Tools for Students: Outlining

One of the most overlooked tools in a box of a student of biblical history is an outline. Yes, I just said an outline. \”What?!\” You might say, \”Why one earth would an \’outline\’ be such a powerful tool?\” There are a lot of other tools that are far more obvious to most of us: knowing the language of the text (whether that be Classical Hebrew or Koine Greek), peripheral languages (such as Akkadian, Aramaic, Latin, Classic Greek, etc), or the history, literature, and philosophy of the ancient/classical word. And don\’t misunderstand me, I absolutely think that these are powerful tools in their own right. However, I\’m going to talk about outlines because they are terribly overlooked, or, as is more often the case, just done badly. I\’ve been doing a lot of reading for Exodus lately, and it\’s interesting to see how different commentators chose to deal with the content.

Sarna (JPS) posits the below as a possible outline:
– 1.1–15.21 – Bondage to Liberation
– 15.22–18.27 – At the Sea of Reeds
– 19–40 – At Sinai

Hamilton (Intro to Pentateuch) suggests the following (taken from Westermann, 1967):
– God’s Saving Act: Deliverance out of Distress (1–14)
– The Distress (1–11)
– The Deliverance (12–14)
– Man’s Response in Praise (15.1–21)
– God’s Action: Preservation (15.22–18.27)
– From Thirst (15.22–27; 17.1–7)
– From Hunger (16)
– From Despair (17.8–16; 18.1–27)
– Man’s Response in Obedience (19–31)
– Transgression and Renewal (32–40)

Dozeman (Eerdmans) offers the following:
Divine Power
– Setting (1–2)
– Characters (3.1–7.7)
– Conflict (7.8–15.21)
Divine Presence
– Journey (15.22–18.27)
– Revelation (19.1–24.11)
– Sanctuary (24.12–40.38)

The three examples above are characteristic of most of the outlines that I\’ve seen. The first (Sarna) is an outline based on location: this seems simplistic. Yes, it does look nice, but it doesn\’t add anything to the study of the Exodus, nor does it explain anything about the book other than that Exodus is about a journey from one place to another–which the (English) title does quite well already. The second (Westermann) is more on track. It seeks to find an outline from the internal structure of the book\’s own queues rather than some externally mandated place markers that the text doesn\’t seem to emphasis. Of the three varieties, I find this to be the most helpful. It tries to explain the emphasis given to the various themes of the book and expect their relationship to each other. However, I\’m not convinced that Westermann (or Hamilton, who quotes him) quite has it either. The third (Dozeman) takes more of a linear-literary track to explaining the book that is somewhat appealing. It certainly does well to show the progression of the book, but again, I\’m not convinced that it does too much to explain the progression.

In other words–what\’s the point of an outline? I think that the outline should do more than track its progress–it should explain it. In other words, when you look at an outline, you should be able to predict what will follow. The outline should help explain why the author/editor chose to include what (s)he did as well as the order that (s)he placed it in. In other words, I think that an outline should receive more than a nod.

When I consider the format of Exodus, the largest question that comes to my mind is why the author-editor chose to separate the Golden Calf incident (32–33) from the rest of the Sinai narrative (19–20). Sure, we could explain by invoking various strata of editorial changes and desires, but if this is the case then whoever the final editor was (the person who placed it in the format that we find it in our BHSs) must have been an idiot to leave it this way (unless, of course, this was as intended). So, this is where I started. I wanted an explanation that would answer this question. So, here\’s what I came up with.

I. Crisis: Israel has the Wrong Master (Egypt) Exd 1.1–2.22
II. God Hears their Plea Exd 2.23–4.31
III. God Saves Israel from Egypt Exd 5–18
IV. God Plans to Dwell with Israel Exd 19–31
Ia. Crisis: Israel Chooses the Wrong Master (Calf) Exd 32.1–10
IIa. God Hears Moses’ Plea Exd 32.11–14
IIIa. God Preserves Israel from Death Exd 32.15–33.23
IVa. God Plans to Dwell with Israel Exd 34–39
Pinnacle: God Dwells with Israel Exd 40

This arrangement explains why the Sinai narrative (which is primarily rendered as \’historical\’ [whatever one\’s thoughts are on the historicity of Exodus, it\’s clearly portrayed as a report of true events!]) is separated by such a large chunk of Law and cultic material. Beyond that, this arrangement finds a number of parallels that play off of the constant pairings that Exodus shows.

Now, I\’m not necessarily convinced that the above *must* be the correct outline, but I think it\’s at least a step in the right direction.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: