Exodus is the escape from Egypt. It is God’s great exploit in the Old Testament: setting out from a place of slavery to go towards the promised land. God frees his people “with great power, a strong hand and an outstretched arm” which means striking with mighty blows, and opening for them a way through the sea.
Exodus is the heart of the Old Testament and makes it fully relevant in presenting to us a God who frees humankind. This book has given the Jewish religion and later Christian faith a first orientation making them different from all other religions. God does not primarily come in order to be respected or to indicate spiritual paths but rather to choose a people who will allow him to act at the heart of human history. God reveals himself to Moses because he wants to create a nation for himself and it will be Israel.
The Gospels and Christians did recognize in Jesus another Moses who launches a new venture, and in this book they will try to discover symbols of what they are living in the Church: crossing the Red Sea is baptism, the rock from which the spring of water gushes forth is Christ; the Covenant on Sinai anticipates the New Covenant.
In any case we must not forget how the first experience and the significant event all began. The Exodus is first and foremost the liberation of slaves and it is the choosing by God of the Israelites, a genuine liberation which concerns the whole human reality, individual and social. God frees those he wants for himself and Christian liberty will be far removed from what western culture understands by that word.
Exodus and History
The narrations of Exodus abound in beautiful stories but are quite different from what we would have observed had we been there at the time. Great frescoes have been painted, but we would like to know what history would say of them.
All is situated around 1240 B.C. a little more than five centuries after Abraham. In the 15th century before Christ, the Egyptians had been conquered by invaders from Canaan who allowed entry into their country to numerous nomads from the desert (see history of Joseph). After two centuries the Egyptians managed to restore their own kings and from that point on the nomads were treated with far less consideration; many fled to avoid taxes or enforced labor. Some were banished (Ex 12:31); others escaped under the darkness of night (Ex 12:38).
It is in this context that Exodus is situated. A nomadic group pursued by an Egyptian army detachment is saved by God through an extraordinary intervention. The Israelites saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore (Ex 14:30). Moses, a prophet, led the fugitives and interpreted for them this event: Yahweh, the only God, had chosen them to be his people. Moses and his followers were to remain a long time in the oasis of Sinai, and it was there that Moses would give them Yahweh’s Law.
History then is found in Exodus, but Exodus relates much more and it is there that history in its modern meaning may not agree with it. For this book is not the work of one author, but rather the result of a long evolution and has been marked by the different ways of recording history in ancient times.
We have mentioned one of these ways in the commentary on chapter 35 of Genesis: history listened to in groups that passed on orally the past story of their clan. In this way one family has been made up with Moses, his father-in-law Jethro (or Reuel), Aaron, brother of Moses, and Miriam, sister of Aaron and prophetess. There is the memory of links established between Moses and leaders or prophets of other clans. In the same way Mount Sinai has been identified in this account with Mount Horeb and the Mount of God. These were separate holy places, certain traditions of which have been confused. More about this will be discussed later.
Very different is the way history is recorded by the Jewish priests who have given this book its definitive form at the time of the Babylonian Exile. They developed old memories in order to assert, not what had been, but the way the people of Israel should see its past and understand itself. In doing this they showed their contemporaries a way of being the people of God and bearers of history. From there comes the vision of an immense nation already formed, organized, which has its Sanctuary in the desert, its priests, and its foundries that will produce the golden calf. This formidable nation walks as one people, nourished by manna for forty years. It receives its laws which in fact will only be observed five or six centuries later. This entire nation leaves Egypt armed to conquer the Promised Land.
The Living God of the Exodus
So here we are, facing a double history, one of science and one which has formed the conscience of Israel and of Christians. The first shows us how God in fact became part of the greater history. It tells us that his action has been very discreet and we discover his very patient pedagogy. The second helps us realize who we are and what we can fully become in Christ.
However we must not totally separate the two as if all the narration of Exodus was no more than fiction. Let us read a few pages: never would they have been written, and never would they have put weight on the conscience of a nation if they were not a true witness; witness of those who were with Moses and whose experiences were surely exceptional. Otherwise never would there have been either the prophets or the Gospel; witness of those priests or prophets who later would write them, for they too had an experience of the living God, the ‘Savior of Israel’ and because of this they have passed on to us the fire that was lit on Sinai.