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This article investigates Dr Martin Luther King’s illustrative understanding of the Exodus story in his sermon on Exodus 14:30, which is in stark contrast to the Black church’s widely accepted typological understanding of the same story (Raboteau 1995).1 As we shall see, however, King’s illustrative use of the Exodus story is not ‘pure’ but blends both typology and illustration. King, indeed, initially embarks on the different-typological or other-typological understanding of the same Exodus story and eventually ends up using that story as a crucial illustration of his sermon point. We shall see that all this discussion of typology and illustration is not simply a matter of a different approach to the same story and its same literary-theological meaning but a significant matter of a different theological understanding of God, humanity, evil and eschatological ethics, as well as a different literary perception of the Exodus story.

This article first provides brief definitions of literary typology and sermon illustrations as the critical guide or foundation for the discussion to come. With those definitions in hand, the article then examines how the North American Black church throughout its ecclesial tradition often has understood the Exodus story in a typological sense for the church’s own historical and theological merits.2 In particular, our focus will be on how Black preachers have explicitly demonstrated this typological understanding of the story in their sermons on Exodus, especially for its relevance to Black freedom and liberation. For this part of the article, I owe a significant investigative debt to Raboteau’s (1995) historical examination of the typological understanding of the Exodus story in the Black church and LaRue’s (1999) survey of Black church sermons of the 19th and 20th centuries.

My article then explores how King demonstrates his unique other-typological understanding of the Exodus story, rather than the traditional one. This in turn leads us to see how King adopts the story as an illustration at a particular point of his sermon based on his particular perception of the Exodus narrative.

The last portion of the article closely examines King’s illustrative use of the Exodus story in the sermon on Exodus 14:30 anchored in his theological worldview of reconciliation. As we shall see, his particular use of the Exodus story and his theology of reconciliation are symbiotically inseparable. Thanks to the illustrative understanding of the Exodus story, King was able to find a firm theological ground to depict the God of reconciliation, while the reconciliatory notion of God that the illustration presents meshed precisely with the theological hermeneutic that he initially brought to the Exodus text itself.

Yet, by no means, do I suggest that this narrow investigation based on only one sermon of King’s on Exodus can or does completely explain King’s sophisticated other-typological or illustrative use of the Exodus story and related complex theological ideas that his other sermons and public speeches demonstrate. Such a task would certainly require volumes of work. Nonetheless, I hope that this research on the Black church’s, and definitely King’s, most significant biblical narrative for its or his faith, will shed an important interpretative light on King’s preaching and his theological worldview, because it is based on this narrative that the Black church’s very theological identity has been built from its American inception (Mays 1969:19ff).


Originally published in HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies

Given permission to publish by HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies

Volume. 72, Number. 2, (2016)

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Christianity Commons