The book of Exodus – and what it teaches contemporary Christians and Jews

The Exodus story is thought to have taken place in around 1250 BC, and the story enables Christians and Jews to understand a key facet of God’s nature – his intervention in human suffering and his ongoing will to save his people by providing them with freedom and a moral code for living. Moreover, it enables modern day Jews and Christians to remember God’s care for his people in times of adversary in their modern day lives. Even in the darkest periods in our lives, God has a plan for us which will lead to our salvation.

In order to fully understand the significance of the Exodus story, one must be clear about the suffering of the Israelites before the Exodus. The Israelites were feared by the Egyptians because of the size of their population, “Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous” (Exodus 1:10). They were enslaved into state-enforced hardship and oppression.

The symbolism of the Exodus story is of great importance. Water is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the narrative. It is first seen when Moses was placed in the basket on the river Nile (Exodus 2:3). The Nile is clearly a symbol of life as it provided irrigation to the lands of Egypt, which enabled the country to develop and thrive. Moses being placed on the river represents the new life that he would bring to the Israelites as God realised his will through Moses, who’s safe journey on the Nile reminds us of God’s power over us and over nature – he can control even water.

Of particular interest is the reaction of Pharaoh to Moses’ demands throughout the Exodus story. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God in order that God may emphasise His power (Exodus 7:3-5). Moreover, this physical exhibition of power changes the Israelites’ understanding of God from a God of History to an entity who is a living and visible presence. Furthermore, the power of God is contrasted with the weakness of the Egyptian gods, who cannot do anything to control the ten plagues that were sent down. For the Israelites, this would have reminded them of the fact that God is the one true God, which is reinforced in the commandments given to Moses (Exodus 20:2)

The true legacy of the Exodus was the forming of a new relationship between God and his people. It is interesting to contrast the freedom granted to the Israelites chosen by God with the giving of the ten commandments to Moses. While on one level these commandments may appear to restrict the newly ‘liberated people,’ they were in fact to perpetuate and secure freedom: if the Israelites followed the new covenant of the commandments faithfully, they knew that God would protect and guide them. He is the one God that will protect those who worship him.

When the covenant between God and His people is created in Exodus 34, it is very much an ‘exclusive’ contractual agreement, entered into by God and the Israelites – at the exception of others. He teaches the Israelites and modern day Jews and Christians that the vertical relationship between us and Him is most important for our own salvation – salvation which is physically exhibited in the story of Exodus.

The violence of the entire Exodus story is once again very visible, “Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite” (Exodus 34: 11-12). It is interesting that there is little notion of forgiveness here for religions and ethnic groups other than the Israelites, indeed God commands the Israelites to destroy any references to other Gods in the land which they have been told to invade. The powerful language used to describe God’s saving actions, for instance, “drive out,” reminds us of the power of God and his determination to save His chosen ones, even at the expense of others.

In the Jewish faith, the memory of the Exodus is a powerful force as it is recalled at the Seder meal. Through this, all modern day Jewish people are directly connected with their ancestors who were freed in the Exodus. The retelling of the story, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” becomes a living memorial of the suffering experienced during the time in slavery. The Jewish people are directly connected to, and almost seem to become, those who suffered. Through this ritual, the identify of the Jewish people directly stems from those in the Exodus.

For Christians, there are many parallels which can be drawn between Moses’ actions throughout the Exodus and the actions of Jesus, for instance the 40 year ‘sojourn’ in the desert and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. It is interesting to consider that the time that the Israelites spent in the desert are considered to be a pure time in the faith where God and his people were at their closest and similarly Jesus went into the wilderness to become closer to God. In our own ‘wildernesses’ in life, we are reminded that God is close to us and will guide and support us.

Ultimately, the Exodus story provides modern day Jews and Christians with a set of moral guidelines on how to live. In the narrative, God supported the oppressed and suffering and made those who exercised ruthless power suffer at His hands. Moreover, it teaches of the true benevolence of God – his love for his chosen people means that He will protect us at all costs and wants Christians and Jews to love Him in order to achieve salvation. It also provides us with an understanding of forgiveness – God’s forgiveness is given to restore our relationship with Him and God will forgive all, in order that we might have a healthy spiritual relationship. Perhaps most significantly, however, the Exodus establishes God as a deity who will intervene to save his people and will act with absolute authority. It enables Jews and Christians to understand that God has a plan in all times of need.

Tom D

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