he book of Exodus is one of the five Books of Moses. In a theological sense, it is understood to have been written by the Old Testament Prophet. It tells the story of the rescue of the Israelites from slavery and the forming of their covenant with God. It also contains some of the most important legal prescriptions in the Old Testament. This paper will explore the relationship between Judaism and Christianity by focusing on how the book depicts the formation of a chosen people, and laws that this people must live under if they are to be close to God. It will then argue that Jesus’ actions in the Gospels both confirm these two factors and aim to overcome them.
The story of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt is both the story of the formation of a chosen people, and the manifestation of the power of God. That the two things are mutually dependent is clearly visible in the early sections of the book, which tell of the activity of Moses and of the plagues which God visits on the Egyptians. In these sections one reads occasionally paradoxical instructions. For example, at one point God orders to Moses to plead for the release of the Israelites, while at the same informing him that the He will harden the heart of the Pharaoh in order to ensure that he does not agree to this. With regard to this seeming contradiction, Robert Alter writes that “without Pharaoh’s resistance, God would not have the opportunity to deploy his great wonders and so demonstrate His insuperable power in history and the emptiness of the of he power attributed to the gods of Egypt” (2008, 345). God therefore chooses the liberation of Israelites as the event through which to express his own power.
The primary purpose of the first chapters of the book of Exodus can therefore be argued to be the establishment of a relationship between God and the Israelites. This relationship is founded on the manifest supremacy of God and it one that secures freedom for the Israelites. Such freedom, however, is predicated on obedience to the law and, as such, much of the rest of the book details the laws that are laid down by God to Moses in order to establish how the relations between Him and his chosen people are to be mediated. God makes it clear in his exchanges with Moses that if the Israelites are to preserve their freedom once they have left Egypt then must live according to this law. As such, Judaism is established as a religion which is founded on the freedom of a chosen people, and also on the fact that that people must live under a particular set of laws.
Much of Jesus’ activity, as it is described in the Gospels, can be seen to both confirm this situation and also to attempt to overcome it. His actions are directly related to the idea of Old Testament law, but they also challenge and attempt to overcome it. In particular, Jesus is presented as an individual who posses both an encyclopaedic knowledge of the law and also an authority which cannot derive from pure knowledge. As such, he exists continually in tension with Pharisees, or Jewish scholars of law, who have simply studied scripture. Both Matthew and Mark draw direct attention to this. The former writes, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus taught as one “with authority, and not as the teachers of the Law” (Matthew.7.28). Despite this, earlier in the sermon, Christ insist that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to bring them to perfection. As such, it is not possible to simply say that Jesus frees people from the laws of God. Rather, he represents the possibility of a new relation to God.
Likewise, Mark describes a tension between past law and present reality in his Gospel. At one point, Jesus remarks to the Pharisees that: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mark.2.22). The metaphor used here concerns Jesus’ own relationship to the law. He insists that he is its fulfilment, and that his life will introduce a new way of relating to God. As such, he presents himself in a clear tension with the system of law and mediation laid down in Exodus. While he still appeals to similar traditions and insists that the prophets must be respected and “fulfilled,” he also insists that the coming age is one in which old laws will no longer be seen to apply and in which the idea of a chosen tribe of Israel will be generalized across all individuals. As such, it is possible to see Jesus’ actions in the Gospels as the simultaneous fulfilment and abolition of mediation between men and God which exists in Exodus, and within the Jewish religion as a whole. In this way, Christianity is presented as building on and also as completing the writings of the Old Testament.
In conclusion, the paper has argued that the Christian religion involves a shift in the relations of law and obedience that are established in the book of Exodus. This is seen most clearly in Jesus’ own relationship to the law and to the Old Testament prophets. Christianity fulfils the relationship established between God and His chosen people, and seeks to overcome the laws which they live under. In this way, Christianity maintains a relationship to writings of Exodus, but also creates the ground for a new set of relations between God and humanity.
- The Bible: An Ecumenical Study Edition. Translated by Michael D. Coogan et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
- Alter Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation and Commentary. London & New York: Norton, 2008.