The Literary Structure of Exodus
The book of Exodus is organized into 3 sections that follow the Israelites from Egypt through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai. So the literary structure looks like this. Israel in Egypt, Israel in the wilderness, and Israel at Mt. Sinai.
A. Israel in Egypt (1:1-13:16)
B. Israel in the Wilderness (13:17-18:27)
C. Israel at Mt. Sinai (19-40)
Exodus is a journey narrative like many of the great stories from The Odyssey, to the Aeneid, to The Divine Comedy, to Pilgrim’s Progress, to Lord of the Rings. And the central idea is that the physical journey symbolizes a moral, spiritual, intellectual, or theological journey where the travelers begin in one moral or spiritual place and move to another. In Exodus, Israel begins in slavery and journeys to freedom, Sabbath rest at Mount Sinai.
And the symbolic structure works both vertically and horizontally. Horizontally they move from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, one location to another miles away. Vertically, they begin low, at sea level at the Nile river and move up to a mountain.
The Israelites begin as servants to Pharaoh and end as servants to God. They begin in Pharaoh’s house and end God’s house, the tabernacle. They begin by listening to Pharaoh and his laws and end by listening to God and his laws. They begin by building for Pharaoh, remember the storage cities of Pithom and Ramses, and conclude by building God’s house.
The author has written all of these symmetries that develop throughout the journey, but the structure of the story goes one level deeper. But to understand the symbolism of why the author structured the book into three sections, we have to review some of the details of the book of Exodus.
In Egypt, Israel is enslaved and God calls Moses at the burning bush to deliver his people. God then plagues his people with all manner of elements including raining down fire and delivers his people through the sea. In the Wilderness on the way to Mt. Sinai, God leads his people in a pillar of fire and cloud that illumines their way. Israel complains about the food and God provides them with manna, bread from heaven. When they arrive at Mt. Sinai the firey glory-cloud rests on the mountain and the elders travel up into it to have a meal with God. Moses receives the law as well as the instructions for building the tabernacle.
The climax of the book, and the thing that gets the most space is the tabernacle - the detailed instructions and then the account of the actual construction. The tabernacle occupies 40% of the book of Exodus - 16 out of 40 chapters.
But not only did Moses spend a lot of time talking about the tabernacle, he designed the book to be a literary tabernacle. Just like the Book of Exodus is organized into three sections, geographically designed as Israel journeys from Egypt through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai, so the Tabernacle is organized into three sections through which you may journey: the courtyard, the holy place, and the holy of holies.
But the numerical connections are only the beginning. The events throughout the book correspond to objects in each section of the tabernacle.
For instance, in the courtyard there is the altar for offerings and the bronze basin for washings. These correspond to the fire of the burning bush or the plague of the fire from heaven and the crossing of the red sea. Moving one section in to the most holy place you have a lampstand that provides the only light in the dark tent just like God’s glory cloud provides light to the Israelites. You also have the table of with bread on it just like God provides bread from heaven. And lastly, in the holy of holies you have God’s glory cloud resting on the mountain as well as inside the holy of holies. You also have the ark that includes bread just like the meal that the elders ate as well as the tablets containing God’s Word just like God gives the law at Mt. Sinai.
And as a literary tabernacle, the reader journeys into the tabernacle throughout the reading of Exodus. And this would have been precious to the Israelites because no normal Israelite was allowed in the Holy Place and only 1 Israelite, the high priest, as allowed in the Holy of Holies and only once a year. So literary access to the tabernacle was the only access they had.
But there’s more than that. By incorporating all the aspects of the Israelite’s journey into God’s house, all their experiences, even the bad ones, find their place in God’s house. All these are gathered together into one harmonious architecture, adorning the interior of God’s home.