Exodus: Structuring the Story

The Book of Exodus shares parallel themes with other Western epics.

Reading the Bible in short snippets (as happens when churches follow a lectionary schedule) carries a danger. It focuses our attention on one small segment of a Biblical book. We lose sight of the flow of the whole book. 

It is important not to do this when we read the Book of Exodus. If we keep our attention on the flow of its narrative, we notice the book divides into two broad sections. 

The first tells the story of Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery (chapters 1-15). The heart of this section is the titanic battle between God and Pharaoh. In the ancient Egyptian mindset, Pharaoh was regarded as the incarnation of the god Horus. He was therefore a divine being. This then makes the battle between God and Pharaoh a battle between two gods. Who ultimately will exercise lordship over the people Israel?

The second section recounts the beginning of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land (chapters 16-40). That journey will end up taking 40 years. The Book of Exodus recounts only the first year. But that first year will include momentous events in creating Israel as a new nation.

For example, the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel ratified at Mount Sinai. Out of that covenant emerges the beginnings of Israelite law. The most condensed form of that law is given to us in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). 

It is in the flow of this narrative that we find, in my opinion, the wisdom the Book of Exodus offers to any people who set out on the task of creating a new national identity.

The book ends with the construction of the Tabernacle as a center for worship. The Tabernacle provides a physical manifestation of God’s promise to be with Israel throughout its journey and into its future. It will be the Tent of Meeting, meaning the place where God and the people meet each other.

The journey includes numerous incidents of testing, when Israel is challenged to have faith in circumstances that breed doubt. These testing experiences trigger grumbling and anxiety within the people. They culminate in the outright rebellion expressed in the affair with the golden calf (Exodus 32-34). 

The journey, with all its up’s and down’s, plays a crucial role in transforming the Israelites from a chaotic mob of freed slaves into an organized nation with an established identity, constitution, and rituals of worship. In Exodus 4:22-23, God has called Israel “my firstborn son.” By the end of the book, we begin to see what that means in terms of the particulars of Israel’s relation to God, its laws and social life, and its worship. 

It is in the flow of this narrative that we find, in my opinion, the wisdom the Book of Exodus offers to any people who set out on the task of creating a new national identity. It is a handbook on the challenges of nation building. It offers wisdom, too, to individuals traveling on a spiritual journey into a deeper relationship with God.

Connections with Other Epic Narratives

As I was studying this thematic division in the Book of Exodus, I was struck with the fact that this dual structure is one the book shares with two other foundational epics in the history of Western civilization. Those two epics are the Homeric narratives recounted in the Iliad and the Odyssey and Virgil’s epic the Aeneid

Roman image of Homer

The Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture. They formed the primary texts in the education of young Greek boys. The Aeneid is the classic account of the origins of the Romans. It is the myth that validates Rome’s divine destiny to rule the world.

Actually the Iliad and the Odyssey are two separate epics, but they claim common Homeric authorship. And throughout Greek history they were held in close association. Taking these two works together (as I think we should), we notice they break into a stirring account of the war between the Greeks and Trojans (the Iliad) and then the account of the ten-year journey by Odysseus to return to his home island of Ithaca after the war’s end (the Odyssey). 

The over-arching structure of the two epics is that pattern of battle and journey, the same pattern we find in the Book of Exodus. 

The Aeneid, too, shares this same structure of battle and journey, except the order is reversed. The journey comes first; the battle second. The fall of Troy has exiled Aeneas and his crew from their homeland. They seek a new one in the western Mediterranean. The first half of the Aeneid recounts the journey; the second half their battle to secure their new homeland once they arrive in Italy. 

Aeneas in battle, by Luca Giordano, 17th century

I don’t want to make too much of these parallels. There are, certainly differences among them. Exodus is an account of a journey of a people; the Odyssey is the journey of an individual. Odysseus returns home; Israel does not return to Egypt, but journeys to a new homeland. 

Exodus shares this feature with the Aeneid, for Aeneas does not return to Troy but searches for a new homeland. The Exodus narrative (taking the long view) and the Aeneid share the feature of a battle to secure their new homelands: Aeneas in his duel with Turnus, and in the Exodus tradition the battles Joshua leads to secure the Promised Land once Israel crosses the Jordan.

Yet all three share that common feature of battle and journey. What are we to make of that? Is it an accidental parallelism? Or are the three drawing upon some common dynamism buried in the corporate unconsciousness of humanity? Are we looking at one of Carl Jung’s archetypes? 

I don’t have the scholarly background to answer those questions. I just want to call attention to this odd fact. 

Conditioning the Way Americans Tell Their Own Story?

I also can’t help but wonder if this pattern has not left an indelible influence on the shape of the Western mindset. Do we see it, for example, in the popular narratives we tell about the origins and destiny of America?  

The story, as we like to tell it, has its journey theme. Europeans journey across the Atlantic to a new homeland. They do so for various motivations. Some make the journey to escape economic deprivation in Europe. Others to escape social stratification or political oppression. Others to escape religious intolerance. Some craving new adventures or opportunities. Yet all make a journey, leaving behind old homelands for a new one.

Once in America, the colonists face the task of creating a new nation. That nation building culminates in the great battle of the Revolution, the fight for independence. The language of the Revolution often describes American dependence upon England as a form of slavery.

After independence the journey begins once again as Americans migrate ever westward, through what is often described as a wilderness, seeking always a newer and newer homeland. That migration is accompanied with many more battles with the native Americans living on the land. 

Am I being simplistic in detecting patterns that don’t exist? Or are we Americans telling our story in categories and language conditioned by those old enduring themes of battle and journey that lie at the inspirational sources of Western civilization? 

The Exodus: Paradigm of Salvation

I invite you on a journey into wisdom.

One book of the Bible more than any other draws me back over and over again. That book is the Book of Exodus. 

As a narrative, I find it deeply engaging, comparable to J.R.R. Tokien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for me, an equally engaging story. The account of the contest between God and Pharaoh, recounted in chapters 5-14, matches any of the great duels between champions that we find in the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Arthurian romances. Though God wins in the end, Pharaoh is a formidable fighter. His stature equals that of Satan in Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.

As philosophical theology, Exodus gives us that fundamental conception of God revealed at the burning bush on Sinai: I am who I am, or I will be who I will be (Exodus 3:14). There in a nutshell we are introduced to a God as a Presence, who remains an impenetrable mystery. 

Exodus gives us that fundamental conception of God revealed at the burning bush on Sinai: I am who I am, or I will be who I will be.

In the end our best intellectual efforts to describe God become the blind men describing the elephant in the famous Indian parable. To know God is ultimately not to comprehend God, but to relate to God personally as the eternal Thou of our lives. Biblical religion finds its fullest maturity in mysticism.

As an account of the process of liberation and nation building, Exodus is true to the realities of political life. It has inspired reformers and revolutionaries in many generations. When the Puritan refugees migrated to New England in the 17th century, they brought with them visions of themselves as Israelites fleeing the oppression of England as Egypt, commissioned with the task of creating a new promised land where God’s people could flourish. Benjamin Franklin once proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should include an image of Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea.

It is no accident either that even in the writings of secularized socialists, like Karl Marx, we find references to the Exodus story. The story forms an important substratum below European and American thought.*

The impact of the Exodus story on African-Americans has been huge, both during the slavery era and after. You hear allusions to it all through Black preaching and rhetoric. A good example is the speech Dr. Martin Luther King gave in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his assassination. It is popularly titled “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” 

In it King talks about all the threats that have been made against his life, with new threats there in Memphis. He responds with words that draw their imagery from the account in Deuteronomy 34 of the death of Moses. Moses does not get to enter the Promised Land, but before his death, he is given a glimpse of it from the top of Mount Nebo. 

Dr. Martin Luther King

Drawing upon that account, King says of himself:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

 The Exodus story has also inspired many cherished spirituals, like the one that begins:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go

St. Gregory of Nyssa

Finally when we search out a road map for the spiritual journey, to help us understand the typical movements of spiritual formation, we find teachers of spirituality turning over and over again to the narratives and images we encounter in the Exodus story. A good example is the early church father, Gregory of Nyssa, whose Life of Moses treats the Exodus story as an allegory delineating the stages of the mystic’s pilgrimage.

The Jewish Paradigm of Salvation

But more than anything else, I find the most compelling quality of the exodus story to be the fact that in the Biblical mindset, it is the essential paradigm for salvation, past, present, and future. What does salvation look like? What are the typical rhythms in the movement towards salvation? In the Biblical mindset, salvation is less a one-time event, and much more a journey, a journey of a people, even more than for individuals.

…in the Biblical mindset, [the Exodus] is the essential paradigm for salvation, past, present, and future.

When in the dual disasters of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah, and the Hebrew prophets and the psalmists look with longing for God’s future redemption, they constantly turn to the language of the Exodus story. Hosea sees that for corrupt Israel to return to a thriving, loving relationship with its God, it will need to undergo another purification experience in the desert (Hosea 2). And the prophet behind Isaiah 40-55 presents glowing pictures of how God will redeem Israel out of Babylon through a second and glorious exodus through the desert. 

A Christian Paradigm Too

This imagery has deeply shaped the mindset of Christianity as well. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the supreme exodus, only foreshadowed in the Mosaic exodus. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has set all humanity free from the oppressive autocracy of spiritual powers and dominions, of sin, and finally the mortality of death. 

[In Christianity] the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the supreme Exodus, only foreshadowed in the Mosaic exodus.

Orthodox Icon of Jesus’ Resurrection

Early Christians celebrated that great victory each year in its Easter festival, a festival to which they gave the name of Pascha (a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word for Passover). Easter is the Christian Passover. That victory is also celebrated every time Christians gather for the Eucharist, the feast where we remember and participate in the sacrifice of Christ our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Given the centrality of the exodus story to the Biblical mindset, I want to spend time in a series of blog postings reflecting on the narrative, the imagery, and the concepts that we encounter in that narrative. I will be concentrating my attention on the Book of Exodus alone. 

But the Book of Exodus** does not tell the full story. It only recounts basically the first year of what will become a 40-year-long journey (the story continues into the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua). But what happens in that first year will be decisive to the character of the journey. It is in these decisive moments that the enduring wisdom of the exodus story primarily resides. 

My postings will be my personal reflections and comments on the text. Scholars may challenge whether my exegesis is accurate or not. You should not, therefore, take my comments as the definitive interpretation of Exodus. Rather my postings will reflect how the book triggers thoughts, feelings, and insights within one engaged reader. I hope they will trigger something similar for you. If you disagree with my interpretations, I invite you to share your alternative viewpoint using the Comments feature of this blog. 

So come, join me in a fascinating journey through a great work of insight and wisdom.   


* For readers who wish to explore the many ways politicians, liberationists, and revolutionaries have drawn upon the story of the exodus, I recommend Michael Walzer’s book, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1985). It’s a brilliant study of how the exodus story has influenced politicians and revolutionaries through the centuries, especially those who led the English Puritan revolution in the 17th century, the American revolution in the 18th century, revolutionary thinkers in the 19th century including utopian socialists, the various revolutionary movements in the 20th century, and liberationist theologians in Latin America today.

** Throughout my postings, I will capitalize Exodus when the word refers to the book of Exodus. I will lower-case it when I am referring to the historical event of the exodus.

Watch for My Relaunch

Having completed my sabbatical, I will be in business again soon.

Those of you who have followed my blog in past years will know I’ve been taking a much needed sabbatical for the past ten months. I plan, however, to re-launch my active blogging again next week. I invite you to watch for it. 

My site also has a redesigned look. I hope it helps make reading my posts a greater pleasure.