Exodus in Genesis
One is impressed with the ways in which the Book of Genesis prepares its readers for the Book of Exodus. This should not be surprising, because the contents of Exodus were probably more important to Ezra and the other biblical editors than were the stories in Genesis. Exodus, after all, contains the beginning of the first of the laws given to Israel at Mount Sinai.
It is worth remarking, in this respect, that our reading of the Bible today differs considerably from that of the ancient rabbis who assembled and edited the Sacred Text. Many modern readers, who delight in the exciting stories throughout Genesis, sometimes find themselves getting rather bored and bogged down when they encounter all the rules and ordinances that fill the second half of Exodus. Indeed, those numerous regulations in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, if not skipped altogether by modern readers, are often read with little interest.
This was not the case for Ezra and his editorial associates. Doubtless the ancients loved those narratives in Genesis, but their major interest was in the rules and regulations that followed them. For them, the important thing was the Law, the Torah, the expression of God’s will and mind revealed on Mount Sinai.
If the entire thrust of Genesis is directed towards the giving of the Torah, it makes sense to expect anticipations of the Book of Exodus already in the Book of Genesis.
In fact, these anticipations begin rather early. As soon as the Flood is over, for example, we learn of the sin of Ham, the forefather of those very Egyptians who will eventually enslave Israel (Gen. 9:22).
Among Ham’s other descendents were the people of Babel (10:10), who undertook the first recorded example of brick construction (11:3). With those bricks, let us remember, those descendents of Ham endeavored to raise the famous tower at Babel, an act of defiance against God.
That early account of rebellious brick-making prepares the reader for the later story of Egypt’s various building projects, which will form the context of the opening of the Book of Exodus. In fact, the compulsory making of bricks was Pharaoh’s way of oppressing God’s people (Ex. 1:10–11; 3:7; 5:6–16). The arrogant monarch confronted by Moses was nothing if not a rebellious builder with bricks.
That earlier building project at Babel anticipates, then, the future building projects of Pharaoh in Egypt. Both building projects use the same material—bricks, a word that only rarely appears in the rest of the Hebrew Bible.
In Holy Scripture both Babel and Egypt represent pretty much the same thing, the worldly, idolatrous city rising in defiance against the true God, especially by its advanced technology. Baked bricks are an example of the latter.
Pharaoh’s defeat in Exodus is also prophesied in the Book of Genesis, both by an explicit message to Abraham in mystic vision (Gen. 15:14; Acts 7:6–7) and by the story of Pharaoh’s abduction of Sarah in Genesis 12. This latter text merits close examination with respect to our theme.
First, Abraham and Sarah are driven into Egypt by famine (Gen. 12:10), exactly as famine will later be the cause of Israel’s sojourn there, which sets the scene for the Exodus (45:6–11). Second, when Abraham and Sarah arrive in Egypt, they encounter the high-handed, arbitrary, and menacing behavior of a Pharaoh (12:11–15), just as Moses will. Third, Abraham deceives and outwits Pharaoh with
double-talk (12:12–16), which is what Moses will do as well (Ex. 3:18; 7:16; 8:1,20,25–28). Fourth, Abraham’s encounter with Pharaoh leads to plagues inflicted on Egypt (Gen. 12:17). This same word, “plagues” ( nega‘im), will be used in the Book of Exodus to portray the punishments endured by Egypt because of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart (Ex. 11:1). Finally, like Moses and the Israelites (Ex. 3:20–22; 11:1–3; 12:35–36), Abraham is enriched with the spoils of Egypt when he leaves the place (Gen. 12:16,20).
In summary, the various elements of Abraham’s brief sojourn in Egypt prefigure the drama of the Exodus: the famine, the arrogance of the Pharaoh, the superior wisdom of the prophet, God’s intervention by sending the plagues, the vindication of the Chosen People and their departure from Egypt, enriched with its spoils. Abraham thus foreshadows Moses. Genesis prefigures Exodus.
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“Exodus in Genesis” first appeared in the September 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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