Polemics and the Exodus Tradition


In this article we will explore several cases where the author of the book of Exodus engages in polemics against the Egyptian mythological view of the world. This will be brief as it is only included to serve as a paradigmatic example of what we observe in the earlier chapters of Genesis. However, before exploring the role of polemics in the Exodus narratives, a proper understanding of the nature and function of polemics must first be presented.

A polemic is a “strong verbal or written attack on someone or something,” and typically will employ a kind of elusory Trojan Horse. The term is derived from the Greek πολεμικός, polemikos, which means something that is of or for war, and so polemics has often been viewed as a kind of conceptual or literary warfare. John Currid defines polemics, as found in the Hebrew worldview and literature (epitomized in the Old Testament), as the author or redactor’s use of “the thought forms and stories that were common in the ancient Near Eastern milieu and apply[ing] them to the person and work of Yahweh, and not to the other gods of the ancient world.”

The ancient Hebrew author would take an allusion to a known contemporary text, and inhabit that allusion with new meaning to glorify YHWH over the gods of the pagan nations surrounding Israel. Numerous scholars have noted the familiarity of the author of Exodus with the book of Genesis. The introductory section of the book shows that the author was aware of the lineage found in Egypt of the patriarch Jacob, and that it numbered 70 persons (Ex. 1:5; cf. Gen 46:27). He also sees the rapid reproduction of the children of Abraham in Egypt as a fulfillment of the creation mandate to be fruitful, multiply, and to fill the land (Ex. 1:7; cf. Gen. 1:28).

 Others have noted the connection between Pharaoh’s response to the increase of the Jews as derivative of the Tower of Babel story in Gen. 11.

 Many have also noted the reliance of Exodus 1-15 upon the early chapters of Genesis, and some will go so far as to say that the plagues function as a kind of de-creation and the exodus from Egypt itself as a kind of re-creation. Gage states, “[T]he exodus-eisodus history of the Hexateuch is so structured as to be a redemptive reenactment of creation.”

 Currid also argues that the plagues were an act of God in reducing order into chaos, and that the exodus was an act of bringing order out of chaos.

 We can also observe other grammatical connections between Exodus and the Creation account in the use of the term םּניּ, tannînim. This is the Hebrew term often translated as “great sea”.

 It is important to note that tannînim is used later in the Pentateuch in the great showdown between Moses and Aaron on the one hand, and Pharaoh and his magicians on the other. We are told that Aaron threw down his, tannîn, in challenge to Pharaoh, and then that the magicians answered the challenge by taking their staffs and throwing them down as tannînim. At this point, the power of the polemical assault becomes concrete when Aaron’s tannin devours all the tannînim of Pharaoh’s magicians. This

tangible polemic was clear: YHWH is the mighty tannîn with the divine right to rule, and Pharaoh is not  – a striking polemic once we consider that the cobra was the symbol of the might and authority of Pharaoh. Much like the earlier discussion of the Nephilim, it is apparent that the author of the Exodus narrative is clearly familiar with the text of Genesis 1 and  feels free to use similar polemical applications. Pharaoh, represented by a coiled tannîn¸ is just another part of YHWH’s creation with no power and authority except what has been given to him by God. Another clear example of Old Testament polemics against its historical setting is the use of the phrase “outstretch/strong hand/arm.” We are told in Ex. 6:6 that it is by YHWH’s “outstretched arm” that he will accomplish his mighty acts of judgment and will redeem the children of Abraham from Egypt. In Ex. 32:11 and Deut. 6:21, we are told that the Lord overthrew Pharaoh and defeated the powers of Egypt by his “mighty hand.” These descriptions of a mighty hand and an outstretched arm are stated together in Deut. 7:19, and 26:8, and blended together in Ex. 15:12, and 16. These two terms however did not arise in Israelite culture. During Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period (2030-1640 BCE) these became established terms to describe Pharaoh.