The Exodus Narrative as Another Creation Story (for Old Testament Lesson 13)

Please excuse me for not sharing much for the last couple of weeks. I have been working hard on my dissertation. Unfortunately, I missed commenting on a story I really love — the Joseph in Egypt narrative. I won’t take the time to backtrack now and write much on it, but I have always thought a comparison between Joseph and Christ is fruitful.

Joseph  is the beloved son of his father and (although not born first) is essentially made the firstborn.  Jewish tradition held that Joseph was the son that most looked like his father and whose life most resembled Jacob’s. Jacob taught Joseph the mysteries and the learning that he had obtained in the school of Shem and Eber. His (priesthood) garment was dipped in blood. Joseph was sent to be a slave/servant in Egypt (which is associated with Babylon, or the World). He was made second-in-command (vice-regent) in Potiphar’s house, and resisted all temptation. He was put into prison for crimes he did not commit. While in prison, he helped (in a way) liberate the good (butler/cup-bearer) and condemn the wicked (baker). He was raised up out of the prison to become vice-regent of Pharaoh. He is responsible for providing fertility/prosperity to Egypt (the World) during a time of draught, and brings salvation to his brethren. I’m sure there are many other parallels that can be noted.

After we are told of the death of Joseph, the book of Genesis ends and Exodus begins. The Israelites have multiplied and, because the Egyptians (who possibly overthrew the dynasty that favored Joseph and his Semitic family) feel threatened by their numbers, they are made slaves. We are told that they were in this condition of slavery for over 400 years. They looked forward to a new savior who would free them and return them to their promised land.  They desired, in effect, for the Lord to give them a new beginning.

That is exactly how the psalms represent the Exodus events — as a new Creation.  The psalms speak extensively about the Creation of the world, which they describe as Yahweh’s victory over the Chaos Waters — often including great sea monsters (Rahab, Leviathan, etc.). Gen. 1 picks up on this idea when it describes God as “dividing” the waters in the early stages of creation. The psalms are much more graphic and likely represent older versions of the story.  A good example is Psalm 74:12–17:

Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.

13 Thou didst divide the sea by thy might; thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the waters.

14 Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan, thou didst give him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.

15 Thou didst cleave open springs and brooks; thou didst dry up ever-flowing streams.

16 Thine is the day, thine also the night; thou hast established the luminaries and the sun.

17 Thou hast fixed all the bounds of the earth; thou hast made summer and winter.

Psalm 89 expresses a very similar image of Yahweh’s conflict at the Creation:

9 Thou dost rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, thou stillest them.

10 Thou didst crush Rahab like a carcass, thou didst scatter thy enemies with thy mighty arm.

11 The heavens are thine, the earth also is thine; the world and all that is in it, thou hast founded them.

12 The north and the south, thou hast created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise thy name.

Compare also Psalms104:5-9; 93:1-4. Yahweh’s victory over the Chaos waters and its forces of darkness merits his being enthroned as king over the world. Sigmund Mowinckel believed that this was the basis of the so-called enthronement (and other related) psalms we have in our Bible. He commented:

Even the special hymns of enthronement bring out very clearly that the fundamental myth of the festival is the myth of creation … Yahweh has become king of the world, because he has created it. And as we have seen, these psalms do not refer to any abstract notion of creation, but to the same mythical and poetical idea which may be glimpsed behind the account of the creation in Gen. 1, but which is much more prominent in other passages of the Old Testament, namely the idea of creation as the victorious struggle of Yahweh against the dragon of the primeval ocean, or against the primeval ocean itself (tehom).1

Mowinckel then points out that in the Psalms (and elsewhere) the rise, or “election”, of Israel in the Exodus story is equated with the Creation. Egypt becomes the chaotic monster Rahab and the Red Sea becomes the primeval ocean, Tehom (Isa. 30:7; Ex. 15:48). Just as Yahweh divided the primeval waters, he also divides the Red Sea for his people. Through this historical act of “creation”, Yahweh becomes king over Israel (Deut. 33:2, 4f.; 114:1f.; cf. Deut. 32:8 LXX). Yahweh then builds his temple on his holy mountain (Ex. 15:17f.). Yahweh establishes his covenant with his people, which is then renewed at the annual festival (when all these psalms about Creation, the Exodus, and Yahweh’s enthronement in his temple are sung).2

Psalm 77 presents the dividing of the waters at the Exodus in the same type of “conflict” language as the Creation.

13 Thy way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? 14 Thou art the God who workest wonders, who hast manifested thy might among the peoples. 15 Thou didst with thy arm redeem thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah 16 When the waters saw thee, O God, when the waters saw thee, they were afraid, yea, the deep trembled. 17 The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; thy arrows flashed on every side. 18 The crash of thy thunder was in the whirlwind; thy lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook. 19 Thy way was through the sea, thy path through the great waters; yet thy footprints were unseen. 20 Thou didst lead thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

(Note the cool reference to God’s footprints in v. 19)

Psalm 114 contains very similar language, informing us that “When Israel went forth from Egypt…the sea looked and fled…at the presence of the Lord.”

One of the clearest passages that relates the primeval battle at Creation to the Exodus is Isa. 51:9–10:

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces, that didst pierce the dragon? 10 Was it not thou that didst dry up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that didst make the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?

As Mowinckel noted, in the various manifestations of this motif, Pharaoh/Egypt seems to be cast as Rahab, the Dragon, the agent of Chaos in opposing Yahweh’s salvific works (liberating Israel). We also note that the plagues sent against Egypt line up quite well with the days of Creation — i.e., there are the plagues that have to do with water, with land, with the air, with darkness,  and with destruction of life (instead of creation). In the end, the waters are parted so that dry land appears, but then close down again to crush the Egyptians (Rahab). The Israelites (Adam and Eve) are placed in the Promised Land (eventually).

Last, but certainly not least, we should mention the role of Moses as Yahweh, dividing the waters. Exodus 7:1 alludes to this when God declares to Moses: “See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.” Moses was placed in the position of Yahweh in this story. Philo, at the turn of the era, understood this very literally and wrote that Moses “was named God and king of the entire nation.”3 At Qumran, 4Q374 2 ii relates Exo. 7:1 to the story of Moses’ transfiguration after seeing God on Sinai. It seems to be suggesting that Moses’ resultant shining face was evidence of his deification. Crispin Fletcher-Louis suggests that Moses, with his shining face, is fulfilling the priestly blessing of Aaron expressed in Num. 6:25 — “The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee.” Moses’ face, Fletcher-Louis argues, is to the Israelites as if it were the Lord’s face shining upon them.4  In the Exodus story, Moses speaks to Pharaoh through Aaron (his prophet). Moses performs great wonders, including the parting of the Red Sea, just as Yahweh parted the great waters at Creation.

This Creation story is fundamental to the oldest sections of the Hebrew Bible and can be seen repeated over and over — in the Flood story, the Exodus, the Psalms, Isaiah, Job, many of the minor prophets, and elsewhere. Keep that in mind and you will find many fun and insightful parallels that will help you understand your reading better. God’s work of Creation is the first work of Salvation and that theme is repeated over and over again in the history of Israel.

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  1. Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, Vol. 1, 143 []
  2. See Ibid., 154ff. []
  3. Philo, Life of Moses 1:158 []
  4. Crispin Fletcher-Louis, “Some Reflections on Angelomorphic Humanity Texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Dead Sea Discoveries, vol. 7, no. 3 (2000), 298 []
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5 Comments

  1. Posted March 24, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a very important insight. Genesis and Exodus are both presented as differing layers/version of Israel’s core foundation story.

  2. David Larsen
    Posted March 24, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, David! How did you see the post so fast? I just got done writing it! :)
    But I agree with you (obviously). Thanks for the comment!
    David

  3. Posted March 24, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Google Reader RSS subscription :)

  4. Posted March 24, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Great post, David.

    I would note on Joseph that he was sold by his brethren for 20 pieces of silver, as was Jesus. He was tossed into the pit, as Jesus went into the pit, descending below all things. Both were falsely accused. Yet both forgave their accusers and saved them.

    The focus on Creation that one finds throughout scripture, including LDS scripture, is fascinating. It all comes back to how we look at the cosmos and ourselves within the cosmos. We can see how the term “eternal round” fits in, as time cycles rather than moves forward in a straight line.

    At Sinai was the Israelites opportunity to dwell in a Garden of Eden, in the presence of God. When they (Adam and Israel) sinned, they were cast out to dwell in the fallen world. Only through destructive processes can a new Creation occur, and a new chance to return to God’s presence. So death destroys our bodies, but opens the door for resurrection and a new Creation.

    • David Larsen
      Posted April 6, 2010 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the great insights here, guys.

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  2. [...] story that many might not think of — the Psalms. There will be some overlap here with my previous post on the Exodus story, so if you read that one, please bear with me as I repeat some of those ideas [...]

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