Exodus is the story of the biggest escape in history. Over two million slaves escape from one of the most highly fortified nations in the entire world. It is humanly impossible, an extraordinary story, and it features a series of miracles, including some of the best known in the whole Bible. The leader of the Israelites at the time was a man named Moses. He saw more miracles than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob put together – in some places a number following one after another as God intervened on behalf of his people. Some of the miracles sound a bit like magic, for example when Moses’ stick turns into a snake, but most of them are clear manipulations of nature, as God proves his power over all that he has made for the good of his people.
The original Hebrew title for Exodus was “These are the names”, these being the first words of the book to appear on the scroll when the priest came to read them. Our name “Exodus” comes from the Greek ex-hodos – literally ex: “out”, hoddos: “way” (similar to the Latin word exit), “the way out”.
The whole event of the Exodus had a profound significance on two fronts.
First, it had national significance for the people of Israel. It marked the beginning of their national history. They received their political freedom and became a sovereign nation in their own right. Though they did not yet have a land they were a nation with a name of their own: “Israel”. So central was this event that ever since then its celebration has been written into their national calendar. Just as Americans celebrate their independence on 4 July, so every March/April the Jews celebrate the Exodus. They eat the Passover meal and recount the mighty acts of God.
Second, it had spiritual significance. The Israelites discovered that their God was the God who made the whole universe and could control what he had made for their sake. They came to believe that their God was more powerful than all the gods of Egypt put together. Later they would come to realize that their God was the only God who existed (see especially the prophecies of Isaiah).
The truth that God was more powerful than every other god was made clear by the name which God gave to himself. His “formal” title was El-Shaddai, God Almighty, but it is in the book of Exodus that the nation was given his personal name. Just as knowing a person’s name enables a human relationship to become more intimate, when they discovered God’s name Israel could enter into a more intimate relationship with him.
In English we translate the name as “Yahweh”, though there are no vowels in the Hebrew – strictly speaking it should simply be Y H W H. The name is a participle of the verb “to be”. We saw in our study of Genesis that “always” is an English word which communicates how the Jews would have understood it. God is the eternal one without beginning or end – “always”. This is his first name, but he has many second names too: “Always my provider”, “Always my helper”, “Always my protector”, “Always my healer”.
In the book of Exodus we are also presented with the extraordinary truth that the creator of everything becomes the redeemer of a few people. The word “redemption” includes the idea of releasing the kidnapped when the ransom price has been paid. This is how Israel was to understand her God. He was the creator of the universe and also the redeemer of his people. Both aspects are important if we are to learn to know God as he is revealed in the Bible.
Exodus is one of the five books which Moses wrote. Genesis deals with events before his lifetime and Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy tell of events during his lifetime. These books are crucial to the life of Israel as they record the foundations of the nation. They are also foundational to the whole Old Testament. This group of slaves needed to know who they were and how they came to be a nation.
We saw in our study of Genesis how Moses collected two things from the people’s memories: genealogies and stories about their ancestors. The book of Genesis is entirely made up of such memories. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are different, comprising a mixture of narrative and legislation. The narrative describes the Israelites’ move from Egypt through the wilderness and into the land of Canaan. The legislation reflects what God said to them concerning how they should live. It is this unique combination of narrative and legislation that characterizes these other four books of Moses.
Exodus itself is part narrative and part legislation. The first half details what God did on the Israelites’ behalf to get them out of slavery. The second half describes what God said about how they were to live now that they were free. The first half demonstrates God’s grace towards them in getting them out of their problems. The second half shows that God expects them to show their gratitude for that grace by living his way. This emphasis is important. Too many people read the law of Moses thinking that it shows how they can be accepted by God. They get it the wrong way round. The people of Israel were redeemed by God, then they were given the law to keep as an expression of gratitude. This principle is the same in the New Testament: Christians are redeemed and then told how to live holy lives. To use theological jargon, justification comes before sanctification. We do not become Christians by living right first, but by being redeemed and liberated and then living right. The liberation comes before the legislation.
In Exodus the Israelites’ liberation takes place in Egypt and the legislation takes place at Mount Sinai, as they travel to Canaan. Here they respond to God’s covenant commitment to them. The covenant takes the form of a wedding service. God says “I will” (be your God if you obey me) and then the people have to say “We will” (be your people and obey you).