Westminster Theological Journal 29 (1966-67) 117-35.

Copyright 1966/67 by Westminster Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.





OF ALL countries upon the face of the earth Palestine

seems one of the least likely to have produced anything

striking or world shaking. Nevertheless, in Palestine there

appeared a phenomenon the like of which the world has never

seen elsewhere.1 The present day Bedouin of Palestine can

hardly be regarded as the bearers of advanced thought and

culture and there is not much reason to believe that they

differ markedly from some of Palestine's earlier inhabitants.2

Yet in Palestine the most sublime ideas of God and, his love

to mankind appeared, and in Palestine alone did the truth

concerning man and his plight make itself known. What is

the explanation of these facts? How are we to account for

the large body of prophets, with their teleological message,

their declaration of a Redeemer to come, forming a mighty,

evergrowing stream that culminated in the person and work

of Jesus Christ?

If we accept the Scriptures at face value we find that they

are filled with references to Moses whom they regard as the

human founder of the theocracy. It was Moses whom God

used to bring his people out of Egyptian bondage and to

give to them his unchanging law. "He made known his ways

unto Moses", we read in Psalm 103, and this is only one of

the testimonies that attributes to Moses the claim that Moses

received his commission by divine revelation. Can we today,

however, simply accept the plain testimony of the Scriptures

as they stand?3 Modern scholarship very largely denies that

we can, and we must give some attention to its claims.


1 Cf. "But when we take it all together, from Abraham and/or Moses

to Jesus and the apostolic Church, it does cohere together; there is a

consistency about it, and as history--not simply some imaginary salva-

tion history--it is without parallel anywhere or at any time in the history

of this planet". Christopher R. North: The Second Isaiah, Oxford, 1964,

p. 27.

2 If some modern reconstructions of Israel's history are correct, the

Israelites on the whole were little more advanced than some of the present

day Bedouin.

3 "Von diesem Bild (i. e., the picture which the Old Testament gives of

Israel's beginnings) hat die einsetzende Bibelkritik manches Element




The Sinai "Tradition"

In the discussion of these questions Professor Gerhard

von Rad of Heidelberg University has taken a prominent

part. The last one hundred and fifty years of critical his-

torical scholarship, he tells us, have destroyed the picture of

Israel's history which the church had derived from its ac-

ceptance of the Old Testament. According to critical his-

torical scholarship we can no longer regard it possible that

all of Israel was present at Sinai or that as a unit the whole

nation crossed the Red Sea or achieved the conquest of Pal-

estine. The picture given to us in Exodus, to be frank, is


The account of Israel's origin given in the Old Testament,

we are told, is extremely complicated, being based upon a

few old motifs around which a number of freely circulating

traditions have clustered. Both these ancient motifs and

the separate traditions were pronouncedly confessionalistic

in character.5 We thus have two pictures of Israel's history,

that which the faith of Israel has reconstructed and that

which modern historical scholarship has reconstructed. It is

this latter which tells of "the history as it really was in Israel",

for this latter method is rational and "objective" in that it

employs historical method and presupposes the similarity of

all historical occurrence.6


abgetragen. Viele Erzahlungen, sonderlich der Vater- und der Mosezeit,

wurden als sagenhaft erkannt und stellten sich demgemass als Dokumente

dar, die zu einer genauen Rekonstruktion der historischen Vorgange nicht

ohne weiteres verwertbar waren". Gerhard van Rad: Theologie des Alten

Testaments, Band I, Munchen, 1957, p. 113 (English translation by D. M. G.

Stalker, Vol. I. New York, 1962, p. 3).

4 0p. cit., p. 113 (E. T., pp. 106, 107). "Die historisch-kritische Wissen-

schaft halt es fur unmoglich, dass ganz Israel am Sinai war, dass Israel

en bloc das Schilfmeer durchschritten und die Landnahme vollzogen hat,

sie halt das Bild, das die Uberlieferungen des Buches Exodus von Mose

und seinem Fuhreramt zeichnen, fur ebenso ungeschichtlich wie die

Funktion, die das deuteronomistische Richterbuch den Richtern' zu-


5 Op. cit., p. 113 (E. T., p. 107).

6 Op. cit., pp. 113 f. (E. T., p. 107), "Die eine ist rational und objektiv',

d. h. sie baut mit Hilfe der historischen Methode' und unter der Voraus-

setzung der Gleichartigkeit alles historischen Geschehens an einem kriti-

schen Bild der Geschichte, so wie es in Israel wirklich gewesen ist". With-



Yet historical investigation has its limits; it cannot explain

the phenomenon of Israel's faith, and the manner in which

Israel's faith presented history is still far from being adequately

elucidated. It is this question with which the work of theo-

logical investigation is primarily to be concerned.

In the second volume of--his work, as a result of criticism,

von Rad somewhat dulled the alternatives. In the English

translation this particular section is omitted, but it might be

well to call attention to the most significant sentence. "The

historical method opens for us only one aspect of the many

layered phenomenon of history (Geschichte). This is a layer

which is not able to say anything about the relationship of

the history to God. Even the best attested event of the

'actual history' remains dumb with respect to the divine

control of history. Its relevance for faith can in no wise be

objectively verified."

It is upon this foundation that von Rad proceeds to con-

sider the early history of Israel. In his penetrating work

The Problem of the Hexateuch von Rad had already directed

attention to what he called the "Sinai tradition".8 In this

treatise he made a study of Deuteronomy 26:5b-9 which he

regarded as a liturgical formula, the earliest recognizable

example of a creed. This summary of the facts of redemption,

he held, could not have been a freely devised meditation

founded upon historical events. Rather, it reflected the

traditional form in which the faith is presented. Of particular


out attempting any complete evaluation of this statement we would

challenge anyone's right to assume the "similarity of all historical occur-

rence". This rules out miracles and special divine revelation. The historical

occurrences in ancient Israel were not similar to those of other nations,

for God "made known. . . his acts unto the children of Israel" (Psalm

103:7b). To assume otherwise is to adopt an unwarranted presupposition,

as Dr. von Rad does, it is to write an apologetic. That the so-called his-

torical method is genuinely objective is an illusion, and hence any picture

of ancient Israel which this method creates will naturally share in the

weaknesses inherent in the method which produced it.

7 Op. cit., Band II, Munchen, 1960, p. 9. In this sentence there appears

the influence of Kant's distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal.

For a thorough discussion see Cornelius Van Til: Christianity and Bar-

thianism, Philadelphia, 1962.

8 "Das formgeschichtliche Problem des Hexateuch" in Gesammelte

Studien zum Alten Testament, Munchen, 1965, p. 20 (E. T., 1966, p. 13).



interest is the fact that in this "credo" there is no mention

of the events which occurred at Mount Sinai.9

Likewise, in Deuteronomy 6:20-24, which, according to

von Rad, is also written after the style of a confession of

faith, there is no mention of Mount Sinai, and here the

omission is said to be more striking inasmuch as in this

passage there is express concern about the divine command-

ments and statutes. Again, in the historical summary Joshua

24:2b-13 ("shot through", says von Rad, "with all kinds of

accretions and embellishments which are immediately rec-

ognisable as deriving from the hexateuchal presentation of

history") the events of Sinai are said to be completely over-

looked.10 All three texts follow a canonical pattern of redemp-

tion; indeed, the passage from Joshua is said to be a Hexateuch

in miniature. The canonical pattern is clear, for in each

instance it omits reference to what occurred at Sinai. The

Sinai tradition is independent, and only at a very late date

did it become combined with the canonical pattern. There

were two originally independent traditions.

The Sinai tradition has been secondarily inserted into that

of the wilderness wanderings. Wellhausen had asserted that


9 Von Rad's work has not been without infiuence. Martin Noth (Uberlie-

ferungsgeschichte des Pentateuch, Damstadt, 1960, pp. 43, 63-67) finds

the Sinai traditions already present in the material available to J. "Erst

recht gehort der Einbau der Sinaitradition' zu den von J in G schon

vorgefundenen Gegebenheiten" (p. 43). Mention may also be made of

H. J. Kraus (Gottesdienst in Israel, 2. Aufl., Munchen, 1962, pp. 189-193)

who thinks that in the removal of the Shechem cult to Gilgal the fusion

of the divergent traditions may have occurred. Cf., also, Leonhard Rost:

Das kleine Credo find andere Studien zum Allen Testament, Heidelberg, 1965.

10 "Auch hier ist der Text mit allerlei Floskeln und Zutaten durchsetzt,

deren Herkunft aus der hexateuchischen Geschichtsdarstellung sofort

erkenntlich ist", Gesammelte Studien zum Alten Testament, p. 14. The

English translation given above is taken from the English translation of

this work, p. 7. It may be remarked in passing that von Rad's constant

use of the term Hexateuch is thoroughly unbiblical. The classification of

the books into a threefold division is due to the position of their author

in the Old Testament economy. For this reason, the five books of which

Moses was the author stand apart, the base and foundation (despite

Wellhausen) upon which the remainder of the Old Testament builds.

It is biblical to speak of a Pentateuch, but not of a Tetrateuch (Noth,

Engnell) nor of a Hexateuch (Wellhausen, von Rad).



after the crossing of the Red Sea the Israelites marched on

to Kadesh, which is really reached when the people come to

Massah and Meribah in the vicinity of Kadesh.11 Hence, the

places in the events before Sinai and those in the narratives

after Sinai are about the same and the expedition to Sinai

is to be regarded as secondary. There is, as von Rad puts it,

a break in the Kadesh tradition, which tradition alone is

closely interwoven with the exodus story proper.12

In the Sinai tradition the predominating elements are the

theophany and the making of the covenant, and with these

there are bound up less important traditional elements of an

aetiological nature which bore no historical relationship to

the account of the theophany and the covenant. What part

in the life of ancient Israel did this Sinai tradition play?

We may best understand the tradition as a cultic ceremony

which was itself prior to the cultus and normative for it.

It is the cult legend for a particular cult occasion. The Sinai

experience is not something in the past but is a present reality,

for "within the framework of the cultus, where past, present,

and future acts of God coalesce in the one tremendous actuality

of the faith, such a treatment is altogether possible and in-

deed essential".13 Thus, the events of Sinai were actualized

in the cult. Later Israel could easily identify itself with the

Israel of Horeb.14 It was the material of the ancient Shechem

covenant-festival, celebrated at the renewal of the covenants

of the Feast of Booths, and incorporated by the "Yahwist"

into the Settlement tradition. Only about the time of the

exile did the fusion of the two find popular acceptance.15

With respect to von Rad's presentation we would remark

that the entire Pentateuch does not at all look like a develop-


11 At this point von Rad appeals to Wellhausen, op. cit., p. 21 (E. T.,

pp. 13, 14).

12 "Nur der erstere (i. e., the Kadesh tradition) ist aufs engste mit der

eigentlichen Auszugsgeschichte verwoben; der andere (i. e., the Sinai

tradition) nicht, wie das ja auch der Sprung zwischen Ex. 34 und Num.

10, 29 ff. zeigt" (op. cit., pp. 21 f., E. T., p. 14).

13 Op. cit., p. 36 (E. T., p. 29).

14 Ibid.

15 Op. cit.,p. 61, "erst urn die zeit des Exils ist diese Verbinduhg popular

geworden" (E. T., p. 54).



ment or overworking of the cultic credo supposedly found in

Deuteronomy 26:5b-9.16

With respect to Deuteronomy 26:5b-9 there is no evidence

that it was ever recited at the Gilgal sanctuary at the time

of the Feast of Weeks. The action described in this passage

is to be performed when the nation enters the land which

God will give it. The singular has individualizing force.

"Yahweh, who is thy God", we may paraphrase, "will give

the land to thee". Emphasis falls upon divine grace. The

land is not taken by Israel's power but is a gift of her God.

Indeed, the word hlAHEna implies that Israel knew why she

was receiving the land. It seems to reflect upon preceding


The purpose of the confession is to show that from a

small people which entered Egypt and were evilly entreated

by the Egyptians the nation became great and powerful.

Hence, they cried unto the Lord, and the Lord by mighty

wonders brought them out of Egypt unto the place where

they now are.17

Is not the reason for the omission of reference to events

at Sinai clear? Moses wishes to stress the great contrast

between the nation's present position of safety and blessing

and its former state of servitude and to bring into prominence

the fact that God has brought this change about by means

of a mighty act of deliverance. To have introduced at this

point the events of Sinai would simply obscure this contrast.18


16 The more one considers von Rad's position, the more apparent does

it become that one cannot begin with Deuteronomy 26:5b-9 and from

there work as he does to the completed Pentateuch. The whole procedure

is based upon fantasy, not fact, and upon acceptance of an unnatural,

unrealistic, humorless documentary analysis which does not begin to do

justice to the true nature of the Pentateuch. Cf. Oswald T. Allis: The

Fille Books of Moses, Philadelphia, 1949. There is a unity in the Pentateuch

which is best explained as the work of one mind.

Artur Weiser (The Old Testament: Its Formation and Development, New

York, 1961, p. 85) points out that the Pentateuch is essentially different

from an expanded hymn-like prayer or creed.

17 The priest mentioned is not the high priest but simply a priest in

charge of the altar whose duty was to receive gifts of sacrifice. The first

fruits constituted a proof that Israel was in possession of her land, and in

offering these the Israelite acknowledged his indebtedness to the Lord

for giving him the land.

18 Weiser (op. cit., p. 86) holds that the subject matter of the "Sinai



Von Rad's argument actually proves too much. If absence

of the Sinai episode really shows that the Sinai "tradition"

was not an integral, original, part of the Exodus "tradition"

then the same conclusion follows with respect to the events

at Kadesh. Deuteronomy 26:5b-9 says not a word about

Kadesh. Are we therefore to conclude that the events at

Kadesh were not an original element in the Exodus "tradi-

tions"? For that matter the entire fact of the wilderness

wanderings is passed over in silence in the Deuteronomy

passage, and we are simply told that the Lord "brought us

unto this place".19 Is the entire wilderness episode therefore

a separate tradition? If we grant von Rad's premises, we may

consistently exclude the whole time of the wilderness journey

from the original "tradition" and not merely the events

at Mount Sinai.

Von Rad's appeal to Deuteronomy 6 is singularly unfor-

tunate, for this passage does contain an express reference to

the events at Sinai. It is intended to answer the question

posed in verse 20, "what are the testimonies, and the statutes

and the judgments which the Lord our God commanded

you?" In answer Moses contrasts the period of Egyptian

servitude and the present condition brought about by means

of the mighty deliverance of the Lord. This time, however,

it is expressly stated that "the Lord commanded us to do

these statutes".20 When did the Lord give such a command


tradition is not a historical event in the same sense as the historical events

of the exodus and entry; it is on the contrary an encounter with God

which leads up to the acceptance by the people of the will of God pro-

claimed in the commandments; and in its cultic setting it represents a

particular action in the course of the festival. Consequently it is not men-

tioned in the same breath with God's acts of salvation in those texts which

are concerned only with the latter. . . . it (i. e., no mention of Sinai) is

due to the fact that they (i. e., certain texts) restrict themselves to the

recital of the saving acts in history on grounds which make it clear that

their silence concerning the Sinai tradition cannot be used an argu-

mentum e silentio for the reconstruction of the whole contents of the

festival cult, as is done by von Rad."

19 hz.Aha MOqm.Aha-lxA Unxaybiy;va.

20 hl.AxahA Myq.Huha-lKA-tx, tOWfEla hvhy UnUacay;va. The verb need not be un-

derstood as denoting action subsequent to that expressed by xyciOh in

verse 23; it may merely set forth a concomitant thought --God brought

us out and he also laid upon us commands --irrespective of the chrono-

logical relationship of the two actions.



if it was not at Sinai? This very statement is a reflection upon

the events at Sinai. True enough, the word Sinai is not men-

tioned, but is it necessary? The disjunction between the Sinai

and Conquest traditions, which von Rad thinks is supported

by this passage, therefore, is illusory.

Unfortunate also is the appeal to Joshua 24, for this passage

reflects both upon the Sinai "traditions" and also upon the

so-called "Conquest traditions". This fact has been clearly

demonstrated by Artur Weiser who finds that the two sets

of tradition are here already combined and "are clearly re-

garded as belonging essentially together because they supple-

ment each other".21 Verses 2-13 are a recital of God's his-

torical dealings with his people, pointing out how God had

been with them since the time of the patriarchs and had

brought them unto the present. In verses 14-26, however,

we have the response of the nation to the plea to obey the

covenant. These latter verses presuppose that God has given

his commandments to the nation. Weiser goes so far as to

say that this manner of speech (i. e., God speaking in the

first person singular) shows "the original connexion between

God's revelation of his nature in his saving acts in history and

his revelation of his will leading up to the pledge of the con-

gregation".22 In this passage history and law are bound up

together as they are in the Pentateuch generally.23


21 Op. cit., p. 87.

22 Op. cit., p. 88. :

23 In a recent article, "The Exodus, Sinai and the Credo" (Catholic

Biblical Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, 1965, pp. 101-113) Herbert B. Huffmon,

appealing to the Hittite vassal treaties, points out that the Credo of Joshua

24:2b-13 is the historical prologue of the covenant whose conclusion the

remainder of the chapter describes. In the more than thirty international

treaties recovered from Boghazkoy, Alalakh and Ras Shamra the place

where the treaty was concluded is never mentioned. Nor do the prologues

(with two exceptions which Huffmon notes) mention documents of in-

vestiture, i. e., which specify the granting of a treaty. The granting of a

treaty was not considered one of the gracious acts of a suzerain. For this

reason, argues Huffmon (p. 108), Sinai, which represents the reception of

the Law, is not part of the Credo.

For an introduction to the subject of the relationship of Scripture to

the Hittite suzerainty treaties cf. Meredith G. Kline: Treaty of the Great

King, Grand Rapids, 1963. It must also remembered that the complete

form of a treaty may not necessarily have been recorded upon one docu-

ment but upon several, cf. Donald J. Wiseman: The Alalakh Tablets,

1953, nos. 1-3, 126,456. Exodus 20 itself is largely in the form of covenant



What, however, can be said about von Rad's attempt to

separate the Sinai sections from the main body of the narra-

tive? Is there a break in the Kadesh tradition between Exodus

18 and Numbers 10 as Wellhausen maintained?24 Von Rad

holds that there was a cycle Kadesh narratives (Exodus 17-

18; Numbers 10-14) and a Sinai cycle (Exodus 19-24; 32-34).

If one examine Exodus 19 as it stands, without the pre-

supposition that documentary analysis must be engaged in,

he will note that it very naturally continues the preceding

narrative (cf. especially 17:1). In 19:1 there is a direct refer-

ence to the exodus from Egypt and a time reference in connec-

tion therewith. Unless we assume then that a redactor has

worked over this verse, we must conclude that it constitutes

an integral part of the narrative of the Exodus. The mention

of Rephidim in 19:2 refers expressly to the previous mention

of Rephidim in 17:1, 8 and continues the journey of the

Israelites from that point.

In verse two there seems to be obvious reflection upon

Exodus three. The word dBAd;mi calls to mind the same word

in Exodus 3:1, as does also hrAhA. This word is introduced

without any explanation, for the reader is supposedly ac-

quainted with it. In the light of Exodus 3:1 it is perfectly

understandable; otherwise it is almost without meaning. If

there be no preceding narrative, we are without a word of

explanation. What mountain is intended? The same is true

of rBAd;mi. In the light of Exodus 3 we are prepared for this


directly between God and the individual, a form not attested outside the

Old Testament. Whereas in the revelation of his will, God did to some

extent make use of covenant-forms extant in the world, his revelation was

not bound by these forms. To a certain extent these covenant types may

be an aid in understanding the form of certain Scriptures, nevertheless,

there is danger in pressing this method too far. It still remains true that

the best interpreter of Scripture is the Scripture itself. In refuting von

Rad's thesis Walter Beyerlin has quite effectively used the covenant

pattern (Origins and History of the Oldest Sinaitic Traditions, tr. by S.

Rudman, Oxford, Blackwell, 1965).

24 Huffmon (op. cit., p. 111) suggests that the people may have pro-

ceeded to Kadesh and then made a pilgrimage to Sinai. But it is also

possible, as Huffmon points out, that there may have been two Meribahs,

one near Sinai and one near Kadesh. In his masterful study From Joseph

to Joshua, London, 1952, pp. 105 ff., H. H. Rowley maintains that two

accounts of what took place after the exodus from Egypt may have been




word, but if Exodus 19 is to be divorced from what precedes

we are left without explanation. Likewise, the phrase, and

God called to him from the mountain brings to mind and God

called to him from the midst of the bush in Exodus 3:4. A simi-

larity exists also between thus shalt thou say to the house of

Jacob and thus shalt thou say to the sons of Israel of Exodus 3:14.

When one examines Numbers 10, he notes that here, too,

there is reference to what has preceded. In verse 11 there,

is a date and an express mention of the cloud being taken up

from the tent of testimony. Verse 12 speaks of the wilderness

of Sinai, which clearly reflects upon the similar language used

in Exodus 19. Unless we engage in drastic excisions we must

accept the narrative as it stands, and then it is clear that the

break which Wellhausen, von Rad and others thought that

they found here is non-existent.

It has been necessary to consider von Rad's assertion that

the narratives which recount the events at. Mount Sinai are

not an original part of the Exodus account, for if he is correct,

then it follows that Exodus 3, which narrates the call of Moses,

must be abandoned as unworthy of historical consideration.

The reason for this is that Exodus 3 is a preparation for the

meeting of Moses with God upon the holy mount of Sinai and

the revelation of the law. If God did not meet Moses and

the law was not revealed, then obviously, the third chapter

with its prediction, "ye shall serve God upon this mountain"

is not historical fact.


The Unity of Exodus Three


It is now necessary to examine more closely the question

of the unity of the third chapter of Exodus. Is this chapter

a unified whole or does it consist of a compilation of fragments

of various documents, pieced together by a redactor? Modern

scholarship is almost unanimous in asserting the latter.

Perhaps the latest documentary analysis is that given by

Georg Fohrer,'s who partitions the chapter as follows:


25 Georg Fohrer: Uberlieferung una Geschichte des Exodus, Berlin, 1964,

p. 124. Gressmann (Mose und seine Zeit, Gottingen, 1913, p. 21) holds

that the chapter is a compilation of JE. "3:1, Horeb E; 2-4a Sinai, bush,

Yahweh J; 5 J // 4b. 6 God E; 7,8 Yahweh J // 9-12 E; 13-15 God E,

but vs. 15 is of later origin" because in E the name of Yahweh is partly



J la, ba; 2-4a; 5; 7, 8; 16-20.

E 1bb; 4b* 6; 9-15.

N26 21, 22


Fohrer candidly acknowledges that the presence of the divine

names largely guides him in this analysis, although he recog-

nizes that there may be deviations from this analysis. There

are, asserts Fohrer, differences in the various documents.

According to J Moses comes to the mountain of Yahweh,

according to E to the mountain of God. J says that first

Moses approached a burning bush, and God spoke to him,

whereas E maintains that God spoke to him immediately.

From J we learn that Yahweh himself will bring the Israelites

out of Egypt; whereas E holds that Yahweh entrusts this

task to Moses. Furthermore the deity declares twice that he

has seen the affliction of his people. Likewise there are two

occurrences of and he spoke (vv. 5, 6) and and now go (vv.

9a+16, 10).27 If this minute analysis strikes the unprejudiced

reader as somewhat overrefined and possibly lacking in a

sense of humor, we can only say that this is what we are asked

to accept in place of the narrative as it stands. Refined as

such analysis may be, we must nevertheless evaluate it.

According to Fohrer, the words of 3:1, and he came unto

the mountain of God, belong to E and not to J. It would seem

that a redactor has cut these words out of the E document

and inserted them in J (which comprises the earlier part of

verse one and continues with verse two), apparently for the

purpose of making it appear that Sinai was the mountain of

Elohim. That such a procedure is unnatural (great books

are not made this way, to say nothing of the question of the


avoided. Vv. 16 ff. probably belong to E; Gressmann regards vv. 18-22

as a later element. Carpenter and Harford (The Composition of the Hexa-

teuch, 1902, p. 515) attribute 3:2-4a, 5, 7-9a, 14, 16-18 to J and 3:1, 4b,

6, 9b-13, 15, 19, 21 to E. It should be noted particularly with respect to

Gressmann, how determinative a role the divine names play in the docu-

mentary analysis.

26 R. Smend (Die Erzahlung des Hexateuck auf ihre Quellen untersucht,

1912) had suggested the presence of a fifth document in the entateuch

(cf. Young: An Introduction to the Old Testament, 1958, p. 15 ). Fohrer

adopts this position, labelling this fifth document N (op. cit., p. 8) because

of its nomadic character.

27 Op. cit., p. 29.



Bible's inspiration) is evident, but more than that, the true

significance of the names is ignored.28

We may note that in 4:27 and 18:5 (English 4:28 and 18:6)

there is a similar usage of the word Elohim. In the earlier

days of documentary analysis it was simply the presence of

the divine name which led to these passages being assigned

to what is today known as E. The reason for the usage of

Elohim is to show that the mountain belongs to the true God

and is thus to be distinguished from other mountains. Psalm

68:17 likewise uses the name (although without the definite

article) to distinguish Sinai from ordinary mountains. It is

for this reason also that, both in 4:20 and 17:9, the rod is

designated the rod of God. This rod is thus set apart from all

other rods, as that which belongs to God.

There is a reason for the prominence of Elohim in the

early chapters of Exodus, but it is one which modern scholar-

ship largely ignores. Modern scholarship would maintain

that the name Yahweh was first made known to the Israelites

at the time of the Exodus. In so maintaining, however, it

overlooks the deep significance of the name. With the book

of Exodus we are entering upon new epoch in the history

of redemption. The patriarchal period is past, and the de-

scendants of the patriarchs are now but a slave people in a

foreign land. Will their God help them at this juncture of

their history? They have known this God under various

designations, Elohim, El Shaddai, and Yahweh, yet they have

not known the full significance, nor have they experienced

the full significance, of the name Yahweh. They must learn

that Elohim, the powerful God of creation and providence is

also Yahweh, the redeemer God of the covenant. Hence, the


28 The term is here used by way of anticipation. There is no evidence

of any kind from any source to support the position that the mountain

was regarded as sacred before Moses' calling. The designation Horeb

apparently applied not merely to one mountain but to several. Cf. Heng-

stenberg (Dissertations on the Genuineness of the Pentateuch, Vol. II, pp.

325-327) for one of the earliest presentations of this view. In this passage

the term Myhilox< is appropriate in order, to connect with what precedes

(e. g., 2:25 where the word appears twice and to show that the true God

is the One who appears to Moses. Cf. Gus Holscher: "Sinai und Choreb"

in Festschrift Rudolf Bultmann, 1949, pp 127-132. The question of the

significance of these two names we plan treat in greater detail in con-

nection with the exposition.



frequent usage of Elohim in the early chapters of Exodus

(cf., e. g., 1:17, 20, 21; 2:23, 25) prepares the way for the

revelation of the name Yahweh. At the same time, although

Elohim was regarded as the God of creation and providence,

he was also the God to whom Israel cried in the time of her

deep need. The usage of Elohim, then, is to call attention

and to prepare the way for the approaching epoch of revelation

and to indicate that before it the present epoch was about to

pass away. Israel must learn the lesson that the God to whom

she had turned in her times of need is the Yahweh of redemp-

tion who is about to enter into covenant with her.

With verse two the transition begins. Here the angel is

designated the Angel of the Lord, which may have been some-

what of a stereotyped expression. The word Yahweh in verse 4,

however, clearly points to the transition. We are to learn that

he whom the people had worshipped and known as Elohim

is truly Yahweh, their covenant God. The term Yahweh

appears seven times and in verses 2, 4, and 7 the language is

that of the writer of the account. The change, however, is

not absolute, for the language reverts immediately to Elohim,

and in verse four which contains the first usage of Yahweh

as a subject, the word Elohim also occurs. This verse is one

of the strongest stumblingblocks in the way of a documentary

analysis. God is Yahweh, but he is also Elohim, and so we

are still in the state of transition. Thus the way is prepared

for the identification of God in verses 6 ff. as the God of the


From this point on to the close of the conversation respecting

the significance of the covenant name, Elohim is exclusively

employed (cf. vv. 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15). When Elohim has

made it clear that he is Yahweh and will make himself known

as Yahweh, the designation Yahweh alone is used until the

end of the chapter. In fact, Moses is commanded to make

known to the Israelites that Yahweh, the God of their fathers,

has appeared unto him (v. 15 and cf. v. 18).

It is apparent, then, that there is a very definite reason for

the distribution of the divine names in this chapter. Before

the people know that Elohim is Yahweh, Moses himself must

have that knowledge, and it is the purpose of this chapter

to show that God did convey that information to him. As

far as the usage of the divine names is concerned, we must



conclude that there is a genuine unity in the chapter, and

as a unity, therefore, we shall proceed to study the content

of the chapter. Other arguments advanced to demonstrate

a lack of unity or the presence of duplicate accounts we shall

consider as we turn to the exposition of the passage. As far

as the presence of the divine names is concerned, instead of

lending support to the documentary analysis, they are strongly

opposed to it, and in one particular instance, namely, verse 4,

where both Yahweh and Elohim occur, constitute a serious

obstacle to documentary partition.


The Burning Bush


Before attempting an exposition of the passage we must

give consideration to the question of the burning bush, for

this question brings us face to face with the problem of the

nature of Exodus 3. Martin Noth claims that it is a favorite

explanation of exegetes that the burning bush is a manifesta-

tion similar to St. Elmo's fire, and he thinks that, although

we cannot regard this as a certain explanation, we must

imagine something of the sort.29 Such a phenomenon was

regarded as something awesome, a sign of the divine presence.

There was a local tradition of a holy place with a burning

bush and this has now enterered into Israelite tradition to

provide a concrete background for the account of the first

encounter of Moses with God.30

With this explanation we are in effect asked to regard the

chapter as nothing more than an account of ancient tradi-

tions of the Hebrews. Nowhere does Noth make it clear

that the true God did appear to Moses, as this chapter records.

For our part we are compelled to consider the chapter as


29 Martin Noth: Exodus, E. T., Philadelphia, 1962, p. 39. During stormy

weather discharges of atmospheric electricity give off a glow from the

extremities of pointed objects such as ships' masts. The term St. Elmo

is a corruption of St. Erasmus (or Ermo), the patron saint of Mediterranean

sailors. Has anyone, however, ever mistaken St. Elmo's fire for a burning

bush that burned yet was not consumed? Certainly the learned and wise

Moses would not have done so.

30 This statement cannot be supported by any evidence. It fits in well

with the prevailing naturalistic account of the origin of Israel's religion

and hence is almost cavalierly adopted



sacred Scripture and so to interpret it. Without at this point

endeavoring to give a defense of the position that the Scripture

of the Old as well as the New is a special revelation from

God, we shall nevertheless proceed upon that assumption and

seek to point out the inadequacy inherent in alternate attempts

to explain the miracle of the burning bush other than as a

genuine miracle.31

Hugo Gressmann has perhaps collected the greatest number

of supposedly similar phenomena, and it will be well briefly

to consider these. He mentions that some appeal to the

phenomenon of St. Elmo's fire, as well as to fire brands or

reflexes of light, which must often have occurred in dry lands

with an abundance of storms. Gressmann, however, thinks

that this is a contradictio in adiecto, for where there are many

storms, he says, there is fruitful land and much rain. Further-

more, he claims that underlying this theory is the false idea

that Yahweh was originally a storm deity, whereas only later

on the soil of Canaan did he become such. If Sinai were a

volcano, one could he thinks, if he were proceeding upon

rationalistic grounds, seek to explain the burning bush upon

the basis of volcanic phenomena, or of subterranean fire,

assuming that the bush stood near escaping gases from under

the ground.

Gressmann tells us that there are accounts of burning bushes

or holy trees which fell into flames and were not consumed.32

Thus Achilles Tatius relates concerning Tyre that fire en-

veloped the branches of a sacred olive tree but the soot of

the fire nourished the tree. Thus it is claimed that there

exists friendship between fire and tree. Nonnus tells of a

burning tree upon a floating rock in the sea, and Georgius

Syncellus relates that a tree by the grave of Abraham and

Isaac seemed to burn but did not burn. Eustathius speaks

of the same phenomenon however in different terms, asserting

that when the tree had been lighted it was fully on fire, and

when the fire burned out, the tree still stood sound. Gress-

mann further calls attention to the legend that a pious man

once saw the holy walnut tree at Nebk in flames. Believing


31 In Thy Word Is Truth, Grand Rapids, 1957, we have ought to set

forth the reasons why we believe the Bible to be the Word of God.

32 Op. cit., pp. 26-29.



eyes have supposedly seen mysterious fires or lights in trees

and pious ears have at the same time heard wondrous music.

Gressmann believes that the luster as well as the music belong

to the appearance of the holy, and just as the music is not

to be explained upon the basis lof some naturalistic phe-

nomenon, neither is the light nor the fire.

How are these phenomena to be related to what is given

in Exodus? If we assert that they are simply the characteristics

of myth and saga then we have relegated the Exodus narrative

to the same category as tales of myth and saga. We then

have in the third chapter of Exodus an account which is not

historically true, but is simply a story which the ancient

Hebrews liked to tell. It is a part of their tradition and is

probably aetiological in nature, designed to explain why

certain things are as they are. Sinai was regarded as a holy

mountain, and the saga or myth or call it what one will of

the burning bush gives the explanation why this is so. The

roots of this story are lost in hoary antiquity. Perhaps there

may have been some basis of truth in it; perhaps not. If

form criticism tells us that we have here an aetiological saga,

then we cannot take the narrative seriously. It is merely an

explanation, possibly containing some elements of truth, of

the fact that in the day of the writer men regarded Mount

Sinai as a holy mountain.

There are those, however, who seek to give a rationalistic

explanation of the phenomenon, and Gressmann rightly criti-

cizes them. It is rather difficult to explain a burning bush

as the result of volcanic phenomena, for how could this

explain the fact that the bush was burning and yet was not

consumed? The same is true of subterranean fire. How does

anyone know that the bush was close to seeping gases?

Furthermore, both of these explanations leave too much

unexplained. Moses knew the country intimately, and had

Sinai been a volcano or had there been a place where sub-

terranean gases issued forth, he would have known it well.

and probably often would have seen the appearances of such

volcanic action or subterranean fire. Even assuming that he

did not know the country, an assumption that no one who

knows the desert would entertain for an instant,33 when he


33 The present writer had the privilege of travelling in the Sinai peninsula



approached the bush he would have seen that there was noth-

ing at all out of the ordinary. He would have realized that

there was nothing more than volcanic action or seeping gases

and he would have known the reason why the bush appeared

to burn without being consumed. Furthermore, the discovery

of the actual truth of the situation would have destroyed any

psychological condition in which he might have thought that

he heard a voice speaking to him.34 The naturalistic inter-

pretations do not explain; they create more difficulties than

they remove. As the exposition proceeds we shall seek to

point out in greater detail what some of these difficulties are.

It remains to insist that the account of the burning bush is

sui generis. The alleged parallels which Gressmann has

adduced in his attempt to show that Exodus 3 belongs to a

certain type of literature are really not parallels at all. For

that matter there is no parallel to the account of the burning

bush. We have but to examine the first of Gressmann's

alleged parallels, the account found in the Erotica.35 To be

noted in the first place is the fact that the olive tree is found

on sacred ground, i. e., ground which was commonly recog-

nized as sacred. This was not the case with the burning bush.

Moses did not know that the place was sacred and had no

hesitation in approaching. Indeed, the reason why he ap-

proached was idle curiosity; he merely wanted to know what


in 1930. At one point the goat-skin sack which contained our entire

water supply broke open and all the water poured out upon the ground.

The Bedouin were not troubled. At a further point on the journey one

of them took the sack and walked off into the desert. Five hours later he

returned with the sack filled with water. He had remembered an under-

ground spring. The Bedouin know the desert like a book. This is one

reason why all naturalistic attempts to explain the burning bush are

somewhat ridiculous.

34 Some of the naturalistic explanations are that a flake of gypsum blown

against a twig may have set a bush alight. It is said that once a year

the sunlight penetrates through a chink in the rocks on the summit of

Jebel ed-Deir and falls upon a spot at the foot of Jebel Musa. Hence, it is

hinted that this might in some way be connected with the vision per-

ceived by Moses. Cf. the interesting discussion in Joan Meredyth Chichele

Plowden: Once In Sinai, London, 1940, pp. 48, 147-150.

35 Op. cit., p. 26, to> de> Xwri<on i[ero<n. Thus the place is introduced

as already sacred. It was merely a shrine; the ground mentioned in

Exodus 3 only becomes sacred because God has appeared there. Once

the theophany was concluded the place would no longer be sacred.



was happening. Only as he drew near did God tell him of

the nature of the place. Furthermore, the leaves of the tree

were known to be bright or sparkling; nothing similar is

related in Exodus.36 Fire was planted with the tree and

catches the branches with a mighty flame and the soot of the

fire nourishes the tree. Thus, fire and tree are said to be


A mere reading of this account will reveal the profound

differences that exist between it and the narrative in Exodus.

In Tatius' account the fire is said to be planted, for the

purpose is to show that there is a friendship between what is

planted and the fire. The precise sense of soot (ai]qa<lh) is

not as clear as might be desired but apparently the thought

is that the fire somehow gives nourishment to the tree. What

strikes one immediately is that in this narrative there is

nothing approaching the seriousness of the Exodus account.

The burning bush is not a wonder known far and wide, but

an event which Moses alone was permitted to behold. Fur-

thermore, it was filled with deep significance, for it revealed

that the Holy God was present in the midst of his people

and it prepared the way for the revelation of the covenant

name of God. The wonder was not to show the friendship

between fire and something planted, but to induce in the

heart of Moses the proper reverence so that in humility he

would be willing to go forth as a messenger of the Holy God

who had appeared unto him.38


36 Op. cit., p. 26, faidroi?j (bright, cheerful, beaming) toi?j kla<doij.

37 Note the passive pefu<teutai, to> futo<n. The meaning of the

episode is au!th puro>j fili>a kai> futou?.

38 In the interpretation of Nonnus (see Gressmann, op. cit., p. 26 for

references) we are really dealing with an event of magic. Two rocks

swim (plw<ousin) in the sea (ei]n a[li) on which a pair of self-planted olive

trees of the same age grow. From the burning tree (a]po> flogeroi?o de>

de<ndrou) sparks shoot forth, and enflame the unburned (a]flege<oj) olive


Another alleged parallel has to do with a "wonderful terebinth" (th>n

qaumasi<an tere<binqon) that grew where Jacob supposedly buried the

gods which he had brought. Offerings were brought to an altar by the

trunk of the tree, which seemed to be destroyed but was not burned up

(h[ d ] ou] katekai<eto dokou?sa).

Eustathius speaks of the same matter, stating that after the terebinth



This brings us to the heart of the problem. If we at all

take the Bible seriously we are compelled to assert that there

must have been some compelling reason which caused Moses

to return to Egypt and to deliver the nation. All subsequent

history is based upon the assumption that Moses did in fact

bring forth the people from Egyptian bondage. Whence arose

the conviction in Moses' heart that he was thus to deliver

the people? The Bible gives a clear answer to that question;

the Bible declares that God appeared to Moses and charged

him with the task of deliverance.

The burning bush was a miracle performed by God himself.

It introduced that great period of miracles in Biblical history

when God must show his saving power to Pharaoh and

perform signs and wonders upon him. Israel must know that

the God whom Moses proclaims to them is the God whom

their fathers worshipped, the God who is in sovereign control

over all the elements of nature. Such a God they may follow

and such a God they may worship. In the miracle of the

burning bush then, we see no low display of magical power,

but rather a manifestation of the holiness of him who was in

truth the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

(to be concluded)




was set on fire (u[fafqei?sa lit., lighted from beneath, by whom?) it be-

comes completely fire (o!lh fu?r gi<netai). When the fire is, out (ka-

tasbesqei?sa) it is seen to be unharmed. How completely different from

the miracle recorded in Exodus!




This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Westminster Theological Seminary

Chestnut Hill

Philadelphia, PA 19118


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu