The Bible is full of iconic moments, well-known stories and famous sayings. If someone were to ask, “what is the most important event?” there would be a lot of great candidates. If things were narrowed down to only the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament as Christians call it), many people would say the creation of the world as recounted in Genesis 1 and 2. Nothing would ever happen if nothing existed so creation, to say the least, is a very solid choice for the most important event.
Interestingly, while Genesis 1 and 2 obviously matter, they are hardly referenced or alluded to in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Even other creation accounts do not seem to specifically draw on Genesis. In fact the primaeval account, that is Genesis 1-11, which includes the famous stories of Cain and Abel, the Flood and the Tower of Babel, barely features in the rest of the Jewish scriptures. So what then is the most important event in the Hebrew Bible, even more important than God creating the world? It is the exodus.
Now the exodus is a great and beloved story but most people do not think about it as the most important event in the Old Testament. In mainstream Christian discourse, the exodus is considered important but it is never of paramount importance. I have had conversations with Christians, who are quite biblically literate, who still found it very hard to see that it matters that much. In contrast, Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. David Frankel Scholar writes,
1The exodus is undeniably the most important event in biblical memory. It is much more prominent, for example, than the giving of the Torah at Sinai. It is prefigured in Abraham’s descent to Egypt (Gen. 12:10-20), foretold to him in the Covenant Between the Parts (ברית בין הבתרים; Gen. 15:13-16), and continually highlighted in passages that retell God’s gracious acts on behalf of Israel (Deut. 26: 5-9; Josh. 24; Pss. 78; 105; 106; 135; 136; Ezek. 20; Neh. 9).
As Frankel hinted at, there are basically two sets of reasons why the exodus is the most important event which are the literary reasons and the theological reasons. The literary case for the exodus is not that hard to make. The primary argument for it is based on empirical data, that is, the number of times it appears in the Hebrew Bible. The theological arguments easily flow from the literary ones because the biblical writings are theological and the case for the exodus is that it is the most theologically significant event.
On the literary front, the exodus is referenced and alluded to, both directly and indirectly, more than any other story. When it comes to direct references outside the Book of Exodus which usually appears as some form of the phrase being “(brought up) out of/from Egypt”, by my count it is mentioned at least 109 times. If you consider mentions of the Passover, which is a feast all about commemorating the exodus, then the references grow to 149. Indirect references and allusions are harder to detect and precisely quantify but if you include them the references go north of 200. So whether you narrow it to strictly the events of the Israelite exit from slavery in Egypt or you more broadly define it to cover the sequence of events it is an integral part of, as recounted in the eponymous book, the exodus is simply mentioned more times in the rest of Israel’s scripture than any other event. Bible professor Brian Britt summarises the nature of these numerous, diverse references as follows:
2Markers of the exodus tradition [i.e. recurrences of the story’s themes and language outside of the book of Exodus] include well-known names, words, phrases, and motifs that run through the books of the Bible, as at the beginning of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2), a passage that also appears in Deut 5:6 and several times throughout the Deuteronomistic History (the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings) Similar language appears, for example, in the book of the prophet Micah (Mic 6:4).
The prophets (for example, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea) frequently cite the divine redemption of the exodus to rebuke Israel for being faithless and ungrateful but also to encourage Israel during the exile with a promise of deliverance even greater than the exodus (Isa 43). In Isa 19, divine justice against Egypt takes the form of civil strife, oppression by a tyrant, and drought, leading the Egyptians to worship the God of Israel. In the Psalms (particularly Ps 29:3-4, Ps 29:10, and Ps 78), the exodus also reminds Israel of divine rescue, often in terms of the cosmos and nature as well as history: “He divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap” (Ps 78:13).
When it comes to the empirical data supporting the significance of the exodus, we should not forget the most obvious evidence of all which is the book that revolves around it. The Book of Exodus is the fifth longest book in the Bible and it is almost entirely about the sequence of events that hinge on the exodus. While there are other books that focus on events, there are not many in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the long books, that centre on a singular event to the extent Exodus does. In it the exodus is consistently anticipated before it happens and after it happens it is consistently referred back to. So taking the exodus and the exodus tradition together, just by the amount of literary real estate it occupies, it is the premier event in the Hebrew Bible.
It is not only about the sheer number of references to the exodus, it is also about the distribution. In Prof. Britt’s summary, we see from different examples that references to the exodus span the entire length of the Hebrew Bible. They are mostly concentrated in the Law and the Prophets but they are found in the Writings as well. In fact there are only a handful of books like Song of Solomon, Job, Ecclesiastes etc. that contain absolutely no reference to the exodus. Because of its ubiquity, it is a major literary thread that ties Israel’s sacred canon together.
Apart from the number and distribution of references, the other literary argument that can be made for the exodus being the most important event is its narratival significance. Narrative makes up the largest portion of the Bible and it is mainly the story of God and his dealings with his chosen people Israel. The main narrative of the Hebrew Bible consists of the Law and the Former Prophets i.e. Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, so it covers creation to exile. In that story the exodus is the turning point because it is the founding story of Israel. While Israel’s story begins with the patriarchs, and the exodus was in fulfilment of patriarchal covenantal promises, the exodus is how they became a free, independent nation. The exodus was their independence day. As their origin story it is forever memorialised in the Passover feast. The Passover marks the beginning of the Jewish year in the Bible (Exodus 21:2.) The calendar was restarted with the exodus to signify a new beginning for God’s people. 3In Exodus 15:1-18 and other places (e.g. Psalm 74:12-17; Isaiah 51:9-10), the exodus is cast in the language of ancient Near Eastern creation motifs. The exodus was the formation of Israel as YHWH’s nation, which was viewed as a creation event of cosmic significance.
Once the literary evidence has been surveyed, the unmatched theological significance of the exodus comes readily into focus. When God introduces himself to Moses and reveals his personal name ‘YHWH’ to him, he declares it will forever be remembered as the name of the god who rescues his people from bondage because he is faithful to the covenant promises that he made with their ancestors long ago (Exodus 3:14-15.) The exodus is quite literally how God makes a name for himself (2 Samuel 7:23.) Following on from Exodus 3, Dr. Frankel incisively points out,
God does not introduce Himself to Israel in the Decalogue as the creator of the world, but as the God of the exodus (Exod. 20:2), implying that God’s act of freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is what won him the right to demand Israel’s allegiance. Indeed, according to Numbers 15:41, the very purpose of the exodus was that the Lord might become Israel’s God. Thus, the entire relationship between God and Israel is founded upon the exodus event.
Israel existed in a world filled with many gods of whom the worship of any number was quite acceptable. Claiming there was one true God who made the world but one thing but since no one was around to witness creation, there was no way for Israel to know who that god is. Therefore, the real creator god has to act in the course of human history to make himself known. He therefore defeated a regional superpower and its pantheon and redeemed a people for himself, forming them into a new nation, just as he had promised. This phenomenal creative act, which was the display of his unassailable power to judge and to save, demonstrated to Israel without question that there was only one god worth worshipping, one who is kind and faithful to his word. The exodus is the defining event in the revelation of God’s identity in the Hebrew Bible so theologian Robert Jenson writes,
4To the question “Whom do you mean, ‘God?’” Israel answered, “Whoever got us out of Egypt”.
In the exodus YHWH shows that he is a powerful and faithful deliverer. In terms of the biblical narrative and in biblical poetry, the exodus is the primary divine redemptive act, not only because of its crucial place in the story of God and Israel, but also because it becomes the main motif of salvation that runs throughout the Hebrew Bible. When God wanted to destroy Israel for her unfaithfulness to him in the wilderness, Moses reminded him of the exodus (Exodus 32:11-14). The exodus was meant to strike fear in the hearts of Israel’s enemies (1 Samuel 4:6-9). When they were exiled from the land, the prophets described the future restoration of Israel as a new exodus (Isaiah 43:18-21). So whenever the Scriptures in one form or another talk about God rescuing Israel, if you are attentive you can almost always hear echoes of exodus resonating in the background.
In summary we have examined the internal evidence for the exodus being the most important event in the Hebrew Bible. The literary reasons are there is an entire book dedicated to it, it is the most referenced event across the canon and it is the most pivotal narrative event in the Hebrew Bible. The theological reasons are that God’s identity and covenantal relationship with Israel are defined by the exodus which is the paradigmatic redemptive act of God in the Hebrew Bible. Now there is a third set of reasons beyond the Hebrew Bible for why the exodus matters the most, which I will only briefly discuss here.
In the extracanonical literature of second temple Judaism, the exodus was often theologically appropriated. In other words, when ancient Jewish people reflected on their sacred scriptures they often referenced the exodus indicating they considered the event was of seminal importance. One of notable the ways they re-appropriated the exodus was in their messianic beliefs. Messianism, in all its myriad forms, was one of the signature features of the variegated Judaism of that era because it was their answer to their partial return and restoration from exile. 5Many Jews believed the messiah would be a new Moses who would finally deliver them from centuries long foreign oppression just as God had promised.
One of these Jewish messianic groups were the early Christians who also believed their Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, was the “prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:18). Apart from that, significant things like baptism which which draws on the symbolic imagery of Israel crossing the sea, the Lord’s supper which is a modified Passover meal, Jesus’ death at Passover, the salvific language used in the New Testament which was derived from the exodus and the pervasive new exodus themes found across the New Testament are all evidence that Jesus himself and his early followers like Paul all regarded the exodus as the most important event in the Jewish scriptures.
1https://thetorah.com/exodus-not-the-only-tradition-about-israels-past/, 2049h, 09/03/2019.
3William Dumbrell, The Search for Order: Biblical Eschatology in Focus, p. 42, Baker Books, 1994.
4Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity of God According to the Gospel, p. 8, Fortress Press, 1982.