How “Historical” is Exodus? Fretheim’s Inklings

If you have to buy only one theological commentary on Exodus, I would put Terence Fretheim’s Interpretation volume (WJK) at the top of the list. He always demonstrates careful exegesis, sensitivity to theological issues, and respect for a range of viewpoints.

Perhaps one of the most challenging issues in the study of Exodus is dealing with the question of how to treat the text historically. Again, Fretheim does not disappoint.

What is the purpose and central concern of Exodus?

The book of Exodus is not historical narrative, at least in any modern sense of that phrase. Its primary concern is with issues that are theological and kerygmatic. That is to say, those responsible for the material at various compositional stages were persons of faith who were concerned to speak a word of God to other persons of faith, who in turn have heard it as word of God. (7)

Does that mean it is not historical?

Fretheim urges us to look at Exodus from a rhetorical perspective. Why was it written? What kind of message was the author(s)/editor(s) trying to convey? Fretheim places the writing of the text in the context of Israel’s exile – when they were asking big questions about God’s identity, his faithfulness, and Israel’s role in God’s mission. Exodus looks back to the past to find answers. There is no reason, Fretheim believers, to think the author(s) fabricated this past wholesale.

So what is “historical” and what is not?

It doesn’t quite work that way, where you can pick and choose bits here and there (like the Jesus Seminar). Fretheim offers this hypothesis:

While a nucleus is probably rooted in events of the period represented, the narratives also reflect what thoughtful Israelites over the course of nearly a millennium considered their meaning(s) to be. In such an ongoing reflective process, the writers no doubt used their imaginations freely (e.g., when they put forward the actual words of a conversation); in so doing, they believed they were doing justice to what they had inherited. (9)

Doesn’t it have to be “historical” for it to ground my faith in the true God of Israel?

Fretheim answers this by saying that Scripture itself tends to focus on certain events as foundational, and we can see such statements in “historical recitals” in the OT (Deut 26:5-9; Josh 24:2-13). Fretheim says the exodus appears in such recitals. This would give us reason to believe that they were pondering and living out of a concrete experience.

As a constitutive event, the exodus is recognized as an event of such import that the community would not be what it is without its having occurred. Generally, the pervasiveness of the references to the exodus in the Old Testament would seem to constitute a warrant for such an understanding. The event so captured the imagination of Israel that it not only served to illuminate Israel’s most basic identity but also functioned as a prism for interpreting all of Israel’s subsequent history (e.g., Isa. 43:14-21; 51:9-11). (p. 10).

I (Nijay) take a more conservative reading of Exodus, but I think Fretheim is right to focus on rhetoric and the nature of historiography in ANE documents. We can neither have a facile presumption that Exodus is objective history, nor should we cast it all into the category of “myth.” I like James Dunn’s appeal to Acts as history of with a Tendenz (see Beginning from Jerusalem, 72) – perhaps Exodus too is best categorized as this, history that leans or points to something.

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One thought on “How “Historical” is Exodus? Fretheim’s Inklings

  1. Even as an evangelical who takes a more historicial approach to the book, I really liked Fretheim’s commentary as well. My main complaint was that it was too short, and in places where I was looking for specific exegetical discussion of a difficult passage he offered little discussion of the specifics and instead opted for overall theological/thematic reflection (which, I chalked up to the purpose of the series itself).

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