December 24, 2006

Exodus 1-3: Don't blink or you'll miss it

Today's reading is Exodus 1-3 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the circumstances of the Hebrews when Moses is born; Pharaoh's command to kill the male Hebrews and the valiant efforts of the midwives; Moses' childhood; Moses' killing of an Eyptian and his flight to Midian; Moses' marriage to Zipporah and birth of his son Gershom; and the beginning of the Burning Bush episode.

You'll notice the many different stories that appear in the previous paragraph. In fact, everything but the burning bush episode happens in Exo. 1-2. The pace is, to say the least, quick. Some might even call it rushed. So let us take a moment to slow down and consider what all this rushed narrative means for us, the reader.

The first thing that appears in Exodus (1:1-5) is a brief recap of the sons of Jacob. We found this list, in far more detailed form, several times already in Genesis: Gen. 29-30 names the sons as they are born, Gen. 35:23-26 lists them again by mother; Gen. 46:8-27 gives an extended list of his sons and grandsons, and Gen. 49:1-27 lists the sons again as they receive their blessing. So anyone who has read the book of Genesis should be familiar with Jacob's sons already. Nevertheless, Exodus begins with their names, as a bridge between the two books.

But then things begin to speed up. Ex. 1:6-8 reads as follows in the KJV:
(6) And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation. (7) And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them. (8) Now there arose a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

Though it is not listed in this particular passage, we learn later that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years. (Ex. 12:40-41) Even giving Moses a generous life-span, we're still dealing with over three hundred years that pass in the span of three verses. Hundreds of years! Given the excessive care Genesis took to record all the details of the first four generations of Hebrews (Abraham to Joseph), it is highly surprising that we don't read anything about the intervening time between Joseph and Moses. What have the Israelites been doing all this time? Who has led them?

We do know a few things. We know that they were very powerful, very rich, and very numerous. In fact, it is this precise reason that the new Pharaoh comes down so hard on the Hebrews when he decides to persecute them. Note his reasons: "the people of the children of Israel are more and mighter than we." (Ex. 1:9) He actually decides to enslave them because he doesn't want them to side with his enemies and turn the tide of fighting. (Ex. 1:10) In other words, all the wealth and good land that Joseph had originally given to his brothers in Genesis has paid off: after a few centuries, the Israelites are rich and powerful. Far from being a harsh taskmaster, Pharaoh seems more like an insecure tyrant who can't control the subjects living in his own land. He is not cruel for its own sake, but to protect his rule.

Of course, I do not mean to say that the Israelites' lives were easy after they were forced into slavery. Of course they lived a hard life. On the other hand, they lived quite well for several hundred years before that. It is only at the end of their time in Egypt that they were enslaved.

The beginning of Moses' story (Ex. 2) is also quick-paced. Moses is born, hidden, placed in a basket on the Nile, saved by Pharaoh's daughter, nursed, and raised. He grows up, slays and Egyptian, runs away to Midian, marries, and has a son. Moreover, all this occurs within the span of a single chapter.

Let us compare this chapter to another, Gen. 24. In that chapter, Abraham's servant is sent to find a wife for Isaac. The breakdown of the chapter looks something like this:
verses 1-9: Abraham charges his servant with fining a wife for Isaac
verses 10-14: the servant heads out and prays to God to show him, by a certain scenario, which woman should be the wife for Isaac
verses 15-27: the scenario happens (with Rebekah)
verses 28-49: the servant meets Rebekah's father and tells him everything that has happened since the beginning of the chapter, in great detail
verses 50-67: Rachel leaves with the servant and reaches Isaac, who marries her

Note: 67 verses for a single story. Not only that, but the narrative is actually repeated twice and sometimes even three times: the servant prays for the situation to happen, the situation happens, and the servant relates the situation to Laban. Each time the situation is explained in great detail.

Contrarily, Moses is born, grows up, marries, and has a son, all in the span of a single chapter, Exodus 2. Admittedly, the story does slow down in Ex. 3, with the beginning of the burning bush story. So what are we to make of the rapid pace through the beginning of Moses' life? Perhaps the text's pace implies that these events are not important, merely build-up and scene-setting for the main event, Moses' position as the liberator of the Hebrews. In the same way we don't need to hear about a hero's life-story in modern movies, the ancient Jews reading Exodus did not care about Moses' history beyond some of the pertinent details. Rather, they wanted to know about how he saved them from slavery in Egypt.

Apparently, unlike Sigmund Freud and his ilk, some people did not consider childhood to be particularly important.


Joe Mason said...

Hm, what I would conclude from this is just that it has a different author, from a different literary tradition which has a different sense of pacing.

Julie said...

Hi Joe,

Yes, that's possible too. Though I would say "redactor" instead of "author." As I mentioned way back at the beginning of Genesis, it is commonly believed that the first five books of the Bible (aka: The Pentateuch) were compiled or redacted by four people, called J (Jevovist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priest). Though I don't have the exact break-down on-hand, it would surprise me that this is the work of one of the other redactors from the later chapters of Genesis.