Although tradition attributes the authorship of the Pentateuch to Moses, even the casual reader is led to question the idea that the material is the work of a single writer. For example, the story of Moses is told in the third person. The death of Moses is reported, something he could hardly have done himself. As observed earlier, the Book of Exodus gives two accounts of Moses’ call by Yahweh (Chs. 3 and 6). Chapter 15 contains a longer and shorter version of the Song of Miriam. The list is extensive, and the reader can make his or her own. The question is not so much whether Moses was the final author of the Pentateuch (literary evidence alone belies that) but what connection he had with the materials represented there. If he was not the final author, was Moses at least the spiritual father of the Pentateuch? The answer to that question is probably yes.
The material in Genesis clearly is more ancient than Moses. If he was the author of a portion of the Pentateuch, he was more an editor than an author in Genesis. In the case of the next four books, many scholars suggest that this codification represents the Law at a much later period of development in Hebrew history, a law fully developed over the years as a landed culture. At the same time, however, the concepts of Covenant and Law surely were introduced by Moses and, in that sense, we can truly speak of “the Law of Moses.”
The date and route of the Exodus, as well as the number of participants, are all open to question, though few doubt that an Exodus took place (see map, p. 28). If one were to rely solely on the materials of the Old Testament, the event would have to have occurred earlier than the date now assumed by most scholars, namely, near 1250 B.C. The confusion over the route comes from the inability to link our imprecise knowledge of ancient geography with the biblical records. The almost two million people reported in Exodus (600, 000 men, plus women and children) seems an exaggeration to many scholars, simply because of the logistics involved in such a massive move. Questions have also been raised about the ten plagues. Some suggest that the occurrences reported (except for the slaying of the firstborn) are all natural phenomena, repeatable and observable at other moments in history. It also has been suggested that the manna described in Exodus resembles a honey like substance commonly found in the desert.
THE EYES OF FAITH
Even if all the alternatives suggested above are true, as opposed to the literal version of the Exodus, the integrity of the story is not challenged; we have simply been given a better understanding of the viewpoint of the storyteller. That viewpoint is of central interest for the student of the Bible, and it remains intact whether the story is dealt with literally or critically. The viewpoint affirms the belief that Yahweh is indeed the Lord of history and uses history for his purposes. What might be explained in one way by one who lacks the sensitivity is viewed entirely differently by one who knows this is the work of Yahweh. The very name by which God identifies himself at the burning bush, the name Yahweh, is important. Not only is the name revealed, the meaning of that name is also provided. This is a God active in history, one who is the cause behind what is, and to know his name is to know his nature. The story itself tells us that those who were a part of the Exodus did not truly appreciate the true meaning of that experience, and it remained for Moses to try to help them understand. The people are reported as constantly complaining, or being afraid. In the midst of the experience they did not always sense the presence of Yahweh in their midst. This remains true throughout the Old Testament. There must always be someone standing among them pointing to the true meaning of the event, and we read history that has been interpreted through the” eyes of faith. ”
“Why,” some have asked, “is there no mention of the Exodus in Egyptian records?” Perhaps the occasion was not significant to the Egyptians. On the other hand, it was in the midst of this event and the understanding of it that Judaism was shaped. History, viewed through the eyes of faith, takes on an entirely new meaning for those who share this perception. What might seem natural to others becomes supernatural to those who truly believe that the hand of Yahweh causes history to happen as it does. This is history written not for the simple sake of history, but for the sake of faith.
Using the Old Testament, one could reconstruct the history of the Exodus and come to conclusions entirely different from those of our author. The detainment of the Israelites in the wilderness, for example could be explained by pointing out that the generations that left Egypt were not numerous enough or strong enough in military power to overcome the fortified cities of Canaan. The author/ editor of the Pentateuch, as we know, cites the failure of the people to trust Yahweh. Strangely enough, each conclusion could be true in its own context. One is a statement of history, one a statement of faith; they are not contradictory. In the Bible the eyes of faith look beyond history; they look to what they understand to be the cause of history to report history, for they believe God is the God of history, using it for his purposes. That viewpoint remains consistent throughout the Bible, and it must be understood if the Bible is to be understood. The Bible reports God’s activity through the eyes of those who have been spiritually sensitized to perceive that activity in the midst of what others perceive as an ordinary world. Here Moses provides the spiritual insights. Later others will report history, not as neutral observers, but as people of faith.
Viewed through the faithful eyes of our storyteller, the key to understanding the meaning of all the events reported is found in Exodus 19:3-8:
Moses then went up to God, and Yahweh called to him from the mountain, saying, “Say this to the house of Jacob, declare this to the sons of Israel. ‘You yourselves have seen what I did with the Egyptians, how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. From this you know that now, if you obey my voice and hold fast to my covenant, you of all the nations shall be my very own, for all the earth is mine. I will count you a kingdom of priests, a consecrated nation! Those are the words you are to speak to the sons of Israel.” So Moses went and summoned the elders of the people, putting before them all that Yahweh had bidden him. Then all the people answered as one. “All that Yahweh has said, we will do.” And Moses took the people’s reply back to Yahweh.
Thus, the Israelites are now a people of the Covenant. The Covenant is based on Yahweh’s deliverance from the Egyptians and will be bounded by the Law, the means by which the people will express their faithfulness to Yahweh as their king.
Very soon in the story the people break the bounds of the covenant relationship, and the consequences are immediate. Chapter 32 begins the story of the golden calf, the first of many instances of an unfaithful Israel. Unfaithfulness has its own consequences, and Israel will continue to understand its low moments in history in that sense. In delivering the Jews from the Egyptians, Yahweh has shown who he is, calling the sons of Israel into covenant. To be Yahweh’s people, they must live in faithful obedience to him, for it was only in such obedience that they can serve his purposes. Observance of the Law is the means by which such obedience is to be reflected.
Much of the remainder of the Pentateuch delivers the Law, which was all encompassing. It was not, however, just a set of rules that removed responsible decision making from the individual. As becomes clear, the Law was a way of life reflecting the kingship of Yahweh for this holy community, which was to be his witness to the world. Obedience to the Law represented the people’s faithfulness to the task they gladly assumed in response to Yahweh’s call. Though they would often lose their way, the Law was to remain the standard by which they understood all that occurred.
- How does Genesis 1-11 differ from the remainder of Genesis in scope and purpose?
- Who are the patriarchs, and why are their stories important to our study of the Old Testament?
- What elements of the stories about Abraham and Sarah do you consider most important in regard to the continuing study of Judaism, and why?
- Explain the importance of the story of Jacob to the continuing story of Judaism.
- How would you defend Jacob as a religious hero, and what problems would you encounter?
- Identify Moses and explain his major contributions in the definition of what it means to be a Jew.
- What is meant by the Covenant and the Law, and how are these concepts important to our understanding of the Bible?
- What is meant by “the composite nature” of the Pentateuch?
- How would you summarize the religious world view presented in the Pentateuch as a whole?