Each month, the Big Bible Project takes a book of the Bible as a theme for posts. This series acts as a tourist information point, highlighting some of the best-known parts of each book of the Bible and drawing attention to some hidden gems which you might not have thought to explore!
Enslaved in Egypt, the Hebrew people don’t seem to be living much like God had promised them they would be. Abraham was to spawn a large nation, which would be given a rich land to inhabit and would enjoy the blessings of life under God’s commandments.
We pick up the story in Exodus as the people have been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, unable to worship God freely because of the oppression of their captors. But God has heard their cries and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (2:24) and he will act to rescue them. Choosing the least likely national leader yet (almost killed as a child; grew up in the heart of the establishment; killed a man in revenge and covered his tracks; fled to pagan lands for decades) God uses Moses to set his captive people free.
What then happens is a series of events which show exactly what it looks like for God to save his people. Through the drama of the plagues, the loss of the firstborn son, the sacrifice of the lamb, the mighty hand of God, the Hebrews are freed from slavery. And then, even as they are being given God’s instruction for their conduct as a society, they rebel against his rule and worship a calf idol of gold.
Exodus, then, tells us how God effects his salvation, and shows us the consequences of our rebellion against him.
Historical and Literary context
Tradition holds Exodus to be one of the five “Books of Moses” (the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Most scholars would suggest a later date. What is certain is that the material in Exodus has informed, and in many ways defined, the life and practice of the Israelite people. Jesus was deeply conscious of his role in effecting a new Exodus by which he redeemed the world, and richly drew on this book in his life and teaching.
The scene is iconic. A Moses basket (£35 from Mothercare) floats gently down the Nile into the loving arms of a surrogate mother (chapter 2). The narrative here isn’t all pastel colours and rock-a-bye baby, though. It’s one of infanticide and imminent peril. Every Hebrew boy was to be executed by a vicious politcal regime, and our main protagonist is sailing unwittingly right into the heart of the establishment which would have him killed simply for his sex and ethnicity. The drama and brutality is shocking, but even more shocking is the role of the women in this narrative. (For, while this is not the place to go into the depiction of women in the Bible, the women here are legendary.) The Hebrew midwives bravely faced down the authorities and protected the weakest God had placed into their care. Pharoah’s daughter was moved to compassion as she took in Moses and he became her son. Her slave girl nurtured him. Heroes, the lot of them.
The burning bush, of course, is well-known precisely because it didn’t burn (chapter 3). God announced his plan to rescue and prosper his people in a powerful sign to Moses. Notice, though, the timing of the burning bush incident. It came a long time after Moses had been miraculously rescued. God had been acting in preparation for a long time already. It also came after Moses’s unfortunate incident in which he killed an Egyptian. God was preparing to use a flawed person to bring about his rescue. But it came long before the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea; decades, perhaps. God’s promises were made and his intentions clear, but the time was not yet right for him to act in power. Perhaps Israel wasn’t ready; perhaps Egypt wasn’t ready – Moses certainly wasn’t ready. God worked in his own time, in his wisdom, but in the meantime there was absolutely no doubt that he would act and with glorious success.
The ten plagues of Egypt (chapters 7-11) are well-known, although it’s always a challenge to name all ten unprompted! Scientific or naturalistic ‘explanations’ for each of the plagues abounds: the seasons; the climate; an eclipse. As it happens, the Egyptian magicians sought to recreate the plagues (7:22) in order to explain them away as tricks or illusions. Their aim was to demonstrate that the God who was behind the plagues was an illusion, too. As you read through these chapters, though, you are left in no doubt that God is in control of events. He is building Moses and Aaron up in leadership and he is hardening Pharoah’s heart against him. The court magicians have no answer for the Passover.
The Passover (chapter 12) is the central drama of the Exodus story, and stands as the main celebration of the Jewish calendar. The parting of the Red Sea (chapters 13-14) is a hugely significant miracle, demonstrating God’s suspension of the laws of nature to bless his people and judge his enemies. These stories reward a careful read. But don’t leap straight from the Passover to the Red Sea without spotting what happens in between (chapters 12-13). There, between leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, the people were told to consecrate their firstborn. They were to be redeemed each year, in perpetuity. In other words, the Passover was not enough to save the people from their sins. It was not enough to allow them to live in God’s promised peace. The Passover invites us to ask, ‘where is the lamb who will save us forever?’ The Passover is a kind of proto-gospel story, effecting for now what Jesus would effect for ever. It is not for nothing that John, in his gospel, drenches the passion narratives in the setting of the Passover. ‘Behold,’ says John of Jesus, ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29).
The Ten Commandments (chapter 20) are some of the best-known but most challenging verses of the Bible. What do you make of the requirement to have no other God before the Lord? What of not giving false testimony? What of not coveting our neighbours’ possessions? The challenge is set. The bar is high. But there is grace: the commandments begin with verse 2, not verse 3. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” In other words, God has already saved you: therefore, here is how you ought to live. The commandments are radical; extreme, even. But no more radical or extreme than the God of grace who saved us from our slavery to sin.
Reading the story of the Golden Calf (Chapters 32-34) is like getting punched squarely in the chest. Just as Moses is receiving God’s instructions to the people for how they ought to live and worship together, they melt down their earrings and attribute their redemption to a calf of gold. Moses has to plead with God three times as the whole future of the nation hangs in the balance. But despite the people’s unfaithfulness, God is faithful to his promises. Moses calls on his unchanging character as he intercedes, and he declares himself ‘compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…’ (34:6). When we turn away from God each day despite his blessings to us, this is the kind of God we pray to in repentance. And he is indeed compassionate and gracious.
Under the surface
Aside from the grand themes of redemption and freedom, one main strand runs inescapably through Exodus: God is with us. He is there in the burning bush (chapter 3); he appears in the sight of the people (chapter 19); in front of the leaders (chapter 24); in showing his glory to Moses (chapter 34); in the tabernacle (chapter 40). God did not just unlock the chains of the Hebrew slaves: he prepared them for and nurtured them in their freedom. He redeemed them, then pitched his tent among them. So it is for us, who trust in the salvation that comes through Jesus. He has not just flicked a switch to save us from Hell; we have not just ‘prayed the prayer’ and got an IOU that gets us into heaven when we die. Rather, he has prepared us for redemption, paid the ransom himself, and come to live in us by his Spirit as we seek to live new lives as free people. How do we marry that with the knowledge of the golden calves we’ve set up in our own lives? That’s the question that spurs us headlong into Leviticus.
Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (3:6)
“In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’ And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” (13:14-16)
The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord. (19:8)
And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (20:1-3)
He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (32:4)
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (34:5-7)
Editor’s Note: The plan is to produce these before the start of the next month, to give inspiration for following posts.