Reading Exodus to Learn and
Learning to Read Exodus
Arie C. Leder
Those who read little, learn little about reading; but the little they learn is
applied to all they read. Contemporary devotional reading of Scripture has
much in common with the fragmentary approach of the critics a generation
ago: here a verse, there a clause, everywhere a tidbit. But, with the possible
exception of individual proverbs,1 biblical texts do not suffer fragmentary read-
ing willingly nor with impunity. Like a love letter, they are meant to be read in
their entirety, from beginning to end. Only by reading and rereading will the
addressed lover encounter the depth of the sentiments expressed and thus
learn to read the letter as it was intended to be heard. That takes time, com-
mitment, and concentration. Unlike a love letter, however, reading of Scripture
is a communal activity. We do not come to Scripture de novo; we read through
the well-informed eyes of our ancestors in the faith. By reading and rereading
in their light, we learn to read Scripture, we hope, as it was intended to be
heard. In addition to time, commitment, and concentration, this will require
the humility to listen to those who have gone before us.
Of course, reading starts with the text itself. But, what is the shape of the
text? Where do we begin and end? When we select a novel by P. D. James or a
sonnet by Browning, the question seems almost impertinent. But a comparison
of commentaries on the Pentateuch published in this century will reveal great
disagreement: Pentateuch, Hexateuch, or Tetrateuch? Genesis, Exodus,
Leviticus, and so forth, or J, E, JE, D, or P, or maybe the Sinai pericope (Ex. 19-
Num. 10:10)?2 Similarly the extent of pericopes within Exodus: 1:1-2:25 or
1:1-2:22? 2:23-4:17 or 3:1-4:31? In this article, I will read the text traditionally
known as Exodus using six steps that will require time, commitment, and con-
1 The social use of proverbs appears to give them an independent existence. Nevertheless,
whether social or literary, proverbs function in context. In Scripture they are all embedded in
larger textual reality. See Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, Context and Meaning in Proverbs 25-27, SBL Dissertations Series 96 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).
2The docmentary hypothesis is now in disarray, its relationship to the newer literary reading of
Scripture is not at all clear. See the work of Terence E. Fretheim. Exodus. Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox. 1991). 5-7; idem, The Pentaeuch, Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 12
Defining Six Steps for
The Beginning and Ending of the Text
Before reading the entire narrative it is helpful to become familiar with the
beginning and ending of the text.3 Examining these will alert the reader to the
narrative problem and its basic themes, usually defined at the beginning, and
the manner of their treatment and resolution at the end. Familiarity with the
rhetorical device of repetition of key words and phrases will enable the reader
to recognize the parameters within which the narrative unfolds. This technique
discloses the frame4 within which the narrative action takes place and the frame
that limits the reader's narrative field of reference. For example, after deter-
mining that Exodus 1-40 is the object of our analysis, study of the desert narra-
tive will be limited to 15:22-18:27. It will exclude the desert narrative in
Numbers, except for purposes of comparison.5 Within the parameters
described by the text's beginning and ending, it will be the reader's task to fix
precisely what the text says, and to explain how the text does so. The same
mechanism applies to the definition of pericopes within Exodus.
Reading the Entire Text
Consideration of the beginning and ending naturally leads to the following
step: to discern the relationship between the beginning and the ending by
reading the entire text, observing throughout the reading how the initial
motifs, or narrative problem, develop to a final resolution. While this step
assumes that the text between the beginning and ending is capable of devel-
opment or organization, it does not determine the nature of that organization.
Thus, the narrative order of the text is not imposed, nor predetermined, but
searched out. Reading the entire text in one sitting is preferrable in order to
receive the maximum impact of the narrative's continuity and development. If
this is not possible, two or three sittings will do.
3 The importance of understanding the beginning and ending of a literary unit was emphasized
byJames Muilenburg ("Form Criticism and Beyond," Journal of Biblical Literature 88 : 12-13): "The first concern of the rhetorical critic. .is to define the limits or scope of the literary unit, to recognize how it begins and how it ends. . . . A second clue for determining the scope of a pericope is to discern the relation of beginning to end, where the opening words are repeated or paraphrased at the close. . . ." In his study of the Pentateuch (The Pentateuch, 43-56), Fretheim discusses the beginning and ending of the Pentateuch.
4 The consequences of breaking such a frame and the significance of a text are discussed by
Erich Auerbach when treating the secularization of the medieval mystery plays, in Erich Auerbach, "Adam and Eve," in The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 160.
5 Under the influence of the critical methodologies these two distinct narrative units were often treated harmonistically.
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LEARNING TO READ EXODUS 13
Key Words and Phrases
Throughout this reading, the reader should note the themes that are devel-
oped and the new ones being introduced. These are often indicated by key
words or phrases. A keyword, or phrase, is
repeated meaningfully within a text or series of texts. Not every word or root
which is repeated within a text or sequence of texts can be considered a key
word. In this connection attention should be paid to three aspects: (1) how
frequently the word is used in the Bible; (2) how frequently the word is used
within the text or series of texts; (3) how near the repeated words are as
regards their position in the text. The greater the frequency of the word in
the Bible, the more densely should it occur (more often or with greater
proximity); and the rarer it is, the less intensively need it occur (less often
and at a greater distance).6
The clustering of key words in a text and their reappearance or absence in sub-
sequent, or slightly different contexts, contribute to meaning of the text byway
of commentary, analysis, anticipation, or dramatic assertion. Sometimes a key
word repetition involves paranomasia, a play on words, by means of a small
vowel or consonantal change.
Consider the following examples from Genesis.7 The word there (MwA) plays a
crucial role in Genesis 11:1-9. In this brief narrative there refers not only to the
place of humanity's gathering but also to the location from which the Lord
scatters them. At the same time, name (Mwe) occurs twice: Humanity wants to
make a name for itself; it receives a name from the Lord-Babel, "confusion."
Thus, there where humanity wanted a name, becomes the there from which
humanity is expelled and where it receives a name. Significantly, Mwe, the word
name reappears in Genesis 12:2. The Lord will make Abram's name great, not
in the style of
tive, the phrase, "all the earth" (Cr,xAhA-lKA) occurs once at the beginning, twice
in the development of the narrative, and twice in the last verse. As with the
words there and name, this phrase participates in the divine reversal of human
intentions. Both of these keywords and phrases frame the text with vocabulary
crucial for the depiction of the text's central action and for defining the outside
limits of the text. The mini clusters of the key words and the key phrase at the
end of the text underscore its central interest and the reversal. Thus, key words
and phrases not only contribute to understanding the significance of the text
but also to its structure.
6 Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989), 212.
7 From here on, Gen. 11:1-9 will be the illustrative example.
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 14
The Organization of the Text
A single reading of a text is insufficient to determine the narrative order,
organization, or structure of the text. Several attentive readings of the text that
include examination of the beginning and end of the narrative, its develop-
ment, and the occurrence and location of key words prepare the reader for the
next step: an examination of the text to determine its organization or structure.
Staying with our example of Genesis 11:1-9, the following observations are per-
tinent. An examination of the narrative and speech portions shows that in
verses 1-4, the narrative focuses on what the human community proposes to do
in order to prevent being scattered about the earth. But in verse 5, the text
switches to the divine perspective. When God comes down to examine the sit-
uation, his speech of reversal mimics the residents' speech ("Come, let us. . . ,"
vv. 3, 4; "Come, let us . . . ," v. 7). Thus, the narrative movement from the
expressed desire of "all the earth" to build community and a reputation, to the
divine response that ends in the dispersal of the community with an unwanted
reputation, suggests that the text is composed of two scenes: verses 1-4 and 5-9.
Verse 5 functions as the pivot upon which the reversal turns: "But the Lord
came down. . . . "8
This brief study of Genesis 11:1-9 also suggests four criteria for discerning
the text's constituent parts, either internally or in relationship to its context.
First there is a significant shift in major characters, from the human to the
divine; or place, from the perspective of the earth to that of heaven. The inclu-
sios or frames created by the appearance of Mwe-MwA and Cr,xAhA-lKA at the begin-
ning and ending of the text is an example of how, second, framing repetitions
are useful devices for uncovering the structure of a text. Third, iconographic
grouping around a particular theme, present in Gensis 11:1-9 in the moving
toward a place for unity and the scattering from that place provides narrative
unity. Hence, the shift to another theme also suggests that the narrative is mov-
ing to depict another concern. Finally, the presence of a culminating, or sum-
marizing scene at the end of a series of episodic scenes, indicates the end of a
narrative section. Genesis 11:1-9 itself is the last narrative scene of Geneses 1:1-
11:26 (Gen. 11:10-26 is genealogical). The first two criteria for distinguishing
scenes are well known and acknowledged in biblical and literary studies; the
others merit further consideration. I will briefly discuss these with reference to
ancient Near Eastern pictorial narrative.
Irene J. Winter's study of the Standard of Ur shows that the narrative is com-
posed of a series of registers. Reading from the bottom up,
8 For a more detailed exposition of this text and other factors for determining the structure, see
J. P. Fokkehnan, Narrative Art in Genesis: Specimens of Stylistic and Structural Analysis (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1975), 11-45. For a briefer analysis, see Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987), 234-46.
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LEARNING TO READ EXODUS 15
the horizontal registers progress from battle chariots at the bottom to the
gathering of prisoners in the middle to the presentation of the prisoners
before a larger central figure, presumably a ruler, at the top. On the other
side, the scene proceeds from the amassing of pack animals and goods in the
lower register to the procession of food animals and men bearing fish in the
middle to the banquet in the upper register that is again dominated by a
slightly larger figure in a flounced skirt, probably the ruler. In fact, the dom-
inant, primary position of the ruler at the center of the upper register of the
battle side, the culmination of the sequence, is comparable to the position
of Eannatum in the upper register of the Stele ofVultures.9
According to Winter each register is unique in its depiction by means of the
technique of iconographic grouping, in which each register is dominated by
one central image or icon: amassing for battle, presentation of prisoners, and
so forth. The juxtaposition of the individual registers forms a series of episodes
whose narrative progression is linear and tends to a particular image that the
artist wants to impress upon the audience. This impression the artist places at
the end of a series of narrative reliefs, in the culminating scene, a register that
summarizes the essence of the antecedent account by depicting the central
event and its major characters. According to Ann Perkins, the culminating
scene depicts "one group of figures, one moment of time, at the climax of a
series of events."10
Iconographic grouping and the culminating scene as organizational devices
are not foreign to biblical literature. For example, Ian Parker Kim argues that
the "disappearance of three royal enemies in the first part of the frame story is
paralleled by the appearance of three royal enemies in the second part of the
frame story."11 Grouping of particular characters serves to segment a particular
unit and helps us to understand some of is thematic significance. Genesis 11:1-
9 fits Perkins' definition of a culminating scene. It stands at the end of a series
of events (from creation to this narrative moment), there is a basic group of fig-
ures (the Lord and the descendants of Adam [MdAxAhA yneB; 11:5]) at one
9 Irene J. Winter, "After the Battle
Is Over: The Stele of Vultures and the Beginning of Historical Narrative
in the Art of the Ancient Near East," in Pictorial Narrative in
Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Herbert L. Kessler and Marianna Shreve
Simpson (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1985), 19. See also her
"Royal Rhetoric and the Development of Historical Narrative in
Neo-Assyrian Reliefs," Studies in Visual Communication 7
(1981):2-38. These studies develop
concepts presented in a 1955 symposium on visual narrative. See articles by Carl H. Kraeling, Ann
Perkins, and Hans G. Gilterbock in volume 61 (1957) of the American Journal of
Archaeology. I developed this material
in relationship to Exodus in my, "An Iconogaphy of Order: Kingship in
Exodus. A Study of the Structure of Exodus" (Th.D. diss., University of
Toronto, 1992). See also Marilyn
Aronberg Lavin, The Place of Narrative:
Mural Decoration in Italian Churches, 431-1600 (
10 Ann Perkins, "Narration in Babylonian Art, " American Journal of Archaelogy 61 (1957): 55.
11 Ian Parker Kim, "Repetition as a Structuring Device in 1 Kings I-11," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 42 (1988): 42. 15
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 16
moment in time (the expulsion by confusion). The image this scene leaves
behind is clear: Adam's descendants cannot thwart the Lord's purposes, they
will have to take account of heaven in all their cultural activities.
The first four steps constitute a geographic reconnaisance of the text in
which the reader becomes familiar with the landscape of the text; its hills, val-
leys, straight places, and unexpected features. Moving from this reconnaisance
to the text's significance without keeping its major features in mind allows the
reader to forget or avoid parts of the textual landscape. For example, discus-
and the fact that after the Lord's descent, they stopped building the city, not the
tower. (Artistic reprsentations of this narrative often depict an unfinished
tower.) By neglecting the city, the reader can also ignore the city-state imperial
structure of that time, a not unimportant feature for hearing the text. Similarly,
Exodus commentaries often pay only lip service to the tabernacle section,
although it occupies ten chapters of the narrative. Such a practice can only
result in a superficial grasp of the text's significance.
Thus, after reviewing the beginning and the ending, understanding the
development of the narrative with its key words and phrases, and discerning
the structure or narrative order, it is important to state the argument12 of the
text. The argument, the subject of the discourse or an outline, not a debate or
controversy, consists of a reduced narration of what the text recounts in great
detail; at the same time it preserves substantively the most important details.
The purpose of this exercise is to fix most exactly and clearly what the surface
structure of the narrative states before moving on to the significance of the
text. By using the text's own narrative sequence and vocabulary, closeness to
the text is best preserved. Stating the argument of the text is the crucial first
step toward understanding its purpose or intention. As an example, I suggest
the following as the argument of Genesis 11:1-9:
When all the earth was of one speech
people gathered at
decided to build a city with a tower to make a name for themselves and to
keep from being scattered over the earth. The Lord came down to see the
12 Calvin prefaces his commentary on Genesis with an argument. See his Commentaries on
the First Book of Moses called Genesis, trans. John King (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 57-66.
The argument proper is stated on pp. 64-65. For further discussion on argument and scope see
Gerald T. Sheppard, "Between Reformation and Modern Commentary: The Perception of the
Scope of Biblical Books," in A Commentary on Galatians: William Perkins, Pilgrim Classic
Commentaries, ed. Gerald T. Sheppard (New York: Pilgrim, 1989), xlviii-lxxvii. A good
contemporary example of the argument, called the story line, of the Pentateuch is found in Joseph
The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible (
Doubleday, 1992), 31-33. Because Genesis 11:1-9 is short, the argument seems inordinately long. This is the result of paying close attention to several key words that are crucial for the text's significance. 16
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LEARNING TO READ EXODUS 17
city and its tower Adam's descendants were building. Having determined to
confound them by confusing their language, the Lord scattered them over
the whole earth, so they stopped building
the city. He called the city
because from there he confused their language and scattered them over all
Note how I have maintained the text's indefinite subject "they" until they are
defined as "Adam's descendants" in the context of the Lord's descent (v. 5).
This crucial conjunction of subjects in the middle of the text coincides with the
fiat divides the text into two subunits.
"Adam's descendants" also links this text with the beginning of human history
and the first city builder, Cain, firstborn son of Adam (Gen. 4:17) .
When the argument of the text is clearly formulated, including the essential
details of the text, it is possible to define the theme of the text. By removing the
details of the argument, the theme appears as the clearest expression of what
the author wants to communicate. Thus, the theme of Genesis 11:1-9 is: The
scatters the descendants of Adam over the whole earth by confusing their
In summary, the steps for an attentive reading13 of the text are: (1) Examine
the beginning and ending of the narrative. (2) Read the entire text to uncover
the development of the text. (3) Identify the key words and phrases. (4)
Determine the text's organization or structure.14 (5) State die argument of the
text. (6) Formulate the theme of the text. In the rest of this article, I will use
these steps to read Exodus.
Learning to Read Exodus
The Beginning and Ending
An examination of the beginning and ending of Exodus uncovers several
themes indicated by the repetition of key words or phrases. They are blessing,
filling the earth, building, slavery, and the mountain. Together they form the
frame within which the narrative action takes place. I will briefly examine each
one of these elements of the frame.
13 These ideas for reading a text are based on the work of Fernando Lazaro Carreter and
14 As discussed above, the following would be involved in the definition of structure: (a)
major change in characters or shift of location, (b) framing repetitions, (c) iconographic grouping,
and, (d) culminating scene.
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 18
From Blessing to Blessing
After reviewing the arrival of Jacob and his sons, the opening verses of chap-
ter 1 recall Joseph's earlier arrival and his death. But death will not be the last
word for these descendants of Abraham, for they live under the marvellous
promise of blessing (Gen. 15:5; 22:17). Using the familiar words of the blessing
from Genesis 1:28; and 9:1,7, repeated to the patriarchs (Gen. 17:2, 6; 26:4, 23;
35:11), the Exodus narrative counters death in Joseph's generation: "but the
Israelites were fruitful (hrAPA) and multiplied greatly (CrawA and hbArA) and
became exceedingly numerous (McafA), so that the land was filled (xlemA) with
(1:7). The Lord's promise of blessing to
than that, since these words echo the blessing spoken in Genesis 1 and 9, the
Lord's benediction upon all the descendants of Adam and Eve (the nations) is
partially fulfilled. That is, even as
all the world came to
from death by famine through the work of Joseph son of Abraham (Gen. 41:56-
so now in
the instrumentality of Abraham (Gen. 12:3). Exodus begins with a word of
blessing, and it reminds the reader that what God began to do with Abraham is
Exodus also ends with blessing. After
furnishings, and the priestly apparel, we read: "The Israelites had done all the
work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Moses inspected the work and
saw that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded. So Moses blessed
them" (39:42-43). Two things are remarkable about this text: its echo of
Genesis 1:31-2:3 and the object of Moses' blessing.
Parallels between Exodus 39-40 and Genesis 1:31-2:3 have long been recog-
nized.15 Pertinent are the following texts:
God saw all that he had made Moses inspected the work
(hWf rwx lk) and it (hnhv) was (hkxlmh lkA) and saw that they
very good. (1:31) had done it (htvx UWf hnhv) just
as the Lord had commanded39:43
Thus the heavens and earth were So was completed all (lk lktv
completed (Ulkyv) in all (lkv) the work on the Tabernacle,
their vast array. (2:1) the Tent of Meeting. (39:32)
God finished the work he had And so Moses finished the work.
been doing (. . . Myhlx lkyv (hkxlmh tx hwm lkyv) hWf rwx Otkxlm) (2:2) (40:33)
15 Nehama Leibowitz discusses Abranavel's and Rashi's comments on the parallels. She also
states that Martin Buber discovered seven correspondences between the creation and tabernacle
accounts. See her Studies in Shemot: Part Two,
trans. Aryeh Newman (
1983), 479. See also Moshe Weinfeld,
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LEARNING TO READ EXODUS 19
And God blessed (jrbyv) the So Moses blessed them (Mtx
seventh day. (2:3) jrbyv) (39:43)
These parallel texts in Exodus describe
does in Genesis: the work of creation and blessing. Minimally this suggests that
the activities of creating and making the tabernacle are linked--maximally that
they are analogical--the tabernacle being a microcosm of the creation. This
is reinforced by the reference to
tdabofE-lKA, 39:32) and its echo in Genesis 2:15, where Adam and Eve are
instructed to work (dbafA) and guard (Gen. 2:15) the garden in God's pres-
ence. Gordon J. Wenham has argued that these verbs are only used elsewhere
to describe the Levites' duty in working and guarding the tabernacle. He con-
be described as an archetypal Levite."16 If this is a correct reading, it suggests
priestly activity in the mediate presence of God.
Strikingly, after finishing their "priestly" work, the Israelites bring the appur-
tenances of the tabernacle to Moses and he blesses them, even as God had
blessed Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28). At the end of Exodus, the descendants of
Adam and Eve by way of Abraham receive Moses' blessing. Unlike the rest of
Adam's descendants who continue life outside of God's presence, these chil-
dren of Adam and Abraham are beginning to enjoy the presence of God again
and to do the work for which all of Adam's descendants were created.
The blessing of Moses in Exodus 39, then, fulfills a double duty: It recalls
God's blessing depicted at the opening of Genesis as well as the blessing to
which Exodus 1:7 refers by means of its vocabulary. Thus, the ending of Exodus
biblical narrative and by the particularist application of the blessing at the
beginning of Exodus--an application operative in the Old Testament epoch of
the biblical narrative. It is the particularist application of blessing, by reference
a frame for the Exodus narrative.
From the Filling of the Land to the Filling of the Earth
As a result of the Lord's blessing, Abraham's descendants fill the land (MtAxo
Cr,xAhA xlem.ATiva, 1:7; cf. Gen. 1:28: (Cr,xAhA-tx, Uxl;miU) of
the lord of the land,
16 Gordon J. Wenham, “Sanctuary
Symbolism in me
17 This noun along with db,f, and the verb dbafA; form an import cluster of key words that focus the narrative on Israel's servitude, whether that of Pharaoh or of me Lord. 19
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 20
Babel-like language18 the text describes Pharaoh's cruel attempts to contain
sumably, fills the land. At the end of the narrative, after Moses assembles the
tabernacle "the glory of the Lord filled (xlemA) the tabernacle" (40:34, 35). This
key word repetition of the verb "to fill" forms an inclusio for the book. What, is
the relationship between the occurrences of this verb at the beginning and
ending of Exodus?
"The land" (Cr,xAhA) can refer to a specific country such as
or the whole earth as in Genesis 1:1, 28.
referent in Exodus 1:7, but its specific blessing vocabulary recalls Genesis 1:28,
which focuses on the whole earth. This requires that "the land" in 1:7 perform
duty, a task that supplies a profound ambiguity in 1:7:
also a partial realization of the Lord's purposes for Adam's descendants--to fill
the whole earth. Again, the redemptively particular work of the Lord is linked
with his originally universal purposes.
Similarly the Lord's "filling" the tabernacle in Exodus 40. Numbers 14:21
states what is apparently a present reality: "as surely as the glory of the Lord fills
the whole earth" (Cr,xAhA-lKA-tx, hvhy-dObk; xlem.Ayiv;), as do the words of the
cherubim: "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his
glory" (Isa. 6:3). This reality, that the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord,
only revealed to
by the rest of Adam's descendants. According to Paul, it is sinfully ignored
of the tabernacle, the microcosm of the creation. Thus,
"the land" and the Lord's filling of the tabernacle both anticipate subsequent
redemptive acts that will more fully disclose this truth (John 1:14): the Lord fills
the earth (Acts 1:8) with his people (Acts 2:4; Eph. 1:23; Col. 2:10).
Pharaoh's fear of
build the store cities of Pithom and Rameses.
The decision to limit
growth by subordinating her strength to the extension of Pharaoh's renown
him in conflict with the Lord's promise to bless
It is not strange, therefore, that the construction materials, "mortar and bricks"
1:14) recall the
episode for human cultural rebellion against God now functions as the
hermeneutical background that defines Pharaoh's action as a challenge
against the Creator. But his challenge fails; Abraham's descendants swarm all
18 Note the imperative plus cohortative construction hmAK;Hat;ni hbAhA in 1:10 and the building
materials: brick and mortar in 1:14 (cf. Gen. 11:3, 4). 20
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LFARNING TO READ EXODUS 21
Pharaoh's store cities (tOnK;s;mi yrefA), 1:11).
At the beginning of
Abraham 's descendants, is Pharaoh's de facto vassal people; they work to build
his store cities (tOnK;m;mi yrefA). When the Lord acknowledges their cries, he
remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (2:23-25) and begins
process that ends in Pharaoh's defeat,
ceremony that makes them his special people (19:4-6). At the end of the nar-
rative, they are still building, but now they are constructing the tabernacle
39:32). Thus, the text links
Lord's dwellingplace by assonance: miskan/mishkan. With this wordplay, the
text constructs a frame for the narrative: the building of the kingdom of
Pharaoh and the building that expresses the reign of God.
In addition to
land" (Cr,xAhA-Nmi hlAfAv;, 1:10). Their leaving implies a loss of valuable service
a loss of face for Pharaoh.19
But, by the end of the narrative,
way, although not on their own; their movements depend upon the lifting
(hlAfA) of the glory cloud from the tabernacle (40:36, 372).
not occur at the end of the narrative, the audience knows the promise that the
will take them from
and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (wbAd;U blAHA tbazA
Cr,x,-lx, hbAHArU hbAOF Cr,x,-lx, xvhiha Cr,xAhA-Nmi OtlofEhal;U), 3:8). The verb
"to bring up" (hlAfA) is also used to depict the movement of the glory cloud
the tabernacle (40:36-38).
does not wander aimlessly in the desert; the glory cloud leads. Thus, the goal is
clear: The Lord is directing them toward the
12:1), there to serve him alone (dbafA, 23:24, 25).
From the Mountain to the Tabernacle
In the opening scene of Exodus 3, God speaks to Moses from the burning
in the vicinity of "the
phanic fire (wxe, 3:32) Moses must remove his shoes. Similarly, when the fire
19 Moshe Greenberg writes that "our story assumes that Pharaoh claimed absolute authority
all in his domain. For the Israelites to
win their freedom . .would not have been so much a loss to
his Understanding Exodus (New York: Behrman House, 1969), 22-23. 21
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 22
(19:13). After the covenant has been sealed,
consuming fire" (tl,k,xo wxe, 24:17) in contrast to "the bush which did not
burn" (lKaxu Un.n,yxe hn,s;hav;, 3:2). The fire of the Lord's presence is potentially
is also part of the frame that encloses the Exodus narrative.
The frame of Exodus enables an integral reading of the narrative by com-
pelling the reader to account for the whole text according to its elements as
repeated at the beginning and the ending. Recognizing these elements will
guide the reading of the entire text by reminding the reader of the narrative
threads interwoven throughout the text and by moving the reader toward the
consciously designed ending.21 Attention to these elements and the way they
develop also helps avoid a tendentious or partial intetpretation.22 This frame
the reader that the narrator takes
in the presence of God. The narrator tells this story by organizing the para-
graphs, or subunits, into the narrative before us. So that the audience will prop-
erly hear this narrative, essential to its being and survival, it is crucial to discern
the limits, organization, and juxtaposition of these subunits.
The Development of the Narrative
Reading Exodus from beginning to ending helps the reader to become
familiar with the landscape of the text so that subsequent detailed study is
anchored in and shaped by the contours of the text's particular interests. Such
a reconnaissance seeks answers to questions such as: What is happening? Who
is involved? What literary devices shape the narrative? Where do significant
20 The bush (hn,s;ha) anticipates Sinai (ynaysi), as do Greenberg, Understanding Exodus, 69-70,
Fretheim, Exodus , 55; and Benno Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, Trans. with an introduction by Walter Jacob (Hoboken, NJ.: KTAV, 1992), 50.
21 It is important to recognize that canonical literature is read often, that the reader does not
come to the text de novo, but time and again. Unlike mystery novels, it is crucial to read the Bible, and the individual books within it, in the light of the ending. Without the ending, of Exodus or Scripture as a whole, we would be engaged in a "hopeless" reading.
22 For example, readings of Exodus that focus primarily on the liberation from Egypt such as J. Severino Croatto, Exodus: A Hermeneutics of Freedom (New York: Maryknoll, 1981) Jorge V. Pixley, On Exodus: A Liberationist Perspective trans. Robert R Barr (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1987); or, a reading that reduces to a minimum the interpretation of the tabernacle narrative such as Rita J. Burns, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers with Excurses on Feasts/Ritual and Typology (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1983), 180-81. This is typical of many commentaries on Exodus. 22
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LEARNING TO READ EXODUS 23
changes in texture occur? What are the markers that indicate such changes?
Now that some of these questions have been addressed in the opening and
closing chapters of Exodus, I turn to a first reading of the text to discern the
development of the narrative.
Reading Exodus from Beginning to End
The opening chapters introduce the
protagonists of the narrative:
Pharaoh, Moses, and the Lord. They also define the narrative problem:
denies knowing the Lord (5:2), refuses to let
her burdens. Through Moses, the Lord announces the plagues that will cause
God alone. These plagues will also proclaim his power to the nations (9:16).
Pharaoh stubbornly refuses. When the
tenth plague overwhelms
on Passover night, Pharaoh relents and sends
but he repents of this and pursues
Reeds. The Lord manipulates the waters of judgment
the seashore, they believe in the Lord and his servant Moses (14:30-31; cf. 4:1,
4,8-9). Led by Moses and
The narrative problem enunciated in chapters 1-2 has been resolved: The
olution of the narrative problem occur within a conceptual framework familiar
effectively concludes the narrative.24
Because Pharaoh has died, it would seem that the exodus narrative should
come to a close with the psalm; the common use of Exodus suggests this. But
the journey begun on Passover night (12:37) moves beyond the sea, into the
in to the desert, away from
God would take
direction is clear, the goal will not yet be realized. The new location is crucial:
On the way to the land, that is, in the desert, the narrative develops the theme
dependence upon the Lord. In the inhospitable desert,
23 On the lament pattern as a basis for understanding Exodus 1-15:21 as a unit see James
Plastaras, The God of Exodus: The Theology of the Exodus Narrative (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing, 1966), 49-57, and C. Westennann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, trans. Keith R Crim and Richard N. Sowen (Atlanta:John Knox, 1981), 260.
24 Other psalms that close a narrative: Gen. 49; 2 Sam. 22, 23:1-7. Psalms that are part of a narrative opening: I Sam. 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55; 67-79. 23
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 24
manna, and divine protection from the nations represented by Amalek. All this
to break her dependence upon
praise of God and wise administration offered by a Gentile, Jethro, Moses'
Noteworthy at the beginning and ending of this material are the clusters of
legal vocabulary (15:25, 26; 18:13, 16, 22-26). They not only anticipate the
Sinai speech and suggest that
particular word but also frame the desert narrative. By framing
desert experience, these clusters require the reader to put on the lenses of
(15:25; 18:16). Bitter service to
Pharaoh is a distant memory; now
learns to live with the Lord's sweetener of the bitter waters in the desert torah
cr. Ps. 19:8-10). Self-determination is
not a possibility for
begins to focus on a specific location within the desert the25 mountain (19:2; cf.
3:12). Even though the mountain is mentioned in 18:5, the text indicates anew
thematic development by the summarizing disjunctive clauses in 19:1-2, which
Exodus 19:3 begins the narrative proper of this subunit, an account of Moses'
ascents into and descents from the presence of God during which he receives
ascend into God's immediate presence, on pain of death (19:12-13; cf. 20:18-19).
God's dangerous presence,
with a self-maledictory oath (24:8). After this, Moses alone ascends into the
glory cloud and stays there for forty days and forty nights (24:18).
The narrative accounts of Moses' ascents and descents26 in chapters 19 and
24 frame the covenant instruction material (20:1-17; 21:1-23:19) and embed it
narrative that depicts the presence of a God that
experienced. This fiery presence of God provides
final ascent brings him into the presence of God that
"looked like a consuming fire" (24:17).
25 The article suggests a specific mountain, which in the context of Exodus can only be the
mountain where God revealed himself to Moses, the mountain of which he said "you" (pl.) will worship me there (3:12).
26 Moses' ascents to and descents from Sinai continue up to and including Exodus 34. Some
commentators argue that these form segmentation markers: Thomas B. Dozeman, "Spatial Form
in Exodus 19:1-8a and in the Larger Sinai Narrative," Semeia 46 (1989): 96; Rolf P. Knierim, "The Composition of the Pentateuch," in Seminar Papers: The Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985), 400-403, argues that this pattern organizes Exodus 19:3-39:43. He takes 34:29-39:43 as the last unit. However, the Lord's speeches in 25-31 are instructions for the building of the Lord's dwelling, not covenant stipulations or instruction.
READING EXODUS TO LFARN AND LEARNING TO READ EXODUS 25
The Lord's first speech to Moses at the top of Sinai, however, initiates a
wholly new, and unexpected, theme: the building of a sanctuary for the Lord's
low six speeches detailing the offerings, the specifications for the sanctuary fur-
nishings and the sanctuary, the design of the priestly appurtenances and the
instructions for their consecration, and instructions for Bezalel and Oholiab
(25:1-31:11). The seventh speech (31:12-17) reminds
Sabbath as a sign for the generation to come "so that you may know that I am
the Lord, who makes you holy" (31:13); they are to celebrate it "for genera-
tions to come as a lasting covenant" (31:16).28 Then, the Lord gives Moses the
two tables of the Testimony (31:18).
The distance between God and
redefined in these seven speeches. Where
before God brings
(19:4) but keeps them at a safe distance (19:12-13), now he wants to dwell in
an "incarnational" medium by which the distance is minimized and the near-
ness maximized so that he might meet with his people. With the tabernacle,
God is creating space for his people to know and enjoy him forever (29:43-46).
Throughout 25-31, Moses remains in God's presence at the top of Sinai.
Abruptly, however, the narrative shifts the reader's attention to the people who
are awaiting Moses at the foot of Sinai (32:1). Motivated by the people's impa-
Aaron fashions a calf in whose presence
of prescribed and alien elements (32:6).
Lord's presence brings on his wrath. Were it not for Moses' intercession in
(32:7-14; cf. 3:2-5). Thereafter Moses descends and breaks the tables of the law,
thereby symbolizing the broken covenant; three thousand Israelites die at
the hands of the Levites (32:15-29). When Moses ascends to plead for pardon
(32:30), the Lord first reminds him that the sinners will die for their own rebel-
(32:33) and then declares that Moses will not accompany
Promised Land because their stubbornness ("stiffnecked," Jrefo-hw,q;, 33:3, 5;
34:9; cf. 32:9) may provoke divine destruction.29 Moses continues to plead that
God be present with his people and that he show him his glory. The Lord
grants his requests and speaks a word of mercy (33:12-23). Moses then prepares
two new stone tablets upon which he will write the words of the covenant again
27 See Peter J.
28 See Rolf Rendtorff. "'Covenant' as a Structuring Concept in Genesis and Exodus. Journal of Biblical Literature l08 (1989): 385-93.
The narrative describes
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 26
(34:1-4, 27-28). Before the covenant renewal takes place, the Lord reveals his
compassionate and gracious nature: He is slow to anger but will not let the
guilty go unpunished (34:6-7). This compassionate and gracious God renews
the covenant and forgives his stubborn people. Moses again descends, this time
with the tablets of the renewed covenant. Thereafter, whenever Moses consults
God in his presence, he veils his face to protect
of God (34:29-35).
In these chapters,
only free from Pharaoh but also forgiven by God. Only so do they begin to fash-
ion the appurtenances of the tabernacle. A thematic change in 35:1-3 takes the
reader back to the subject of the Sabbath, treated immediately before the nar-
After the golden calf episode, Moses assembles the community and trans-
mits the Lord's instructions for the offerings (cf. 25:1-7) necessary for the con-
of the tabernacle.
under the leadership of Bezalel and Oholiab, begins the building project (35:1-
ending with the gold plate for Aaron's turban upon which is inscribed: "Holy
to the Lord" (36:8-39:31). Then, in a narrative evocative of Genesis 1:31-2:3, 30
the items to Moses (39:32-41), who blesses them (39:42-43).
Moses assembles and consecrates the tabernacle and the priesthood on new
year's day: the first day of the first month, in the second year (40:2, 17; cf.
12:1).31 After Moses finishes his work (40:33), the glory of the Lord fills the
sanctuary: God is in the midst of and leads his forgiven people on their journey
After reading through the development of the Exodus narrative from begin-
ning to end, I conclude that Exodus is composed of six major narrative sub-
units: 1:1-15:21; 15:22-18:27; 19:1-24:18; 25:1-31:18; 32-34; and 35-40.32 But what
30 See pp.18-19 above.
31 On this day the flood waters dried up from the earth and Noah removed the covering from
the ark, Genesis 6:13.
32 I discuss this segmentation more fully in my, "An Iconography of Order: Kingship in Exodus. A Study of the Structure of Exodus,. 116-332. For recent studies with a similar segmentation see, Walter Brueggemann, "The Book of Exodus," in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994),687-89; Everett Fox, "On the Book of Exodus and its Structure, in his The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes (New York: Schocken, 1995), 241-47. A different arrangement is proposed by Mark S. Smith, "The Literary Arrangement of the Priestly Redaction of Exodus: A Preliminary Investigation, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 1 (1996): 25-50. 26
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LEARNING TO RFAD EXODUS 27
is the interrelationship among the subunits? In the following part, I will begin
to answer this by pointing to the themes of Exodus as indicated by key words
The Key Words of Exodus
In this section, I will focus on clustered key words and phrases that not only
emphasize the major themes but also support the definition of the major nar-
rative subsections of Exodus as defined above.
The first important cluster of key words refers to servitude (hdAbofE. db,f,.
dbafA) and occurs approximately ninety-seven times in the Exodus narrative.
They are distributed as follows: sixty-seven times in 1:1-15:21, seventeen times
in 19-24, two times in 32-34, and eleven times (only hdAbofE) in 35-40. Within 1:1-
15:21, these words occur thirty-three times in the plagues pericope (7:8-11:10).
The heavy concentration of this word complex and its complete absence from
15:22-18:27 suggests that 1:1-15:21 forms a major narrative subunit that answers
question: Whom will
declares that the Lord reigns forever (15:18); the construction narrative
Other key words help answer this question and support the argument that
1:1-15:21 forms a subunit. First, the verbs describing the hardening of
Pharaoh's heart (qzaHA. hwAqA. dbeKa), whether Pharaoh or the Lord is the subject
of these verbs,33 occur throughout. Second, the verb "to know" (fdayA) describes
result of God's mighty acts in
will acknowledge the Lord as God. Third, "to believe, to trust" (NmexA)34 in the
Lord or Moses, a theme introduced at the time of Moses' commissioning, is
at the sea when
then believes in the Lord and his servant Moses (14:31).
These key words, along with the movement from lament to praise and the
resolution of the conflict depicted in the opening chapters, support the con-
tention that 1:1-15:21 forms a major narrative subunit.
As already observed in the reading of
graphic shift to the desert distinguishes this part from the previous narrative.
Several clusters of key words support this contention. The key words test (hsAnA),
15:25, 16:4; 17:2, 7), bread (MH,l,, 16:3, 4, 8, 12, 15, 22, 29, 32), water(Myima, 15:22, 23, 25, 27; 17:1, 2, 3, 6), to complain (NUl, 15:24, 16:2, 7, 8, 9, 12; 17:3), and to set out (fsanA, 15:21, 16:1; 17:1) typically occur in 15:22-17:7, which depicts Israel's
33 Pharaoh hardens his heart ten times (7:13, 14, 22; 8:11, 15, 28; 9:7, 34, 35; 13:15); the Lord also hardens Pharaoh's heart ten times (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17).
34 The verb occurs in 4:1, 5, 8, 9, 31; 14:31. Gerhard von Rad ("Beobachtungen an den
Moseerzahlungen Exodus 1-14," Evanglilische Theologie 31 : 579-88) called attention to the overarching function of this key word. 27
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 28
perceived threat to her life, the Lord's sustenance in the desert, and the pro-
bative value of the experience. In 17:8-18:27, the key words are to do battle and
battle (hmAhAl;mi MHalA, 17:8, 9, 10, 16)), hand (dya, 17:9, 11, 12, 16; 18:9, 10), to be
heavy, weighty (dbeKa, 17:12; 18:18), to sit (bwayA, 17:12; 18:13, 14), to judge (FbawA, to save, deliver (lcanA, 18:4, 8, 9, 10), and the phrase everything the Lord/Moses had done (hvhy-hWAfA-rw,xE-lKA-tx,, 18:1, 8, 9, 14, 17, 20, 24). With these, the
text develops the themes of external and internal threat as represented by Amalek
and disputes among the people and how they are resolved.
Most important, however, is the clustering of legal vocabulary at the begin-
ning and end of this unit: to judge and judgment (FPAw;mi FpawA, 15:25; 18:13, 16,
222, 262), decree (qHo, 15:25, 26; 18:16, 20), to command and commandment
(hvAc;mi hUAci, 15:25; 18:23), to listen to (lOqB; or LOql; fmawA, 15:26; 18:19, 24),
and to instruct and torah/law (hrAOR. hrAyA, 15:25; 18: 16). By framing the text with
these clusters, the narrator leads the audience to evaluate the narrated events
from the perspective of God's law as the giver of life, sustenance, and order. It
also defines 15:22-18:27 as the second major narrative subunit. The subsequent
shift to a specific location in the desert, Mt Sinai (19:1-2), argues for the begin-
ning of a new unit and therefore supports the claim that 15:22-18:27 is the sec-
ond major narrative unit.
The shift to Sinai in chapter 19 includes a different vocabulary. Three of the
following five chapters deal almost exclusively with legal, not building, instruc-
tions, and the other two narrate the offer and sealing of a covenant. This sug-
gests that the central concern in these chapters is covenant stipulations. The
clustering of related terminology supports this: the word (in reference to the
Lord's words; rbADA, 19:6, 7, 8, 9; 20:1; 22:92, 23:7, 8; 24:32, 4, 8,14); covenant
(tyriB;), 19:5; 23:32; 24:7, 8); judgment (FPAw;mi, 21:1, 9, 31; 23:6; 24:3); and
Another cluster of words describes the ascents and descents of Moses on the
mountain, the descent of the Lord on the mountain, and the fiery presence of
the Lord. They are: to go up (hlAfA, 19:3, 13, 18, 20, 24; 24:1, 2, 9, 12, 13, 15, 18);
to descend (drayA, 19:11, 14, 18, 20, 21, 24, 25); mountain (rha, 19:2, 3, 11, 122, 13,
14, 16, 17, 182, 203, 232; 20:18; 24:4, 12, 13, 152, 16, 17, 182), the Lord's instruc-
tHata, 24:4), and fire (wxe, 19:18; 24:17). The use of mountain and the verbs of
ascent and descent almost exclusively in chapters 19 and 24 supports the con-
tention that they form a frame for these chapters and argues for the conclusion
that 19-24 form the third narrative subunit.
The speeches of building instruction in Exodus 25-31 and compliance with
those instructions in 35-40 distinguish these as separate units within the larger
narrative. Since both deal with the structure that will facilitate the Lord's pres-
ence among his people (25:8), it will be helpful to treat the keywords they have in common at the same time. We will not address the obvious repetition of 28
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LEARNING TO READ EXODUS 29
those words that depict the tabernacle and priestly appurtenances.
Both instruction and construction units begin with instructions concerning
the offerings of basic materials for the tabernacle construction: The Lord
Moses in 25:1-9, and Moses teaches
Tell the Israelites to bring (HqalA) me an offering (hmAUrT;). You are to
receive (HqalA) the offering (hmAUrT;) for me from each man whose heart
prompts him to give. These are the offerings (hmAUrT;) you are to receive
(HqalA): . . then have them make (hWAfA) a sanctuary (wDAq;mi) for me, and I
will dwell (NkawA) in their midst. Make (hWAfA) this tabernacle (NKAw;mi) and all
its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you. (25:1-3a, 8-9)
the Lord forgives
Take (HqalA) from what you have, an offering (hmAUrT;) for the Lord.
Everyone who is willing is to bring an offering (hmAUrT) of gold, silver. . . . All who are skilled among you are to come and make (hWAfA) everything the
Lord has commanded: the tabernacle (NKAw;mi) with its tent and . . (35:5, 10-11a).
The key words in bold lettering underscore the central action of these two
units: Moses gives
3; 27:20; 28:5, 9; 29: 15, 31 [plus twelve times]; 30:16, 23, 34; 35:5; 36:3; 40:9) her free-will offerings (hmAUrT;, 25:22, 3; 29:27, 283; 30:13, 14, 15; 35:52, 21, 242; 36:3, 6), and from them make (hWAfA, 212 times) the Lord's dwelling place (NKAw;mi,
fifty-six times; "tent of meeting," dreOm lh,xo, thirty-four times).35
Three other key words suggest the purpose of the instruction and construc-
tion accounts: sabbath, to meet, and to dwell. Sabbath occurs only a few times
(31:13, 14, 152, 162; 35:2, 3). Its narrative location at the end of the instruction
and the beginning of the construction account, however, is crucial because it
argues for an intimate connection between the Sabbath and the building of the
tabernacle. Childs, for example, contends that they are "two sides of the same
reality" and that "the witness of the tabernacle and that of the sabbath both tes-
tify to God's rule over his creation (31:17). "36 The narrative location also forms
frame around the apostasy of
thereby distinguishing it from the instruction and complinace narratives. If, in
reference to the tabernacle accounts, sabbath evokes the Lord's rule, its linkage
the rebellion of
bath evokes the Lord's rule over creation, then the verbs to meet (dfayA, 25:22;
29:42, 43; 30:6, 36) and to dwell (NkawA, 25:8; 29:45, 46; 40:35), along with taber-
35 The word sanctuary (wDAq;mi) occurs only in 25:8 (cf. 15:17). The two words for the Lord's
dwelling place are the occasion of many studies arguing for different historical traditions con-
cerning the tabernacle or tent of meeting. See Childs, The Book of Exodus, 584-93, for his discussion of Exodus 33:7-11. Note also 39:32, which states "the work on the tabernacle: the Tent of Meeting, was completed." The appositive "the Tent of Meeting" argues that the received text points to the same referent.
36 Childs, The Book of Exodus, 541-42. 29
nacle and tent of meeting, evoke the place from which the Lord's rule emanates
upon the earth, and the people among whom he effects his particular rule.
Finally, although to bless (j`rB) is technically not a key word in the taberna-
cle accounts since it occurs there only once (39:43), it is linked with the key
word work, which occurs in the instruction and compliance narratives (hkAxlAm;,
31:3, 5, 14, 152; 35:22, 21, 24, 29, 31, 33, 352; 36:1, 2, 3, 42, 5, 6, 72, 8; 38:242; 39:43; 40:33). The construction narrative, and thus Exodus, ends with Moses'
had finished all his work. Remarkably, then, Exodus ends where Genesis begins.
Or, to put it another way: The end of Exodus picks up where Adam's and Eve's
sin created a disjunction between the presence of God and human history.37
The golden calf account, located between the instruction and construction
presents, develops, and resolves the problem of
the Lord's presence. Located here, it forms a significant transition from the
instruction to the construction account Those who manufacture the taberna-
cle parts and its furniture have experienced the justice and mercy of God.
Could a rebellious people participate in such a construction?
Keywords remind us of Exodus 19-24 and Moses' ascents and descents (see
uses of xOb hlAfA drayA) on the
34:22, 32, 4, 292,32). But where 19-24 focuses on the making and sealing of a
in 32-34 the issue is Aaron's and
[+ fourteen occurrences]) a golden calf (lg,fe 32:4, 8, 19, 20, 24, 35). In the
light of the significance of the verb to make in the tabernacle accounts, this sug-
gests that Aaron's making of the calf is an antisanctuary activity.38 The conse-
are disastrous. The Lord distances
describes them to Moses as "your people" (j~m.;fa; plus thirty-two other occur-
rences of it in 32-34), declares his intention "to exterminate" (hlAKA, 32:10, 12;
33:3, 5) this "stiff-necked" (Jr,fo-hweq;, 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9) people and make,
(hWAfA, 32:10) a great people out of Moses. Moses reminds God that
"your people." The deadly prepositional reparte concludes with a summary
statement: "Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people (Om.fa the
disaster he had threatened" (32: 14). In this connection, the verb to exterminate
37 The verb to bless in 39:42
is linked to to sanctify in the Lord's sabbath speech in 31:13. These texts then recall the seventh day
speech of Genesis 2:1-3 in which the Lord blesses and makes holy the seventh
day. Remarkably, in
38 Fretheim, Exodus, 280. 30
READING EXODUS TO LFARN AND LEARNING TO READ EXODUS 31
(hlAKA) assumes importance because of the manner in which its conjugated
mimic the verb to consume (lkaxA)
in 3:3. If
Pharaoh, they are also in danger of suffering the destruction the Lord brought
upon him. If Pharaoh stood in the way of the Lord's glory and was destroyed,
much more when
(wxe, 32:20, 24), and some suffer the Lord's anger. And when the Lord reveals
will not lead
(MyniPA, thirty times in 32-34) does accompany
his mercy, renews the covenant, and inscribes his words on the tablets (HaUl,
32:152, 162, 19; 34:13, 42, 28, 29) again. The unique constellation of keywords
and phrases in the golden calf account strongly argues that it is a narrative sub-
My brief examination of clusters of key words and phrases supports the seg-
mentation of Exodus into the six major narrative subunits mentioned above:
1:1-15:21; 15:22-18:27; 19:1-24:18; 25:1-31:18; 32-34; and 35-40. But there
remains the matter of the interrelationship among these subunits.
The Structure of Exodus
Until recently, arguments for a double or triple organization of Exodus were
common, and appeared to be based primarily on the geographic movement of
the narrative.39 Closer examination of such analyses, however, would disclose
historical-critical assumptions that separated the
traditions and that argued that these were only subsequently linked by a redac-
tor. Assumptions about the nature of historical narrative--it must flow unim-
peded (Gressman)--and law--the priestly tradition reflects the dry legalism of
later Judaism (Wellhausen)--also contributed to the exegetical and herme-
neutical separation of the two traditions that not only distinguished history and
but also separated the gospel of salvation from
covenant. Although Fretheim and others have recently challenged this separa-
tion of law from narrative, the exegetical use and devotional reading of Exodus
still reflects an antipathy toward the legal material and a preference for the nar-
rative and its story of redemption.
The distinction between the genres of law and narrative has also led com-
mentators to define a "Sinai pericope" that moves well into Numbers: Exodus
19:1-Numbers 10:10, which ignores the received segmentation between
and Leviticus-Numbers.40 It
is also true, however, that
39 Double: 1:1-18:27: The
40 S. R Driver, The Book of Exodus (Cambridge: University Press, 1929), 168. Georg Beer and Kurt Galling, Exodus, Handbuch zum Alten Testament (Tubingen: Mohr, 1939), 84. There remains, however, the problem that these segmentations erase the received boundaries between Exodus and Leviticus and Leviticus and Numbers, thereby removing one book effectively from discussion. 31
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 32
camps at Sinai from Exodus 19:1 through Numbers 10:10, that this material is
mostly instructional, and that from Numbers 10:11 the people continue the
journey they began in Exodus 12:37. This observation, then, has the benefit of
emphasizing Sinai as the central locus of divine self-disclosure. And, by extend-
ing this Sinai narrative to include Exodus 15:22-18:27 and Numbers 10:11-
the memory of
after the Sinai theophany, the narrative frames this central location. These
experiences, however, are dissimilar: Before the Sinai theophany,
without consequences; after Sinai, God judges
plaints. Theologically, this suggests that the fiery
presence of God in
midst as they journey toward the land, not yet a narrative reality in the first
desert pericope, creates a new community that ignores the divine presence
only at their peril.
This brief discussion argues for two conclusions. First, the nature of the lit-
erary organization is not neutral--it has hermeneutical significance and theo-
logical consequences. Second, the discussion of the larger Sinai pericope
suggests that the commingling of narrative and law is not a problem to be
solved historically. To the contrary, the present form of the text argues that we
read the divine speeches of instruction as embedded in a larger and continu-
ing narrative without positing a tension between narrative and law. This has
the effect of letting the flow of narrative shape the hearing of law.41 Without
narrative, law has no context within which its demands make sense; without law,
narrative has no power to define the world it depicts. Narrative and law work
together to create a text that uniquely shapes the audience's hearing and
response. In order to allow the narrative to maximally shape the audience, it is
important to discern its rhetorical strategy on the level of its macrostructural
Exodus 25-40 provides an important clue for defining the interrelationship
among the six narrative subunits: Chapters 25-31 and 35-40 are linked as
instruction and construction narratives. The insertion of chapters 32-34
between them creates a chiastic arrangement. Construction of the tabernacle
not take place until the narrative has moved through
its forgiveness. If this is such an obvious linkage, why then do so many still read
19-24 with the tabernacle section? One answer is that both 19-24 and 25-40 con-
tain legal material and much of it reflects the style of the priestly tradition (P).
But, is this enough to conclude that 19-24 be read with the tabernacle section,
or should it be read with the antecedent material?
Several arguments call for the conclusion that chapters 1-24 also exhibit a
chiastic arrangement. Thematically the narrative develops toward Sinai in a
41 James W. Watts ("Public Readings and Pentateuchal Law," Vetus Testamentum 45, no. 4 : 543) argues that "narrative invites, almost enforces, a strategy of sequential reading, of starting at the beginning and reading the text in order to the end the placement of law within narrative conforms (at least in part) the reading of the law to the conventions of narrative. "
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LEARNING TO READ EXODUS 33
from disorder to order. At the beginning
of the narrative,
under Pharaoh's control until the Creator's power produces massive disorder
moving through the
thirst. The Lord sustains them with gifts of water and manna, and defends them
against Amalek. Jethro's wisdom enables Moses to administer the Lord's will:
torah. After they arrive at
now be determined by the stipulations of the covenant. Life with God at Sinai
radically different from that in
slavery and disorder versus willing vassaldom and order.
Sinai are also connected sequentially by itinerary notices (fsanA, 12:37; 13:20;
16:1; 17:1; 19:2) that serve as a transition device: They take
(12:37; cf. 1:11), the place of
dg,g,, 19:2) where they willingly submit to the Lord (19:8; 24:3, 7). Finally, a the-
matic change separates 19-24 from the following chapters. Although Moses
ascends to the Lord's presence to receive the tablets of the law (24:12), God's
speeches in 25-31 are dedicated to the tabernacle instructions, not covenant
making. This unexpected thematic change creates a major narrative break. For
reasons, I suggest that the
ments of a chiasm: At Sinai the former slaves of Pharaoh willingly become the
servants of the Lord. The desert narrative provides a transition that comments
on certain aspects involved in the change of masters.
Combining the reading of the entire narrative with the insights gained from
the clusters of keywords, I understand the interrelationship of the subunits as
of Exodus follows:
A Royal Conflict From Slaves' Lament to Servants' Praise (1-15:21)
B The Desert: Learning to live with God (15:22-18:27)
C Tabernacle and Sabbath: Let there be a sanctuary! (25:1-31:18)
D Corruption in God's Presence: like Pharaoh, like
C1 God's Presence in the Tabernacle: And it was so! (35-40)
In this structure the sigla A-A' and C-C' point to the basic narrative movement
in each half; B and D indicate the transitions from one aspect of this move-
ment to the other. This structure suggests that even as B and D nuance the
antecedent narratives (A and C) so they shape the audience's hearing of the
subsequent narrative (A' and C'). That is, the desert and the apostasy narratives
nuance the audience's hearing of the covenant making and the construction
of the tabernacle.
This double triadic structure of Exodus depicts a consistent move from
for God's dwelling in the midst of his people and his continuing presence on
continuing journey from
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 34
The Argument of Exodus
Having examined the beginning and end of Exodus, followed its develop-
ment from the initial definition of the narrative problem to its resolution, dis-
cerned clusters of key words and phrases, and defined the organization of the
text, I will now state the argument, or the subject of the account, in a brief nar-
ration of what the text recounts in greater detail.
and devises a plan to murder all newborn
After God acknowledges
stubborn Pharaoh by mighty and terrible acts, announced and mediated by
On Passover night, Pharaoh urges
recants and pursues
Pharaoh but he lets
for his great salvation,
about lack of water and bread. In the desert God supports
and manna; he also defends them from Amalek's attack. Jethro, the
Midianite priest, visits the camp,
praises God when he hears about
escape, and helps Moses in the judicial administration of the people. The
promises faithful obedience. Afterward God calls Moses to meet him at the
top of mount Sinai. (1:1-24:18).
At the top of Sinai, Moses receives
and to make a sanctuary for the Lord to dwell in their midst. While God is
golden calf. This provokes the Lord to
gives his people, promises to lead them to the Promised Land, and renews
the covenant. After this,
ments of the tabernacle complex and brings them to Moses. He inspects
Moses assembles and consecrates the tabernacle and the priesthood. Then
the glory of the Lord fills the tabernacle;
the fiery cloud guides
their journey (25:1-40:38).
I have written the argument to reflect the narrative structure and to conserve
According to the working definition, the argument is descriptive; no interpre-
tation42 of the text should intrude at this stage, only a keen appreciation of the
narrative movement from beginning to end.
42 It is, of course, true that interpretation begins with the act of reading and discerning structure. I mean at this stage to describe as objectively as possible what the text before the audience says, given the structure for which I am arguing.
READING EXODUS TO LEARN AND LFARNING TO READ EXODUS 35
The Theme of Exodus
For preaching purposes, the theme of a narrative or its subunit should have
only one subject and a predicate in order to clearly hear who does what in the
narrative. This is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, task for a larger nar-
rative. But the statement of the argument already provides us with a good
reduced version of the narrative. I begin, then, with a thematic statement, prod-
uct of keeping the essentials of each major subunit and of removing details.
By mighty signs of power, the Lord rescues Abraham's abundant descen-
brings them to covenant with him at
golden calf. After God pardons their
cle and Moses assembles it. Then the glory of the Lord fills the tabernacle
This thematic statement can be further reduced to: By mighty signs of power
order to dwell in her midst by means of the tabernacle. Exodus 29:43-46 could be considered the narrative's own thematic statement.
In this article, I have provided a brief, first reading of Exodus as an exercise
in reading a larger biblical narrative. By following these steps the reader can
appropriate the narrative flow such that subsequent readings of smaller peri-
copes can be placed in the light of the whole narrative. This reading has also
shown that the commingling of narrative and instructional genres is not an
obstacle to understanding the Exodus narrative. But, there remains the ques-
tion of the coherence of Exodus; what gives the narrative its unity. This I will
address in a later article.
Calvin Theological Seminary
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