Exodus: Major Themes

Terence E. Fretheim
Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 1, 12-22.  Amazon  
The book of Exodus moves from slavery to worship, from Israel's bondage to Pharaoh to its bonding to Yahweh. More particularly, the book moves from the enforced construction of buildings for Pharaoh to the glad and obedient offering of the people for a building for the worship of God. Exodus advances from an oppressive situation in which God's presence is hardly noted in the text to God's filling the scene at the completion of the tabernacle.
In between these bookends of Exodus is an amazing range of activity, from plagues to sea walls to wilderness wanderings to fiery mountains and golden calves. The nonhuman order gets caught up in these occasions as much as do people. God becomes engaged in events in a way not often paralleled in the Old Testament. The people of Israel are the focus of all of this activity, but God’s purposes are creation-wide: "that my name may be declared throughout all the earth" (Exodus 9:16).
See also Terry's helpful comments in Starting Points, taken from this section of his book, on the OT as God's Word to us.
Leading Theological Issues

A recognition of the special theological interests of the narrator will provide some keys to the interpretation of the book.

A Theology of God in Creation

Until recently, the interpretation of Exodus has been almost exclusively concerned with the theme of redemption [that is, liberation from slavery], so much so that standard introductions to the Old Testament often start at this point. The theme of creation is often ignored or noticed only occasionally (e.g., in the tabernacle texts). It is my conviction that the book of Exodus is shaped in a decisive way by a creation theology. This will be recognized in the book's verbal, thematic, and structural concerns.

Generally, God's work in creation provides the basic category and interpretive clues for what happens in redemption and related divine activity. It is the Creator God who redeems Israel from Egypt. God's work in creation has been shown to life-giving, life-preserving, and life-blessing (e.g., 1:7, 12, 20). What God does in redemption is in the service of these endangered divine goals in and for the creation. For example, the hymnic celebration of that redemptive act in Exodus 15 is permeated with creation talk, in terms of vocabulary, structure, and theme. Not only is an experience of God's work as creator necessary for participation in the exodus—otherwise there would be no people to redeem,  an understanding of God's work as creator is indispensable for the proper interpretation of what happens—there would be no exodus as we know it without its having been informed by that understanding.

1. A creation theology provides the cosmic purpose behind God's redemptive activity on Israel’s behalf. While the liberation of Israel is the focus of God's activity, it is not the ultimate purpose. The deliverance of Israel is ultimately for the sake of all creation (see 9:16). The issue for God is finally not that God's name be made known in Israel but that it be declared to the entire earth. God's purpose in these events is creation-wide. What is at stake is God's mission for the world, for as 9:29 and 19:5 put it, "All the earth is God's" (cf. 8:22; 9:14). Hence the public character of these events is an important theme throughout.

2. God's redemptive activity is set in terms of a creational need. The fulfillment of God's creational purposes in the growth of Israel is endangered by Pharaoh's attempted subversion thereof. If Pharaoh succeeds in his antilife purposes at that point at which God has begun to actualize the promise of creation (1:7-14), then God's purposes in creation are subverted and God's creational mission will not be able to be realized. God's work in redemption, climaxing in Israel's crossing of the sea on "dry land," constitutes God’s efforts at re-creation, returning creation to a point where God's mission can once again be taken up.

3. God's redemptive activity is cosmic in its effects. Generally, the Lord of heaven and earth is active throughout Exodus, from acts of blessing to the use of the nonhuman creation in the plagues, the sea crossing, the wilderness wanderings, and the Sinai theophany. More specifically, Exodus 15 confesses that God's victory at the sea is not simply a local or historical phenomenon but a cosmic one. God's defeat of the powers of chaos results not simply in Israel's liberation but in the reign of God over the entire cosmos (15:18).

4. God’s calling of Israel is given creation-wide scope. The theme of "All the earth is God's" is picked up again in 19:4-6, a divine invitation to Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Israel is called out from among other nations and commissioned to a task on behalf of God's earth. Israel is to function among the nations as a priest functions in a religious community. Israel's witness to God's redemptive activity (see 18:8-12) and its obedience of the law are finally for the sake of a universal mission.

The redemptive deeds of God are not an end in themselves. The experience of those events propels the people out into various creational spheres of life. Redemption is for the purpose of the creation, a new life within the larger creation, a return to the world as God intended it to be.

A creation theology is also built into the structure of the book, seen not least in the parallels between Exodus and Genesis 1-9: (a) a creational setting (cf. 1:7 with Gen. 1:28); (b) anticreational activity (cf. chaps. 1-2, 5 with Gen. 3-6); (c) Noah and Moses (see at 2:1; 25:1; 33:12); (d) the flood and the plagues as ecological disasters (see at 7:8); (e) death and deliverance in and through water, with cosmic implications (see at 15:1); (j) covenant with Noah/ Abraham and at Sinai with commitment and signs (see at 24:1; cf. 31:17); and (g) the restate­ment of the covenant (see at 34:9). Chapters 25-40 may be viewed in terms of a creation, fall, re-creation structure. The commentary will explore these elements in greater detail.

The Knowledge of God

The book of Exodus is concerned in a major way with the knowledge of Yahweh. Ironically, Pharaoh sets this question: Who is Yahweh? (5:2). The pursuit of this question is primarily undertaken by God: "that you may know that I am Yahweh." The object of this divine quest includes Pharaoh and the Egyptians (7:17; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 29; 11:7; 14:4, 18) as well as Israel (10:2; 29:46). God’s concern for self-disclosure is thus not confined to Israel; it includes the world (see 18:8-12). The exodus events are not, however, the only medium for this knowledge. In God’s first words in Exodus, the divine self-identification is as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (3:6; cf. 3:13-16; 4:5; 6:3-8), and the covenant with them is a primary motivating factor in what God is about to do (2:24). Whatever its historical foundations, the narrator claims that this electing and promising activity of God constitutes an important element in the identity of Yahweh.

Moreover, the text testifies that God's personal disclosure to Moses (chaps. 3-6), in what might be termed an internal event, decisively shapes the interpretation of the events. The significance of the exodus is made available to Moses prior to its occurrence; it is thus not understood as an inference drawn from an experience of the event. Even more, while the initiative with respect to the divine identity lies with God, Moses' persistent inquiries into the divine name and other matters draw God out and consequently more knowledge becomes available. The experience of the event itself, of course, enhances the understanding of what occurs. Yahweh also defines himself in other speeches to Israel and Moses (e.g., 20:2). In fact, the profound self-identification in 34:6-7 is revealed in a personal way in the wake of Israel's apostasy!

This suggests the following typology for the understanding of revelation in Exodus: (1) the faith heritage of the community; (2) God's specific disclosure to and interaction with Moses; (3) the experience of the event itself; and (4) Moses' interpretation of the event to Israel and to others (see 18:8).

This is not simply a matter of "progressive revelation" on God's part or "progressive understanding" on Israel's part, as if the identity of Yahweh is set from the beginning and only needs to be unfolded. God does not remain unchanged by all that happens. God does some things that God has never done before; the interaction with other characters also shapes the divine identity. God is not only one who is; God is also one who is some sense becomes. Hence the identity of Yahweh, not very clear at the beginning of the narrative, achieves a depth and clarity as the narrative progresses through divine speech and action as well as human alertness and boldness.

It is apparent from this "divine economy" that human agents are of central importance. Their character and abilities make a difference, not only to Israel but to God. Exodus is concerned throughout with the proper role and reputation of such persons, not least the nature of their relationship with both God and people. Moses is obviously the primary individual in view, but the texts seem to reflect a concern for a more general theology of leadership (or, we might say, ministry).

Images for God

Exodus presents God as one highly engaged in the events of which it speaks, though a more unobtrusive, behind-the-­scenes activity is evident in chapters 1-2; 5; and 18. Images of sovereignty [that is, God's governance of the world] are certainly prominent. God as lord is evident in the proclamation of the law and the call to obedience; God as judge is experienced by both Egyptians and Israelites; God's kingship is explicitly affirmed in 15:18; God as warrior is professed at the Red Sea (15:3); and God as ruler of heaven and earth is manifest in all of God's activity in the nonhuman order.

Nevertheless, the nature of the divine sovereignty seems to be differently conceived depending on whether the nonhuman or the human order is in view. God seems to work in the nonhuman order at will; God meets no resistance there. At the same time, God does not act in nature independent of the created order of being. That is, God's work in nature is not arbitrary; it is congruent with nature's way of being and in coordination with human activity (see at 7:8).

Human beings, however, have sufficient freedom and power to be resistant to the word and will of God. God must contend with intransigence [that is, a stubborn refusal to cooperate], cruelty, and disloyalty in the human order. Positively, a stress on divine suffering and divine dependence on the human means that God is portrayed in terms other than absolute rule or control. These factors will mean that common understandings of sovereignty are subverted and redefined.  

The book of Exodus is enclosed by speeches of divine self­-portrayal (3:7-10; 34:6-7; cf. 2:23-25). The first is program­matic: the God who acts in the narrative is understood to be the kind of God portrayed here. God's sovereignty is evident in the divine initiative, the setting of the agenda, the will to deliver Israel, and the announced ability to accomplish this. Alongside this, however, are images not commonly associated with sovereignty. It is a divine sovereignty qualified by divine suffering, by a divine move of compassion, that enters deeply into the suffering of the people (see at 3:7). This is congruent with one of the last speeches of God in Exodus (34:6-7). Here the divine self-portrayal is sharply oriented toward images of grace, love, and mercy. Because this or a similar statement recurs in all corners of the canon, it has a creedal status; it may be said to be a statement about God toward which the entire Exodus narrative is driving.

In addition, any definition of divine sovereignty must take into account the fact that God does not act alone in these events. The opening chapters set this divine mode in place (see at 1:15; 2:1). God works in and through five lowly women to carry out the divine purpose. Ironically, they prove to be highly effective against ruthless forms of power, but choosing such human vehicles means that God works in unobtrusive, unlikely, and vulnerable ways.

Moses is also an instance of such a divine way. Both God and Moses are the subject of the exodus (see at 3:8, 10; cf. 6:13, 26-27; 32:7). God depends on Moses in carrying out the tasks involved and hence must work in and through Moses’ frailties as well as strengths. This means that God gives up total control of the ensuing events; this is for God a risky venture, fraught with negative possibilities. For example, in the face of Moses' resistance, God adapts the original plan and chooses Aaron to be a co-leader rather than overpowering Moses. God is angry at this development (see at 4:14) but goes with what is possible, even though it is less than the best (witness Aaron's later failure as a leader in chap. 32). Another dialogue between Moses and God in chapters 32-34 shows again how God is responsive to what Moses has to say. In view of Moses' prayer, God reverses himself with respect to the announced judgment on an apostate people (see at 32:14). More generally, one might cite how God takes the context into account in making decisions and charting directions (see at 13:17-21; 2:23-25). (On God and Pharaoh, see the excursus at 7:3.)

Certainly these images focus on one major concern of Exodus: Who will finally be recognized as the sovereign one, Yahweh or Pharaoh? Whom will Israel serve? But an oft-forgotten parallel issue is: What kind of sovereignty is being exercised? Pharaoh's and Yahweh's ways of being sovereign are contrasted in the narrative (cf. 3:7-10 with 5:5-18). The force of these texts is that Yahweh's sovereignty is qualified by suffering images, while Pharaoh's is not. It is Pharaoh who is the unmoved mover; he chooses to intensify Israel’s oppression rather than identify with those who suffer. The God of Israel is a suffering sovereign.

The Meaning of Liberation and Exodus as Paradigm

For centuries the exodus has functioned as a paradigm, especially for those who have been victimized by oppressive systems of one kind or another (see Walzer; van Iersel). God is the champion of the poor and those pushed to the margins of life; God is one who liberates them from the pharaohs of this world. As God acted then, so God can be expected to act again. In the United States, Negro spirituals have carried on these Exodus themes, and Black Theology is permeated with them. In the last generation, South American and other liberation theologians have also considered the exodus to be paradigmatic for their reflections on the experience of oppression (see Croatto). The exodus is not believed to stand alone as a biblical foundation for such a theological perspective, but it is the generative event. Numerous texts from both Testaments are un­derstood to stand in this tradition, from the prophets to the Psalms to the Gospels (cf. I Sam. 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55).

In such formulations, this liberating activity of God is often believed to be explicitly political. God's salvific [that is, saving] activity is directed not just toward internal change but toward societal change, the external conditions of life. Salvation is thus conceived in holistic terms as the work of God affecting change in all aspects of life: religious and political, social and individual. Perhaps above all, the exodus is seen to be a sign of hope that poverty and oppression are not the last word, for God is at work on behalf of a different future. Those who interpret the book of Exodus must take time to listen to these interpretations from the "underside" of life, whatever they might think about liberation theology; these people have a clearer sense than most of what oppression is like. The commentary will draw on such reflections particularly concerning chapters 1 and 5.

This way in which Israel's liberation has been interpreted has not gone uncontested, however. There are at least three difficulties with many such interpretations.

1. It has been objected that the people of Israel do not engage in military or other violent revolutionary activity to initiate or ensure their escape, even though they are armed and could have done so (13:18). It is highly precarious to suggest that an earlier stage of the tradition had them doing battle. Even if they did do so, the final stage of the redaction [that it, of the editing process] sets it aside. In fact, Israel is expressly forbidden to engage in such activity; Israel is to watch and "see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today." It is only God who does the fighting, as recognized by both Israelites and Egyptians (14:13-14, 25; 15:3-12). All the violence comes from God working in and through various aspects of the nonhuman order. The end result is not a takeover of Egypt but a withdrawal to another land; Exodus is not a journey that begins and ends at home.

It may be said, and this is no small matter, that Moses engages in deception (3:18; 5:1-3) and is bluntly confrontational in his approach to the authorities. The civil disobedience of the midwives and Moses' mother may also be cited (see at 1:15; 2:1); so may Moses' killing of the Egyptian, though that functions to prefigure divine activity (see at 2:11). Such Israelite actions may certainly be said to be subversive, and they do prepare the way for what God does.

Above all, it is God's activity that can serve as a paradigm. The exodus is a powerful symbol that the present situation does not define what is possible for God. With God, change and newness are likely possibilities. Moreover, there can be no doubt that Israel's God is deeply engaged on behalf of Israel's counterparts in every age and that their liberation from bondage to oppressive systems is a high divine priority from which they can take hope. Israel's own typological use of God's actions in the exodus can help show the way (e.g., Isa. 41:17-20; 43:14-21; 52.11-12). At the same time, the interpreter must use care so as not to lose sight of the fact that God's actions in the exodus are on behalf of a very particular elect people, the people of Israel.  

2. From another perspective, while there can be little doubt salvation is understood in a holistic way in Exodus (as in the entire Bible), political interpretations have often ignored other dimensions of the event. The identity of the anti-God forces in the narrative is a matter of no little import in this regard. Pharaoh is not simply another tyrant, and the event is more than historical. The text makes clear that God's activity is also directed against Egypt’s gods (12:12; 15:11; 18:11). Pharaoh is seen to be both a human being and an embodiment of cosmic forces working against God's creational designs. Redemption is thus both mythically and historically conceived and hence is universal in scope. The historical redemption is real and con­stitutive in character because it participates in a cosmic victory. To interpret salvation in sociopolitical terms only or primarily scales down the import and effect of what happens at the Red Sea (see at 15:1-21).

The exodus redemption finds its closest parallels in the victory announced by Second Isaiah and in the cross and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. It would then need to be asked whether the image of God as warrior has not in these instances been transmuted to such an extent that sociopolitical violence is now problematic in talk about the redemption that God works (see the article by Zenger in van Iersel).

3. Finally, it must be remembered that the book of Exodus insists that one cannot speak of liberation as a freeing from all restraints; it is not a declaration of independence. As we have noted, Exodus moves from one kind of slavery to another, from bondage to Pharaoh to the service of Yahweh. One cannot bypass Sinai on the way to the promised land. Hence, any who would use Exodus as a paradigm for liberation should then move to the question, Whom will we now serve? Exodus would claim that true freedom is found only in the service of Yahweh.

These factors suggest that the exodus ought not function as a paradigm in any direct or simple way.

Israel's Worship and Yahweh's Presence

Worship is a central theme of Exodus. The overall move­ment of the book is from slavery to worship. The concern for the proper worship of Yahweh is also evident throughout the book, seen both in specific content and in the fact that liturgical usage of this material has shaped the literature.

Worship themes are made especially prominent by the redactional [or, editorial] placement of the passover ritual and the songs of chapter 15. Their enclosure of the exodus story gives it a liturgical character, contributing to a sacramental understanding of the events and their commanded reactualizations. Liturgy and narrative are interconnected (see at 12:1). The centrality of praise in chapter 15 has also been closely tied to the lament character of earlier chapters. This rhythm of lament, deliverance, and praise is shown by the psalms to be a common liturgical rhythm in Israel's worship. This suggests a liturgical character for the entirety of chapters 1-15. Their interpretation cannot be separated from the meaning given to these events in the life of worship.

Worship themes continue in the eating and drinking of the wilderness, and especially at Sinai. The Sinai events of theophany, law-giving and covenant-making, perhaps shaped by subsequent liturgIcal reactualizations, are permeated with worship themes and concerns. Chapters 25-40 are obvious in their explicit worship focus. Most of this material centers on the plan and construction of the tabernacle, the worship center of the community. Between the planning and the building, however, come chapters 32-34. At issue in the apostasy of the golden calf and its aftermath is the proper worship of Yahweh.

The question of Exodus thus becomes not only, Whom will Israel serve? but, Of what does the proper worship of Yahweh consist? Certain negative possibilities are rejected, while positive directions are encouraged and commanded. Proper worship is understood to have both sacrificial and sacramental dimensions. On the one hand, it is a means by which Israel can bring public honor to its God through praise, thanksgiving, and other expressions of faithfulness (see at 15:1). On the other hand, it is a means in and through which God can act in faithfulness on behalf of those who worship (see at 12:1).

Closely related to this is the movement in Exodus from seeming divine absence to the fullness of presence in the tabernacle. Especially following the golden calf incident, the divine presence with the people becomes the central problematic. Will God go with Israel on its journeyings or not (33:1-3)? Finally, after the planning and building of the tabernacle, God in all the divine glory does dwell among the people (40:35). It is apparent that what Israel does and says in worship has an effect on the nature of the divine presence in its midst. God will be faithful, but Israel can drive Yahweh away by its disloyalty. Israel’s faithfulness in worship is seen to be absolutely central to its life as the people of God.

Law, Covenant, and Israel's Identity

The identity of the Israelites is of considerable interest to the narrator. Over the course of the narrative they are more and more revealed for who they are, both positively and negatively. Unlike Genesis, Exodus has to do, not with the family of Jacob, but with a people, the people of Israel. This change in identity is established in the opening verses, and in God's first speech ("my people," 3:7). Israel's status as God's elect people is in place from the beginning. They are the people of the covenant made with Abraham; the promises to Abraham are also their promises (2:24). Peoplehood is the presupposition of these events, not the result. The narrative is concerned with how these people more and more take on their identity, becoming in life what they already are in the eyes of God.

The order of the central events in the book of Exodus is theologically important. First comes the redemptive work of God on behalf of the people. This serves to ground their precarious existence in the deliverance from both historical and cosmic enemies that God accomplishes on their behalf. The elect people is now a redeemed people. Only then is the law given at Sinai. The law is a gift to an already redeemed community. The law is not the means by which the relationship with God is established; God redeems quite apart from human obedience. But then the concern for the law suddenly fills the scene, not only in Exodus, but in the remainder of the Pentateuch. Central to the law is the issue of faithfulness to God alone, particularly as manifested in proper worship (see above). Such faithfulness and other forms of obedience are certainly in Israel's own interests for the best life possible (see Deut. 4:40). But Israel is called beyond itself to a vocational covenant within the Abrahamic covenant (see at 19:1; 24:1). Israel's obedience is ultimately for the sake of being a kingdom of priests among the other peoples of the world (19:4-6). The golden calf debacle, however, demonstrates that Israel does not remain faithful. Israel's future with God stands at the edge of the abyss. Only God's gracious act of forgiveness enables a new future for Israel (see at 34:9-10). But the importance of obedience is not thereby set aside. Obedience remains central for the sake of witness and mission to the world. And God's tabernacling presence undergirds Israel on that journey.

Back to the Insights Page
Back to the Explorers' Home Page