Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus Introduction

Exodus, the book of departures and redemptions.

Much of the biographical information about Exodus is the same as Genesis.  They are written cohesively in a common structural framework, possibly even by the same author(s), in the same time period and with the same cultural background.  As such, I would encourage my readers to go back and review my introduction to Genesis, because I'm not going to repeat that material here.

But with all that in common, the literary themes and content are vastly different.  There are some significant theological differences as well, with respect to the lives of the people described in Exodus compared to Genesis.

In broad terms, Genesis is a book of beginnings.  Starting in Genesis 1, God creates the universe, life and humanity.  We go through a swirl of history with the Fall in Genesis 3, the Flood in Genesis 7, and the beginning of the new Covenant in Genesis 12.  The life of Abraham in particular forms the precursor of the Jewish faith, the foundations of the covenant of circumcision, and they just seem to put up a lot of altars all over the place.  One of the most defining characteristics of religion in Genesis is the dynamic, unstructured format.  It seems that Abraham or Isaac would just set up an altar wherever they happen to be, and they relate to God in a direct way, through the suzerainty-style covenantal structure.  Jacob, for instance, pours oil on a rock and calls it an altar!  The Israelites were a small people, only a handful, traveling through a land of large and powerful tribes and kingdoms.  They were buffeted about by famine, attached to the land that was promised to Abraham, but in no way prepared to seize that promise from the land's inhabitants, with whom they tended to have on-again, off-again alliances such as with Abimelech.

From a literary perspective, the book of Genesis is almost entirely composed of stories.  There are several genealogies and a long poem towards the end (Genesis 49), but about 47 of the 50 chapters are stories from the lives of the patriarchs and those who surrounded them.

From this perspective, we will see that the book of Exodus is very, very different.  Exodus begins by telling us that all of Joseph's brothers died, but that the Israelites have become numerous.  Later on, we will see that there are roughly 2 million Israelite men, a massive growth compared to the 70 (or 75) who descended to Egypt.  This changes a lot of things, as the Israelites are now a competent military threat to the other powers who inhabit their world.  They are no longer a roaming household, they are now a nation.

They are still largely nomadic, however, as much of Exodus occurs during their journey through the wilderness of Sin (part of the Sinai peninsula).

Another massive difference is that a tremendous volume of material in Exodus is the record of things "God said to Moses".  The majority of what is written from Exodus 20 to 34 is God telling Moses a bunch of things, and then there are other scattered sections of Things That God Said in other parts of Exodus (notably, the Passover ordinance in Exodus 12 and 13.

To be sure, all of the Things That God Said have massive theological significance, and that's what I will discuss in the sections to come.  What I want to say now is more of a meta-comment: Exodus is the introduction of the Law of Moses.  The Law of Moses, as one can see just by the name itself, is a set of prescribed commands and regulations.  Exodus is only the beginning of the Law: Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy follow its lead closely and introduce many more rules governing behavior, worship and Israelite society at large.

The instructions in Exodus are focused on worship in particular, describing the construction of the Tent of Meeting (a.k.a. the Tabernacle) and all of the various things that go in it.  Gone are the freewheeling days of Jacob's rock lathered with oil.  Now are the days of burnt offerings, sin offerings and guilt offerings, priests and robes and ceremonial cleanliness and a multitude of other things.  The way to God is still open for those in the Covenant, but it has changed, it is tightly structured (usually at the pain of death), and it has several layers of intermediation between the people of the Covenant and God.

As I've mentioned before, the Abrahamic Covenant is now carried by the full people of Israel, and no longer by an individual.  Moses stands as the leader of the Israelites, but his role is that of an arbiter between the people and God, mediating between them and teaching the people how to approach God.

The downside for modern readers is that all of these rules and instructions can be pretty boring.  A funny saying I heard once is that in Genesis, a chapter spans a thousand years, while in Exodus, a thousand chapters span a year.  I've heard from more than one person who has tried to read through the whole bible, nailed Genesis (I mean, it really is interesting stuff) and then fell apart in Exodus/Leviticus with the Tabernacle and all of the sacrifices, etc.  But do not fear, my intrepid readers, for I shall guide you through the treacherous depths of gold and bronze, and lead you straight to the treasure of funny anecdotes or whatever else I spin up to make this palatable.  :)

Fortunately, the first 14 chapters are all a contiguous story, mostly picking up from Genesis 50, and one of the best known stories in the world: the plagues and the exodus from Egypt, culminating in the crossing of the Red Sea.

There's two last things I want to emphasize before we move along.  First, one of the biggest themes in Exodus is the redemption of the chosen people from the land of slavery.  This truly is massive, it foreshadows so much of the coming of Christ, and it is significantly tied with almost the rest of the bible as a whole.  Redemption, in a broad sense, is at the heart of the Christian message and it holds a similar place in the content of the bible.  Second, when we read about the journey through the wilderness, take note of how God interacts with the people and how they interact with God.  We are going to see another first, which is the sudden and rapid descent from the faithfulness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to idolatry of the masses.  This idolatry and rebellion is a thematic parallel of the rebellion of Adam in Genesis, but rebellion is an integral part of redemption, because you can't be redeemed unless you have a bad situation you need to get redeemed out of.

I will explain all of these points in greater detail as we move through Exodus, but I think it's important for readers of Exodus to keep these things in mind as you travel through the hallowed halls of this book, because sin, rebellion and redemption are the warp and woof of not just the crossing of the Red Sea, but also the nature of the Tent of Meeting and the journey through the wilderness.

1 comment:

Anna Tan said...

And I had to laugh at "much of Exodus occurs during their journey through the wilderness of Sin".
So apt.