In Part 1 of this article, we explored how the central theme of Israel as the “people of God” was established in the early chapters of the book of Exodus—especially in the scene of the theophany (manifestation of God) to Moses in chapter 3. There, the Creator (°E~l) revealed and declared His name as Yahweh (YHWH/hwhy, the tetragrammaton name), and affirmed His ancient binding agreement (covenant) with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel. This effectively defines the special place of Israel a people belonging to YHWH, His own chosen people (cf. verses 7-15).
The importance of the theme of the Israelites as God’s people continues throughout the book of Exodus—indeed, it is an idea that binds the narrative, and the message of the book, together. It will be helpful to explore this literary dynamic by looking at how the theme is presented and developed at several key points of the narrative.
The Plagues and Israel’s Freedom (Exodus 4:19-13:16)
A major section of the book of Exodus narrates the great drama of the plagues on Egypt, and how this divine judgment worked to secure Israel’s freedom and release from bondage. In directing Moses on his return to Egypt, YHWH orders him to go before the Pharaoh demanding the release of the people (4:21-23). The wording of the command Moses is to give to Pharaoh builds upon the central theme of Israel as God’s people (cf. above), but with the added motif of a filial relation—that of a father to his son:
“And you shall say (this) to Pharaoh: ‘So says YHWH: Yisrael (is) my first(born) son. And I say to you, you must send out my son and he will serve me; and (if) you refuse to send him out, (then) see! I (will be) slaying your first(born) son.'” (vv. 22-23)
Israel is not only God’s people, but also, figuratively and collectively, His firstborn (rokB=) son. The idea of Israel as God’s son, or child, is found at a number of points in Old Testament tradition (e.g., Deut 32:5-6, 18-20; Hos 1:10; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 45:11; 64:8; Jer 3:19; 31:8 ). The specific designation of Israel as God’s firstborn is less common, though it is implied in certain passages—cf. Jer 2:3; 3:19; 31:8 , 19 . It is also implicit in the religious concept of the sacredness of the firstborn—as belonging specially to God—and of the principle that Israel is the first, the chosen one, among all the nations (who also could be thought of as His “sons”, but not the “firstborn”). On the consecration of the firstborn (like the firstfruits of the harvest), cf. Exod 22:29; 34:19-20; Lev 27:26; Num 3:40-46ff; 8:16-18; 18:15-17; Deut 12:6, 17; 14:23; 15:19; 21:15-17. On the choosing of Israel among all the other nations, see Deut 14:1-2 (among numerous other passages).
Israel as the firstborn son is particularly important in terms of the Exodus narrative. The entire Plague-narrative cycle is rooted in the climactic moment of the death of the firstborn in Egypt, and this is established already here at the beginning of the narrative in 4:22-23. We can see how carefully the narrative has been constructed, around this key theme, by considering the place of the peculiar episode that follows in 4:24-26. Whatever we make of it in terms of historical tradition (cf. my discussion in the upcoming daily note), its thematic importance is clear enough; note the following points:
- The episode involves Moses’ firstborn son
- YHWH is about to kill the firstborn son
- The blood (from circumcision) protects the child from death
- The importance of the circumcision ritual
All of these motifs prefigure, and are symbolic of, the events surrounding the Passover and the death of the firstborn of Egypt. It may even be said that this thematic juxtaposition of firstborn-circumcision frames the entire narrative (cf. Sarna, p. 24-5):
- Israel as God’s firstborn son (4:22-23)
- Consecration of the firstborn as belonging to God (13:1, 11-15)
When Moses delivers the message to Pharaoh, given to him by YHWH (in 4:21-23, cf. above), it is stated specifically in terms of Israel as God’s people:
“So says YHWH, (the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael: Send out my people [i.e. let them go]…!” (5:1)
This same directive runs like a refrain through the Plague-cycle (7:16; 8:1, 20f; 9:1, 13; 10:3f, etc), accompanied by the conditional statement to the effect that, if Pharaoh does not send away the Israelites, the people of Egypt will be struck by this terrible plague. The formula in 5:1 repeats the key theme from the chapter 3 theophany—that YHWH, the Creator and true God, is the God of Israel, which means that they are his special people and under his protection (according to the covenant-bond). This is explained more clearly in the word of YHWH that comes to Moses in 6:2-9ff. All of the key points from chapter 3 are stated more succinctly here:
- YHWH is to be identified with the Creator °E~l (the “Mighty [One]”), by which name the ancestors of Israel worshiped Him
- He is the same “Mighty One” (God) who established the covenant-bond with Abraham and his descendants
- The covenant bond included the promise that Abraham’s descendants would come to possess the land of Canaan
- This promise, along with the divine protection (for Israel) that is part of the covenant bond, means that YHWH must, and will, deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt
All of this is further summarized forcefully in the declaration by YHWH in verse 6:
“I (am) YHWH, and I will bring you out from under (the heavy load)s (you) bear (from the) Egyptians, and I will snatch you away from (your) service (to) them, and I will redeem you with an arm stretched out and with great (act)s of judgment.”
The affirmation of the covenant follows in vv. 7-8:
“And I will take you to (be the) people for me, and I will be t(he) Mightiest (One) [i.e. God] for you…
And I will bring you (in)to the land, of which I lifted my hand [i.e. in an oath] to give it to Abraham, to Yiƒµaq, and to Ya’aqob, and I will give it to you (as a territorial) possession. (For) I (am) YHWH.”
The Passover (chapter 12)
The release of the Israelites is effectively achieved on the night of the “Passover” celebration, according to the tradition recorded in chapter 12. On that very night, the firstborn of Egypt were slain (by God), while the people of Israel, the firstborn of YHWH, were protected and saved from death. This salvation-aspect is summarized in verses 11-13, which appears to function as an exposition of the meaning of the term js^P# (pesaµ): “it (is) a pesaµ to YHWH” (v. 11). From an objective linguistic and etymological standpoint, the precise meaning of jsp remains uncertain and much debated; however, the narrative would seem to adopt the meaning “pass over”, as a reference to the Messenger of Death “passing over” the homes of the Israelites to strike only the Egyptians. Some commentators would define the fundamental meaning as “protect”, according to the usage, for example, in Isaiah 31:5, as well as other factors; this meaning would also suit the context of the narrative. At the earliest level of the tradition, based on the wording in verse 11, it would seem that js^P# was a technical religious term—that is, a specific kind of offering (perhaps made in gratitude of God for his protection)—the exact meaning of which was lost for later generations, replaced almost completely by its association with the Exodus tradition.
Indeed, the importance of the Passover celebration is indicated by its central place in the religious identity of Israel as God’s people. This is abundantly clear from the detail of the instructions given, regarding the celebration of the ritual, in verses 14-20, 24-27, 43ff (cf. also 13:4ff), and it remains a fundamental component of the religious and cultural identity for Israelites and Jews even today. Perhaps no ritual or religious practice emphasizes the communal aspect—the common bond of a people—the way that the Passover celebration does. From the standpoint of the narrative, the night of the Passover marks the very moment when Israel was freed from bondage in Egypt (vv. 41, 51), emerging as people with a new religious identity and consciousness.
The Event at the Sea (chapters 14-15)
The freedom of the people was not complete until their escape from the Egyptian forces, made possible by the ‘event at the Sea’. According to the accounts—both prose and poetic—in chapters 14-15, along with other notices recorded in Old Testament tradition, this involved a nature-miracle performed by YHWH, by which a great wind blew back the waters of the “Reed Sea”, allowing (or making it easier) for the Israelites to cross. When the Egyptians followed in pursuit, the wind blew the waters back to their original position, thus drowning the Egyptian soldiers and chariotry.
Though it is not so stated in the narrative, this event must be understood in terms of the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel, which involves protection for the people (from their enemies, etc) to be provided by God. It is in the poetic account of 15:1-18, the so-called “Song of the Sea” (sometimes referred to also as the “Song of Moses”), that this covenant-aspect comes more clearly into view, along with the idea of Israel as God’s people. I have discussed the Song in considerable detail in a recent set of daily notes, and will not repeat that here. The first half of the Song (vv. 1-11) deals with the event at the Sea, while the second half (vv. 12-18) describes the effect, or result, of the event—on both the people of Israel and the nations of Canaan. Clearly, the settlement of Israel in the land of Canaan is in view, according to the covenant promise regarding the land (cf. above, on 6:6-8). Just as Israel “crossed over” (vb rb^u*) the Sea to freedom, so, in a similar (symbolic) fashion, will the people “cross over” the Jordan river into the promised land (note the obvious parallel in Joshua 3, along with the apparent allusions to the second half of the Song in Josh 2:9-11).
Here is how this is presented in the refrain of vv. 15-16 of the Song:
“Until your people passed over, YHWH,
until your people whom you created passed over.” (v. 16b)
The temporal preposition (du^, “until”) has a dual meaning: (1) in the context of the miraculous event at the Sea, it refers to the time during which the people crossed, when the power of God kept the Egyptians from being able to act; (2) in the immediate context of the second half of the Song, it refers to the fear and terror that similarly stymies the rulers of Canaan (vv. 15-16a), allowing for the Israelites to enter and settle/conquer the land. On the meaning of the verb hn`q* in the second line, cf. my recent note on vv. 15-16.
The concluding lines of the Song (vv. 17-18, also discussed in a recent note) emphasize even further the special place Israel holds as God’s people. They are to take root in a sacred place where God Himself will dwell—a reference, it would seem, to the Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem, but more fundamentally to the core idea of God dwelling among His people. This theme is developed extensively in the second half of the book of Exodus, focusing particularly on the design and construction of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle). The book closes with the marvelous and beautiful image of the presence of YHWH, in the form of a great theophanous cloud, residing at the Tent-shrine, and in the midst of the Israelite encampment, all throughout their journeys to the promised land (40:34-38).
References above marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).