The tabernacle itself becomes a theme uniting strands of the Scripture, including Exodus.  The tabernacle and ark of the covenant, established in accordance with God’s commands on Sinai, accompany Moses and the children of Israel during the forty years in Sinai, through the following books and then into the promised land under Joshua.  The vicissitudes of the ark figure largely in the books of Samuel and the Kings, until it is brought to Jerusalem under David.  During the reign of Solomon the temple will be built to house the tabernacle and ark, and thereafter the temple itself will have a central place in Israel’s history.  The temple is a major character, as it were, in the New Testament: in the gospels, Acts, Hebrews, and Revelation.  John and Hebrews in particular present Jesus as the archetype that fulfils the meaning of the temple and tabernacle. [[1]]

This example of the tabernacle suggests a more general way in which Christians see Exodus united to the rest of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek.  That is, Exodus is filled with sacramental themes of baptism and Eucharist and with Christological and ecclesiastical typology.  This kind of interpretation of Exodus, typological and allegorical, is the most basic approach taken towards Exodus by the Fathers of the Church:

…things and events in the Old Testament reminded them of Christian truths and realities….Water reminded them of baptism; bread or manna reminded them of the Eucharist; rock or stone reminded them of Christ; wood or a staff reminded them of the cross; a thorn bush reminded them of the crown of thorns and of the thorns and thistles of Genesis 3. [[2]]

Water and the passage of water, bread and its provision, and other themes that connect Exodus with the later sacramental system abound in Exodus.  Likewise, Jesus is prefigured not only in the ark of the covenant but also in the Passover lambs, the scapegoat, other sacrificial animals, manna, the stricken rock, and many other types in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  These themes will be noted in the commentary below as they occur.


Name, date, and some historical-critical notes

The English names of the books of the Pentateuch refer to the basic, or at least a basic, theme in each book.  ‘Genesis’ is about the genesis or origin of things.  ‘Exodus’ is about the departure of Israel from Egypt.  ‘Leviticus’ is about cultic worship and ritual purity under the priestly or Levitical law.  ‘Numbers’ has many lists and numbers (of sacrificial animals, the members of various tribes and families, etc.).  ‘Deuteronomy’ means ‘second law’ and refers to the book’s recapitulation of the giving of the Ten Commandments and much of the story told in Exodus and Numbers.  The Hebrew name for Exodus and the other books of the Pentateuch, in contrast, is simply the first words of the Hebrew text.  In the case of Exodus, the Hebrew name is ēlleh šemôt, ‘these are the names’.

The historicity of the events detailed in Exodus is debated by scholars with, of course, more radical and secular scholars being more doubtful.  The dating of the events also is debated, with various scholars proposing dates in a range between 1580 and 1215 BC.  The later part of this range, namely the 13th century BC, is probably the best estimate.  It is not possible at present, more than three millennia later, to confirm a date from archaeological or non-biblical evidence.  There is some evidence, however, of Semitic peoples invading, gaining influence, and losing influence in ancient Egypt roughly in the time in question:  which fits some of the broad picture presented by the final chapters of Genesis and the first chapters of Exodus.  These people are referred to as ‘Apiru’ in some Egyptian sources, though the term may also refer generally to foreigners put to forced labor.

It may be useful to give a brief summary of the common assumptions held by historical-critical scholars concerning Exodus, its literary sources, formation, and textual date.  A summary of these matters can be found in many commentaries, but here we present the theories concisely presented by Martin Noth in the two parts of the introduction to his Exodus commentary titled ‘The literary composition of the book’ and ‘The final form of the book’ (Noth, pp. 12-8). [[3]]  It is almost always useful to remember that historical-critical opinions are usually matters of hypothesis and reconstruction.  The summary here is not presented as fact but as educated opinion which might be called a widely held view among one school of thought, namely among historical-critical scholars.

The starting assumption of these scholars is that the Pentateuch in general as it now stands, including Exodus, is composed of elements from a variety of older sources.  For Exodus and Genesis three main sources are commonly identified, called the Jahwist (J), the Elohist (E), and the Priestly source (P), though sometimes these are further subdivided and all of them probably formed from still older oral and written materials.  A fourth source, the Deuteronomist (D), is less significant for Exodus.  J, E, and P, according to this theory, are often mixed together in Exodus and in the other first four books of the Pentateuch as we now have them, but in general they have certain identifying characteristics.  These characteristics include their terminology for God (‘Yahweh’ in J; ‘Elohim’ in E), their broad picture of God (anthropomorphic and intimate in J; remote and speaking to man indirectly in dreams and visions in E), their terminology for the holy mountain (Sinai in J and P; Horeb in E and D), a strong interest in cultic and sacrificial matters (P), and so forth.

Even among historical-critical scholars, it can be said that the ‘consensus’ positions mentioned here are not held unanimously.  More broadly, the ‘modern consensus on the formation of the Pentateuch has been breached, but not replaced.’ (Murphy, p. 4)  In general the tendency now is distinguish J and E less sharply than used to be the case; to see a 9th or 10th century BC origin for both J and E, which is rather earlier than once was thought; and to emphasize unifying editorial forces somewhat more than an earlier emphasis on distinct sources.  These unifying forces include some harmonization at the time of a hypothetical merging of J and E; the Priestly source who either worked with a previously united J and E or who himself united them; the Deuteronomist; and perhaps an overarching editor or redactor (sometimes called ‘R’).

J is thought to have compiled his (or her, if one follows Harold Bloom’s theory [[4]]) work in the united monarchy period, perhaps in Jerusalem during Solomon’s reign.  E is considered more difficult to date, but it is often put sometime after J and by some is identified more with the northern kingdom of Israel after Solomon’s day.  P is thought to have united the early sources of J and E, or to have worked from an earlier source that united the two.  P also is thought to have provided narrative framework, material concerning chronology, genealogy, sacrifice, and the temple cult (and so much of Leviticus) and is usually dated in the early years after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century before Christ.  In the case of Exodus, it is assumed that P added material from other pre-existing sources concerning matters of law, cult, and worship.

A fourth Pentateuchal source, briefly mentioned above, is supposed to be ‘D’, the Deuteronomist, whose influence is not felt much in Exodus, but is very much present in Deuteronomy and in the books of Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings.  D tends to have long sermons and presents a clear bifurcation between, on the one hand, blessings upon those who worship Israel’s God alone and obey his laws and, on the other hand, curses upon idolaters and those who fail to obey God’s laws.

The reader will perceive that these hypotheses concerning the literary pre-history of the Pentateuch are not necessarily important for understanding Exodus as it now stands.  The sources of a document or literary work, and the stages through which an author or compiler moves, might be of some interest to specialist scholars.  Few readers, however, find that very much light is cast on, say, Shakespeare’s plays by gaining familiarity with the mostly very pedestrian historical and dramatic sources from which he may have gained ideas and plots.  Likewise, few readers probably believe that knowing Shakespeare’s biography much illuminates Shakespeare’s plays or even sonnets, or that the significance of the plays would be much altered if it turns out that they were in fact written by the Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or by Ben Jonson rather than by William Shakespeare of Stratford and the Globe theater.

If a reader assumes that a literary work is worth his attention – that it is divinely-inspired or, at any rate, inspired in some significant sense – then his position towards that work will be one of humility and care.  The reader will want to attend to the text as something superior to himself, from which he can learn.  Learning begins in wonder.  It is difficult to learn if we begin an approach to something by assuming that we already know its meaning or possibilities.  The historical-critical approach often depresses useful humility by putting the reader or critic in a position superior to the text:  the critic assumes in advance that he knows so much about the text that wonder is lost and the text itself cannot instruct him.  For this reason, while taking note of the documentary or source hypothesis and of common historical-critical theories about the prehistory of Exodus, this commentary will fundamentally attend to the text as it now stands.  This study will from time to time refer to historical-critical ideas, but generally hopes to assume a humble and even naïve attitude to the text.

This position also accords well with traditional, orthodox Christian views of Scripture, which hold that the canon of Scripture is divinely inspired and revealed.  The essential fact is God’s inspiration, guaranteed by the Church, rather than the history or prehistory of the books.  The Church receives as canon the Bible as it stands, not as it might once have been in a hypothetically reconstructed version or in its hypothetical sources.  Indeed, the inspired texts of Scripture may have gained their inspiration precisely through the selection and modification of preexisting texts into their final, inspired, and canonical version.

[1] The tabernacle theme in John’s gospel is presented in 1:14, where the ‘Word’ (logos) made flesh is said to ‘dwell’ among us.  The word translated as ‘dwell’ comes from the verb skēnoō – σκηνόω – which in turn comes from the noun for a ‘tent’, ‘tabernacle’, or temporary ‘dwelling’, skēnē – σκηνή.  For John the Incarnation is the pitching of God’s tent in his world as a human being.  This tabernacle theme also is present in such verses as John 2:21 and 19:34.

[2] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament III: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2001.  Joseph T. Leinhard, SJ, editor.  Page xxix.  Hereafter cited in the text as ‘ACCS Exodus’ with page number.

[3] Op. cit., note 1 above.  See also, ‘Introduction to the Pentateuch’ by Roland E. Murphy in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1990), pp. 3-7.  Hereinafter referred to in the text as ‘Murphy’ with page number.

[4] The Book of J. Translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg; interpreted by Harold Bloom.  New York:  Grove, 1990.  Bloom’s reasons for identifying J as a woman are extensive, but the initial statement of his theory is given on the first page of his commentary, p. 9.

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