Divine Expulsion: When God Sends His People into Exile


By Neal A. Huddleston

The literary genius of the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—embodies the tangled strands of ancient history.1 The narrator weaves a vibrant tapestry beginning in Genesis with the journey of the first recorded human pair, followed by the patriarchs. The weave picks up in Exodus after generations of Jacob’s descendants first multiplied in Egypt, then moved beyond Egypt’s borders as a national entity. The imagery of Leviticus and Numbers casts this landless people as wilderness wanderers. In Deuteronomy the narrator depicts the Israelite masses dotting the plains of Moab on the cusp of conquest. 

Throughout this skillfully woven tapestry, divine and human agendas contrast sharply, exemplifying the tension between divine initiative and human response.2

Whether that response is positive or negative, the narrator portrays exile as a product of divine activity motivated by patience and grace. 

Beginning in Genesis, God’s acts of relocating people foreshadow the exile that will darken ancient Israel’s later history.

Primeval humanity 

The Bible opens with Yahweh’s creative and idyllic provision for Adam and Eve, accompanied by a single prohibition regarding “the Tree of Good and Evil Knowledge” (Gen 2:17).3

The penalty: capital punishment.

Intriguingly, after Eve’s disobedience Yahweh patiently withholds judgment, presumably to observe Adam’s response. Even then, retribution is transformed by divine leniency into the continuation of life. Yahweh removes Adam and Eve from the garden to work the ground, yet he graciously leaves them within the bounds of Eden (Gen 3:23–24).4

This trend continues after Abel’s murder, when Yahweh spares the culprit and removes him from Eden. Cain responds with a complaint arranged in a parallelism (Gen 4:14):

A   Ah, you have driven me today from the face of the ground,

      B   and from your face I will be hidden!

A’   Now I will be a vagrant and wanderer in the land,

      B’   and anyone who finds me will kill me!

From Cain’s perspective, expulsion from the land is equivalent to exclusion from God’s presence and tantamount to a death sentence. We are, of course, familiar with Yahweh’s gracious handling of Cain, who then ironically “settled in the land of Wandering” (Gen 4:16).5

These opening episodes of Genesis set a pattern, as God’s initiative is met with repeated human disobedience. Yet the story does not meet an expected and mortally abrupt end; instead, by divine grace it continues.

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The patriarchs

As the narrative shifts to the accounts of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a new pattern emerges:


Early in the story of Abraham, we read that “there was a famine in the land” (Gen 12:10). Most likely triggered by lack of rain, the famine forces Abraham’s household to emigrate to Egypt for survival.

Yahweh appears to be the ultimate cause of this relocation. While the text does not specify why God drove this household to Egypt, the expansion of Abraham’s influence—and thereby God’s renown—is a reasonable proposition (compare v. 17). By Yahweh’s gracious intervention and despite Abraham’s deception regarding Sarah, Abraham leaves Egypt better off than when he arrived (vv. 16, 20).

Yahweh once more employs famine for expulsion in the story of Isaac (Gen 26:1). While the narrator is again silent about why this household was driven into Philistine territory, the account closely parallels that of Abraham: Isaac uses Rebekah for self-preservation in a foreign land (v. 7) before being driven out. Once again, despite the patriarch’s own behavior, the result is the enrichment of his household and the spread of Yahweh’s fame (vv. 12–16).

Jacob and his sons are likewise removed from the land through famine (Gen 47:1–12). This narrative parallels those of Abraham and Isaac: Yahweh employs famine to force emigration, sending all three households into foreign lands where their respective deceptions play out, and God is ultimately magnified while they are preserved and enriched.

Abraham’s journey to Egypt foreshadows Jacob’s emigration there in the Joseph narratives, beginning and ending the patriarchal narratives with similar scenes. Here, however, the narrator finally lets us know the why through Joseph’s trauma: “although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people” (50:20 NJPS). Through the providential patience and grace of God, Abraham’s descendants, along with many others, are preserved.

Landless Israel

The broad swath of the Pentateuch from Exodus through Deuteronomy chronicles the Israelites’ sojourn from Egypt to Canaan. To begin with, the reluctance of Moses provides a sharp contrast to Abraham’s immediate response to Yahweh’s initiative. Indeed, despite his complaints about lacking eloquence, Moses is disagreeably verbose with God (Exod 3–4).

Similarly, it takes much divine convincing before the Israelites are willing to respond appropriately to Yahweh’s leadership. But divine initiative wins out, and Jacob’s descendants—like Abraham and Isaac—are driven from a foreign land better off than when they entered (12:33–36).

At Mount Sinai, the Israelites enter into a legally binding agreement to be Yahweh’s people and for Yahweh to be their national God (Exod 19–24). Nevertheless, they break the newly minted covenant even before their representative (Moses) makes it back down the mountain (Exod 32). This response anticipates the continual willful reactions of the people—including their leaders—to Yahweh’s patient and gracious provision during their years of wandering in the wilderness.

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After witnessing the countless debacles of the exodus generation, their children respond wisely to the divine directives. Their obedience leads them to the plains of Moab, where Yahweh provides lengthy and graphic warnings against breaking the covenant (Deut 28). Heeding these warnings and their parents’ negative examples, this generation faithfully served God in the land (Judg 2:7 6).

Yahweh’s faithfulness

The Israelites in subsequent generations, however, are another story—one that also reflects the literary pattern set down in the Pentateuch. The sequence of faminesojournreturn anticipates judgmentexilereturn. Victor Hamilton writes, “In all of these events the infidelity of the people is subordinated to the faithfulness of Yahweh.”7 

god's faithfulness blogObserving this pattern does not downplay the challenges suffered by God’s people, especially innocents like Abel, Noah, Sarah, Rebekah, and Joseph. Nor does it diminish the horrors first spelled out in Deuteronomy 28 and eventually experienced by the Israelites. This pattern does, however, illustrate God’s patient and gracious continuance with his people, regardless of how they respond or what circumstances they face. Centuries later, for the Jews living in exile in Babylon, the Pentateuch ultimately provided a hope firmly anchored in Yahweh’s historical faithfulness.

May God’s people today, sometimes disobedient and sometimes innocent, likewise find courage toward faithfulness in the midst of “divine expulsion” experiences. May we bless those who are not like us, and may we exhibit compassion for those experiencing their own exile (literal or figurative). May we respond faithfully to God’s initiative, thereby exalting his patient and gracious continuance in our own spheres of influence.


This article originally appeared in the November–December issue of Bible Study Magazine. The title has been adapted by the editor.

Neal A. Huddleston has taught biblical studies in the academy and the Church for nearly two decades. He currently serves at Trinity International University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the Chicago area.

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  1. The compositional unity of the Pentateuch is here taken for granted, as are its underlying traditions.
  2. See David J. A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch (Sheffield: Continuum, 1997), 30.

  3. Scripture quotations are the author’s translation unless specified otherwise.

  4. A careful reading of the text demonstrates that this garden was located within Eden, and therefore was not coequal with the territory of Eden.

  5. My translation reflects a probable meaning of “Nod”; compare its pun with d (“be aimless, homeless”) in Gen 4:12.

  6. To my knowledge this is the only clear scriptural reference to the consistent devotion of an entire generation of national Israel to Yahweh.

  7. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 386.
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