The Book of Exodus is crucial to Jewish and Christian self-understanding. It narrates the two primary acts or plans of salvation.: the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. These events echo throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and stand at the center of OT faith. For Christians, they find their climax in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Exodus is alluded to within the OT more than any other book, and in the NT, only Psalms and Isaiah are cited more frequently.
Exodus has been skillfully crafted and offers rich material for theological reflection through its powerful and memorable narratives. For example, Exodus 34:6-7 contains the most sublime revelation of God’s character in the OT. In the aftermath of Israel’s rebellious and idolatrous worship of the Golden Calf, God reveals himself as merciful and gracious.
As part of the Scriptures that Christians hold as authoritative, Exodus must not only entertain and capture our imagination, but also shape our understanding of God, humanity, and the world around us. Given its canonical importance, it is not surprising that Exodus continues to be the subject of scholarly research. This essay will review five recent works that will prove useful for pastors and teachers.
Historicity of the Exodus Account
It is the unanimous testimony of the OT that God delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage. This begs the question: Did the Exodus actually occur?
Two recent studies will help students understand the issues that shape the current debate over the historicity of Exodus. First, E. Frerichs and L. Lesko have edited Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence (Eisenbrauns, 1997). This work consists of the following papers originally presented at Brown University in 1992: “The Exodus: Egyptian Analogies” by A. Malamat, “Merneptah’s Canaanite Campaign and Israel’s Origins” by F.J. Yurco, “Observations on the Sojourn of the Bene-Israel” by D.B. Redford, “Is There Any Archaeological Evidence for the Exodus?” by W.G. Dever, “Exodus and Archaeological Reality” by J. Weinstein, and “Summary and Conclusion” by W.A. Ward.
Malamat and Yurco are sympathetic to the possibility of an exodus though not on the scale portrayed in Exodus. Malamat discusses “indirect” sources for the Exodus. Several documents shed light on the milieu in which an exodus could have occurred. For example, one extant Egyptian papyri describes the tight control that Egypt maintained over its eastern border during the late 13th century and observes that people could only leave if they possessed a special permit. Another describes the escape of two slaves and provides parallels to the Exodus story: (1) the slaves escape at night from the city of Ramesses, (2) the Egyptian military pursues, and (3) the escape route is into the Sinai wilderness. None of this proves that Israel experienced an exodus from Egypt, but the analogies add credibility to the biblical account. Malamat suggests that migrations from Egypt probably spanned centuries. The peak period under Moses should be located during the collapse of the Egyptians and Hittites in the late 13th and early 12th centuries BCE. Yurco provides a good discussion of the Merneptah stele (ca. 1207 BCE) which contains the earliest extra-biblical citation of Israel and provides the latest possible date for the settlement of Israel in Canaan.
Redford, Dever, Weinstein, and Ward are more skeptical. Redford studies the interaction between Egypt and its neighbors and concludes that during the New Kingdom period there is no evidence of any substantial resident Syrian-Palestinian population in Egypt. Dever discusses the implications of the lack of archaeological evidence for the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, and conquest. Dever concludes that it is more plausible to read Genesis-Joshua as folktale and to explain Israel as a natural indigenous population shift within Canaan. Weinstein further highlights the lack of archaeological support for the biblical narrative and states that “were it not for the Bible, anyone looking at the Palestinian archaeological record data would conclude that whatever the origins of the Israelites, it was not Egypt” (98). Ward provides a conclusion that reiterates the tensions between the archaeological record and the Bible.
The skepticism present in the latter essays marks a distinct change in the scholarly consensus. As recently as 1981, J. Bright wrote, “There can really be little doubt that ancestors of Israel had been slaves in Egypt and had escaped in some marvelous way. Almost no one today would question it…Although there is no direct witness in Egyptian records to Israel’s presence in Egypt, the Biblical tradition a priori demands belief: it is not the sort of tradition any people would invent!” (A History of Israel [3d ed.; Westminster, 1981] 120-21).
In Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1996), J.K. Hoffmeier provides a thorough evangelical assessment of the biblical, philological, and archaeological evidence regarding the Israelite sojourn in Egypt from the time of Joseph until the Exodus (Genesis 39—Exodus 15). He demonstrates the plausibility of the biblical record over against the skepticism of much recent scholarship. The first two chapters provide an overview of the current debate concerning the early history of Israel. He traces the discussion from the demise of the biblical depiction of a unified conquest of Canaan under Joshua to the current sociological and anthropological models that understand the rise of Israel as the culmination of a process indigenous to Canaan. Hoffmeier demonstrates that the issue turns on the scholar’s use of the biblical materials and aptly points out the shortcomings of much of current scholarship’s extreme skepticism. For example, given that the Bible contains many historical allusions regarding foreign cities and rulers that are reliable, are we really to imagine that Israelite writers knew more about other nations than they did about themselves? If the Exodus-Conquest model is a fiction, why is the biblical tradition so steadfast in its confession? Skepticism regarding Joshua’s portrayal of a conquest is also unwarranted. First, the lack of archaeological evidence of destruction may be mute because Joshua states that only three cities were destroyed. Second, scholars are often guilty of reading texts too literally rather than understanding the conquest narrative in the background of other Ancient Near Eastern military documents. Third, the issue of an essential continuity between the material culture of Israelite and Canaanite sites is related to point one—Israel moved into the cities of the defeated Canaanites (Deut 6:10-11).
In the remainder of the work, Hoffmeier demonstrates that the narratives in Genesis 39—Exodus 15 are compatible with what scholars know from Egyptian history. Included are chapters on “Semites in Egypt,” “Joseph in Egypt,” “Israelites in Egypt.” “Moses and the Exodus,” “The Eastern Frontier Canal,” and “The Geography and Toponymy of the Exodus.” Hoffmeier’s method does not rely upon a source-critical reading of the text. Instead, he uses a comparative method that focuses not on a hypothetical reconstruction of the development of the Pentateuch, but on the texts themselves as they compare with Ancient Near Eastern texts.
This book is important. It lays a solid historical foundation upon which to read the narratives of the Book of Exodus. It brings the student up to speed on current issues in Israelite historiography and, with clear argumentation built upon a wide range of evidence, it supports the reliability of the core Israelite confession, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt” (Exod 20:1).
Interpretation of the Text
Three outstanding commentaries have been published since 1987 that provide profound insights into the theological interpretation of Exodus. John I. Durham’s Exodus (Word, 1987) is avowedly evangelical. Following the standard Word commentary format, he offers a translation with notes, a discussion of critical issues, and commentary on each unit of Exodus. Durham’s over-arching concern is the explication of the central theological message of the book—“the fundamental biblical declaration that whatever else he may be, God is first of all a God at hand, a God with his people, a God who rescues, protects, guides, provides for, forgives, and disciplines the people who call him their God and who call themselves his people” (xxiii).
Durham offers helpful reviews of the historical-critical issues that have shaped the discussion of each passage, but he never allows this to blur the meaning of the final text. He is open to understanding Exodus as a composite work, but argues that it is a theological unity that has been carefully shaped by its editors.
Durham provides a superb translation of the text that closely follows the Hebrew and highlights the exegetical work upon which it is based. Updated bibliographies are included for each passage and more importantly Durham dialogues extensively with this literature in the body of his work. This provides the student with a guide to the vast secondary literature on Exodus. Some will be disappointed that Durham spends little time on issues of historicity. Without argumentation, he affirms a 13th century date for the Exodus. Also, given the current lack of consensus on the formation of the Pentateuch, it would have been helpful if Durham had related the results of his study to the debate on the overall compilation of the Pentateuch.
Terrence Fretheim’s Exodus (John Knox, 1994) is a strong contribution to the Interpretation series. Though avoiding historical questions, Fretheim offers the reader a thorough theological interpretation of the book’s contents. He shows an appreciation for the overall literary context of the book in the exposition of individual passages and sensitivity to the interplay of story, liturgy, and law within Exodus. Throughout the work, Fretheim deals with such leading theological issues as images for God, knowledge of God, divine sovereignty and human freedom, liberation and Exodus, worship, and law and covenant. An outstanding excursus grapples with the issue of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
Fretheim’s lasting contribution may be his emphasis on the presence of Creation theology within Exodus. Previous scholars have noted parallels between Genesis 1-9 and the Tabernacle unit (Exodus 25-40) in terms of creation—fall—recreation, but Fretheim demonstrates cogently that creation themes run throughout the book. An allusion to creation is found in Exodus 1:7 where the narrator reports that in fulfillment of God’s imperative (Gen 1:28) the Israelites were “fruitful and multiplied.” Pharaoh’s genocidal intentions are not merely against Israel, but against God’s purposes for creation. God’s redemptive activity is thus cast as a response to Pharaoh’s anti-creational activities against Israel. This backdrop of creation theology serves to elevate God’s particular activity on behalf of Israel to an action with implications for all creation.
The final work for our consideration is W. Propp’s Exodus: A New Translation and Commentary (Anchor Bible; Doubleday, 1999). This first of a two-volume set covers Exodus 1-18. The massive scope of the Anchor Bible series allows for comprehensive treatment of issues related to the interpretation of Exodus. Propp provides a gold mine of information written in a clear style that makes the fruits of critical study available to his reader. Propp’s introduction explains the scope and purpose of his commentary and will be supplemented in the second volume by five appendices that will address larger historical-critical issues such as the validity of the Documentary Hypothesis and the emergence of Israel in light of contemporary archaeology. An exhaustive bibliography is provided for further study.
The body of the commentary is devoted to discussions of the translation, text, source analysis, redaction analysis, and interpretive notes and comments for each passage. Propp’s gift is his ability to navigate through the depths of an enormous amount of secondary literature and an array of interpretive problems to focus on explaining the text itself. In the Notes sections, Propp carries on a lively debate with both ancient and modern interpreters. He considers alternate interpretations so the reader benefits from understanding other interpretations alongside Propp’s own. However, Propp does occasionally find ambiguity in the text and refuses to choose between alternatives. This commentary is not as overtly theological as the others, but it is the most comprehensive and up-to-date.