Introduction:  the place of Exodus in the Bible

Exodus does not stand alone.  The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is composed of three major divisions:  the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.  Exodus is the second of the five books which form the division called the Law or the Torah or the Pentateuch (‘five books’).  The Torah is identified by tradition, including Christian tradition, as the work of Moses.  In many ways, obvious and subtle, Exodus is tightly integrated into the Old Testament and the Bible as a whole.

The first word of the Hebrew text of Exodus is ‘And’, the Hebrew particle, waw.  Exodus opens in the middle of a story, which began before and that will continue after the events described in Exodus itself.  Scripture is, among other things, a book about itself.  It is, in the words of some literary critics, ‘self-referential’.  When a reader opens the Bible at any point, he or she is plunged immediately into a complex story, which at all points, including its beginning, is colored and affected by the rest of the story.  This fact explains one difficulty in Bible reading:  one piece of it implies the rest of it, and there is a great deal of it.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed or confused by the complexity of the vast world of Scripture.  But then too, the more we read the Bible and the more we learn about any part of it, the easier it is to learn more, because each insight and each increase in knowledge will improve our understanding of the rest.  In this respect, Exodus is the same as all of Scripture:  difficult to read but worth the trouble.

Apart from its first word, the reader can see that Exodus is tied closely to rest of Old Testament literature in many ways.

For one thing, moving slightly beyond the book’s first word, consider its first verse:  ‘Now these are the names of the children of Israel, which came into Egypt’ (KJV).  The rivalries of the twelve sons of Israel (or of Jacob, to give him his other name) and the way those sons and their father ‘came into Egypt’, are central themes of the last 22 chapters of Genesis.  The twelve sons are named in Exodus 1:2-5, as they are also named several times in Genesis, beginning with the story of their births, birth mothers, and birth order in Genesis 29:31 – 30:24 and 35:16ff.  It is true that the meaning of the phrase ‘children of Israel’ (KJV) or ‘sons of Israel’ (RSV) shifts from Genesis to Exodus:  Genesis is concerned with distinct individuals, the literal sons of Jacob/Israel, while from the beginning of Exodus onward, the subject is Israel as a collective entity. [[1]]  Genesis tells about twelve individual sons, while Exodus concerns twelve numerous tribes.  Despite this difference, the theme of ‘children of Israel’ unites Exodus to Genesis, since the second great part of Genesis, the patriarchal narrative (Genesis 12-50), culminates with stories of Jacob and his sons, while in Exodus the people flowing from those sons turn from a single family into the large, difficult, and yet God-favored nation at the heart of the rest of the Old Testament.

More broadly considered, Exodus may be outlined in a way that joins it with Genesis and other Old Testament books.  In Exodus the central event is the theophany on Sinai in chapter 20.  This theophany in turn is at the center of a larger complex of events which reaches into the books beyond Exodus in both directions.  An outline of this complex shows both the importance of Exodus and its centrality in the rest of the Old Testament and, indeed, of the Bible as a whole:

A  Creation of the world by God’s word

B  God calls Abraham to the Promised Land

C  Abraham’s family goes from Promised Land into exile (in Egypt)

D  Exodus from Egypt/crossing the Red Sea

E  Six stages of wandering in the wilderness

F  Theophany on Sinai/Tabernacle set up

E/  Six more stages of wandering in the wilderness

D/  Entry into the Promised Land/crossing the Jordan

C/  Israelites go from Promised Land into exile (in Babylon)

B/  God calls Abraham’s descendants back to the Promised Land

A/  Re-creation of the world by God’s word

The elements in this outline extend beyond Exodus, both back into Genesis (A, B, C) and also forward into Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua (E/, D/), into the rest of the Old Testament (C/, B/), and then into the New Testament (A/).  Of this very broad and encompassing outline, elements D, E, and F are contained within Exodus.

In previous Old Testament studies, particularly of Genesis and the David stories, I have emphasized important individual themes which also occur in Exodus.  Noting this recurrence is another way to show the unity of Exodus with the rest of the Old Testament or at least with important parts thereof.  One way to show the unity of the Bible is to consider these recurring themes and patterns.

For example, there is in these narratives a repeated pattern of forward progress combined with recapitulation or recurrence:  the story moves forward and there is narrative progress, but the forward movement occurs in a kind of spiral, with similar themes and events repeatedly appearing and with false starts and seemingly dead ends leading into renewed movement forward.  In Genesis, to give one important case, God’s creation of the world and of humanity is told and retold repeatedly.  There are two initial creation stories (Genesis 1:1 to 2:3 and 2:4 onward); the blotting out of the initial creation by flood in the days of Noah leads to a renewal of creation (chapters 6 to 8); and then there is a turn from the universal creation to God’s creative work in one particular family, namely that of Abraham.  This theme of creation and renewed creation will recur in Isaiah, in the first chapter of Saint John’s gospel, in Revelation, and elsewhere, both in the Old Testament and in the New.  The theme also occurs or threatens to occur in Exodus, as God renews his people by bringing them out of Egypt by a drowning flood and then on occasion threatens to destroy and recreate his people after acts of disobedience.

This movement forward in spiraling fashion, also occurs in other ways in Exodus.  Movement from Egypt to the Promised Land might have been a straight journey up the well-traveled coastal road on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean.  But this simple journey is prevented and turns into a complex journey of many, carefully recorded stages, with periodic longings to reverse course and return to Egypt.  Even before the Exodus proper begins, the departure from Egypt has an anticipation in the flight of the young Moses to Midian, where he will first encounter Israel’s God.  Slowly Israel moves in the direction willed by God, but only by fits and starts, with reversals and wanderings, and with occasional disasters that could end the whole journey.  The forward movement can be observed in a kind of metaphorical or geographic manner:  Robert Alter notes that the story moves from watery Egypt, to the sere and desiccated desert, towards a land ‘flowing not with water but, hyperbolically, with milk and honey.’ [[2]]  But the departure from Egypt is repeatedly delayed, and the journey itself, as just noted, is also regularly interrupted.

Likewise, the giving of the law, which we have just outlined as a center point (Exodus 20), will be repeated in Deuteronomy 5.  In addition, there are periodic references to and renewals of the  lawgiving and covenant both within the broadly understood Exodus story (Exodus through Deuteronomy) and also within the rest of the Old Testament as a whole.  Indeed, the Greek name of the fifth book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy, itself means ‘second law’, as the whole book is a kind of retelling of the story of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  And what is the Sermon on the Mount in Saint Matthew 5-7 but another kind of lawgiving, another self-disclosure of God’s will, and renewal of his relationship with his people?

Another recurring theme, in both Genesis and in the David stories from I Samuel 1 through I Kings 2, concerns the line of promise, the particular descendants of Abraham whom God chooses to lead his people.  The theme begins in Genesis, even before the appearance of Abraham in Genesis 12, with a persistent interest in sibling rivalries, with reversals of fortune among siblings, and with the regular upsetting of the idea of primogeniture.  This theme, after Abraham’s family reaches the generation of Jacob’s children, takes the form of identifying the particular son among the twelve, and then that son’s subsequent descendants and tribe, who will lead Israel.  This theme also extends into later books of the Old Testament and into the New.  The theme recedes from the forefront of importance during Exodus, in which the main explicit tribal theme – the dignity of the Levites (represented by Moses and Aaron) – will not prove to affect very much later issues of supremacy, kingship, and tribal primacy.  But the theme certainly is implicit and will return to central importance in the David stories.

In addition to these themes of spiraling forward movement and of interest in the line of promise or leadership, the narrative portions of the Old Testament (and the gospels) also share a use of various type scenes, [[3]] of which we might here mention as examples the type scene of the hero of Israel who meets a future bride by a well in a foreign land and the type scene in which a beloved wife is barren but conceives after a message from God comes to her.  The enduring appearance of these betrothal and annunciation type scenes, as well as of common symbols and symbol systems, tie together biblical books from apparently disparate centuries and authors.

The body of Joseph, is another marker that draws together several books of the Old Testament, including Exodus.  Joseph’s body is originally sold into Egypt in Genesis against his will by enslavement (37:28).  Joseph, at the end of Genesis, dies and is embalmed and buried for the time being in Egypt (see the final words of Genesis, 50:26).  But before his death, Joseph requires that his body not be left in Egypt when his people eventually will leave to return to the Promised Land (Genesis 50:24f).  When centuries later the Israelites do indeed depart from Egypt, Joseph’s body is carried with them (Exodus 13:19).  That Joseph’s body is not mentioned again until long after the end of the book of Exodus, when its burial, in Abraham’s family tomb at the very end of Joshua (24:32), marks a symbolic end of the Exodus event considered as a whole.  That burial both marks the literal end of the Hexateuch (the ‘Six Books’ – that is, the Pentateuch plus Joshua) and also serves to connect Exodus with several later books of the Hebrew Bible.

From the foregoing comments, it appears that Exodus can be grouped with different parts of the Bible, depending on which literary or thematic or theological point is under consideration.  In one additional way Exodus is particularly united with Genesis.  That is, many readers find that the concluding chapters of Exodus echo the beginning of Genesis.  As Genesis opens (1:1 – 2:3) with the grand story of creation, so Exodus ends with the story of the making of the tabernacle.  These two stories of making both conclude in similar ways and both constitute a divine ordering of the world.  Genesis-Exodus, then, begins and ends with a divinely-commanded creation.

[1] Martin Noth.  Exodus:  A Commentary.  Philadelphia:  Westminster, 1974.  Translated by J.S. Bowden.  German edition, 1959.  Page 9.  Hereafter cited as ‘Noth’ with page number.

[2] Robert Alter.  The Five Books of Moses:  A Translation with Commentary.  New York:  Norton, 2004.  Page 303.  Henceforth cited in the text as ‘Alter’ with page number.

[3] For an explanation of ‘type-scenes’ see particularly Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York:  Basic Books, 1981).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s