Delivered Out of Empire
Pivotal Moments in the Book of Exodus, Part 1
- ISBN: 9780664265380
- Published By: Westminster John Knox Press
- Published: February 2021
Delivered Out of Empire: Pivotal Moments in the Book of Exodus, Part One is the first volume of the book series “Pivotal Moments in the Old Testament” from Westminster John Knox Press. The series aims to explore the “pivotal moments” within the Old Testament, shepherding readers through the complex and multilayered narratives of the biblical texts. As a seasoned biblical scholar, author Walter Brueggemann volunteers to be a tour guide to the book of Exodus and leads us to its important juncture. He points out that in Exodus, it is difficult for us to identify the parts that are particularly important and demand our attention. For this reason, the aim of his study is “to indicate what [he] thinks are the pivotal moments through which the detail of the text can be organized and understood in some coherent way” (xv).
The book consists of ten chapters that span the first half of Exodus, in which a number of significant events take place, such as the Israelites’ emancipation from Egypt, the burning bush, the crossing of the Red Sea, and so forth. The first two chapters deal with the onset of God’s emancipatory work to deliver the Israelites out of the Pharaoh’s oppressive regime. After a long silence, God enters the Exodus narrative and reveals Godself (though not fully) in the form of a burning bush to Moses, calling to serve as an agent of God. Brueggemann argues that God’s sudden appearance in the story is elicited by the cry from the Hebrews (Exodus 2:23). The cry expressing their pain in the midst of prolonged exploitation brings God into the narrative. As Brueggemann rightly puts it, “it is the cry that begins the narrative of rescue and salvation” (5). God’s salvific work begins with sending Moses to Pharaoh.
Chapters 3-7 cover this confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, during which a series of ten plagues—otherwise known as “wonders” or “signs,” in the language Brueggemann prefers—occur. Here, Brueggemann invites us to see the plague narrative from a different angle. He stresses that the plagues are instrumental not only in emancipating the Israelites, but also in providing them with the "narrative curriculum." That is, the ten plagues can be the ten dramatic scenes that commemorate God’s emancipatory work, and these are handed down to future generations through the process of remembering and retelling (but also in providing them with the plague narrative as a curriculum for later generations). Thus, the plague narrative becomes a pedagogical method or a narrative mode of testimony for the older generation, and this method helps their children and grandchildren know the LORD and understand the merciful deed of God that was “enacted…for the sake of shalom in the community of God’s people” (37).
The last three chapters (chapters 8-10) examine the departure of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The Israelites, along with “a mixed crowd” (Exodus 12:38), finally depart Egypt and leave on a journey to freedom and the promised land. As the Song of Miriam and the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 reveal, Israel exults and expresses their joy for God’s victory over Egypt. Indeed, the Exodus narrative “begins in cries (Exodus 2:23-24) but…culminates in wondrous exultation” (90).
The major strength of this book is that Brueggemann’s careful interpretation enables us to see what we might have missed in previous readings of the Exodus narrative. In chapter 6, for instance, Brueggemann examines Exodus 10:26, in which Pharaoh, after the ninth plague, negotiates with Moses and urges him to leave at least Israel’s flocks and herds behind. Here Brueggemann focuses on Moses’ response to Pharaoh—“Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind…” (10:26a)—especially the phrase “not a hoof.” According to Brueggemann, “not a hoof” denotes that God’s liberating work includes not only every male/female of the community, but even every part of every animal. Thus, Moses’ defiant response, representing God’s will for the freedom of the entire Israelite community, shows solidarity and “suggests a profound ‘belonging’ that treasures every member of the community and every part of every member of the community” (45).
Hence, Brueggemann’s meticulous reading helps us understand the story deeper and enjoy each verse fully. Further, Brueggemann connects his interpretation with modern sociopolitical issues in almost every chapter. This allows readers to realize that the Exodus story is not just an ancient story but is a living narrative that is relevant to our contemporary life and concerns.
One minor criticism of the book is about Brueggemann’s approach to Exodus that is associated with the so-called “liberationist hermeneutic,” as he indicates in the preface (xvi). It is unclear how this method relates to his interpretation throughout the book. In this regard, it would have been better if he could be more specific about what the liberationist approach is and how this approach applies to his analysis, since a majority of prospective readers may not be familiar with this method.
Overall, I highly recommend the book to all readers interested in biblical studies. It is accessible and readable, and so many readers would benefit from this jargon-free yet profound interpretation of Exodus. Also, there are three to four discussion questions at the end of each chapter. They sum up Brueggemann’s points nicely and will function as a study guide that leads the reader much deeper into the pivotal moments of the book of Exodus.
Paul Eui-Hyun Chung is a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible at New York University.Paul Eui-Hyun ChungDate Of Review:May 18, 2022