The Story of the Torah, part 2—Exodus

In the book of Exodus, Israel moved from serving one master to another. They moved from slavery to freedom, from despair to praise, from Egypt to Sinai, and from serving Pharaoh by making bricks to serving Yahweh by building his tabernacle.

  • God is a mighty warrior, rescuing his people from slavery.
  • God bound himself by a second covenant to this family to somehow bring his blessing to all of humanity.
  • Israel’s own sin and idolatry became the greatest threat to God’s covenant promises.
  • God is faithful to his promises, even if it means committing himself to people who are faithless.

Israel’s exodus from Egypt is the event that forms them into a nation and is the model for God’s plan of redemption through Scripture. In chapters 1–18, Pharaoh threatened to destroy God’s covenant promises to Abraham, but God rescued the family of Abraham from slavery. Then at the foot of Mt. Sinai in chapters 19–40, God invited them to enter into a covenant relationship with him, but their own sin and idolatry became the greatest threat to God’s covenant promises.

Part I (ch. 1–18): about the escape from Egypt

The book of Exodus picks up the story from Genesis four hundred years later. According to God’s blessing and promise, the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied and filled the land, (1:7) but in Egypt rather than in Canaan, the promised land. And there’s another huge problem: the family was enslaved to the Egyptians.

Pharaoh was the king of Egypt and did not think the Israelites were a blessing; he thought they were a threat to his power. He is the worst character in the Bible so far and is the case study for what happens when humans define good and evil for themselves. For what he saw as the political and economic good of his country, he forced the Israelites to build cities with bricks (1:11, 14), just like the humans at the Tower of Babylon attempted to do in Genesis 11. Then it got worse as Pharaoh ordered that all Israelite baby boys should be killed by throwing them into the Nile River. What should have been bad, Pharaoh defined as good.

The Israelites called out to God to be rescued, and he responded because his reputation was on the line through his covenant (2:24). Just as we have seen in the story so far in Genesis, God turned human evil into good. In the ultimate irony, a baby boy was thrown into the Nile, but in a basket that kept him safe. He floated right into Pharaoh’s own household and was named Moses. And he grew up to become the man whom God would use to defeat Pharaoh.

God appeared to Moses on holy ground at Mt. Sinai (also called Mt. Horeb) in a burning bush and commissioned him to go to Pharaoh and order him to release the Israelites (ch. 3). But Pharaoh said, “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to him? I do not know Yahweh” (5:2). Isn’t that the fundamental human problem! That set the stage for a showdown between God and Pharaoh.

God said he would redeem Israel (6:6), which literally means ‘to free from slavery.’ This story of the Exodus is the model for what God’s redemption looks like. This isn’t just an ancient story about ancient people, it’s the archetype for how God’s justice, redemption, and rescue takes place in the world.

God sent nine plagues against the gods of Egypt, leading to the tenth plague that struck Pharaoh himself. After each plague, Moses offered Pharaoh the chance to humble himself and acknowledge God’s authority over him. But Pharaoh hardened his heart and remained in humanity’s rebellion. In the end, God lured Pharaoh to his own destruction and saved his people. Yet again, God turned evil into good and the Egyptians gave the Israelites all kinds of wealth as they kicked them out of the country (12:36), just as had happened to Abraham.

With the final plague, God turned the tables on Pharaoh. Just as Pharaoh had killed the sons of the Israelites, so God killed the firstborn sons of the Egypt. Unlike Pharaoh, however, God provided a means of escape through the substitution of the blood of a lamb on the night of Passover (12:13). The anniversary of Passover was to be the most important event of the Jewish year thereafter, and they rearranged the calendar to begin the year at that time (12:1).

As soon as the Israelites had left Egypt, however, Pharaoh changed his mind and gathered his army to chase them down. In an act reminiscent of creation and the Flood, God separated the waters and made dry ground appear (14:21) so the Israelites could safely cross the Red Sea. But then he closed those waters over Pharaoh and his army, destroying them and saving his people. Afterwards, Moses sang an important song about Israel’s salvation (15:2), which means ‘to be rescued from danger.’ Moses declared the Lord is a warrior (15:3) and the Lord reigns as king (15:18).

The Israelites then walked through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai, getting hungry and thirsty (15:24 and 16:2), and started criticizing Moses and God for rescuing them (16:3). Is Israel’s heart as hard as Pharaoh’s?

Part II (ch. 19–40): about God’s covenant with Israel

When Israel arrived at God’s home on earth at Mt. Sinai, God invited them into a covenant relationship, but this time it was two-sided and Israel had to keep up their end of the deal. If Israel obeyed the terms of this covenant, they would become a kingdom of priests (19:6). Priests were middlemen between God and people. To be effective priests means God would need to re-create them back into his image so they could show his character to the nations by how they lived. In this way, God could accomplish his goal of bringing justice and mercy to the nations.

The people agreed (19:7) and God began to shape, guide, and give teaching and instruction to his people so they could fulfill this role. The basic terms of the covenant were given in the Ten Commandments, setting up how Israel was to relate to God and to each other. Then God gave more laws about worship and social justice, filling out those ten with more detail. These were all designed to shape Israel into a nation living differently from the other nations. For a second time, the people agreed to the terms (24:3). Then followed a ceremony ratifying the agreement and this time both God and the people signed in the blood of the covenant (24:8).

Then God moved the relationship forward another step—he gave Moses instructions for building a special tent, the Tabernacle, in which he would come down from the mountain and live. God wanted to travel with the people to the Promised Land and live in their midst (25:22), undoing the separation between God and humanity after humanity’s rebellion in the beginning. The tent was designed to be a portable garden of Eden, where God and Israel could live together in peace.

But things went horribly wrong—Israel broke the covenant. While Moses was up on the mountain receiving the blueprints for the Tabernacle, the Israelites lost patience down in the camp. They created and worshiped a golden calf idol and pretended it was the god that had saved them from slavery in Egypt (32:4).

God was understandably angry and told Moses he wanted to wipe out the entire nation of Israel and start over (32:10). But Moses interceded by appealing to God’s character and faithfulness to the one-sided covenant he had already made with Abraham. Moses also appealed to God’s reputation among the nations. What would they think if God allowed Israel to die in the wilderness? God accepted Moses’ prayer and relented. He brought justice to those who started the idolatry, but he forgave the nation and renewed the covenant. God described himself as merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in covenant faithfulness. He forgives sin, but will not leave the wicked unpunished (34:6–7). God is full of mercy, but he must deal with evil if he claims to be good. Above all else, God is faithful to his promises even if it means committing himself to people who are faithless. These verses are the gospel-in-a-nutshell, the “John 3:16 of the Old Testament.”

Finally the Tabernacle was finished and God’s glorious presence entered the tent (40:34). But then Moses found he was unable to go into the tent (40:35) and the book comes to a sudden end. The whole point of the tent was to be the place where God could meet his people, but their sin has damaged the relationship and made that impossible.

How is God going to reconcile the conflict between his holy, good presence with the sin and corruption of his own people? That’s the problem that the next book, Leviticus, solves.