Exodus is, on my understanding and reading of the Canon, the central OT book. Its dual focus is the Exodus event, which is the great deliverance of a people unto God, through the atoning sacrifice of the Passover, and the Covenant-giving, which constitutes that saved people into a holy assembly unto the nations.
The opening of the book reconfigures the historical scene – the passing of time, the new generation, and the forgetfulness of Pharaoh, who now proceeds upon a campaign of oppression that culminates in Ex 1:22, a persistent genocidal attempt to exterminate the Hebrew people.
The first incident of depicted violence comes in Ex 2:11-15, with Moses slaying of an Egyptian for oppressing a Hebrew. The incident doesn’t receive a great deal of commentary, but it’s by no means favourable to Moses, who does not emerge as a triumphant saviour, but a cowardly murderer who flees into exile.
The incident of the Burning Bush and God’s speech in Ex 3:7-10 reveals God as the one who hears the cries of his afflicted and oppressed people, and will intervene to deliver them.
The interplay between Pharaoh, Moses, and God in the next few chapters involves two major factors. Firstly, there is the back-and-forth over the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. At times, he hardens his own heart, at others, God does it. I read here a doctrine of dual agency: both God and Pharaoh are responsible for the hardening of his heart, God in his sovereign electing and providential purposes, Pharaoh in his human sinful responsibility and rebellion. Secondly, the plagues represent both battle and judgment. They are judgments upon Egypt for their sin, rebellion, and part of their curse for cursing God’s people (cf. Gen 12:1-3). They are also defeats of Egypt’s ‘gods’, whose individual realms of jurisdiction are shown to be in the hand of the Almighty. They are the sallies of the Lord as he wages a kind of war against Pharaoh.
All this culminates in the Passover and 10th plague. For in the 10th plague, no distinction is made as regards to guilt and judgment between Egypt and Israel, for both are guilty before the Lord. Rather, God in his grace gives to Israel the means of atonement, the sacrifice of a substitute by whose blood they will be passed over in judgment. This is, in fact, the basis not only for the gospel, but for any Christian ethical approach to violence and judgment. We too are under judgment, and only by grace, the grace of atonement, do we escape it. The death of the firstborn is the crippling blow to Egypt and its ‘gods’. Moreover, it plays of the themes of Israel, the ‘Son of God’, and Pharaoh, the son of a god. YHWH redeems his firstborn son, the sons of Israel, the descendants of Isaac according to promise, while judging and destroying Egypt’s firstborn(s).
That a war motif runs through these chapters is also evident by the repeated instructions to ask the Egyptians for their wealth, and Israel’s carrying this off as plunder. These are spoils of war, which Israel possesses, even though they do none of the fighting throughout the Exodus event. God is the mighty warrior, Israel the passive bystander. Ex 15:3 poetically displays that truth. Not the might of Israel, but the arm of the Lord brings them salvation.
The battle at Rephidim (Ex 17:8-16) is an odd occurrence. Israel’s first physical battle is ultimately carried by the visible sign of Moses’ raised hands. Though I accept it’s a long shot, I see here a faint typology of the Cross, as the victory is accomplished more by the outstretched arms of God’s Servant, than the actual fighting on the ground.
The second major theme of Exodus is built around the Covenant formed at Sinai. Its initiation in chapter 19 sets up Israel as ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Ex 19:6). This dual identity as priests (mediators of God’s presence) and kings (rulers of God’s land), reflects the creation reality of Genesis 1-2, the interior relation of Israel’s kings and priests to Israel’s exterior relation to the nations, points forward to Jesus our High Priest and King of Kings, and by extension to the church’s role in the world in 1 Peter 2:5, Revelation 1:6. This theme I have explored and preached on elsewhere.
This background helps us see the Covenant in a slightly broader salvation-historical context. The details of Chapter 20 should not escape us either, that the giving of the Decalogue is predicated on the prior deliverance wrought by God alone, Ex 20:1-2.
Some will ask no doubt whether Ex 20:13 is a basis for a pacifist ethic, I find it is not. The word choice refers to illegitimate killing, and there is plenty of legitimised killing in the Covenant and OT. However, as you read on through the Torah, the killing is, arguably, judicial. This reflects the overlay of religious and political realities in the nation/ekklesia of Israel.
The conquest of Canaan is spoken of in Ex 23:20-33, and we will speak more of the conquest under Joshua. Note here the emphasis on refraining from Idolatry, and instead on the peace that Israel and the land will experience together.
Most of the later chapters are taken up with Ark building instructions and activities, which I will leave aside. Instead, let’s focus on the incident of the golden calf, which calls forth both a violent purging in Ex 32:25-29, and a plague from God in 32:35. The violence of the purging is shocking to us, but sensical in the ANE context, and reflective of the utter detestation of sin and idolatry that is becoming characteristic of Israel’s life with God. Again, despite its ad hoc nature, it is typically judicial in character, if not formal in conduct.
I suggest then, that the book of Exodus reveals God as the mighty Judge and Warrior. As judge, he visits people to bring punishment for sins, whether within or without God’s people. As Warrior, he is the one who fights for his people, and the strength of his might is such to render them bystanders to his mighty saving deeds.