Chapter 1: The Act of Redemption (Exodus 1:1-18:27)
Israel and Egypt (1:1-22)
The Setting (I:1-7)
The first paragraph of Exodus appropriately connects the preceding narratives in Genesis about the fathers of Israel with all that is immediately to follow in Exodus about the “sons” of Israel (“Jacob”; see (Gen. 32:28). These are the physical and spiritual descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; they are to be known collectively as Israel, the People of God.
“Seventy” (vs. 5) may be a round number. Genesis 46:8-27 lists all the names, a total of 70. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, completed in the centuries just before the Christian era, lists an additional five names, which no doubt accounts for the statement in Acts 7:14 that “Joseph sent and called to him Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five souls.” The precise number is not important. It is of little concern that we do not know certainly whether the Greek version of the text of Genesis somehow added five names or whether the Hebrew text (from which our English translations were made) accidentally lost five names. It is the purpose of Exodus 1:1-7 to underline the fact that the total Jacob-Joseph group originally resident in Egypt was very small – simply, in terms of the ancient East, a family – but that life in Egypt was for a while benign, beneficent, and altogether blessed. This is made clear by the effective emphasis in repetition: they (1) were fruitful, (2) increased greatly, (3) multiplied, (4) grew exceedingly strong; and all to such an extent that (5) “the land was filled with them.”
What land was filled with them? If Egypt is intended, then we must regard the statement as hyperbole, a figure of speech used to climax the series of words describing Israel’s remarkable increase in numbers. More probably the reference is to the very small territory, Goshen, to which this family-clan was assigned (Gen. 45:10; 46:28-34; 47:1-6, 27; 50:8; Exod. 8:22; 9:26).
The earliest source of information – the oldest “record,” oral or written -used in the composition of the present narratives of Exodus probably dates from the tenth century B.C. (1000-900) when the people of Israel became an integrated, autonomous political state in Canaan under the leadership of Saul, David, and Solomon. There is no question but that the state was made up of twelve dominant tribal groups already long in association. There is, on the other hand, the strongest evidence that not all of these tribes were originally involved in the actual historical experience of the exodus from Egypt. The escape from Egypt by, as will be seen, a relatively small group of slave people probably occurred in the thirteenth century B.C. (1300-1200), roughly 300 years before the compilation of the earliest fixed source which was used in the present record. There can be no doubt that Israel’s earliest great historian (who, being anonymous, is known to modern interpreters by the symbol “J”) understood and recounted the Exodus events in simplified, idealized terms which he applied to the original nucleus of all the twelve tribes in the Israelite kingdom.
We know from solid historical evidence that when the Moses group was coming out of Egypt at least some of the tribes which later became a part of the political state of Israel were already resident in Canaan; indeed, they had long been resident there. On the other hand, the record in Exodus is in essence absolutely true; for spiritually religiously, theologically all of the component tribes of Israel did adopt and acknowledge the Exodus event as the divine act of their redemption. All of Israel confessed, and rightly confessed, that what Israel was in essence she was because God had called her forth into meaningful existence, created her, and entered into covenant with her. As among the conglomerate people of the United States there is a common identification and a common sense of participation in the formative events of national history, so also the people of all of Israel’s varied tribal backgrounds made the common confession of faith: “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. . . and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers” (Deut. 6:21-23; compare 26:5-9).
This, then, is the setting. Can we make an intelligent guess as to when the Jacob-Joseph clan first came into Egypt’ They were Semites; that is, they were of Semitic stock. Now the Egyptians, non-Semitic, were nevertheless ruled by a dynasty (the Seventeenth) of usurping, conquering Semites known as the Hyksos, who took over Egyptian rule about 1710 B.C. and were finally expelled from Egypt about 1570 B.C. Historians have as yet been unable to agree upon a chronological framework for patriarchal times, although there is rough agreement: the first half of the second millennium B.C. It is in every way reasonable, however, to suppose that the semi-nomadic Semites who are designated by the Jacob-Joseph name entered Egypt when it was ruled by formerly semi-nomadic Semites known as the Hyksos. If so, these few verses introducing Exodus represent a radical condensation of more than two centuries; and we can well understand the vast multiplication of the original group’s numbers.
On the other hand, we have no evidence absolutely ruling out the possibility that the Jacob-Joseph group arrived during the Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1570-1310 B.C.), that is, sometime after the expulsion of the Hyksos. Semi-nomadic peoples in this part of the ancient world have from time immemorial, according to the arbitrary pressures of maintaining existence, shifted their residence from the desert and its borders to more settled but still tenuous existence in permanently productive areas of human occupation. In the second millennium B.C., Egypt always had such groups from the nearby deserts attaching themselves to her life and territory for varying reasons, in varying capacities, and for varying lengths of time.
The Turning (1:8-14)
Older historians were inclined to regard the “new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (vs. 8) as a reference to the re-establishment of Egyptian rule with the Eighteenth Dynasty (about 1570-13 10 B.C.). The Exodus, therefore, was usually dated around the middle of the next century, that is, the fifteenth (1500-1400 B.C.). On several counts this now appears to be, if not impossible, certainly far more improbable than a date some two centuries later. One of these reasons is considered here. Others will appear as we go along.
If it is correct, as verse 11 declares, that the Israelite slaves built Pithom and Ra-amses – and there are no good grounds to doubt it – the Exodus could not have occurred before 1300 B.C. Pithom is probably to be identified with the modern Tell er-Retabeh; excavations there confirm the fact of ambitious building in the early thirteenth century. More significantly, and with greater certainty, Ra-amses has been located at Tanis in the eastern part of the Nile delta region, in close proximity to Goshen, the territory occupied by Israel. Here excavations indicate that the city (earlier and under a different name, the capital of the Hyksos Dynasty) was destroyed in the sixteenth century when the Hyksos were expelled, that reoccupation probably began shortly before 1300 B.C., and that work went on there under the first two kings of the Nineteenth Dynasty, Seti I (about 1310-1290 B.C.) and his son Rameses II (about 1290-1224 B.C.), who gave his name to the city.
For this reason, and others which shall presently be noted, and because the weight of possible evidence in support of a fifteenth-century date becomes less and less substantial, we prefer to take the “new king over Egypt” to be just that and not the inauguration of a new dynasty. He would be a new king who was also an intensely ambitious builder and who in consequence demanded from all of Egypt’s forces of labor increased hours, an increased tempo, and more bitter, harried working conditions. Such a ruler was Rameses II. As any modern traveler in Egypt and the Near East is perforce constantly reminded, this proud monarch left his stone monuments in size and profusion over the face of his lands as none before him and none after.
Rameses’ oppression was the turning for Israel. We sense that the narrative is in a sense idealized, certainly condensed; it underscores only that which was of the essence of the crisis. And this is done notably, eloquently, vividly, and with distinction: it is simply reported that the lives of the Israelites now were made bitter with hard, rigorous service (vs. 14).
The Crisis (1:15-22)
The word “Hebrew” appears prominently now (vs. 15 and following). Again it raises the question of who these people really were, and when and how they became involved in the life of the ancient Near East. The term “Hebrew” is probably related to the name of the groups who are called in the correspondence and records of Egyptian kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty “‘Apiru.” The latter term is not used of a national entity, a political unit or state, but it seems rather consistently to refer to a widespread type of people practicing a communal existence. Such groups were not indigenous to the territory; they were aliens who were able on occasion to move with effective force on their own behalf. In Exodus the related term “Hebrew” appears for a short while with prominence, perhaps and probably to underline the similarities in nature and function between this group and other such groups wandering over neighboring lands in the middle centuries of the second millennium B.C.
The group that was to become the people and nation of Israel in the centuries following the Exodus from Egypt is described here as a relatively unified and homogeneous entity. But it is clear that Israel knew – and continued in her traditions to recall – her conglomerate origins which the term “Hebrew” reflects. In this connection Numbers 11:4 affirms that the Egypt group was joined in the desert by a “rabble,” that is, by a mixed, conglomerate multitude, no doubt long given to nomadic ways. In the same vein one thinks of the prophet Ezekiel many centuries later caustically demolishing the false pride of his own people (still the same people) with this cutting reminder of their rough and conglomerate derivation: “Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. And as for your birth, on the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you” (Ezek. 16:3-4).
Something of the nature of this realistic reminder resides in the word “Hebrew” which now sharply punctuates the text; but it is not here used in any sense of shame at all. What ensues in the full story of the Exodus is the pitting of the total resources of the Hebrew against the total resources of the Egyptian. It is of course God by whom victory is snatched from the seemingly vastly superior Egypt; but the form of the present story evidences huge enjoyment of sophisticated Egypt’s embarrassment and humiliation through the instrument of the rough Hebrew. The Hebrew midwives (professional persons performing the function of the obstetrician tens of centuries before the advent and specialization of modern medicine) do not, of course, obey the king’s command to kill all boys at birth. But when they are challenged because of their disobedience they respond, to the great delight of every narrator and hearer of the tale throughout the history of Israel, in the competitive key in which the whole story is played: You’ve asked the impossible! “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and are delivered before the midwife comes to them” (1:19).
The dominant theme of Exodus is here introduced. This theme is the Lord’s astounding victory over Pharaoh, the latter having at his disposal all the wealth, all the power, all the resources that man, earth, the world, and his Egyptian gods could create. It is certainly astounding, since the Lord had only himself (unknown to man, the earth, the world, and their gods) and this sad segment of Hebrews. There are secondary themes in the book, complementing the main theme, but the theme remains paramount, never the detailed facts which first made possible the sounding of the theme, its articulation, its proclamation, its glorification:
Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea (15:21).
The brief paragraph in which the crisis is defined illustrates powerfully the wisdom which gave present form to the story. Here is no pedestrian enumeration of mechanical details; we have rather what is essential to the theme and what is, therefore, of enduring meaning at every stage in the ensuing life of ancient Israel and in the life of the New Israel, the Church of Jesus Christ.
Here, then, are the terms of the crisis. It is no photograph of the epoch but a portrait on which the artist has worked meditatively and devotedly over the centuries. The artist might be called “tradition,” because with the passing of changing years and successive meaningful epochs, Israel remembered and interpreted its first exciting scene. If, in a portrait so produced, the lines of the subject have been made rather sharper than reality and the contrasts somewhat more vivid than life, it succeeds as no photograph could in eliminating the irrelevancies involved in all events in time, and highlights the essential, enduring meaning. That meaning can, in fact, be discerned most clearly only when the subsequent effects of the event are experienced, pondered, assimilated, and appropriated.
What essentially precipitated the action, divine and human, that resulted in the creation of a uniquely covenanted people out of a band of Hebrews existing on Egypt’s edge around 1300 B.C.’ Simply – and truly – the fact, the crucial fact, that their existence had become no longer life, but living death, that human life was reduced to subhuman subsistence and deprived of any characteristically human expression such as freedom, leisure, exercise of choice, the opportunity in any area, secular or religious, to be creative. “You are idle, you are idle,” Pharaoh is subsequently to scream (5:17). The spark of the creatively and distinctively human is to be extinguished in these enslaved people; they are to be reduced to a living death. Such is Pharaoh’s and Egypt’s purpose. And if this meets with any resistance at all, which of course it does, then every son that is born to the Hebrews shall be cast into the Nile (1:22).
This in essence – though no doubt somewhat different and more complex in the literal situation – is the nature of the crisis: Egypt imposes death on the Hebrew, either in the form of minimal existence, or in the form of extinction!
In a study of the narratives about Moses and the remarkable series of events in which he plays a crucial role it is important to keep always in mind two considerations.
The first is that we are dealing with a text which arrived at its present form over a period of centuries. In the course of reaching its present proportions, it has drawn from a number of sources, both written and oral – sources produced in differing times and from differing perspectives. This process by which the present Exodus came to be explains some of the characteristic and recurring features of the text.
Not at all unrelated and in some respects directly dependent upon this observation is another: namely, that Moses appears as something more than a mere man – as in the subsequent life of Israel he was more than a man! In very truth, for the continuing generations of the people of Israel no “photo” could embrace the form, stature, achievement, and “immortality” of Moses. In Old Testament Israel he rightly remains the first man, the unique man, the prophet par excellence, the peculiarly God-like man. As no other in Israel’s history, Moses was given to play the role of human creator-sustainer-redeemer – to be sure, always employing that which God had himself provided in purpose and power. Certainly Moses was the instrument of God, the instrument by which Israel’s life was itself “created” – brought out of that which was “without form and void” (Gen. 1:2) into light, into a life relatively formed, ordered, and charged with meaning and substance. Out of the chaos of the uncreated, unloved, moribund slaves, Moses was given to bring into existence a created people, loved of God, and living to fulfill his purposes. For a man so regarded, ordinary pedestrian facts of birth and life and death (Deut. 34:6) cannot suffice to contain the man, nor indeed can they adequately represent the “truth” of the man.
Under scrutiny, the text of Exodus here presents certain problems. Inconsistencies are not uncommon in Old Testament narrative literature; they ought, in fact, to be expected, in view of the process by which the Old Testament reached fixed and final form. Such internal tensions or inconsistencies were certainly evident to those who were actually involved in that process. But we have every reason to suppose that these writers and copyists and editors were relatively undisturbed by this characteristic of their maturing body of traditions.
On the other hand, people who are the products of a prevailingly analytical, logical habit of mind – possessors of modern Greek-Western modes of thinking, rather than the ancient Hebraic-Eastern quality of thought – instinctively and habitually find themselves delayed, snagged, or otherwise discontented or dismayed by any absence in the text of specific agreement in detail, by any appearance of the inconsistent, whether overt or only implied. It is well, in such instances, to remember first of all the multiple sources and the long, fluid status of the developing text which underlie the present narratives. In addition, the unmistakable evidence is that the producers and handlers of the tradition were not themselves primarily concerned with the factual details. Rather, and always overwhelmingly, they were affirming the dominant themes, the fundamental propositions, and the enduring meaning of their history.
For instance, by inference (2:1-2) we would suppose that Moses is the first child born to a couple from the tribe of Levi. Yet Aaron later appears to be an older brother (6:20), and an older sister is to play a significant role in this same story (2:4-8). If the latter is Miriam (listed as the sister of Moses and Aaron in Numbers 26:59 but only as Aaron’s sister in Exodus 15:20), then our sense of narrative propriety would expect the name here. Likewise in the same somewhat casual way the father and mother are first introduced in this text but only later are given names, Amram and Jochebed (6:20; Num. 26:59).
A further difficulty which we encounter here, but of a different kind, results from our knowledge of the broad life of the ancient Near East. Factual information in this respect has vastly increased in the last century, and especially in recent decades. This story of Moses’ birth sounds a simple theme which appears, with variations, widely through the centuries and lands surrounding the time and place of the early Hebrews. One of the most remarkable parallels is the story concerning Sargon I, king of Assyria about 1200 years before Moses, who was said to have been set in a basket of rushes, its lid sealed with bitumen, and cast into the river, from which he was rescued by a “drawer of water.”
But if similarity to the story of Moses is striking, in this and other accounts, the distinct contrast is also to be marked. In comparing such accounts one notes the relative tenderness and intimacy of the Moses account, the implicitly deep quality of human compassion and love, the unspoken but acute sensitivity to human relationships. Above all, one is struck by the meaningful irony which contributes forcefully to the central theme of Exodus, that is, the fascinating “accident” (in Israel’s faith, of course, never a mere accident!) by which the richest gifts and endowments of Egypt are lavished upon him who will conduct the campaign which will end in Egypt’s abysmal frustration. No parallels – certainly not the Sargon parallel which is commonly cited to diminish the biblical account – can exhibit all of this.
The failure of the text to measure up to our standards of narrative structure and coherence only emphasizes the differences between East and West. We are reminded rather sharply that any continuing relevance of this story to the life of faith is never to be found in the definition of kinship, the enumeration of names, or even the precise assignment of roles. The true meaning of the story lies in the central struggle – of gigantic significance – between God and his people on the one side, and the vigorously opposing forces which are specifically identified here as Egypt but which are also always in some measure symbolized as Egypt.
The Moses narratives, then, are certainly not a mixture of an indistinguishable pinch of history with the massive stuff of a wild, undisciplined, freely ranging popular imagination. They are a mixture; they are the substance of a corporate “memory.” And what do we mean by corporate memory’ We mean the whole process and result of a people’s recall of their own past, a process which begins with memory, is continued in meditation, and is established and ended in devotion. The most complete – and from the Christian standpoint certainly the most meaningful – illustration of this kind of corporate memory and its effect in the life of God’s people is to be found in the utterances of the Prophet of the Exile (Isa. 40-55).
A brief example of such corporate memory, which must have reached final form in the institution of worship, is to be found in the Hebrew confession of faith: “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to Our fathers” (Deut. 6:21-23).
It may be – we have no way of either proving or disproving this – that the present form of Exodus 1-15 results chiefly from this same sort of interpretation of the mighty acts of God. This would mean that Israel’s corporate memory of Moses and the Hebrews in Egypt underwent the long process of meditation; and the ensuing narrative was finally shaped and accented in devotional use – in the annual celebration, rehearsal, and re-enactment of the glorious event of divine creation in the triumphal exodus from Egypt. There is in such a process much that should remind us of the Church’s annual memorialization of the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.
Something like this is surely the nature of the brief story explaining the origin and upbringing of Moses. Here corporate memory has been at work over the centuries, producing what is more properly termed “history of salvation” than “history.” In our common understanding of history, we mean the factual record of the past, based upon reliable contemporary evidence or documents. Tradition, while not at all divorced from history, is nevertheless basically determined by more than strictly historical concerns. Tradition is also shaped by the mind of faith, which is theology, and by the institution of worship. The result is before us in this simplified and idealized story of Moses’ birth and rearing, reduced to its essential meaning. Its form is dictated by the first concern of both faith and worship – to render praise to God. The story is a powerful affirmation: in God’s grace the very princess of Egypt is brought into the service of the Lord, of Moses, and of the Hebrews!
In these few verses Moses, in many crucial and in all outward respects an Egyptian, finds himself deeply involved emotionally with the Hebrews. In a sudden act of violence he finds himself irrevocably identified with them. To understand the focus of the narrative here we need to consider verse 11 with the preceding verse, which details Moses’ name.
In the ancient East the name of a person was no mere accidental or sentimental means of identification. The name was deemed to convey the essence of the named. The name of the prophet Elijah, for example, means “Yahweh is God” or “My God is Yahweh,” and it conveys the essence, the consuming passion, and the central accomplishment of the prophet’s ministry (see I Kings 17-19, 21).
The interest in names in biblical times is demonstrated repeatedly, from the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis to the naming of Jesus and John in the New Testament. So important is the name, indeed, that to know the name is to know the person: to be ignorant of the name is to be as a stranger. Moses himself is later to protest the mission of deliverance with which the Lord charges him (3:13-22) on the ground that he does not know the Lord’s name.
The name “Moses” is almost certainly Egyptian. It means “son” and is commonly compounded in Egyptian names such as Thutmose and Ahmose, a fact which testifies to the reliability of the substance of the tradition which remembers Moses’ Egyptian rearing. Although the name is Egyptian, a Hebrew-Israelite tradition rightly records the essence of the enduring meaning of Moses’ life in a naming-narrative which associates the Egyptian name with a Hebrew word meaning to draw out. The narrative specifically gives a passive reading to the name: Moses is the one drawn out, delivered, saved (from the water). But the Hebrew form of the name, literally understood, has an active sense. Thus “Moses,” once brought over into Hebrew from Egyptian, means the one who executes the drawing out, and so the name points to the essence of Moses’ later life and to his role of leadership in the deliverance of Israel out of bondage.
There are finely sensitive, deeply suggestive qualities of the simple narrative which we must not miss. Moses, we are to understand, had the best of two worlds: his nurse, hired by the Egyptian princess, is his mother. In acquiring Egypt’s richest endowments, he retains the best gifts of his biological family.
And now suddenly (how characteristic of tradition – but of reality too!) Moses is a man. In a single verse (2:11), in a little handful of common words familiar even to a child, all that is essential is said and all of human emotion accompanying the action is eloquently implied: When Moses was grown, he went out to “his people” (lest there be any misunderstanding, the word is literally “his brothers”) and he “looked on their burdens.”
Moses knows at once who he is, knows at once that he cannot, if he would, deny this identity; and he acts decisively and in violence (vs. 12). Skillfully now, and still with characteristic economy of words, the narrative reiterates the fact of this identification (vs. 13). This time (it is only the “next day”) he is compassionately moved at the abuse of one Hebrew by another. Here again the primary matters of enduring meaning are stressed: Moses the deliverer is in sympathetic identification with the abused, whether tormented by an Egyptian (vs. 11) or endangered by a Hebrew (vs. 13). Moses is a man of compassion (see Num. 12:3). His irrepressible sense of identity with the Hebrew slaves, however, now compels him to become a fugitive from Egyptian justice.
Moses seeks refuge in “the land of Midian,” a territory vague as to its limits because the Midianites were a semi-nomadic people. We meet them elsewhere as invaders of Canaan (Judges 6-8), and of Edom which lay to the south of the Dead Sea (Gen. 36:35). In another place (Num. 22:4) they appear as neighbors of Moab, a territory which lay east of the Dead Sea. Again (I Kings 11:14-18) Midian appears to be near the northern shores of the Gulf of Aqabah, south of and adjacent to Edom. We may safely assume, then, that Moses fled east from Egypt across the Sinaitic peninsula, probably to lands not far removed from the Gulf of Aqabah – but whether west, north, or east of the Gulf we cannot know.
Moses sat down by a well. Jacob, also a fugitive, had found a well and the beginnings of a new life (Gen. 29); in the semidesert, as in all parched lands, life literally flows to and from the source of water. Jacob and Moses both act in a way quite out of the ordinary, and by such action win the offer of hospitality which ultimately leads to marriage in each case. The Jacob story is delightfully charged with romance and humor; the note of romance in the scene of Moses at the well is also not absent, but the plot turns on a deadly serious and consistent note – Moses’ irrepressible instinct to act on behalf of the abused. Here again the stress is on Moses’ character as deliverer.
The “seven daughters” report to their father the deliverance by “an Egyptian.” The father is called Reuel here, but more commonly Jethro (3:1; 4:18; and repeatedly in chapter 18), and once Hobab (Num. 10:29, where the name Reuel apparently refers to the father of Hobab; see also Judges 4:11). Among possible explanations of the difference, it has been suggested that Reuel here is simply an editor’s mistake at some time; or that Moses’ father-in-law was known by different names in two different traditions; or that Jethro was the name in the story circulated among the northern tribes, whereas in the south the name was Hobab. In any case it is clear, since this final form of the tradition maintains three names for one man, that tradition is always interested in concerns other than the simple record of past details for the sake of the record. This kind of evidence, of course, reminds us again that multiple sources underlie our present text, although certainly we cannot always identify them.
It is a matter of significance that corporate memory recalls Moses’ adopted home in Midian as the home of a priest. Moses is subsequently to be called upon to play the role not only of premier-president-commander, but of prophet-minister-priest as well. There is a strong inference in the narrative that the wisdom and hand of God are directly involved in the remarkably fortuitous circumstances of Moses’ period of preparation. Indirectly (and directly, as in 18:1-27) Moses is indebted for his administrative skills, civic and religious, to Jethro, priest of Midian.
With such vigor as to reprimand his daughters, Jethro invokes the expedient but gracious principle of Eastern hospitality (the institution of the inn is a development of settled, not semi-nomadic, existence). In time a daughter becomes Moses’ wife and Jethro a grandfather. The episode ends with the reminder (by means of a naming-narrative) that this good, even idyllic, life in the home of a priest may not continue. This essential point is made when the name of Moses’ son, Gershom (the original meaning is obscure), is associated by his father, Moses, with the meaning “sojourner.” And appropriately now the narrative points sharply back to the situation from which Moses is a sojourner, to the place and task which he cannot avoid.
In the ancient world the sense of time was vague, and the passage of time was only approximately marked. Events widely spaced may be reported as having been contiguous, while episodes closely related may become separate. Moses remained in home of Jethro for an indefinite, unspecified length of time. How long was he there’ We cannot say, and the narrative as we have it does not specify; or, rather, it indicates both a long time a short time. On Moses’ return to Egypt, in 4:24-26, a son (the only son, Gershom’) is apparently no more than a child; by this reckoning only a few years have elapsed. But at another point (7:7, perhaps from the latest incorporated material, commonly designated with the symbol “P,” for Priestly) Moses is eighty years old when he returns to confront Pharaoh with demands for Israel’s release. Once again the positive aspects of the narrative, which speaks eloquently of the meaning of the days of Israel’s exodus, are more important than sequential chronological precision.
The death of an Egyptian Pharaoh during Moses’ stay in Midian (vs. 23) is probably to be understood as the death of Seti I in about 1290 B.C. However, the verse could refer to the death of Rameses II, who succeeded Seti and died about 1224 B.C. All other evidence points to a thirteenth-century date for the Exodus; and this particular bit of evidence is not of such a nature as to make possible a precise determination of the date within the century. On the whole, the evidence is better satisfied on the assumption of a date early in the century rather than late. We shall assume here that the Pharaoh of the oppression was Seti I (13 10-1290 B.C.), and that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was Rameses II (about 1290-1224 B.C.).
These concluding verses in chapter 2 make clear the relationship between what has gone before and what is now about take place, namely, the call and commission of Moses. A people, Moses’ people, is in bondage. Israel has cried out to God in anguished protest. God hears. God sees. God knows. Hearing, seeing, and knowing, he will act!
But a fourth verb appears in the two concluding verses of the chapter – God remembers. He remembers his Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. Stories of the patriarchs may well have been in existence at the time, including, of course, the understanding in faith of the patriarchs as already bearing in themselves the promise to be fulfilled in and through the people of Israel. But a truly faithful interpretation could come only sometime after Moses. when Israel had been established both as people and as nation. Israel’s past influenced decisively the understanding of her present and future; but in the reverse operation of the same interpretive principles, the understanding of the present imparted new depth and meaning to the past, a new depth and meaning which it was a part of tradition’s business to incorporate in the image of the past as it was being continually verbalized.
This leaves unsaid what must now be said, and said emphatically – that, given the perspective of faith, the formula of the Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is absolutely true. If faith is right that in very truth God himself called Israel, in order to fulfill his own purposes through her, then Israel is unequivocally justified in remembering the progenitors of Israel as themselves bearing the Covenant, themselves receiving the promise, themselves accepting the call to bless in the name of God all the families of the earth (see especially Gen. 12:1-3).
All of this firmly presages deliverance. We have had the narrative of a compassionate Moses. But this is God himself, now, who is compassionate, but more, who remembers his Covenant. Here the narrative impresses upon the hearer or reader the enormous dimensions implicit in what is happening. Here is an act of Covenant fulfillment; this is God “remembering” and so sustaining and performing his Covenant program. It is, then, a matter of universal significance and implication. This is the promise to every man and to all men who know themselves to be “in Egypt,” to be in bondage. It is the promise that God hears and sees and knows – and that he remembers! In the moment of every human cry of anguish, in every human response to abuse, God remembers his Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and his Covenant in Jesus Christ.
This is the marvel of the biblical tradition. It is formed in faith and wrought in praise of God. So formed, so wrought, it serves at its best to give classical expression in every age to every man’s grateful praise for God’s Covenant-deliverance.
The Lord and Moses (3:1-4:31)
Moses knows that he is a sojourner. He no doubt sympathetically recalls, to his own deep anguish, the miserable state of his people in Egypt. His compassion, we assume, leaves him uneasy and disquieted. But here he is, under the benign sun, the very image of freedom, contentment, and peace, leading a no doubt impressive flock to pastures along the lower mountain slopes. Is human compassion alone ever sufficient to produce the initiative to cut off such an existence as this, relatively protected from coercion, from the ills of human temper, from arbitrary authority, from far-reaching and unremitting responsibility’ Will human compassion alone serve to terminate such an existence in favor of the fearfully vexed, dangerous, and apparently hopeless role which Moses is soon to assume’
No one can diminish the stature of Moses. When full allowance is made for the development of tradition, he still stands unchallenged in the very top rank of history’s great men. But the sun on the mountains and the plains and on the woolly sheep, the total security and satisfaction of life in the home of the priest and in the love of his daughter – all this, under rational scrutiny by a superior mind with superior ability to rationalize, might very well have been retained. But this was made impossible by the compassion and power of Another.
Horeb, the mountain of God (according to E and the Deuteronomic editors), is the same as Sinai, the sacred mountain (J and P), which was the site of Israel’s first formal act of Covenant organization. We do not know its location. Several different identifications have been and still are urged by various interpreters, but we must be content to leave such questions open. The location boasting the longest sustained claim is Jebel Musa, a mountain situated near the southern extremity of the Sinai peninsula If Jethro and the Midianites were nearby, they had ranged rather far out of their customary orbit, east and perhaps north of the Gulf of Aqabah; and this is by no means impossible. On the conviction that the brilliant picture in Exodus 19, describing God’s appearance on the sacred mountain, presupposes volcanic phenomena, some historians would locate Sinai in the territory of Midian proper, where alone in the whole area there is evidence of volcanic action. Still others would find the sacred mountain to the north and west of the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqabah, in the area loosely defined as the wilderness of Paran. This satisfies the inference of a number of passages that the sacred mountain was not greatly removed from Kadesh-barnea, which, while not certainly identified, surely was situated just south of the Negeb (Canaan’s southernmost territory) and considerably to the northwest of the tip of Aqabah.
Objections can be raised to any suggested location. The biblical evidence itself is ambiguous; for example, the notice of Deuteronomy 1:2 that Kadesh-barnea and Horeb were “eleven days’ journey” apart, whereas in Numbers (13:25-29; and chapters 19-20 where, in the present order, Kadesh is named as the first stop from Sinai) no such distance is imagined. Against the plausible argument that the physical phenomena described in the narratives require a location in volcanic regions, it is countered that the same phenomena may be given a natural explanation as manifestations of violent storms. Again we must be content to accept uncertainty as to the sacred mountain’s location. What is important is what faith remembers and celebrates there, and rehearses in praise of God.
We may dispense at once with the very minor problems of internal ambiguity. We understand the nature of this literature and recall again that it employs and combines elements from several sources; one strand, for example, identified the reality behind the vision as an angel, the authorized representative of the Lord (3:2); another strand speaks of the Lord himself (vs. 4). But the narrative is totally unified in what it centrally and magnificently affirms: that Moses knew, past any possible doubting, the firm call of God to “Bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”
If we press the question “Now exactly what happened here'”, we must turn to other similar events. What exactly happened when the boy Samuel repeatedly heard what he thought must have been old Eli’s voice, only to learn and know that it was no human word, but the Word, the communicated divine nature and intent’ (I Sam. 3). What exactly constitutes the literal framework supporting a prophet’s word that he had received the Word – “Thus says the LORD”‘ What exactly, concretely, realistically, lies back of other radically transforming events of call, other over-whelming convictions of divine commission, such as those of Elijah (I Kings 19), Amos (7:10-17), Isaiah (ch. 6), Jeremiah (chs. 1,11,20), Ezekiel (ch. l)’What, in short, is the “mechanism” by which God makes himself known to man, by which the Almighty touches the mightless, by which the Limitless penetrates the narrow confines of the limited, by which Time enters moment, by which the Holy invades the unholy, and the Word speaks in words’ Even when this happens, as ultimately it did, as with finality it always does, in the person of Jesus Christ, all the forms and ingenuity of human language are inadequate to give it mechanical explanation. How much more, then, when the means of the penetration of man’s otherwise impregnable little fortress-tomb, the tiny, sealed capsule of his puny life, is a Word – the Word’ How totally impossible to describe the process initiated and executed from Without, by Another, himself quite unseen, or rather seen only in the limited form of a particular function, or to explain the breaking of the walls of the fortress-tomb, and the granting of a kind of release from the capsule! The creature to whom this happens can only cry in wonder of how this seemed to him, implicitly acknowledging that he tells you of what cannot be told. He must describe this astonishing breakthrough from Without to his within. But he describes what cannot be described. He speaks the literally unspeakable.
Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – their names and number before and after are legion – know that the tightly bound, impenetrable cell of their life has been broken open. Their reactions vary; but all alike betray the sense that they are uttering the unutterable and are demanding credulity in the face of the incredible. They do not know, nor do they pretend to give back, the physical or even psychological phenomena of encounter. They mean to report in such terms, for example, as Ezekiel employs in summing up his effort to convey the experience from within his own powerfully penetrated and now devastated shell – “Such [he has thus far used similes in profusion] was the appearance [this is only how it looked and felt to me] of the likeness [I do not pretend to speak of the concrete reality but only of its effect] of the glory [this is the quality, not the substance, of the Invader] of the LORD” (Ezek. 1:28b).
About seven centuries stand between Moses and Ezekiel; nevertheless, the texture, so to speak, remains the same. Moses’ initial arresting sight is a bush on fire; but it is not the mere fact of a burning bush which intrigues him. He goes out of his way to examine the bush when he observes that the fire continues unabated with no change in the bush itself. As he approaches he hears his name called and repeated. He responds simply, accepting at once the fact of an intelligent Presence, as yet unknown. The Word which is the communicated divine nature and intent continues, saying in effect: Since I am here and you know that I am here, since I am speaking and you are hearing, since the Word comes into being here, since God here penetrates the impenetrable senses of mortal man, this is holy ground on which you are standing. You do not walk here with shoes. You stand exposed, in immediate, unmediated contact with Holiness. In this place of holiness where you are met, your uncovered feet acknowledge that you stand all uncovered and naked in the holy place, the tomb of your existence having been entered by the Word of Yahweh!
To what is thus specifically preserved in memory from Moses, faith adds the affirmation that this is the same God who spoke the same Word to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in pursuit of the same purpose, indicating that what now is wonderfully taking place was in truth purposed from long ago.
Such is the quality of Moses’ experience of the shattered enclosure. His tiny space, the world of a moment, is exploded by the invasion of the Fullness of Time. His word is in conversation with the Word. His lusterless person, bared to the very core, is engulfed in Glory.
Samuel “lay until morning” (I Sam. 3:15), surely transfixed, incredulous, and grateful now for the quiet and the dark. Elijah sensed the imminent invasion of his realm of the present moment as he lay huddled in the cave, and he smothered his face in his mantle (I Kings 19:11-13). Isaiah figuratively hid his face: in the moment of his invasion, in the overwhelming awareness of the encompassing Glory, he cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). In quite another sense Jeremiah hid his face. In the moment of the piercing of his limitedness by the Limitless, in the shattering of his tight little shell, he was appalled to find himself in the absolute nakedness of being fully known by Another: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer. 1:5). And the power and force of the Word crashing through on Ezekiel literally felled him, so that when he “saw it” he fell upon his face. Then the Word at length commanded, “Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak with you” (Ezek. 2:1).
Let no man be brash or flippant on holy ground, in the presence of holiness, in being addressed by the Word. Let him respond in simplicity. Let him remove his shoes or in any appropriate way acknowledge his complete knownness on the ground made holy by the meeting of Word and word. And let him always hi his own way hide his face.
“Moses hid his face.”
“Then the LORD said. . .” (vs. 7). The Word is the Lord communicating his own nature and intent. What is the nature and intent of the Lord at this holy place in the unconsuming fire’ Of the human bondage against which Moses had protested back in Egypt he declares, “I have seen. . . have heard . . . I know.” The Word speaks of seeing, hearing, and knowing the stuff of human bondage. The divine intent which it communicates is the purpose to deliver, to redeem.
The Four Protests (3:11-4:17)
It is God’s intent to deliver Israel from Egypt. It is God’s intent to bring the people forth. But who will do this’ On whom, directly and immediately, will the responsibility fall’ The Word to Moses is now a devastating blow: I will send you to Pharaoh to bring to pass the deliverance of my people Israel from Egypt!
Now Moses is not at all disposed to question the validity of the divine intention, but he has immediate and vigorous objections to make concerning the choice of personnel, namely himself. We hear him thinking that this utterly astonishing encounter has suddenly taken a wrong turn, gone sour. The Word has gone too far too fast. So Moses makes his first protest (3:11): Who is he to undertake such a thing’ Moses is not merely saying, “Not I, but someone else.” He is raising the serious, fundamental question of identity – Who am I’ The divine response gives direct answer in the simplest possible terms: “I will be with you” (vs. 12). This, Moses, is what you have become – one with whom I am.
Who am I’ asks Moses. Child of Israel-Egypt’ Fugitive’
Priest’s son-in-law and Midianite shepherd’ No, responds the Word. Your identity now is to be understood only in relation to Me. You are God-with-you.
Observe now the fact that a sign is not necessarily a miracle, nor even a present demonstration of some kind deemed to be immediately convincing. The sign in this case (vs. 12) is a promise that the happy outcome is already assured: that Moses, together with delivered Israel, will serve and worship God upon this same mountain. Precisely the same sense of the word “sign” appears in Luke 2:12 where, again, it is the Word which offers the sign.
Moses’ problem, as is every man’s problem, is believing. He wants to believe. But it is in the nature of belief to admit doubt. The coin that reads “faith” on one side reads “unfaith” on the other; and it is a coin universally possessed, and indivisible, whose two faces may not be separated or altered.
Moses accepts for the moment this definition of who he is – one who now will define himself in terms of Another. But what of this Other’ Who is he’ And so, reasonably enough, Moses voices his second protest (3:13-22): Who are You’ Tell me your name, lest when they ask me, as ask me they will, I will have no name, and hence no real knowledge of who and what You are.
The earliest collection and unifying of Israel’s traditions is, as we have seen, known as the “J” work (see Introduction). It apparently had its origin in the south (Judah), and it takes for granted the knowledge of the divine name, “Yahweh,” from the earliest times (Gen. 4:26). Subsequent collections originating in the north or, much later still, in the Babylonian exile represent the personal name for God, “Yahweh,” over against titles by which earlier he was known, as first revealed to Moses. Such is the import of the present passage as well as 6:2. It may well be that God was worshiped in the south by the name “Yahweh” long before the Moses-Joshua group entered Canaan, bringing with them the sacred name which only then became normative in the north. It may even be that Jethro the Midianite was more narrowly a Kenite, a member of a clan related to tribes long in residence in the south; and that the form, structure, and even the terminology of Moses’ faith were influenced by this relationship. That Moses was indebted to Jethro in significant ways seems in any case certain (see Exod. 18).
But one matter becomes very clear in the present form of the story, however varied may be some of the details which it now embraces. Moses had a fresh, immediate, and convincingly unprecedented encounter with God – convincing not only to Moses himself, but of necessity (in view of what he was able to do) to the people whom he delivered.
Who am I, Lord’ Who are You, Lord’ A variety of answers to the second protest appears:
Verse 14 – “I AM WHO I AM,” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” “I AM” (or is the sense causative; “I CAUSE TO BE” all that is in existence’).
Verse 15 – “YHWH,” “the LORD.” (Yahweh, in the present context, is obviously taken to be related to the verb “to be,” but possibly it is derived from a root meaning “to blow” or even “to sustain, maintain.”)
“God of your fathers.”
“God of Abraham. . . Isaac. . . Jacob.”
Verse 18 – “God of the Hebrews.”
The uncertainty as to the derivation of the name “YHWH” nevertheless presents always several possibilities simultaneously, all of which together testify to the nature of God. The God of the Hebrews – of this particular people, enslaved now in Egypt – is the fathers’ God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is and will be, who causes to be, who manifests his power (blowing), who continues to sustain all life. This is the God of the fugitive Moses and of the Hebrew slave!
The outcome – to those who believe in the name – is assured, since the name designates the essential nature of the One who Speaks. Against Pharaoh’s restraining hand it will be the Lord’s mighty hand, and the slave will go forth out of Egypt arrayed in the riches of his oppressors. For the first time in Exodus, but by no means the last, we hear the note which stands in contrast to the redeeming God who, at least by inference, must be related in concern to all men. Much, much later Israel was able to speak, out of God’s love, in terms of love even for Egypt and Assyria (in time to become as cordially despised in the popular mind as Egypt): “In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage'” (Isa. 19:24-25). Tradition is tradition. It remembers meditatively and it preserves the totality of Israel’s existence – what Israel knew and experienced of the glory of God as the People of God, intermingled with what, in utter realism, she was as a people of earth and earth’s bitter passions. In subsequent commentary, both Jewish and Christian, it has been common to justify the stripping of the Egyptians (3:21-22; carried out in 11:2-3 and 12:35-36). As one of the most famous rabbinic commentators, Ibn Ezra, rationalized, even though Israel “borrowed” with no intention of repaying, reproof is out of order since all things are God’s and he may therefore dispose of men’s possessions as he will! St. Augustine draws a dubious, and flattering, interpretive parallel between Israel’s plundering of Egypt and the Christian community’s appropriation of the pagan cultural heritage of Greece. The fact is, of course, that no amount of rationalization and apology can alter the nature of the biblical tradition and record. The Word always comes with human accompaniments – until in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh. In Jesus Christ a standard was set which reveals the inadequacy and fragmentary character of the standard of behavior set forth in Exodus.
Some of the Bible’s most vivid, spirited dialogue is between Moses and the Lord (for example, Exod. 32; see Num. 11). Moses, nothing daunted in his effort to evade responsibility, or at least to delay the hour of irrevocable decision, comes back with a third objection (4:1-9). Moses is almost, but not quite, saying, “This is ridiculous. You want me to go back and report all this to them. And what will their reaction be’ They will say derisively, ‘Listen to this! He wants us to believe that he’s here on the authority of the Lord himself!'”
One almost hears the Lord say what centuries later Jesus was to say, “O man of little faith” (see Matt. 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; Luke 12:28). And doing as he is told, Moses, at least for the moment expecting nothing and totally unprepared, runs in terror from his rod-become-serpent. Two further acts are rehearsed, the leprous hand and the conversion of water into blood. Faith tightly treats the Exodus as a contest between the Lord-Moses-Israel and Pharaoh~Staff-Egypt. Egypt is defeated on her own terms – namely, a magician’s apparent power over the objects of his environment. Inevitably memory highlights and no doubt augments this thematic motif. Did Moses in fact enter the arena, so to speak, with Pharaoh’s magicians’ This we have no reason to doubt; but we should at the same time be skeptical about our competence to reconstruct with any historical precision the actual external details of the original contest.
As the narrative turns immediately to Moses’ fourth and final protest (4:10-17) Israel’s estimate of Moses is particularly clear. It is no false, oriental courtesy-modesty out of which Moses speaks. This man’s humility goes deep. He regards himself in truth as insufficiently qualified for so gigantic a task. Well may it be recorded of him that he “was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).
But now Moses pushes the divine patience too far. It is not simply, however, that he protests his lack of eloquence, his poor verbal facility; he feels constrained to add that he, Moses, has noted no improvement in this fundamental handicap during this present remarkable confrontation by God. Even this unprecedented interview with the divine Presence, this audition with the Word, effects no change.
The answer of the Lord is double-pronged. The first is an unequivocal, even stirring affirmation of the biblical creation-faith, the faith in the absolute sovereignty of God as Creator and Sustainer of the life, the time, and the total environment of man. The second prong of the response acknowledges, it would seem, the validity of Moses’ protest – but overcomes it in the affirmation, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (vs. 12; see also the similar exchange between the Lord and Jeremiah, Jer. 1:6-7).
Now comes the verifying climax. Moses speaks, on top of all this, his most tactless, ungracious, even disrespectful line. It is worse than the translation of the Revised Standard Version suggests, “Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person” (vs. 13). To interpret and paraphrase, Moses shrugs as he says rather insolently, “You have my permission. Send whom you please! I’m not your man!”
It is no wonder that later records, faced with the puzzle of Moses’ failure ever to enter the Land of Promise, return the verdict that it was because he “spoke words that were rash” (Ps. 106:32-33; compare Num. 20:10-13). Nor is it strange that the Lord is now represented as angry (4:14). But it surely remains through all ages a matter of comfort to lesser men deploring their own lack of faith that Moses, the central figure of Old Testament history, on the occasion of his call – and in the face of overwhelming assurance of divine endorsement and support – acted in unfaith!
Many present-day interpreters of Exodus would see Moses and Aaron in a kind of typological treatment (as, in this case, the first representative of two subsequently emergent types). Moses typifies the prophet; Aaron represents the priest. Whatever the original circumstances giving rise to the story, the relationship of Moses and Aaron is so presented as to define the proper status of the one type or functionary as over against and in relation to the other. Moses is the prophet, Aaron the priest. In the fixed, final form of the story as it comes now to us, the relationship is cordial, and the two functions are deemed to be mutually dependent. It is the role of the prophet to receive the Word and convey it to the priest: “You (Moses the prophet] shall be to him as God” is the Word to Moses. But the implementation of the Word is the priest’s responsibility: “He shall speak for you [Moses] to the people” (vs. 16).
Now this is interesting, and it is no doubt a fruitful way of looking at such texts. It is, nevertheless, necessary to speak very cautiously in the matter of how, in any specific instance, the earliest form of the tradition has been modified by subsequent reading back. Again we cannot be absolutely sure of methods and details, but are confident that by and large the essential meaning is preserved in the record of the significant past. What is in essence remembered, and rightly remembered, is that the institutions of Israelite prophetism and priesthood were present in the people’s history from the very earliest times, and that they developed together in the closest kind of relationship. (Besides Moses, two other dominant figures of relatively early times, Samuel and Elijah, combine in themselves marked qualities of priest as well as prophet.)
So the narrative leaves us with the impression that the persistently protesting Moses is finally overridden, as he subsides before the powerful Word and God’s assurance of competent, even eloquent assistance from Aaron.
Reaction and Response (4:18-31)
When we read these portions of the narrative in Exodus with any care at all, we are frequently made aware of the underlying process by which they developed and of the several sources which were more or less obviously involved. This process is particularly apparent in 4:18-31. The order in verses 18-19 indicates the process. Moses gains Jethro’s blessing for a return to Egypt without referring to the Lord; and then receives the Word of Yahweh to return. In verse 20 he takes his wife and sons (plural), although we have previously been informed of only one son and in the immediately following episode (vss. 24-26) only one son is presupposed. Verse 20, moreover, apparently returns Moses all the way to Egypt with wife and sons without interruption.
But verse 21 seems to go back for its sequence to verse 19. The Lord gives further instructions, clearly prior to Moses’ departure. The episode at a “lodging place on the way” back to Egypt follows; then Moses’ and Aaron’s meeting at the “mountain of God”; and, finally, Israel’s acceptance of their leadership, and the people’s worshipful response to the mediated Word of the Lord. In short, what we are given here, in a sequence perhaps somewhat disturbed, are nevertheless the most significant items lying between Moses’ call and the start of his program of deliverance (5:1-3). The account also indicates that considerable time had elapsed since Moses first came to Midian from Egypt (vs. 19).
Moses’ recently bestowed powers will not of themselves effect deliverance (vs. 21); inferentially, we understand already that this can result only from the efficacious Word of the Lord.
Pharaoh is to be informed (vss. 21-23) that Israel is the Lord’s first-born son (see Hosea 11:1, “my son”) and that Israel is to be released for only one cause – “that he may serve me.” This becomes a demand-theme, to be repeated in the coming chapters again and again: Let my people go that they may serve me!
If release is refused, judgment will be in kind; the punishment will fit the crime (vs. 23b). The negative judgment will be utterly appropriate: for this “death” of the Lord’s first-born there will be the death of Pharaoh’s first-born. (This early standard of justice of an eye for an eye is later superseded in both Old and New Testaments.)
In a strange little narrative (vss. 24-26), surely reaching back in its present form to a time not far removed from the Mosaic era itself, Moses’ brush with death – by illness or by accident – is recounted; and it is the verdict of the earliest strand of the record that Moses’ serious condition was the occasion for the performance of the rite of circumcision as the outward sign of commitment to the Lord’s promise and purpose so that commitment was sealed, as it were, in blood. This is illustrative of the whole concept of Covenant, combining divine Word and human response: the disclosure by the Word of divine nature and intent, and man’s acceptance in faith (here testified to in circumcision) of that Word. The circumcision is performed on Moses’ son but vicariously upon Moses; and this act of Covenant-making effects the cure of Moses’ sickness-unto-death. This calls to mind, of course, other Covenant narratives (Genesis 15 and 17, for example) as well as the New Covenant sealed in Jesus Christ, to which millions upon millions have testified as the healing of their sickness-unto-death.
In a final scene in this series Israel’s initial response of unqualified faith is stressed: “And the people believed . . . they bowed their heads and worshiped” (vs. 31). God’s mighty word brought about Israel’s deliverance from bondage, from chaos, from meaninglessness. But this mighty deliverance followed only upon the response of faith from within the life of bondage, chaos, and the meaningless!
The Lord, Moses, and Pharaoh (5:1-15:21)
There is repeated evidence through this section of material from the three “sources” J, E, and P. But we will not let the trees obscure the forest. One is not to seek for the separate meanings of such sources, but for the remarkably unified affirmation of faith found in the combination as it stands. However, for the sake of an intelligent understanding of the present text and its occasional mild disorder or repetition, we observe first that whereas JE appears through 6:1, the Priestly history is markedly present in 6:2-7:13.
The Preliminary Meetings (5:I-7:13)
The issue is at last joined. Pharaoh is confronted with God’s demand, “Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me . . .” (vs. 1; a variant on the theme to be repeatedly sounded, “that they may serve me”). The response is natural: “Who says so’ Whose word is this’ Who is the Lord'” The inference is clear: I never heard of him! The answer is definite: No!
The language of the dialogue remains colorful, vigorous, and imaginative. The direct demand has failed. As if in partial answer to Pharaoh’s question, “Who is the LORD'” the demand now comes more gently with a subtle appeal to Pharaoh’s pity for a people about to be judged for their disobedience (vs. 3). But Pharaoh is quite beyond such an appeal. A people already lazy (an alternate reading of the phrase, “the people. . . are now many”) and without enough to do (vss. 8 and 17) are using the occasion of this vain request to avoid further work! By increasing their labor Pharaoh will help them forget any foolish notions of freedom. Let them continue to produce bricks in equal number, but now without straw. Let them scavenge for their own cohesives!
The Israelite foremen bitterly protest to Pharaoh, who repeats the brutal allegation, “You are idle, you are idle,” and in cruel sarcasm mimics Moses, or possibly Aaron: “Therefore you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD'” (vs. 17). In language which verges on cursing, he dismisses them. Shamed, smarting, frustrated, they run into Moses and Aaron on their way out and let fly upon them their sense of outrage in strong terms which can be understood in all time and in every language: “You have made us stink!” (the literal meaning of “you have made us offensive” in 5:21). And Moses reacts as he is to react again and again in the face of such personal bitterness. He turns to the Lord and he is reassured.
There is now recorded an alternative tradition of the call of Moses or a renewal, at a critical moment, of the call experience (6:2-9). It brings to mind the earlier episode of the mountain of God, the burning bush, and the holy ground (3:1-6). But the setting now is Egypt, and there is no attendant vision. The sense of the awesome and the mysterious in the earlier scene gives way here to theological assurance and eloquence. Here a highly articulate Word gives fluent expression to the nature and purpose of the Lord. In the prior account the sense of Covenant is only implied (although still emphatic), but the term itself is conspicuous here.
It is nevertheless the same Covenant. It is the same Word. It is the revelation of the same divine name (6:3) made first to Moses. It is a sure and fine stroke which repeats in essence Moses’ radically transforming encounter with the Word at Horeb: now, at this moment of abysmal discouragement, immediately after the totally frustrated first appearance before Pharaoh and the bitter verbal abuse from the Israelite foremen, the Word comes to him again. Moses, we think, could have continued at all only in the power of a renewal of purpose effected by this vivid reappropriation of the Word which first moved him from Midian to Egypt.
And the language! The Priestly material has its long and boring genealogies (for example, 6:14-25); it embraces giant blocks of legal material; it sometimes betrays (to our tastes) an unnecessarily minute interest in the external accouterments of institutional religion. But it also incorporates some of the Old Testament’s most beautiful and eloquent theology. The moving word to Moses in 6:2-8 should be read aloud. Its form suggests strongly that it had existed for generations as a spoken liturgy or confession of faith, habitually recited from memory in the rhythm of formalized worship. Note also in the reading that this is the word, it is what God said to Moses; that the quality of divine compassion and mercy and grace here comes through as it has not previously in Exodus; that this is a recital of faith in the nature and purpose of God (see the emphasis upon the divine “I,” even more pronounced in Hebrew, and compare the same feature in Joshua 24); and that all of this is an expansion of the single, simple, eloquent theme which opens and closes the recital: “I am the LORD,” conveying in the very name all the essential meaning of the divine Life.
In terms still reminiscent of his earlier encounter with the Word, Moses protests again. It is the same fundamental protest. This time, however, after Moses has experienced an initial failure both with Pharaoh and with his own people, it is a protest with the authority of experience behind it. Even my own people will not hear me, he says in effect (6:12); how can I expect any results in speaking to Pharaoh with my “uncircumcised lips,” that is, with this covered, bound, constrained, muffled, thwarted speaking mechanism. I need radical surgery on my mouth!
This may be a parallel account to the narrative of the call in 3:1-6. The issue remains finally undetermined; but it is clear that the process which brought about this final form of the text out of tradition’s multiple sources was itself inspired. This moving episode between Moses and the Word moreover has the quality of psychological and emotional authenticity; its vastly strengthened language of protest is an appropriate response to Moses’ apparently abject failure in his preliminary meetings with Pharaoh and with Israel’s representative foremen.
The genealogy of 6:14-25 appears to interrupt the scene which breaks off at 6:13 and resumes, apparently, at 6:28 to continue through 7:9. It is, however, no real interruption. On the contrary, it is necessary now to ask the questions which are important in the ancient East: Who, after all, are Moses and Aaron’ Who are the Levites’ Who are these in terms of the names and persons from whose very loins they came’ We must know who they are in terms of who they were! The answer to these questions also establishes the ancient authority and legitimacy of all subsequent priests and of the very institution of the priesthood. This is (except for verses 14-15; compare Gen. 46:9-10) Levite genealogy, concerned to say who Moses and Aaron were. But the emphasis genealogically is finally on Aaron (through whom, and not Moses, the Line continues) and implicitly on the institutional priesthood. In the genealogy Moses and Aaron – who incidentally are placed four generations removed from Jacob – are clearly identified: “These are the Aaron and Moses” who are so involved in the Exodus (6:26).
Moses repeats his deprecatory self-criticism: his lips are uncircumcised. The response of the Word this time is: You will be to Pharaoh “as God” (not Yahweh!) – that is, so far as Pharaoh is concerned you will possess certain attributes of deity. You need, then, have no fear! And Aaron shall be your prophet; that is, he will be your spokesman (as the great prophets of the Old Testament are essentially the Lord’s spokesmen, or perhaps more exactly, spokesmen of the Word, deliverers of the Word, proclaimers of the Word, and even actors of the Word). In the following verses (7:2-5) the proposition of faith is reaffirmed that what is done in Egypt for Israel is done also for the Lord – that even the Egyptians may know that he is the Lord (vs. 5).
The chronology of Moses’ life presents difficulties (vs. 7). He is represented elsewhere, in what may be an idealized pattern, as having survived three standard generations of 40 years each, in three distinct phases of equal length: 40 years each in (1) Egypt, (2) Midian, (3) Wilderness (see Deut. 34:7 and Acts 7:23, 30).
In verses 8-13, again perhaps indicating that there has been a combination of more than one report, Aaron wields the rod endowed with magic powers before Pharaoh and his staff of world-renowned magicians (not Moses, as in 4:2-4, 17). The trick is promptly duplicated by the whole complement of Egyptian magicians, but the story adds quickly that Aaron’s rod-into-serpent swallowed up the Egyptian equipment!
Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (7:13). Still pride and ambition were unmoved. Still power remained totally corrupted by power. Still the world turned a deaf ear to the cry of faith. Still the deification of man thwarted the freedom that is to be found only in worship of God.
The preliminary meetings were all abortive.
Nine Plagues (7:14-10:29)
Toward the softening of Pharaoh’s heart and to the end that a people may be released from human bondage for the perfect freedom of God’s service (see the refrain, “Let my people go, that they may serve me,” in7:l6; 8:l; 8:20; 9:1; 9:13; compare 10:7; 3:12; and 4:23), nine wonders occur:
1. Water becoming blood, 7:14-25.
2. Frogs in unheard-of numbers overrunning inhabited Egypt, 8:1-15.
3. and 4. Insects in unprecedented profusion, 8:16-32 – gnats, verses 16-19, and flies, verses 20-32.
5. Wholesale destruction of Egyptian cattle by plague, 9:1-7.
6. Widespread affliction by boils, so severe as to render the Egyptian magicians’ continued appearance impossible, 9:8-12.
7. A fearfully destructive hailstorm, 9:13-35, from the effects of which the Israelites are spared by miracle (vs. 26) or foresight and precaution (vss. 18-19).
8. Locusts, 10:1-20, in such numbers as to “cover the face of the land” (10:5) “so that the land was darkened” (10:15), and to “eat every plant in the land,” all that the hail had left (10:12).
9. Three days of thick darkness, 10:21-29, “a darkness to be felt” (10:21).
Now here again it is quite impossible to know the exact details of what happened. There are three major strata of tradition mingled here; no single stratum appears to have recorded all nine wonders; and some could well be duplicates – the third (P’) and fourth (JP), for example, both being plagues of insects; or eighth and ninth, both being plagues of darkness. At the same time any interpretation must take into account the confessional form of this tradition; that is, that its present structure, intent, and emphasis are derived from its use in worship and its repeated recitation throughout ancient Israel’s generations during annual celebrations of the great deliverance. The whole unit in which this passage stands (Exod. 1-15) is the product, on the one hand, of a considerable literary development and, on the other hand, of a relatively uniform liturgical tradition.
At the same time there is no good reason to doubt that the essence of the major historical episodes is preserved. If the occurrence in Egypt of hail and locusts in catastrophic severity is rare, plagues of frogs, insects, and always related diseases are a repeated phenomenon of Egypt’s history. The waters turned to blood reminds us that when the Nile begins its annual rise, red dirt from the mountains of Abyssinia colors the water. And darkness over the land has for centuries periodically occurred as a result of violent sandstorms.
But to pass this narrative off merely as accurate history is grossly to misinterpret it. We, along with the recorders of ancient Israel’s tradition, may well understand that Israel’s escape from Egypt followed immediately upon and indeed in consequence of an uncommon series of “natural” disasters. But this alone obviously would never have resulted in the preservation of the “memory” and the continued celebration of the event in the annual religious festival. What is preserved in this tradition – and it is as firm, as concrete, a historical datum of the event as is the role of Moses – is the fact of the faith of the participants. This faith is shared, but certainly not “read back,” by the ones who recorded the events; it is the faith that the calamities falling with such severity upon Egypt were occasioned and controlled by the Word, God’s Word. This was God’s action, disclosing his nature and purpose – his nature as Lord of creation, and his purpose to make of Israel a people. And always implicit, of course, in making Israel into his people is the ultimate mission of making all nations his (see Gen. 12:3; the symbolic inference of Gen. 41:57; and, as examples only, Isa. 2:3; 11:1-9; 19:23-25; 49:6).
To this theme – the expression of faith in the basic nature and meaning of the event of the Exodus – all else is subordinated. Thus the final form of the narrative is not marked by exact consistency. (For example, is all of Egypt’s water affected, 7:19 [P’] or only the Nile waters, 7:17-18 [J’]’) And the roles of the major characters are drawn in idealized, typified, simplified fashion, with greater interest in theological meaning than in historical function. Most conspicuous in this regard is the role of Pharaoh, who served as the type of unfaith – brought repeatedly to the brink of submission, but never voluntarily won – and ultimately, therefore, the victim of crushing defeat.
It would be impossible to say what role was actually played by the Pharaoh, probably Rameses II (about 1290-1224 B.C.). The extremely powerful significance with which the event of the Exodus is charged in the narrative accurately and appropriately reflects Israel’s rather than Egypt’s estimate. Since it is mentioned nowhere in contemporary Egyptian records thus far uncovered, we may assume that it was, from Egypt’s perspective, nothing remotely resembling the momentous event it seemed to be to Israel. But from Israel’s point of view – since this event marks her birth as a people, her very creation out of the formless and the void – exaggeration is impossible. So we understand the tendency and even the necessity of representing the Exodus as also of crucial consequence to the very person of the Pharaoh of Egypt! To remember it in any other way would be to distort the true significance of the event by diminishing it. What is recorded is spoken out of faith and in testimony to faith; and what is thereby conveyed of fundamental significance is in this sense profoundly true! Pharaoh’s role and response in this event of the Word’s action is, to the mind of faith, authentic. “Let my people go, that they may serve me!” The answer of Pharaoh – demonstrating unfaith, pride, arrogance, idolatry, greed, ambition – has been and always will be to the effect that these are not “your” people, but “mine”; they may not serve you, they must serve me!
Yet One Plague More, and Religious Feasts (11:1-13:16)
The narrative here begins in the midst of Moses’ last interview with Pharaoh, following the ninth plague. Pharaoh is trying in bitter anger to dismiss Moses; he threatens that if Moses looks on Pharaoh’s face again, it will cost him his life (10:28). Moses concurs: “As you say! I will not see your face again” (10:29).
This is the dramatic introduction to the tenth plague. It is not yet the end of the interview. In 11:1-3 the parenthetical comment is inserted that this last plague will not only effect release but that Israel will be driven out; and that, because of the high esteem in which Moses is held among Egyptians and the (implied) cordial relationships prevailing between Hebrew and Egyptian, the people of Israel will leave wearing the valuables of their Egyptian neighbors – a somewhat milder though not essentially different form of the theme sounded in 3:22.
Moses’ final interview with Pharaoh continues at 11:4. It has come now to this: Pharaoh has continued to refuse life – that is, freedom to serve God – to the Lord’s first-born (4:22-23). He will now experience the appropriate judgment – the death of his and Egypt’s first-born, including even cattle (11:5; see also that remarkable, tender phrase which concludes the Book of Jonah, and also much cattle” in Jonah 4:11). As in the earlier narrative of the plagues, there is sounded again the great cry “such as there has never been, nor ever shall be again” (vs. 6). Israel knows herself to be the creation of the Word of the Lord, and that whole event was such as had never been, nor would ever be again.
The contrast between Israelite and Egyptian, also a common motif in the accounts of the other plagues, appears again in a brilliant figure of speech: while death moves at midnight against every first-born creature in Egypt, the Israelites will not even be subjected to the growling of a dog! All of this is detailed in Moses’ final speech, which concludes in a fury of words. When this night is over, he says to Pharaoh, the Egyptian people “shall come down to me, and bow down to me, saying, ‘Get you out, and all the people who follow you.’ And after that I will go out” (vs. 8).
In the course of the Israelite religious year the most prominent and probably the oldest festival was the Passover, which, from the time of Moses on, was celebrated in the spring of the year in commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt and particularly the “passing over” of the Israelite homes when death invaded Egypt and claimed her first-born (see 12:23). The core of the festival – no doubt known by some other name – may well have been much older than the thirteenth century B.C., originating among pastoral people as a spring celebration of the birth of the lambs, with appropriate attendant rites for the consecration and protection of the flocks, and probably a communion meal shared by the shepherd group and its deity. (Exodus 5:1 probably refers to such a feast, the parent festival, so to speak, of the Passover.)
There is recorded here, together with the account of the tenth and decisive plague, the full prescription for the Passover celebration (12:1-13, 21-27, 43-49). A second, closely associated festival, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, is also given its first prescription here (12:14-20; 13:3-10). In subsequent centuries, when Israel had become an agricultural as well as a pastoral people, this agricultural festival also commemorated the Exodus (12:17; 13:8). And a third annual religious rite is introduced now in conjunction with this climactic episode in Israel’s deliverance – the rite of the dedication of the first-born (13:1-2, 11-16; see also the further elaboration in Numbers 3:11-13, 40-51; 18:15-16). Its introduction here has also an obvious appropriateness in its association with the moving “first-born” theme which dominates the entire episode.
The first simple Passover was no doubt celebrated in a form which was deemed by the participants to be related in a real sense to their escape. But the narrative gives us a form of celebration developed over the seven or eight following centuries (12:21-27 appears to be derived from the older J stratum; but 12:1-13, 43-49 is of the character of the Priestly history), since this developed meaning alone can represent the episode’s true significance. Much the same thing is to be said of the other two associated rites, that of unleavened bread, and that of the dedication of the first-born. Indeed, both of these may have been of later origin; but the developed, regularized rites effectively convey that which Israel in faith continued to hold as the central meaning of her birth-night: God made himself known as Lord of life and creation, of time and history. In transforming an agricultural festival which originally may have celebrated the fertility of nature into a ceremony memorializing the action of the Lord’s Word in history, Israel underscored her faith in the purposive reign of God in time and history. In relating the rite of the dedication of the first-born to that same momentous night, she declares this meaning in her deliverance from Egypt: the same Lord who brought her forth gives and sustains – and so rightfully owns and possesses – all life!
Escape by the Sea (13:17-15:21)
This episode can most conveniently be surveyed in four sections. In the first (13:17-14:4) Israel begins her exit unchecked by Egypt.
There is conflict between 13:17, “Pharaoh let the people go,” and 14:5a, “When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled.” The latter seems to presuppose that only now is he informed of their escape. In either case, of course, one thing is clear: Israel fully expects pursuit.
Israel does not take the direct route to Canaan “by way of the land of the Philistines.” This is, of course, an anachronism – that is, a form of reading back – since the Philistines probably did not occupy Canaan’s southern coastal strip until several decades after the entrance of the Moses-Joshua group. This way is the way of the broad “highway” which ran eastward and then northeastward along the Mediterranean coast. It was the easiest and shortest route, to be sure, but also the most hazardous both with regard to departure from Egypt (Egyptian pursuit) and with regard to entrance into Canaan (vulnerability to attack from local inhabitants). The complete narrative of Israel’s experience offers a number of explanations for the long delay in the occupation of Canaan; but, for all the variation in detail, there is the emphatic understanding that Israel was, in leaving Egypt, totally unprepared for the difficult and highly hazardous task of entrance and occupation of a new homeland. Here, for example, in verse 17 we see a people not merely materially unprepared for violent skirmish, but psychologically so tenuously committed to the present enterprise as to give it up at the first hostile bark of a dog. We shall presently see this judgment strongly reinforced. That Israel, therefore, went out “equipped for battle” (vs. 18) seems quite impossible; and it may be that we ought to read the text here, as suggested by many interpreters with good reason, “by fifties” or “in five divisions” (referring to the organization of the march).
The “Red Sea,” first mentioned in 10:19 and again here (13:18) and repeatedly hereafter, is a consciously erroneous rendering of a Hebrew term by nearly all translators from the time of the Septuagint (third century B.C.) through the Authorized Version of 1611, to the Revised Standard Version (1952). The mistranslation continues to survive, presumably because of its now classical status, as it were. To speak of Israel’s phenomenal deliverance at any other sea than the “Red Sea” does shock the long-conditioned ear. What is translated “Red Sea,” however, is not Red Sea but “Reed Sea” (not such a shock to the ear after all), or “Sea of Reeds.” For well over half a century, moreover, no biblical commentators, historians, or geographers of note have argued that the sea in question is the Red Sea, that is, the Gulf of Suez. On the other hand, it must be admitted, this distinguished company has as yet been unable to achieve any significant measure of unity on the actual identity of the “Reed Sea” – other than in the astute observation that it must have been a body of water in which reeds commonly grew! Some would make it Lake Sirbonis, east of Egypt and adjacent to the Mediterranean; but this lies almost directly on the way by “the land of the Philistines.” More commonly it is identified with one of several bodies of water now lying, or at one time lying (the Suez Canal has at points radically altered the topography of the strip), along the course of the Suez Canal between the Gulf and the Mediterranean. The crossing would have taken place, then, perhaps at the northern end of Lake Timsah (in the southern half of the strip), or perhaps at the southern tip of Lake Menzaleh to the north.
The difficulty of locating the Reed Sea with any certainty is enhanced by the fact that closely associated place-names have not as yet been positively identified. In 12:37 it is noted that escaping Israel moved first from Ra-amses to Succoth. If we accept the identification of Ra-amses as Tanis in the southeastern part of the broadly spread Nile delta, and Succoth as the modern Tell el-Maskhutah, then the first leg of the escape route carried the Israelites about 32 miles in a southern and slightly eastern direction, through their own Goshen district (Gen. 47:27; Exod. 8:22; 9:26). Their next camp is at “Etham, on the edge of the wilderness” (Exod. 13:20). But now they are told to “turn back and encamp in front of Pi-ha-hiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp over against it, by the sea” (14:2). If they actually turned back, then they proceeded north again and obviously encamped adjacent to a body of water, which could have been Timsah or, if this turning back extended sufficiently far to the north, Menzaleh. But Etham (nowhere else mentioned) and Pi-ha-hiroth and Migdol (both named in Egyptian records) all remain unidentified. Baal-zephon is known to be the name of a Canaanite deity to whom a temple once stood in Tahpanhes, to which city Jeremiah was taken in the sixth century (Jer. 43:1-7). Does Baal-zephon, then, mean Tahpanhes, the modern Tell Defneh’ If so, the backward leg brought them again to a point only about twenty miles southeast of their original place of departure, Ra-amses, on the southern extremities of Lake Menzaleh. This may indeed be the route of march, but it remains a reconstruction less than decisive.
In this first section (13:17-14:4) of the complete story of the escape (13:17-15:21) we note another item of interest. Joseph’s foreknowledge of this event was introduced first in Genesis 50:25. The dying Joseph extracted the solemn promise from his survivors (binding, of course, on all subsequent generations until fulfilled) that his remains would go out of Egypt with Israel. This obligation was now discharged (13:19). It is not at all improbable that the bones of Joseph, the father of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (see Gen. 48:3-6), went along with members of these two intimately related clans.
In the second portion of the narrative of this episode (14:5-20) Egypt pursues, and the critical scene is set. It has already been pointed out that, as Egypt understood her own affairs, the Exodus, since it is not mentioned in Egyptian records, must have been regarded as a minor crisis, representing a relatively inconsequential loss. The narrative itself testifies that with the Hebrews there went up also “a mixed multitude” (Exod. 12:38), that is, a conglomerate lot, hangers-on to Egypt’s productive life and land, some of whom no doubt were as much a liability as an asset. That these escapees were nevertheless pursued by the Egyptians with the firm intent to force them back into Egypt’s servitude again we do not for a moment question; and that it was in Israel’s eyes a matter of such moment as to require the personal leadership of the king himself we are certain. But that Rameses II, known also as Rameses the Great (or for that matter any other Pharaoh of the Nineteenth or Eighteenth Dynasty), put himself at the head of his entire complement of chariotry (14:6-7,9) in execution of such a task without leaving in any Egyptian records an account of such an event seems to many interpreters improbable.
More important in the narrative is the fact that in the midst of this highly tentative, terrifying, panic-prone venture of faith, the loud wail of unfaith is sounded. Our freedom to serve God (so they reasoned) is only a dim possibility; the continued pursuit of that freedom means the irrevocable renunciation of all the aspects of security we have ever known. We cannot face the quest of freedom in God’s service even for God’s sake when, in the course of the quest, we are propelled into an existence that is a vacuum, devoid of all the symbols of security – ground to walk on, means of subsistence, and some reasonable assurance of continuity. Let us go back to Egypt. Let us return to life and meaning tangibly supported by human means and human devices – even though they be Egyptian!
It is a fundamental cry, this wail of unfaith. And no man may sit in judgment on it, since every man’s life of faith is tormented by the same essential cry. This is precisely why this narrative of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness and the entrance into Canaan claims the attention of succeeding generations of those who, in varying kind and degree, espouse the life of faith. This is the story of every man’s tentative, terrifying, panic-prone venture of faith!
The cry is thematic, which is simply to say that it recurs, like the theme of a musical composition, to give characteristic form and emphasis to the whole. Substantially the same cry can be observed with colorful variation in 16:3; 17:3; Numbers 14:3; 20:3-4; 21:5. Again the same cry can be heard from the rebels, Dathan and Abiram, with a vicious inversion of the Word’s promise through Moses – the bitterest kind of repudiation of the whole venture of leaving the security of Egypt for the seeming insecurity of the service of the Lord in a new land purported to be “flowing with milk and honey” (Num. 16:12-14). At any rate, the basic cry represented here is one known in essence to us all: Better to serve Egypt than die in this wilderness; better to be slave and idolater than proceed on the insecure and insubstantial ground of faith!
Exodus gives a prominent variation on this central biblical theme. The choice is on the one hand a land that is always in some sense a land of promise, always in some sense distant, remote; or on the other, return to Egypt! And Egypt is always there. We were Pharaoh’s slaves. God did bring us out. We are Pharaoh’s slaves. God does bring us out. But it is our act too. It is not only God who acts, but we who act, in unfaith, in rebellion, in panic.
“The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand . . .” (Deut. 6:21). Yes. But we made it exceedingly difficult for him, and the nature of the bringing out is shaped as well by his action as by our responses, faithful and unfaithful, and his inescapably consequent re-action. If we are brought out, at what cost to him are we brought out’
This is the story of God and man in interaction. It is the (humanly) unpredictable and always complex interplay of Word and word.
Now Moses speaks high, strong words, but not in rebuke; this cry of unfaith is met with reassurance (14:13). The following verse, however, may not be interpreted as encouragement to take a rest since the Lord is about to take care of everything himself. In this short verse (only five words in Hebrew) is the real rebuke, following the word of reassurance. The sense is this: Hold your tongues! The Lord fights for us! So, in appropriate narrative motion, there follows the word to Moses: “Tell the people of Israel to go forward” (vs. 15). This is the Word probing for the positive human response, effecting God’s purpose in interaction with the word, with the performance, with the faith and unfaith of man.
Verses 17-18, like the old confession of faith in Deuteronomy 6:21-23, idealize the Exodus event for the primary purpose of praising God, stressing the two Opposing components, the glory of the Lord and the glory of Pharaoh-Egypt. And the great episode of the actual crossing of the Sea is finally broached, in verses 19-20, with the description of the relative positions of the two camps, Israel and Egypt, as the pillar of cloud and darkness hides each from the other.
The third stage of the narrative concerns the dramatic crossing (14:21-31). With eyes and mind trained and conditioned as ours are, we cannot read this section without some consciousness of the process whereby there are now merged in one account originally independent motifs which are not entirely compatible in combination. In the following parallel accounts we do not deceive ourselves with the assurance that we have accurately disentangled two originally separate strata of tradition. If we call one “the I stratum” and the other “the P stratum” we do so (as always in this discussion) without dogmatic inferences as to sources, scope, form, and date of the arrangement, or composition, or integration, or entity of such strata. We mean only to accent the multiform quality of the final product, and to suggest that earlier and later collections of tradition reproduce “memories” differing in detail but always remarkably unified in what is essentially proclaimed, in what is in faith affirmed as to enduring sense and meaning.
(21b) . . . and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land . . .
(24) And in the morning watch the LORD . . . looked down upon the host of the Egyptians. . .
(25) clogging [or binding – perhaps, caused to bog down] their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily; and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel; for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”
(27b) . . . and the sea returned to its wonted flow [the inference is clear: the wind abated and the water returned to its customary level] when the morning appeared. . . and the and LORD routed the Egyptians in the midst of the sea.
(21a, c) Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. . . and the waters were divided.
(22) And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.
(23) The Egyptians pursued, and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.
(26) Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians. . .”
(27a) So Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea. . .
(28a) The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh. . .>
The first account represents the event as crucially conditioned by “natural” phenomena – an abnormally low tide produced by uncommonly strong winds; the returning of the water; the rendering ineffective of the Egyptian chariots by the now miry shallows; and the necessary abandonment of the chase. The other account represents a memory more impressed with what we would term the quality of the miraculous. It is important, however, to acknowledge the fact that both interpretations affirm with equal insistence the decisive role of God. Essentially the same two differing interpretations are to be seen combined in the present account of the plagues. It is further to be noted that this motif of the phenomenally dry crossing also appears in the narrative of Israel’s entrance into Canaan (Joshua 3:13; see also II Kings 2:8).
In one form or the other, or in some earlier combination of two or more such forms, Israel rehearsed, retold, re-enacted, and relived this most significant single moment of her past. We ought to understand, of any such incomprehensible moment of time, that the participants themselves would be unable to answer the question, “Exactly what happened'” The pursued were an ill-organized, virtually unarmed, and now panic-ridden column of walking men, women, children, flocks, bearing such conglomerate and awkward possessions as could not or would not be left behind. The pursuers, in whatever numbers, were a compact, disciplined, swiftly maneuverable unit, equipped with the world’s finest weapons and faced now only with the relatively easy assignment of turning back this clumsy herd of helpless fugitives. How many in the Moses group, facing such odds, anticipated any better outcome than frustration, return to Egypt, and the imposition of brutally punitive measures’ How many indeed feared death, or worse, at the hands of Pharaoh’s lusty charioteers, now fast closing the gap between pursuer and pursued’
The item which is clearly incontrovertible is that suddenly the pursued found themselves without pursuer. The chase was a chase no more. The hunter had abandoned the hunt. We would assume that this impossible piece of news passed from the rear of the pathetically slow, ragged, fleeing column toward the front, moved along on incredulous voices, pushed ahead from group to group, from section to section, deeply doubted but ecstatically supported by hope suddenly reborn. Can this be’ In the name of the Lord and by his Word, is this possible’ Can the convicted be reprieved’ Can the lost be found’ Can the dead be alive’ And when the incredible fact, now no less incredible, becomes confirmed, forcing acknowledgment from those who but a moment ago knew themselves to be convicted, lost, and dying – what then’
The traumatic act of realization surely removed the precise details of this unbelievable outcome quite beyond exact recall, even by the immediate participants, to say nothing of all the subsequent generations of sympathetic participants repeating the line of re-enactment: “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out” (Deut. 6:21), or “The Egyptians treated us harshly . . . Then we cried to the LORD . . . and the LORD brought us out” (Deut. 26:6-8). And all continuing accounts, reflecting the common faith of those actually involved as well as of the countless multitude of sympathetic participants in the ensuing centuries, agree that this was then, and is now, an occasion of praise to God. Deliverance from Egypt, in original fact or in symbolic rehearsal (see Isaiah 43:1-2), is God’s deliverance; it is the work of his Word through Moses, or the prophets – or Christ.
The present, final account of this marvelous episode of Israel’s redemption at the Sea is firm and unambiguous as to its climax. These bitterly suppressed people in their ragged procession, remembering now the word of Moses conveying the Word of Another, in overwhelming realization that only this Word could effect so glorious and impossible an outcome; this company of the lost, the enslaved, the dying, now found and freed and given life by God; this weak, diffuse body of humanity suddenly made almost terrifyingly aware of its unity and entity as created out of God’s unfathomable purpose – these people in this company, in this body, all break forth into a spontaneous hymn of praise, more shout than song, more chant than anthem, more cry of ecstasy than conscious composition:
“Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (15:21; see 15:1).
This, the song of Moses and Miriam, comprises the fourth section of the narrative here. Certain specific questions arise in the study of this section which, in our judgment, cannot be unequivocally answered. No considerable measure of agreement has been reached concerning (1) the date, even approximate, of the composition of the long hymn in 15:1-18; (2) the possible original function of this hymn; or (3) the relationships of this hymn to the shorter “Song of Miriam” in verse 21, and to the preceding prose narrative of the marvelous escape.
Commonly the two lines attributed to Miriam in verse 21 are thought to be exceedingly old. There is indeed no good reason to doubt their origin (in approximately if not precisely this same form) in the very historical episode itself; nor is Miriam’s role as in some sense leader and conductor of the spontaneous demonstration in any way implausible (compare, for example, the Song of Deborah in Judges 5).
It is further probable that the longer song, attributed to Moses (see also Deuteronomy 32-33 and Psalm 90), is an expansion of the original, authentic two lines. It has occasionally been argued that the reverse is true, that the short form represents the title or condensed summary of the original longer poem.
While it is impossible to say precisely for what purpose this hymn was created, we see no reason to doubt that it served from the beginning of its existence a function in the formal rhythm of the Israelite religious year. We suggest, then – though still holding that specific, dogmatic answers are impossible – that the poem in substantially its present form came into existence within a century or so of the event of the Exodus; in repeated, annual liturgical use it probably became relatively “fixed”; and probably it was appropriately modified, possibly chiefly in interpretation, when the cultic rehearsal of God’s creation of Israel was shifted to Jerusalem.
What of the relationship between the long poem and the preceding prose narrative’ If one is in some significant sense dependent upon the other, priority lies with the poem. It is indeed, we suspect, the epic quality of the poem, its magnificent “license,” its very poetic form, which are responsible for the “J” and “P” readings so troublesome to the modern interpreter. The fact is that the same epic quality, the same kind of license, and indeed the same essential poetic character permeate the prose – but the form remains prose.
The fact is, of course, that whether by wind and tide, or by giant walls of water which formed between a dry pathway through the midst of the sea, what is affirmed is the Lord’s Power over all power – human power as represented by Pharaoh’s host, and natural power as represented by the wind and waves (see Matt. 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25).
Here, then, is the story of Israel’s coming out of Egypt. It is the account of a people’s birth-hour. It is the emphatic declaration that Israel did not simply happen, but was created. It is a narrative dominated by the tenacious struggles of Moses versus Pharaoh, of meaning versus chaos, even of life versus death. But the story is so accented as to affirm a faith, to proclaim a conviction: this is creation by God and his Word-through-Moses – but brought to fulfillment by the response in faith of Moses and even of Israel. It is a mighty act of God in, through, and out of a mighty act of faith sufficient to override the brash, persistent, painful, sometimes uncontrollable, bursts of mortal unfaith.
It is a story of God and man, Word and word, in interaction.
Israel and the Wilderness; Moses and the Lord (15:22-17:16)
‘What Shall We Drink’ (15:22-27)
The location and limits of the wilderness of Shur, into which Moses now leads Israel from the Reed Sea (vs. 22), can be only very roughly approximated (see Gen. 16:7; 20:1; 25:18; in Num. 33:8 it is called the wilderness of Etham). Obviously it borders on Egypt, but any more exact definition depends on the still problematical reconstruction of the geography of the Exodus-Sinai events. Israel is, in any case, now east of Egypt, and is penetrating the Sinai peninsula. Three days’ journey for such a company would, we suspect, hardly exceed forty miles.
In historical times water has always been a relatively rare and precious commodity in this area; and thirst has been and will always be a torment. In a full generation of movement through these arid wastelands, the protest from Israel’s thirsty throats must have been voiced repeatedly. We will encounter it again at 17:1-7 (see also Num. 20:1-12).
It is a pattern which becomes familiar now: Israel complains to Moses; Moses complains to the Lord; and the Lord, usually in communication with Moses, effects the situation’s remedy or redemption. And this is, of course, the theme which the narrative is concerned to emphasize. That Israel survived at all and was given ultimately to enter the Land of Canaan was due to God, and his effective Word to Moses. Thus faith was always reaffirmed after the act of unfaith, and the relationship was restored by which alone Israel was created and sustained. It is not strange, then, that the narrative, concentrating on the theme of the relationship between Israel and the Lord, pays relatively slight attention to such “practical” matters as route of march, identification of places, and even sequence of episodes. The important matter is that the account give primary and emphatic expression to the interpretation of faith – to the sure belief that this epoch in Israel’s life, no less than the moment of coming out of Egypt, owed its successful outcome to, and found its meaning in, the relationship of God and people.
What shall we drink’ Here is an oasis (a well, or a spring, or a pool’); here is water, and we are desperately thirsty. But this stuff is undrinkable, bitter! How right that the place is named Marah, “Bitterness”! And how bitter now our life and lot!
Again, as is the case with other wonders attendant upon Israel’s life, one may rationalize: certain unpalatable waters can be and have been “healed” by the introduction of neutralizing or sweetening barks. Moses, a man of long experience in wilderness survival, had learned in Midian the formula for sweetening bitter water, and applied it now.
Such may indeed have been the case. But in any event, it is in violation of the nature and character of the tradition (and, we suspect, of the faith of Moses himself and the people under his leadership) to isolate the instance and reduce it in meaning to a case of primitive but effective chemistry. This is one of a vast series of wonders, almost any one of which may be so “reduced,” occurring to a people whose creation and survival are effected against seemingly impossible odds. This is only one wonder in inseparable sequence with a progression of wonders, experienced by this people. Then, as later, they remained unutterably convinced that every wonder seen thus as part of the great over-all wonder of a people’s marvelous creation was God’s purposive response both to the faith and to the unfaith of Israel. To regard it as possible and even probable that Moses had had previous experience in the rudimentary wilderness art of healing bitter waters is an interpretation which in no sense violates the narrative’s sense of faith, provided that the “hand” or Word of the Lord, and the Lord’s intention and purpose, are seen in the earlier “showing” (vs. 25) of the healing tree, that is, if the meaning of Moses’ whole life is seen in the divine intent to create a People of God who will serve in history the purposes of God.
Is this healing tree, cast by divine direction into the bitter waters, in any legitimate sense at all a “foreshadowing” of the crucifixion “tree” which God’s redemptive love threw into the world for the healing of all the bitterness of human existence’ In one sense, of course, emphatically not: ancient Israel certainly did not incorporate this story, voluntarily or involuntarily, in miraculous foreknowledge of the crucified Jesus. On the other hand, the essential faith which is enshrined in this story is the forerunner of the faith which in the Gospels so persistently cast Jesus Christ in the role of healer of all kinds of bitterness, the faith which appropriates to the suffering of the Cross the line first spoken of the Servant of the Lord: “with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5; see also I Peter 2:24).
In 15: 25b-26, the framework of the narrative is showing. This is the language, the vocabulary, and the style of the Book of Deuteronomy and of the “school” of editors in that particular stratum. In this perspective, the aspect of healing recalls Egypt’s suffering under the plagues; this leads to the characteristic Deuteronomic advice that Israel’s well-being lies in observance of the Lord’s “statute . . . ordinance . . . commandments.” Here the enduring theological meaning of the little episode is succinctly stated, testifying to the remarkable measure of inspiration in the present form of multiple intertwined strata: “I am the LORD, your healer.”
So the Israelites came to Elim, described with charm – and not at all irrelevantly, for this is, after Marsh, a lush oasis – as boasting twelve springs and seventy palm trees (vs. 27).
What Shall We Eat’ (16:1-36)
We know no more about the location and area of the wilderness of Sin than we do of the wilderness of Shur. It may be that Sin derives its name from Sinai and that it was located, therefore, at or around the base of the sacred mountain. Geographical problems remain, and we must be content to leave such questions open. We can actually visualize three possible routes across the Sinai peninsula-the northern route proceeding east (via Sirbonis) and then southeast; another following out of Egypt a generally easterly direction through, roughly, the central part of the Sinaitic triangle; and a third route taking the Israelites in a southeasterly march toward the lower point of the peninsula and the traditional location of Mount Sinai.
The Israelites drank their fill at Elim with its twelve springs (one for each tribe, although the pattern of twelve tribes was hardly then apparent) and its seventy palm trees (one for each of the elders of Israel, not yet appointed). Thirst has given way to hunger. So again – and this, too, happened more than once in the span of several decades of wilderness residence (see Num. 11) – the cry of complaint (“murmurings”) is heard in the camp, and bitter it is (16:3). Would that we had died full in Egypt rather than die empty here, by slow starvation!
The present form of the entire chapter shows a number of signs of Priestly editing, that is, of having been considerably reworked by the Priestly historians. One observes Aaron’s role as Moses’ co-captain, a strong interest in the institution of the Sabbath, certain characteristic words (for example, “congregation”), and the effort to chronologize (16:1). But at the same time, the narrative still bears the marks of its character prior to such editing, and we therefore reject any notion that this is a late creation of unrestrained popular imagination.
The story retains some solid contact with the time and the people, some historical recollection of the epoch, although the episodes represented may originally have been separated both geographically and in time. The reference to “manna” in Numbers 11:4-9 as “bdellium” is a clue. The word means a fragrant gum; and this strongly supports the identification of manna with a sweet substance which is found adhering to the tamarisk tree, a honey-like sap sucked out by insects and available in greatest quantity in June.
Quail in large numbers annually migrate from Europe in the fall, September and October, crossing in flight the Mediterranean Sea to fall in exhaustion along the Sinai coast. If the Reed Sea was not Sirbonis, Israel nevertheless must at some time have frequented the coastal area of Sinai; perhaps on more than one occasion they found quail ready prey for snaring by hand. And with the return of spring each year, the nomadic wanderers invaded the groves of the tamarisk to pull off and eat in quantity the sweet bdellium. The memory of such events is here preserved together with what must also have been the faith of those who ate the quail and the manna: We were hungry, and the Lord fed us!
The suggestion that quail and manna recall different phenomena, encountered at different times of the year and in different places, raises again the question of order and sequence of events. It is unlikely that both of these happened en route to Mount Sinai. It may be, in fact, that the episodes recorded here in Exodus as having taken place between the departure from Egypt and the arrival at Sinai occurred for the most part after Sinai, in the sustained decades of semi-nomadism prior to the invasion of Canaan. Such a sequence is indeed presupposed in Numbers, where duplicates, parallels, or repetitions of some of these incidents are narrated in a post-Sinai sequence.
The daily diet of manna was considerable: an omer (approximately two quarts) per day per person (vs. 16). No merely natural explanation of the phenomenon is presupposed in the narrative, for, regardless of the amount gathered, each person found himself with exactly the amount needed for his own sustenance (see Paul’s application of this remarkable observance in II Corinthians 8:15).
It is further apparent that the story is told in such a way as to lend the strongest support to the institution of the Sabbath, the seventh day of rest. Here the Sabbath is seen as already in practice in Israel’s earliest days as a people. And in fact some form of Sabbath observance is not impossible. The present account, however, is colored by later development of the institution in Israel and testifies to its fundamental importance (as does the Creation account of Genesis 1-2).
Finally, the conclusion of chapter 16 in verses 3 1-36 recalls that the experience of the provision of food in the otherwise barren wilderness was tangibly memorialized; that a jar full of manna (or something symbolizing manna’) was placed and kept before the “testimony” which is the Ark of the Covenant (see the comment on ch. 25). Israel is to remember throughout her generations the grace of the Lord by which she was marvelously nurtured. Let her be reminded of this so that she may discerningly comprehend not simply what she was but, because of what she was, what she is, holding life now by virtue of God’s sustaining grace. Let her be reminded of this by the presence of a mute object, a simple jar, standing before Israel’s holiest and most treasured symbol, the Ark. Let her be reminded of this in every span of seven days by trusting still in God’s provident grace, and undertaking on each seventh day absolutely none of the regular duties for the preservation and maintenance of life.
Is the Lord Among Us or Not’ (17:1-7)
Israel proceeds “by stages” according to “the mouth of the LORD” (so literally for “the commandment of the LORD”); that is, her movements through the wilderness are at the Word’s direction. The location of Rephidim has not been identified; this place-name therefore does not help us in determining the whereabouts of Israel and the sacred mountain (“Horeb,” vs. 6). Water is in insufficient supply (see 15:22-27; Num. 20:1-13), and Moses rightly interprets the complaint of the people as a challenge not only to his own leadership but to God’s as well (vs. 2). In fear for his very life (vs. 4), Moses turns to the Lord.
The Lord’s presence at a designated rock produces water when Moses strikes the rock with his rod, an episode again more colorfully and violently described in Numbers 20; and the spot, according to the tradition, acquires not one but two symbolic names, Massah (“Proof” – “Why do you put the LORD to the proof'” vs. 2) and Meribah (“Contention” – “Why do you find fault [contend] with me'” vs. 2). In Numbers 20 the same kind of episode also accounts for the place-name, Meribah; but there it is associated not with Massah but with Kadesh (“Sanctified” – “the LORD. . . showed himself holy among them,” Num. 20:1, 13). Massah and Meribah come later to have a figurative use in the biblical language, denoting rejection of the way and possibilities of faith (Deut. 6:16; 9:22; 33:8; Ps. 95:8).
For the rest, we can only suggest that thirst must often have been a critical problem in the wilderness years; that names of people and places were subjects of acute interest because the name was deemed to be appropriate in meaning to the object named; that Israel may, therefore, on occasion have renamed a site (or, by a greater or lesser modification in sound, given the old name a new, Hebrew meaning) significant for her own experience there; and that Massah and Meribah represent the merging of two similar stories.
The theme is, of course, always the primary concern: “Is the LORD among us or not'” The popular perversion of the religion of the worship of the Lord in Israel, like “popular Christianity,” betrayed a readiness, even an eagerness, to invert the true relationship, “We are his,” to read instead, “He is ours!” It was thought (how wrongly!) that it was God’s business to see to it that his people were rendered marvelously immune to the hazards of existence, time, accident, and environment. In the same way, when we find ourselves prey to that which is in fact an inevitable, plaguing accompaniment of existence, we are prone to say as Israel is remembered to have said, “The Lord has deserted us!”
It was and it is, to be sure, a problem of faith to affirm that God is among us even in adverse circumstances, when our relationship to him appears to be nothing more (but what authority, indeed, have we for demanding more than this’) than servant, even Suffering Servant, and when there is no rational, tangible demonstration that we are his. Jesus condemned us all, both those before him and those after him, when he repudiated the sign-seekers (Matt. 12:39; Mark 8:12; Luke 11:29). There are those who are eager to substitute the formula of magic which, properly executed, guarantees the magic-maker’s glory, for the formula of faith which, in the last analysis, guarantees only God’s glory and the forgiveness and ultimate healing of all our woe and bitterness.
When the Word says, “I will be with you, on my terms,” our word responds, “Be with me on my terms!” So there is recalled the bitter, sarcastic cry of Israel, always ready on the lips at the first sign of adversity, “Is the LORD among us or not'” There is also recalled a marvelously tolerant and patient word of the Lord which repeatedly in effect provides the “sign” and offers tangible reassurance – although, be it noted, in matters by and large of sheer survival. In any case the thematic cry from Israel’s unfaith, “Is the LORD among us or not'” is answered with a resounding, “Yes.”
Write This As a Memorial (17:8-16)
“Write this . . . and recite it” (vs. 14) refers specifically to Israel’s victory over a hostile people, the Amalekites. But this is the final and climactic episode in a series of four (15:22-17:16). Apparently these four episodes are put in sequence as variations on the theme that this is Israel’s glorious hour only as it is God’s glorious hour; that the word of Israel (that is, her overt, apparent nature and function as a people) becomes established against insuperable odds by the Word of the Lord (God’s communicated or revealed nature and power and purpose) in mutually responsive interaction. This is illustrated in the initial period in the wilderness by three episodes having to do with the first fundamental necessity of survival, food and drink, and a fourth episode dealing with the second basic threat to existence, attack from hostile forces. The section then affirms the Word-word conquest of hunger and thirst and war – although in human existence these continue to be the most prevalent and dreaded agents of death. It is surely total conquest which is thus recited and memorialized and believed in faith.
Specifically, it should be repeated, it is the threat of annihilation at the hands of Amalek that is celebrated in this episode. The Amalekites were distantly related to Israel; they are descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother (Gen. 36:12). Their center of activity appears to have been in the Kadesh area, as was Israel’s through much of her sojourn in the wilderness (see Num. 13:29; 14:25). We encounter them repeatedly in bitter conflict with Israel in the following centuries (Num. 14:43-45; Judges 3:13; 6:3, 33; I Sam. 15), until their virtual annihilation, apparently, at the hands of David (I Sam. 30). They appear only once again thereafter (I Chron. 4:41-43).
It may be, although it is nowhere so stated, that Amalek and Israel fought for possession of Kadesh. This early encounter is recalled as an uneven contest; obviously Israel is no match for Amalek, man for man, weapon for weapon. The narrative presents problems of several kinds. It is not in itself among the more refined stories of the Bible. It reflects an intensely bitter hatred for the Amalekites, a human kind of hatred which is imputed to God (17:14), so that it is the very Word which speaks the fierce judgment of annihilation upon Amalek. Moses is reduced to somewhat unflattering stature in an action, interestingly enough, that is not authorized by the Word. It is not until verse 14 that the Lord enters the scene, and then with lines which seem out of true character – although beyond any doubt accurately representing the popular attribution of intensely localized and limited perspectives to God. Joshua appears here too early in the story: he is introduced in 33:11 as a young man, and that is much later (see 24:13; 32:17; Num. 11:28). And Moses, whose great work is only just beginning, is apparently near the close of his life, for inferentially, his physical powers are waning. To all this one might add that the text itself is at points in dubious state of preservation, so that one may only conjecture (see the marginal note for verse 16) as to the original sense.
Now this is not for a moment to impugn the value of the story both historically and theologically. On the contrary. On the one hand this representation both of Moses and of God reflects very ancient times. If we cannot ourselves accept this characterization of the Word as final, we are nevertheless confident that the true word of Israel is here spoken! It may be that the story was originally preserved because it imparted to the rallying ground of Kadesh the kind of sacred authority implied in Moses’ building an altar there (vss. 15-16). As it stands now, however, it forms the climax and summary of a section constructed so as to illustrate simply and effectively God’s conquest of the fundamental threats to Israel’s existence in her first independently drawn breaths, immediately following her hazardous birth out of Egypt. By the process of an exceedingly trying Word-word response and interaction, Israel survived an improbable birth and the first critically threatened days of her new existence.
Moses and Jethro (18:1-27)
Now the narrative turns, as Israel also in time must have turned, to the crucial matter of consolidation and organization. Moses’ years in Midian, already implicitly recalled more than once as decisively effecting the successful resolution of crisis, now again constructively qualify the nature of events. This time the matter concerns the very person of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law (see also Num. 10:29-36).
The scene is brief, clear, and, in itself, uncomplicated. Jethro brings Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and their two sons, whom Moses had apparently sent back to Midian before the exodus from Egypt, and the family is reunited. Moses himself reports to Jethro on all that has taken place since their separation. The reunion is then celebrated with a sacrifice and a common meal to which Aaron and the “elders of Israel” are invited.
The incident takes place at the “mountain of God.” Wherever they are, and wherever the sacred mountain, the distance between Moses and his family has been closing as Israel has moved in an easterly direction across the Sinai peninsula. Jethro, his daughter. and his grandsons may not have traveled very far.
Even the casual reader of Exodus must find himself occasionally speculating about the real relationship between Moses and Jethro. Jethro is a priest. We are nowhere informed about the deity to whose service as priest he is consecrated. But Moses, while living as a favored son-in-law in the home of Jethro, is confronted and the course of his life radically changed by “Yahweh,” a name previously unknown to Moses but referring in very meaning to the One God. Now reunited with Moses, this same priest offers “a burnt offering and sacrifices” (vs. 12) to the same Lord who has just wrought Israel’s deliverance.
Was Jethro then a priest of the Lord’ The oldest stratum of the tradition (J) consistently represents the Lord as having been worshiped without interruption from time immemorial among the southern tribes of Judah and her relations, such as the Kenites, the Calebites. the Othnielites (see Judges 1). Jethro was a Midianite, and more particularly a Kenite, that is, a member of a sub-clan of the larger tribe of Midian (Judges 4:11 – “Hobab” is a third name, along with Reuel, in Exodus 2:18, and Jethro, for Moses’ father-in-law). He is in fact called specifically “the Kenite” in Judges 1:16, where also his descendants are seen in close association with the tribe of Judah. Was the scope of God’s revelation to Moses effected in part through the agency of Jethro, priest in Midian’ The question can and must be asked. It cannot be decisively answered. The view of Moses’ possible indebtedness, in these terms, to Jethro has been proposed with many variations for about a century, but it remains only hypothesis.
Lesson in Administration (18:13-27)
Whether or not the religion of Moses in form or content was directly indebted to the religion of Jethro, there can be little doubt that Jethro gave Moses significant advice in matters of civil administration. Although the advice comes from Jethro, it is implicitly the commandment of God (vss. 23-24). The number of administrators chosen is not indicated here (in the similar passage in Numbers 11:16 it is the potent number 70).
Approximately what size group of wandering Israelites, then, are we justified in visualizing’ In these pages we have throughout assumed a relatively small company – a few thousand. But even with a total company of several thousand, Moses was attempting the impossible in personally administering all matters, ecclesiastical, civil, and juridical. Jethro’s counsel was wisely given and wisely heeded.
So Jethro takes his leave of Moses (18:27), we assume with some satisfaction in what he has been able to effect. The parallel narrative in Numbers 10:29-32 records Moses’ urging his father-in-law to stay with them, agreeing in any case in the very positive estimate of Jethro and his relationship to Moses and Israel.
The tradition as recorded in Exodus turns now, with an epoch completed, to a body of material with the sacred mountain as its nucleus. The act of Israel’s creation-deliverance, offering initially a miserable prognosis and fulfilled against unbelievable odds, is rounded out with the establishment of some order and stability in the necessarily improvised and inevitably confused structure of Israel’s new existence as a people. God and God’s Word through Moses have effected the impossible – deliverance from Egypt, salvation in the dire threat of extinction by thirst, famine, and sword, and now a workable administrative structure adequate to the immediate needs of a group increasingly involved in the complex, self-conscious problems of a new people, with a new freedom, with a new and uneasy responsibility.