When Moses received the divine call to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, he likely had no idea of the lengths to which God would go in order to deliver the Hebrew slaves. There would be plagues that affected Egyptians but not Israelites, divine protection from the angel of death, a miraculous escape through the Red Sea, water and manna in the desert, and, finally, the great revelations on Mount Sinai. The Exodus showed the Israelites that the Lord was faithful and that they were his people.
Undoubtedly, the Exodus is one of God’s most memorable acts in Israel’s behalf before the Atonement. Its display of sheer power and sublime affirmation of God’s love showed the Lord’s ability to rescue and sustain his people and also foreshadowed Christ’s atonement. Prophets, leaders, and teachers both in Israel and in the Book of Mormon lands often referred to the Exodus to strengthen faith in God’s ability to deliver his people—not only physically, but also spiritually—by the power of Christ’s atonement. Time and again, those lessons were repeated in varying degrees when subsequent generations of the Lord’s people escaped persecution through faith in their almighty God.
When Moses’ initial appeal to Pharaoh failed, three things happened almost immediately. First, Pharaoh increased the slaves’ work. (See Ex. 5:6–19.) Second, as a result, the Hebrews complained about Moses and Aaron for upsetting the routine. (See Ex. 5:20–21.) And finally, Moses himself suddenly had doubts about whether the Lord would really do all that he claimed. (See Ex. 5:22–23.)
At this point, God assured Moses of the rightness of the course on which the Israelites had embarked. He assured them not only that he was in charge, but that the Hebrews could put all of their trust in his promises: “I am the Lord. … I have remembered my covenant. … I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God. … I will bring you in unto the land” (Ex. 6:1–8).
By referring to himself in the first person, the Lord stressed that he was in control of events and would ensure the well-being of the Israelites, then and in the future. The Pharaoh’s alteration of a long-standing agreement with the Israelites had already taught the Israelites that human beings and their institutions could not be relied upon. (See Ex. 5:14–16.) Now the Lord could stage events in such a way as to convince them that he was the only one upon whom they could depend.
Thus, beginning with the plague of the flies, the plagues that ravaged Egypt made a clear distinction between the Israelite slaves and the Egyptians. (See Ex. 8:23; Ex. 9:4–7.) Just how powerful the Lord is was shown dramatically when the Israelites escaped from the angel of death by performing a simple set of actions outlined by the Lord. (See Ex. 12:3–30.) Even more dramatically, the Lord later revealed his omnipotence by sending his people a protecting angel and “pillar of the cloud” when a chariot army came after the Israelites and brought on a crisis of confidence. (See Ex. 14:8–20.)
The final deliverance came by escaping through the sea, which demonstrated the Lord’s control over nature. (See Ex. 14:15–16, 21–31.) These demonstrations of power finally convinced the Hebrews, at least for a time. “The people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and his servant Moses” (Ex. 14:31). Although Israel’s newly found faith was soon shaken when they ran out of water and food in the desert, the Lord’s supply of water, manna, and quails to his hungry people again showed that he could and would care for them.
Having proved that he was the faithful God, the Lord was ready to make a covenant with the former slaves. This he did at Mount Sinai. A generation later, on the eve of the Israelites’ entry into the promised land, Moses made the following comments about the events on Sinai:
“Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live? … Unto thee it was shewed, that thou mightest know that the Lord he is God; there is none else beside him” (Deut. 4:33, 35).
These experiences and the others associated with the Exodus served as central symbols of Israel’s relationship with the Lord for a number of generations to come. The feast of the Passover served as a continual reminder that God had intervened in Israel’s behalf. This observance, then and now, has always been commemorated as if it has just happened, as if the celebrants themselves were the generation which had been led from Egypt.
In addition, three distinct recitations recounted God’s many acts performed in Egypt in Israel’s behalf—acts which stood at the center of their expression of faith. According to an injunction in Deuteronomy 6, not only were parents to teach God’s law to their children, but, when children asked about the origin of the statutes and judgments bestowed by God, they were to reply, in part: “We were Pharaoh’s bondmen in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deut. 6:21). A similar expression was to be uttered when an Israelite brought the firstfruits of the ground as an offering to the Lord. (See Deut. 26:5–9.)
Joshua showed the way for future celebrations when, at the ceremony he conducted at Shechem shortly before his death, he rehearsed God’s mighty deeds in delivering Israel from slavery. (See Josh. 24:2–14.) Plainly, the impact of the Exodus on the hearts of Israel was not to diminish in later generations.
For the Book of Mormon people, as for the Israelites, the Exodus was a vivid proof of God’s power and love. It inspired hope, faith, and confidence in generation after generation. In order to convince readers of his testimony that the name of Jesus Christ is the only name by which salvation comes, Nephi chose the Exodus as the core of his sacred oath: “And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, … there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ … whereby man can be saved” (2 Ne. 25:20).
When Nephi wanted to prove to his recalcitrant brothers that the Lord could lead their father Lehi to a promised land, he referred to the events of the Exodus as the supreme demonstration of God’s power to carry out his promises. (See 1 Ne. 17:23–42.) Another Nephi, son of Helaman, answering arguments by “men who … belonged to the secret band of Gadianton,” used the Exodus as his chief validation that God’s prophetic word would be fulfilled. (See Hel. 8:1, 11–13.)
Likewise, when a group of enslaved Book of Mormon peoples called upon God for deliverance, they used Israel’s cry during their captivity. Two such instances occurred within the colony that left Zarahemla under the leadership of Zeniff in order to reclaim the original Nephite homeland—an effort finally abandoned because of Lamanite oppression.
The first of these groups to call upon the Lord was the group of 450 persons who, under the leadership of Alma the Elder, fled from King Noah and then settled in the land of Helam. (See Mosiah 23:1–20.) Eventually, they fell into bondage and sought deliverance of the Lord. (See Mosiah 23:21–24:25.) The second group, the people of King Limhi, found that even a series of armed rebellions could not free them from being slaves to the Lamanites. (See Mosiah 21:2–13.) In the aftermath of defeat, “they did cry mightily to God … that he would deliver them out of their afflictions” (Mosiah 21:14).
In each instance, the Exodus was held up as proof that God can and will rescue his people. “Put your trust in … that God who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” Limhi pleaded with his people (Mosiah 7:19).
But the Exodus served as more than an affirmation of God’s power for these two groups in bondage. It provided a pattern for their escape as well. In each instance, the Lord controlled events and opened the way for escape, just as he had done for ancient Israel. For example, he softened the hearts of the captors just as he had softened Pharaoh’s heart by means of the plagues. (See Mosiah 21:15; Mosiah 23:29.) Finally, they escaped with their property, specifically their “flocks and herds”—no small feat. (See Mosiah 22:10–11; Mosiah 23:1; Mosiah 24:18.)
King Mosiah summed up the deliverance of the two groups: “Were it not for the interposition of their all-wise Creator, … they must unavoidably remain in bondage until now. … But behold, … because they cried mightily unto him he did deliver them out of bondage” (Mosiah 29:19–20). Obviously, both the people of Limhi and the group with Alma saw the Exodus as a model for their own experiences. It gave them courage that the Lord would deliver them as he had the ancient Israelites.
Following the Atonement, the Exodus diminished in its overall importance because, for the followers of Jesus, the Atonement replaced it as the primary symbol of faith and hope. Pre-Atonement authors in the Book of Mormon even drew on language and description associated with the Exodus to illuminate the effects of the Atonement more fully.
Jacob, for example, compared the results of the yet-to-be Atonement to “deliverance” and “escape” in a long sermon filled with terms describing the Exodus. He quoted Isaiah, whose prophecies of the gathering of Israel in the last days form what some commentators have come to call the “Second Exodus”—the event in which “the Messiah will set himself again the second time to recover” his people (2 Ne. 6:14).
In applying this Exodus terminology to the Atonement, Jacob wrote:
“O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster … death and hell. … And because of the way of deliverance of our God, the Holy One of Israel, this death, of which I have spoken, which is the temporal, shall deliver up its dead; which death is the grave” (2 Ne. 9:10–11; emphasis added; see also Isa. 50–52).
Alma the Younger also connects the Atonement with the Exodus. Telling his son Helaman about his conversion, he declares, “God has delivered me … from death; yea, and I do put my trust in him, and he will still deliver me.” He goes on to praise God because he “has also brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem; and he has also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time” (Alma 36:27, 29; emphasis added).
For Jacob and Alma, the Exodus and the Atonement show God’s omnipotence in similar ways. The Atonement provided a spiritual deliverance from the slavery of sin in the same way that the Exodus provided a physical escape from the slavery of the Pharaoh.
Isaiah’s prophecies using Exodus phraseology to describe the gathering of Israel by the Messiah were used by the Savior himself in 3 Nephi. Examples include such passages as “loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion”—a clear reference to Hebrew slavery (Isa. 52:2; 3 Ne. 20:37). “My people went down aforetime into Egypt to sojourn there,” recalls the Lord, alluding to the initial move to Egypt by Jacob’s family to join Joseph (Isa. 52:4). The command, “Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing” summons the memory of Israel’s flight into the wilderness (Isa. 52:11; 3 Ne. 20:41). And the calming assurance that the second time God’s people flee from wickedness, they “shall not go out with haste, nor go by flight: for the Lord will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rereward” recalls—and consciously reverses—the events of the Exodus (Isa. 52:12; see also 3 Ne. 20:42).
Even though the Atonement replaced the Exodus as the ultimate proof of God’s merciful might, the Lord continued to use Exodus imagery to reassure his people. To the destitute Saints at Winter Quarters, the Lord counseled, “Fear not thine enemies, for they are in mine hands and I will do my pleasure with them” (D&C 136:30). As proof, the Lord had declared, “I am the Lord your God, even the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob. I am he who led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; and my arm is stretched out in the last days, to save my people Israel” (D&C 136:21–22).
Jeremiah prophesied that in the last days “they shall no more say, The Lord liveth which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;
“But, The Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land” (Jer. 23:7–8).
Using Exodus language, the Lord has assured us, through Jeremiah, of a divinely guided future—one in which he will lead his people, just as he led the Israelites out of Egypt.