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Song of the Vineyard by B. Davie Napier

B. Davie Napier, at the time of this writing was Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Intepretation at Yale Divinity School. He later became President of Pacific School of Religion. He is a minister of the United Church of Christ and an author of several books on the Old Testament. Song of the Vineyard was published in 1962 by Harper & Row, Publishers. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

Chapter 1: Lord and People

Israel in Egypt: Exodus 1-2

Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.

Josh. 24:4

The story of Israel as a people begins here. Everything of enduring significance that ancient Israel became, believed, and proclaimed is ultimately influenced not only by what actually occurred in the time of the exodus, but by the story of the exodus — the story as it was first remembered and repeated; the story as it assumed relatively fixed classical forms in different areas, in the North or South; the story as its multiple versions, written and oral, were compared, mutually "corrected," and finally composed into the single, unified narrative that is before us now. It is not alone the event of the creation of order and meaning out of chaos that conditions the mind and faith of Israel, but also her own sustained, fluid reading and interpretation of the event.

It is important to add that in the tradition of biblical faith, historical revelation, which is the self-disclosure of God in history, is never deemed to inhere simply in the event as event, but also in the interpretation of the event. The motion picture industry fails utterly and with almost unexceptional regularity in its stupendous efforts to reproduce segments of the biblical story because it assumes a self-validating character in the divine disclosure and is apparently unable to deal with the admittedly difficult, illusive, and profound factor of interpretation. The significant biblical event is always the event as faith sees, remembers, tells, and celebrates it. That God discloses himself in the event — if he discloses himself in the event — is an affirmation made possible only because he discloses the fact of his self-disclosure in the faith of human interpreters of the event.

We hold that it was precisely not demonstrable that God was in any direct, causative, and purposive way related to the exodus events. Any impartial observer — for example, an ancient counterpart of a United Nations representative — would surely have been astonished at Israel’s subsequent claims about this epoch. We can only assume that the Egyptians, some of whom were participants or even victims, regarded the Egyptian chapter of the exodus event very differently. Indeed, Egypt thought so lightly of the whole episode as to make no mention of it anywhere in the rather extensive Egyptian records thus far discovered.

In the Old Testament the Israelite participants, actual or empathic, impute to the event of the exodus the actual relationship of deity to human event, the responsibility of God’s Word in and through the total event. Recall only that Israelites were able to say, generation after generation, "We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the Lord brought us out. . . ." Were they right or wrong in this interpretation of the event? Were they inspired or deluded? Was this affirmation itself revealed or was this fundamentally the prideful projection of a people’s self-image? These and other questions can, of course, be answered only according to one’s own interpretation of the biblical interpretation of the biblical event, that is, according to one’s own position vis-a-vis the life of faith. But all must interpret the interpretation; and all must acknowledge and respond to the role of interpretation in the Bible’s claim to be a historical revelation of God. And whatever we may ultimately judge to be the historical nature and structure of the biblical event, we must reckon with Israel’s reading of it if we are to understand historical Israel.


Seventy persons into Egypt — no doubt a round number,1 but no doubt accurately recalling a small group, hardly more than a large family in the East’s fashion of families. Twelve names representing twelve tribes — how idealized is this? There is no doubt that David’s kingdom embraced twelve dominant tribal groups, nor any doubt that many or all of these tribal entities were earlier involved in one or several confederations of tribes. Question: were the progenitors of these subsequently confederated tribal groups all present in pre-exodus Israel? Or does the story spontaneously idealize by reading back into its origins the numbers and entities of its subsequently developed components? We pass, and advise you to do the same. Equally competent scholars answer emphatically yes, emphatically no, and emphatically no one can know. But if we are not permitted to pass, then we stress what appears to us to be the probability that many, or even most, of Israel’s components were not biologically represented in Egypt. How much the more remarkable that subsequently all Israel espoused, confessed, and lauded the exodus event. But then, men of faith in all time have so confessed and appropriated the exodus event. Men of faith in all time find something profound in their own existence given articulation in the words, "We were Pharaoh’s slaves and the Lord redeemed us." The image and language of the exodus faith is timeless.

Five phrases (v. 7) stress the initial benign environment of Egypt. Let the story have its head. The land was full of Egyptians, not Israelites, of course; but how more effectively can the story make its point?


This is Israel’s story. Egypt’s words are as Israel heard them, 1:8-14 or thought she heard them, or wanted to hear them. If they do not instruct us in the language of Egypt, they are marvelously penetrating in the language and thought of Israel.

It is the story’s way, and a part of its gift, to be imprecise. On the basis of multiple lines of evidence (as convincing as such evidence can be), the "new king over Egypt" refers either to Seti I (c. 13 10-1290) or his son, Ramses II (c. 1290-1224). These two kings of the Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1310-1200) were both ambitious builders, and work probably started by Seti, at Pithom (modern Tell er-Rerabeh?) and Ramses (Tanis, in the eastern Delta), was completed by Ramses. Perhaps there was, for varying reasons, a growing antipathy between Israelite and Egyptian (v. 12); but work became for the slaves more intense and bitter because Egypt now embarked on a program of building to the glory of Egypt and the Nineteenth Dynasty, and more pointedly, to the glory of Ramses the Great! Certainly the story is idealized and condensed, but it vividly highlights the essence of the crisis: the life of Israel — of whatever size and constituency — was now made bitter with hard, rigorous service (v. 14).


The term "Hebrew" appears prominently now (1:15, 16, 19; 2:6, 7, 11, 13) to remind us of the nature of this group in relation to the life of the ancient Near East. Elsewhere — in the archives of the kings of Egypt of the Eighteenth Dynasty of the fourteenth century — we read of ‘Apiru, a term probably related to "Hebrew," denoting not a state or political unit, but rather a widespread type of communal existence. The term represents the character of the groups who were not permanently identified with the area of their occupation, not indigenous to the territory. They were aliens who nevertheless were able on occasion to move with effective force on their own behalf.2


The Old Testament story recalls realistically this quality of Israel’s origin, quite without apology. Indeed, the story here stresses with satisfaction the contrast between the physical constitution of the Hebrew and the Egyptian. In this exodus chapter the total resources of the Hebrew are pitted against the total resources of the Egyptian. It is, of course, the divine resource which is to be the decisive factor; but the form of the story betrays Israel’s vast sense of enjoyment of sophisticated Egypt’s embarrassment and humiliation through the instrument of the rough Hebrew, the mixed Jacob-Joseph ‘Apiru.

The critical reader will observe here (and over and over again throughout the Old Testament story) a logical contradiction, an item suspicious, if not incredible, if judged from the standpoint of factual probability. Would an absolutely autocratic master administration, involved in gigantic building operations, voluntarily and radically reduce its potential male slave labor? From a practical point of view, the answer would, of course, be no. Then what is the relationship of the narrative to the actual historical episode?

Let us acknowledge, not apologetically but positively, that this is not a pedestrian enumeration of mere factual details. We know that the factual details cannot be reconstructed from the present story. Rather, what appears here is only that which is essential to the theme — the astounding victory of Israel over Pharaoh. Pharaoh had at his disposal all the wealth, power, and resources that man, the earth, and the Egyptian gods could create, while Israel, a sad segment of ‘Apiru, had only her deity, unknown to man, the earth, and the gods.

What precipitated the action that resulted in the creation of the people of Israel from a band of ‘Apiru existing on Egypt’s edge around 1300 B.C.? The appearance of a death motif in the answer to this question is inevitable. Stated symbolically in terms of killing the first-born, the fact is that for these people existence was no longer life, but living death. Human life was reduced to subhuman existence and was deprived of all human expressions — freedom, leisure, exercise of choice, opportunity to be creative. In essence, if not in fact, Egypt decreed death. Thus, the relationship between story and event, narrative and fact, is much closer than the superficially critical eye discerns.

The Figure of Moses

We must remember that we are dealing with a text which assumed its present form over a period of about eight centuries, that is, roughly between 1200 and 400 B.C. In the course of this development, it has drawn from many sources, both oral and written, which were produced or modified in different times, in different geographical areas, and therefore, from different perspectives. The mechanical process by which the present exodus story developed explains some of the characteristic features of the text.

Beyond a doubt, the image of Moses in these pages of the Bible is much more than a simple, "unretouched photograph." Moses appears in the story as something more than a mere man. But it could not possibly be otherwise in view of the fact that in the subsequent life, recollection, and meditation of Israel, he was more than a man. For the continuing generations of Israel no "photo" could convey 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 playing the role of human Creator-Sustainer-Redeemer in the first epoch of Israel’s life. Ordinary facts of birth, life, and death (Deut. 34:6) cannot contain, nor indeed adequately represent, the "truth" of the man and his enduring meaning to those whose existence he shaped and to whom, in a sense, he gave life.3

We know, of course, that Moses was a man (in this sense "only" a man), and in the story he is so represented on occasion (e.g., Ps. 106:32-33 in reference to Num. 20:10 ff.; cf. Ex. 17:1-7). But to present him in this manner consistently would inevitably be false to his status and his meaning in the life of Israel. It is no wonder that a corporate, intensely subjective, and adoring memory should produce the image of Moses as it now appears.

The Old Testament story has its inconsistencies and contradictions. These are inevitable in the nature of the story and were certainly evident to those involved in its development. We should not be overly concerned with internal ambiguities, remembering the underlying multiple sources and the relatively fluid status of the developing text; and remembering too that they who developed the story were not primarily concerned with factual details, but rather with the dominant themes and their enduring meaning in the life of the people of Israel.

The initial episode in the "life" of Moses echoes a familiar theme in the lore and traditions of ancient peoples. Here is a part of a comparable account of the origins of Sargon I, king of Akkad about twelve hundred years before the time of Moses.

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade, am I.
My mother was a changeling, my father I knew not

My changeling mother conceived me, in secret she bore me.
She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid.
She cast me into the river which rose not (over) me.
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water.
Akki, the drawer of water, lifted me out as he dipped his ewer.
Akki, the drawer of water, [took me] as his son (and) reared me.4

We cite this parallel to show the similar theme, but note the contrast between the two accounts — the relative tenderness and intimacy of the Moses story, the implicit quality of deep human compassion, the unspoken but acute sensitivity to human relationships. Above all, we see the irony which contributes so forcefully to the central theme of Moses-Hebrew versus Pharaoh-Egypt, the fascinating "accident" by which all of Egypt’s richest gifts and endowments are lavished upon him who is to conduct the campaign ending in Egypt’s abysmal frustration.

We have stressed the close relationship between the Old Testament story and the cultic life of Israel, the institutionalized devotional expression. Remember that relationship especially through the first fifteen chapters of Exodus. Israel’s corporate memory of Moses, God, and the Hebrews in Egypt is certainly shaped and accented in devotional use, in the annual celebration and re-enactment of the glorious event of divine creation in the triumphal exodus from Egypt, much in the fashion of the Church’s annual memorialization of the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.5

The character of the story is better defined in the word "tradition," than in the word "history." Tradition, while not necessarily divorced from all implements of history, is nevertheless fundamentally determined in Israel by the mind of faith which is theology and by the worship institution which is the cultus. We can see the result in this idealized, simplified story of Moses’ birth and rearing. The form is dictated by the primary concern of both faith and cultus to render praise to God. The story is in intention a powerful affirmation: in God’s grace the very princess of Egypt is brought into the service of Moses and the Hebrews!

The name Moses is Egyptian. It means "son" and is compounded in Egyptian names like Tutmose and Ahmose. But rather characteristically, the story must find a Hebrew etymology; and it comes up with a naming-narrative (v. 10) tying the Egyptian name to a Hebrew word meaning "to draw out." The story gives a passive reading to the name: Moses is the one "drawn out" from the water. But to make this etymology legitimate, the Hebrew form of the name can only be the active participle, a fact certainly not lost in the story’s implicit understanding. The name "Moses," adapted from the Egyptian into the Hebrew, means the
one who executes the "drawing out," and so points to the essence of Moses’ life, his role of leadership in the deliverance of Israel.


Moses’ identification with his future role of deliverer is made clear in verses 11-1 15a. The great act of deliverance is foreshadowed as he acts decisively and violently in sympathetic identification with the abused, as Hebrew is tormented not only by Egyptian (v. 11), but by fellow Hebrew as well (v. 13). The episode affirms his compassionate character (cf. Num. 12:3).

As a result of the episode, Moses seeks refuge in the land of Midian (vv. 15b-22). Midian is only vaguely defined, partly because the Midianites were a seminomadic people. But the general area is sure — near the northern shores of the Gulf of Aqabah, south of and adjacent to the territory of Edom (cf. I Kings 11: 14-18). Moses fled east from Egypt, across the Sinaitic peninsula.

An example of the use of realistic detail of symbolic importance is found in the story of Moses by the well. Obviously, this cannot be proved factually, but the story’s sense of reality is sound. In the semidesert, in all parched lands, life literally flows to and from the source of water (cf. the role of the place of the well of the Jacob story, Gen. 29). What transpires is (as in the Jacob scene) romantic; but the episode again emphasizes Moses’ character as deliverer.

Corporate memory recalls Moses’ adopted home in Midian as the home of a priest. Moses is subsequently called upon to be not only premier-commander, but prophet-minister-priest as well, and so here another role is foreshadowed. Indirectly (and directly, see 18:1-27) Moses is indebted to his father-in-law for his administrative skills, "civic" as well as religious. However, in Midian, Moses is but a "sojourner in a foreign land" (v. 22), and this episode ends with a return to the theme of Egyptian oppression and the task which he cannot, even if he would, avoid (vv. 23-25).

It is the function of the concluding verses of chapter 2 to make clear what has gone before and what is about to take place — the call and commission of Moses. If the story is correct in recording the death of an Egyptian pharaoh during Moses’

stay in Midian, we suspect it was Seti I, who died about 1290, although it could be Ramses II, about 1224. Evidence of varying sorts points preponderantly to a thirteenth-century date for the exodus, and perhaps favors a date earlier rather than later in the century. We shall here assume that the "new king over Egypt" of 1:8 was Seti I (c. 1310-1290) under whose administration the lot of all ‘Apiru in Egypt grew less tolerable; and that following his death (2:23) and the accession of Ramses II (c. 1290-1224) the existence of slave and semislave laborers degenerated still further, precipitating the exodus of the group under Moses.

Moses’ people are in hard bondage. Israel — it is Israel now — has cried out to God. God hears, God sees, God knows, God also "remembers." He remembers his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now, we do not suppose that in this preexodus time the confessional formula of patriarchal covenant was invoked, since the formula itself is dependent upon the exodus event and the subsequent identification of Israel as a covenant people. The story verbalizes the faith that the exodus event is in meaning consequent upon what God had purposed long ago in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thus, the story impresses on the hearer or reader the enormous dimensions implicit in what is happening. This is an act of covenant fulfillment; God is "remembering" and performing his covenant program. And this act has universal implications, for the promise to Abraham and the patriarchs is a promise ultimately to all the families of the earth (see Gen. 12:3). It is a promise to all men who are "in Egypt," who are in bondage, that God hears, sees, knows, and remembers! The story affirms its own universal and timeless significance.


I sent Moses.

Josh. 24:5

Three words in the first two verses of chapter 3 raise questions about the framework of the story. In these verses Moses’ father-in-law is Jethro, but in 2:18 he was Reuel. The: sacred mountain, "the mountain of God," is called Horeb, a name used less than twenty times in the Old Testament, but it is called Sinai — quite apparently the same mountain — about forty times. In the first two chapters of Exodus God is designated only by the Hebrew word ‘Elohim, which also underlies the word "God" in 3:1. But in 3:2 ff. another term appears, "the Lord," in Hebrew originally simply four consonants YHWH. For centuries Hebrew was written without vowels. The probable pronunciation is Yahweh, although in Israelite-Jewish tradition this specific and particular name of God was commonly deemed too sacred to be pronounced. The reader or speaker simply said ‘Adonai, meaning the Lord. The term "Jehovah" is a hybrid, combining the consonants YHWH with the vowels of ‘Adonai.

Jethro-Reuel (and perhaps also called Hobab, see Num. 10:29; Judg. 4:11); Horeb-Sinai; ‘Elohim-Yahweh. These variants point unmistakably to different sources in the oral tradition, the first writing, and later "editorial" stages. Through the nineteenth century of our era and into the twentieth biblical scholars have worked productively at the analysis of the Old Testament by means of a documentary hypothesis — the theory (supported by many variants such as these) that multiple documents or sources were employed and combined in the present text. We see no reason to abandon this theory if the hypothesis is not rigidly or arrogantly employed; if we remember that often it is impossible to untangle the "sources"; if we recognize that there is artistic, even theological, meaning in the way in which the sources have been combined; and if we recall that what we choose to designate as a single source may itself be the product of multiple lesser "sources."

The patriarchs of documentary analysis are three nineteenth-century German scholars, Graf, Kuenen, and Wellhausen. Early in the twentieth century S. R. Driver (Literature of the Old Testament, 1913) gave mature and now classical formulation to their essential position; and more recently Robert Pfeiifer in this country (Introduction to the Old Testament, rev., 1948) and Otto Eissfeldt in Germany (Einleitung in das Alte Testament, rev., 1956) continued to analyze and interpret the Old Testament in the tradition of literary criticism.

Other scholars use more radically modified methods of literary criticism proceeding from the basic assumption of multiple sources; and in Germany in the past few decades interest has shifted to a different approach known as form criticism which asks different questions of the text. The "literary" critic first attempts to determine the source, its extent, date, and even authorship. The form critic addresses himself first to questions of the community which produced a given segment of Old Testament text, the possible role of that segment in the life of the community, and such insights into the faith of ancient Israel as may be derived from the passage. But the form critic utilizes the work of literary critics, for example, in the inspired work of the father of form criticism, Hermann Gunkel, in the early decades of this century, and G. von Rad now in the middle decades.6 Only relatively few, notably among Scandinavian scholars, have completely abandoned the presuppositions of literary criticism.

We will use here the standard symbols, J, F, and P, to designate the three most conspicuous narrative strands interwoven in Exodus (as well as in Genesis, Numbers, and perhaps. Joshua). The symbol J represents the source in which Jahweh-Yahweh is the preferred style of the divine name, and which seems to have originated in the south (Judah). It is generally taken to he the record of traditions current and fluid down to the tenth century, when the J-work was done, and it appears to he the work of an individual.7 The symbol F represents not an individual’s work of collection and editing, but a varied, unintegrated assortment of stories and traditions circulating in the north (Ephraim) and preferring the divine name ‘Elohim. Drawn from the traditions current in Israel to perhaps the eighth century, it was combined with the material in J to augments supplement, or pose a significant variant to the J body of tradition. P (for the characteristic priestly perspective), the latest process of collection to attain a fixed form, also draws from the common mine of tradition until its development was arrested in the fifth century when it was combined with JE, probably by the same continuing community of priests who formed it.

The Call of Moses


Exodus 3 is JE, but F is dominant since the term "God" (‘Elohim) occurs more frequently than the term "the Lord" (Yahweh). Exodus 4-5 (including 6:1) is also JE, but here J dominates. P, following brief appearances in chapters 1 and 2 (1:1-5, 13-14; 2:23-25), first takes over the exodus story in 6:2-7:13. This description of the text before us now explains some of the superficial phenomena of the story as it stands, but it also speaks of the relationship of the story to the total life of ancient Israel.

The scene is Horeb (E and Deuteronomy) or Sinai (J and P). We are not positive about its location. The traditional site is the mountain Jebel Musa in the southern Sinai peninsula; but if Jethro and the Midianites were here, they had ranged rather far out of their customary orbit east and perhaps north of the Gulf of Aqabah. In part on the strength of the proposition that the description of God’s appearance on the sacred mountain in Exodus 19 presupposes volcanic phenomena (a view supported by the guiding cloud and pillar of fire?), some would locate Horeb/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 extremities of the Gulf of Aqabah in the area loosely defined as the wilderness of Paran.

This location satisfies the inference from a number of passages that Horeb/Sinai was not far removed from Kadesh-barnea (‘ain el-Qudeirat?) which, while not positively identified, was surely situated just south of the Negeb (Canaan’s southernmost territory) and considerably to the northwest of the tip of Aqabah. We incline to this third alternative.

We may now dispense with the minor problems of internal ambiguity, for we understand the structure of the story. For example, one of the story’s components identified the reality behind Moses’ vision as an angel, the authorized representative of Yahweh (v. 2), but another as Yahweh himself (v. 4). There is nevertheless unity in the narrative in its central affirmation — that Moses knew beyond any possible doubting the firm call of Yahweh/God to "bring forth my people, the Sons of Israel, out of Egypt!" On the strength of what is recorded, we do not presume to reconstruct the "facts" of the event. We take this as testimony of Israel’s faith in Yahweh and Moses. We take this for nothing more nor less than the way Israel remembered.

Israel remembers the texture of this encounter between Yahweh and Moses — the texture rather than the concrete structure. The quality rather than the literal substance of Moses’ overwhelming and ultimately indescribable experience of the Call is reproduced. Moses’ 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 — Moses, Moses, you may not walk here with shoes, since this, being ground of Meeting, is holy ground. Do not walk here with shoes, since in this place of holiness your uncovered feet acknowledge that you, Moses, stand uncovered and naked in the holy place, this island, this enclosure, this tomb of your existence now entered by the Word of Yahweh!

Israel remembers the essence of the Call; the word of Moses is in conversation with the Word; the person of Moses, bared to the soul, is engulfed in Glory. And to what end, the Call? That My people, the sons of Israel, may be delivered from their bondage in Egypt!

Moses’ Four Protests


I will send you to bring all of this to pass. And Moses responds, in effect, By all means, Lord, bring it to pass, but not through me.

1. Moses’ first protest is essentially — Who am I to do this? Child of Israel-Egypt; fugitive; priest’s son-in-law, and Midianite shepherd. This is my identity. I am obviously disqualified. But he is answered that he must now identify himself in terms of his relationship to God, "I will be with you."

Moses’ problem when confronted by the Word is every man’s problem who believes himself to be so confronted. The story of Moses always "is" however much we may be concerned with its "wasness." The coin which reads "Faith" on one side and "Unfaith" on the other is universal. The two faces may not be separated or significantly altered, even by a Moses.


2. Moses is willing, for the sake of argument, to accept this definition of true identity. But to define himself in terms of a relationship to another, he must know the other. He must again protest and ask, in effect — Who are You, Lord? Tell me your Name, lest when they ask me, as ask me they will, I will have no name, and having no name, no real knowledge of Who or What You are, to say nothing of who and what I am.

Six possible interpretations of the name are given. The J work — as we have suggested, the earliest identifiable collection of Israel’s stories and traditions — takes for granted the knowledge of the divine name, Yahweh, from earliest times (Gen. 4:26). In F and P, the personal name, as opposed to the titles by which God was known, was first revealed to Moses. This is the view of verses 3:13-22 (traditionally assigned to E) as well as of 6:2 (P). Now it may well be, as a matter of fact, that God was worshiped in the south (J’s provenance) 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 also be, as a number of competent scholars have maintained, that Jethro the Midianite was a Kenite, a clan related to tribes long in residence in south Canaan; and that the form, structure, and even the terminology of Moses’ faith was influenced by the relationship. It is certain, as we shall see (ch. 18), that Moses was significantly indebted to Jethro.

However varied may be the historical details related to this question, the story is unequivocal in its most crucial point. Moses has a fresh, immediate, and unprecedented encounter with God, out of which new and deeper insights into the nature of the deity are gained.8 In response to the question, "Who are You, Lord?" we are given six possible meanings of the name.

I am who I am or I will be what I will be (v. 14)
I am or I cause to be (all that comes into existence!)
YHWH (v. 15) here related to the verb "to be" but possibly derived from a root meaning "to blow" or perhaps "to sustain, to maintain"
God of your fathers
God of Abraham
. . . Isaac . . . Jacob
Gob of the Hebrews
(v. 18)

The uncertainty as to the derivation of the name YHWH results in a total remarkable confession of faith: the God of the Hebrews, these particular ‘Apiru enslaved 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 sustains all life. This is the God of the fugitive Moses and the Hebrew slave!


3. But there is a third protest — will he be believed? A note of impatience creeps into the divine response as the Lord reveals to Moses the power he now possesses to perform the magician’s acts. Here again the Old Testament story shapes itself according to the principle of essential meaning, subordinating details of events and the external forms of the past. Was there an actual contest between Moses and Pharaoh’s magicians? We cannot say. But in the essential contest between Yahweh-Moses-Israel and Pharaoh-Staff-Egypt, Egypt is defeated on her own terms — the magician’s apparent power over objects of the environment — and the story highlights and augments this thematic motif.


4. The story moves to Moses’ fourth protest. "I am not eloquent, . . . I am slow of speech and tongue."

Yahweh’s answer is double-pronged. The story presents in Yahweh’s words a stirring affirmation of the biblical creation-faith — God is the creator and sustainer of the life and time and total environment of man. This is all implicit in the rebuke,

"Who has made man’s mouth?" And this sharp response is accompanied by the promise, "I will be with your mouth!"

Now Moses breaks Yahweh’s patience. The RSV translates, "Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person" (v. 13). The sense of the Hebrew is much stronger: Send whom you jolly well please. I’m not your man! The story acknowledges Yahweh’s surging anger against Moses, but nevertheless represents the long-suffering Yahweh still countering a recalcitrant Moses, this time with the assurance that eloquence can be had in the person and service of Moses’ brother Aaron.

Reaction and Response


The significant events between Moses’ call and his program of deliverance (ch. 5) are culled from sources both ancient and primitive, and late and sophisticated. There has been a considerable time lapse since Moses came to Midian (v. 19). His recently acquired powers of magicianship will not effect deliverance and inferentially faith declares that only Yahweh can bring this about (v. 21). Pharaoh is to be informed (vv. 21 ff.) that Israel is Yahweh’s first-born son (cf. Hos. 11:1, "my son"); and the demand theme, which is to be the refrain in the following chapters, is sounded — "Let my son go that he may serve me!" If the demand is refused, retaliation will be in kind — "If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your first-born son."


The form of this strange little narrative of Moses’ near brush with death probably reaches back to a time not far removed from the exodus era. It is impossible to say precisely what facts gave rise to the account. Moses must be circumcised. Is his uncircumcision an affront to the deity? Or more positively, is it now essential that Moses seal and affirm by circumcision his own covenant with Yahweh just described in his call? The narrative may represent something of both. In any case, since Moses, near death, is physically unable to tolerate the rite, it is performed vicariously upon Moses’ son, and this act of covenant-making effects the cure of Moses’ sickness-unto-death.

Finally the story records Israel’s response to Moses of unqualified faith: "And the people believed; . . . they bowed their heads and worshiped."

It is the Word of Yahweh which effects Israel’s deliverance from bondage, from chaos, from meaninglessness. But it is also unmistakable in the story that this deliverance followed only upon the response of faith from within the life of bondage, chaos, and meaninglessness!


I brought you out.

Josh. 24:59

We must again repeat that we are here commenting on a story which cannot be taken for objective external history. It is, in a manner of speaking, internal history; it portrays a people’s inner life, self-understanding, and faith. The inescapable questions of possible correspondence between the inner and outer history must ultimately be answered by each individual reader and interpreter of the story.

The Preliminary Meetings


The issue is joined. Pharaoh is confronted with the Word’s demand. His natural response is: Whose word is this? Who is Yahweh? I never heard of him and the answer is no.

Following the story’s colorful and imaginative development of the plot (to 5:21), Moses reacts to Egypt’s increasingly oppressive measures and the animosity of his own people as he is to react in the face of bitterness again and again. He turns to Yahweh. He appeals to the Word. And on the final outcome, at least, he is reassured (6:1).

It is the P stratum of the story (6:2 ff.) which now reports its own memory" of Moses’ call; or if, in the unified story’s intent, this is a reiteration at a critical moment of the call experience, it brings to mind the earlier episode of the mountain of God, the burning bush, and the holy ground (JE 3:1-6). There are differences in the two accounts. The scene here is Egypt. There is no attendant vision. The sense of awe and mystery in the earlier encounter gives way here to a relatively developed theology; it is here a highly articulate Word giving eloquent expression to the nature and purpose of Yahweh. And where in JE the sense of covenant is only implied, however emphatically, in P the term "covenant" itself is explicit.

It is nevertheless the same covenant. It is the same Word. It is the revelation of the same divine name YHWH (6:3) for the first time to Moses. It is a brilliant and realistic stroke to repeat Moses’ transforming encounter with the Word at Horeb Sinai at this moment of abysmal discouragement following the first appearance before Pharaoh and the bitter verbal abuse of the Israelite foremen. The story understands and would have us understand that Moses is able to continue only on the strength of a renewal of purpose effected by a vivid reappropriation of the Word which first moved him from Midian to Egypt.

If the P stratum has its dull genealogies (e.g., 6:14 ff.), if it embraces large blocks of legal material, if it sometimes exercises an unnecessarily minute interest in the external accouterments of institutionalized religion, it also incorporates some of the Old Testament’s most beautiful and eloquent lines. Read aloud the content of the moving Word to Moses in 6:2-8. It ought to be read aloud. Its form strongly suggests that it existed for generations first as a spoken liturgy or confession of faith, habitually recited in the round of formalized worship, that is, in the cultus. Note that the quality of divine compassion, mercy, and grace comes through here as it has not previously in Exodus; that this is a recital of faith in the mature and purpose of God (observe the emphasis even more: pronounced in Hebrew, on the divine "I" and compare the same feature in Joshua 24); and that all this is an expansion of the simple, eloquent theme which opens and closes the recital — "I am Yahweh" — conveying in the very name all the essential meaning of the divine life.

The Moses-Word dialogue breaks off at 6:13 to resume at 6:28 continuing through 7:9. The intervening verses (6: 14-27) constitute (except vv. 14-15; cf. Gen. 46:9 ff.) Levite genealogy concerning Moses and Aaron but more particularly Aaron, through whom the line of the institutional priestthood is derived (vv. 23, 24).

Now Moses repeats his self-deprecation: his lips are uncircumcised. This time the Word responds (7:1, cf. 4:14-16), "I will make you as God to Pharaoh" (‘Elohim, not Yahweh), that is, Moses will possess vis-a-vis Pharaoh certain attributes of deity; "Aaron your brother shall be your prophet," that is, Aaron is to be his spokesman. The story here pays magnificent tribute to Moses.

As evidence of the story’s use of variant traditions, Aaron now (7:8-13) wields the rod endowed with magical powers, not Moses (as in 4:2-4). This is P, and priestly tradition understandably magnifies the role of the father of priests. Aaron’s act with the rod is promptly duplicated by the whole complement of Egyptian magicians; but it is quickly added, with the humor and zest of a good story, that Aaron’s rod-into-serpent swallowed up the Egyptian equipment.

Still Pharaoh’s heart was hard (7:13), might remained unmoved, power remained corrupt. Still, as it were, the world turned a deaf ear to the cry of faith. The preliminary meetings were all abortive.

The Plagues


Literary critics see the three major source-strata all intermingled here. No single source appears to have embraced all ten plagues. Some plagues may well be duplicates, for example, plagues 3 (gnats, 8:16-19, P?) and 4 (flies, 8:20-32, J?) are both plagues of insects. At the same time, form critics remind us that any interpretation must take into account the confessional form of the story, that is, its present structure, intent, and emphasis as derived from its cultic use, as imparted from its repeated recitation throughout Israel’s generations on the occasion of the annual celebration of the great deliverance. The entire unit, Exodus 1-15, is the product of a multiform literary tradition, but a relatively uniform cultic-liturgical tradition — a fact which again leaves quite beyond recovery the external-objective structure of the event.

What is preserved is the fact and the quality of the faith of the participants — the actual or sympathetic participants (probably both, but who can say in what proportions?). It is the central affirmation of the story that calamities falling with such severity upon Egypt were occasioned and controlled by the purposive Word of Yahweh. The event, this sequence of disastrous episodes, is interpreted as revelatory event, disclosing the nature and intent of Yahweh — his nature as Lord of creation and his intent to make of Israel a people.

All else is subordinated to this theme. Thus, the present form of the story is obviously unconcerned with consistency. For example, is all of Egypt’s water affected (7:19, P?) or only the Nile waters (7:17-18, J?)? Or, in general, who is the immediate agent of the wonders produced, Yahweh (J?) or Moses (F?) or Aaron (P?)? As another consequence of the story’s preoccupation with the faith-meaning theme, the major roles are unmistakably drawn in idealized and simplified fashion, more according to theological than to historical function. Most conspicuous in this regard is, of course, Pharaoh, representing "unfaith," brought repeatedly to the brink of submission but never persuaded, and therefore ultimately the victim of crushing defeat.

What of the Pharaoh’s actual role, whether Ramses II, his successor Merneptah, or, in more remote possibility, some predecessor of Ramses? This is simply an impossible question. The overwhelming significance with which the event of the exodus is charged in the story obviously and appropriately reflects Israel’s estimate, not Egypt’s. Since the episode is mentioned nowhere in contemporary Egyptian records thus far uncovered, we assume that from Egypt’s perspective it was nothing remotely resembling the momentous event it seemed to Israel. But this is Israel’s birth as a people, her very creation out of formlessness and void, and therefore the varying strands of tradition must represent this event as of consequence to the very person of the Pharaoh of Egypt.

Essential truth and bare fact are not necessarily coincident, coextensive, identical. It may well be, as some astute Old Testament historians maintain, that 14: 5a preserves the historical fact that Israel fled without Pharaoh’s knowledge and was pursued only subsequently when he was for the first time informed of her escape. But in the internal sense of faith, the fundamental significance of what is conveyed is profoundly true. To the mind of faith, Pharaoh’s role and response in this event are authentic. "Let my people go, that they may serve me!" (7:16; 8:1,20; 9:1,13; 10:3; cf. 3:12; 4:23,10:7). The answer of Pharaoh — the epitome of human "unfaith" and pride — is in faith forever true: These are not your people, but mine, and they shall not serve you but me.


In the round of the Old Testament cultic year, the most prominent and probably the oldest festival is the passover. From the time of Moses on, it was celebrated in the spring of the year, commemorating the exodus and particularly the "passing over" of the Israelite homes (12:23) when death invaded Egypt and claimed her first-born. But the festival appears to have had a pre-exodus history among pastoral folk as a spring celebration of the birth of the lambs with attendant rites for the consecration of the flocks and probably a communion meal shared by the shepherd group and the deity. Exodus 5:1 may refer to this parent festival of the passover.

Together with the tenth and decisive plague, the exodus story includes the full prescription for the passover celebration (12: l-13,21-27,43-49) A second closely associated festival, the feast of unleavened bread, is similarly given its first prescription here (12:14-20; 13:3-10). In subsequent centuries when Israel had become a settled people, this agricultural festival also commemorated the exodus (12:17; 13:8). A third cultic rite is also introduced — the rite of the dedication of the firstborn (13:1-2,11-16). It is introduced here because of its natural association with the moving "first-born" theme which dominates these chapters.

The first simple passover was no doubt in a real sense celebrated in the episode of the last plague, which was considered by the Israelite participants to be decisive to their escape. This seems probable whatever the external structure of that moment of time. But the present story gives us a form of celebration developed over the seven or eight following centuries (12:21-27 appears to derive from the older J stratum; but 12:1-13, 43-49 is of the P character). And this is as it should be in the case of all three rites, since the story is concerned primarily with the meaning of the episode in the life of Israel. Only the developed matured rites could effectively convey what Israel understood to be the meaning of her birth-night: that Yahweh, in this event, made himself known as Lord of life and creation, of time and history. In converting (certainly long after entrance into Canaan) an agricultural festival of unleavened bread celebrating the fertility of nature and a nature-deity into a rite memorializing the action of Yahweh and his Word-to-Moses in history, Israel underscores her faith in the purposive, effective reign of God in time and history. And in relating the rite of dedication of the first-born to that same momentous night, she declares this meaning in her deliverance from Egypt — that the same Yahweh who brought her forth out of Egypt also gives and sustains, and so rightfully owns and possesses, all life.

The Crossing


We can be very sure that this little band of escaping ‘Apiru I did not go out "equipped for battle" (see RSV, v. 18). We probably ought to read the text here "by fifties" or "in five divisions." It is a point of the story and surely a fact of the real event that the escape was won in spite of the complete vulnerability of the escapers.

In the Hebrew text, there is no reference to the Red Sea but to the Reed Sea, mentioned first in 10:19, again in 13:18, and repeatedly thereafter. The sea in question, then, was never purported to be the present Gulf of Suez. Unhappily. we have as yet no consensus as to where and what it was, other than the remarkably astute observation that it must have been a body of water in which reeds commonly grew. Was it Lake Sirbonis, east of Egypt and adjacent to the Mediterranean? Or is it not more likely that the crossing took place at the northern end of Lake Timsah or the southern tip of Lake Mensaleh, both bodies of water being situated along the course of the present Suez Canal? We cannot be sure, in part because as yet we have been unable to identify Etham (13:20), Pihahiroth, and Migdol (14:2).

We shall not here attempt to reconstruct Egypt’s pursuit (14:5-21),10 save to insist that the whole episode has been dramatically heightened in keeping with Israel’s sense of its overwhelming significance. It was, by the story’s own admission, "a mixed multitude" (12:38), a conglomerate lot of hangers-on to Egypt’s relatively lush land, some of whom must have been to Egypt more liability than asset. That Ramses II or any other pharaoh of the Eighteenth or Seventeenth Dynasty, put himself in person at the head of his entire complement of chariotry (14:7,9) is, to say the least, improbable.

The story nevertheless comprehends and intends to highlight the tensions of faith and unfaith. We were Pharaoh’s slaves! We lived and we continue to live and relive that experience. We remember the tension because we know the tension now. We recall what we felt, what we always existentially feel — our freedom to serve God is only a dim possibility, the pursuit of which means the abandonment of such security as we have. How can we face the quest of freedom in God’s service when the quest propels us into an existence that is a vacuum, devoid of all the familiar 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 Egyptian. In the life of faith this tension always exists.

Source critics long ago divided the scene of the dramatic crossing (14:10-31) into J and P (F figures here insignificantly if at all):

21b. And Yahweh drove the sea 21a,c. Then Moses stretched
back by a strong east wind all out his hand over the seas,
night, and made the sea dry and the waters were divided.
24. And in the morning watch 22. And the people of Israel
Yahweh looked down upon the went into the midst of the sea
host of the Egyptians. on dry ground, the waters
25. And clogged [or bound, or being a wall to them on their
caused to bog down] their right hand and on their left.
chariot wheels so that they 23. The Egyptians pursued, and
drove heavily; and the went in after them into the
Egyptians said, "Let us flee midst of the sea, all
from before Israel; for Yahweh Pharaoh’s horses, his
fights for them against the chariots, and his horsemen.
Egyptians." 26. Then Yahweh said to
27b. And the sea returned to Moses, "Stretch out your hand
its wonted flow [the inference over the sea, that the water
is clear: the wind abated and may come back upon the
the water returned to its Egyptians."
customary level] when the 27a. So Moses stretched forth
morning appeared and Yahweh his hand over the sea.
routed the Egyptians in the 28a. The waters returned and
midst of the sea. covered the chariots and the
horsemen and all the host of

In J the event is recorded as crucially conditioned by "natural" phenomena — an abnormally low water level at one end of the lake produced by uncommonly strong winds, the return of the water, the Egyptian chariots rendered inoperable by the now miry shallows, and the necessary abandonment of the chase. While P represents an event more impressed with the quality of the miraculous, it is important to acknowledge the fact that both interpretations affirm with equal insistence the decisive role of Yahweh. Essentially the same two interpretations are to be seen combined in the account of the plagues. Incidentally, we shall encounter this motif of the phenomenally dry crossing again in the story of Israel’s entrance into Canaan (Josh. 3:1 ff.; cf. II Kings 2:8).


The climax of the crossing is unambiguous in the present text. This bitterly suppressed people, this company of the lost, this weak, diffuse body suddenly given unity and entity by Yahweh himself, all break forth into a spontaneous hymn of praise, more shout than song, more chant than anthem, more cry of ecstasy than artistic creation (15:21, cf. 15:1):

Sing to Yahweh for he has triumphed gloriously;
The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea!

The Song of Moses or Miriam (15: 1-18) has usually been taken as a later expansion of the original, very ancient two lines attributed to Miriam in 15: 21, although some have more conservatively maintained the originality and antiquity of the long poem.11 In any case, we affirm its relative antiquity, subject of course to modification (for example, to accommodate the reference to the tenth-century temple in Jerusalem, vv. 13b,17), and its immediate relationship from the beginning to the cultus, to the annual celebration and re-enactment of the event.

In the Wilderness


We cannot trace the route of march, nor can we hope to reconstruct the sequence of events. We are unable to define the geographical limits of the wilderness of Shur (15:22) or the wilderness of Sin (16:1, from the name Sinai?).12 And as we have seen, the location of the sacred mountain itself, Sinai/ Horeb, remains uncertain.

The story employs four somewhat random narratives to emphasize the quality of Israel’s existence upon first emerging from Egypt. The first days in the wilderness were days of intense anxiety and crisis over survival. In near panic the first cry — always the first cry in parched lands — is, "What shall we drink?" (15:22-27). It must have been raised repeatedly in the wilderness years (17:7; Num. 20:1-2). This band of escapers also faced the problem of hunger, and the second narrative centers in the cry, "What shall we eat?" (16:1 36). The third episode recounted to illustrate the crisis of survival repeats the motif of the people’s thirst but puts a more sweeping question, "Is Yahweh among us or not?" (17:1-7). The fourth in this series concerns another basic threat to existence, attack from hostile forces (17:8-16).

Was Moses in fact knowledgeable in the art of "healing" unpalatable waters? Did Israel on occasion gather quail near the Mediterranean shore, when, as still happens, they had flown south over the sea to fall exhausted on the ground of northern Sinai? Was their "bread" (manna, RSV 16:15, note; and cf. bdellium, Num. 11:4-9) on occasion a sweet substance found adhering to the tamarask tree, a honey-like sap sucked out by insects to form a fragrant edible gum? Did Moses, wise in nature’s ways, uncover or make available the waters of a natural rock spring? Did he in fact possess the powers of the primitive medicine man, to gain or seemingly to gain by magic means the victory over Amalek?

We cannot but ask these questions, even though no answer is forthcoming. These four episodes have been employed, apparently deliberately in this sequence, for primarily theological reasons — to illustrate simply and effectively the Yahweh-Moses-Israel conquest of the fundamental threats to Israel’s existence in her first breath of independence following her hazardous birth out of Egypt.


Now the story turns, as Israel must have turned, to the crucial matters of consolidation and organization.

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, was a Midianite, and more specifically, apparently a Kenite (Judges 1:16). Whether and to what extent the religion of Moses was initially borrowed from the Kenite priest Jethro (a theory long maintained under the designation, the Kenite hypothesis) remains unresolved. But there can be little doubt, in view of chapter 18, that Jethro gave Moses significant advice in matters of civil administration. The parallel, though differing, account in Numbers 11 places full responsibility for this action on Moses and Yahweh; Jethro is not even mentioned. Now if Jethro, the Midianite-Kenite, never served in such a relationship to Moses, it is difficult to understand how and why tradition (in tendency always disposed to magnify the stature of Moses) would create an account giving so decisive a role not simply to another man, but to a non-Israelite. The fact that Moses followed the advice of Jethro (18:13-27) lends support to the general proposition of Israelite Yahwism’s ultimate (if unmeasurable and indefinite) indebtedness to the faith and cultus of Jethro.13

Jethro takes his leave of Moses (18:27). (The parallel narrative in Numbers 10:29-32 records Moses’ urging his father-in-law to stay with them — "you will serve as eyes for us" in the wilderness — thus agreeing in the very positive estimate of Jethro and his relationship to Moses and Israel.) The exodus story now moves on to a block of material centering in events and experiences at the sacred mountain. The act of Israel’s creation-deliverance, offering initially a miserable prognosis and fulfilled against seemingly insuperable odds, is rounded out with the establishment of some order and stability. Yahweh and Yahweh’s Word through Moses have effected the impossible — deliverance from Egypt; salvation from the threats of extinction by thirst, famine, and sword; and now a workable administrative structure adequate to the needs of a group increasingly involved in the problems of a new people, with a new freedom and a new and uneasy responsibility.



1. It is essential that the Bible be read in conjunction with this book, since constant reference is made to specific words and passages.

2. Cf. M. Greenberg’s thesis, The Hab/piru, in the American Oriental Series, vol. 39, New Haven, 1955; and A. Alt, Kleine Schrif ten zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel, Munich, 1953, vol. I, pp. 168 ff., 291 ff.; 1959, vol. III, pp. 162 ff.

3. For a description of the continuing modification of the character of Moses in tradition, see G. von Rad, Theologie des Alten Testaments, Munich, 1957, vol. I, pp. 288 ff.

4. From the translation in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 2nd ed., Princeton, 1955, p. 119. The brackets indicate the translator’s reconstruction of the original text; the parentheses he adds simply for clarity. The translator notes that the meaning of the Akkadian word for "changeling" is doubtful.

5. Cf. J. Pederson, Israel, Copenhagen, 1940, vols. III-IV, pp. 728 ff. Pederson sees Exodus 1-15 as "obviously of a cultic character" aiming at glorifying the god of the people of the paschal (Passover) feast through an exposition of the historical event that created the people" (p. 728). He first expounded this view in "Passahfest und Passahlegende," Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 11 (1934), pp. 161-175.

6. Cf. H. Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis, trans. W. H. Carruth, Chicago, 1901; Genesis, in the series Handkommentar zum Alten Testament, 3rd. ed., Göttingen, 1910; What Remains of the Old Testament, trans. A. K. Dallas, London, 1928; and with J. Begrich, Einleitung in die Psalmen, Gottingen, 1933. See, in English, G. von Rad’s Studies in Deuteronomy, in the series Studies in Biblical Theology, London, 1953; and other works of his already cited.

7. M. Noth, Ueberlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuchs, Stuttgart, 1948. Noth argues convincingly for a pre-J collection of traditional materials.

8. On the name and nature of Yahweh, see W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, New York, 1957, pp. 15 ff.; D. N. Freedman, "The Name of the God of Moses," Journal of Biblical Literature, LXXIX (June, 1960), 151 ff.

9. Cf. Pss. 77, 81, 105, 106.

10. Cf. B. D. Napier, Exodus, in the series The Layman’s Bible Commentary, Richmond, 1962.

11. Cf. F. Cross and D. N. Freedman, "Song of Miriam," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, XIV, no. 4 (October, 1955). Cross and Freedman argue that the long poem is in its entirety the "Song of Miriam" and in its original form dates from a time no later than the twelfth century B.C.

12. The two wildernesses of Sin (17:1 and Num. 33:11-12) and Zin (Num. 13:21; 20:1; 27:14; 33:36; 34:3; Deut. 32:51; Josh. 15:1,3) may in reality be one and the same, located south of Judah and embracing Kadesh. The Septuagint assumes the identity of the two.

13. This proposition, the Kenite hypothesis, has had wide acceptance among Old Testament scholars for about a century. For bibliography and an able defense of the hypothesis, see H. H. Rowley, From Joseph to Joshua, London, 1950, pp. 149 ff. For arguments in rejection of the view, see Martin Buber, Moses, New York, 1958 (first published, 1946, pp. 94 ff.)

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