The Theology of the Book of Exodus: A Reflection on Exodus 12:12

Bernard Ramm  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 20 - Fall 1977

Egyptian Religion

If some understanding is to be gained from the book of Exodus and its doctrine of God, a preliminary look at the religion of the Egyptians is necessary.

A very important question is to ask how much of Egypt and its culture is authentic in Exodus. R. J. Williams has ad­dressed himself to this issue. He sees centuries of close rela­tionships between the Egyptians and the Jews. After surveying in some detail the traces of Egyptian influence in the Old Testament, he concludes as follows:

Due caution must always be observed in assessing claims of direct in­fluence, but the evidence is overwhelming that Israel drank deeply at the wells of Egypt. In a very real sense the Hebrews were “a people come out of Egypt” (Num. xxii, 5, 11).[1]J. Williams, “‘A People Come Out of Egypt,’ An Egyptologist Looks at the Old Testament,” Supplement to Vetus Testamentum, 28 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974 ) : 231-51. My thanks to Dr. Thomas McDaniel, professor of Old Testament at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, for help in matters of bibliography.

A second problem is the nature of Egyptian religion. Over the centuries it was a religion in continuous change. The major outline is clear enough, but we lack for such specific details so that we could describe exactly the nature of Egyptian re­ligion at the time of the Exodus. There was some sort of change in Egyptian religion suggesting a monotheism in what is called the Amarna period. This did occur before the time of the Exodus. But nothing in Exodus reflects anything traceable to the Amama period.[2]Brief histories of Egyptian religion will be found in Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. “Egyptian Religion,” by Eberhard Otto; “The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1962 ed., s.v. “Egypt,” by J. A. Wilson; and Richard Patrick, Egyptian Mythology (London: Octopus Books Limited, 1972).

Still another difficulty with Egyptian religion is the num­ber of gods, their alternate names, and the wide diversities of their functions. Otto has two elaborate charts of the Egyptian gods.[3]Otto, pp. 505, 507. The first chart contains the major gods, and the sec­ond chart does the same for minor deities. The total number of gods in the two charts is forty-two, which surely must be a conservative estimate.

C. J. Bleeker has raised yet another issue about Egyptian religion.[4]C. J. Bleeker, Egyptian Festivals: Studies in the History of Religion, Supplement to Numen, 13 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967).

He does not believe the Egyptians had a theology. Their religion was solely one of priests, temples, and rituals. He reviews a number of authors who tried to extract a theology from Egyptian religion. However, Bleeker does strain our credulity to have us think that Egyptian religion with its priests, rituals, and temples never had any reflective theological thought along with its practices. It may have been a very small part of their religion, but I doubt that man as a thinker (among other things) would be totally blank in mind in the practice of his religion.

The gods permeated the total life of the Egyptians. It re­minds one of the remark about the Roman gods made by Augustine. The Romans had created so many gods around mar­riage and its festival that when the couple retreated to spend their first night alone the room was so full of gods they could not get in!

It was also an idolatrous religion. The Egyptians had a penchant for putting the heads of birds or animals or other creatures on the top of a human torso. Richard Patrick’s book previously referred to (Egyptian Mythology) has some remark­ able colored pictures of such gods. In the pantheon of their gods they had representations of man, of bulls, of birds, of rams, of the sun, of lions, of geese, of ibises, of baboons, of swallows, of kites, of falcons, of jackals, of crocodiles, of vul­tures, of cats, of hippopotamuses, of scorpions, of sparrows, and of sows. The list is not complete, but it does give an adequate representation of the kinds of gods the Egyptians believed in.

It was also a religion of magic. It has been remarked that if the Egyptians had not been so addicted to magic they might have started mankind on the way to science because at the technological level they were such masters.

Finally, there was a passionate belief in the world to come. The evidence is the pyramids but even more so the burial chambers of the kings dug out of solid rock and gloriously embellished and furnished for the transit to the next world and life in that world. This suggests that immortality was only for kings, it there is some opinion that eventually the average man was included among those who made a transit to another world.

The picture of Egyptian religion at this point does seem dismal. However, Helmer Ringgren has reviewed the history of Egyptian religion, dividing his exposition into the chunks of the kingdom divisions in the history of Egypt.[5]Helmer Ringgren, “elohim,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testa­ment, ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974): 267-284.
There is always the debatable point in a polytheism with its representations of gods or images of God, whether it is meant that each god is a special, unique being or whether such idols are but the rich diversity through which the one God expresses himself. It has been suggested that we westerners take the different images of the Egyptian gods too literally, and fail to catch the theological sophistication about gods or God the Egyptians really had.
The Egyp­tians did have some idea of a divinity who was mighty, good, pure, omniscient, and omnipotent. There is also the belief similar to Hindu belief that God is manifest through his many images. But for all that, it was still polytheistic and idolatrous.


The God Who Is the Lord

The first impression one may receive in passing from a re­ view of Egyptian religion to the doctrine of God in the book of Exodus is the glut of materials. For example, there is the famous song of victory recorded in the fifteenth chapter. A substantial exegesis of that passage is worth many pages. Then there are the law materials composed of the Ten Words of the twentieth chapter and the many ordinances of chapters 21-23. From such materials we can calculate backwards to the nature of the God who would issue such laws. That is another huge treatise. Then there is Exodus 34: 1-10, which the rabbis called the “Thirteen Attributes of Yahweh.” That calls for still an­ other treatise! However, we shall do the best we can to say as much as we can in the limits we must work within.[6]In the following pages I am using as my check point the excellent com­mentary on Exodus by Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theo­logical Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1974 ). In 1974 I published a modest little study book on Exodus called His Way Out (Glendale, Calif.: G/L Publications, 1974).

The point of beginning is with Exodus 12:12 which reads as follows in the RSV:

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments. . . .

This is a remarkable verse. It is remarkable in that it suggests that the real contest is between the Lord of Israel and the gods of Egypt! And what a contrast between the pantheon of Egyptian idols and the living Lord of Israel! It is also remark­able in that it is a contest between the Lord of the slaves and the gods of the mighty Pharaoh and his army and his people.   It is also remarkable, for, to our knowledge, it is the first great conflict in history between a belief in the one true God as held by the Israelites and a great nation with a polytheistic and idolatrous religion.

In this connection we cannot but cite Exodus 15:11:

Who is like thee, 0 Lord, among the gods?
Who is like thee, majestic in holiness,
terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders? (RSV)

Certainly the gods in the context of the passage are the Egyptian gods.

In the same line of thought is Exodus 20:3 (“You shall have no other gods before me,” RSV). Traditionally this has been understood as a statement of monotheism, though re­cent opinion is that it is a statement of monolatry. That means the worship of only one God. Hence the verse means that Israel may worship the one and only Lord, the God of Abra­ ham, Isaac, and Jacob. If that is the immediate sense of the text, we do no harm if we look in the later revelation and see that all henotheistic and monolatrous statements are an­ticipations of a strong Hebrew monotheism. At its minimum the verse means that no Israelite can divide his worship be­ tween the Lord of Israel and one or more gods of Egypt.


The Name: Exodus 3:14

In the third chapter (“the burning bush chapter”) the Lord told Moses of the great deliverance of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt, their march to the land of the Patriarchs, and their settlement in the land. Moses knew that to return to Egypt and tell his fellow Israelites this marvelous batch of promises would be some undertaking. The Israelites were bound to ask Moses the name of the God who promised such delirious and glorious things. The concept of the name in Semitic thought is much different from ours. One’s name stood for his entire personality. It was a shorthand summary of the character of the person.

The name the Lord gave to Moses was “I AM WHO I AM” ( 3: 14 ), and the RSV has a note of two alternate trans­lations: “I AM WHAT I AM or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”

Interpreters of the past with a philosophical bent have understood this name to be a declaration of the eternal being of God – God in his unchangeable nature, God as the fullness of being and reality. One could say that they understood the name as a piece of metaphysics.

More recent commentators have felt that such a notion does not fit the context, for a metaphysical definition of God would not be the kind of news that would encourage the Israelites to trust the promises told to them by Moses. Further, the etymology of the name suggests something different. Let me give an expanded paraphrase of the text as I understand it:

Yes the Israelites will want to know what kind of God makes these kinds of promises. They want to know if the God who makes such promises can really fulfill them. Giving the Israelites some sort of traditional name for deity will not really set their hearts at rest. You must then tell them that I am a God who continuously acts in the history of Israel. I was the one speaking to the Patriarchs and directing their lives towards my future purposes for the redemption of the world. I am now appearing to you so you must not thing of me boxed into patriarchal history. But I am also the God of the future. After Israel is redeemed out of Egypt, kept by my providence for food and water, protected by my power from her enemies, delivering to her my great Law, and prescribing a beautiful sanctuary for my worship, then they will know what kind id a God I am.

Childs reason that whether the expression be translated as “I AM” or in the future tense, “I WILL BE,” the sense is the same.[7]Childs, p. 88. God is not known in a philosophical way. God is not described properly by resort to metaphysical categories. Rather, he is known by the revelation he makes to the Israelites and in the manner in which he participates in their history. The implications of this verse for the biblical understanding of the existence and nature of God are immense, but we must forego any further discussion.

One of the most debated verses in Exodus is 6:3, in which God says that he was known to the Patriarchs by the name of Elohim but not Yahweh. The debate has been too academic. What is being said by God is that the lsraelites would under­stand the meaning of Yahweh in their experiences in a richness, a fullness, and a specificity hitherto hidden. And so it is! In a sense the most remarkable element of the knowledge of God in Exodus is the manner in which God as Yahweh permeates the entire book. In our opinion no Old Testamet Scholar has shown the meaning of Yahweh m such great detail, insight, imagination, and with some breath-taking exegesis as Kornelis H. Miskotte.[8]Kornelis H. Miskotte. When the Gods Are Silent (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).


The Attributes of God

As suggested at the beginning of this article, the material on the knowledge of God in Exodus is really a glut. So we must resort to a condensed schema to get much of this material out into the open.

If we think of the “natural attributes” of God, certainly the Lord comes through as the God who is omnipotent, omnis­cient, and omnipresent. That the Lord knows all things (anthropomorphically stated by such expressions as “I have seen. . .” or “I have heard . . .”) is evident in the text. That the Lord is all powerful is seen in the events of the plagues and the providential care of Israel in her journeys. And that he is omnipresent is the implication of his continuously being with Moses and the Israelites.

The second classification theologians have used to discuss the attributes of God is under the category of spiritual or personal attributes. Exodus is very rich with this kind of ma­terial.

(1) God is compassionate. This is seen in his remarks about knowing the misery of the Israelites in bondage and hearing their groanings and the promise that Israel shall be delivered from this iron furnace. In the many ordinances given to Israel one speaks about the conditions under which a debt was to be administered. If a man had another man’s coat for security, he had to return it by night time so the owner would not be cold. In this connection we have 22: 27: “And if he cries to me [i.e., the man without his garment], I will hear, for I am compassionate.” Other expressions of divine compas­sion may be found in 2:24-25; 3:7,9; and 4:31.

(2) God is numinous, wondrous, awe-inspiring, and glori­ous. In this connection there is the suggestion that God is also a God of beauty, for in 33:18 Moses asked the Lord if he might see his glory. God said that he would reveal his tov to Moses. Tov is a word which usually means goodness, but in some instances in the Old Testament it may mean beauty. In the passages which speak of the pillar of fire and the glory of the Lord and the descent of this glory into the completed taber­nacle, we see quite clearly the numinous and glorious nature of God.

(3) The Lord is a Lord of holiness. This is clearly ex­ pressed in the ethical aspect of the body of law material in Exodus 20-23. As a God of holiness, he is therefore a God of wrath (4:14; 32:11), for in Scripture the wrath of God is God’s natural and necessary response to sin and evil. It is not divine petulancy as so many modern theologians misconstrue the wrath of God. From this it follows that God is a God of judg­ment (12:12; cf . 3:20). It has been said that the unique con­tribution of Israel to mankind’s concept of God was to make it imperative that God be understood as a God of holiness and morality.

(4) God is a sovereign God (9:12; 15:18). No other God but a sovereign God could do all the things the Lord of Israel does in the whole stretch of the book of Exodus.

(5) God is a Spirit, or God is spiritual (20:4-6). This text deals with idolatry. Because God is not only Creator but also a Spirit, there is nothing in creation that may stand or him. The invisible God is not capable of visual representation.

(6) God is personal. This emerges clearly from the text when the Lord spoke to Moses and called him by name (3:4). No cosmic force or cosmic process could speak a man’s name. Granted, some theologians would prefer to say that God is at least personal in order to combat charges against Christianity that God cannot be God, as we understand the meaning of the term and still be personal. Barth has made a remark some­ thing to ‘the effect that Scripture nowhere affirms that God is personal but everywhere assumes it.

We may now tum to another set of affirmations about God in Exodus which are not so readily assumed under God’s nat­ural and spiritual attributes.

(1) God is a God of revelation. He appeared and spoke to Moses repeatedly. The special little tent which Joshua guarded appears to have functioned as h place in which God would reveal his will (33:7-11). The giving of the law as re­corded in Exodus 19-20 certainly comes through as an event of divine revelation. The concept appears in other texts such as Exodus 3: 16;  4: 15, 21; and 6:29.

(2) He is a God of prayer (5:22-6:1). It has been said that the key to any theologian’s theology is his doctrine of prayer. A concept of God which excluded petitionary prayer would not be recognized by either Israel or the Church. Prayer is woven deeply in our personal relationship with God and is the human, spiritual, responsible, and glorious pnv1lege of the doctrine of divine providence.

(3) The Lord is a God of miracles (4: 1-9, 20; 3:20, and numerous other passages ) . Some commentators deny outright that miracles are ever wrought by God. A recent, more sophis­ticated version of the miraculous in Exodus is that the faith of Israelites (or the writers of its literature) saw the miraculous in the ordinary event. For example, the flooding of the Nile with a great number of red algae in the water that gave it a blood-like appearance was an ordinary experience for the Egyptians. However, to the eyes of faith of Moses (or who­ever), it was a manifestation of the activity of God to put more pressure on Pharaoh to let Israel go. This is too transparent a device to have one’s cake and eat it, too, or in another idiom, to maintain strongly that God is at work in Egypt and Israel (theology) but at the same time to insist that nothing super­ natural in the traditional sense really occurred (naturalism). It may be a way out for a modern sophisticated Old Testament scholar, but it is highly questionable that such transformation of events “by the eyes of faith” was really of such power to affect the minds of the Israelites. It is questionable if a modern logician would accept such a modern device to affirm great theology and deny it a genuine, supernatural historical root.

(4) The Lord is a God who becomes truly known. The event of revelation must also result in an event of knowledge in the Israelite. Hence that God reveals himself has as its counterpart that God is truly known (7:17; 10:2; 16:12). We recognize here the dictum of the theology of the Reformation that faith is not only trust and assent but also notitia or knowledge. Or, in Augustine’s language, Christianity grants the believer sapientia (knowledge of the wisdom of life), which is different from scientia, or the knowledge of human, earthly­ and necessary-knowledge.

(5) The Lord is also a God of redemption (12-14; 17:3; 19:4; 20:2). I made a special reading of the Old Testament to see what the leverage was for the prophets to command and expect obedience from the Israelites when the prophet gave the Word of Yahweh. Three such appeals stood out. First, creation of the world by God was leverage against idolatry; secondly, the call of Abraham began their career as an elect people, and the Israelites were expected to live up to the honor of being heirs of Abraham; and the third was the Exodus experience of redemption. Ezra’s great prayer in Nehemiah 9 contains all three. By far the majority of references are to the Exodus event of redemption. Space fails us, but in more than one New Testament text we have reference to the Exodus event as the analogue to redemption in Christ (cf . 1 Cor. 5:7, and consult a concordance on the term “passover” as used in the New Testament).

(6) The Lord of Israel is a God of providence (13:21-22). Actually the providential care of Israel by God from the land of Egypt to Mount Sinai is the fulfillment of the promise of Exodus 3:14 that God would be known in the events from the passover experience until the descent of the glory of God into the tabernacle in Exodus 40:34-38. The supply of food (quails and manna), the supply of water at critical points, and the endurance of the clothes of the Israelites are all evidences of divine providence. It certainly would be a cruel state of affairs if God had so redeemed Israel but turned over the rest of her history to her own powers and devices. Theologian who deny such active providence in order to keep peace with modern science, or more accurately with their contemporary skeptics of such events, may in their minds have achieved peace with modern knowledge; but they seldom reckon with the other perspective, that to redeem a people and deny them the Lord s providential care is a cruel stance to take.

(7) He is a God of healing (15:26). This assertion seems to be an odd appearance in the text. However, I think the context illuminates what is meant. The Lord is making the point to Israel that being redeemed from Egypt does not mean that there are no moral or spiritual demands that she must obey. There is no redemption without morality, just as there is no faith without repentance. The diseases in the text appar­ently refer to the Ten Plagues. No such plagues will ever de­scend upon a faithful Israel, but a faithless Israel may expect the judgments of God.

(8) He is the God of the incarnation (cf . Exodus 40). Of course I use the term metaphorically. The Lord did tell Moses that the purpose of the tabernacle was that “I [Yahweh] may dwell in their midst” (25: 8 RSV). Even stronger is Exodus 29:45-46:

And I will dwell among the people of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them forth out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God (RSV).

(9) The Lord is a Lord of chesed. Chesed is generally translated as “loving kindness.” However, a great deal of re­search has gone into this word.[9]The basic study of chesed was made by Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1967). The original edition was published in 1927, but in this later edition Gerald Larue brings the study of chesed up to date. A condensed more popular study of the word will be found in the article by Nonnan Snaith in Alan Richardson, ed., A Theological Word Book of the Bible (New York: Macmillan Co., 1903), pp. 136-37. It is a very rich concept. It may mean love, but it is much more than that. There is no Greek word nor English word which is any kind of approxima­tion to the word. In simplest definition it is the steadfast, conventional love of God for Israel. Granted, in other contexts its meaning may shift. But with reference to Israel’s relationship to God it has this positive meaning. Hence, it sums up into one word the concepts of love, mercy, forgiveness, pa­tience, and fidelity.

And how else can Israel exist as God’s people or the church as God’s people in the New Testament, or you and I as Chris­tians? The closest word we have to it in the Greek language is agape (divine, sacrificial love), and some Old Testament scholars use the word shalom (“peace”) as a synonym of or at least as a close approximation to chesed.


Be Way of Summary

(1) The concept of God in Exodus can now be understood in a remarkable new way, thanks to the amount of research which scholars have done in working out the details of Egyp­tian rebellion and its gods. The biblical concept of God stands forth with a remarkable new clarity and distance from poly­theism and idolatry.

(2) The most critical name of God in Exodus is Yahweh (or spelled with the consonants only, YHWH). Again, Old Testament scholars have done much research to show the riches of the theological content in that name.

(3) Time and again the book of Exodus makes the point that the true knowledge of , and by implication, the true ex­perience of God is learned in the activity of God from the first to the last chapter. This stands in remarkable contrast to both Greek and Christian philosophical speculations about God.

(4) When detailed out as we have attempted to so do in these brief pages, a very rich and diverse concept of God emerges, which in many ways contrasts with the limited materials we have in Genesis about the nature of God.[10]The reader will note that we have not done justice to two notions We have not gone into the various names for God and their roots. This is specialized for Old Testament scholars. Nor have we said much about the New Testament. Brevard Child’s commentary on Exodus is unique for having a section on the New Testament relevance of a text in each section of his commentary. We commend those passages to the readers who would wish to know how the New Testament may be connected.


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