In our study of the Bible, we suffer from over-familiarity—an attitude that says, “I know this. I've heard this before." This is the dilemma of the book of Exodus. We know the book’s stories: Moses, the ten plagues, the Ten Commandments, the golden calf, and the tabernacle. We tend to sprint through narrative passages when their stories are familiar to us.
But, we ought to pause for one compelling reason: narratives contain theology.
In the Scriptures, history is the basis for theology. When we read, we need not only to look for the facts of what happens, but also for the reasons why. What is God doing in narratives as He moves people and maneuvers situations? This approach to reading narrative passages provides a glimpse into the theology that is developing and the character of God that is being displayed.
Let’s examine the familiar passage of Exodus 1-2 and see what rich theological truths can be gleaned.
A THEOLOGY OF A DELIVERER
The book of Exodus has an epic beginning. In the first verses, the list of names of descendants and offspring are quoted from Genesis 46, where God expounds how He has kept the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. This covenant includes three major promises: land, seed, and blessing. This hook in Exodus 1 highlights the promise of seed—a promise that traces back as far as Genesis 3:15, where God promises that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent's head. By opening Exodus with these verses, God is saying, "I'm continuing my plan for Israel. I’m moving forward with Genesis 3:15.”
Israel was not crying out to anyone. They were not praying to God.
In light of this context, we should not miss the details of Exodus 2 and the story of Moses’ birth. Each component of this narrative has been crafted to highlight God’s selection of Moses as the deliverer He will use at this time to save His people. This narrative is a masterpiece.
Let me give three examples of this.
First, this passage says that “the woman conceived and bore a son” (Ex 2:2). This phraseology is used in association with Genesis 3:15—that the woman would conceive and give birth to a seed, the Messiah. Consistently throughout the Old Testament, this phrase signals a pattern—a woman unable to conceive gives birth to a child who assumes a significant role in the plan of God. We see this language in the birth of Isaac (Gen 21:2), Samuel (1 Sam 2:21), and ultimately the virgin birth of the Messiah (Isa 7:14). By this use of language, the birth of Moses designates him as one of the host of deliverers; this line of deliverers would culminate in the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. The words of Exodus 2 are not incidental but intentional.
Second, when the mother of Moses places him into a basket, the word choice should also be noticed. The Hebrew word for basket is not “basket.” The word used means “ark,” as in Noah's Ark. To be sure, Moses’ mother did not float a boat down the river. However, God describes this basket as an ark to illustrate that Moses follows the footsteps of Noah. Just as God used Noah to save humanity, so Moses will be instrumental in God’s plan of salvation.
Third, Moses' mother hides him “among the reeds” (Ex 2:3). This word, “reeds”—only used twice in the book of Exodus—is the same word used for the “Red Sea.” The repetition brings to remembrance that Israel would cross the Red Sea. The implication is clear: what happens to Moses will happen to all of Israel. This word choice connects Moses’ deliverance by passing over the Nile with Israel’s dry crossing through the Red Sea. The deliverance for Moses becomes the deliverance for his people.
Thus, the birth of Moses is not merely biographical. Rather, it declares God’s agenda of deliverance and sets a precedent for how He raises up those who will deliver His people. The birth of Moses designates him as a deliverer, aligns his deliverance with that of his people, and puts him in a line of deliverers, one day to culminate in the Messiah.
With that knowledge, think forward to the New Testament and consider the birth of Christ. Jesus’ birth parallels the birth of Moses. Both involve kings who want to kill all the baby boys (Ex 1:22; Matt 2:16). Both babies were delivered by God from these dire circumstances (Ex 2:1-10; Matt 2:15-17). In fact, Matthew even links the deliverance of Jesus with the Exodus (Matt 2:15; cf. Hos 11:1). Just as God raised up Moses to be a deliverer, He uses identical circumstances to announce Jesus as the ultimate deliverer, the final Moses prophesied of old. With the details and theology of Exodus 2 in view, the message of Christ’s birth becomes unmistakably clear. Exodus 1-2 provides a theology of how God establishes His deliverer.
A THEOLOGY OF SALVATION
We can learn another lesson from these chapters.
Exodus 1-2 not only introduces a theology of deliverer, but a theology of salvation. Salvation is a critical issue in the book and is introduced in these opening chapters. As God continues to shape the life of Moses as a deliverer, He sends Moses into the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that Moses met Jethro’s daughters and delivered them (Ex 2:19). The text technically states that Moses “saved” (ישׁע) them, this being the first time this word is used in Exodus. The flow of the narrative shows that God raised up Moses to be a deliverer unto salvation.
At this point, we can make an important observation concerning the nature of salvation. At the end of Exodus 2, God has raised up a deliverer and is ready to initiate His work of salvation. In this moment, Israel is under tremendous strain: "They cried out and their cry rose up to God" (Exodus 2:23). The precise wording is important. Scripture often records how people “cried out to the Lord.” But in this passage, it simply says, “they cried out.” The text is clear. Israel was not crying out to anyone. They were not praying to God.
God took notice of Israel, not, however, because the people prayed to Him. Rather, God heard their groaning and remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob solely because of His commitment to His people.
Exodus 2:23-25 reminds that God alone initiates salvation. None of us asked for salvation; He gave it to us when we, like the Israelites, were not even asking. This is the intervening love God has for His chosen people.
We should say, "Thank God," that He decided to save us when we did not even know to cry out to Him. That is the salvation theology established in the book of Exodus. God initiates deliverance as He raises up a deliverer. Having done so in these chapters with Moses, He will use the rest of this book to reveal a mighty salvation.
In part 2 of this series, we will look at the rest of the book of Exodus.