Saturday 7 February 2009

Stephen G. Dempster on Exodus and Biblical Theology 1

Stephen J. Dempster, ‘Exodus and Biblical Theology: On Moving into the Neighborhood with a New Name’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12, 3 (2008), 4-23.

The exodus, ‘the central salvation event in the Old Testament’ (4), shaped the imagination of subsequent biblical writers for their thinking about faith, history, law, and ethics.

Exodus 20:1 – ‘I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage’ – could be a short-hand creed for Israel. The same language could be used to interpret Abraham’s earlier ‘departure’ from Ur (Genesis 15:6-7) as well as to express future salvation (e.g., Isaiah 11:15-16; chs. 40-55; Hosea 1:11; Micah 4:6-7). The exodus ‘changed how Israel even thought about time’ (4-5), it being the date from which major annual feasts would be marked, as well as being seen in the weekly rhythm of work and rest (Deut. 5:12-15). The exodus was also the great indicative which provided the basis for the great imperatives, rooting ethics and law in salvation from oppression, a salvation itself rooted in the the character of God.

According to Dempster:

‘Astonishingly, the goal of the Exodus was that the great Creator and Redeemer of his people would come and live with them, as it were, “move permanently into their neighborhood,” and bring a bit of heaven to earth’ (cf. Leviticus 26:9-13) (5).

Exodus language also pervades the New Testament (see 5-6), coming to a culmination in Revelation:

‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”’ (Revelation 21:3).

Dempster deals with what he calls ‘interpretive impasses’ with Exodus. One approach sees it as the first in a series of mighty acts of God, which overlooks the fact that the exodus ‘is part of a larger biblical narrative’ – not its beginning, but the continuation of a narrative that precedes it (6).

The second interpretive dead-end isolates the book from its preceding and subsequent contexts and turns it into ‘a paradigm for how oppressed peoples can think about their plight’ or ‘a devotional aid that helps individuals trust in God when going through difficult times’; the larger context, however, shows that Israel ‘needs far more than just a political and economic salvation or spiritual guidance’ (6).

The third mistake is to suppose that the events narrated in the book are ‘simply literary creations’. Theology and history, however, do not have to be at odds with one another, says Dempster; everything looks different from a theological perspective, where the name of the Pharaoh is unimportant while the names of the two Hebrew midwives is important (7).

Before dealing with the larger structure of Exodus, Dempster looks at the first paragraph, ‘the story of Exodus in the context of the story of Scripture’ (7). The first paragraph begins with ‘and’, reminding us that the story is part of an ongoing larger story, and Exodus 1:1-7 brings to mind themes and vocabulary of the larger biblical story.

‘Thus, as Exodus opens, we are introduced to a story that is part of a larger story, which is indeed the story of the world. A family of seventy individuals that have gone down to Egypt and who have multiplied prolifically have a mission to the world. They are part of a new creation, a creation that is going to bring about universal blessing to a world in dire need’ (7).

Dempster divides the book as a whole into three major sections – Deliverance (1:1-15:21), Covenant (15:22-24:18), and Presence (25:1-40:38) – which will be summarised in a subsequent post.

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