"Because the Whole Earth Is Mine": Theme and Narrative in Exodus

By Fretheim, Terence E. | Interpretation, July 1996 | Go to article overview

"Because the Whole Earth Is Mine": Theme and Narrative in Exodus


Fretheim, Terence E., Interpretation


The lens through which one may view the entire Book of Exodus is the speech God utters in 19:3-6. Indeed, it has been said that in the whole tradition of Moses, this is very likely the most programmatic speech we have for Israelite faith.

THE BOOK OF EXODUS has often been interpreted in ways that are theologically much too restrictive.1 The overriding interest in God's actions in history led to the neglect of the creational dimensions of God's activity. The focus upon the redemption of Israel slighted the significance of God's creational activity for the larger world, both human and nonhuman. The emphasis upon the liberation of Israel diminished the place of worship and law. Certain understandings of covenant reduced Israel's relationship with God to an impersonal, even contractual, reality with strict conditions in place. The purpose of this article is to explore some of these theological dimensions of the Book of Exodus. To that end, certain observations will be made about the canonical placement and narrative structure of the book, followed by a close look at key themes through the lens of a central text, namely, 19:3-6.

Narrative Structure

The Book of Exodus is not meant to be interpreted in isolation. Its relationship to Genesis is especially important.2 Exodus must be interpreted as the second chapter of a drama begun in Genesis. This means, at the least, that the themes of creation, promise, and universal divine purpose, set in place by the Genesis narrative, constitute lenses through which Exodus is to be read. God's actions on Israel's behalf in Exodus are for the sake of the world (see 9:16: "that my name may be declared [sapar] through all the earth").

The relationship of Exodus to what follows is also important. The narrative of Israel's stay at Sinai, begun at Exodus 19:1, is not completed until Numbers 10::10. This means, for example, that the sacrificial system in Leviticus 1-9 must be seen as part of God's response to Israel's sin and God's interaction with Moses, narrated in Exodus 32-34. In 34:6-7, God announces a change in the way the divine relates to Israel's sinfulness and, for the first time in the biblical narrative, divine forgiveness comes into view.3 The sacrificial texts take the form of law, but in reality they constitute a gospel word: through sacrifice, God provides a means by which the people's sins can be forgiven (cf. the command to baptize) .

At the same time, Exodus constitutes an isolatable unit within its narrative complex, and certain structural elements carry theological freight. Initially, an inclusio for the book as a whole highlights certain themes. The book moves from Israel's servitude to Pharaoh to its service to Yahweh, from the enforced construction of buildings for Pharaoh to the willing assemblage of a dwelling place for God. Walter Brueggemann speaks of a flight "from Pharaoh to Yahweh, from one master to a new one."4 Yet, the new master differs from the old one. A difference exists in the kind of sovereignty exercised. In comparing such texts as 3:7-10 with 5:5-18, it becomes apparent that Pharaoh, not God, is the unmoved mover. It is Pharaoh whose heart is hard; God enters deeply into Israel's suffering.

The amount of material in Exodus associated with oppression approximates that associated with worship. Whatever sense is to be made of the details regarding the tabernacle, they demonstrate the importance of worship and God's special presence related thereto.5 The tabernacle and God's promise to dwell among the people constitute assurances (verbal and tangible) that God is among them, a gracious divine condescension to the need of the human for that which is concrete and focused. When this theme is combined with Leviticus 1-9, with its provision for forgiveness, these texts constitute a statement that God is both with them and for them.

This move from slavery to worship not only means a change in circumstance for the people but is also about change for God. …

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