Israelite religion/ot theology – exodus
Theology is a term that has been used to refer to the study of religions whose beliefs revolve around the existence of a god or gods. Old Testament Theology is therefore a branch of theology that studies the Old Testament of the Bible under the concepts of religion and divine revelation. In the Old Testament the word revelation is used to refer to the act through which God revealed himself to the tribe of Israel. Religion on the other hand refers to the act through which man responded to this revelation of God. Old Testament Theology is therefore the study of the Biblical Old Testament what the Israelites believed about God and how they responded to this belief. The study sources material from Hebrew scripture (Sailhamer 1995).
In Old Testament theology, the whole of the Old Testament can only be understood by getting and interpreting specific texts in the bible. This detailed study of specific texts is referred to as exegesis and in biblical theology has been described as the path leading to Old Testament theology while the theology in turn sheds light upon this path. In the history of the Old Testament we have several narratives dating back to the creation story and going on into the period before the coming of Christ. The Exodus story is one such narrative and is the topic of discussion in this paper (Sailhamer 1995).
The Exodus is a very important event in the history of the Jewish people or the Israelites as they were referred to at that time. This is because it is in the course of this dramatic event that the nation of Israel was born. The events described in the exodus had a very important role to play in determining the course that the lives of the Israelites would take in latter generations. It is in the Exodus event that the religious practices that these people would follow were established. The Exodus story that is narrated in the book of Exodus through Deuteronomy, covers the journey taken by the Israelites from Egypt to Sinai various events that took place as Sinai and subsequent passage of the Israelites into the land of Moab as swell as the law or testament which was given to the Israelites by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. Throughout the story, it appears that the Israelites were being prepared for the life that they would live in the Promised Land. The exodus is the most important aspect in the history of the Israelites because it is during this time that the Nation of Israel and its religion are born. In the Exodus event a god who is deeply involved in the history of a people is in action and this god is also capable of liberating the people he has chosen as his own. This god gives a free revelation of his name as Yahweh and through out the book of Exodus, the miraculous interventions of Yahweh towards his people are mentioned. These interventions were narrated to later generations through the celebration of the Passover feast which Yahweh ordered as a commemoration of the dramatic escape of these people from bondage in Egypt. (Zimmerli and Green 1983)
It is important to note that in Exodus 6:2 Yahweh goes on to reveal himself, not a new god to these people but as the same god who had revealed himself to their forefathers. From this revelation it becomes very clear that this was a god who desired to fully involve himself with the Israelites. It was this same god who delivered the Israelites out of bondage from Egypt and through the leadership of Moses led them through a wilderness in which he sustained them and into the land he had promised that he would give them as a possession. (Zimmerli and Green 1983). The Exodus story is therefore an account of a salvation history in which Yahweh liberates the Israelites from slavery and travels with them throughout the journey in the wilderness towards the Promised Land. Back in Egypt, the Israelites had gone through a lot of oppression that was aimed at reducing their birth rate because according to the Egyptians, these foreigners were increasing in number and becoming a security threat to the governance of Egypt. After many years of perseverance, Yahweh seems to have heard their cries and sends a liberator by name Moses. From this story Yahweh is portrayed as a powerful god and one full of terror as is evident in the conflicts between this god and other powers. In the process of saving the people he has chosen as his own, Yahweh comes into contact with such powers of nature as the sea and rivers as well as other nations such as Egypt. Yahweh takes central character in the Exodus story and any other character only appear in alliance to this god or as his enemies (Dozeman 1996).
It appears from the Exodus story that the main goal of this tribal migration is not an escape from Egyptian bondage but the promise of a land in which they would settle and prosper. The Israelites had earlier in their history left this land to escape hunger and gone into Egypt to look for a better life for themselves and they settled and started expanding in this land. The need came that they should go back to their original habitation and from the exodus story, a new nation of Israel was born from these freed slaves and their intermarriages with the tribes they found in Canaan. It is therefore the goal of acquiring new land that leads to narration of the events characterized by oppression that preceded the Exodus event (Deborah 2000). From this event and the whole Exodus story it is evident that these former slaves in Egypt are about to enter not only into a new land but also into a new relationship with Yahweh the powerful god who had given them freedom. The Israelites as a result get buried into a new vision, one of freedom and prosperity in a new land. Their vision takes shape at Mt. Sinai where they receive a set of ethical codes referred to as the Torah and through this event, the covenant people are born (Bowe 2003).
According to Exodus 12:31-34 the act through which the Israelites get out of Egypt is an expulsion rather than an escape or even a journey. The pursuit of the Israelites by the Egyptian army at the Red Sea leads to the focus of Yahweh as a god who controls nature as the waters of the sea part to give way to the Israelites and then get back together in order to destroy the Egyptian army in the water. From this event, it is clear that Yahweh is ready to interfere with any other force that may hinder the Israelites from proceeding with their journey into the Promised Land (Dozeman 1996). The oppression of the Israelites during Slavery in Egypt and their subsequent rebellion to this oppression make up the beginning of the Exodus story and the actual event of the Exodus is only narrated in Chapters 12-15 of the book of Exodus. This is followed by a narrative of the disobedient and rebellious nature that characterizes the liberated Israelites and climaxes at Sinai where the law and the covenant are established and which now determine the future life of these people. Such themes as liberation, law, covenant, oppression, justice and rebellion to name but a few are notable throughout the exodus story. In chapter 1 and 2 of the book of Exodus liberation and oppression are the main themes. Yahweh responds to the cries of an oppressed people in Egypt and purposes to liberate them. But oppression and liberation are just a beginning and they spearhead the main goal of entry into the land of Canaan that these people had been promised through their ancestors (Knierim 1995)
In the 11th chapter of Numbers, the Israelites are now in the wilderness, a place of lack, hardships and dangerous encounters and we see them being to complain to Yahweh about the unbearable living conditions. There is also a notable struggle of power among them and they seem to have faltered in their dependence upon Yahweh. But according to their story Yahweh did not dwell on their shortcomings but faithfully continued to lead them on in their journey. From this narrative the prophetic and priestly offices begin to take shape among these people and the issue of leadership begins to have strength in this society. In the book of Joshua chapter 24, the Israelite’s religious beliefs took ground upon sharing a common faith in their god, Yahweh and rejecting the gods of the people they encountered in the land of Canaan. The renewal of the covenant ceremony that has been narrated in this chapter is an indication that these tribes that were now united under Yahweh occasionally met for the religious purpose of re-affirming their fidelity in Yahweh and in the bonds of the covenant (Bowe 2003).
It seems from Num 14:26-35 that the forty years that the Israelites spend in the wilderness may not have been in Yahweh’s original liberation plan and was not put in place to test their faith either. What appears from the story is that the journey through the wilderness took such a long time as a form of punishment for rebellion against Yahweh’s instructions. Yahweh did not however have any intention of killing the Exodus generation in the wilderness but any subsequent deaths only resulted from Yahweh’s intention to delay the fulfillment of his promise of a new land (Deborah and Marvin 2000). For the Israelites, no other god was to be worshiped besides Yahweh and this has been stressed in the first commandment, Exodus 20:3 and Deut 5:7. The god of the Israelites is therefore seen here as claiming exclusive worship and any diversion from the laid out plan of worship demanded repentance that was fulfilled through religious cultic practices. Disobedience to this god was also punishable and throughout the Exodus story, there are various ways in which the Israelites were punished for disobedience. The long journey through the wilderness was the most hard to bear with among these punishments (Pannenberg and Bromiley 1994).
But Yahweh was also a god whose presence was felt among the people. In the course of their journey we read about the cloud that guided them during the day, the pillar of fire that lit their path during the night and the tent of to mark god’s presence that Moses pitched outside the camp when they rested in the journey. This tent later on became the dwelling place for the art of the covenant that represented Yahweh’s presence in latter times during the journey. The Ark become a symbol of Yahweh’s mighty presence among the people and was present in such events as crossing of the Jordan River and the capture of the city of Jericho where the majestic powers of Yahweh were displayed. The Passover feast in which an animal was killed and the blood used according to the instructions given by Yahweh through Moses marks the most important event in the Exodus story. This event was marked on the Israelite calendar and was to be commemorated throughout later generations as a way of reminding the people about their dramatic deliverance from Egyptian slavery (Zimmerli and Green 1983).
From the Exodus story it is quite clear that Moses was not just the leader that Yahweh had chosen to lead the people out of Egypt but he also enjoyed a relationship with this god that was very unique. Yahweh seems to confirm this in Num 12:7-8 where we find him saying that he has entrusted the entire house of Israel to Moses. Moses is also able to behold an image of god even though he is not able to see Yahweh’s face. All the commandments given through Moses are to be obeyed and through this obedience, a relationship is established with the people that can only remain in place through obedience to these laws. This brings out a very strong character of Yahweh, that he is a god who relates with his people and who delights in maintaining a very close relationship with them (Dryness 1978).
Yahweh has very characteristic as is evident from this Exodus story, some of which match with the characteristics of human beings. In Exodus chapters 6, 20, 33 and 34, Yahweh is depicted as a god that hears, has a face, back and hands and a jealous god who would not entertain any form of idolatry or worship of other gods among the Israelites. To the enemies of the Israelites, Yahweh was the mighty warrior who fought and won their battles or through divine intervention saved them from defeat in war (Dryness W. Themes).
During the forty years that the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness, they experienced God’s tender care especially in times of great hardship. It seems like they were on a mission to carry the name of Yahweh to the land of promise and as a result Yahweh would not let any hindrance stop them from moving on or even make them turn back to Egypt. He provided them with food referred to as manna and quail and when they had no water, he provided it. But such provisions and the divine intervention in many any instances was not lesson enough to the Israelites and they complained bitterly to Moses about this God. But Yahweh was also a god who would punish severely and the complaints cost the Exodus generation the right to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land. It is clear that none of the original group of migrants that left Egypt would make it to the Promised Land and Yahweh preserved this priority for those who were born after Egypt.
Worship seems to be the main theme in the whole story and every other benefit that the Israelites got seems to have been closely interrelated with the fact whether they did or did not worship Yahweh according to the plans that he had laid out for them. The Israelites were forbidden not only from worshipping any other gods but had to worship Yahweh or approach only through the directions that he had given them. Those directions were laid out in the law or Torah (Pannenberg and Bromiley 1994).
The Israelites faith in Yahweh was to be renewed or reaffirmed from time to time through various cultic practices provided in the law. These rituals and duties were to be carefully followed if Israel had to remain in close contact with Yahweh. They also helped to bring the reality of God to these people especially to those born after the Sinai experience. Such rituals and practices are clearly laid out in the book of Deuteronomy. It is quite clear that by commanding the Israelites to follow a definite form of worship Yahweh wanted these people to have a very clear understanding that freedom could only be derived from following his ways but not from following their own ways. Other events such as the feast of the weeks and the freewill offering were meant to remind the Israelites that God owned everything and they were supposed to be thankful for his continued provision (Pannenberg and Bromiley 1994).
From the Exodus story, the Israelites god Yahweh can also be described as a god of conquest. This is because it is evident from the story that the land in which these people were supposed to settle was inhabited land. When Yahweh warns them against worshipping other gods it was clear that they would encounter other people and other gods in the course of their journey and even in the Promised Land. But Yahweh helped them in their conquests especially under the leadership of Joshua who took over the mantle of leadership after Moses’ death. This is irrespective of the fact that Yahweh was dealing with a rebellions people some of whom chose to ignore his commandments and follow after other gods. An event like the worship of the golden calf under Aaron depicts not only a rebellions people but also a people who had a very short memory and were also very impatient. Moses had gone up the mountain to consult Yahweh and despite the fact that he had come back with answers to their issues from previous encounters they went ahead to mould the golden calf and involve them in the idolatry Yahweh had forbidden. The goal of uniting the Israelites under Yahweh therefore suffered various setbacks in the course of their journey to the Promised Land but these setbacks did not stop them from continuing in their journey and did not also stop Yahweh from fulfilling his promises to these people. The greatest challenge that these people faced was to be faithfully committed to and united under the covenant vision. This Semitic minority group used the banner of Yahweh to resist the strong power structures that dominated the city-states in the new land of Canaan and it is through their determination to stay united under one god that the nation of Israel came into being and continued in its conquest of Canaanite territory. (Deborah, Womil etal.2000).
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