Often when we think of the book of Exodus we think of the actual exodus from Egypt. God rescued the people of Israel, along with a mixed multitude from other nations who joined them (Exodus 12:38), out of Egypt and therefore out of slavery and oppression. This is a significant part of the story of the book of Exodus, yet it comprises just fourteen of the 40 chapters in the book! If the event called “the exodus” is such a significant part of the book of Exodus, why is it such a small part of the book in terms of content? To answer the question we have to ask what else is contained in the book of Exodus.
There are, of course, the Ten Commandments and many other laws that Moses gave at Sinai. Beginning in chapter 25 we read the instructions for building the furniture for the tabernacle, including the ark of the covenant, the table for bread, and the golden lampstand. The book moves on to describe—in precise detail—how the tabernacle itself was to be built, including the materials used for fabric, the colors, how many loops for curtains, what the loops are to be made from, the type of wood for the frame for the tabernacle, how many pieces of frame and the sizes of those pieces. We’re still in chapter 26! This level of detail continues from chapter 25 through chapter 30. Six chapters detailing the materials and designs of the tent where God would be worshiped, compared to just fourteen that describe God’s rescue of his people from Egypt.
There is some other material like the golden calf incident more laws, but then we get to chapter 35 and the construction of the tabernacle begins. Chapters 36, 37, 38, 39, and 40 are essentially a repeat of chapters 25–30, only instead of describing how to build the tabernacle they describe how the tabernacle was built. In precise detail. To put this another way, we have nearly as many chapters explaining the plans and construction of the tabernacle as we do the rescue of Israel from slavery!
Why? The truth is the details concerning the rescue of Israel from Egypt and the construction of the tabernacle are one story. The book of Exodus recounts the story of God creating for himself a people. First, he rescued them from their slavery. Then he had to rescue them from himself.
To rescue Israel fully God had to provide for them the means for atoning for their sin and for making his presence among them safe. In chapter 33 when Israel worshiped the golden calf, God threatened to withdraw his presence from them. He would send them into the land he promised them, but he would not go with them. Moses interceded for Israel and appealed to God for his defining presence among them:
For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?Exodus 33:16 ESV
God’s presence is what defined his people as his people. God acknowledged Moses’ appeal and promised to remain among them. The problem was the people were not holy and God is holy, so God had planned all along to give them the tabernacle—the place where his presence would be among Israel. The tabernacle would keep Israel at bay, protecting them from God’s holy presence. Other than Moses, only one person could enter God’s presence directly, and only one day a year. On the Day of Atonement the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place—where God was present—and only after an elaborate purification ritual.
The tabernacle was later replaced by the temple, for God’s plan from the beginning was to be present among his people. The problem remained, however. The sacrificial system he gave to Israel could only cover their sins, not take them away. This is why God’s plan from the beginning was also to send his own Son who would fulfill the law given at Sinai and would be the final sacrifice that takes away the sin of his people. Through Jesus God’s presence would be direct and immediate, as all who are in him would be allowed into God’s presence without fear, having their sins washed away by the blood of God’s Lamb. The author of the book of Hebrews explained it this way:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.Hebrews 10:19-25
The story of Exodus is the story of God creating for himself a people, but it is only the beginning of the story. The story of Exodus is an introduction to Jesus, to Immanuel, God with us, to the true Passover Lamb, the full and complete revelation of God, the very one who makes God’s presence among us possible—and safe—for he reconciles us to the Father.
Today, let us rejoice in our rescue from slavery to sin, and let us rejoice that God has rescued us from his holy judgment through the blood of Jesus. Let us enter into the presence of God and praise him for the direct, immediate access we have to him through his Spirit.