A summary of Terence Fretheim’s Exodus 3: A Theological Interpretation
Fretheim begins his theological interpretation of Exodus 3 by providing an insight into theology and the role that it can play in interpreting and understanding the bible. He believes that the bible is predominantly a theological book and thus he is interpreting it as it was written, not providing a theological interpretation of it. He quotes the words of Rolf Rendtorff in this, utilizing them to make the point that a theological reading will provide further insight into the text than a literary or historical reading alone can:
The Bible does not only become theological through interpretation by a later-elaborated theology, be it rabbinic or Christian; rather, it is possible and necessary to find the theological ideas and messages of the biblical texts themselves (Rendtorff, qtd. in Fretheim, qtd. in Fowl, 1997, 143)
Fretheim goes on to make the point that, although theology is often accused of introducing an element of subjectivity into the interpretation of written word, it is not alone in doing this and that every single person who provides an analysis of a piece of text “from whatever angle, introduces subjective factors, whether admitted or not” (ibid. 143-144) also introduces their own level of subjectivity. He elaborates on this by making the point that the meaning of a text is a unique interaction between the text itself and the person interpreting it. For this reason, his own reading of Exodus will be influenced by his own religious background, Christianity and Lutheran. Despite this, however, a number of confines to the way in which text is interpreted are in existence and boundaries are set according to the historical setting and background of the works.
Fretheim believes that Exodus 3 is a crucial text and is fundamental to understanding the remainder of the book of Exodus. A key element of this part of the bible concerns God’s interactions with Moses and the significance of the relationship between the two parties. Where many scholars have focused upon the exodus event itself as being the time at which God revealed himself to Israel, Exodus 3 reveals that there was more to this event. By appearing to Moses in advance God was able to provide the people of Israel with foresight into the Exodus and thus the fact that he intended to grant them release from their bondage. Without God’s one to one encounter with Moses the events of the Exodus will potentially have passed by without the children of Israel being able to understand their significance. Through taking this interpretation readers of the bible should gain a greater understanding of Moses’ role as a “recipient of divine revelation” (Op Cit, 144) and also of the investment that God made into this man.
Fretheim describes how Moses’ encounter with God begins. Moses, who is not a religious man, is drawn to God through his natural curiosity. Unlike other revelations, God does not attempt to appear awash power and might. Showing an understanding of Moses’ nature, God summons Moses to him through the burning bush. Not only is this is an intentional act on God’s behalf to avoid scaring Moses away, it also has further meaning and significance due to the manner in which the appearance is made: “the word for bush (senah) is a verbal link to Mount Sinai and, with the fire, anticipates God’s appearance to Moses there “in fire”” (Op Cit, 145). Fire is to be a repetitive image throughout the remainder of the work with the appearance of the angel of Yahweh in fire, God’s leadership of Israel in a pillar of fire and the appearance of an angel in a pillar of fire. Fretheim believes that the physical form of fire is utilized to act as a mask or curtain through which he can appear to the human eye; the fire itself isn’t a manifestation of God, it is a human element through which he can appear.
It is not simply the appearance of God in a visible form that is of relevance; it is also the message he provides that gives the revelation power. Through seeing and hearing God, Moses’ interaction with the divine is all the more intense and significant. Moses is informed of the relevance of the event, and of the person who is communicating with him, through the words spoken. Presence alone is not enough; God’s manifestation needs to have a voice.
The importance of the spoken dialogue between Moses and God continues throughout Chapter 3 and is, according to Fretheim, of theological relevance. Despite being in the presence of the divine, Moses appears to interact with God on an almost equal level. It almost appears that God is searching for Moses’ opinion and direction and, despite the fact that Moses suffers from an inability to voice his opinions at times, he is keen to work with him to gain the knowledge he needs of the human state. Such an exchange may not have been expected and deviates from the images we would envisage. Whereas we may have expected Moses to worship God in blind adulation we actually find that the encounter is low key and Moses questions God in the same way he may question a fellow human being. However, Moses reaction to God entails that he can play a crucial role in influencing the future of Israel. God is left with no choice but to trust in Moses, work with him and allow this man a role to play in facilitating the exodus, “That for God is a risky venture, fraught with negative possibilities” (Op Cit, 147). The situation that arises is not as God would have planned it and he has relinquished some control to Moses.
Fretheim describes how God’s motives to act in Exodus were stimulated by the suffering of the Israelites. His past agreement with the ancestors of the Israelites entails that he is obliged to respond and abide by his promises. Such a motivation to act demonstrates that God’s actions do not occur in isolation to the human state; it is through the covenant with them that he is led to take action. Fretheim goes on to explain the meaning of the sentence “God hears, sees and knows” (Op Cit, 148). The idea here is that God, although divine, is capable of receiving the world not as a human, but even more clearly. Humans are flawed and may not always see and hear clearly, God is not and can thus see and hear all. God’s interaction with Moses and the words spoken provide the reader with further understanding of God’s divine relationship with his people. He feels their suffering on a deep and personal level and is thus different from the likes of Pharaoh who presides over his kingdom in a removed and unfeeling manner.
Fretheim goes on to discuss Moses’ feelings of inadequacy and the way in which God attempts to alleviate them through a promise to be at Moses’ side throughout the events. The word and presence of God become inseparable and these are united with Moses’ physical form to save the Israelites. God is dependant upon a human being in order to deliver his promises and, likewise, Moses is dependent upon the divine for the sight and direction he needs.
Upon appearing to Moses God announces, “I an the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6, qtd in Fretheim qtd in Fowl, 1997, 150). Fretheim discusses how the use of such terminology is utilized to express the continual presence of God within Moses’ history. God is ever present in Moses’ life and has appeared to his ancestors in the form of Yahweh. When questioned by Moses about who he is, God proclaims his name. This, however, but has little effect in removing the mystery surrounding God, it only serves to surround him with further ambiguity. Fretheim claims that the more you know God, the less you understand him, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” (Op cit, 151). He goes on to explain further the potential interpretations of the name God provides to Moses. Fretheim, unlike other scholars who believe that the name God provides is a bypass of his real name, argues that the fact the name is in use throughout the New Testament entails that it is God’s true name and delineates his presence. Through giving his name to Moses, God creates a further relationship with him and thus seeks to shorten the distance between his divine being and Moses’ human form, “naming the name entails closeness, it makes the true encounter and communication possible” (Op Cit, 152).
Upon being told God’s name, Moses is called to communicate his word and name throughout the earth. Moses is to communicate God’s promise to the people, telling them that he will provide them with deliverance from the Egyptians and give them freedom from oppression. He will furnish them with the resources they need to recommence their lives in a new land, Israel.
I found the text extremely interesting and thought provoking. I thought the manner in which Fretheim discussed traditional viewpoints before pointing out alternative interpretations extremely effective in encouraging me to think differently. I thought he presented his points in a clear and transparent manner that was both accessible and easy to understand. His views and commentary provided me with fresh insight into the role of Moses and the criticality of his relationship with God. The unification of the human with the divine was enlightening to me and, whilst at first I was skeptical, the more I read the more I began to buy-in to this viewpoint.