In the Hebrew Bible the book of Exodus is named after the first words in the book, we’elleh shemot, meaning ‘these are the names’. The English title ‘Exodus’ comes to us via Latin and is an abbreviation of the Greek title of the book, exodos aigyptou, meaning ‘going out from Egypt‘. Exodus describes the lives of the Hebrews in forced labour in Egypt and their rescue by God who redeems them to live as a community devoted to his service. The second book in the Hebrew Bible after Genesis, it is a story about how the nation of Israel gained its identity: it describes the slavery experienced and the ‘going out’ from such hardship to freedom, as well as the establishment of community life at the binding of the covenant at Sinai, the giving of the law and the building of the tabernacle. Such themes define the book of Exodus as one of most significant stories in the Old Testament without which much that precedes or follows the book would have little significance.
The book shares in the themes and structures of the larger composition of the Pentateuch, and needs to be understood not as a self-standing unit but as part of the larger whole. The story of how the Hebrews ventured into Egypt is told at the end of Genesis, whereas the wilderness wanderings are continued in Numbers, for example.
How should one structure the book of Exodus? There is no one way to understand its structure. Some have described it as a diptych (a writing in two panels or parts), but there is no agreement as to where one section ends and the other begins. Others claim that the book should be divided into three or more sections, while yet others focus on the themes in the book, suggesting a concentric structure. Here, for the sake of clarity, the content will be divided into three sections.
Chapters 1–15 describe the Hebrews’ liberation from the land of Egypt, sometimes referred to as ‘the exodus’ (with a lower-case ‘e’). It can be divided into four acts. In chapters 1–2, the oppression of the Hebrews is described, and the human hero of the book, Moses, is introduced. In chapters 3–5, God reveals his name YHWH and calls Moses to deliver his people, and his initial failed attempts to do so are described. The main action appears in chapters 6–12 (with an appendix in chapter 13), where the call to Moses and revelation of God’s name are renewed, and battle is joined between YHWH and Pharaoh through the so-called plagues, in which YHWH emerges victorious and the Israelites leave Egypt. In chapters 14–15, Pharaoh attempts to stop them, but is finally destroyed with all his army as the Israelites safely cross the Red Sea.
The next section (Exodus 16–18) mainly describes the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness towards Sinai, and their complaints at their situation, to which God responds in such memorable episodes as the water flowing from the rock (Exodus 17) and the manna and quails (Exodus 16).
In the third section (Exodus 19–40), God makes a covenant with the Israelites at Mount Sinai, based on a law code by which they are to live (Exodus 19–24), including the well-known Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17); and then gives instructions about the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 25–31). Before the fulfilment of these instructions in Exodus 35–40 falls the story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32–34), in which the Israelites rebel against the first commandment, but are ultimately forgiven. The last chapter of the book focuses on the setting up of the tabernacle, which is filled by the glory of the LORD in the form of a cloud (Exodus 40).
Date and authorship
Moses wrote the book of Exodus…. or did he? In fact, although Moses is certainly one of the main characters in the book, it would be difficult to imagine Moses writing down the story of his birth (Exodus 2:1-10) or the preceding events which seem to span more than a generation before Moses (Exodus 1:1-22). The issue of authorship is not unique to the book of Exodus. This book is part of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, and the question who wrote Exodus is also part of a larger question, who authored the Pentateuch. Traditionally authorship of the Pentateuch was ascribed to Moses or at least associated with his authority. But since at least the Middle Ages questions have been raised over the variety of stylistic and thematic differences, as well as perceived inconsistencies in the Pentateuchal narratives. Moreover, it was recognized to be unlikely that Moses would have narrated events about or after his death (Genesis 12:6; 36:31; Deuteronomy 34).
In modern times one of the most commonly accepted theories of authorship is the so called Documentary Hypothesis, which asserts that the Pentateuch is the composite of earlier sources joined together by editors. Adherents of this hypothesis normally ascribe the material of Exodus to three sources: the older sources (10th to 6th centuries) J and E (not always easily distinguished), so named for the use of YHWH (JHWH in German) for the name of God in the J source and the use of ‘elohim’ in E before Exodus 3; and P, so named because of its apparent priestly concerns, generally dated to the 6th and/or 5th century, though certain mainly Israeli scholars place it earlier. P’s style is distinctive, and Exodus 25–31 and 35–40 are attributed to it, along with much of Exodus 6–16, and some suggest that the writer might have been the final editor of the book.
Recently some writers (e.g., Reinhard G. Kratz) have adopted supplementary theories, according to which the material was gradually built up from a small core rather than resulting from the interweaving of sources. But even they would generally distinguish between P and the other material.
Most scholars, whichever theory they adopt, would agree that the book of Exodus came to its final form during or after the exile in the 6th or 5th century BCE.
Is the book of Exodus history? Some have suggested that it would be best described not as history but as ‘cultural memory’. Exodus would be a portrayal of the Israelites’ past that is not necessarily factual but rather defines God and his people in a way that creates a common cultural memory of the nation’s origin and thus gives the nation her identity. It is certainly true that Exodus is not history as modern historians might define it. The main character of Exodus is not Moses but God: the focus is on God, God’s deeds for his people and what God requires of them. As such Exodus is often described as salvation history. This is not to say that there are no issues important to a modern historian mentioned in Exodus, such as names or places; rather, these are of secondary importance.
This has not stopped scholars from trying to define the date of the exodus (with suggestions ranging from the 16th to the 12th century BCE) or to find the places mentioned in the text. However, there are no archaeological traces of the exodus. Some claim that circumstantial evidence from the 2nd millennium BCE suggests that it was possible for the exodus to have taken place even if it cannot be proved. And the name ‘Moses’ is certainly of Egyptian origin. But the exodus remains a matter of faith.
The same may be said of the events in the latter parts of the book. The covenant of Sinai and the wilderness tabernacle are cultural memories. The story of the covenant serves as the foundation of Israel’s commitment to the legal and moral framework of their society, understood as YHWH’s teaching and commandments. The prescriptions for the tabernacle likewise are the basis of the ritual life of the people centred, in post-exilic times, on the temples of Jerusalem, for the Jews, and of Mount Gerizim, for the Samaritans. Whether accepted as memory, history, salvation history or a combination of all of these concepts, the book of Exodus remains primarily a story of faith.
The story of Exodus may be understood as narrative (see Walter J. Houston 2013). The genre of chapters 1–15 is melodrama, a battle between two sides, good and evil, in which of course the good side wins. The narrative in the second and third parts of the book might be defined as comedy, the story of a relationship passing through misunderstanding and quarrelling to eventual reconciliation—on YHWH’s terms. There are four main characters: YHWH, Moses, the Israelites taken as a collective, and Pharaoh. YHWH is motivated by concern for his people, but even more by concern for his honour or ‘glory’. The Israelites are painted in unflattering colours, slow to trust Moses or YHWH, quick to complain and to throw over the traces. Moses is no mere pawn in YHWH’s hand, but has his own integrity, at one point successfully opposing YHWH to defend his people from destruction (Exodus 32:11-14). Pharaoh in contrast is played like a puppet by YHWH, who makes him delay the deliverance for the sake of YHWH’s glory.
Parts of Exodus (20:1-17; 20:22–23:19) are generally defined as law. Only 21:2–22:20, however, is law in the normal sense of the word, much of it written in a similar style to the Mesopotamian law codes. The Ten Commandments (20:1-17), 20:22-26, and 22:21–23:19 are better defined as religious and moral teaching: here individuals are made responsible for their conduct before God.
The story of the covenant (19, 24, 34) links narrative with law and teaching. Here the Israelites commit themselves to the observance of YHWH’s commandments, and implicitly bind all their descendants to it also.
The book of Exodus is foundational to the Jewish faith: it tells the story of how the nation of Israel came to be, how the name of God was revealed to them and the role the covenant and law play in their understanding of her relationship with God. The Passover is still celebrated as an ancient annual family festival in memory of the exodus, and the giving of the law is commemorated at Shavuot (Pentecost).
For Christians the exodus story has provided not only a description of God’s dealings with Israel but also an analogy for the initiation of baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, taken up by Origen) as well as the death of Christ: he is the one and only perfect Passover lamb sacrificed to bring forgiveness to humankind (Luke 9:31; 1 Corinthians 5:7).
Both Jews and Christians have continued to interpret the book of Exodus in various ways. The Wisdom of Solomon is a further elaboration of the story, while Exodus Rabbah contains a selection of rabbinical comments and narratives explaining as well as interpreting the message of the book of Exodus. In the 4th century Gregory of Nyssa used the story of Moses ascending Mount Sinai as an illustration of the Christian’s progression in the knowledge of God, whereas during the 3rd century Origen described the exodus somewhat controversially as an image of the relationship between the church (as Israel) and Israel (as Pharaoh).
Even in modern times the fascination with the book of Exodus has not diminished. The story of tyranny overthrown and freedom gained has been the subject of various paintings by, among others, Tintoretto and Poussin; and Poussin treated another part of the book in his painting The Adoration of the Golden Calf. Plays and films have also been based upon Exodus, including The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt (as mentioned above).
The exodus has been an inspiration in various political and social conflicts. The spiritual ‘Go Down, Moses’ expresses the black slaves’ longing for freedom in the pre-Civil War southern USA. More recently, the exodus has been taken by liberation theologians, such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and José Miranda, as a model for the liberation of the poor of Latin America from the oppression of capitalism and the ruling class.
Not all readers have taken Exodus positively. What do we make of a God who sacrifices one nation (Egypt) to save another (Israel)? This was a question already raised by the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud (Megilla 10) where God is portrayed as ordering the angels not to sing at the victory at the Red Sea since the drowning Egyptians were also his creatures. Recently, some have asked why the Canaanites should be destroyed in order to give Israel a land, the ultimate object of the exodus (Exodus 3:8, 17); not least since historically their destruction has been taken by conquerors as justification for the massacre of indigenous peoples.
Childs, Brevard S. Exodus: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. London: SCM Press, 1974.
Dozeman, Thomas D. Exodus. Eerdmans Biblical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
Gowan, Donald E. Theology in Exodus: Biblical Theology in the Form of a Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994.
Houston, Walter J. “Exodus.” Pages 67-91 in The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Houston, Walter J. The Pentateuch. SCM Core Text. London: SCM Press, 2013.
Kratz, Reinhard G. The Composition of the Narrative Books of the Old Testament. London: T & T Clark International, 2005.
Langston, Scott M. Exodus through the Centuries. Blackwell Bible Commentaries. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
Meyers, Carol. Exodus. New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Propp, William H. C. Exodus. 2 vols. Anchor Bible 2 and 2A. New York: Doubleday, 1998 and 2006.
Sawyer, John F. A. A Concise Dictionary of the Bible and Its Reception. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009.