Regular readers know that writing is what I love to do. I have published nine books including Feast and The World to Come (available at lifeway.com and amazon.com respectively).
My next book, tentatively titled The Hebrew Bible Speaks, I will be writing in installments on Messianic Jewish Musings. When I have enough, I will go looking for a publisher. The idea of the book is to discuss theological concepts in the Hebrew Bible in short essays. These ideas are not chosen randomly, but form what I think is a coherent theology of the Hebrew Bible. Here is the first chapter . . .
In his introduction to a Passover Haggadah in 1942, Louis Finkelstein wrote:
The Passover celebration commemorates an event which will probably symbolize for all time the essential meaning of freedom — namely, freedom directed to a purpose. When Israel came forth from bondage, it was not simply to enjoy liberty, but to make of liberty an instrument of service. There have been countless other emancipations of subject peoples. The prophet Amos reminds us that the Philistines came forth from Crete and the Arameans from Kir, much as the Israelites came forth from Egypt. But none of these other emancipations acquired any ethical significance. None of these peoples have left records interpreting their liberation as a means to a higher end, and therefore none of them helped develop any spiritual ideals as a result of their early experience. 
Although many might think the Hebrew Bible begins conceptually with creation, the truth is the Exodus story is its beginning and foundation.
It is from the concept of a people set free and a God who chose this people as his treasured possession that the world has been transformed. God’s great act of liberating a people has its backstory (Abraham and the patriarchs) and many future developments (judges, kings, covenant with David, prophets, wisdom movement, new covenant, and into further development by the parallel systems of Judaism and Christianity). All of the parts, both before and after, flow from the Exodus story itself.
The uniqueness of the Exodus, as Amos and Finkelstein observe, is not in a people emigrating or even being liberated. The uniqueness of the story is both the atmosphere of signs and wonders and even more so the result of a system of righteousness. The Exodus was not just emigration or liberation, but a call for a people to join God in liberating.
God repeatedly tells Israel that he liberated them so that they might create an ideal world, where debtors charge no interest and forgive debts, where commerce is practiced honestly, and where God will dwell in the midst of the people.
The Passover and Exodus story are to be for Israel a call to a better way of living. They are stories to be worn on the forehead and the hand says Exodus 13:9. This is the earliest mention in the Bible of a familiar custom of Judaism, the tefillin, the wearing of scriptures in a leather box literally on the head and hand in the morning prayers. The sages of Israel interpreted Exodus 13:9 as a reference to the tefillin although the specific word is not used here. Their interpretation, however, is not beyond dispute in Judaism.
Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, wrote that the tefillin interpretation was not to be preferred. Rather, he said, it is like in the Song of Songs, where the love says to the lover, “Let me be a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand” (Song 8:6). In other words, following Rashbam’s interpretation, Exodus 13:9 instructs Israel to cause the story of liberation to be so dear it is like an amulet on the forehead and a bracelet on the arm.
The fact that God freed his people from Egypt is a call to love and subjection to a different and better way. That way is famously introduced in the Ten Words, or the Ten Commandments, of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Few people realize that the Ten Commandments flow out of the Exodus story, not just in proximity of history, but in a specific connection spelled out in the text. “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage” is the prelude to the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:2).
What is the connection between the idea of God liberating Israel and Israel keeping God’s commandments? The answer is a simple but weighty notion: the Lord bought Israel with a price and Israel’s heart is to be forever won over to him. This intimate connection between Israel and God has ramifications in social and family life: rejection of idolatry, subjection to God’s commands, and ethical dealings with others in the world.
This idea is repeated in numerous texts in Torah and into the prophets. The Exodus is motivation for two things as far as Israel is concerned: loyalty to the Lord and a commitment to an ideal world. The ideal world God teaches Israel to create is one that has never existed and only will be achieved and surpassed in the Messianic Age. It was a world held out as a real possibility and a world possible only with God’s intervention.
The most telling signs of this ideal world are the Torah’s notions of honest commerce, unselfish generosity, and unending abundance. “You shall have an honest balance,” God directs, “I the Lord am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt” (Levit. 19:36). In Leviticus 25:35-38, God further instructs Israel to help a brother who falls on hard times, not to charge interest, to take him into the home if needed, for “I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
These notions of social change and liberation are only augmented in the prophets. Amos chides Israel with bittersweet words, “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth — that is why I call you to account for all your iniquities” (3:2). The prophet is clear that singling Israel out happened when “I brought you up from the land of Egypt” (3:1).
And Amos’s message of social righteousness is the most poetic. “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals” God will judge Israel (2:6). The liberation of Israel from Egypt centuries prior to Amos’s time should have made Israel a place where the needy are not sold and where sandals are on every pair of feet.
In short, Israel, being liberated, was to be an agent of liberation, building a better world, ultimately the Olam HaBa, the World to Come. The idea of it is very much alive in Israel and world Jewry today, the idea of Tikkun Olam, repair of the world.
The Hebrew Bible calls for a righteous response to prior love, a selfless giving for a redemption in ages past. The Jewish people are the only people with such an idea, to leave the world a better place than it was found because of an unending debt to a God who liberated long ago.
1. Louis Finkelstein, introduction to Haggadah of Passover, Maurice Samuel, trans. (New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1942), 1.