Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On Reading Exodus

Part of the problem with the Pentateuch is that we tend to see it as five distinct books. In a sense, they are, in that all of the manuscripts that we have divide between the books at the same point our English Bible do. The problem with that is that we tend to read them as separate entities. But they are identified traditionally (and rightly) as The Five Books of Moses. They have one author, therefore one point of view, and one aim. They tell a unified story, so each book of the five should be read as a part of the larger whole. This is the strength of John Sailhamer's The Pentateuch as Narrative. In spite of some difficulties I have with his interpretation, especially concerning Genesis 1-11, still he makes the reader look at each book as a part of the larger whole.

That brings us to Exodus. What part does it play in the larger whole? The first thing to consider is the outline of the book.

I. Deliverance From Egypt, chs 1-15
II. From the Red Sea to Sinai, chs 16-18
III. At Sinai, chs 19-40

That makes the point that Exodus connects with Leviticus and Numbers, because all of Leviticus and the opening chapters of Numbers take place at Sinai. It also connects with Genesis because the end of Genesis sets up the beginning of Exodus.

The Book of Exodus should thus be read as follows: It tells the story of the chosen family, descending from Abraham, having grown into a slave nation in Egypt. God comes to deliver his people and bring them to Sinai, where he will enter into a national covenant with them. The framework of that covenant and its requirements are spelled out in chs 20-24. The directions for the building of the tabernacle (chs 25-31) provide for the dwelling of God in the midst of his people. These directions are bracketed by the Sabbath (24:16 and 31:12-17), the day of God's favor. But the people smash the covenant with their faithlessness in their having quickly turned to another god, or at least a god they could see. In the face of the threat of destruction, Moses intercedes for the people, and God restores the covenant (ch 34). As a result of the restoration, the divine dwelling place may now be built in the midst of the people (chs 35-40). Again, note how the Sabbath, the day of God's favor, brackets the Golden Calf episode (31:12-17 and 35:1-3).

The book comes to its conclusion with the Glory of God appearing to the people and descending upon the tabernacle (40:34-38). This shows not only God's presence with his people, but his determination to accompany them in their travels (40:38).

Everything in the book should be read in the light of this overall framework.

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