New Exodus

The concept of a New Exodus is commonly encountered in the field of New Testament scholarship: Christ defeats the Pharaoh, delivers us from slavery, and brings us into the promise. This theme is significant and illuminating, yet one thing that is commonly missed is the degree to which the Exodus story serves as a paradigmatic event throughout the Old and New Testaments. This is merely one of numerous examples that could be provided of the need for some sort of a grasp of the entire scriptural text, if we are properly to understand any part. There are, quite literally, dozens of events and narratives that follow the Exodus pattern in the Bible, and innumerable textual pointers to this for those who are paying attention. It is simply not the case that we have one Old Testament exodus and a New Testament exodus that fulfils this type: rather exoduses are found throughout the text, as a developing pattern that is explored from several different angles and taken in a number of varying directions. Once again, the work of James Jordan in this area is without peer, and should be consulted by anyone who wishes to think seriously about this (Jordan’s insights provide the basis for much that I have to say below).

Within the larger Exodus pattern, there are lots of themes. There may be the theme of slavery (Jacob is reduced to the condition of slavery to Laban, who no longer treats him as kin, but makes him work as a hired worker, the Israelites become the slaves of Pharaoh, the Jews are taken captive to Babylon). There may be an attack upon the woman and her seed (the repeated stories of the pagan tyrants taking the patriarchs’ wives are examples here). The serpent is frequently deceived, often by the woman – God is fond of poetic justice. Many of the exodus stories of the Bible involve righteous deception of the tyrants (Rachel deceives Laban, the Hebrew midwives deceive Pharaoh, Jael deceives Sisera, Michal deceives Saul, Esther deceives Haman, Rahab deceives the men of Jericho, etc., etc.). False gods are humiliated (the plagues of the Exodus are plagues upon the gods of Egypt, the exodus of the captured ark from Philistia involves the humiliation of Dagon in his own temple, Rachel sits on Laban’s household gods during her period, Michal uses a teraphim as a prop for David in his bed, Elijah humiliates the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel prior to the end of the drought, etc.). The wicked are ravaged by plagues and diseases (the plagues on Pharaoh and his house when he takes Sarai in Genesis 12, all of the wombs of Abimelech’s household are closed when he takes Sarah, the plagues on the Philistine cities when they take the ark, the demonic affliction of Saul and of Israel at the coming of Christ – in both cases widespread demonic affliction seems to follow the coming of a new anointed one). The righteous plunder the wicked and gain much spoil (the riches Abraham gains from Egypt, God’s transfer of the property of Laban to Jacob, the plundering of the Egyptians in the Exodus, the return of the ark with riches from Philistia, Esther’s plundering of the house of Haman). The wicked suffer a decisive defeat (there is a reason why the Egyptians don’t appear on the scene again between the time of the Exodus and the reign of Solomon – God completely destroyed their crops, lifestock, killed their firstborn, humiliated their gods, destroyed their ruler and his army, and as the Israelites head towards Canaan, they meet the Amalekites heading the other direction, ready to pick at the bones of a nation that once exercised regional hegemony, the Jews kill their enemies following the deliverance of Esther).

In addition to these themes we also find clusters of tell-tale motifs – water crossings and deliverances (events that often involve chariots), pagan tyrants receiving visions and dreams (Pilate’s wife, Nebuchadnezzar, Abraham’s Abimelech), themes of pregnancy and childbirth, threats to the lives of infants, or the wives (e.g. David’s sojourn in Philistia), meals at night time, the coming of an angel or messenger to judge the wicked but deliver the righteous (e.g. in Acts 12 Peter is ‘struck’ by the angel, who exoduses him from prison, while Herod is ‘struck’ by the angel and is eaten alive by worms), tyrants claiming innocence and accusing the righteous of being the problem (the pagan kings who take the wives of the patriarchs, Ahab with Elijah, Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’ blood), the establishing of heaps and pillars as witnesses, travel to a particular mountain (Noah landing on Mount Ararat, Elijah going to Mount Horeb), where a new covenant order is established, etc., etc. While many of these motifs may not be essential to the Exodus pattern, they are nonetheless important clues and indications of its possible presence.

As an example, one exodus narrative that surprisingly few people pick up on is Lot’s exodus from Sodom, which contains a number of classic exodus motifs and themes. The angels bring the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah – exodus from state of barrenness – after which they go on to judge the wicked city (Sodom and Egypt are twins in Scripture in many contexts, e.g. Revelation 11:8). The rite of circumcision is instituted or established just beforehand. As the Lord himself is one of the angels, the other angels can be seen as the two witnesses, as Moses and Aaron were in the Egyptian Exodus, or the witnesses in Revelation 11. The angels are ‘passing by’ (Genesis 18:3, 5), just as they would later do with Egypt. There is a threat to life at the doorway, and the doorway becomes a site of angelic protection and judgment upon those outside. There is the pressing call to leave the city with all relatives and possessions and the notion that the ‘outcry’ against a city or the voice of the oppressed has reached the ear of YHWH. An evening meal of unleavened bread is eaten. The angels seize the hands of Lot and his family to get them to escape (cf. Jeremiah 31:32). Lot is instructed to flee, literally, to The Mountain (not ‘the mountains’). A witnessing pillar/heap is established (as God judges Lot’s wife by turning her into a pillar of salt).

Lot’s exodus, however, is in many respects an anti-exodus. Lot’s story is supposed to contrast with the exodus story of Abraham that surrounds it on both sides (much as Judah’s story will later function in relation to Joseph’s). For instance, Lot’s wife is made as sterile as salt, whereas the barren Sarah is made fruitful.

Much else going on there, and should be explored in another context: my basic point is that, for those with ears to hear, the Bible is overflowing with exodus stories (and there are several ‘second Moseses’ before we arrive at Christ, perhaps the most noteworthy being Elijah). Each of these stories is slightly different and explores various dimensions of the theme, some even inverting (Saul and the witch of Endor) or parodying it (Jeroboam’s story, for instance).

By the time that we arrive at the New Testament, our ears should be so accustomed to Exodus language and motifs that we recognize it all over the place, whether in subtly charged ways of wording things (‘led up by the Spirit into the wilderness’ – Matthew 4:1), the exodus themes of a narrative such as John 5 (38 years of infirmity matching the 38 years of wandering in the wilderness, sheep near the waters, an angel stirring the waters for deliverance), or second order allusions such as Hebrews 13:20 (cf. Isaiah 63:11-14). One final observation: if we want to ‘get’ the exodus motifs of the New Testament, we really need to start with detailed knowledge of the development of the theme of exodus within the Old Testament. For instance, most people don’t appreciate the degree to which the sacrificial system invokes exodus themes. However, the union of these two themes provides huge insight when reading the story of the gospels.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Exodus, OT. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to New Exodus

  1. Pingback: Abraham, Lot, and the Flight from Sodom – 40 Days of Exoduses (4) | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2011-2012 | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Alfred Osei Kuffour says:

    so much depth, i have to re-read several times! you’re really blessing me! Grateful

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.