For many years, the Exodus has been the prime example and proof that God rescues the victimized, oppressed, and poor. Some of this “liberation theology” is quite profound since some who trumpet the Exodus as paradigm have been enslaved in ways that many of us can never even imagine. We shouldn’t, therefore, completely throw out the Exodus as a paradigm for liberation.
However, as Terrence Fretheim notes, “the exodus ought not function as a paradigm in any direct or simple way” (Exodus, [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991], 20). Though there may be some similarities between the Exodus and other people groups escaping bondage, that is not the main point of the OT Exodus. Fretheim has three reasons why a solely liberation view of the Exodus falls short.
1) In the Exodus, the people of God do not fight – Israel is “expressly forbidden to engage in such activity…It is only God who does the fighting (14:13-14, 25; 15:3-12)” (p. 19). The end result is not a takeover of Egypt by Israel’s army, but God alone taking them out to another land.
2) It is true that in the Exodus, salvation/redemption is understood in a “holistic away,” yet many liberation theologians have ignored other dimensions of the event (p. 19). For example, “the text makes clear that God’s activity is also directed against Egypt’s gods” (Ibid.). The Exodus is not just a sociopolitical victory, it is a cosmic victory. “To interpret salvation in sociopolitical terms only or primarily scales down the import and effect of what happened at the Red Sea” (p. 20).
3) The book of Exodus “is not a declaration of independence” (Ibid.). Israel moves from slavery in Egypt to service of God in Israel. “One cannot bypass Sinai on the way to the promised land” (Ibid.). They go from serving Pharaoh to serving God. “Exodus would claim that true freedom is found only in the service of Yahweh” (Ibid.).
In other words, to view the Exodus primarily in terms of political liberation is reductionistic. While in part it is true, it is not the main point, not the main meaning, of the Exodus.