Exodus: Who Is the Exodus Generation?

The Old Testament gives a surprising answer.

The Israelites Leaving Egypt, by David Roberts, 1828.

Author’s Note: This blog posting was originally posted on April 27, 2018. I repost it here because of its relevance to our journey through the Book of Exodus. Because it was first posted three years ago, it repeats some of the same points I made in my previous posting

The Book of Exodus reports that when the Israelites left Egypt, they numbered about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exodus 12:37). This figure is repeated in Numbers 11:21 and Numbers 26:51. When you count in those uncounted women and children, scholars conservatively estimate that the total figure was somewhere in the range of 2 million. 

This is an enormous figure. Exodus scholar Nahum Sarna says that a safe estimate of the population of ancient Egypt would come in at around four or five million.* So the Exodus migration would have represented a catastrophic loss of population for ancient Egypt. 

This has led most Biblical scholars to discount the Biblical figure. Clearly it is an exaggeration. If the authors have fabricated this figure, they argue, what other aspects of the Exodus story have they also fabricated? This argument figures in many scholars denying the Exodus ever happened.

So how do we account for this hyperbole in the Exodus account? 

Sarna offers an intriguing answer to the puzzle. He says that the figure of 2 million represents the approximate population of the kingdom of Israel at the time of Kings David and Solomon. So the author/editor is counting the whole population of Israel at this time among those who escaped into freedom under Moses.

How could the author or editors of the Biblical text take such a viewpoint? Sarna suggests that they do because they do not see the Exodus era as ending with Israel’s crossing the Jordan River and occupying the land of Canaan under Joshua. 

Instead they view the Exodus migration ending only when David captures the city of Jerusalem and Solomon builds a stationary temple to replace the portable tabernacle. The building of that temple is in fact the culmination of God’s act of redemption begun under Moses.**

…the great acts of God’s redemption on our part, whether in the Exodus or in the events of Holy Week, do not remain events in the past. They continue to be events in the present for faithful believers. Time past and time future merge into an eternal present. 

Says Sarna, “It is as though all those living at the time of the building of the Temple themselves experienced the events of the Exodus.”***

I find that fascinating. It is saying that the Exodus generation is not just the immediate generation of those who left Egypt under Moses’ leadership. The Exodus generation includes all subsequent generations following the 40 years of wilderness wanderings, plus the nearly two centuries of Israelite settlement during the period of the judges and the early reigns of Saul and David. 

The Biblical Mindset Takes an Unexpected Turn

This leads me to think that there may be an even more astonishing conception going on in the Biblical mindset. In Deuteronomy 6:20-25, we find guidance on how parents are to instruct their children in the Torah. The text begins, When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?…. This wording is clearly addressing the situation of generations beyond those who wandered in the wilderness under Moses. 

And how does the text instruct parents to answer? …then you shall say to your children‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….’ Note carefully the wording. The parents are not instructed to say, Our ancestors were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought THEM out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Instead they are to say, WE were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought US out of Egypt with a mighty hand.****

The viewpoint here is that all Israelites for generations to come participated in the Exodus. They were all a part of the Lord’s mighty redemption. So in an amazing way all generations of Jews constitute a portion of the Exodus generation. 

What this conception does is make the Passover feast more than just a historical commemoration. It makes the annual celebration of Passover an experience in which each new generation of Jews participate in the Exodus. The Exodus continues as more than a repeated event. It becomes an ever-present experience for faithful Jews throughout their lives. 

A Parallel in the Christian Tradition

Now how might this have significance for Christians? It is the historic Christian tradition that the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus enact a new Exodus-like redemption. Easter becomes the Christian Passover. This tradition is embedded in New Testament in the conception that Christ’s death is the sacrifice of our paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). It is also embedded in the ancient name for Easter, Pascha, which is the Greek transliteration for the Hebrew word for Passover. 

Christians likewise celebrate their redemption with a celebratory feast, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper looks back to that final meal that Jesus had with his disciples on the night before his betrayal and death. 

When Christians participate in the Eucharist, we are invited to do more than just remember the Last Supper. We are invited to join Jesus’ original disciples at that same table as Jesus the host distributes the bread and the wine. In a sense the table of the Lord expands from its original 12 guests to include all the millions of other invited guests that have joined in in the generations since. 

All this excites me because it suggests that the great acts of God’s redemption on our part, whether in the Exodus or in the events of Holy Week, do not remain events in the past. They continue to be events in the present for faithful believers. Time past and time future merge into an eternal present. 

Now that blows my mind. Does it yours?


* Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1996. Page 97. 

** That viewpoint seems in fact to be presaged in one of the oldest bits of poetry in the Old Testament, the Song of the Moses in Exodus 15:1-18. This song celebrates the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. In the narrative the song is sung at the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, yet it ends on a puzzling note. It looks into the future, when the Lord will plant his sanctuary on the mountain which God will choose. The editors who put the Torah together may also have seen the establishment of the Jerusalem temple as the fulfillment of this enigmatic hope.

*** Sarna, page 101.

**** We find this same use of the first person plural in the famous Israelite creed recorded in Deuteronomy 26:5-9. It, too, describes the Exodus event as something that WE experienced, not just our ancestors.

Exodus: Meal of Memory

The Passover meal makes the exodus story always contemporary.

A Passover Seder Plate.

An odd feature of the Exodus narrative is that it brackets its account of the final plague–the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:29-32)–with extensive directions on how future generations are to celebrate the Passover meal (see Exodus 12:1-20and Exodus 12:43-13:16). Someone who approaches the book as nothing more than a narrative story is going to be puzzled by this feature. Why does the “author” do this?

Well, it is important to remember that the Book of Exodus forms a part of the Torah. Although it is common to translate the Hebrew word torah as law, its fundamental meaning is instruction. The Torah (the five books of Moses together) have a very practical goal. They are to instruct the Israelites in their distinctive origins, mission, and ways of living in a covenant with their God. The Torah instructs them in how they are to be a people set apart.

Torah therefore has a good amount of history, but its chief concern is not with the past. Its chief concern is how the Israelites are to live in the present. So the historical narrative gets interlaced with a lot of legislation. The past is never quite past. There is a sense in which the past is always contemporary. Past and present form one united time. 

Making History Contemporary for Future Generations

We see this attitude exemplified in a passage in Deuteronomy 6:20-25. In this passage the text, set in the exodus era, looks into the future. It envisions a time when a young generation that did not live through the exodus questions the meaning of all the regulations that the Torah has laid down. Significantly the youngster asks What is the meaning of the decrees and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you? (Deuteronomy 6:20). 

I want to note the prominent use of the word you at the end. It is as if the youngster sees the regulations as applying to his parents but not to himself. And what the text advises the parents to say is: …then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21). 

Notice the emphatic use of the word we as the father begins his response. The son sees the exodus story has simply history. The father sees it as always contemporary. All future generations of Israelites lived through it as well as the original generation. It is a shared experience, an experience that binds the generations into one. 

The Passover meal reinforces this perspective. It is a way the Israelites will continually relive the events of the exodus each year. Today’s generation will pass through the night of liberation just as the original generation did. And so the immediacy of the liberation experience and the bonds that tie the generations together will be renewed year after year. 

The “author” seeks to ensure that result by bracketing the account of the final night in Egypt with these extensive regulations on how Israel is to celebrate the Passover meal each year. I suspect that this is one powerful reason why Jews have managed to preserve their distinctive identity as a people through the centuries.

The Binding Power of Family Meals

And what a wise decision to anchor this constant remembrance of the past in a family meal. I have vivid memories from my own childhood of attending many family reunions with my extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. 

A common feature of these reunions was a family picnic. As people finished eating but were still gathered around the table, the telling of family stories would begin. My cousins and I would sit there enthralled by the stories–many funny, but some sad–that would tumble out of our family’s history. The result was the forging of stronger emotional bonds within the family. The bonds within my extended paternal family are especially strong. 

Recognizing this should give us renewed appreciation of what’s going on when we celebrate the Christian Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. There are many things going on when we engage in that rite. One important function is giving thanks to God for what God has accomplished for our salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We recognize that function when we call the rite Eucharist. It is a thanksgiving meal.

But another important purpose is remembrance, as the apostle Paul makes explicit in his instructions on the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:23-32. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, Paul quotes Jesus as saying about the breaking of the bread: This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise when Jesus pours the cup, Paul says he says: This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

Paul highlights the significance of the Eucharist as a rite to constantly remind us of the great events of our own liberation, that second exodus that the Christian church has always seen in the events of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. 

But like the Passover meal, the Eucharist is more than just a technique to jog the memory. It is the way we Christians actually participate in the Last Supper along with the original disciples. We might think of the Eucharist as the way that that table in the upper room gets extended broad and wide through the centuries so all believers have the opportunity to sit at table with Jesus and share in the blessing he confers. 

Like the Passover for Jews, the Eucharist is a way of making history contemporary for each generation of Christians.