I'm reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. This week, I’m finishing Genesis and covering Exodus 1-18, which brings us to the point where Moses and the people arrive at Mount Sinai in chapter 19. These chapters from Exodus are among the most important in the entire Bible!
Genesis 45 is really the climax of the Joseph stories, where Joseph revealed himself to his brothers—-after he’d “messed” with them for a while—-and their reconciliation. The rest of Genesis, though, is important, too. In chapter 46, Jacob departs for Egypt, assured by God that God’s covenant will not be broken if he travels there (46:2-4). Jacob’s family accompany him. We had last seen Jacob at the beginning of the Joseph stories in chapter 37, and now we conclude his long story. My Jewish Study Bible (Oxford, 1999) explains that Jacob had two periods of 17 years each with Joseph, the beginning of Joseph’s life and the end of Jacob’s 147-year lifetime (p. 93).
There is an interesting section (47:13-27) that I’d overlooked before: the fact that Joseph’s policies saved the lives of Egyptians but also enslaved them. This injustice sets the stage for Exodus, where a new Pharaoh in turn enslaved the Hebrews.
In chapters 48 and 49, Jacob adopts Joseph’s sons, and we have a long section of Jacob’s blessings and predictions for his sons. Christians have especially focused upon the words concerning Judah (49:8-10), understood to connect to Jesus. Who are the ancestral heads of the tribes of Israel?
Children of Jacob and Leah: Diana the daughter (not a tribal leader), and sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.
Sons of Jacob and Zilpah: Gad and Asher
Sons of Jacob and Bihah, Dan and Naphtali
Sons of Jacob and Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin
Sons of Joseph, adopted by Jacob: Ephraim and Manasseh.
Here (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-twelve-tribes-of-israel) is an interesting website that explains the tribes and the locations of their settlement after the conquests of Joshua. The Levites had no land because Moses set them apart for priestly duty (Leviticus 3:1-4). The idea of the “ten lost tribes,” which is not a biblical phrase per se, comes from 2 Kings 17:6, concerning the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom. The tribes of the southern kingdom, which survived the Babylonian exile, were Judah (which eventually included the tribe of Simeon), Benjamin, and also Levi.
Genesis wraps up in chapter 50, with Joseph mourning his father’s death, the preparation (via Egyptian embalming) of Jacob’s body, and his burial back at the cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had purchased. Joseph, not vengeful toward his brothers as they feared (50:15ff), returned to Egypt, where he lived till the age of 110.
Now we come to Exodus. Chapters 1-15 provides a block of material from the establishment of Hebrew enslavement to the song of liberation following the splitting of the sea. But Exodus 13-18 is also a block of material that depicts the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt into the wilderness to the foot of Mount Sinai.
Also, the narrative of Exodus-Joshua can be understood as a narrative (though with different traditions within it) from Egyptian slavery to the conquest of the Land that had been promised to Abraham and his descendants. Of course, when you add Genesis to the front of this block, you have the whole story up till the conquest. The difference is that Genesis depicts the patriarchs within the land, more or less at harmony with the land’s peoples. God is less concerned about the holiness of the patriarchs than establishing with them promises and providential guidance. With Exodus and afterward, Israel’s story is focused upon the establishment of the the identity of Israel as a people—descendants not only of Abraham but of the Twelve Tribes—and as a people they journey, receive the covenant, are guided, punished, declared God’s holy people, and given victory as a people.
We skip over a lot of history in chapter 1: traditionally counted, the Hebrews were in Egypt over 400 years. Exodus begins with the familiar story of Moses’ salvation from the murderous fears of Pharaoh. The narratives of Jesus’ infancy draw upon these narratives. Once Moses is an adult, he witness the suffering of an Israelite and kills the bully, which caps the first third of his life and sends him into exile for the second third of his life. In chapters 3 and 4, he meets the God of his ancestors in the form of a theophany, a voice form the burning but unconsumed bush. This is the great revelation of God’s name YHWH, God who declares “I AM WHO I AM.” After giving God numerous reasons why he (Moses) shouldn’t take on the divine task, God sends him on his way.
The story continues:
Moses and Aaron meet with Pharaoh, who instead adds to the Israelites’ burdens. Moses beseeches God. (Chapter 5)
God reiterates his promise to God by the divine name. Moses tries to encourage the people (unsuccessfully), and he and Aaron return to Pharaoh. We additionally learn of the family genealogy (Chapter 6).
Again, the brothers meet Pharaoh. Aaron’s rod turns into a serpent, “magic” that the Egyptian sorcerers likewise do, but their serpents are swallowed by Aaron’s. Yet Pharaoh’s heart is heartened. Next the river is turned to blood (Chapter 7).
More plagues: frogs, and then gnats and flies (Chapter 8). Pharaoh won’t relent, and more plagues happen: the death of livestock, boils, hail, and fire (Chapter 9). Pharaoh almost decides to release the Israelites when threatened by locusts, and then darkness covers Egypt (Chapter 10). God instructs the Israelites to borrow their neighbors’ silver and gold, and Moses threatens the king with the death of Egypt’s firstborn (chapter 11).
Chapter 12 and 13 establishes Pesach (Passover), the meaning of the rites, and the importance and meaning of the hoy day. The firstborn are killed, and the Israelites are at last released. God does not send them the straight way, where they would reach the land via Gaza, but an alternate way that would send them into what we call the Sinai peninsula. God guides them in pillars of cloud and fire.
In chapter 14, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites, to the fearful response of the people. God instructs Moses, who raises his staff and the Sea splits, allowing the Israelites to pass through to safety, while the pursuing Egyptian forces are drowned as the waters return.
Chapter 15 contains what scholars consider one the oldest song of the Hebrew tradition: the song of Moses, Miriam, and Israel on their deliverance. The people set out into the wilderness, but “murmur” because they’re thirsty. God sweets the bitter water at Marah, but it is a temporary respite for the perennially unhappy Hebrews.
They make camp at Elim, a location with wells and palm trees, but when they proceed on, they murmur because they want bread. This is the famous story of the manna and the quails; God provides for them all the days of their journey with the sweet bread-like substance called “What is it?” (the meaning of the word “manna”) (chapter 16).
They travel on to a place called Rephidim, where they murmur for water again. God strikes the rock that in turn produces water for them, but the place is called Massah and Meribah (“test” and “quarrel”). In what is perhaps a Deuteronomistic insertion into the story, the Israelites fight Amalek and his forces, who are cursed by God (chapter 17).
In chapter 18, Moses is reunited with his father-in-law Jethro. Jethro gives Moses a good solution to the problem of the many people coming to Moses for help and decisions.
The Harper’s Bible Commentary author on Exodus—a professor I knew at University of Virginia years ago—points out that the pre-exilic community would have known the Exodus story via the J narrative (p. 131), which “presents the departure from Egypt as a continuation of the theme of the double promise made by Yahweh to the patriarchs. Israel is to be a great nation in a productive land” (p. 129). For the post exilic community of the Second Temple, the story would’ve been known through the P history, and thus would’ve taken comfort in the continuity of religion from the Mosaic times through the Sinai covenant down to that post exilic time (p. 131).
From that same book, I learned that Psalms 78 and 105 also refer to the plagues, although their order and number are different. While Exodus has the ten—blood, frogs, gnats, flies, cattle, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the firstborn—-Psalm 78 has blood, flies, frogs, locusts, hail, cattle and firstborn, while Psalm 105 has darkness, blood, frogs, flies, hail, locusts, and firstborn. Bible trivia!
We may think of the splitting of the sea as the movie-worthy climax of this overall story, with the covenant and Ten Commandments an important addendum. Actually the covenant is the great event toward which these great stories move. God is Savior (Rescuer) but God is also a covenant-maker. He has created and rescued the Israelites in order to establish a holy, eternal agreement with them—a partnership, if you will, for the sake of the world.
If you’re a Christian, and if I asked you what is the most important event in the whole Bible, you might say Jesus’ death and resurrection (or the interrelated passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost gift of the Spirit). But the Exodus is not only the focal event of the whole Old Testament, but it is the “model” on which the New Testament narratives and theologies of our salvation are based! I write more about this on another blog: https://bibleconnections.wordpress.com/the-exodus-and-our-faith/
The site “My Jewish Learning” has a wonderful essay on the significance of the Exodus for Jews as well as all humankind: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-exodus-effect/
The Jewish Study Bible contains these insights: “Many of the fundamental beliefs and practices of Judaism are rooted in Exodus. The first of the book’s two central events, the exodus itself, is recounted daily in Jewish prayers, It and the other central event, the proclamation of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai, are celebrated and retold on Jewish festivals [Pesah and Shavuot] ever year” (p. 106). The author goes on to say that the covenant, the Jewish way of life, the encounter of the people with God at Sinai, the Sabbath, and other aspects of Exodus are foundational for Judaism (p. 106-107). In our own time, the movement of Jews to Palestine echoed for many the Exodus journey of the Israelites (p. 107). The exodus has also captured the imagination of Gentiles, especially the image of Moses leading people to freedom. The early British settlers of North America had that image in mind, as did African Americans seeking to gain their freedom (p. 107).
It's also worth noting a couple more connections to the New Testament. The Pascal lamb is connected to Jesus (Ex. 12:11, 1 Cor. 5:7), and (in next week's readings), the ratification of the covenant (Ex. 24:3-8) is connected to the Eucharistic words of institution (Mark 14:22-25, 1 Cor. 11:25).
In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah. Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:
Vayigash Genesis 44:18-47:27 Ezekiel 37:15-37:28
Vayechi Genesis 47:28-50:26 I Kings 2:1-12
Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1 Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-29:23 (Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)
Va'eira Exodus 6:2-9:35 Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Bo Exodus 10:1-13:16 Jeremiah 46:13-46:28
Beshalach Exodus 13:17-17:16 Judges 4:4-5:31 (Judges 5:1-5:31)
Yitro Exodus 18:1-20:23 Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-9:6 (Isaiah 6:1-6:13)