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.