Seeing Exodus 19:1–8: A Literary Structure

dmitry-ratushny-67024-unsplashIn his outstanding monograph on Exodus 19:5–6, A Royal Priesthood: Literary and Intertextual Perspectives on an Image of Israel in Exodus 19:5–6John A. Davies provides a literary/chiastic structure of Exodus 19:1–8. Paying careful attention to the voices (first, second, third person; single or plural) and the contents of these eight verses, he shows two chiastic structures that organize this wonderful passage.

In any study of Exodus or the priesthood, this passage is crucial for our understanding, so I share his outline here for our consideration (p. 35).

A  People of Israel camp at the mountain (third person plural verbs) (vv. 1–2)

B  Moses’ ascent and Yhwh’s summons (third person singular verbs) (v. 3a)

C  Divine instruction regarding delivery of message to Israel (second person singular verbs) (v. 3b)

D  Divine declaration concerning Israel (second person plural verbs) (vv. 4–6a)

C’  Divine instruction regarding delivery of message to Israel (second person singular verbs) (v. 6b)

B’  Moses’ descent and summons to the elders (third person singular verbs) (v. 7)

A’  People of Israel respond (third person plural verbs) (v. 8a)

In the middle of this chiasm, Davies later adds further specificity with his structure of Exodus 19:5b–6a (p. 59):

A you shall be my treasured possession

B among all peoples,

B’ for all the earth is mine;

A’ and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

From these two chiastic structures, we can organize Exodus 19:1–8 like this. Notice a few of the lexical connections.

A On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain,

B while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying,

C “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel:

D1 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

D2 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant,

you shall be my treasured possession

among all peoples,

for all the earth is mine;

and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

C’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

B’ So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.

A’ All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.

The Benefit of ‘Seeing’ the Literary Structure

When we organize Exodus 19:1–8 this way, we begin to see the general outline of Moses thought. This allows us to see the points of emphasis and parallelism in these eight verses. As Davies highlights, Exodus 19:1–8, while set in the narrative of Exodus, displays many poetical features, leading some (like Davies) to see it as an introductory summary of all that takes place in Exodus 19–24 (pp. 36–37). This doesn’t take away from the contents of this passage. Rather, it helps us to see how the details of Exodus 19–24 explicate these eight verses, and how these eight verses explain the covenantal significance of the events at Sinai.

Far from resolving many exegetical questions in this passage, this literary structure is but the first step in interpreting the passage. But without this (or a related) literary structure we will struggle to ascertain the main point and message of this important section in Scripture. Therefore, we should continue to strive to ‘see’ the shape of Scripture and to make our exegetical and theological decisions based on a such a reading.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash