The historical nature of the Exodus is of utmost importance in Scripture and for the Christian faith. Modern critics have questioned, doubted, and denied the historical nature of the Exodus for more than a few years, and in light of this, it is important for Christians to understand and uphold the Bible’s teaching that the Exodus was an historical event.
James Hoffmeier defends this claim in his excellent essay, “Why A Historical Exodus is Essential for Theology.” Hoffmeier’s main point is this:
“The exodus and wilderness narratives are central to OTT (Old Testament Theology), and that without them, the tapestry of Israel’s faith and the foundational fabric of Christianity unravels.” …These events stand at the heart of Israel’s religious life, as evidenced by the fact that these themes are ubiquitous throughout the Old Testament itself. (p. 106, 111).
Hoffmeier goes on to give some detail on the various ways and times the Exodus theme shows up in the OT. Here’s a brief summary:
1) God’s self-disclosure often refers to the Exodus (Ex. 20:2, Lev 19:36, 25:34, Num. 15:41, Deut 5:6, Ps 81:10, Hos. 12:9, etc.). Many times in the OT God reveals himself as Yahweh who brought his people out of Egypt and made a covenant with them.
2) The historical prologue of the Sinaitic covenant refers to the Exodus (Ex. 20:1-2; cf. Josh. 24:4ff). ANE covenants of this sort often gave a historical background to the terms of the covenant; so did Israel’s covenant.
3) Legal matters of Israel had to do with the Exodus. Many ethical laws in Israel had their background in the Exodus. For example, Israel was to free their slaves after a certain time because God freed them from their slavery (Lev 25:46ff, Deut. 15:15, etc). Israel was not to mistreat foreigners because they were foreigners before the Exodus (Ex. 22:21, Lev. 19:34, etc.).
4) Many of Israel’s religious festivals, observances, and rites had roots in the Exodus. Religious rituals are reenactments or repetitions of sacred moments or events, behind which stands an archetype. In Israel, they celebrated the Passover and feast of unleavened bread, not to mention the feast of booths, observance of the Sabbath, and consecration of the firstborn. All of these laws were based on the pattern of the Exodus.
5) Some of Israel’s hymns recounted God’s power in the Exodus. The Song of Moses and of Miriam celebrate the event (Ex. 15). Deborah’s hymn refers to the Exodus (Judg. 5:4-5). See also Ps. 78, 105, and 106 (etc.).
6) The prophets refer to the Exodus and Sinaitic covenant. Over and over the prophets, prosecuting the covenant, remind Israel that Yahweh brought them out of slavery (Hos. 11:1, 13:5, Amos 9:7, Micah 6:4-5, etc.).
7) Non-Israelites mention the Exodus. Jethro and Balaam are two examples (Ex. 18, Num. 22-23). Rahab of Jericho had heard about the Exodus, which made her believe in God (Josh. 2:9-10). The Philistines also had heard of it (1 Sam. 4:6-8).
8) Israel’s calendar was based on the Exodus. The Exodus from Egypt, because it was a founding national event, served as a chronological benchmark or anchoring point in subsequent periods (Ex. 12:1-2, 19:1, Num. 9:1-2, etc.).
9) The Exodus is referred to in retrospect quite often. Moses looked back and reminded the people of the Exodus (Num. 20:14-17), the theme is found in Judges (Judg. 6:13, 11:13-16), and Saul recounts it (1 Sam. 12:6-8).
Again, those points are very short summaries of Hoffmeier’s essay that shows how the Exodus theme runs through the fabric of the Old Testament and its theology. (Note: Hoffmeier also mentions the Exodus theme in the NT, but I don’t have the space to summarize it here.) Hoffmeier does a nice job of proving this point: the Exodus as an historical event is essential for Old Testament theology and is also an essential part of Christian Scripture (and faith!).
Hoffmeier’s article can be found in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), chapter 4.
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After briefly responding to snark from ‘critical biblical scholars,’ Thomas McCall’s introductory chapter at the link above goes on to show that differing reasonable presuppositions about historical knowledge can lead to differing reasonable assessments of the narrative of the Pentateuch. Busy readers here may prefer to read 17-22 of the pdf, then ponder Shane’s concise OP in the light of them, and then compare their own thoughts to those McCall attributes on pdf pp 24-25 to his fictional evangelical readers– Rick, Corey, and Bill.
Unfortunately, they will not be able to compare their thoughts on these matters with Peter Enns because McCall (pdf p 23), like his coauthors (pdf p 21), has chosen to engage Kenton Sparks instead. Whatever the actual reason for that choice, it looks from afar like classic polarization– distract listeners from centrist rivals they might actually agree with by continually raising the alarm about enemies at the far extreme that they likely find outrageous already. Few astute readers here are as likely to pay much attention to Sparks as to Enns, or even Hays or Jenson. Helpfully though, McCall himself comments on Wright as a believing scholar who uses, but does not follow, ‘critical biblical scholarship.’
The Exodus is a pleasure to think about, and I have no refutation of its historicity to offer, but I feel distinctly uneasy about the claim that any account of an historical event before Jesus is of more than derivative importance to Christians. Denial of the historicity of all biblical accounts will not do, obviously, but neither will an insistence that every narrative detail in the canon matters as the crucifixion does. Perhaps Hoffmeier’s argument relates the Exodus to the substance of saving faith as well as to the literary unity of the canon?
If the Holy Spirit had not descended at Pentecost, I would not have access even to the Resurrection. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead, I would have little reason to care about the history of some tribesmen in the ancient near east. If Jesus had not shown himself to be the Son of Man, nothing would have sent me back into Daniel, Isaiah, and the Psalms to understand the cross. If I did not have their midrashic understanding of him as the One promised to Israel, then its writings would not have been a logical place to look for further understanding of his mission.
Of the many collections of Israelite writings that might have been, our ancestors ultimately received the LXX canon used by the Pharisees as the one that best fit the Jesus they knew. Showing that a motif is prominent in that canon is an exceedingly roundabout argument for its centrality to the apostles’ teaching about Jesus. After all, if prominence in the OT canon were enough to cause prominence in the Christian faith, then implacable opposition to usury would be our distinguishing trait.
Conversely, the devotees of Hypsistos who actually did receive the writings of ancient Israel as sacred history ended up worshiping fire, not Jesus. Despite James Goldingay’s sensible argument that we must not ignore the OT context of every NT word– I have in mind his witty book ‘Do We Really Need the New Testament?’– we have no reason to be surprised that Israel’s ancient writings did not prepare all Jews who knew them to recognize their Lord. Caiaphas thought Jesus was blaspheming, not because he did not know the scriptures well, but precisely because he did.
In short, one might choose not to maximize the importance of some OT accounts, not because one doubts their historicity, but because one reads a Jesus-shaped canon in a Jesus-centered way. “Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here.” Whether Moses accurately transcribed the words of the serpent in Eden does not matter to real believers in the way that Christ’s agony in Gethsemane does. Reading in that way, one has one’s faith priorities in the same order as the apostles’ regula fidei. The Apostle’s Creed, a handy summary of that, mentions the Creator and Pontius Pilate, but never mentions Israel or the Exodus at all.
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