The Exodus: Paradigm of Salvation

I invite you on a journey into wisdom.

One book of the Bible more than any other draws me back over and over again. That book is the Book of Exodus. 

As a narrative, I find it deeply engaging, comparable to J.R.R. Tokien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for me, an equally engaging story. The account of the contest between God and Pharaoh, recounted in chapters 5-14, matches any of the great duels between champions that we find in the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Arthurian romances. Though God wins in the end, Pharaoh is a formidable fighter. His stature equals that of Satan in Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.

As philosophical theology, Exodus gives us that fundamental conception of God revealed at the burning bush on Sinai: I am who I am, or I will be who I will be (Exodus 3:14). There in a nutshell we are introduced to a God as a Presence, who remains an impenetrable mystery. 

Exodus gives us that fundamental conception of God revealed at the burning bush on Sinai: I am who I am, or I will be who I will be.

In the end our best intellectual efforts to describe God become the blind men describing the elephant in the famous Indian parable. To know God is ultimately not to comprehend God, but to relate to God personally as the eternal Thou of our lives. Biblical religion finds its fullest maturity in mysticism.

As an account of the process of liberation and nation building, Exodus is true to the realities of political life. It has inspired reformers and revolutionaries in many generations. When the Puritan refugees migrated to New England in the 17th century, they brought with them visions of themselves as Israelites fleeing the oppression of England as Egypt, commissioned with the task of creating a new promised land where God’s people could flourish. Benjamin Franklin once proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should include an image of Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea.

It is no accident either that even in the writings of secularized socialists, like Karl Marx, we find references to the Exodus story. The story forms an important substratum below European and American thought.*

The impact of the Exodus story on African-Americans has been huge, both during the slavery era and after. You hear allusions to it all through Black preaching and rhetoric. A good example is the speech Dr. Martin Luther King gave in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his assassination. It is popularly titled “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” 

In it King talks about all the threats that have been made against his life, with new threats there in Memphis. He responds with words that draw their imagery from the account in Deuteronomy 34 of the death of Moses. Moses does not get to enter the Promised Land, but before his death, he is given a glimpse of it from the top of Mount Nebo. 

Dr. Martin Luther King

Drawing upon that account, King says of himself:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

 The Exodus story has also inspired many cherished spirituals, like the one that begins:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go

St. Gregory of Nyssa

Finally when we search out a road map for the spiritual journey, to help us understand the typical movements of spiritual formation, we find teachers of spirituality turning over and over again to the narratives and images we encounter in the Exodus story. A good example is the early church father, Gregory of Nyssa, whose Life of Moses treats the Exodus story as an allegory delineating the stages of the mystic’s pilgrimage.

The Jewish Paradigm of Salvation

But more than anything else, I find the most compelling quality of the exodus story to be the fact that in the Biblical mindset, it is the essential paradigm for salvation, past, present, and future. What does salvation look like? What are the typical rhythms in the movement towards salvation? In the Biblical mindset, salvation is less a one-time event, and much more a journey, a journey of a people, even more than for individuals.

…in the Biblical mindset, [the Exodus] is the essential paradigm for salvation, past, present, and future.

When in the dual disasters of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah, and the Hebrew prophets and the psalmists look with longing for God’s future redemption, they constantly turn to the language of the Exodus story. Hosea sees that for corrupt Israel to return to a thriving, loving relationship with its God, it will need to undergo another purification experience in the desert (Hosea 2). And the prophet behind Isaiah 40-55 presents glowing pictures of how God will redeem Israel out of Babylon through a second and glorious exodus through the desert. 

A Christian Paradigm Too

This imagery has deeply shaped the mindset of Christianity as well. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the supreme exodus, only foreshadowed in the Mosaic exodus. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has set all humanity free from the oppressive autocracy of spiritual powers and dominions, of sin, and finally the mortality of death. 

[In Christianity] the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the supreme Exodus, only foreshadowed in the Mosaic exodus.

Orthodox Icon of Jesus’ Resurrection

Early Christians celebrated that great victory each year in its Easter festival, a festival to which they gave the name of Pascha (a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word for Passover). Easter is the Christian Passover. That victory is also celebrated every time Christians gather for the Eucharist, the feast where we remember and participate in the sacrifice of Christ our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Given the centrality of the exodus story to the Biblical mindset, I want to spend time in a series of blog postings reflecting on the narrative, the imagery, and the concepts that we encounter in that narrative. I will be concentrating my attention on the Book of Exodus alone. 

But the Book of Exodus** does not tell the full story. It only recounts basically the first year of what will become a 40-year-long journey (the story continues into the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua). But what happens in that first year will be decisive to the character of the journey. It is in these decisive moments that the enduring wisdom of the exodus story primarily resides. 

My postings will be my personal reflections and comments on the text. Scholars may challenge whether my exegesis is accurate or not. You should not, therefore, take my comments as the definitive interpretation of Exodus. Rather my postings will reflect how the book triggers thoughts, feelings, and insights within one engaged reader. I hope they will trigger something similar for you. If you disagree with my interpretations, I invite you to share your alternative viewpoint using the Comments feature of this blog. 

So come, join me in a fascinating journey through a great work of insight and wisdom.   


* For readers who wish to explore the many ways politicians, liberationists, and revolutionaries have drawn upon the story of the exodus, I recommend Michael Walzer’s book, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1985). It’s a brilliant study of how the exodus story has influenced politicians and revolutionaries through the centuries, especially those who led the English Puritan revolution in the 17th century, the American revolution in the 18th century, revolutionary thinkers in the 19th century including utopian socialists, the various revolutionary movements in the 20th century, and liberationist theologians in Latin America today.

** Throughout my postings, I will capitalize Exodus when the word refers to the book of Exodus. I will lower-case it when I am referring to the historical event of the exodus.

“Thus Saith the Lord”

A stray story in 1 Kings reveals the hidden source of prophecy’s power.

Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Jeremiah in the Sistine Chapel

It’s a common idea that prophecy means foretelling the future. We encounter that understanding every time a financial expert disavows his ability to predict how the stock market will rise or fall.

This understanding misses a key element of prophecy in the Old Testament. This overlooked element, however, accounts for the link the Protestant reformers made between prophecy and the normal preaching that goes on in churches Sunday after Sunday.

Calling in the Prophets

The Old Testament pulls back the veil on this overlooked element in a stray story that does not even appear in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. This is the story of the prophet Micaiah that we find in 1 Kings 22:1-40.

In this story Ahab, the king of the northern kingdom of Israel, covets the region of Ramoth-gilead. He decides to go to war against his neighbor, the king of Aram. In his war of conquest, he enlists the help of Jehoshaphat, king of the southern kingdom of Judah.

Before they launch their campaign, Jehoshaphat suggests that they consult God about its outcome. Ahab therefore summons his 400 court prophets and asks them. In one voice they say the Lord will give him victory.

Their unanimous response makes Jehoshaphat uneasy. He asks if there are any other prophets that have not been consulted. Ahab says there is one more, Micaiah. However, he does not like Micaiah because he never prophesies anything favorable, only disaster.

Jehoshaphat insists they summon Micaiah. When he enters the kings’ presence, he, too, predicts that Ahab will have a victory. But the king insists he speak the truth. As a result, Micaiah announces that if Ahab goes into battle, he will die. Which turns out to be true.

What’s interesting about Micaiah’s prophecy is the warrant he gives for his words. He says that he has been given a vision. In it he finds himself in God’s heavenly throne room. A discussion is going on. How, God asks his court, can they entice Ahab to go into battle for Ramoth-gilead so Ahab can meet his death?

The courtiers make different suggestions. Then one, presumably an angel, offers to put a lying spirit into Ahab’s 400 court prophets. Their word of hope will entice Ahab to make the foolish venture. God commissions him to do just that.

The Biblical text does not tell us how Micaiah has this vision (which is obviously described in mythical language). By dream, by trance, or by induced imagination? But however the vision came, it gave Micaiah insight into the hidden spiritual world where he is given the privilege of understanding God’s hidden will and action.

The Prophet as Intimate Companion with God

Now this is the element of Hebrew prophecy that gives it its power. The prophet becomes the intimate companion of God. As a result, he is given insight into how God is at work in human affairs and what God’s intentions are. He is given insight into the spiritual world that lies behind the phenomena of human history.

Therefore he can speak an authoritative word from God to the people. “Thus saith the Lord” is how oracle after oracle begins in the prophetic literature.

Of course, the prophet’s audience does not know at once whether a particular prophet has been given genuine insight or not. He may be deceived in what he believes is God’s word to the people. Only the unfolding of history will confirm that or not.

This is true even in Micaiah’s story. The king imprisons Micaiah until the campaign is over. When the king returns in victory, he says, that fact will prove Micaiah was a lying prophet. History always plays a critical role in confirming a prophet’s message.

The crucial element of Hebrew prophecy is the prophet’s claim that he has been given insight into the divine dimension that lies behind ordinary life. That insight may come in different ways, but it is always a gift. It gives him real insight (though never complete insight) into how God is at work, what are God’s intentions, and what God expects of human beings.

That is the secret to the power of the prophet’s message.

The Link Between Prophesying and Preaching

Although most believers, both Jewish and Christian, thought that Old Testament prophecy had come to an end in the three centuries preceding Jesus, the Protestant reformers saw that it had not. Instead they believed the church’s preachers had inherited the prophets’ mantle.

One of the most influential statements of that viewpoint was the treatise titled The Art of Prophesying, by the Puritan divine William Perkins (1558-1602). The book, published in Latin in 1592 and in English in 1607, discusses the matter and method of preaching. It had a profound influence on Puritan preaching. But note how its title links preaching with prophesying.

Another statement of the same viewpoint is a hymn often sung at the ordination of Christian ministers. It starts out: God of the prophets, bless the prophets’ sons. The prophets’ sons are, of course, the individual ministers being ordained. The second stanza then goes on:

Anoint them prophets! Make their ears attent,

To thy divinest speech; their hearts awake

To human need; their lips make eloquent

To gird the right, and every evil break.

At the core of the preacher’s call, as these reformers saw it, was this call for the preacher to receive insight into the divine world of God’s will and actions and then share that insight as authoritative guidance with their congregation.

It was assumed that this insight would come through study and meditation on Scripture rather than through trance and mystical vision. That assumption may have discounted the revelatory power of inspired imagination. But the important point was that it was the insight, however it came, that gave authority to the preacher’s words.

It is this linkage between preaching and Old Testament prophecy that lies behind the conviction of many today that Martin Luther King, Jr., is a prophet in the line of succession from his Biblical counterparts. They see his insight into God’s will and actions in history as the source of the power of his preaching.

If we should seek to look for the heirs of Old Testament prophecy today-–whether in terms of its lying or its truth-speaking versions–let us look to the pulpits of our churches.

The Living Voice of the Word

Let us reclaim the power of reading the Bible aloud.

People today access the words of Scripture differently from our ancestors in the ancient and medieval worlds. Books then were copied by hand. As a result, books were rare and expensive. Reading was an elitist skill. So most people absorbed the words of Scripture through their ears, by hearing the Bible read out loud in a church or synagogue service, in the monastic dining hall, or in the university lecture room.

All that changed with the invention of printing. Books became a mass medium; reading a skill possessed by the masses. We largely access the words of Scripture today through the eye, as we open the printed book and read it silently to ourselves.

What is lost is that oral dimension when the Bible is read aloud. The pitches, the modulations, the pauses of the human voice all give a power to the reading of the Bible that a silent reading cannot deliver. Oral reading more easily engages the emotions and moves the spirit.

As an example of power of the spoken word, take Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Read silently, the speech will impress us with the depth and breadth of King’s vision. But listen to a recording of the speech. You begin to realize why his oral delivery so moved the audience that heard it back in August 1963. His voice adds a dimension that the printed page cannot capture.

A Prophet Declaims

I began to think about this as I was reading the Old Testament prophet Joel recently. In the first two chapters, the prophet declaims to Judah the impending disaster that God’s judgment is about to bring upon the land. An immense army will sweep down from the north and strip the land bare.

What fascinated me was how the prophet uses poetic expression to deliver his message. For example, here is how he describes the onslaught of that army:

Like warriors they charge,
like soldiers they scale the wall.
Each keeps to its own course,
they do not swerve from their paths.
They do not jostle one another,
each keeps to its own track;
they burst through the weapons
and are not halted.
They leap upon the city,
they run upon the walls;
they climb up into the houses,
they enter through the windows like a thief.
(Joel 2:7-9, NRSV)

As I read this passage, the image that immediately popped into my mind was some battle scenes in George Lucas’ Star Wars series. In these battles the empire marshals vast armies of androids to attack the rebels. The androids come marching across the desert sands in lock-step order, line upon line. They crush whatever falls into their path.

Joel is evoking the same kind of effect, but with words rather than moving images. Of course, poetry (especially epic poetry) served in the ancient world the same effect that the cinema does in ours. It sought to tell a dramatic story and engage us in the story by stirring up our emotions. What we expect from a good movie, the Greeks would have experienced in a superb recitation of Homer.

This led me to wonder how Joel’s proclamation must have sounded when he delivered it orally in person. We don’t know where that happened. But I suspect his oral delivery was one reason why people remembered and recorded what he said for future generations.

Revitalizing the Public Reading of Scripture

I also wonder if we cannot experience something of that same power when we hear the Bible read aloud with a sensitivity to the sound and rhythms of the words. That’s why I would suggest that a monotone reading of Scripture in our worship services does a disservice to the holy text. Our official readers should be encouraged to bring the fullness of their voices’ capabilities to that reading.

Let’s also be honest. The oral reading is an interpretation of the text. What we choose to emphasize by our voice suggests how we hear the text we are reading. In that sense a good oral reading is as much an interpretation as the sermon.

In some recent online articles, British poet Paul Gittens analyzes why poetry has declined in popularity so much in the 20th and 21st centuries compared to previous centuries. One reason, he believes, is the decline in the public recitation of poetry. Historically, poetry’s impact has depended in large part on its verbal music, its sounds and rhythms, its meters and rhyme.

He cities research by the Poetry and Memory Project at Cambridge University. In its online mission statement, it contends: “If, as most poets and scholars argue, poems communicate meaning fundamentally through sound, it would seem that to wholly replace performance of a poem with talk about that poem must be to lose something vital.”

I would like to suggest that something similar can be said about the public reading of Scripture. The oral reading of Scripture has always held an important place in the life of the church and in the life of Christian families. Maybe we need to make sure it retains that important place.