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

Exodus and History.


On the assumption that the book is intended as history, it is natural to ask how it has come by what it knows or claims to know about the early history of Israel. The first step is to ask about the history of the book itself; but as it is only a part of the Pentateuch we can refer to PENT for discussion of the various proposals. The view taken in this commentary (broadly that of Van Seters 1994 ) can only be stated here, that the work consists of two main strands with different styles and interests, which I refer to as J and P. J was created from a variety of source material by an author writing probably in the seventh or sixth century BCE. Some J material is earlier than Deuteronomy, some of it later and clearly dependent on that book; see e.g. EX 23:10–19 contrasted with 13:3–10 . P was written by a priestly author in the later sixth or fifth century. It seems to me likely that P was not an independent work later combined with J, but was written from the beginning as an expansion of J.


Exodus, then, was developing during a time when the nation's continuing existence as a distinct community was in prolonged doubt. It was written to strengthen national feeling and support national identity. The two main traditions or ideas which J uses to achieve this are those of Israel's origin from a group of exploited aliens in Egypt, and of YHWH's covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. They were, according to this writer, a nation specially claimed by the God of all the earth as his own ( 19:5 ). His claim, his care and protection, and in return their exclusive attachment to him and faithful obedience to his moral direction would preserve them as a nation. The main ideas added by P were that of YHWH's covenant of promise to Israel's ancestors and that of his presence among his people in a sanctuary specially built at his direction, and this has obvious relevance to the time of restoration. Note that ‘covenant’ has various shades of meaning in the OT (see Mendenhall 1992a , Nicholson 1986 ).


Despite the great attention given by scholars in this century to what they have called ‘tradition history’ (I again refer to PENT for a brief survey), I do not believe it is possible to write a history of the way in which these traditions developed. The evidence is simply insufficient. Nor is there much to go on to distinguish traditional material from the authors' own contributions. However, the central narrative assertion, that YHWH delivered Israel's ancestors from slavery in Egypt, is certainly traditional: it is central to the prophecy of Hosea in the eighth century BCE, as well as to the book of Deuteronomy in the late seventh. It is much more doubtful that the claim that YHWH made a covenant with Israel at Sinai can be described as traditional (Nicholson 1986 ). It is important in Deuteronomy and writings influenced by it; but it plays no significant role in any prophetic book before Jeremiah, itself influenced by Deuteronomy. Still less securely rooted in tradition is the concept of the mobile sanctuary; although it depends on the ancient tradition of temple-building in the Near East (see EX 25–31), it appears practically only in the P strand in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.


With the exception of the Exodus from Egypt itself, the major ideas of the book are not popular traditions but ideas of an intellectual élite striving to preserve or excite national feeling in a time of crisis, and to reshape the national spirit through an exclusive monotheistic ideal which they saw as the only way to preserve the nation at all.


What then is the likelihood that the traditions of Exodus reach right back, as the book claims, to the origin of Israel? (See, among others, S. Herrmann 1973; de Vaux 1978: i. 321–472; Ramsey 1981: 45–63; Houtman 1993: 171–90.) If one abstracts the many miraculous elements, the story in itself is not implausible, and indeed similar events appear in Egyptian records (S. Herrmann 1973: 23–9, de Vaux 1978: i.374). The names Moses and Aaron are best explained as of Egyptian origin (Houtman 1993: 75, 83). It is generally assumed that before the traditions were committed to writing they were carried by oral tradition, maybe in connection with the feast of Passover which celebrates the Exodus, and possibly in poetry (Cross 1973: 124 n. 38), which is less subject to loss and distortion than a prose tale. The date of the event is most often put at the end of the Bronze Age, in the thirteenth century BCE. But some (e.g. Bimson 1978 ) maintain the fifteenth-century date suggested by the Bible's own chronology.


However, recent research into traditions about historical events in modern non-literate societies shows that it would be difficult for reliable historical knowledge to survive the hundreds of years separating any possible date for the events related and any likely date for the writing, even if that was much earlier than I have suggested (Kirkpatrick 1988 ). Moreover, the hard archaeological evidence that would show that the nation of Israel came from outside Canaan is lacking. The material culture of early Iron Age Israel is like that of Late Bronze Age Canaan, only poorer (Finkelstein 1988, Dever 1992 ). At most there could have been a small group which escaped from Egypt and passed on its traditions to related groups in Canaan (so Gottwald 1980: 36, etc.). And the Passover did not become a national festival until the end of the seventh century (2 Kings 23:22 ); could the rustic family celebration from which it arose have been the bearer of a national tradition?


It therefore remains unclear to what extent Exodus presents authentic historical events. It should in any case be clear from the way in which it speaks of history (see c.2) that we cannot use the book as a historical source. Its aim is not to present an objective record, but to celebrate the glory of YHWH.

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