Recently, I have been reading a dissertation by Kelly Liebengood which suggests that the latter part of Zechariah’s prophecy (9-14) serves as the foundation for the narrative substructure of 1 Peter. This is a fascinating work filled with brilliant intertextual insights. Both Peter and the Prophet speak in terms of a new exodus, both draw attention to the death of a shepherd, both focus on the “fiery trials” of God’s people as an inherent part of the exodus event.
But the question arises: why describe the exodus in terms of a fiery trial? Further, how would this motif serve Peter’s first-century context?
I think that there are at least two answers to that. What took place in Egypt was described by Moses as a “trial” (Dt. 4:34; 7:19). But this doesn’t really fit the described situation: It may be possible to say that Israel “passed through” the trials of Egypt, but it must be recognized that they were largely separated from the plagues. They were shielded in Goshen.
It seems more likely that the “fiery trial” period describes the wilderness wandering. The Psalmist uses the same word for trial (massah) that Moses used in Deuteronomy to describe the trials in the wilderness (Ps. 95:8). “Fiery” (saraph) is used fairly often in the OT to describe the trial of the serpents (Num. 21:6, 8; Dt. 8:15). The wilderness sojourn constitutes Israel’s fiery trial connected to the exodus.
Zechariah, reaching back to the exodus and looking forward to another exodus, envisions Israel’s ultimate deliverance as a fiery ordeal. This seems to square with the content of Peter’s first epistle. The shepherd has died, and the people of God have been called out of the Israel-become-Egypt. But the newly constituted Israel—the first generation of Christians— are tested for 40 years in the fiery crucible before they are able to enter fully into the new land in AD 70.