Exodus is more than a story, more than a record of events – it’s an account of God at work in the lives of people and nations. Here are some of its themes – themes which are relevant to believers in all generations.
The prequel to Exodus is Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Much of the book is taken up with the story of Abraham and his descendants – who eventually would become the nation of Israel. God makes a series of promises to this family: that they would become a great nation, that they would inherit the land of Canaan, and that God would bless and protect them. But by the end of Genesis, there seems little hope of these promises being fulfilled. The family consists of only seventy people, forced into Egypt by famine in their promised land. Has God forgotten?
Exodus is the story of God keeping his promises. Just seven verses into the book, we’re told “The children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). Promise 1: a great nation. Check!
But it’s not an easy journey. They begin to see some evidence of God’s blessing and protection, but never see the land God promised them. That has to wait for the next generation.
Seem familiar? Believers throughout the ages have found themselves waiting for God to act, waiting for him to intervene. “How long, O LORD?” the Hebrew poet cried. Does God know? Has he forgotten? Is he there? We may wait a lifetime for the promises of God to be fulfilled. But he will act; he will do as he has promised.
Growing pains. The family of Israel multiplies, but then comes the age-old fear of the immigrants. Pharaoh decides these foreigners need birth control; first, hard-labour, then infanticide. And still the people multiply.
Into this environment, Moses is born. Miraculously he survives Pharaoh’s attempt at reducing the Israelite population, and ends up being raised in Pharaoh’s house. But Moses is eighty before he comes to deliver Israel. Meanwhile, they continue to suffer under the Egyptian yoke.
Throughout all of this, God has been remarkably silent. But he is not indifferent.
In the course of those many days, the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the children of Israel, and God was concerned about them.
It’s a common challenge to faith: “If God is a God of love, why does he allow suffering?” Exodus doesn’t directly answer that challenge. But it does show that God hears, God remembers, God sees and God is concerned. But more than that – as the story unfolds – God acts to deliver his people out of their suffering.
In the biblical book of Exodus, the Israelites cross the Red Sea in chapter 14. Then there’s another 26 chapters of other stuff – clearly there’s more to the story than escaping the Egyptians. God wasn’t just planning to set them free from Egypt and then leave them to it. He had a bigger plan:
“I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up … to a land flowing with milk and honey”
A new nation would be born – a nation with God as its king. There’s a hint of something momentous just before they leave Egypt. Up until this point, they’ve always been called ‘the people of Israel’ or ‘the children of Israel’ – they are a people marked out by their ancestry, their family. But when God orders the celebration of the first Passover, he calls them for the first time ‘the congregation of Israel’ – a community of faith that could include both natives and foreigners (Exodus 12:19, 48, 49).
And that’s what the rest of Exodus is about – how the people became a congregation; how a group of slaves could become a society governed by God’s laws, and centred round the worship of the true God. The climax of Exodus is not the deliverance from oppression, but the glory of God living with the congregation of Israel (Exodus 40:34-38)
The same holds true today. Salvation is not just about forgiveness, but also community. It’s about being rescued from a life of sin to become part of a family governed by God and united by faith. That’s why the first Christians borrowed the word ‘congregation’ to refer to the church. They recognised God was doing the same for them – delivering them from spiritual Egypt and creating through them a community of faith.
Moses stands at the burning bush, sandals off, face hidden, listening to the voice. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob… and I have come down to deliver” (Exodus 3:6-8). What? The Creator of the Universe is going to come down? Yes, and not for the first time.
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower [of Babel], which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “…Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
God came down in judgment on Babel and Sodom. But this time it’s different. He’s coming down to deliver. And he’s going to stay.
A feature of the Exodus story is the presence of God – not God out there somewhere, or a God inside us somewhere, but a God here, whose presence can be seen. So, as the Israelites leave Egypt, “the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” (Exodus 13:21).
God comes down twice more:
The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.
If that was not remarkable enough, he announces: “let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8, see also Exodus 29:45-46).
God has come down, not just to visit but to stay – camping in a tent, as he leads his people.
And so it happens:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.