The Nature of the Book
Exodus is the second book of the Old Testament. It follows Genesis, which as the first biblical book has to do with beginnings — beginnings of self-conscious, time-conscious, ordered human existence (Gen. 1-11) as well as beginnings of destiny-conscious, Covenant-conscious and peculiarly God-conscious Israelite existence (Gen. 12-50). When we read Genesis in an awareness of what is to follow, we know that these stories of origins were created and preserved through the centuries not so much to inform ancient Israel about the past as to inform about the present; not so much to speak of what once was as to make clearer what now is; not so much to show interest in what had gone before the history of the people of Israel as to make that very history clear in its significance and meaning.
In this way, Exodus is like Genesis. It, too, is a book of origins. It tells how the people of Israel became a people and what exactly was involved in the distant opening scene of her life as a people. And like Genesis, it is a story told not out of academic interest in recovering the distant past and retelling that past for its own sake alone, but because the subsequent scenes of that history, including every “present” scene, are given sense and meaning only when viewed against this formative, exciting, and in every way remarkable first scene of the Exodus events.
We may speak and think of “sources” used in the compilation of Exodus (as also in Genesis and other Old Testament writings) if we do not make more of the matter than is justified. We may even see evidence in Exodus of three primary sources. But we must remember that we cannot always untangle them; that there is artistic and even theological meaning in the way in which sources have been combined; and that any single source is itself originally formed from lesser “sources,” and is itself, therefore a product of tradition. Thus, if we use the now standard symbol of “J,” “E,” and “P” to designate the three most conspicuous narrative strands inter-woven in Exodus (as well as in Genesis and Numbers), we will think of “J” as the recording of early traditions which remained current and fluid down to the tenth century B.C., when the J-work was done by a single man (in this respect probably unique among the three primary sources). The symbol “E” will represent not an individuual’s work, but a loosely defined collection drawn from the early days of Israel’s years down to perhaps the eighth century, and in its development only fixed and stopped, so to speak, by editors who combined this material with “J” to augment, to supplement, or to pose a significant variant to the “J” body of tradition. So also “P,” the latest process of collection to attain fixed proportions, draws from the common mine of tradition, broad and deep, until its own fluidity is arrested when it is combined, probably by the same continuing community of priests who formed it, with “JE.”
It is altogether right and appropriate that the event by which Israel became Israel should be preserved as it is here. Three major narrative strands contribute to the story, representing the mind and faith of Israel both early and late. Indeed, the Book of Exodus, more than any other single Old Testament book, stands as the testament of faith of all Israel. Every subsequent Israelite owned and celebrated the event as Israel’s and his own creation. All the centuries of Israel’s life as a political state are embraced by the telling of the story.
It is right and appropriate that Exodus comes to us as it does for another reason. Not only the event by which Israel became Israel is narrated here, but that by which Israel lived is preserved and defined. In the extensive torah (teaching, instruction) of Exodus, including Covenant Code, as well as Ethical and Ritual Decalogues, Israel couples with the event by which she came into being the code by which she sought to live.
Finally, and equally appropriately, Exodus preserves the record of the physical structures and objects by which the meaning of the event was kept alive and contemporaneous, and through which the torah was preserved and expanded.
We must always be aware of the relationship between the Exodus story and Christianity. The gospel of climactic human redemption in the event of Jesus Christ — this astonishing affirmation — derived its very form and gained its very acceptance from the ancient faith of the Old Testament that God had redeemed Israel in the event of the Exodus.
All of which is to say at the very outset of our study of Exodus that through all the centuries of the life of Israel, the people of the Old Covenant (Old Testament), and equally of the life of the Church (the New Israel, the people of the New Covenant), the events and episodes told in the Book of Exodus have been read and reread, told and retold, not so much for their “was-ness” as for their “is-ness.” The ultimate goal of our study of Exodus is the deeper understanding of and commitment to our faith in him whose love daily brings us again out of Egypt, out of bondage, out of all our besetting slaveries into the land of forgiveness, renewal, redemption, and love.