The Exodus in the Christian Bible: The Case for "Figural" Reading

Article excerpt

[Many Christians find the Christian Bible, comprised of the Old and New Testament, diffuse, lacking unity, and therefore difficult to use in systematic theology. Yet the Bible itself uses a powerful organizing principle that spans both testaments and unites them, namely the Exodus in its dual aspects of liberation and formation. There are three Exodus moments. Exodus I is the thirteenth-century B.C.E. foundational event. Exodus H is its sixth-century renewal. Exodus III is the first-century C.E. climactic renewal of Israel by Jesus.]

THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE, reckoned as Old and New Testament taken as a whole, does not play a formative role in a good deal of Roman Catholic theology. The main reason for the neglect is the Old Testament. Its world is alien, seemingly without a thread or a center, and its dominant genres of narrative, law, and "wisdom literature" do not fit easily into the discursive mode and traditional topics of systematic theology. Its links to the New Testament historically have been effected by procedures that today can appear arbitrary and supersessionist. In this article I propose a paradigmatic use of the Exodus in both testaments which biblical authors themselves employed to show ongoing divine action. My attempt is not to find the "center" of the Bible, for the Exodus is clearly not a central theme in important parts of Hebrew Bible, notably the wisdom literature (apart from Wisdom of Solomon).

The Exodus theme occurs largely in three principal clusters or "moments": (1) the thirteenth-century Exodus in the Book of Exodus and some pre-exilic psalm and prophetic texts (Exodus I); (2) the sixth-century return from exile, interpreted by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah 40-55 as a new Exodus (Exodus II); and (3) the work of Jesus in the first century C.E., interpreted by New Testament writers as a new Exodus (Exodus III). Exodus I in the Book of Exodus has two components which show up in later uses as well--the liberation of the people from Pharaoh's lordship in Egypt (chaps. 1-15) and their formation into a people under Yahweh's lordship at Sinai (proleptic of Canaan, chaps. 16-40).

That the Exodus is a central theme in the Bible no one denies. (1) But it is not common to assert its pan-biblical organizing function. (2) Demonstrating the thesis, therefore, will require some explanation of why so much scholarship does not regard the Exodus as a unifying theme.


The basic text of Exodus I is the Book of Exodus, which narrates the Exodus from Egypt as a chapter in the chain of events from the creation of the world (Genesis) to Israel's arrival at the threshold of Canaan (Deuteronomy). Though its origins are complex, the Book of Exodus tells a coherent story. "[The book] gives the appearance of a (to be sure, secondary) literary entity unto itself," writes Moshe Greenberg. (3) A precis of the plot proves Greenberg right. After enjoying security in Egypt won for them by Joseph, the people fall under the power of a new and oppressive Pharaoh. He attempts to make himself their "god," interfering with the dual blessing of land and progeny given to the ancestors in Genesis (see Genesis 1:28 and 12:1-3). In Exodus 1, Pharaoh keeps them from taking their own land (v. 10, "Come let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase ... and escape from the land") and limits their progeny by imposing dispiriting labor and killing their male children.

Moses tries to free his people but is unsuccessful and has to flee Egypt. While pasturing flocks at Sinai, he encounters Yahweh, thus prefiguring in his life the people's later flight from Egypt and encounter with God at Sinai. In ten plagues Pharaoh and Yahweh battle over lordship of the Hebrews. Each "god" has his earthly lieutenants: Yahweh has Moses and Aaron, and Pharaoh has his magicians. In the tenth plague, Yahweh is victorious, taking Pharaoh's firstborn which in that culture was the ultimate homage to a deity. …