Lesson 5 of 5
In Progress

Theological Themes in Exodus


At its core the covenant is the relationship between God and Israel: my people/your God, our God/your people. This relationship appears as early as the call of Moses and persists through the conflict with Pharaoh. While it is formalized at Sinai for Israel as a nation, its roots are in promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel in the book of Genesis.

Divine call, human objection

In several ways Moses objects to his call to bring Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 3:7-4:17), and God overrides each objection. Dependent on God’s promise to be with him (3:12), Moses can challenge God’s action (5:22) and even reverse God’s decision (32:11-14). With equal directness, Moses is authorized to challenge his own people (17:2; 32:21-26).

Exclusive allegiance to God

For Israel there can be only one God. God, who covenanted with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Other gods are to be completely avoided (23:23-33; 34:11-16). This may not yet be full-fledged monotheism, for the other gods are an active threat to Israel’s allegiance to God and the blessings of the covenantal relationship.

God acts, humans act

God does work through human agents, not just alone, as can be seen, for example, in the role of five women in preserving life in the first two chapters. But humans also resist God’s purposes, as can be seen in Pharaoh’s hardening his heart and Israel’s rebellion at Sinai. The doxology for deliverance from Egypt is addressed to God, not to human agents (15:1-18), and Israel’s future depends on God’s determination to be present among them (40:34-38).

God’s compassionate hearing

God heard Israel’s cry from the midst of Pharaoh’s oppression and God acted against Pharaoh and for Israel (2:23-25). In the laws given at Sinai, Israel is warned against oppressing the vulnerable members of its community lest God’s compassionate hearing of the cries of the oppressed lead God to act against Israel (22:21-27). God also heard Moses’ pleas, bringing about forgiveness for condemned Israel at Sinai (32:11-35).

Hardening the heart

God hardened Pharaoh’s heart; Pharaoh hardened his heart. Three different verbs are used in the Hebrew; God is the subject ten times, Pharaoh the other ten. Quite apart from philosophical issues, the theme underscores God’s commitment to fulfill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, no matter what hardened, powerful forms of human resistance might occur.


Moses is to tell the Israelites that “I AM” has sent him to deliver them from slavery in Egypt (3:13-15). The longer version, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14), is an attempt to formulate an etymology for the divine name Yahweh. Both here and in 6:2-8, the divine name is connected to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and, later, to the act of bringing Israel out of Egypt (20:2).

Israel versus God 

Israel’s capacity to challenge God’s intentions arcs across the book of Exodus. The challenge to God manifests itself in challenges to Moses’ leadership before the plagues (5:20-21; 6:9), at the sea (14:10-12), in the wilderness (17:2), and at Sinai (32:1). In addition, despite many warnings not to go after other gods and make idols, Israel directly challenges God in the golden calf episode by forming an idol and ascribing to it their exodus from Egypt.


The murmuring after the exodus from Egypt does raise the specter of Israelite disobedience, but the need for water and manna was real. As Israel commences its new life in the journey through the wilderness, God responds and provides without punishment. In contrast, the complaints about food and water in Numbers are met with divine judgment.

Oppressed or oppressor? 

Israel, once freed from oppression, is capable of replicating Pharaoh’s conduct within its community. Oppressing and abusing widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor will provoke God’s compassion for the plight of the oppressed (22:21-27). God will hear their cries and move against them just as God had earlier heard Israel’s cries and moved against Pharaoh (2:23-25).

Pharaoh versus God

The character of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, against all reason imposes self-defeating requirements on Israel and in direct opposition to God. Pharaoh is unmoved by the plight of his workers (5:15-18), in contrast to God who hears their groaning (2:23-25; 3:7-10). The test of wills between Moses and Pharaoh becomes a contest between God and Pharaoh over the destiny of Israel.


While God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery and God’s covenant-making at Sinai are central to Israel’s identity, the relationship did not start with these events. God’s covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel ground God’s motivation to bring Israel out of Egypt into the promised land (2:24). After Israel breaks the covenant in the golden calf episode, Moses successfully appeals to God to reestablish the relationship with the people brought out of Egypt on the basis of the prior promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (32:13; 33:1).

Slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love

The Lord is described as a “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…yet by no means clearing the guilty” (34:6-7). In the Old Testament the existence of divine anger does not cause amazement; rather, what astonishes Israel is God’s forgiveness of iniquity, transgression, and sin. God abounds in steadfast love for thousands (!), not just a few. God’s self-disclosure in Exodus 34 reverberates throughout the Old Testament with continued amazement at the always surprising, but persistent faithfulness of God.

Stiff-necked people

In the aftermath of the golden calf episode Israel is called “stiff-necked.” While not identical, this characterization echoes Pharaoh’s hardheartedness. God has covenanted with a people no less problematic than others. God needs to forgive Israel and repeatedly renew the covenant in order for Israel to fulfill its God-given vocation to be a royal priesthood and a holy nation.

Ten Commandments

The Commandments address Israel’s accountability to God and to each other. They are prefaced by God’s introduction: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2). The Commandments restrain so that life might flourish; they should not become a new form of bondage.


On the journey from Egypt to Sinai, God twice tests Israel’s obedience (15:23-27; 16:4). Following the revelation of the Ten Commandments, Moses asserts that such testing was to put the fear of God into Israel so that it might not sin (20:20). Israel’s testing of God (17:2, 7), despite not being punished, is remembered negatively (17:7; Deuteronomy 6:16; 9:22; 33:8; Psalm 95:8).

Who brought you out of Egypt? 

As God’s agent, Moses was commissioned to bring Israel out of Egypt (3:10). God’s self-presentation is as the one “who brought you [Israel] out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (20:2), but, at Sinai, Israel attributes its exodus from Egypt to its own idol (32:4). In the aftermath, God attributes the act to Moses, and Moses in turn attributes it to God; Moses’ attribution prevails.

Yahweh fights

Pharaoh fears the Israelites will become so prolific that they will join Egypt’s enemies to fight against them. As Israel fears the approaching Egyptians at the sea, Moses promises that God will fight for Israel (14:14), but, in sharp irony, it is the Egyptians who make the confession that God fights for Israel (14:25). The key question is not for whom Israel fights, but for whom God fights.