Risks in Reading for the Art of Biblical Narrative

Poetry is a dangerous game-by-whitefeatherGraham has recently written a couple of posts (here and here) on Alter’s seminal work, “The Art of Biblical Narrative”. The “New Literary Criticism” movement is not new any more although it certainly retains its exciting lustre for Bible students. This is true because the literary movement (the “new” one anyway, as opposed to the old “redaction critical” type of “literary movement”, in case any nerds were wondering) has a number of great strengths over its predecessors.

First, I love the fact that we are encouraged to view texts as a whole, assuming the author/editors were not idiots and were constructing something coherent. I love the fact that discernible shifts that would previously have caused scholarship to break texts apart now inspire attention to why they would have been brought together and how they build on one another.

Second, because the shift (especially in Old Testament studies) has been from a “looking through the text at the period in which it was written” kind of approach to an analysis of the text itself, I appreciate the new focus. Now the text is at the forefront. This is great news for people who think the Bible is living and active and suitable for training in all righteousness. It great news for people who think Scripture is God’s Word and has something to say to us today.

Third, studying the Bible does not have to be an obscure scholarly discipline dependent on thorough knowledge of original languages, etymology and some strongly held opinions on historical reconstructions that are mostly best guesses. It is something anyone can do because much of what should be gleaned from a narrative can be gleaned in a secondary language. It’s like the reformation or the translation of the Bible into English that saw the lay person empowered to interpret Scripture for him/herself. Of course it comes with its own set of problems but they’re a better set of problems than the alternative. One thing to note is that this is less and less the case as literary techniques are carried over and the field once again becomes filled with jargon and defined methodologies not apparent to the lay person. Nevertheless, pointing someone to the text and saying, “read it and try to make sense of why it was written” is not a bad start and it’s encouraged by the literary movement.

There are, however, two dangers associated with literary techniques. If you’ve read this far, you should check out Longman’s article, “The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls” which I have found valuable to my own thinking and has been formative in my thinking on the subject. The critiques I’m raising are not ground breaking nor are they necessarily the most significant. They are simply the concerns that are at the forefront of my mind and are simply raised to contribute to the discussion Graham has started.

1. Loss of Grounding in History

Well GroundedI think the most disturbing trend in literary readings is the willingness to abandon external objectivity. If all that matters is the text and its effect on me today, then reference to anything historical loses significance. One of the most disturbing features of The Art of Biblical Narrative is Alter’s dismissal of David’s historicity. As far as Alter is concerned, there was perhaps a king named David but all that stuff about giant slaying (and most of the rest of his life actually) is myth built up around him so that Israel have something in their history to be proud of.

Alter’s perceptive observation of type-scenes, while insightful, results in a further severing of text from history. Now every time we find a meeting at a well we know that we are not reading actual occurrences, it’s just the “ol’ hookup at the well scene” – the Hebrew idiom for engagement. To be honest, this doesn’t seem like much to lose – and it’s not if the well scene is just the Hebrew idiom for engagement – in fact it’s a superior reading, but only if we are right that an account couched in historical setting is really idiomatic. The advantage is that we realise how often historical grounding doesn’t matter much (and so we don’t have to fight to the death over how many years the Judges period covers, for example) but the danger is that we similarly don’t worry when it does. The question is, are we losing something if we read the stories of David as ahistorical? It’s a question that I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time but not one I think is anywhere near being solved.

Down The Rabbit HoleNevertheless, in his article, Longman (1985:394) quotes Frye, “The Bible possesses literary qualities but is not itself reducible to a work of literature.” This seems an important corrective. As we venture down the literary rabbit hole – often in flight from historical-critical methodologies – we need not (perhaps, we must not?) let go of history. In their major contribution to the subject Provan, Long and Longman (2003:81) write, “The ahistorical path is a dead end. Where biblical texts make historical truth claims, ahistorical readings are perforce misreadings – which remains the case, whatever one’s opinions may be regarding the truth value of those claims.”

If in our quest for literary readings, we gain textual unity and prominence but lose its historical roots I think the quest will, in the end, have been futile.

2. Loss of Stability in Interpretation

JengaLongman’s (1985:391) fourth concern is “the danger of moving completely away from any concept of authorial intent and determinant of meaning of a text.” In recent years the idea of textual meaning outside of its reader has been radically challenged. In “Narrative in the Hebrew Bible”, Gunn and Fewell’s follow up to Alter’s “Art of Biblical Narrative”, we find one of the more eloquent defences of reader response interpretation. We read (1993:xi), “Most significant, however, it differs from all these books in its hermeneutical assumptions. Unlike the others … our book understands interpretation to hinge crucially upon the reader, and not just in terms of a reader’s ‘competence’. Meaning is not something out there in the text waiting to be discovered. Meaning is always, in the last analysis, the reader’s creation, and readers, like texts, come in an infinite variety.”

To be fair, my experience of Gunn and Fewell has been that they are pretty responsible. The point is that when the author’s stabilising influence is lost, the stabilising influence of the text is lost for the same reasons. In the end, the many and varied interpretations of the reader(s) are all that is left. This means that there is no stability to meaning. Whether or not this matters is the topic for another oversized post, I’m going to assume that it is.

An example of this was given in a recent Christianity Today article about the Bible and Technology,

Bible tech has provided personal epiphanies, such as when he [Evans] learned the Hebrew word for bread, lehem. “Lehem is bread! Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’! Jesus is the Bread of Life! Hebrew is magic!” But the same software that draws such connections also taught him to think more skeptically—even about the very connections that got him so excited, Evans said. “What we’re doing here makes it very easy to run with theological scissors.” The tools can be used, to use an example several people referenced, to develop an intense numerological theory about the significance of the 153 fish caught in John 21. It’s kind of a throwback to the early church, when preachers loved pontificating on repeated words, images, and numbers in disparate biblical books. But database-driven interactive text seems to especially encourage this kind of reading, where one simple mouse click pulls up thousands of pages of cross-references and commentary on each word. It’s an awful lot like 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, where Nobel laureate John Nash is able to see real patterns no one else had seen—but also sees patterns that don’t really exist.

In his small masterpiece, Exegetical Fallacies (an absolute must read), Carson speaks of “Verbal Parallelomania” in which the “bare phenomena” of verbal parallels are said to “demonstrate conceptual links or even dependency” (2nd Ed. pg43). Carson is particularly critical of these parallels when they are found in extra-biblical literature (à la Babylonian creation myths?).

It is remarkably easy to find parallels (in fact Carson speaks of “conceptual parallelomania” later in Exegetical Fallacies as yet another way of finding dubious parallels) especially with the power of Google on your side. In the era of literary readings, it is difficult to critique the abundance of parallels that can be discovered because those parallels are discovered by the reader and, for better or worse, the reader has become the hermeneutical pivot around whom meaning revolves. Maybe it’s just that I’m a stodgy conservative but that is a bit of a problem for me. Carson noted that of the 300ish parallels found by Bultmann and Dodd in the prologue of John there was only a 7% overlap.

Running with ScissorsThis is not to say that parallels never exist and certainly not that they never matter. It is, however, a caution to this author. I have often found myself making the argument “the writer of this passage of Scripture has the entire corpus of biblical literature memorised, so of course when he says this similar sounding thing he has in mind that primary idea which he is extending”. It is very easy, by means of methodologies introduced by the new literary criticism, to introduce radical instability into textual exegesis or to, “run with theological scissors”.


The loss of history and the loss of stability in meaning are not inevitabilities in literary readings but they are both pitfalls into which literary critics have already fallen. In our era it is in vogue to be a sceptic but I am confident that as the philosophical tides change we will look like real plonkers if we are found to have succumbed to absolute relativism, having detached everything from anything. In the process of investing our time and energy into the new literary criticism which, as has been seen, promises much fruit, we must coordinate our text with history and we must not descend into a myriad of meanings that leave us in a sea of meaninglessness waiting and hoping the tide will carry us back to land.

Readings Cited

Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. 1996.

Longman, The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls JETS 28:4 pp. 385-398.

Provan, Long, & Longman, A Biblical History of Israel.  2003.

Yee, The author/text/reader and power: suggestions for a critical framework for biblical studies eds. M. A. Tolbert, F. F. Segovia – pg109-118.


More from Robert Alter: Theological Observations

The art of biblical narrativeI recently posted some gleanings from The Art of Biblical narrative by Robert Alter, highlighting his convincing exhibition of a literary approach to Old Testament narratives and a selection of his critical engagement with modern textual criticism. In this post, I am going to briefly relate some of the helpful conclusions Alter reaches with regards to Old Testament theology. And to keep this post from being nothing more than a compendium of quotes, I have tried to supplement and develop the author’s thoughts with others’. In brief, we will cover an aspect of God’s nature, the human condition, an intersection of divine will and human failure, and the need for faith.

(1) Yahweh is not manipulated. After working through Numbers 22-24, in which Balak, the fearful king of Moab, hires the pagan prophet Balaam to curse Israel, Alter concludes: “Paganism, with its notion that divine powers can be manipulated by a caste of professionals through a set of carefully prescribed procedures is trapped in the reflexes of a mechanistic worldview while from the biblical perspective reality is in fact controlled by the will of an omnipotent God beyond all human manipulation” (p134). Yahweh is omnipotent. He is neither conquered nor controlled. That was the unavoidable conclusion reached and application made when I preached 1 Samuel 5-7, when the Philistines capture the Ark. First, Israel thought that carrying the Ark to battle would thwart the Philistines (4:3-4), only to learn Yahweh is not controlled as they are defeated (4:10-11). Secondly, the triumphant Philistines set up the Ark in the house of their God, Dagon (5:1-2), signifying they had conquered Yahweh. But as the story unfolds the Ark is passed from town to town with alacrity for Yahweh’s hand is heavy against his enemies (see 5:6, 7, 9, 11; 6:3, 5). The reader thus observes how both the Israelites and the Philistines misunderstood Yahweh’s omnipotence. As Alter says, Yahweh is beyond all human manipulation. To quote D.A. Carson, in The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God: “He is unchanging in his being, purposes and perfections.”

Wood carving - Joseph(2) Old Testament anthropology. Because the dominant communicative vehicle of Old Testament stories is dialogue and narrative we are not privileged to introspection and the thoughts behind characters’ actions, characterisation is difficult and quite often unclear. For as Alter says: acts are performed and words are pronounced. That being said, he convincingly shows how Hebrew narrative provides fine insight into the abiding perplexities of man’s creaturely condition (p220). In my previous post I highlighted one of Alter’s more novel points; he argues that whoever gave shape to the integrated Hebrew text may have chosen to combine different versions that on the surface appear contradictory but actually reveal something conflicted about his subject (p181). He models this in his brief commentary on the story of the patriarch Joseph and summates, “the Bible brings us into an inner zone of complex knowledge about human nature, divine intentions, and the strong but sometimes confusing threads that bind the two” (p219; more of this below). Wonderfully worded, he describes mankind’s inner turmoil, “Humankind is the divinely appointed master of creation and an internally divided rebel against the divine scheme, destined to scrabble a painful living from the soil that has been blighted because of man” (p183). The lives of God’s people repeatedly bring out this conflict, within each person and before Yahweh.

(3) Yahweh’s election and human failings. Flowing from the above point to the intersection the omnipotent God and his rebellious creatures, “One of the most probing general perceptions of the biblical writers is that there is often a tension, sometimes perhaps even an absolute contradiction, between election and moral character” (p147). In contrast with competing ideas in the ancient world, the Hebrew conception of man as free in God’s image is fairly unique; God affords his creatures great dignity in placing them as viceroys over his world. Only, as we know, man uses his freedom to rebel against the divine will, which would suggest a irreparable breakdown between creature and Creator, as well as an unworkable incongruence of interest. For man is not only free and rebellious, but even the elect are morally imperfect and worryingly ambiguous characters. Yet, Alter writes, “The human figures in the large biblical landscape act as free agents out of the impulses of a memorable and often fiercely assertive individuality but the actions they perform all ultimately fall into the symmetries and recurrences of God’s comprehensive design” (p141). This point is picked up by Michael Horton in Introducing Covenant Theology, “[Abraham and David’s] personal mistakes (amply recorded) are incapable of thwarting God’s purposes”, not only because of Yahweh’s omnipotence but also because by his unilateral and unconditional promises. Though God’s elect often exhibit questionable morality, inconsistent with their call, neither their status nor God’s electing purposes are endangered by the failure of God’s people.

Faith and vapour(4) Man must live before God. The biblical narratives, properly read, “tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history” (p235). We read in Ecclesiastes that life is a vapour, impossible to grasp and uncontrollably transient, always slipping through our hands. It is in these snatched lifetimes that, “Every human agent must be allowed the freedom to struggle with his or her destiny through his or her own words and acts” (p109). Every individual, “in the evanescence of a single lifetime” must untangle the twisted and knotted fibres of “intentions, emotions, and calculations” that constitute our human personality (p110). Alter thinks that the power and enduring appeal of biblical narrative is the translation of this human experience into story, dialogue and event, “Almost the whole range of biblical narrative…embodies the basic perception that man must live before God, in the transforming medium of time, incessantly and perplexingly in relation with others” (p24). The answer that the Old Testament narratives supply, to how we might live in this unstable and ambiguous world, is starkly ingenuous: faith.

Rediscovering the Art of Biblical Narrative

Art of biblical narrative revised and updated“Religious tradition has by and large encouraged us to take the Bible seriously rather than enjoy it, but the paradoxical truth of the matter may well be that by learning to enjoy the biblical stories more fully as stories, we shall also come to see more clearly what they mean to tell us about God, man, and the perilously momentous realm of history” (p235). So ends Robert Alter’s seminal contribution to biblical literary criticism, The Art of Biblical Narrative. Since finishing Alter’s masterpiece last year I have wanted to highlight a selection of invaluable points he makes with regards to how we: read biblical narrative; navigate and answer theories of textual criticism; and fully appreciate the Old Testament’s rich theology.

1. A unified and sacred text

Alter’s approach to the Hebrew text treats it as “an intricately interconnected unity” rather than a patchwork of disparate documents (p11). It is tragically ironic that Robert Alter’s view of the Old Testament is higher than much modern Christian scholarship. Modern criticism has not only undermined Scripture’s cohesion but also blinded us to, “the manifold varieties of minutely discriminating attentions…the artful use of language…shifting play of ideas, conventions, tone, sound, imagery, syntax, narrative viewpoint, compositional units, and much else” (p13). For it has caused us to ask, not what the text has to teach us but rather, what these literary phenomena reveal about the history and formation of the text.

You might agree that Alter is right in pointing us to the minutiae as literary mechanisms, yet feel that modern criticism provides the only explanation for the glaring discontinuities, duplications and contradictions in the biblical text. But Alter argues that in order to reach “the fullness of statement they aspired to achieve as writers,” at times they violated what was later decided constitutes a canon of unity and logical coherence (p165), our assumptions regarding literary unity. And a littler later, he adds that we must recognise that “the Hebrew writer might conceivably have known what he was doing” while we do not (p169). What we construe as editorial error may very well be included for a literary function within a carefully crafted narrative, of “composite artistry.”

Blake - Garden of EdenAlthough Alter does not subscribe to the traditional Christian view of inspiration, he does hold revelation and the Hebrew text closely together saying, “With language God creates the world; through language He reveals His design in history to men” (p140). Alter sees this as the underlying assumption of biblical narrative: economically selected and specifically arranged language that does not merely convey the narrative events but serves as an integral and dynamic component in God’s intermittent self-disclosure and frequent non-disclosure. In summary, Alter views the biblical text as a divinely inspired vehicle, in the form of narrative, which addresses and confronts the reader. Modern criticism too often tends towards viewing the Bible as a rudimentary and careless collection of disparate texts, shoddily edited, whose only value in study is the development that led us to the final, albeit rough, product.

2. Critique of modern textual criticism

I have touched on textual criticism generally and will offer some of Alter’s more specific and smarting critiques. Christians and Jews have long regarded the Old Testament as a unitary source of divinely revealed truth, this was, however, before the advent of modern biblical criticism. Now, neither Alter nor myself advocate for some sort of ‘chronological snobbery’ when viewing the Scriptures, but Alter does highlight how the modern view, which readily assaults the idea of a unified text, often fails to consider the Bible with any literary interest (p17). Literary criticism suggests that sources are less important than the artistic and composite whole (p21). And I tend to agree since so much criticism is conjecture, whereas literary criticism looks at the text in its final form for answers.

2.i Source criticism

Alter points out how source criticism seeks to break the Bible into its constituent sources and link those pieces to original life contexts. The first problem with this approach is that a psalm is studied in terms of its hypothetical use at a point of Israel’s history rather than treated as an accomplished piece of poetry. Secondly, source criticism attributes repetition in the Hebrew text to a duplication of sources rather than effective and deliberate literary artistry (p218). When we fail to consider the Bible as literature we run the risk of inventing groundless hypotheses and losing sight of the biblical narrative’s power (p19).

2.ii Redaction criticism

Santa Maria Maggiore“Redaction criticism,” writes Alter, views the Old Testament with a kind of “modern parochialism,” which condescendingly preconceives the ancient text (along with its editors) as simple, because it differs in so many respects to modern works (p23). Alter challenges us to escape the modern provincialism that assumes ‘ancient’ means crude and says we would do well to consider the possibility that whoever gave shape to the integrated text chose to combine versions, perhaps even demonstrating something about his subject with style or content that appears contradictory (p181). Literary criticism, on the other hand, compels the reader to recognise the complexity and subtlety with which it was formally and consciously organised, as artful discourse. What the modern reader might consider contradictory, based on the assumption that the ancient Hebrew writer or editor was inept and unperceptive, may simply have been viewed as superficial in the editorial process; or, as I have repeatedly emphasised, deliberate (p172).

2.iii Postmodernism

Finally, for now, Alter dismisses the postmodern panoply, death of authorial intent, and the rise of reader response. He does not presume to supply a fixed and absolute meaning for any literary text and we would be wise to assent, since narratives are nuanced and elusive in their meaning depending on who is reading them. Yet Alter rejects the contemporary agnosticism about all literary meaning in favour of considering a range of intended meanings (p222). These meanings are anchored in the unified and carefully written, arranged and edited Old Testament Scripture.

Exodus: The Journey of God

David Roberts - Israelites leaving EgyptIn his magnificent work on the Pentateuch, The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter notes that the reader experiences a distancing from God in the book of Exodus. He argues there is a regression as we move from Genesis for, “God in Exodus has become essentially unseeable, overpowering, and awesomely refulgent” (p301). God has become an ungraspable mystery and the salient aspects of the divine character emerge as sheer power, supremacy and implacability against those who would thwart him (p302). When I wrote this paper at college my aim was to demonstrate that Alter, despite being one of the most outstanding narrative critics alive, is mistaken at this point. I will argue that the presence of God is in fact the central theme developed in Exodus. Terence Fretheim, in his Interpretation commentary, offers a contrary tale to Alter’s, which I am convinced is told in Exodus: “the journey of God.” Fretheim’s thesis can be summarised like this: Exodus advances from an oppressive situation in which God’s presence is hardly noted to Yahweh’s filling the scene at the completion of the tabernacle. Moving through the narrative, we see God moving towards his people, culminating with his glorious presence at the tabernacle.

The problem is Exodus’ complex genre, for while it possesses a narrative framework its latter half is dominated by voluminous laws, liturgical practises and vast architectural details. In order to make sense of these elements, which appear irrelevant to the modern reader, we must maintin a narrative framework. If Fretheim is right, we can understand these aspects as contributing to the overall destination of the book, rich communion between Yahweh and his chosen people. So with the hope of placing and interpreting all the events and elements of Exodus, we turn to the book and ask if Fretheim’s “journey of God” is really the key theme in Exodus.

Exodus 1-18: Liberation from slavery through salvation for service

Red Sea CrossingAs we set off in Exodus we meet Israel, who are experiencing staggering posterity despite their suffering and oppression in a foreign land; this is by God’s preservation and faithfulness to the patriarchal promises. Thus the promises made by God to Abraham must also be kept clearly in view, for they are interwoven into Exodus. But Israel’s situation in Egypt does not square with the promises and while they languish under oppression it seems as though God is absent or disinterested with his people. But as we move through the first half of Exodus we cannot deny the narrative’s momentum tends steadily toward Israel’s establishment as God’s nation at Sinai. Yahweh determines to free them from their enforced ‘service’ of Pharaoh for ‘service’ of Yahweh (the same Hebrew word is found in 1:13-14 and 3:12). Fretheim picks up on this arc, slavery to worship, stating it reveals the central theme of the narrative (p20). While Israel longs for political liberation, what Yahweh desires for his people is liberation for worship and service. Yahweh’s personal disclosure to Moses, which finds its terminus in revelation to the nation at Sinai, is paramount to his desire for genuine relationship.

Beyond hearing their cry and remembering his covenant with them (Exodus 2:23-24), Yahweh knew their suffering (2:25; 3:7), and came down (3:8). Yahweh reveals his name, history and purposes to Moses – before achieving their liberation – and this suggests that Yahweh is coming nearer. Obviously the presence of Yahweh is predominantly mediated by Moses. Once Yahweh has liberated Israel, defeated Pharaoh they leave Egypt being led by Yahweh (Exodus 13:18, 22). And this presence, which finally destroys Pharaoh at the Red Sea crossing, is celebrated in song (Exodus 15). Note that Moses’ song climaxes with the hope of establishment on Yahweh’s “own mountain”, not Canaan (Exodus 15:17-18). Israel celebrates Yahweh’s powerful presence with them to save; and the promise of an even greater presence, denoting rest in the future. Israel then set off on three months in the wildness. Here freedom from Egypt and their new obligations are realised and Moses’ leadership is further authenticated. Before moving on we should notice the often overlooked promise from Jethro in Exodus 18:20, 23. Following his own calling on Yahweh’s name he assures them that Yahweh will be with them. Moses is also released from seeing to smaller matters so that he can continue as Yahweh’s mediator, bringing Israel closer to the presence of God.

If the theme that drives Exodus is the forging of the relationship between Yahweh and his people, then Exodus 1-18 essentially traces the beginning of this relationship. He reveals himself personally to them, defeats their enemy, leads them through the wilderness while providing for them, and preserves Moses as their mediator.

Exodus 19: Narrative hinge

AWilliam Brassey - Sinai helpful way to get around placing Exodus 19 in the narrative structure is to deal with the chapter as a hinge. I suggest this because it presents both broad panels of Exodus: Yahweh delivered Israel from Egypt (19:4) and Yahweh gives Israel Torah enabling them to realise their unique vocation to the nations (19:5-6). Moses is authenticated (19:9) and acts as the mediator of the covenant between Yahweh and the newly liberated Israel. Previously Yahweh’s relationship with Israel was exclusive and at most demanding, from here on in we see it is regulated, mediated and sanctuary-centred (Moberly p104, The Old Testament of the Old Testament). Yahweh has liberated his people for relationship with him, but this relationship must be carried out exclusively on his terms.

While Exodus 1-19 is a compelling story that moves from enslavement to liberation and finally epiphany, the climax is a set of boring legal injuctions and by no means a page turner. It seems not only to fail the potential and momentum gained with the first half of the narrative but does not grip the reader in any exciting way. Alter emphasises that Sinai and the law is in no way anticlimactic, for it is there we meet the newly established nation of Israel, who are addressed in their entirety, as individuals, with the keenest sense of urgency (p303). So in our treatment of Exodus as a complete narrative we must ask why the author (and editors) located this voluminous, at times boring, set of instructions here. More importantly we must ask how they contribute to our theme of God’s increasing presence with Israel.

Exodus 20-24: Law and covenant, promises with strings attached

Fretheim believes all that happens at Sinai supports our central theme since theophany, law-giving and covenant-making all concern worship and indicate the presence of God (p21). It is hard to ignore the reiteration through repetition that Moses serves as a mediator between Yahweh and Israel at Sinai. Moses communicates Yahweh’s instructions to the people and their responses to him. But in contrast to his mediatorial role to Pharaoh, here a relational covenant is established between Yahweh and the people. The distance between Yahweh and Israel is not simply closed but the cutting of the covenant is a development of relationship, and Yahweh’s journey nearer to his people. We often speak of Israel as a nation set apart, and with the ratification of the covenant Israel is defined by its holiness and obedience to moral law, like no other nation.

Moses with tablets

Furthermore it is the covenant which qualifies Israel as those who can construct the tabernacle, the space to meet with and worship Yahweh. Law is thus integrated into Israel’s life and journey, seen in the arrangment of material shifting repeatedly between narrative and injunction. This is a start towards understanding both law and covenant in personal and relational terms. Yahweh provides instruction that will result in the best life for his people. It will contribute to their sanctification, being set apart from the nations, in order that the name of Yahweh is proclaimed. Obedience to the commandments is demanding but it will make Israel the upright people they were saved to be. The commandments were given to test Israel (20:20), cultivating fear of Yahweh and diminishing their sin. Prior to the ratification of the covenant Moses was the sole mediator, the only one who saw Yahweh, but now Israel’s representatives meet with Yahweh too (24:10). Again, I would suggest in conclusion that we are seeing new avenues for access to Yahweh and an increasing openness to the people of Israel, which will reach its climax in the tabernacle.

Exodus 25-40: The tabernacle, appropriate worship and the presence of Yahweh

We learn as we move into this last major section of narrative that the tabernacle’s purpose is to be a dwelling place for Yahweh (25:8), and that is realised when we come to the end of our story (40:34-38). At Sinai even though Yahweh was imminent (19:3) he was also transcendent (19:9, 11, 16, 18-19; 20:21). But this final movement of the narrative concludes with Yahweh’s presence amidst his people. The tabernacle represents the God who was far off setting up his presence at the heart of the people. Fretheim (1991:21) goes as far as calling the tabernacle Israel’s ‘community worship centre’ (p21). The tabernacle is a manmade sphere where Yahweh can meet with and dwell amongst his people. Though built by human hands, the tabernacle, and this last narrative section, strongly impresses on the reader that the Israelite faith is not manmade. In his essay, Heaven on Earth, in Exploring Exodus, Barry Webb argues that the tabernacle is the repository of the law (see 40:20) and therefore represents the revealed religion of Yahweh, and his initiative to meet with his people.

Tying this all together the author of Exodus placed the golden calf incident and its ramifications – Moses’ interceding for Israel and the reinstatement of the covenant – as the focal point of a massive chiasm. That serves as an example of inappropriate worship, in contrast to obedience to the law and worship at God’s prescribed tabernacle; to quote Fretheim, “Certain negative possibilities are rejected, while positive directions are encouraged and commanded” (p21). Fretheim, along with Waltke, go further and argue that the narrative also shows us that only the faithful will fellowship with Yahweh in the tabernacle. Inappropriate worship drives Yahweh away, and the reinstatement of the covenant does not only promise God’s presence with his people but reminds them that they meet him on his terms.


Seventh plague by John Martin

Tracing our path through the narrative we see the longed after liberation was given, the nation constituted under Yahweh, and God’s presence richly though not fully realised in Exodus. Much is (rightly) made of deliverance from slavery through salvation for service, in the narrative. Yahweh comes true to his promises and is faithful to them. But with the story leading us into the cul de sac of law, covenant and tabernacle we need to assess the book’s aim. It is not enough to make our basic point the shift from alien oppression into freedom and obedient service without asking why reams of regulations are given. And the answer is that Yahweh has come to his people. Our story is significantly advanced from this point in history, but for the Israelites at Sinai the narrative is emphatic that Yahweh’s journey has brought him into their midst. So much is made of how Israel should worship and behave, because the God who was seemingly absent has made himself present at the tabernacle. With this narrative arc of the entire book in mind we can make sense of the difficult and dull elements of Exodus: they are regulations for their relationship with Yahweh in their midst. His holiness demands that the people are themselves holy, for his presence is a consuming fire.