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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Exodus as Literature.

1.

Exodus falls into the category of narrative, literature which tells a story. Even the large parts of the text which present law or instructions are cast into the form of speeches by God at appropriate points in the story. The story has two main themes. The first theme is the deliverance of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt by their God, usually referred to by his name YHWH (see EX 3:7–12 ). This theme is completed in the first fifteen chapters, which are set mainly in Egypt or on its borders. The second theme is how YHWH establishes his presence among the Israelites and brings them into obedience to himself. This is told mainly in the second half of the book, from 15:22 onwards, which is set in the wilderness to the east of Egypt, but it is foreshadowed in the earlier part of the book. The two themes are united in that both events are ways in which YHWH makes himself known and fulfils his promises to Israel's ancestors.

2.

YHWH is the dominant character. The text underlines his sovereignty even at the expense of the interest of the story in places. Although the Israelites are essential to the story, they rarely act independently. Between the two stands Moses. He can be described as the hero of the story. He is hardly ever off-stage from the moment of his birth; the story alternates constantly between scenes between Moses and YHWH and scenes between Moses and the Israelites or Pharaoh. Yet even he, throughout the greater part of the story, acts simply as YHWH's agent, and it is only in places that he asserts his independence (Ex 32 is a notable example). The main foil to YHWH in the first part of the book is the Pharaoh of the plagues. Yet, as I will show in EX 7:6–11:10 , YHWH increasingly constrains him to act in the way he does, and ultimately he seems to be little more than a puppet whom YHWH manipulates to demonstrate his own power (Gunn 1982 ).

3.

The development of the plot has, then, decided limitations. Through much of the story the characters do not have sufficient independence to oppose YHWH's purposes. Nevertheless there is a plot. There is a struggle between YHWH and Pharaoh; its end is inevitable and clearly foreseen, but it is a struggle. Israel's acceptance that YHWH must be obeyed is not as automatic as it seems to be at first sight (in 19:8 ); they do rebel in Ex 32 . Their rebellion is of course doomed from the start; the interest of this part of the story lies in whether Moses will persuade YHWH to restore the people to his favour; and here the end is by no means a foregone conclusion. The rebellion sets up a tension in YHWH himself, which Moses exploits. To destroy them and to restore them to favour are in different ways humiliating for YHWH. He resolves the tension by declaring himself a God of mercy, whose glory it is to forgive as much as to punish affronts to his honour.

4.

But in general the story proceeds on lines that are not only expected but explicitly forecast ( 3:12, 16–20; 4:21–3 ), and its sympathies are unambiguous. In Ex 1–15 we are constrained to be against the oppressors, and on the side of the innocent sufferers and their deliverers. As D. Robertson (1977: 16–32) points out, there is no irony in the moral structure of the story. It is all black and white, there are no shades of grey. Of course, moral simplicity is to be expected in a nation's foundation story. The reader, however, may not find it so simple: could a righteous god destroy so many innocent lives for his own glory?

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