How and Why to Read Exodus in 2022
Christians have increasingly come under assault for violating prevailing cultural orthodoxy. Bakers, photographers, florists, and others have faced investigations, lawsuits, crippling fines, or ongoing harassment for refusing to participate in practices that affirm same-sex “marriage.” Professors, parents, and even students have been terminated, condemned, and punished for affirming the truth that biological sex is binary and immutable. In a recently decided Supreme Court decision, a football coach was fired simply for praying after the game.
Yet those persecuting Christians for practicing their faith don’t understand themselves to be oppressing Christians or offending religious liberty. They believe recent legal victories for Christians as violations of religious freedom. They understand themselves to be fulfilling a mission to “stop anyone from using their beliefs to harm others.” To them, religion is, and ought always to be, a private affair. When religion spills over into the public square, they believe, that’s when it becomes a problem. So, when Christians insist upon practicing their faith, not in thought or word, and not in church, but in their daily lives, they’re quick to sound the alarm.
In response to this hostile philosophy, Christians have two types of responses, which are appropriate in different contexts. One type of response appeals to commonly accepted defenses for religion in our pluralistic society — constitutional right, founding intent, the salutary social effects of religion and morality, the impossibility of compelling conscience, etc. — that are calculated to prevail in courts. But if that’s the only type of response we know how to give, Christians will soon find ourselves without a compelling reason to stand by our own religious beliefs.
Christians need a second type response to explain why we do and must live out our faith in everyday life. It may not be as persuasive to those who disagree with us, but, when push comes to shove, this reason explains why Christians do what we do, and why we can’t change because society wants us to do so. That reason, we can boldly proclaim, is: we know the God of Exodus.
The God of Exodus
In Exodus, God reveals himself to be, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7). He is so merciful, yet so just, that he is a mystery to our feeble minds. He is so self-sufficient, depending on no other, that he gives as his name, “I am who I am” (3:14).
As Moses records by the Holy Spirit, God remembers the suffering of the oppressed (2:23-25), raises up Pharoah to display his power over him (Ex. 9:16), endures the people’s grumbling (17:1-7), and listens to Moses’s intercession (Ex. 33:17). He gives his moral law to Moses, in detail. He also gives the plan for the tabernacle, in detail. Exodus is full of God displaying his glorious character, both in his mighty works and in his withholding judgment on a rebellious people.
Most importantly, instead of revealing himself to individuals as he did in Genesis, in Exodus God reveals himself to an entire people. All the people of Israel saw his plagues on the Egyptians (6-10), his marvelous provision of manna in the wilderness (16), and the smoke and thunder of Mount Sinai (19:16-19). They all ate the Passover (12:28), passed through the Red Sea (14:22), and swore a covenant to the Lord (24:3,7). For Christians who want to know more of God and meditate deeply on his character, Exodus is a wealth of riches.
Background of Exodus
Exodus is divided into two parts. In Chapters 1-18, God delivers his people out of slavery in Egypt. These chapters recount their cruel oppression at the hands of the Egyptians (1-2), God raising up a deliverer, Moses (3-5), and the famous 10 plagues (6-13), before God’s deliverance of Israel crescendos at the Red Sea (14). The people respond with a song of deliverance (15), but that ecstasy is short-lived. The people grumble and complain all the way to Mount Sinai, with Moses now acting as a mediator, and God graciously meeting their every need despite their miserable disposition towards him (16-18).
In Chapters 19-40, God meets with his people at Sinai (where they will be camped until Numbers 10). The initial display of God’s presence (19) and declaration of the Ten Commandments (20) terrifies the people, who beg Moses to speak to them on behalf of God as mediator, a role he fulfills for the rest of their wandering. Through Moses, God provides laws that expand upon the Ten Commandments (21-23), promises the conquest of Canaan, and ratifies his covenant with the people (24). Moses then proceeds to receive instructions for the tabernacle (25-31), which will ultimately be constructed (35-40). But progress is interrupted by the people making a golden calf, in rejection of God and Moses (32). Only after God judges the people, threatens to destroy them, and relents in response to Moses’s intercession (33) can the covenant be restored (34) and the work resumed.
God’s Relationship with his People
One important theme throughout Exodus is how God relates to his people. First, we notice that he fulfills his promises to his people. God had promised to make Abraham’s children more than the stars. So, we read, “The people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (1:7). Generations before, God had foretold to Abraham their sojourning, slavery, and exodus with great possessions (Genesis 15:13-16); now that series of events is coming to fruition.
Second, we notice God’s gracious mercy toward his people. God declares this attribute of his character at the time when he does not carry out his threat to destroy Israel for worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 34:6), and declares the freedom of his grace, “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19). Paul cites this verse as the reason why our salvation is not based on our works, “so then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). But that isn’t the only instance of God’s mercy. The people are constantly provoking God, and he is constantly sparing them.
Third, we notice God’s covenant love for his people. He calls Israel “my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). He plucked them “from the midst of another nation … because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them” (Deuteronomy 4:34, 37). “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples,” God promised (Exodus 19:5). Despite the vast difficulties with man approaching God, he met then at Sinai and took care that they would not die (19). And, when he established his covenant with them, “he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank” (24:11).
Fourth, we notice God’s purpose of justice and righteousness for the people. No other nation has had “statutes and rules so righteous as all this law” (Deuteronomy. 4:8), which was delivered by the mouth of God. The Ten Commandments and the rules that apply them are the purest moral code the world has ever seen. God told them, “If you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exodus 23:22).
Fifth, we notice that God’s relationship with his people was for his own purposes. His epic smackdown of Pharoah was so that the Israelites would know that he is the Lord (10:1-2). God spared Israel after their rebellion for the sake of his own promises, and his own reputation (10:11-14). God’s dramatic salvation at the Red Sea displayed his power over all gods and all nations (15:11-15).
The People’s Relationship with God
Unfortunately, the people of Israel did not respond to God’s kindness and salvation as he deserved. They rejected him, blasphemously asserting that metal idol had brought them up out of Egypt (32:4). They rejected Moses (2:14, 5:21, Acts 7:35). They grumbled and complained (Exodus 15:24, 16:2-3, 17:2-3). They disobeyed (16:27-28).
The people of Israel did obey God at times. They followed his instructions at Passover. They trusted him as they walked through the Red Sea. They willingly contributed for the tabernacle, “everyone whose heart stirred him” (35:21). But these periods of obedience ultimately didn’t save that generation from perishing in the wilderness. “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5).
New Testament Significance of Exodus
Interpreting Old Testament laws can be tricky business for Christians today. After all, we live under a new covenant. Christ has come, and we are no longer “under the law.” Yet these texts are still “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). So, how should we apply them? We cannot do better than using the New Testament as our guide, interpreting the Word of God according to the Word of God.
First, we see that many of the moral laws are still relevant. “You know the commandments,” Jesus said, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:19). Our motivation is different: We do what is right not to be justified according to the law, or to gain blessings and avoid curses, but because these things please God, and we love him. These laws remain applicable because they teach us about what pleases God. For some laws, such as Exodus 22:1-15, the specifics apply to us less than the principles; our society doesn’t function around agriculture, but we can still understand the principle of restitution.
Second, we see that God still desires obedience. In discussing the generation that perished in the wilderness, Paul explains, “these things took place as examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6). They had incalculable spiritual blessings, but they rejected them. So, Paul takes examples: do not desire evil, do not indulge in sexual immorality, do not put Christ to the test, do not grumble. Learn the lessons, don’t repeat them.
Third, we see that our obedience is not based upon our own merit, but it is because of God. The Lord explained that the Sabbath was a sign “that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Ex. 31:13). This is how we can love and follow him. That happens only through Jesus Christ and his blood. Like Moses, Jesus has delivered the people of God and now intercedes on their behalf. But Jesus is superior to Moses, argues the writer of Hebrews, because he has more glory. “Moses was faithful in all God's house as a servant … but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son” (Hebrews. 3:5-6).
Finally, we would fail at reading Exodus if we did not see Jesus Christ throughout. The Israelites slaughtered a lamb and smeared its blood on their doorframe to avoid God’s judgment. “For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you” (Exodus 12:23). Jesus Christ is “our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7), and his blood stands between us and God’s judgment. The Israelites would have perished of hunger and thirst in the wilderness had God not provided them with bread from heaven and water from a rock. Jesus is the Bread of Life (John 6:35) on whom we feed (John 6:51-56). Jesus is the Rock (1 Corinthians 10:4) who provides living water (John 4:10, 7:38, Revevlation 7:17). With careful study, you can find types of Jesus in the tabernacle’s design, in Moses’s intercession, and in the Exodus, too.
A Private Faith?
Exodus offers the perfect antidote to cultural forces who want Christians to confine their faith to their own bedrooms, or at least to the walls of their churches. There is no one like our God, who does wondrous works (Exodus 15:11). All the earth is his, particularly his people (19:5). He has saved us for the purpose of serving him, and he will redeem us out of slavery to sin. How could servants of this great God not devote all their lives to serving him? In fact, the upright moral commandments he has given do not leave us the option of serving him, but not openly. If we are not living out the principles of true religion in our lives, then we are not serving God at all.
Exodus ends with the construction of the tabernacle, so that God might dwell in the midst of his people. But when “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle … Moses was not able to enter” (40:34-35). It was still not possible for a man to approach that close to God. But at another time, the Spirit of God descended powerfully to fill not only the house, but also those inside (Acts 2:4). Christians are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling of God with man. So, we represent God among men. We cannot conceal that reality, nor confine it to one day or one place. God’s saving work through us must govern our entire lives.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.