This is a topic I have been wanting to write about for some time. Most other weeks I had too much to add to the Cutting Room Floor, but this week I found that most of the things I had hoped to say made it into the sermon. So I’ll use this opportunity to write a bit about structure and how it relates to meaning. This isn’t totally out-of-the-blue, since I did open the sermon with a recap of the structure of Exodus.
My basic thesis here is that the structure of the book and of its individual parts informs our understanding of its theme and meaning. Let’s start on a smaller scale and work outwards.
Remember back to Exodus 6: a chapter that was half God promising deliverance (6:1-13) and half genealogy of Aaron and Moses (6:14-25), with a little bit of summarizing recap at the end (6:26-30). If my sermon on Exodus 6 only (or even mainly) focused on the first half, ignoring or breezing through the genealogy, then I will have missed a major point that the author here is trying to make.
The author did not give us two separate messages – Exodus 6:1-13 and 6:14-25. He gave us Exodus 6 as a unit. We know it’s a whole unit and not just two separate parts because there is an “inclusio” (a literary device bracketing a passage where an identical word or phrase or verse is seen at both the beginning and end of the passage). Compare 6:10-13 with 6:27-30. These two parts bracket the genealogy and connect the genealogy with the material coming before it. You cannot read one without the other; you cannot understand one without the other. My understanding of the first half is necessarily shaped by the second, and my interpretation of the second is founded upon the movement of the first. The way the text is structured informs my interpretation of its meaning.
If the genealogy was placed elsewhere in the book (if the text were structured differently, in other words), then the understanding of chapter 6 would be different, as would the other text that the genealogy was newly placed against. Structure informs meaning.
Now let’s step back and look at how that applies to the book as a whole. Exodus is fairly easy to outline due to its broad, sweeping movements and genre shifts. I’ll use an adapted version of Leland Ryken’s outline in his Literary Introductions to the Books of the Bible for our example:
Chs 1-6: God is not glorified because Pharaoh won’t let the people go
Chs 7-10: God is glorified in judging Egypt
Chs 11-15a: God is glorified in redeeming His people
Chs 15b-18: God is glorified in providing for His people
Chs 19-24: God is glorified in giving His people the law
Chs 25-40: God is glorified in worship (Ryken 37)
I would argue that Ryken’s outline may need to be broken up a bit more at the end, especially in light of the “interruption” of chapters 32-34. Chapters 25-40 detail the blueprints of and building of the Tabernacle (25-31, 35-40 respectively, with 32-34 being the “interruption” of the people’s sin with the golden calf). Notice how heavily Exodus leans on this Tabernacle section at the end. If you remove those last sixteen chapters, you have a story about God redeeming His people from slavery in Egypt, giving them a law and covenanting with them on Mt. Sinai. Period.
What does that last section add to the story? Well, remember our Big Idea of Exodus: Serve Yahweh, Creator and Redeemer, who dwells among us. If we remove chapters 25-40, we also lose those last four words: “who dwells among us.” That’s where the last section of Exodus is focused. A God who graciously gives us a tent-like structure called the Tabernacle that He might dwell among us. This same God that released the Israelites with a mighty hand from the clutches of Pharaoh has determined to covenant with Israel and put His presence in their midst.
Several commentators have noted how the two major halves of this book interrelate. Douglas Stuart break the book into two halves: 1) deliverance of the people to God, and 2) th constitution of that group as a people of God. He looks at the entire book through the lens of servitude: serving Egypt, then serving God (Stuart, Exodus, 20). John Durham in the WBC commentary on Exodus sees the first half under the theme of Rescue and the second under the theme of Response. The Presence of God binds the two themes together (xxiii).
No matter which way we cut it, we must read Exodus as a whole, making sure we do not divorce the law from the narrative from the Tabernacle blueprints. Each part of the structure informs the meaning of the story of the Israelites. Just as ignoring part of a chapter will change the meaning of that chapter, ignoring part of the book will do the same for the reader.