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A Way Out and a Way To: Intertextuality and the Exodus Motif: A Review Article

Meredith M. Kline

Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif, by Bryan D. Estelle. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018, xiv + 392 pages, $40.00, paper.

The alliterative title of this book is ambiguous. In Echoes of Exodus the word “exodus” refers primarily to the deliverance of God’s people from bondage in Egypt plus their journey towards the Promised Land, and only secondarily to the second book of the Pentateuch. The journey from the Nile to the Jordan is treated as a complex literary configuration whose components reoccur throughout Scripture, resulting in repeated evocations of the whole pattern in a manner that helps readers appreciate the unity of the Bible. Academics can profit from this massive project because myriad footnotes document the many monographs that the extensive research is based on; pastors can benefit from the helpful introduction to the topic of intertextuality (or inner-biblical exegesis) along with the discussion of a wealth of biblical materials; and congregational members will increase their knowledge of Scripture because the book is very readable with translations of biblical texts included, while Hebrew and Greek are presented only in transliteration in parentheses. (Typos and word duplications exist in the book, but most interrupting are some omissions that obscure the sense of a sentence.) One of Estelle’s goals is to increase the reader’s “allusion competence.” Academics and pastors can attempt to accomplish this by striving for a rabbinic-like immersion in biblical languages and texts, while with lay readers they can strive for an intimate familiarity with the Bible in translation. Because the book’s primary intended audience is the academic guild, one of Estelle’s goals is to demonstrate the fruitfulness of typology. Since readers of Ordained Servant already employ this method, they can, thus, profit from the many thematic correlations presented in the book, which reinforce responsible use of the method. Echoes of Exodus also occasionally mentions issues of concern within Ordained Servant circles, but illumination of the issues requires pursuit of materials relegated to footnotes.

Bryan Estelle, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary in California, is an accomplished mountain climber. In Echoes of Exodus he follows themes associated with the exodus motif throughout the biblical landscape, aware of the underlying covenantal and redemptive geological structure, as he reports on expeditions that include ascents of various versions of God’s holy mountain.

After an introduction that maps the territory the book will cover, the author lays out a methodological base camp from which his ascent will commence by clarifying definitions associated with intertextuality. This is important because current scholarly practice of the method is often imprecise, and its results limited or misleading. (Estelle includes an appendix with a more technical discussion of how contemporary secular literary theory influences practitioners of biblical intertextuality.) Then the author begins with creation in Genesis and explores the trails of the exodus motif in ten chapters, traversing in the Old Testament the books of Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, Isaiah, and later prophets, then progressing in the New Testament through the synoptic Gospels, Paul’s writings, and 1 Peter, while culminating in Revelation. A conclusion discusses implications of the exodus motif for biblical theology. The book also contains a bibliography along with author, subject, and Scripture indexes.

The last thirty years have produced mountains of scholarship on intertextuality. Estelle’s book reflects an impressive scholarly effort of traversing an immense range of academic hills, including N. T. Wright’s formidable Everest of written/published works, in order to map the exodus motif as part of the terrain of Scripture. While previous works primarily concentrated on limited portions of biblical literature, Estelle attempts the daunting task of following the trails of exodus themes through the whole Bible. The author interacts with previous monographs that described local peaks of the scriptural range while he graphs the biblical trajectories of deliverances through ordeal waters from Egypt, Satan, and sin; of wanderings through the wildernesses of Sinai and the world; and of ascents up the Horeb, Jerusalem, and Zion mountains. Estelle’s contribution is to indicate the direction changes taken by the exodus motif mountain ranges as one proceeds over the topography of the biblical landscape.

Since there are textual allusions to the creation in the Pentateuchal accounts of the deliverance of Abraham’s descendants from Egypt and their journey to the Jordan, those events can be pictured as a re-creation. So, Estelle appropriately begins his investigation of the biblical text by covering aspects of the creation account which will be echoed in subsequent chapters, such as the deep waters the Spirit constructs into a divine temple, the Edenic mountain where Adam enjoys the divine presence, and the projected Sabbath goal of the Adamic covenantal tasks.

Estelle then defines the exodus motif as comprising four major themes: a cosmological battle, the worship of the divine presence at the cosmic mountain, the wilderness wanderings, and the Promised Land. Each theme contains a number of topics and subsequent chapters reveal how biblical authors select particular topics from the exodus motif for their own purposes.

The author next turns to selected Psalms that highlight the divine warrior who conquered his people’s enemies, depicted as chaotic waters. But the Psalms also comment on the contemporary state of the covenant community by comparing them to the disobedient wilderness-wandering generation. The chapters on the prophets (plus Ezra-Nehemiah) reflect exilic realities with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel projecting a new exodus from Babylon with intimations of a coming new kingdom associated with a messianic king, a new way through the desert, and a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of his descendants being a blessing to the nations.

Chapters on the synoptic Gospels take the exodus motif in an eschatological direction, treat Jesus as the new exodus, and focus on the identity of true Israel. The Pauline materials utilize exodus themes to warn church members about disobedience (1 Cor. 10) and to exhort them to journey with the Spirit who makes believers adopted siblings of Christ, heirs entitled to the world to come (Gal. 4–6, Rom. 8). Since the exodus motif is pervasive in Paul, new topics such as sonship, adoption, inheritance, suffering, and light are introduced into the discussion. The church as a new royal priesthood in 1 Peter reflects how Israel should have functioned, while Revelation echoes themes like the divine warrior defeating the adversarial dragon in order to deliver the Lord’s suffering pilgrims.

Echoes of Exodus is replete with examples of biblical allusions and typology. Estelle’s practice of inner-biblical exegesis recognizes links between texts, evokes a larger context from texts alluded to, and reminds readers of a whole complex motif. When 1 Peter and the Apocalypse collocate “kingdom” and “priests,” thus alluding to Exodus 19:6, Estelle notes the correlation and elaborates the significance of the textual echo for the history of redemption: an attribute of Israel is applied to the church (302). Even though textual variants in the wording of the allusion are discussed, this is a small-scale project. While typology may be a natural extension of noticing literary links between texts, identifying the connections between persons or situations is a larger-scale process involving more subjectivity on the interpreter’s part. Though one of Estelle’s goals is to revive typological exegesis, humans are inveterate pattern-seekers, so interpreters have slipped into allegory in the past; therefore, he also includes a section on typology in the chapter about the intertextual method and provides examples of types throughout the book. What might make Moses a new Adam? Mountaineer Estelle is attracted to the facts that Adam, Moses, and Christ are ascenders and descenders of the mountains of God: Eden, Sinai, and Zion (101)!

Estelle’s exodus motif project, however, is humongous in scale. His definition of the exodus motif is a complex, hierarchical configuration of motif, themes, and topics. If the exodus motif is correlated with the Genesis 1–2 account, which describes the “week” of divine activity that is a pattern for the totality of history from creation to consummation, any biblical text might allude to the motif; the context of any echo could become all of Scripture and history; the project approaches the scope of a whole biblical theology. Estelle’s organization of tracing the exodus motif sequentially through the Bible was naturally suggested by the numerous volumes previously published on the exodus motif, even if defined in various ways. This approach does demonstrate how concepts associated with the exodus evolved during the progress of redemptive revelation. Estelle’s covenant theology is implicit in providing explanations for the varying biblical uses of particular topics. Since the biblical books are means of God administering his covenant community, changes in the nature and state of the covenant community, such as Israelite kings defying their covenant suzerain or the covenant community changing from a theocracy to a church, clearly reveal the significance of the changing functions of the exodus motif in the Bible.

The complexity of the exodus motif, however, means only some of its topics occur in any biblical text and discussion of one topic may be scattered over several of Estelle’s chapters, so a unified understanding of a topic may not result. Some topics, like the Feast of Booths, one of the means God designed for Israel to remember the exodus, are mentioned early on in Estelle’s account but not picked up subsequently. Initially, the Passover is not mentioned as a topic under his first theme, the deliverance of Israel from Egypt in terms of a cosmological battle, but subsequently in the discussion of 1 Peter it is employed as a relevant aspect of the exodus motif. For a pastoral audience, an alternative volume, perhaps, could be produced that delineated the themes and topics but then traced them individually through Scripture.

How should the exodus motif be defined? What themes and topics should it include? This is important since the motif is a large-scale feature of the biblical narrative. Previous investigators have proposed a variety of reverberations of this complex motif. That poses a challenge when one attempts to synthesize the results of previous scholarship or to creatively reconfigure the motif. Properly patterning the richly complex biblical models of salvation and tracking their modulations through Scripture is a monumental challenge. Estelle provides lots of data to stimulate refined mappings of the biblical topography.

Comparison with the creation narrative and prophetic portrayal of a new exodus as a return to the promised land, a type of God’s day-seven rest, indicates it is appropriate to extend the exodus journey from Egypt to Canaan. Since that decision involves inclusion of a wealth of material from the Pentateuch, disagreements about what to include in the motif are inevitable. For example, why is the topic of God’s presence associated only with the Sinai episode? God was also present for Israel while combating the gods of Egypt and protecting the Israelites who were covered by the blood of the sacrificial lambs; plus he was present in the cloudy and fiery pillar at the Red Sea crossing; he guided Israel through the wilderness; and he dwelt in the tabernacle. Why, in the discussion of Estelle’s third theme, the wilderness wanderings, are the pre-Sinai and post-Sinai wilderness episodes not distinguished? Despite the grumbling of Israel on the trip to Sinai, the Lord’s provision of water and food as blessings establishes an Edenic environment for the mountain experience. In contrast, the wilderness wanderings between Sinai and the Promised Land are a cemetery-curse for a rebellious people afraid to engage in holy warfare. Also, should the Sinai wilderness wanderings, even if transformed by Isaiah’s variation on them as a way through the desert, serve as the paradigm for use of “The Way” in Acts as a designation for the early Christian community as a sect within Judaism? Better is to understand “The Way”  as a reference to Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life; he is the one pictured by the symbol of divinity traversing the way through the split carcasses at the ratification of the covenant of grace with Abraham or the one who passes through the flaming-sword crucifixion on the way back to the garden-mountain of God and the presence of the Father. If attaining the Promised Land, Estelle’s fourth theme, is part of the exodus motif, why is the second water crossing ordeal at the Jordan not included in the motif? Or, similarly, if the land of Canaan is part of the motif, why is the second dragon combat, the conquest, not a component of the motif?

In Estelle’s second theme, the worship of God at a cosmic mountain (Sinai), the topic of making a covenant is submerged, even though it surfaces when discussing the book of Exodus as a genre model for the gospels. Covenants are ratified at Sinai with the generation that came out of Egypt and in the steppes of Moab at the banks of the Jordan with the second generation, as recorded in Deuteronomy. Including covenant ratification in the exodus motif would, of course, involve a totally different kind of book. The covenant topic, however, would be a crucial element for Estelle’s secondary interest in elucidating the current controversy over forensic and participationist versions of justification. While his suggestion that the dragon-combat topic should be considered as a forensic component in the justification discussion is helpful, the topic would have to be appropriately included in an analysis of the covenant of redemption in order to resolve the current impasse.

While participating in the Echoes of Exodus mountaineering expedition is an arduous endeavor, the experience should support the conviction of readers of Ordained Servant that properly practiced typology is helpful for redemptive-historical preaching, should encourage them that the complexity of the biblical narrative and covenant history, nevertheless, strengthens belief in the unity of the Bible, and should stimulate them to continue to pursue ways of making the gospel message clear.

Meredith M. Kline is the director emeritus of the Goddard Library at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. His PhD thesis was on Ecclesiastes, and he is a member of First Presbyterian Church, North Shore (PCA) in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant, November 2019.

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