Evidence of Deliberate Literary Structure in the Book of Exodus

There is a clear literary structure to the Book of Exodus. It runs far deeper than just the bare outline of the tale, opening with the enslaved Israelites being forced to build pyramids for Pharaoh and ending with them liberated, voluntarily constructing a tabernacle for God. The details of the plot, and the very choice of vocabulary itself indicates a deliberate contrast between the first and second halves of the book.

We would expect a transformation in the character both of Moses and Israelites as the narrative progresses from slavery to freedom. The evidence for literary structure is in the way the transformed characters are enhanced images of their earlier selves. Compare Moses the baby, abandoned in the bulrushes, alone and without sustenance, vulnerable to both Pharaoh and nature, with Moses the sage, alone on the mountain, forty days without food and water.  Physically invulnerable, his fear now is not the Egyptians but the Almighty.

Or contrast the Moses who slays an Egyptian, quarrels with his fellow Hebrews and feels the need to flee, with the Moses who, on descending from the mountain and seeing the Golden Calf, rebukes the Hebrews and gives orders to slay the offenders. Or again, compare Moses the shepherd who shrinks from God’s command at the burning bush, with Moses the leader of people who speaks back to God and has the chutzpah to ask to see his face.

As for the Hebrews, the Torah dwells at length on the rigours of their slavery but dismisses, in just half a sentence, their task of building Pitom and Rameses, Pharaoh’s two treasure cities.  Yet when it comes to its description of the building of the Tabernacle, in place of slavery we twice have the injunction to rest, to keep Shabbat. As for their task, the Torah dedicates no less than thirteen chapters to the construction of the building, its furnishings and ritual appurtenances; repeating the details twice. In both slavery and freedom their tasks were to construct edifices, but it is the contrast between their descriptions that points to deliberate literary structure.

When they were slaves, the Hebrews were forced to go into the fields to gather straw to make bricks to build Pharaoh’s cities, when they built the Tabernacle they donated the materials voluntarily. The culmination of the flight to freedom is recounted as a mirror image of the story of servitude.

We see a similar transformation in the words the Torah selects to tell its tale. As slaves, the people are referred to as Hebrews, as free people they are the Children of Israel. The word Hebrews is a loose epithet, meaning something akin to ‘the people from over there’. Children of Israel on the other hand is an acknowledgement of their ancestry and status.

At the Burning Bush Moses is told to gather the Hebrews and announce the redemption. The word used for to gather is asf, which has the sense of rounding up or collecting. But when he gathers them prior to building the tabernacle, the verb used is khl with its the sense of congregating. He now calls them adt, a congregation, previously they were just ‘my people’. From a disparate group of slaves they have become a unitary nation.

God’s instructions to the enslaved Hebrews are conveyed through the word pkd, a term which appeals to their emotions, conveying a direct, personal sense of remembering or visiting. When they are free their emotional dependence on God is transformed into one of obligation; now the word used is tzvh, or command.

There is much more. The genius of the Bible is that it does not only convey its messages through grand ideas and sweeping statements. Its meaning can also be found in the details and nuances of the individual words. In several places the Talmud speaks of God decorating the letters of the Torah with crowns; jots and tittles as the Christian Bible calls them. Rabbi Akiva would expound even these decorations. The Bible operates on many levels. Jots and tittles are one. Literary structure is just one.


© 2020 Harry Freedman Books