EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Duane A. Garrett, John R. Sampey Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and professor of biblical theology, discusses his new book, A Commentary on Exodus, with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders.
CS: With the new movie Exodus: Gods and Kings and classics like The Ten Commandments, why do you think our culture is so fascinated with the story of the Exodus?
DG: One, it is really the pivotal event of Judaism. It’s like the cross and resurrection for Christians — it is the big event and anyone who has even the most marginal awareness of the Old Testament knows that whenever Israel is addressed in terms of their distinctive relationship to God, it is always the exodus that is brought up. And then, I think people have a strong kinship to the idea of the poor, the oppressed, the slaves over and against the all-powerful autocratic government and the sense that God delivers people who are under this kind of enslavement and oppression. It’s a kind of universal feeling that even has some kind of kinship to something like the American Revolution. The third thing is, I think it is a really interesting story and, basically, people like miracles. You have all that stuff — the frogs, the gnats, the hail, and the parting of the sea — that’s a lot more interesting than just your run-of-the-mill story.
CS: The new Exodus movie brought renewed attention on the biblical narrative and scholars who say there was no historical Moses. What’s the firm evidence for the historical Moses and what is his importance for us today?
DG: There’s no doubt, the scholarly consensus today is that the Exodus story is a myth. Outside of confessional seminaries, you would be hard pressed to find any Ancient Near Eastern scholar or Old Testament scholar who holds to a historical exodus. Many would regard that there may have been some figure Moses, but it was far less than he’s presented as in Exodus and he only did a handful of things attributed to him. It is very much the common view, and I should add that is a significant shift over the last 50 years or so. If you had gone to even the most liberal seminaries in 1965, they would have said that the exodus may not be exactly as it was in the book of Exodus but there was a real exodus and there was a real Moses. All the evidence for the existence of Moses is in the Bible. I would say his position in the Old Testament and his importance in biblical history is second only to Jesus. He is not only the one who led them out of Egypt and the one who was intermediary to making the Sinai covenant and giving them the law, he is the paradigm of a prophet and he established that when he interceded for Israel in Exodus 32 with the golden calf incident and saved them from being annihilated and continued to intercede with God so his role as the intercessor, in addition to being the lawgiver. Moses, and the book of Exodus, is the real fountainhead of the entire theology of the Old Testament. Moses is irreplaceable; you really can’t have a biblical faith or an OT theology without Moses.
CS: What is the importance of the exodus for Christians?
DG: In a nutshell, the exodus establishes the pattern for redemption — it is entirely the work of God. Initially, God just declares he is going to deliver Israel. He sees the suffering of the Jews and when he calls Moses, Moses does not want to go. And all the way up through chapter six, Moses is very unhappy about this whole thing. And so it’s very clear the deliverance didn’t come about because of Moses, and then in pharaoh’s hardness of heart — while that is always troublesome to people — I think the main point is it establishes the fact that the deliverance from Egypt was literally a work of God. It wasn’t because pharaoh was kind or generous or weak or easily over-awed. It was totally a work of God. Even the Israelites themselves were not always completely cooperative. But you put it all together, Moses was not keen to go, pharaoh was certainly not willing to let them go, and even the people at times were pretty weak. So it was entirely God’s work. So what does that say to us as Christians? Salvation is entirely a work of God. You have the same thing in the coming of Jesus: the incarnation of the cross, the resurrection, the miracles are a sign of the eschatological age. God may use humans, but God is the one who even has them come along; the work is entirely God’s work. I think that is the central tie to the heart of Christian theology.
CS: You illustrate the importance of ancient Egyptian geography for understanding Exodus. Why do so many Christians struggle with this aspect of Bible study?
DG: I think the big thing is people read Exodus and other books of the Bible with no sense of context at all. They’ll read about Egypt and they know roughly where Egypt is on the map but they have no sense of what the real geography of the land is like. So both the geography and the historical background in the book are there because I just don’t think you can appreciate what’s going on in Exodus if you have no idea what the land was like, how important the Nile was for survival. Why don’t people get into geography? That’s a much larger cultural question, but I’ll say this: in terms of biblical studies, we are very accustomed to just jumping into the text without thinking at all about the world around it. We’ll have a Sunday school lesson on some episode in Israelite history in David’s life and it will refer to places but no one in the room really knows where they are, they’re just names. We are kind of accustomed to thinking we can jump into the text with no awareness of what’s really going on.
CS: I think some people may be disappointed that you did not come to a clear consensus on the identity of the pharaoh of the exodus. Was it a difficult decision for you to study it and not come to a firm conclusion?
DG: I take a fresh look into all the evidence and there are substantial arguments for and against every position. And I hesitated — the decision has almost been like a coin flip to just arbitrarily say, “Okay this is the right one,” but I just didn’t think that was honest with the data. The data was not nearly that clear. But the other thing is, the Bible doesn’t tell us. It struck me that we’re not necessarily doing the Bible a service when we feel that we can kind of improve on the story by saying we know it happened at this time, under this pharaoh. The biblical story is amazingly thorough in not giving us any external evidence as to the name of the pharaoh or the specific date. But as I say, the Bible just seemed to be determined not to give us a specific pharaoh and so I finally thought, “Well, why would I want to improve on that?” I mean it’s one thing just to try to solve a little historical conundrum or something like that, but in the biggest event of the Old Testament when the narrative itself is absolutely silent on the matter, I think you have to respect that.
CS: If Exodus is the fountainhead of OT theology, what are some oft-overlooked themes and messages that you found in Exodus?
DG: I would say in terms of often overlooked themes, probably the big idea that I had never noticed before and I’ve never heard anyone else mention is the importance of God going with his people. During the golden calf episode, after God says, “I’m going to destroy those who intercede,” God relents. Then God says, “I won’t destroy them but I won’t go with them.” And Moses gives a long intercession, 40 days, and finally God relents on that too and he goes with them. It’s at that point that they make the tent of meeting, the complex with the tent and the ark of the covenant. They wouldn’t have needed it if God wasn’t going to with them. This idea of God sojourning with the people is very important in the OT and is almost defining of the God of Israel. And it plays in naturally to the theology of the incarnation. Of course, John 1 explicitly alludes to it when he says Jesus came down to “encamp among us,” so John clearly links the incarnation of Jesus to the sojourning of God in a tent with the Israelites.
CS: What do you hope this commentary accomplishes for the church and other scholars?
DG: I tried to lay out a case regarding the root of the exodus and the location of Sinai, which I think people need to take seriously. I don’t think the Jebel Musa in the southern Sinai peninsula works for many reasons, I don’t think it’s what the Bible indicates which — just as a matter of scholarship — I think people should pay more attention to the place I suggested as opposed to the traditional idea. Another thing is more scholarly: I tried to show there are significant pieces of poetry in Exodus. Especially Exodus 6, a very important poem with the refrain, “I am Yahweh.” Most have only seen one poem in Exodus — basically, in Exodus 15, “The Song of the Sea” — but I think there are many other poems, and I think recognizing them as poetry again is very important for interpretation. I would also hope evangelicals would not feel that they have to have a specific date for pharaoh for the exodus or all is lost. Don’t think that your faith in Exodus and your faith that it really happened depends upon you know who the pharaoh was and when it happened. I don’t think that’s true. I think you can have confidence, but I think evangelicals have kind of been fixated on the idea that if they don’t solve this problem that they’ve left the validity of the book of Exodus hanging and I don’t think that’s right. On a much more practical level, I try at the end of every section of the book I try to put in these theological reflections I always try to relate them to the NT, hopefully in a legitimate and coherent way. What I’m hoping that the pastor will do is take this and say, “I can preach chapters from Exodus, I can preach sermons from Exodus and meaningfully, coherently tie them to the gospel.” In my opinion, there are always two dangers in preaching an OT text like Exodus. The one is that you pay virtually no attention to the OT context and you just use it as a quick springboard to jump into some NT thing, so the OT virtually has no meaning to your sermon. You might as well be citing Readers Digest or something. The other danger is that the text essentially becomes a history lesson, you’re so focused on historical context, that’s all you’re talking about. Then it stops being a Christian sermon, it’s some kind of historical Bible study or something like that. So I want people to first of all see what the text means in its historical setting, but then see how that can be coherently and meaningfully tied to the gospel.