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Departure of the Israelites (David Roberts, 1829)
Matthew A. TsakanikasMay 2, 20238 min read

Sinai as Interpretive Key to Genesis Part II: Exodus of Moses

Part one of this series argues that when looking at the authorship of the Torah, there is a critical understanding that needs to be had: the substantial authorship of Moses establishes the worship and cult that gives context to anything written in the Torah. Consequently, advocating for the necessity of understanding the author’s “cult” in order to understand the context behind their writings. 

In this essay, the argument that the book of Genesis, apart from the Exodus, would never have been written as we have it today had not the Exodus of Moses been successful will be analyzed.

Angelic Guardians

Examples of how Exodus gives final form and phrasing to Genesis are helpful at this point. For starters, how would an Israelite during the time of the wandering in Numbers and through the time of Solomon’s Temple hear or read an account of a cherub guarding the way to Eden? After all, the doors to the entrance of the inner sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple were covered with “carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers” (1 Kings 6:32) and immediately connected the Israelite’s mind with Eden. And Solomon’s Temple was in imitation of the Tabernacle or the Tent of Meeting, as expressed with the cherubim sewn into each of its ten curtains in Exodus 26:1. 

An Israelite would read Genesis through the context of essential authorship of Moses: the worship established by Moses, the Tent of Meeting (also seen in anticipation of the Tabernacle), and the moral instruction that Joseph Ratzinger listed. He would read it through what was most central and essential to the community and through the habitual worship practiced daily in the midst of Israel. He would know what the Tabernacle symbolized: Eden. For Israelites, daily worship and life—centered around the Tent (cf. Exodus 33:10)—created a cultural context through which the Eden of Genesis necessarily was understood by the time Moses (and his successors) communicated a finalized Edenic narrative.

Architecture and Language

Such a finalized narrative was written after the theophany at Mount Sinai in the architecture of both the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple and in the language of Genesis. It is well-established that the theophany before all of Israel at Mount Sinai both established a template for Israelite temple architecture and furnishings and what eventually became the liturgies associated with the Temple. Sinai was first reflected in the Tabernacle and later in Solomon’s Temple and always pointed to the true Holy of Holies (cf. Hebrews 10:19; 12:18-22).

Again, and to continue the example, how would an Israelite living through the time of Numbers read the canonical account of a cherub guarding the way into Eden? He would see in it an account of the Tent and Moses going in and out of the Tent per Exodus 33:9: “When Moses entered the Tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses.” It was not necessarily the pillar speaking with him: “And when Moses went into the tent of meeting. . . he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat” (Numbers 7:89). It is nearly impossible to miss the implications except for a reading method that does not observe basic exegesis: we must enter the mind and culture of the human author who was an Exodus culture (whether it was Moses or prophets on his seat after him). Just as Moses went in and out of the Tent as he chose, so before the Fall, Adam and Eve went in and out of Eden as they chose until they were excommunicated, and the cherub was stationed there to block re-entrance.

As children, many of us are catechized that Genesis “happened” before Exodus, and so readers think of the whole work of Genesis as written or finalized before the Book of Exodus. We, thereby, are conditioned to miss everything Genesis wants to disclose in terms of the Exodus experience, idioms, and cult. Appropriately nuanced, it must be remembered that the Exodus gave final literary form to any prior material tradition, which eventually became the Book of Genesis. There is an angel, a cherub with a flaming sword turning every way and guarding the way into Eden because the people of the Exodus saw this very thing every time Moses entered a symbolic Eden (the Tent of Meeting) during the wandering after the great theophany at Mount Sinai. Recall the fiery theophany on Sinai manifested God descending upon the cherubim and was the work of “elemental spirits” (cf. Galatians 4:3).

Pre-Lapsarian Radiance: The Tent

Whenever Moses went into the Tent, he would come out radiating light from his face (cf. Exodus 34:34-35; 33:11), just as when he came down from Mount Sinai: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai. . . the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29; cf. 33:9). His face “shone” whenever he entered the Tent and spoke with the Lord (cf. Exodus 34:34-35; 33:9). An angel, the Pillar of Cloud, would stand at the entrance and implicitly guard the way in from anyone else as the cherub did Eden. In this way, cherubim engraved on entranceways of tents and temples take on a deeper meaning than mere decoration.

The Tent and the Pillar of Cloud that would stand at the door of the Tent represented, respectively: God’s presence on the mountaintop in the glory cloud and the boundary that was forbidden to be crossed at the base of the mountain. One must recall that the boundary at the base of the mountain (Exodus 19:12-13, 21-23) threatened death to anyone who dared to cross it without invitation, much as the Tree of Knowledge was a border that clearly threatened death to any uninvited trespassers (“eat and you will die”).

The Tent represented the Holy of Holies, and the Pillar of Cloud represented the border into the Holy Place, which no one could enter without the threat of death. . . like “a sword which turned every way” (cf. Genesis 3:24). Moses was entering a type of Eden every time he entered the Tent. “Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out and told the sons of Israel what he was commanded, the sons of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone” (Exodus 34:34-35). Mankind’s original access to God in Eden was reflected in Moses as well.

Israel’s exile from the Tent, and God’s first-born son exiled from Eden, inform one another; especially when reading that a cherub with a flaming sword guarded the way into a holy place in Genesis 3:24. The Israelite experience in the Exodus gives final literary form to any previous tradition of Eden. At Eden, cherubim guarded a garden and sanctuary which had an even holier object at the very center, the Tree of Life. It is Cherubim upon whom God descends in fire at Sinai as though on a cloud and as depicted by the Cherubim overshadowing the ark of the covenant. Clearly, the Pillar of Cloud was an angel—as Exodus 14:19 makes clear through parallelism: “The angel of God. . . went behind them; and the pillar of cloud. . . stood behind them.” The same pillar of cloud was a pillar of fire by night; it both led the Israelites and was their guardian from the Egyptians.

Pre-Lapsarian Radiance: A Pillar of Clouds

A pillar of cloud turns in every way and would put the fear of death into anyone attempting to cross it in Exodus. Matching this, the cherubim of Genesis guarded the way into God’s sanctuary, which was defined as Eden. The theophanic descent on Mount Sinai, which revealed God’s presence and threatened death to trespassers, was seen as a “devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17) and certainly represented a flaming “sword.” Wherever God joins heaven and earth in a unique way to give access to participation in his life-giving covenant, like at Sinai, it is a type of Eden. Even today, we see the Eucharistic celebration depicted as a walled city in the Book of Revelation and angels standing guard at each gateway (cf. Revelation 21:12,22; Hebrews 12:22).

Whenever Moses entered the Tent of Meeting and Tabernacle, he had access to God’s original and life-giving covenant pledged at the creation of the world. He walked out radiating light from his face, which the Israelites beheld every time, and so stood at the entrance of their own tents to watch repeatedly (see Exodus 33:10; cf. 34:34-35). This would have ingrained a particular way of perceiving the Edenic narratives in light of experienced events at Sinai. It would make clear how to perceive original man and woman, how to translate the Hebrew text into the Greek of the Septuagint regarding Moses’ face being “glorified” in Exodus 34:29, and the tradition St. Paul—trained by the great rabbi, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3)—communicates about the brightness of Moses’ face at the tent in II Corinthians 3.

Exodus Defines the Interpretation

Thus, the Exodus experience itself defines the interpretation of the written narratives that follow after the events. It is the point of reference for the culture that was founded upon it and the writings and idioms that came into existence through it. Genesis precedes Exodus in the order of narrative telling. However, it was finalized after the events of Exodus and received its final literary form from the events of the Exodus. Genesis is read with the historical author’s mind only when read through the Exodus events. But this truth isn’t simply one of historical interpretation, for our current cult—the Catholic liturgy—similarly stands as the interpretive lens through which we come to see our faith more clearly and hold to it more firmly.

*Looking forward: the current cult and culture.

**Originally Published on and republished with permission.



Matthew A. Tsakanikas

Dr. Matthew A. Tsakanikas completed graduate studies in Rome with the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Pontifical University of the Lateran. His works have appeared in: Communio: International Catholic Review; Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture; Homiletic and Pastoral Review; Veritas Amoris Review; Catholic World Report; Spirit Daily; New Advent; and other educational sites. He is a professor at Christendom College and an advisor with Magis.