Last week we explored the book of Genesis. Today we explore the book of Exodus which picks up the story.
The book of Genesis, ended with Joseph and his brothers living a good life in Egypt. Exodus jumps forward in time a number of generations later, describing how the Israelites fortunes in Egypt have taken a major down-turn as they end up being oppressed and exploited as slaves by the Egyptians.
The story of Exodus tells of the Israelite’s escape from Egypt. Some have called it the founding narrative of the nation of Israel giving the people of Israel a sense of identity and destiny as God’s chosen people in the world.
How historical is the book? Many would read it as pure history. My own perspective is that it should be read more like history that has become mythologized, theologised and embellished in the re-telling of it, and the reasons I say that might become clearer later on.
From an historical perspective there are a lot of details we don’t have. We do not know which Pharaoh was ruling at the time. We do not know exactly where the escape and crossing took place. Many scholars would suggest that it was not the Red Sea which they crossed, but more likely the “Sea of Reeds” which is a more accurate translation of the words yam suf in the Hebrew Scriptures.
We do not know the exact date of the Exodus with different scholars suggesting that it took place in different centuries, some suggesting that it took place during the oppressive reigns of Set 1 and Ramases II around 1300 – 1200 BC. Others suggest that it could have taken place around 1550 BC.
We also do not know the actual number of people involved in the Exodus. Some suggest that it is more likely that it was few thousand people rather than the 2-3 million men, women and children as well as sheep and cattle as suggested by figures in the book itself which some suggest is an exaggeration which would have been a totally unworkable feat to get them out of Egypt within a single night. It would have been a little bit like trying to evacuate the whole population of Northern Ireland with all the sheep and cattle in a single night without the use of buses, trains and taxi’s.
And so in reading Exodus I would suggest that the ancient Hebrew story-tellers were far more interested in conveying meaning than in recording facts. I would suggest that what we are dealing with is what some scholars would call Epic History in which events have been simplified and dramatized and wrapped in symbolic elements. Our task I believe is not to ask ‘Did it happened exactly like this?’, but rather, ‘What did it mean to the ancient Hebrews, and what could it mean for us today?’
A summary of the book is as follows:
The book begins with the birth of Moses who is saved from certain death by some careful planning by his mother and by the compassionate response of one of the daughters of Pharaoh after Pharaoh has ordered the putting to death of all newly born Hebrew boys. Moses thus grows up in Pharaoh’s household while all his countrymen live as slaves. He is saved, or blessed as we shall see, for a purpose it would seem.
As an adult, when Moses sees one of his own Hebrew people being beaten by an Egyptian, he murders the Egyptian in anger, but is strangely rejected by his own people, perhaps because they feared the repercussions of what he has done.
After fleeing to the wilderness, where he marries a Midianite daughter, Moses encounters God in the narrative of the burning Bush. It is there that God reveals the Divine Name to Moses and calls him to return to Egypt to begin a campaign to free his people from slavery.
And so Moses returns to Egypt and pleads with Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but Pharaoh fails to listen. We are told in the text that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and then in response, God sends 10 plagues upon Egypt which finally causes Pharaoh to relent. The night before the Israelites leave, the people celebrate the Passover feast. They leave Egypt, with God parting the sea for them to go through on dry land. Pharaoh’s armies however pursue them, but they are drowned in the sea when the waters return.
Moses then leads his people into the desert to Mount Sinai where Moses receives the 10 commandments and a covenant is formed between God and the people of Israel based on the Law.
Most of the rest of Exodus gives lists of laws including laws about social responsibility (caring for others, especially widows and orphans), protection of property, justice and mercy, as well as instructions for building the Tabernacle, or the Tent of Meeting as a place of Worship.
What are some of the essential lessons that the author is seeking to convey through the retelling of the story:
1. God calls weak and frail human beings to be God’s partners in the world – Moses is a murderer who is so unsure of himself that he requires his brother to talk on his behalf, and yet God calls and uses him to act on God’s behalf in liberating the oppressed Hebrews in Egypt.
2. Secondly, the story suggests that God has not made human beings for exploitation and oppression. The book speaks of God hearing the cry of those who are exploited and oppressed, suggesting that all human systems and cultures that are exploitative and oppressive are out of sync and out of harmony with God.
3. The book suggests that Laws are important in life to protect our freedom – Isn't it interesting that the first thing God does in the story after liberating them is to give them a new set of laws to protect and enhance their freedom, providing a framework for harmonious common living. It suggests that without ethical and disciplined living there is no true freedom
4. Fourthly, the book emphasizes the importance of worship. Large sections of the second half of the book give regulations for worship and the building of a tabernacle as a tent of worship. It suggests that giving worth to something greater than ourselves is important for human beings in helping us to grow into our true nobility and true potential. The important question is ultimately: What or who do we give ultimate worth to, because that will determine how we live in the world. Worshipping a God for example, who sets oppressed and exploited slaves free, would lead one to hold certain values that would determine how we live in the world.
5 Fifthly, the book contains lessons in sharing – while living in the desert, the God-character in the story provides manna and the people are required to gather enough for their needs for the day and not to try and hoard more than they need. And so we read that no-one collected too much and no-one collected too little. In the story, the Israelites are learning how to live in such a way that none amongst them should end up exploited and living as slaves again. The story invites us to imagine a world, and to work towards creating a world in which no-one has too much and no-one has too little.
This is a challenging message for the world today where some live with such an abundance of stuff and food that it regularly gets thrown away, and other struggle just to get by. The book suggests that to a people who worship a God who sets enslaved people free it is perhaps a failure in religion if we are not working towards a world where no-one has too little, and indeed, where no-one would have too much.
6thly, the book suggests that true freedom means that human beings need time for rest and play. A key law in the 10 commandments is the commandment to rest. It is what distinguishes a free people from an enslaved people. Slaves and the oppressed are not given adequate time to rest. An essential part of what it means to be free is to be able to have enough time not just to work, but also to rest and play.
I would like to close by examining briefly some of the difficulties of the re-telling of the Exodus story, because there are a number of aspects of the story that fall short when critically evaluated against the life and teachings of Jesus.
1. The killing of the first born of Egypt in Exodus 11:1-10. When Pharaoh refuses to set the Israelites free after God has hardened his heart, God kills all the firstborn of Egypt. It is indiscriminate, and involves the killing not only of adults but also children and little babies. This is a picture of God that seems diametrically opposed to the God we see revealed in Jesus, and is perhaps one of the main reasons that I would struggle to read the book of Exodus as literal history. If God is able to indiscriminately kill the firstborn including babies and children, what stops someone like Putin thinking he can act in a similar manner? This is perhaps one of the uncomfortable questions this aspect of the book raises for us.
2. Secondly, we find in the book the strange statement repeated a few times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21). Why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart, when at the same time, speaking through Moses and Aaron, God was asking Pharaoh to let his people go? It sounds like an odd strategy on God’s part and rather counter-productive. If God had the power to harden Pharaoh’s heart, then why didn’t God choose instead to soften Pharaoh’s heart in order to avoid the pain and suffering not only of the Israelite people, but also upon the Egyptian people in the 10 plagues. An explanation for this is that the writer wished to preserve the concept of God’s sovereignty. How can one say that God is sovereign and all powerful if Pharaoh can defy God’s wishes? Instead, the story teller preserves God’s sovereignty by saying that if Pharaoh resisted, then it must have been because God hardened his heart.
3. Thirdly Some of the laws in the book might horrify us today, like laws about selling one’s daughter as a slave (Exodus 21:7-11). The book of Exodus is not a book dictated from heaven and absolutely valid for all time. I believe it is a book written by someone, or a people who are wrestling with the true nature of the Divine and beginning to see shafts of light in the midst of some pretty dark and primitive behaviour. There are many laws in Exodus that can hardly be called God’s word in any literal sense. But in the midst of many laws that are of no religious value for us today, and some that are even abhorrent, the book is significant in that it reveals and ancient people beginning to wrestle with laws of fairness, justice and social concern. The laws are really the Israelite people’s attempt to wrestle with the question of what it really means to be free.
And so, the book of Exodus is not without value. There are many aspects of the story that contain values and themes that I believe have deeply and profoundly influenced the growth and development of western society and culture, human rights, fairness, justice, social concern but there are also part of the story that we would do well to think critically about in the light of the life and teachings of Jesus. I hope that this gives you a little bit of food for thought until next week when we explore the book of Leviticus.