explain why Pharaoh was kind to Joseph. Then two Egyptian brothers overthrew the Hyskos This would have put the Israelites out of favor and explain their enslavement. Another connection might involve the Pharaoh Akhenaten who became a monotheist. Even though his monotheistic beliefs were different than Israel’s, they seem to have occurred during the time Israel was in Egypt. Both of these seem to favor the literal chronology of the Bible. Scholars want to place a later date under Rameses the Great. One of the cities the Children of Israel were tasked to build was Rameses. However, Rameses the Great was not the first Rameses, and one should be careful to assume that just because Rameses was a great builder, that this city was commissioned by him as well. We get entangled by our own experience and Hollywood myths as well. As spectacular as “The Ten Commandments” appeared, the idea that the Israelites built the pyramids had no biblical foundation. In fact, recent evidence seems to reveal that the pyramids were built by Egyptian craftsmen and engineers and not by slaves. We must be careful to stick with what the Bible says and not mix our own myth back into the story.
We have looked into the Israelite as well as the historical contexts. What we need to do now as Christians is to find the Christian context of Exodus. First of all, we need to realize the great amount of overlap between the Old and New Testaments. The history of Israel is our history as well. We have our differences in the application of this history but not the history itself. Jesus himself was grounded in the history of Israel. After all, He is the author of it. It was His fingers who wrote the tables of the Law on Mt. Sinai. He is the Yahweh of the Old Testament, the visible member of the Holy Trinity. This same Jesus who in John say “Search the Scriptures, for in them you think they have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me.” Jesus would later open the eyes of his disciples to show how the Old Testament testifies to Jesus. This is a layer of context not shared by the Jews of today, even though it was written for them also.
So when we look through the Book of Exodus, we affirm the historical characters we meet. These were not myths. But they also serve as signs. They point to a greater fulfillment. We know of a greater Passover and a greater Promised Land. We are led by the second Moses which the first Moses prophesied of. In the same way that the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were of instructional value to the Children of Israel, for which to Torah was originally written, the Exodus also informs us as well.
We don’t live, at least most of you reading this, in the Land of Egypt. But we live in worldly culture. The wisdom and learning of the Egyptians are still here with us today, even though this does not appear on the surface. We pride ourselves as knowing so much more than the ancients, but as it says in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” We do not go out into the desert as Israel did. Rather, God has called us to be witnesses in Egypt. We are immersed in the culture of this world and are threatened to be swallowed by the same. We need to keep a distinct Christian identity and teach it to our children as well. What would be far more tragic than the words: “in those days a Pharaoh arose which did not know Joseph” would be the words: “There arose a generation which did not know God.” Exodus teaches that the wisdom of Egypt must bow before the wisdom of God. At first, the magicians could replicate what Moses did, but then God stopped that. God made a distinction even in Egypt between his people and the Egyptians. We must heed this ourselves.
Much talk is made of “social distancing” today in this latest outbreak of the Coronavirus. But there is a virus so much greater than this called worldliness and sin. This plagues our church and must be purged. We must be socially distant from the secular worldview. We need to be distinct, all the more because we are immersed in the world’s culture. In this, we can learn much from Exodus.