February 18, 2007

Final Reflections on Exodus

We have, at long last, come to the end of the second book of the Bible. Once more, I would like to thank my devoted readers for continuing with me along this journey. I especially like to receive comments about my essays and Breadcrumbs: it reminds me that people are still reading. (That was a subtle hint, by the way, in case you missed it.)

So, having come 1/12 of the way along our journey through the Bible, it is time once more to pause and see what sort of overall messages we can retrieve from the book of Exodus before proceeding onwards to Leviticus.

One of the most striking features about Exodus is its sense of pacing. I mentioned in my first essay on this book (here) that the initial chapters of Exodus flashed by at breakneck speed. Moses' entire childhood took place in a single book (Ex. 2). All the circumstances leading up to the plagues were through by Ex. 6. The plagues themselves, all ten of them, occurred in the span of a few chapters (Ex. 7-11). Even the Exodus itself, the namesake of this book, took place in a chapter and a half (Ex. 13-14).

However, at this point the narrative slows down to a crawl. Ex 16-19 talk about various instances that took place within the camp, such as a description of the manna and quail the Israelites ate and their system of judges. Ex. 20-23 are a long list of laws, including but not limited to the ten commandments. By Ex. 25, the narrative has nearly stopped, detailing in fifteen long chapters the instructions for and construction of the tabernacle and priestly garments. This long recitation is only interrupted a few times: most notably in Ex. 32 for the story of the golden calf and Ex. 34 for the "other" ten commandments.

The question we must ask at this point is, "so what?" Why does it matter that the action-adverture portion of the narrative takes place in less than half of the book, while the second half reads like a glorified IKEA manual? What does this tell us about the redactors of the text and their values?

For one thing, the rapid action suggests an oral tradition that accompanied the text. Like much of Genesis, there are many more stories related to the text than actually in the Bible. Many of these stories have been passed down by oral tradition and companion, commentary texts. Jewish tradition states that Moses received not only the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) but also the Talmud, an oral tradition to accompany it. Many of the morals we draw from the Genesis and early Exodus stories come from these other works.

However, there is a profound difference between the stories in Genesis and early Exodus and the laws and instructions in the second half of the latter. The stories about the Israelite patriarchs and Moses are, in large part, written for moral edification. They are stories that tell us how we should act, think, and believe. The ten plagues on the Egyptians remind us of God's power and the importance of obeying him, for example. A Jew (or, theoretically, a Christian) coming away from reading these passages should learn not only part of his cultural mythology and history but also how the passage is relevant to his own life and actions.

The latter half of Exodus, however, is not filled with morality tales. Rather, it contains laws and instructions. For the most part, the instructions are specific rather than general (see, for example, Ex. 21-23). This is because, while general laws are well and good for orienting people's attitudes, there will always be disputes. Furthermore, there will always be infractions. If we are told not to steal, what happens if we do? What happens if it was unintentional? The laws in Exodus attempt to deal with these eventualities, perhaps stemming from actual precedents.

The fifteen long chapters detailing the tabernacle and priestly garments are likewise specific, and even further away from general moral teachings. Instead, these were intended as instruction manuals. As I have mentioned several times over the course of the Breadcrumbs for Exodus, the Israelites were a nomadic people, at least initially. It is possible that the tabernacle might have been destroyed, along with its implements. Should this happen, the Israelites would have a record of how to reconstruct them. The text is specific and repeats itself so that there can be no doubt about what God wanted. If part of the text were accidentally destroyed, there is a chance that another section with the same information would survive. So, while it is tedious to read for modern, 21st century readers, it makes a great deal of sense to include so much detail.

The text therefore contains two very different sets of pacing to accommodate two very different purposes. When the purpose is moral edification, short and engaging passages suffice. Storytellers can fill in the blanks with their own knowledge, so long as the core moral teaching remains intact. When the purpose is construction and reconstruction of actual objects, however, the text needs to be precise, detailed, and (unfortunately for modern readers) long.

And, also unfortunately, the action doesn't pick up for another book and a half. Tomorrow we begin our journey through Leviticus, known to crush the spirit of even the greatest Biblical scholars. Shall we overcome? Return tomorrow and find out.

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