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Blog / How Is the Exodus Theme Expressed Throughout the Bible?: An Interview with Alastair J. Roberts

How Is the Exodus Theme Expressed Throughout the Bible?: An Interview with Alastair J. Roberts

Alastair J. RobertsHow is the theme of exodus spread throughout both the Old and New Testaments? How is its message of redemption through Jesus Christ from slavery to sin seen in a unified manner in Scripture?

Bible Gateway interviewed Alastair J. Roberts (@zugzwanged), who, along with Andrew Wilson (@AJWTheology), authored the book, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture (Crossway, 2018).

For those who aren’t familiar with it, briefly explain the story of the exodus in the Bible.

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Alastair J. Roberts: The story of the exodus, found in the second book of the Bible, is the account of God’s deliverance of the children of Israel from the land of Egypt, where they were oppressed by Pharaoh. Through the work of his servant Moses, God brought plagues upon Egypt and delivered Israel through the parted Red Sea, while drowning their pursuers. God brought Israel to Mount Sinai, where he formed a marriage-like bond with them with the giving of the Law and the establishment of his dwelling in their midst in the tabernacle. Due to Israel’s rebellion and unbelief, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, before they were led into the Promised Land of Canaan by Joshua, where they gained possession of the land through divinely empowered military conquest over the inhabitants of the land, who had been set apart for judgment for their wickedness.

What patterns do you see in the order of the 10 plagues?

Alastair J. Roberts: The corruption of the body of Egypt began in the Nile, where the baby boys of the Israelites had been drowned. This spread to the land through the frogs which came forth from the Nile. The dust of the land was then turned to lice. The plague of insects was then given wings in a plague of swarms, rendering the whole land unclean. The land animals then become diseased. Then human beings also broke out in boils. The plagues rose further as the hail came from the sky to strike the seasonal crops and the east wind brought locusts to consume what was left. Then the lights of the heavens themselves were turned out over Egypt. Finally, in the climactic judgment, the lives of the firstborn were extinguished. The judgment God brings moves from the waters beneath to the heavens above. It’s a process of de-creation, dismantling the world of Egypt from its roots to its rafters.

While the world of Egypt is dismantled, the book of Exodus also contains a narrative of new creation. The establishment of the tabernacle at the end of the book of Exodus is a symbolic new creation, as God instructs Israel in the forming and filling of a new realm.

Why have your formatted your book around a musical metaphor?

Alastair J. Roberts: It can be difficult for modern persons to understand the possibility of a deep unity of events, persons, and realities across time, as we often think of time merely as a sequence of events in succession. However, in music we can hear ways in which times can be powerfully connected, even at a distance. Recurring rhythms and motifs relate different passages of a piece of music together. Likewise, the recurring theme of exodus is one that unites realities together across time, revealing a deeper connection between them. Our bodies have a natural tendency to move with music and, in a similar manner, the ‘music’ of God’s great themes of redemption continue to move the church in the present. Events such as the exodus aren’t merely consigned to the distant past, but express the motifs that characterize God’s action in the here and now.

How does the exodus theme unify Scripture?

Alastair J. Roberts: By revealing that Scripture isn’t merely an assemblage of detached stories in loosely historical order, but the development of a majestic theme over millennia; a theme that reaches its climax in the work of Jesus Christ. The exodus theme reveals the ways in which, across the history narrated by Scripture, God is orchestrating the outworking of his great purpose, intimating themes that anticipate later fulfillment, and bringing beauty, harmony, and order to light within the disjointed and discordant realm of human history.

How does Jesus fulfill the story of Joshua?

Alastair J. Roberts: Jesus—whose name is a variant of the name of Joshua—fulfils the story of Joshua as he pioneers a way into the Promised Land of the new creation, giving his people rest.

How does the Last Supper fit in to the exodus theme?

Alastair J. Roberts: The Last Supper was a Passover meal, a celebration in which the event of the exodus was memorialized (Luke 22:7-23; compare Exodus 12:1-28). Jesus institutes his own memorial at this meal, taking an existing celebration powerfully charged with memory and anticipation and relating it to what he was about to accomplish.

Bringing his coming death and resurrection into close correspondence both with the events of the original exodus and with the intense expectations of future deliverance associated with the Passover celebration, Jesus provided his followers with a framework in which to understand what he was doing. He’s the sacrificed Passover Lamb, the sun is darkened over his cross, he becomes the slain firstborn Son for his enemies, he’s the one who tears open a path through the deep waters of death, so that we might pass through unharmed. The connection to the original exodus highlighted by the Last Supper alerts us to the significance of Christ’s fulfillment of all of these themes.

What do you mean that the Bible places more emphasis on the freedom for and less on from?

Alastair J. Roberts: Most of the biblical account of Exodus is concerned, not with the initial deliverance from the tyranny of Pharaoh, but with God’s self-revelation and forging of a new covenant bond with his people. The children of Israel are set free from Pharaoh in order that they might serve God and be brought into faithful fellowship with him. In the contemporary West, we often think of freedom principally as the removal of restraints upon us. However, as the Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians, such liberty can take liberties with us (1 Corinthians 6:12). Set free from bondage to external powers, we can readily forge new chains of our own, manacled by our own vices and sinful habits.

God sets before a freedom that is greater than this, the positive freedom of being established in truthful ways of life, in restored fellowship with him and our neighbours. The Law was given as an expression of what such a way of life would look like, but, as sons and daughters of fallen Adam, the Israelites rebelled against it. The Law held out a vision of freedom in fellowship to Israel, but couldn’t bring them into enjoyment of it. Christ gives us his Spirit so that the condemnation of the Law upon rebellion might be dealt with in his death and so that what the Law couldn’t do on account of our sinful nature could be achieved by the inner working of his Spirit (Romans 8:3-4).

What are some similarities between the story of 1 Samuel 1-2 and the opening chapters of Luke and Acts?

Alastair J. Roberts: At the beginning of Luke, as at the beginning of 1 Samuel, we see a woman whose womb is opened by the Lord. As in the book of Exodus, the great stories of the establishment of the kingdom of Israel and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven begin with women at the foreground of the narrative frame. We see prayer at the temple (Luke 1:10; compare 1 Samuel 1:8-18) and a priest who lacks spiritual perception, associated with dulled physical faculties (Luke 1:20; compare 1 Samuel 1:12-14, 3:3). We see the gift of a Nazirite son (Luke 1:15; compare 1 Samuel 1:11). We see a powerful declaration of praise by the woman whose womb had been opened (Luke 1:46-55; compare 1 Samuel 2:1-10), followed by descriptions of their children’s growth (Luke 1:80; 2:40, 52; compare 1 Samuel 2:21; 3:19) and of portentous events in their early childhood (Luke 2:41-52; compare 1 Samuel 3:1-18). Early in Luke’s narrative, we also see a woman named Anna (Hannah), who is constantly in prayer in the temple (2:36-38). Acts also begins with prayer in the temple (1:14; compare Luke 24:53). The tongues-speaking of the Christians at Pentecost is mistaken for drunken speech (Acts 2:13), much as Hannah’s prayer is in 1 Samuel 1:12-14.

As God is establishing a new kingdom in the Gospels, it should not surprise us that it involves the appearance of themes that remind us of the establishment of the original kingdom of Israel.

How is the life of Jesus an exodus, “hidden in plain sight”?

Alastair J. Roberts: There are themes of exodus found in numerous episodes in Jesus’ life. Christ, like Moses, is the future deliverer who is rescued from the wicked king seeking to kill the baby boys (Matthew 2:16-18). Like Israel, Christ is brought up out of Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). Christ passes through the waters of baptism in the Jordan and is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness for a period of 40 days of testing (Matthew 3:13—4:11), much as Israel passed through the Red Sea and was led by the pillar of fire and cloud into the wilderness, where they spent 40 years being tested. Christ is the one who speaks about the Law from a mountain (Matthew 5:1).

The Gospel writers want us to notice the connection between the exodus and what Christ is doing and will often tell their stories in ways that foreground parallels. For instance, in chapter 6 of his Gospel, John tells us of Jesus crossing a sea, followed by a great multitude, which he takes to a mountain, where he miraculously feeds them with bread that he later relates to the manna.

However, all these little parallels merely point toward the far greater exodus that Christ is accomplishing—the Greek term for exodus is employed in Luke 9:31—through his death and resurrection. Christ defeats the Pharaoh Satan. He’s the firstborn Son brought forth from the opened grave. He’s the one who establishes a new covenant and a new tabernacling of God with his people. He’s the one who ascends to God’s presence, as Moses did on Sinai, and gives the Spirit, who fulfills what the Law could not.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Alastair J. Roberts: The Psalms have always been very important to me. My mother helped me and my brothers to memorize several psalms as very young children. I often find myself returning to these in my mind, their words running like deeply cut grooves of grace in my consciousness, along which streams of divine encouragement can flow. Psalm 1 and Psalm 23 are especially valuable to me.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Alastair J. Roberts: I rarely use Bible apps on my phone, but I have been using Bible Gateway for the better part of two decades. As someone who does a lot of theological writing online, Bible Gateway is generally a more convenient and readily accessible text to use than my physical copy of the Bible, especially as its search features and easily navigable format make locating texts very straightforward.

I have thought a lot about the importance of attending to the formats in which we engage Scripture. While digital Bible formats like Bible Gateway should not replace our primary engagement with Scripture in the form of the spoken word in the gathered assembly of the people of God, they are invaluable resources for personal study and online reference, making certain forms of engagement with Scripture far more possible for the typical individual than ever would have been the case previously (for example, allowing for the ready comparison of different versions). By performing these purposes especially well, as J. Mark Bertrand has observed, they are also freeing up our printed Bibles to be less like textual Swiss Army knives and more specialized in their uses, making possible the rise of readers’ Bibles, for instance.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Alastair J. Roberts: Andrew and I are hoping that our little book will encourage Christians of many different levels of understanding to read their Bibles in a deeper way. We want people, having read Echoes of Exodus, to return to the scriptural narratives and see what riches they can find. We wrote the book with Bible study groups and actively engaged readers of Scripture in mind. Each chapter of the book is short, with review and thought questions following, all intended to get people reading the text more closely for themselves.

We only scratched the surface of the theme of exodus in this book (I wrote over 150,000 words of notes in preparation for the book, and the book is only 40,000 words in length). There’s so much more for people to discover for themselves!

Bio: Alastair J. Roberts (PhD, Durham University) is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and a fellow of Scripture and theology with the Greystone Theological Institute.

Andrew Wilson (PhD, King’s College London) is the teaching pastor at King’s Church London and a columnist for Christianity Today. He is the author of several books, including Unbreakable: What the Son of God Said About the Word of God and The Life We Never Expected: Hopeful Reflections on the Challenges of Parenting Children with Special Needs (with his wife, Rachel).


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Filed under Bible Study, Books, Interviews