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The Exodus Tradition in the Bible

The exodus tradition provides a model of deliverance that extends from the book of Exodus to the New Testament.

Nave mosaic depicting the exodus

The exodus—the story of the Israelites’ deliverance from oppression in the land of Egypt—is retold in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. Scholars call such recurrences of the story’s themes and language outside of the book of Exodus “the exodus tradition.” This tradition is found especially in Deuteronomy, in the historical books, in the Prophets, and as a paradigm for the salvation announced in the New Testament. The figure of Moses as the leader of the exodus and the source of divine law appears not only in Exodus and Deuteronomy but also in the latest books of the Hebrew canon, such as Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel.

Markers of the exodus tradition include well-known names, words, phrases, and motifs that run through the books of the Bible, as at the beginning of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2), a passage that also appears in Deut 5:6 and several times throughout the Deuteronomistic History (the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings) Similar language appears, for example, in the book of the prophet Micah (Mic 6:4).

The prophets (for example, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea) frequently cite the divine redemption of the exodus to rebuke Israel for being faithless and ungrateful but also to encourage Israel during the exile with a promise of deliverance even greater than the exodus (Isa 43). In Isa 19, divine justice against Egypt takes the form of civil strife, oppression by a tyrant, and drought, leading the Egyptians to worship the God of Israel. In the Psalms (particularly Ps 29:3-4, Ps 29:10, and Ps 78), the exodus also reminds Israel of divine rescue, often in terms of the cosmos and nature as well as history: “He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap” (Ps 78:13).

Retellings and allusions to the exodus tradition continue in the New Testament, as in Acts 7, where the exodus and its aftermath lead to the arrival, betrayal, and triumph of Jesus. In the Gospels, a Passover celebration provides the occasion and the theological context for the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest, execution, and resurrection. The “new covenant” (Luke 22:20), which echoes a reference to the exodus and a new covenant in Jer 31:31-32, comes to suggest that the exodus tradition has been echoed and perhaps superseded by Jesus’ activity (2Cor 3:6, Heb 8-9).

The prevalence of the exodus tradition in the Bible demonstrates its importance as a foundational collective memory from ancient Israel that predates the monarchy and survives into the time of the early rabbis and followers of Jesus. Postbiblical exodus traditions take many forms, from the Jewish observance of Passover to Christian celebrations of Easter, Muslim teachings about the Prophet Musa, and modern liberation theologies. Though many modern readers have asked whether episodes of the exodus, from the plagues in Egypt to the parting of the Red Sea, “really happened,” the exodus remains one of the most powerful narratives of divine compassion and liberation found in the Bible.

  • Brian M. Britt

    Brian M. Britt is a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. He works at the intersection of cultural theory and biblical studies on questions of modernity and tradition. His most recent book is Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition (Sheffield Phoenix, 2011). His other books are Walter Benjamin and the Bible (Continuum, 1996); Rewriting Moses: The Narrative Eclipse of the Text (T&T Clark/Continuum, 2004); and the coedited volume (with Alexandra Cuffel) Religion, Gender, and Culture in the Pre-Modern World (Palgrave, 2007).