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Old Testament Overview 2 - Exodus and Wilderness

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

1: Creation and Patriarchs 2: Exodus and Wilderness
3: Conquest and Monarchy 4: Divided Kingdom and Exile
5: Return from Exile 6: 400 Silent Years

The Exodus from Egypt, Sinai, and The Wilderness

(Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy c. 1440 - 1400 BC)

Slavery and oppression (Ex 1)

The Book of Exodus begins about 400 years after the end of Genesis, and the situation of the Israelites was very different. We are told that a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph. This probably refers to a new dynasty of Egyptian kings. During this time, the Israelites had been very prolific, and had grown in population from a large family of seventy people to two or three million. This huge population of foreigners was a threat to the Egyptian king, who decided to force them into slave labour and oppress them. He later ordered that all the Hebrew boys would be killed as soon as they were born.

There is a significant pattern here, just before the Exodus, which was God's great act of deliverance in the Old Testament, there was an attack against the baby boys of Israel. In the same way, at the birth of Jesus, there was another killing of Israelite baby boys, by King Herod.

Moses (Ex 2)

God's answer to this oppression was the birth of Moses. His mother laid him in a basket in the bull-rushes, trusting God to protect him. His sister stood nearby, and when the Egyptian princess found him, she asked her if she would like a midwife, so she went and fetched her mother. So Moses was brought up in Pharaoh's palace, by his mother! In this way, Moses was brought up in the wisdom of Egypt, but also with an understanding of his own people and in the knowledge of the one true God (Acts 7:22).

At the age of forty, Moses went out and saw his people being oppressed by the Egyptians. Taking the law into his own hands, he killed an Egyptian slave master, and had to flee for his life to the land of Midian, where he looked after sheep for the next forty years, until the age of eighty.

The Burning Bush (Ex 3-4)

One day Moses saw something which happened occasionally in the desert, a shrub burst into flames. This has been observed in recent years, caused by the sunlight being reflected off crystals of quartz on the ground under the shrub. What was unusual about this, and what caught Moses' attention, was that it was not consumed by the flames. He came closer for a second look, and God spoke to him out of the bush, sending him to Pharaoh, to bring the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, so that they can worship God on this mountain (Mt. Sinai) (Ex 3:11-12).

When God revealed himself to people in the Old Testament, he often did so by giving himself a new name. To the patriarchs, he had appeared as God Almighty ('El Shaddai'), the God who could perform great acts of power, but now at the burning bush, he gave himself a new name, 'I am'. This name is usually believed to be pronounced Yahweh, normally translated LORD (in capital letters) in English translations. Yahweh is the personal name of God, a God who is self-existent, but who is also actively present in relationship with men. It describes God coming near to mankind, as a friend, who speaks and is involved in their lives, a God who intends to reveal his inmost character to them. Yahweh was the God of the Covenant, who was present in the midst of oppression, and who saved his people and set them free from slavery in Egypt.

The Plagues of Egypt (Ex 5-10)

Moses and Aaron went to the Pharaoh of Egypt and commanded him to let the Israelites go, but Pharaoh hardened his heart, and said "No!". So God began to show his power over Egypt through the ten plagues, of increasing severity.

The Egyptians worshipped a large multitude of different gods, including gods of cows, flies, the River Nile, and locusts. In the plagues of Egypt, we see God showing his power over Egypt and over each of the most important Egyptian gods. For example, an important god was Ra, the god of the sun, which was demonstrated to be defeated by the plague of darkness.

The tenth plague and the Passover (Ex 11-12)

The tenth plague was the most devastating on Egypt. The Pharaoh was believed to be a manifestation of the god, so his son was the next manifestation. So after the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn sons, the Egyptians desperately wanted the Israelites to go before anything worse happened. They even showered them with gold and jewels as they left, as God had predicted.

The plagues affected the Egyptians, but did not affect the Israelites. This is especially seen in the final plague. The Israelites were told to kill a lamb and put some of the blood on their doorposts, so when the angel of death came, he 'passed over' the houses which had the blood of the lamb. The remainder of the lamb was eaten as a special Passover meal, which was instituted as a yearly festival to remember God delivering his people out of Egypt.

The firstborn of the Israelites were physically saved from death by the shed blood of a lamb - a picture of the death of Christ which saves us from spiritual death. So the Passover is an example of a 'type'. Types are real events, people, places, or objects in the Old Testament which in some way foreshadow and pre-represent some aspect of Jesus and his death on the cross in our place.

Immediately after the Passover meal, the Israelites left Egypt in a great hurry, before Pharaoh changed his mind about letting them go.

The Red Sea (Ex 14-15)

It is unlikely that the Israelites crossed the main part of the Red Sea, as that does not lead to the traditional site of Mt. Sinai. The Hebrew text calls the water they crossed the 'Sea of Reeds'. A common suggestion is that they crossed the area of water near the Mediterranean Coast through which the Suez Canal now runs. It is also suggested that the Red Sea crossing was at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba to the east of the Sinai Peninsular, directly into the Land of Midian.

There is a good lesson here in the difference between faith and presumption. Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea in obedience to the word of the Lord, and reached the other side safely. In contrast, the Egyptian army tried to follow, without the word of the Lord, and were drowned (Heb 11:29).

The Route of the Exodus (Ex 16-18)

The map suggests a possible route of the Exodus. It is very difficult to trace the exact route, particularly because people camping for brief periods and quickly moving on do not leave any archaeological remains.

In three months, the Israelites moved from the Red Sea crossing to Mt. Sinai, grumbling and complaining as they went, but seeing God graciously providing for them, through the manna, quails, and the water from the rock.

Mount Sinai and The covenant (Ex 20-24)

They arrived at Mt. Sinai, and stayed there for exactly one year, where some extremely significant things happened. Moses had led his people out of Egypt, and now they had arrived at Mt. Sinai, where Moses went up the mountain to meet with God, where he received the law (Ex 20-23), summarised in the 10 commandments (Ex 20).

The law of Moses should be seen as the constitution of the nation of Israel. Moses brought a huge group of slaves out of Egypt, now God was making them into a nation, who would go in and occupy the Promised Land. The law would give them their identity as a new nation, with God as their king. God chose Israel and set them apart as a holy nation, to whom he would reveal himself in a special and unique way, so they could worship him and live according to his ways. God did this so they could be a light to the nations, a representation of God to the Gentiles, so by looking at Israel the nations would learn what the One True God was like. (This is also the calling on the church.) Through this nation God would eventually bring the Messiah. So the law should be seen as a complete package, which contained many individual rules and regulations.

The law began with the 10 commandments (Ex 20:1-17), which act as a summary of the law, first dealing with their relationship with God, and then with relationships with each other. Within the law were many specific stipulations which covered all aspects of life. As in other ancient law codes, they were not neatly arranged by subject, but to us seem all mixed up. The subjects included:
Laws to deal with criminals
Laws regulating sexual relationships
Laws concerning property
Laws to protect the poor and give hospitality to strangers
Laws to protect slaves
Sabbath law
Sacrifices and offerings to God
Laws to ensure justice
Laws against idolatry
Hygiene regulations

Some laws are absolute commands or prohibitions in the form, "You shall not ...", others are case laws giving an example, "If this happens, then this is how you should deal with it". These were designed to set a precedent so when someone was accused of something not explicitly covered by the law, the case was brought to the city elders at the gate of the city, where they passed judgement based on the nearest example in the law.

The law was given in the form of a covenant or agreement. God gave the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, then the covenant was made when the people agreed to keep it and it was sealed with blood (Ex 24).

The Golden Calf (Ex 32-33)

Unfortunately the covenant was soon broken through the episode of the golden calf, when the people asked Aaron to make gods for them because Moses seemed to be lost up the mountain. The calf was one of the many gods of Egypt. Moses pleaded with God not to wipe the people out, but to give them another chance. Moses stormed down into the camp, breaking the tablets of stone written by the finger of God to demonstrate the breaking of the covenant. He then ground the golden calf to dust, mixed it with water and made the Israelites drink it. Moses then returned up the mountain, where after Moses's intercession, God renewed the covenant.

The tabernacle (Ex 25-27, 35-40)

Towards the end of the book of Exodus there are detailed instructions and equally detailed descriptions of how they built the tabernacle. This may seem very dull for us to read, but the tabernacle was extremely important for the Israelites. At the burning bush, Moses had been commanded to bring the Israelites out of Egypt so that they could worship God on this mountain (Ex 3:12). So the Exodus was both to bring the people out of slavery, but also so that they could worship God, who would live in the midst of them.

The book of Numbers (ch 2) describes the positions each tribe should set their tents in, with the tabernacle in the centre, so God was literally living in the midst of his people. In the prologue to John's Gospel, Jesus is described as the Word who came and lived among us (Jn 1:14), literally the one who came and set his tent among us - the fulfilment of all that the tabernacle stood for.

The climax of the book of Exodus comes right at the end, when Moses dedicated the completed tabernacle to God, and the glory of God comes down and fills it - a dramatic moment, and a fulfilment of the purpose of the Exodus.

The Book of Leviticus

The Book of Leviticus is probably one of the least popular books in the Bible, but addresses an important issue. The book of Exodus concludes with the glory of God filling the tabernacle in the presence of the Israelites. Leviticus asks the question, "How can a holy God live in the midst of a sinful people?" And, "How can sinful people come into the presence of a holy God?" God's desire has always been to be in relationship with his people, but how can he do this when his people are sinful, without compromising his holiness?

In Leviticus, a restriction was placed on coming into the presence of God. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, and only if he brought blood to atone (or cover) for the sin of himself and of the people. Leviticus shows us the seriousness of sin. For deliberate sin there was no sacrifice, but for most sins the penalty was death (an exception is stealing, where the thief had to pay restitution). Sacrifices were only available for accidental sin, for the general sinfulness of mankind, and for ritual purity.

The departure from Mount Sinai (Num 10-12)

Finally, after a year on the mountain, the cloud of the glory of God moved off from the tabernacle, showing that it was time for the Israelites to restart their journey to the Promised Land. After three months and more complaining and grumbling, they reached Kadesh-Barnea on the southern border of the Promised Land.

Rebellion in the wilderness (Num 13-19)

The people asked Moses if they could send people to spy out the land, and Moses agreed. So they chose one person from each of the twelve tribes. The spies travelled throughout the land, and all came back with a good report saying that the land was wonderful, with plenty of food, but there were giants in the land. Ten of the twelve spies said they were frightened of the giants, and they felt like grasshoppers compared with them. Two of the spies reported that, yes, there were giants in the land, but God was bigger than the giants, and he had promised them the land. These spies were Joshua and Caleb.

Unfortunately, the people followed the ten spies and refused to enter the land, failing to trust God. In response to this rebellion, God pronounced judgement on Israel, saying that all the adult population who had left Egypt will die in the wilderness, and that their children will enter the land.

38 wasted years

The Book of Numbers skips over these years. But the people had to wait in the wilderness, until all the adults had died. Of the 600,000 or so adult men who left Egypt, only two eventually entered the land. These were Joshua and Caleb, the two spies that said that God was bigger than the giants. The book of Numbers gets its name from the two accounts of the counting of the people, the census. The first counting (ch 1) was at Mount Sinai, of all the fighting men of Israel - this was the first generation who came out of Egypt. Later there is another counting (ch 26) - the second generation who would enter the land.

Conquest East of the Jordan (Num 20-24)

Finally, after the last adult who came out of Egypt had died, the Israelites moved off, first towards the Red Sea, then towards the nations of Edom and Moab. It is difficult to trace the exact route they would have taken. Edom and Moab were not part of the promised land, and although they did not allow the Israelites to pass through their land, they did not attack them. Kings of two other nations, however, did attack Israel and were defeated by them. These were the Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan. Although this area was not originally part of the land promised to Israel, 2½ of the tribes were allowed to settle here, on the condition that they would still help the rest of the people conquer their land.

The book of Deuteronomy

The book of Numbers concludes with Israel camped to the east of the River Jordan, in the plains of Moab. Moses had been forbidden by God to enter the land, because he took credit for supplying water from the rock when he hit the rock in anger rather than speaking to it as God commanded him (Num 20:11-12). Before Moses died, he preached his heart out to the people, exhorting them to keep the law and remain faithful to God. These final speeches are recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the Greek word meaning 'second law', and in it Moses repeats the law to the new generation who are about to enter the promised land.

It is written in the form of a written covenant, typical of the covenants made at that time between conquering kings and conquered nations. These covenants all had a similar arrangement, which Deuteronomy follows. It runs something like this:

Ancient Covenant Book of Deuteronomy
"I am the boss" LORD commanded Moses to speak (1:1-5)
"I have been good to you" I have brought you out of Egypt, and through the wilderness (1:6 - 4:43)
"Therefore you will obey me"
a) General rules
b) Detailed rules
a) 10 Commandments (ch 5) and general laws (ch 6 - 11)
b) Many other detailed laws (ch 12 - 25)
Blessings for obedience
Cursings for disobedience
Blessings and Cursings (ch 27 - 28)
Provision for renewing the covenant Covenant renewal (ch 30 - 31)

Towards the end of the covenant there is a series of blessings and cursings. The blessings of prosperity, peace, security and fruitfulness will come if the people obey the law and are faithful to God. But the cursings of drought, famine, enemies invading, and finally exile from the land will come if they disobey the law, or show they are not being faithful to God by worshipping idols.

In Deuteronomy, Moses promised that God would one day raise up a prophet like himself, whom the people should obey (Deut 18:15-16). This is an early promise of the Messiah, Jesus (Acts 3:22-23).

The importance of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament

Deuteronomy is really the foundation on which much of the rest of the Old Testament is built, so it is very important for us to know it and to understand it.

The history books record the outworking of these blessings and cursings. The nation was blessed by God when the people, particularly the king, was faithful to him and did not worship idols. The nation came under God's curse when they were not faithful to God and his covenant (this was most of the time), eventually leading to the people losing their land and being taken into exile.

The prophets were raised up by God to call the people to repentance and to return to faithful obedience to the covenant, warning of the judgement that would come if they persisted in their idolatry (the curses), and to bring hope to the few who remained faithful to God (the blessings).

The wisdom books, like Proverbs, demonstrate the difference between the wise and the fool. The wise walk in the fear of the Lord, obeying his law, and prosper. The fool does not walk in the fear of the Lord, does not obey his law, and suffers.

Also available:

1: Creation and Patriarchs 2: Exodus and Wilderness
3: Conquest and Monarchy 4: Divided Kingdom and Exile
5: Return from Exile 6: 400 Silent Years