The Exodus Motif in Isaiah

Bryan D. Estelle

New Horizons: January 2008

The Prophets

Also in this issue

A Window of Hope in Hosea

God's Glorious Presence in Ezekiel

Helps for Worship #25: Hymn of Preparation

Appreciating Your Heritage

"The interpretation of the Bible begins in the Bible itself," asserts Benjamin D. Sommer in a recent article.[1] Such an idea is not new to readers of this magazine (see WCF, 1.9), but Sommer's point reflects a growing trend in the academic community: to see the biblical authors picking up themes from their predecessors and developing them in what may be called a kind of rereading.

The technical term for this is intertextuality, which is "how the Bible relates to itself in its own system of cross-reference ... it has to do with the way in which parts of the Bible and finally the two Testaments themselves relate to one another."[2] In other words, later biblical authors build upon, allude to, cite from, and revise earlier portions of Scripture. Since this issue of New Horizons is devoted to the Prophets, we will give our particular attention to what Isaiah does with the Exodus motif.


A motif, in the words of Leland Ryken, is "a discernible pattern composed of individual units, either in a single work or in literature generally. Roughly synonymous with pattern."[3] The purpose of this article is to show how the Exodus theme is taken up and transformed, in a word, "eschatologized" in Isaiah (particularly Isaiah 40–55).[4] By "eschatologized," I mean, following David Pao, that the reworking of the Exodus tradition is performed to describe something that is going to happen in the future: a new creative event, the development of the ingathering of foreign peoples with a redefinition of the people of Israel, the actual transformation of the redemptive story such that Yahweh now accomplishes his goals in a hitherto unexpected way. In Scripture's beautiful tapestry, the Exodus, as the founding event of the constitution of Israel, is picked up and woven together with other events used in a new manner to produce an eschatologically charged "Book of the Consolation" (Isaiah 40–55) for the exilic people of God.

Some Major Passages and Scholarly Review

Recently, scholars have noted the way in which the Exodus event echoes throughout Isaiah 40–55. Not only would the same God who acted wondrously, salvifically, and powerfully in the first Exodus act again: he would act in a new and determinative way to rescue the exilic community from their oppressors (i.e., Babylon) and deliver them through the desert and bring them into Zion through restoration.[5] However, it is not only a forward-looking mentality that shapes Isaiah's transformation of the Exodus motif; he looks backwards also.

One author, for example, wrote a monograph in which he was especially concerned to deal with the importance of creation in Isaiah 40–55 and its complex interplay with redemption.[6] He develops a list from thirteen passages where the Exodus motif can be seen, at least implicitly. I will discuss only a couple in this article in order to see how the transformation of a traditional motif occurs.

First, the new exodus in Isaiah now becomes a way to a new creation. It is a way back through the sea and the desert to the land of restoration, expressed in somewhat paradisiacal terms. Consider, for example, Isaiah 43:16–21:

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise."

This motif is reworked in Isaiah as a battle or warfare theme and also as a re-creation theme. The Exodus theme is related in a complex manner to the so-called "combat motif" that we now know was in Babylonian myths and Ugaritic mythology that the biblical writers echo, adapt, and utilize for their own purposes, and sometimes even polemicize against. As most authorities attest, this is what is going on in Isaiah 51:9–11, where the Exodus motif is being evoked:[7]

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Recently Anthony Ceresko has linked the sufferings of the Servant and the exiles in Isaiah 40–55 with the pre-Exodus sufferings of Israel in Egypt.[8] He sees Isaiah 52:13–53:12 as linking the Servant and the exiles in sufferings of preparation, leading again to Israel's deliverance. We will see below that it is this, but much more than this. Ultimately the connections come together and find their fulfillment in Christ himself.

Historical Event, Cosmological Event, or What?

As mentioned above, Isaiah uses a historical event—the Exodus—as a starting point, but it doesn't stop there. This promise is couched in the Book of Consolation in Isaiah 40–55 to give comfort and hope to the exilic people of God. Indeed, Scripture is often occupied with actualizing earlier prophetic words of Scripture for the sake of consoling God's people living in later times.[9] This creative, transformational use of story, rather than calling into question the veracity of the ancient Exodus event, actually verifies the event. It is important in today's intellectual climate to emphasize this. As Richard Gaffin has said, "The notion has to be avoided that the historical character of the Bible must somehow be overcome before we have the truth for today."[10] Consider this quote from Michael Goldberg:

Although Braithwaite contends that "it is not necessary ... for the asserter of a religious assertion to believe in the truth of the story involved in the assertions," the Exodus story and the story of Christ carry with them the claim that they are in some basic way essentially true. This truth claim is what partially justifies these stories' putting a claim in turn on those who hear them, for these stories say, "Live your life according to me. Base your life policy—your life story—on this story, for insofar as this story is a true one, it offers a credible basis for the adoption of such a policy and story in your life." Historically, Jews and Christians have adopted certain policies of behavior, certain ways of life, because they have staked their lives on the truth of their respective stories, of their respective stories and no other.[11]

The Creative Fusion of Several Themes

Undoubtedly, as we have seen, the Exodus-Conquest motif is central and important in Isaiah 40–55. However, we have also seen that the cosmogonic battle motif is prominent as well (introduced in Isaiah 51:9–11). This eschatologizes the Exodus paradigm in another way as well: it emphasizes "the (new) Exodus as a creative event."[12] What's more, all of this is often mixed in a complex tapestry which incorporates the language of creation and evokes images that remind us of God as Redeemer and God as Creator as well.

We have already noted that some scholars have recently demonstrated the crucial role of creation in Isaiah 40–55. One has even asserted that in Isaiah 40–55 "creation ... is the leading idea."[13] By this he means that this language should be understood in the sense of ancient Near Eastern cosmogony, where there is typically a battle of the wills between gods. Now, there is no theomachy (a battle with or among gods) in the original creation account of our Bible.[14] Even so, it does seem that Isaiah is at ease adapting and accepting the cosmogonic language (with its evocation of themes of theomachy) in these passages. Why does Isaiah do so? How can the Bible use themes and motifs, which are ultimately false in their own cultural context, to express truth? I can only begin to answer that complex question in this limited context.

One reason for this here and in the Psalms is to demonstrate the ease with which Yahweh tames alleged unruly forces.[15] In a word, such a description exalts the majesty and august rule of Yahweh. But the enemy conquered now is not the sea, but the desert (see Isaiah 43). In each case, whether it be the sea or the desert, a path is laid through it for the people of God to be rescued and set at peace in their own city/land.

The Function of the Exodus Motif in Isaiah 40–55

First, could it be that the focus here is not so much on cosmology or creation, but rather on God as the "divine Sovereign"?[16] In other words, by using older material in new, creative, and even formative ways, Isaiah is helping the community of faith with new theological understanding. In short, he is taking pains to show that Yahweh, the God of Israel, alone is the divine Sovereign. And by recounting the divine Sovereign's past actions and events, a surety is given to the people of this God that their Suzerain will do new and wonderful things on their behalf.

A second function of the Exodus motif in Isaiah 40–55 is the opening up of a new universalism. By this I mean that the promises of the covenant of grace revealed to Abraham are coming true, namely, that through him all nations would be blessed. This is in contrast to the particularism of the theocracy in Israel, which largely favored Israel and Judah alone as the apple of God's eye. Now, it is not just particular Israel who will be restored, but, in some way, the nations will see the light of salvation through Israel.[17] This may be seen, for example, in Isaiah 49:6:

He says: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

In this prophetic idiom, the new covenant fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises is described.

A third function of the Exodus motif is that the New Testament, at least in part, receives its hermeneutical "cue" from this reworking of the foundational salvation event of the Old Testament. Indeed, the foundational Exodus event is actually the paradigm by which a couple of the gospel writers organized their books. More recently, it has been demonstrated that the Exodus and the wanderings in the wilderness are very important frames of reference for the apostle Paul in some of his epistles.

It is not surprising, then, that advanced periods in the Old Testament revelation are already dealing with earlier revelation in a manner that will inform the New Testament method of interpretation. Thus, the relation between the Old and the New will be understood in terms of historical typology, just as the Old was within the Old.[18] It is no wonder that, in discussing Paul's use of the Exodus motif in I Corinthians 10, Earle Ellis, while quoting Sahlin, writes:

Exodus "typology" was not original with Paul or even the early Church. The concept arises in the OT prophets who came to shape their anticipation of the great eschatological salvation through the Messiah according to the pattern of the historical Exodus under Moses.[19]

Having traced this divinely inspired, creative, and formative development of Israel's foundational salvation event, the Exodus, is it any wonder that when Moses and Elijah appear to our Lord in the Transfiguration, Luke records that the subject of their conversation was our own Lord's impending "exodus" (or "departure," Luke 9:30–31)?[20]


[1] Benjamin D. Sommer, "Inner-biblical Interpretation," The Jewish Study Bible, p. 1829.

[2] Christopher R. Seitz, Prophecy and Hermeneutics, p. 228.

[3] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, p. 361.

[4] David W. Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus, pp. 55–59. Also helpful is Rikki Watts, Isaiah's New Exodus in Mark.

[5] See, for example, B. W. Anderson, "Exodus Typology in Second Isaiah," in Israel's Prophetic Heritage: Essays in Honor of James Muilenburg, pp. 177–95.

[6] Carroll Stuhlmueller, Creative Redemption in Deutero-Isaiah.

[7] For various opinions on how these themes are working here and for bibliography, see Jan L. Koole, Isaiah, part 3, vol. 2: Isaiah 49–55, pp. 162–69.

[8] Anthony R. Ceresko, "The Rhetorical Strategy of the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13–53:12): Poetry and the Exodus–New Exodus," CBQ (1994): 42–55.

[9] See Seitz, Prophecy and Hermeneutic.

[10] Richard B. Gaffin, introduction to Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, pp. xx–xxi.

[11] Quoted by Michael Horton in Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, p. 166.

[12] Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus, p. 56.

[13] Richard J. Clifford, Fair Spoken and Persuading: An Interpretation of Second Isaiah, p. 59.

[14] See my article, "Ancient Near Eastern Context," in the Minutes of the Seventy-first General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, June 2–8, 2004, pp. 270–91.

[15] Clifford, Fair Spoken, p. 60.

[16] This point is made by Bernard F. Batto in his unpublished paper, "The Motif of Exodus in Deutero-Isaiah," pp. 12ff. He is in agreement in most respects with Clifford's focus on cosmology, but demurs from his position in some important points. For example, he sees that Isaiah's focus here is on the divine Sovereign as a king who demonstrates his rule over creation, heaven and earth. See also Bernard F. Batto, Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition.

[17] A point emphasized by Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus, p. 57.

[18] A point made by Bernhard W. Anderson in "Exodus Typology in Second Isaiah," p. 195.

[19] E. Earle Ellis, Paul's Use of the Old Testament, p. 131.

[20] See Dennis E. Johnson's new book on preaching, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, pp. 210, 223–26, 338.

The author, an OP minister, teaches Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2008.

New Horizons: January 2008

The Prophets

Also in this issue

A Window of Hope in Hosea

God's Glorious Presence in Ezekiel

Helps for Worship #25: Hymn of Preparation

Appreciating Your Heritage

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