Bible in and as History: Exodus

When I started doing this exercise I decided that I would post on the basis of each book.  There are certainly other ways I could have done it.  Perhaps on a weekly basis as I read, or some other arbitrary breaking structure.  Using the books however, is the most natural breaking points in the bible.  The Chapters and Verses, I have discovered, didn’t become common until shortly before the version of the Bible I’m reading came into being.  The down-side of course to my method is that some-times I’ll be doing a post say every other week(like right now, with the big early books) and later, say when I hit Hosea and such, It’ll be a post every other day or so.  In any case on to Exodus!

So Exodus follows right on the heals of Genesis and indeed it is informed greatly by that work.  Reading Exodus colours the ending of Genesis for me, and make me think of it as sort of the first half of a Stephen King novel.  The ‘set-up’ for the actual story.  Where-as one might start the ‘story’ of exodus thusly ‘The Israelites were captive in Egypt…’ Genesis provides an explanation of who the Israelites are, why they are in Egypt in the first place, etc.

In short, Exodus follows first the issues of the Israelites in Egypt.  It’s an interesting, and I have to admit, self-serving story.  Basically if you buy the narratives, the Israelites are in Egypt because of how awesome Joseph was, and than grow and multiply and are just amazingly productive and so a Pharaoh who ‘knew Joseph not’ put them to work.  I say self-serving in that looking at the book it’s intended readership is obviously Israelites, or at least people who think themselves descendent from Israelites(Nomenclature is going to get complex pretty soon).  So a story that is ‘We were awesome, and than we were enslaved by the evil Egyptians, and than our God totally smacked the Egyptians down’.  I’ll come back to this when I deal with ‘Historicity’ in a moment.

So anyways, the first central story of Exodus is about Moses, and his liberation of the Israelites from the Egyptians.  God visits various plagues against the Egyptian Ruler, who eventually has enough and tells the Israelites to get out of his country.  Changing his mind, we have the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of Pharaoh’s troops.  This is followed by the Israelites wandering, and the renewal of the covenant with God.  This story is perhaps as familiar as that of those in Genesis.  Moses goes to the Mountain, gets the commandments, destroys the Golden Calf, hands down the Law.  They build the Ark of the Covenant, and the Tabernacle.

Two broad comments I’d make, one of which applies to Genesis as well is the repetitious nature of the text.  The text will lay out what some-one said, what god said, or an instruction, for example the very detailed descriptions of how the Ark of the Covenant is to be constructed, and than another detailed description telling us how some individual follows those directions exactly.  The repetition strikes me as something that makes sense for a text that is read aloud.  Like say a children’s book, where the repetition helps with regards making sure it is remembered, but also as ritual.

The second thing is that the text seems to be laying out particular religious rites, and the story to explain those rites.  While I knew some of this story, elements of it surprised me.  How exact the Ark is described in the book.  That the Ark, at least if I read this correctly, is suppose to be the place where God sits.  The place you speak directly to God.  The other thing that didn’t surprise me so much but that seemed obvious was what I said earlier; this is a book written for the Israelites.  There is no ‘universal’ message here.  I mean how is an Egyptian suppose to interpret this for example?  He’s not, because it’s not ‘for’ him.  

That brings me to Historicity.  Archaeology, to date, has found no evidence for the captivity of the Israelites, and indeed a bit of evidence that stands against it.  To me it seems clear the story we are being given is again more demonstrative than fact.  Egypt here I think stands in not because of the particulars of history, but because in the Ancient Mediterranean world, Egypt was an obvious, large power.  The stories within Exodus are an obvious exaltation of the power of the Israelites God, and also a demonstration as to the particulars of a priest class.  Later parts of the word highlight both Moses and Aaron and his descendants as being responsible for the Tabernacle.  These are the priests, and heres why seems the theme of the latter part of Exodus, along with its descriptions in terms of proper worship.

Now the story of the Exodus obviously has great historical value in terms of how people have viewed it over the years.  What was an Israelite, and thus a fundamentally Jewish tale, served different functions within Christianity and the people who translated the bible I am reading.  For them, the story was an illustration of a one true and universal Gods power.  It contained the fundamental moral precepts of that God, shaped into the ‘Ten Commandments’.  Those Commandments and what they are is actually a very interesting subject for another time, and their place in history is also a bit fascinating, but in short, various groups have slight variations on the Commandments and what they are and what they mean.

Like Genisis, Exodus provides much for literary fodder; Moses as the Abandon baby in the reed basket.  The Clash with Pharaoh and of course Moses first demanding that Pharaoh ‘Let his people go’.  It follows in the earlier themes with regards obedience to god, though in this track there is less a focus on that in particular and more on the nature of gods interrelationship with man.  The Arc, and it’s later place in history(which I’ll follow as we move through the books), has obvious provided not just a source for popular culture, but for treasure hunters and religious questers alike for some time.  The Exodus also provides a great central literary theme of exile and questing for ‘the Promised Land’.  It is this last metaphor that was perhaps most central to the English of King James era and beyond.  It was the search for this ‘promised land’ that was central to puritan colonization of the New World for example, and that is language they themselves used.  The idea of a land promised to people by god, which would flow with ‘Milk and Honey’ remained an image for the down-trodden and for those desiring political change even up to the present day.

Next:  Leviticus and all those rules….



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