by Doug Ward

The first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, collectively known as the Pentateuch or Torah, are foundational for both Jews and Christians. For followers of the God of Israel, these books are an inexhaustible source of instruction and inspiration.


When we begin studying the Pentateuch, we soon encounter one of its distinctive literary features: the repetition of key motifs and themes. This repetition leads us to compare each passage and character in the narrative with those that have already been described and those that are yet to come.


In a previous article [2] I have written about several of the recurring themes in the Pentateuch. Here I will focus on one particular example and reflect on what such examples tell us about the nature of history, the character of God, and the interpretation of God's Word.


The Exodus Foreshadowed

One of the pivotal events described in the Pentateuch is the Exodus, God's deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. As Dr. John Sailhamer has pointed out [1], several of the events leading up to the Exodus are foreshadowed in an episode that occurred several hundred years earlier, during the life of the patriarch Abraham. Here is how the Pentateuch relates this earlier episode:


"Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, `I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, "This is his wife." Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.' When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh's officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels. But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. `What have you done to me?' he said. `Why didn't you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, "She is my sister," so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!' Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had. So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold. From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the LORD" (Gen. 12:10-13:4, NIV).


There are several parallels between the experience of Abram and Sarai and the later experience of Israel, including the following:

·Abram and Sarai took refuge in Egypt during a severe famine (12:10). At the time of a later famine (41:54), Abraham's grandson Jacob took his family to Egypt, where he was reunited with his favorite son Joseph (Gen. 46).

·When they were getting near Egypt, Abram made plans with Sarai on what they would say to the Egyptians. When Pharaoh's officers praised Sarai to Pharaoh, she was taken into Pharaoh's house (12:11-15). Similarly, when Jacob and his family reached Egypt, Joseph explained to them his strategy for introducing them to Pharaoh, telling them what they should say (46:31-34). Joseph brought five of his brothers to Pharaoh (47:1-4).

·The Pharaoh in Abram's time gave Abraham many gifts (12:16), including an abundance of livestock. The Pharaoh in Joseph's time allowed the family of Jacob to live in the best of his land and put them in charge of his cattle (47:5-6).

·God plagued Pharaoh and household with serious diseases because Pharaoh had unwittingly taken Abram's wife (12:17). God brought a series of plagues upon the Pharaoh of the Exodus when that Pharaoh continually refused to allow the Israelites to leave (Exod. 6-12).

·The Pharaoh in Abram's time sent Abram and Sarai away when he learned that Sarai was Abram's wife (12:18-20). The Pharaoh of the Exodus sent the Israelites away after the plague of the firstborn (Exod. 12:31-32).

·Abram and Sarai left Egypt with the wealth they had gained there, accompanied by Abram's nephew Lot, and then worshipped God. (13:1-4). The Israelites left Egypt with the wealth the Egyptians gave them, accompanied by a mixed multitude (Exod. 12:35-38). They later worshipped God at Mount Sinai.

This list shows that a number of details of Abram's sojourn in Egypt and subsequent departure prefigure analogous details from Israel's history. It also appears that Gen. 12:10-13:4 has been written in such a way as to emphasize these parallels, thus presenting Abraham as a type of Israel.


Sailhamer [1, p. 313] observes that one of the more minor details from the above list-the idea of Lot being a type of the "mixed multitude" that left Egypt with the Israelites-seems to have been recognized by Nehemiah in the fifth century B.C. Neh. 13:1-3 describes some Ammonites and Moabites (descendants of Lot) as a "mixed multitude." Since Neh. 13:3 provides the only other instance in which the phrase "mixed multitude" is used in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is an apparent reference to Exod. 12:38. And since Exodus 12 makes no mention of Ammonites or Moabites being part of the mixed multitude of the Exodus, the fact that the two are connected in Neh. 13 suggests that Nehemiah had a typological understanding of Gen. 12-13.


The Pentateuch's View of History

With its emphasis on recurring motifs and typology, the Pentateuch seems to be implying something about the nature of history. We might say that in the Pentateuch, the past is the key to the future. To find out what lies ahead, study what has already happened. What has taken place before will occur again in some way.


That the history of Israel includes such patterns says something important about the God of Israel, the Author of history: God is faithful and consistent. His people are not perfect, but he is always with them. Just as he rescued Abram from one Egyptian Pharaoh, so he delivered Abraham's descendants from another one.


In the closing chapters of the Pentateuch, it is prophesied that Israel would later be defeated by enemies and go into exile (Deut. 27-28). This exile is described as a reversal of the Exodus and a return to slavery:


"The LORD will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you" (Deut. 28:68).


But a return from exile, a new Exodus, is also promised:


"... then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers" (Deut. 30:3-5).


The cycles of history go on. Israel would again face hardship. And God, ever faithful to his people, would again deliver them.


The Pentateuch's presentation of history also supports the validity of the Christian approach to the Pentateuch, which often emphasizes Messianic typology. The Pentateuch encourages its readers to look to the future when it offers prophecies of "days to come" (Gen. 49:1; Num. 24:14). In such settings, the coming of the Messiah is predicted (Gen. 49:10; Num. 24:17).


Foremost among types of the Messiah is Moses, who predicts the appearance of a future prophet like himself (Deut. 18:15, 18). At the time of the final editing of the Pentateuch, no such prophet had yet arrived (Deut. 34:10-12). But that Prophet did come in "the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4, KJV), and we know that as the cycles of history continue, he will come again.



1.  John H. Sailhamer, “ The Canonical Approach to the OT:  Its Effect on Understanding Prophecy,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987), pp. 307-316.

2.  D.E. Ward, "Déjà vu All Over Again:  Learning from Recurring Themes in the Pentateuch,” Grace & Knowledge, Issue 10, 2001.


Issue 23


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