J Follows Deuteronomy and Messes Up His Chronology

I’m continuing my series on John Van Seters’ treatment of Exodus 19-20 in Life of Moses.  I’m doing this one bite at a time.  In this post, I’ll be trying to understand Van Seters’ argument on pages 272-273.

I’ll start with something that Van Seters says on page 272:

“First of all, it has always seemed curious that the theophany in Ex. 19:16-19; 20:18-21 and the subsequent giving of the law in 20:22ff. should be preceded by an earlier dialogue between God and Moses (19:3-6) in which it is assumed that the covenant, including a series of laws, has already been given that the people agree to obey (vs. 7f.).”

The idea here may be that the Israelites say in 19:8—before the law is given in 20:22ff.—that they will obey all of the words that the LORD has spoken, which is past tense, indicating that 19:8 regards the law as already given.  So there is a tension within the chapter: 19:3-8 regards the law as already given, before the law actually is given in 20:22ff.  Now onto another quote:

“Yet if we compare Exodus 19 in terms of its structure with Deut. 5:1ff., we find in the latter an exhortation by Moses to keep the laws that are then associated with the covenant at Horeb, and this reference to laws and covenant comes before the recounting of the actual event of theophany and the giving of the commandments in vs. 4ff.  Of course in Deuteronomy the speech of Moses is all recapitulation of past events mixed with present exhortation so that the order of these items does not constitute a problem.”

Van Seters’ point here is that, in Deuteronomy 5, Moses says that the LORD made a covenant with the Israelites right before Moses talks about the theophany and the terms of the covenant: the Ten Commandments.  But this makes sense in Deuteronomy 5: Moses is saying that Israel made that covenant, right before he describes what that covenant actually was—meaning that Moses is making a statement before he illustrates it.  That works when Moses is recounting the past—for he doesn’t have to relate everything in chronological order.  But it doesn’t make sense in Exodus 19—where people consent to the covenant by agreeing to obey what the LORD has said, before the LORD even gives the terms of the covenant that they are to obey.

Van Seters also compares Exodus 19 with Deuteronomy 4.  There is a pattern:

1.  Moses exhorts (or is to exhort) the people by appealing to a historical event (Baal-Peor in Deuteronomy 4, the Exodus in Exodus 19), followed by a command to obey (Deuteronomy 4:1-8; Exodus 19:3-4).

2.  Israel is presented as special, or as having the potential to become special, if she obeys (Deuteronomy 4:6-8; Exodus 19:5-6).

3.  Theophany and law-giving.

Van Seters thinks that J is following the pattern of Deuteronomy, with the result that havoc is created in J’s narrative sequencing.  In Deuteronomy 4-5, Moses is recounting the past, and he’s not always relating events in chronological order.  He’s giving an exhortation based on events, and so chronological order does not concern him.  His focus is on theme.  But J tries to follow the sequence of events in Deuteronomy 4-5, with the result that he creates incongruity: the Israelites agree to obey words that God has spoken, before God has even spoken them.

That’s interesting.  I will say, though, that J has a little bit of chronological sensitivity in Exodus 19.  In Exodus 19:4, he refers to the Exodus rather than the Baal-Peor incident (which is the historical event that Deuteronomy 4:3 cites), for the Baal-Peor incident has not happened yet.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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