What images spring up when one thinks of the Book of Exodus? There is the Burning Bush, the Ten Plagues, the night of Passover and the Exodus itself, the splitting of the sea, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, and a bunch of stuff about the Tabernacle. Moshe (Moses) makes his grand entry into Jewish history, as does Pharaoh and ‘Let My people go’. All in all, it’s a tour de force containing the origins of the Israelite nation and the fundamental laws that make up the core of Torah Judaism. But what about God? Where does God figure into the story and what images of the deity are conjured up in the book?
All those epic events are actually in Exodus - Shmot. The Ten Commandments scene occurs about the middle of the book and represents a kind of crescendo following the events leading to and comprising the Exodus, and preceding the Golden Calf and the Tabernacle. Appropriately, it all reads like a script to the famous movie, The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Charlton Heston as Moses, with the voice of God provided by a still undetermined source. These events have come to represent milestones in the history of western civilization, despite the fact that they happened so long ago and probably were of little significance at the time. Somehow, they attained a status that reached light years beyond their actual impact 3,000 years in the past, and have become enshrined as among the greatest events in human history. Probably more than any other story, they have become the foundation of the belief in a single God who directly intervenes in the course of the world.
What do our old friends the Bible critics think of this book? They consider it to be largely the work of the ‘E’ author, even though the bulk of the God references are to Hashem. They somehow work things out that, after a key statement at the Burning Bush, the Elohim people started using the name Hashem to refer to God. All in all their arguments are fairly unconvincing about this. It seems that the book could just as well have been the work of the ‘J’ author. Better yet, why not just call the whole thing the work of a single document that combines and interweaves the two names of God to indicate the different images that God reveals?
Did any of these events actually happen? They are certainly described as if they were real historical events that were just as real as today’s weather report or the latest antics of the characters in a reality TV show. But how could such fantastic stories be taken at face value? Does anybody today really believe that the sea split when the Israelites crossed and the waters returned when the Egyptian armies followed after them? Does anybody believe that the plagues happened in the way that they are described? What about that bush burning away and not getting consumed? Even the Ten Commandments - despite the graphic realism of the movie, who honestly buys into the version that God somehow carved them out and handed them gift-wrapped to Moshe on Mt. Sinai?
It turns out that there are basically three main views on this important matter. The first, the skeptical (they would call themselves ‘normal’ or ‘rational’), claims that this was all some centuries-later looking back on the mythical origins of a confederation of tribes, appropriately glorified and exaggerated to justify a religion. The Burning Bush was just some bush burning out in the desert. Perhaps Moses didn’t have enough to drink that day. Or perhaps he had a little too much to drink that day. In any case it eventually burned up and that was that. A few of the plagues may have happened or they may not have. Maybe some occasional locust infestation popped into town at one point, maybe there was a particularly heavy hail storm, and maybe there was a thick fog for a few days. But some disease striking only the first born – give me a break.
On the other extreme we have the traditionalists. For this group, also, the situation is quite clear. It all happened pretty much exactly as stated with the added proviso that certain details are missing that get filled in by the various rabbinic Midrashim that spice up the stories. This means that the Burning Bush was not just a burning bush, but a Burning Bush. Moshe heard the voice of God calling from it, instructing him to tell Pharaoh to, ‘Let My people go’. The Plagues happened right on schedule, miraculous as it may seem. The first born and only the first born died on the night of Passover; and a massive amount of Israelites left Egypt the next morning accompanied by a pillar of cloud. They crossed the sea on dry land after the waters split, and watched Pharaoh’s army drowning in the miraculously returned waters after they had already made it to the other side. The Ten Commandments were pretty much like the movie describes except that we know for sure who provided the voice of God. Manna fell from heaven on a daily basis excluding Shabbat (they received a double portion on Friday). The Golden Calf was a big time crash that continued to haunt the Israelites throughout their history.
The third view is everybody who sits uncomfortably somewhere in the middle. This group, which isn’t really a unified group rallying under one banner, includes both skeptical traditionalists and traditional skeptics. These two unlikely allies meet at some vague point in between the extremes. They feel that the events described are too vivid and too important to simply sweep under the collective rug of myth, but too wild and too miraculous to take at face value. In other words, there was a Burning Bush that wasn’t just a burning bush, but it was some sort of spiritual experience that Moshe went through as he meditated in the desert. He heard God’s voice as prophets always have, speaking with him though his conscience and sending him on his path of Destiny. The plagues indeed happened, but they worked through some mechanism of nature. It was an uncanny stretch of natural disasters, some of which make sense and others which still leave us puzzled. The Exodus of course happened, though not necessarily in the manner described. The dates and the numbers may be off, but the idea is a historical fact.
This group has trouble with things like the sea splitting, and this is where the flimsy alliance breaks down. The traditionalists among them insist that it happened, but was all under the guise of an incredibly timed natural event like a volcano/tidal wave. The skeptics among them draw the line with this one and say that this was just the Biblical authors’ taking poetic liberties to spice up their ancient history with a few miracles. But they come back together for the giving of the Ten Commandments, though the origin of God’s voice is a little vague, like in the movie. The core of the Law was given - it’s just a technical detail about who gave it and how it was received. The Manna did supply them with daily food in the wilderness, but it might have been an early version of health food, like a desert variety of Spirulina. These guys are creative and resourceful, as they attempt to live in the present while respecting tradition.
This is all well and good, but we are interested in where God fits into all this. Obviously, the traditionalists will have miracle working as an essential part of God’s resume. The skeptics will white that part out, along with anything else that smacks of the divine. The middle people will tolerate some and naturalize others, depending on which side of the fence they feel more comfortable on. But what images of God are displayed in the text, regardless of whether the stories are true or not? What does the role God supposedly played in these stories tell us about how the Bible sees God’s image?
Exodus follows Genesis, so the images that had been established in the first book should carry over into the second. Elohim should still be the Guide of destiny, taking a standoff position on direct intervention following the Flood, but somehow sticking to the plan. Hashem should still be the personal God, touching the minds and hearts of individuals as they struggle to find their private place in the world, or as they find themselves thrust onto the great stage of Destiny. Adonai should still be there, waiting to be addressed and beseeched in desperation, but ultimately accepted as the final authority. There may be other images we haven’t yet encountered, but these three will always be there.
One crucial question that will have to be addressed in this book concerns the interacting images of God. We have already seen how the Elohim image promised to never destroy the world by flood, no matter how bad things get, but that intervention on a personal level was still in the cards under the hand of Hashem. What happens when those two images conflict? What happens when fate or destiny has to be adjusted to accommodate the needs of an individual? Furthermore, what happens when a group of individuals, even a rather large group, needs to be accommodated to find their group destiny?
In many ways it is hard to believe that almost all the events in this book take place over a period of about a year and a half. Except for a several verse introduction that describes how the Israelites first came to Egypt and how they grew into a large nation, it all revolves around the few key months of the Exodus and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Genesis was a slow winding away of thousands of years (about 2,500 to be more precise). Except for the Flood, things happen pretty slowly, and there isn’t all that much of a thriller atmosphere. God has plenty time to be revealed and be developed into different images. Exodus, on the other hand, happens in a whirlwind, with events happening at blinding speed. We hardly have time to digest one miracle or one momentous event when another is upon us.
But perhaps this is necessary to reveal certain images of God. Things do happen suddenly and largely beyond our control and without any opportunity for preparation. We are players in that great stage known as history, and sometimes things happen that change destiny in a profound and traumatic manner. Exodus takes place over such a time. To study this book is not really to read a version of ancient history. It is to relive the workings of God in the world as seen through the eyes of those who lived the events. It is the revelation of God’s hand and mind in the world, and the challenge of human beings to accept it or to deny it.
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