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?