Exodus: The Biblical Context of the New Testament

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Now and Then

Two thousand years of Christian history separates today’s disciples from those we read of in the Acts of the Apostles. That distance has created some major conceptual changes that sometimes make it harder to hear the writings of the apostles.

For today’s Christians our first thought of Scripture will be Matthew, Luke, Acts, perhaps Romans and Ephesians. In fact it is not uncommon to find believers who carry only a New Testament. Many will think of a list of 66 books.

This, however, is significantly different than disciples in Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus, or Rome in AD 45 thought and experienced. When Jesus debates Scripture, when Peter teaches Scripture or Paul mentions Scripture … it is Genesis through Malachi. When Paul says “all scripture is inspired,” or tells Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of scripture,” he means not Matthew to Revelation but Genesis to Malachi. The “New Testament” was not the Bible of the “New Testament” church. The biblical context of the NT writers is what is called the “Old Testament” today.

It is interesting that the New Testament never designates itself as the “New Testament.” The New Testament never designates the faith described therein as “Christianity.” And the New Testament is fully aware that there is already a “Bible” and defers to its authority.

Actually in the first century, and fourteen more after, no individual owned a “Bible.” What Mary, Jesus, Junia, Peter, Paul, Pricilla had was a story engrained in their heart. The story was inculcated through the calendar and its worship festivals and scripture was shared in the context of those festivals. This calendar and its festivals told the story of the Exodus. It is out of that biblical story that the New Testament writers talk about Jesus, talk about resurrection, talk about redemption and salvation, talk about the people of God. This is the biblical context of the New Testament itself and we often miss significant emphases because we fail to hear and see how the already existing Bible of Israel shapes the warp and hoof of the NT.

Christopher J. H. Wright, a respected biblical scholar, once noted that “the New Testament is the world’s first Old Testament theology.” That is worth ruminating upon.

The Exodus Motif in the Hebrew Bible and Calendar

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Exodus story in Israel’s life and faith. We could say that the Exodus is the foundation of the Bible itself. The Exodus was the amazing act of Yahweh the Savior who delivers, redeems and saves a group of powerless, and despised, nobodies. The Exodus is the paradigm of what salvation by grace really looks like.

God’s paradigmatic moment is celebrated by Moses and Miriam (as an ancient Ike & Tina) in Exodus 15:

I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously …
The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him …
The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea …
You blew with your ruah and the sea covered them …
Who is like you, O LORD …
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed
(Exodus 15.1-13, NRSV).

Several themes emerge from Moses’ and Miriam’s song. First it is emphatic that Yahweh alone did the work, salvation belongs to him and it was not because Israel deserved it. Second it is interesting how the Exodus story uses terms borrowed from the creation story itself: divine action and spreading the waters with the activity of God’s Spirit (ruah), etc. Salvation is like a new creation.

* Yahweh brings out
* Yahweh delivers
* Yahweh redeems
* Yahweh brings up

My father was wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our Fathers … So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O LORD have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26.5b-10)

The story, pattern, of this Exodus is deeply ingrained in the Bible. Israel “rehearsed” this drama each year through worship. And no Israelite believed the Exodus was simply what happened back then to “them” rather they placed themselves within the Story and believed it happened to “us.” This confession of the Exodus patterned life is seen as Israel celebrated their “thanksgiving(s)” … The festivals of Israel are not legalism but dynamic proclaimers of God’s steadfast love and grace. There were four primary festivals, one weekly and three pilgrim.

Sabbath – Celebrates creation and redemption from Egypt

Passover – Celebrates God’s defeat of the cosmic powers to redeem Israel

Weeks/Pentecost – Celebrates that God took Israel from the water to the mountain as well as giving the harvest

Tabernacles – Celebrates the loving care of Yahweh for the people in the wilderness where Israel learns they survive not on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Jesus, like all pious Jews, was deeply immersed into this worship rhythm of life (cf. John 2.13, 23; 5.1f; 7-8; 11.55f).

The Exodus “motif” as narrated in the Hebrew Bible has basic markers that shape the texture of the New Testament. These include

* The cosmic battle
* The crossing of the water
* The wilderness
* The coming to the mountain
* The dwelling Presence of God
* The coming to the promised land/new creation

Exodus patterned Israel’s life (or was supposed to) and is fused into “the rest of the Story” by the biblical authors. Here are just a few examples:

* Entrance into the Promised Land is cast with Exodus imagery. Joshua 3-4 reverberates with the drama of the Red Sea
* Building the temple is dated from the Exodus (1 Kgs 6.1)
* Moral crises following Solomon’s tyranny is patterned after the sojourn in and following Egypt (1 Kgs 11-12)
* Psalms of praise celebrate the Exodus (i.e. Pss 66, 68, 105)
* Psalms of lament appeal to the Exodus for fresh deliverance (i.e. Pss 74, 77, 80)
* In Hosea, Amos & Micah (to name only three) paint Israel’s adultery with images taken from Egypt or from the wanderings in Sinai while casting Yahweh as the faithful liberating lover who would redeem Israel.
* Isaiah 40-66 takes the pattern of Exodus as the source for new hope for Israel.

The Exodus Pattern is burned deep within the Bible. Our quick “survey” helps us to see that the Exodus is more than a mere literary motif but that it was the paradigm Israel used to understand her past, her present, and her future.

The New Testament

The writers of the New Testament documents drank in this rhythm from the day they were born. The NT also has deeply ingrained within it this Exodus motif.

The Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, tells the story of the Messiah as if the Exodus was the template for Jesus’s life. The beginning of Jesus’ Story has fingerprints of the Exodus narrative all over it. In both there is an evil ruler. In both the children suffer. In both there is a “flight.” In both there is an “exodus” for “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Mt 2.15). In both there is a passage through water. In both there is a wandering in the wilderness for a time of testing. In both there is a journey to a mountain and the glory of God revealed. In both, at the moment of deliverance a meal is celebrated. Even the healing ministry of Jesus is related to his role as Isaiah’s servant in concert with the new Exodus (Mt 8.17; 11.5; 12.18; Isa 35.5-6; 53.4; 61.1-2). The work of God in Jesus upon the cross is cast in new Exodus like language. The Exodus Pattern is deeply ingrained in Matthew but he is not alone.

The apostle Paul places the church of God at Corinth squarely in the Exodus story. First Corinthians 10 continues Paul’s argument about meat from chapter 8. Paul suggests in chapter 8 that Corinthians need to be sensitive to one another regarding meat sacrificed to an idol. If one buys meat in the market, eat it. But in chapter ten, Paul is very much a Pharisee expressing concern where such meat is eaten. He explicitly plants the Corinthians in the Wilderness with Israel. “Our forefathers” drank the same “Spiritual” food and drink but they dared to test the Lord by eating at the table of an idol. Paul quotes Exodus 32.6 where “our ancestors” sat down before the Golden Calf. Just as Israel had gone through the Exodus, went into the wilderness and ate with God; so Paul brings the Corinthians through the Exodus, into the wilderness and to the table of God (1 Cor 10.1-17). If we eat with God then we cannot sit at a table with an idol.


This article could easily become a book. Indeed, there are whole books on the exodus structure of the New Testament. But our aim has been to introduce the motif and call attention to how early disciples would hear the New Testament writing out of a preexisting biblical context, namely the Exodus story. Hardly a page of the New Testament passes without the shadow of the “Bible” and its grand story falling upon it. What we have done with Matthew and First Corinthians can be done with John, Luke-Acts, Romans, Galatians, First Peter, even Revelation. If we familiarize ourselves with what the first century believers already knew and brought with them when they heard Mary, Anna, Paul, Peter, or Phoebe we will take one more step to coming within understanding distance of the Scriptures we all love and cherish as the word of God.

The biblical context of the early Way and the writers of the New Testament shapes the meaning of the faith they had and the documents they wrote. We would do well to learn the contours of that biblical story to better understand what we say we believe.

The Exodus is the Jewish story that unites the whole Bible into a unified whole. It is the story of love and grace and divine Presence. We celebrate it at the Table with Jesus.

The hitching of the story of the Exodus with the New Testament raises a familiar Stone-Campbell question rephrased,

Does the New Testament operate separate and apart from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible?

Further Reading

Bryan D. Estelle, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif (IVP, 2018).

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