Post last updated on April 28, 2023
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The book of Exodus begins with an assumed history and prophecy. Even the very name of the book assures the reader that Israel will be delivered from Egypt; even so, the book’s opening scene actually recalls Adam’s bondage. It looks backwards. This is important: The Exodus deliverance recalls and relates the Adamic curses in Eden to Israel’s experience in Egypt. Only after that fact is established, does the Exodus narrative move Israel and all of mankind closer to a deliverance that far exceeds Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.
Exodus’ first chapter initially accounts for those who entered Egypt with Jacob, naming the families of those Israelites who came out of Egypt. It is then in verse 7 that the reader is given the first important signal that, in fact, Genesis’ first chapters must necessarily influence the interpretation of Exodus: Verse 7 reads that the children of Israel were fruitful; they had increased abundantly; they had multiplied. The Hebrews had become mighty and filled the land of Egypt. This is not stated to merely describe the character of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, though it does that; but it undeniably recalls the mandate that God first gave to Adam (Genesis 1:22, 28) and later to Noah (Genesis 9:1). The Jews had been fruitful and had multiplied while in Egypt in a way that had recalled similar commands to both Adam and Noah.
But, of course, Egypt is not Eden. In fact, Egypt’s significance in the scripture lies in its contrast to Eden and Israel. Egypt was a garden, but it was not God’s garden. For although the Nile River created a lushness in Egypt that invited a comparison to the garden of Eden (Genesis 13:10), that one likeness serves to display many other important contrasts. Indeed, by the time that the Exodus narrative begins, Egypt will be ruled by a king and bureaucracy that enslaves the Jewish people. Regardless of its comparative wealth, Egypt becomes representative of life that exists outside the realm of God’s promise. Regardless of its beauty and delights (cf. Numbers 11:5), life in Egypt frustrated Israel’s worship of the God of its Fathers, who had already provided for Israel’s communion and delight in another land—the land of Canaan.
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Egypt’s chief character, then, lay in its counterfeit glory and religious character. Simply put—and this matters— Egypt was heretofore unfit as a place of where God would reveal himself and Israel would return that knowledge with worship. It is true that Egypt possessed an outward glory; but as it was, a tabernacle in the wilderness would be made a better pattern and revelation of the heavenly tabernacle and worship than a treasure city in Egypt.
This is why, when we consider Egypt and its place in the Biblical revelation, we cannot think of Egypt in the shallowest of comparisons, as merely an ethical contrast to Israel. Egypt actually possesses typological significance that lies in addition to the obvious ethical contrasts. The reader learns that Pharaoh and his subjects belonged to a kingdom that stood in direct and earnest opposition to God’s will and glory. It is not that Egypt innocently failed to live in accord with a God to whom they otherwise agreed; rather, they desired something much different than what God commanded. Pharaoh sought worship as God, and accordingly constructed a kingdom for his own glory.
Therefore, in the Biblical revelation, Egypt comes to represent more than ethical failure; it represents religious idolatry, incorporated into the foundations of culture and government. Egypt, in this way, possesses its function as characteristic and descriptive of the larger world in the present age. The Apostles Paul, as such, later writes to the church in Galatia of this “present evil world” (Galatians 1:4). This condemnation of the world is not directed to its original, created form, but to its present misappropriation by Satan and those who share in his sinful project.
This means that we should not think of Egypt as a sinful nation, unless we first see that sin is rooted in man’s self-love and idolatries, which he then seeks to justify in laws and traditions, even unto the present hour. If the distinction, then, between Egypt and Canaan were confined to some supposed superficial realm of ethics and culture, Egypt could have sufficed as the resting place of the Hebrews. That scenario would only require the overthrow of Pharaoh and the ascent of Moses to the throne in his stead; but as it was, Israel departed Egypt, and then Egypt was destroyed, and Pharaoh was drowned. Indeed, there was something both deficient and offensive about Egypt, whereby God would refuse to reveal himself to Israel more fully there. The more important distinctions between Egypt and Canaan, then, regard the subject of God’s revelation of himself.
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This more fundamental fact regarding Egypt is among the reasons why the Israelites sought leave of Egypt to make sacrifice (Exodus 5:1-2, 8:26, 10:25). They would not be allowed to participate in worship according to the patterns of Egyptian religion; the true worship of God must take account and replicate the worship that is already in heaven. Again, what this means is that the Jewish religious practices were neither borrowed from Egypt nor arbitrary in their forms; they were designed to prescribe certain facts that illustrated heavenly patterns that were revealed to Moses.
Accordingly, before Moses could build the earthly tabernacle in the wilderness, at least two facts had to be accomplished. First, the Israelites had to depart Egypt before the pattern of tabernacle worship could be initiated. In this way, worship would be irrevocably tied to redemption and gratitude. Second, Moses had to receive the pattern of the tabernacle from the Lord, himself. As such, Moses received a description of the tabernacle that served as the model for its construction in the wilderness. Moses must be given a pattern of that which is above (Exodus 25:8-9,40). Indeed, the limitations of even proper Jewish temple worship would teach that communion with God was dependent on something more than sinful men could provide (Hebrews 9:8-10). But to the point, this was only revealed in a strict pattern and place of God’s design.
Accordingly, when the LORD later sends Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, God first delivers his people that they may serve him (Exodus 4:23). The ideas of temple service and worship were intertwined, not to merely regulate worship to mere forms, but to show how the forms and patterns of the earthly were established to demonstrate facts regarding the heavenly, as well as predict the means by which Jesus accomplished man’s salvation. In this way, the same pattern also showed that the earthly must somehow be conformed to the heavenly. (This is, in part, what the Epistle to the Hebrews confirms and requires of its readers. The former, Levitical order and its tabernacle were but a shadow of the “heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5) and the ministry that Jesus would accomplish in his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Hereby, we understand what was accomplished by the Lord Jesus on earth when, following his death, he rose from the dead and entered into the temple in heaven.
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During its stay in Egypt, Israel had spent far too much time in the service of Pharaoh (Exodus 1:14); God would now deliver Israel to its intended destiny: the service and worship of himself. Beautiful and glorious treasure cities in Egypt were especially unfit to predict and proclaim the eventual New Jerusalem, the place where God and redeemed men will dwell together because of the offering that Christ has since made (Hebrews 10:8-10). Really, the problem all comes down to the fact that Pharaoh was building treasure cities for his own exaltation and worship, when God intends for worship to proceed in a place and pattern that reveals his own glory. This is no mere ethical distinction: The serpent had corrupted Eden’s worship to showcase this same kind of idolatrous fair—and Eden was abandoned. The foundation of Babel (Genesis 11) would begin with similar idolatrous hopes, but it was destroyed. Even the outward glory of first century Jerusalem would codify idolatry with the murder of the Son of God. (Rome then followed their Babylonian predecessors.) In the meanwhile, the service and worship of God would be established and proceed from less likely places—a barren mountain in Sinai and, ultimately, a cross on mount Calvary.
This post is followed by another, When History is Made Prophecy.