by Lauren Stouffer
Copyright © 2004
Introduction to Exodus
second book in the Torah, begins where Genesis ended—with the children of Israel living in Egypt. The original Hebrew title of the book is “and
these are the names,” and the title “Exodus” harkens from the Greek Septuagint,
or LXX. By the beginning of Exodus, the twelve
brothers who settled in Egypt
to escape from famine have become a nation suffering in slavery at the hands of
the Pharaoh. Exodus tells the story of God’s
deliverance of his chosen people from bondage in Egypt,
the journey of the Israelites from Egypt
to Sinai, and the giving of the law to Moses, laying the foundation for the
nation of Israel.
The Book of Exodus
The book of
Exodus opens with the children of Israel
in bondage in Egypt. Pharaoh attempts to control the Israelite
population by enslaving them (1:10ff), having midwives kill baby boys at birth
(1:16f), and throwing all the baby boys in the Nile
(1:22). When Moses is born to a Levite
family, his mother hides him for three months before placing him in a basket in
the Nile River where Pharaoh’s daughter finds
Moses and adopts him (2:1-10). Moses
grows up in Pharaoh’s household, but he flees Egypt after killing an Egyptian
taskmaster who had been beating a Hebrew, settling in Midian
and living as a shepherd (2:11-16).
While tending the flocks of his father in law, Jethro,
Moses sees a burning bush and receives his call to return to Egypt and deliver the Israelites
from bondage (ch. 3).
Along with his brother Aaron, Moses
confronts Pharaoh and demands that Pharaoh release the Israelites. God uses the ten plagues to force Pharaoh to release the
Israelites, showing himself to be Yahweh—the covenant-keeping God (7:5, 17;
8:22)— while emphasizing his supremacy over the gods
(12:12). After the first Passover and
the death of the firstborn of Egypt,
Pharaoh finally agrees to release the Israelites, who leave Egypt under the
guidance of Moses. The Israelites escape
Pharaoh’s pursuit, crossing the Reed
Sea on dry ground (ch. 14). God
provides manna and quail for the people to eat (ch.
16) and water for them to drink (ch. 17) on their
journey into the wilderness of Sinai.
Three months after leaving Egypt, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai. God’s
presence descends to the top of the mountain (19:20), and Moses ascends the
mountain to receive the law and instructions for building the Tabernacle (ch. 20-31, 34:4-28).
However, while Moses is on the mountain, the people ask Aaron to make
gods for them (32:1). Aaron fashions a
golden calf, and the people sacrifice to the idol, provoking God’s anger to the
point that God decides to wipe them out (32:10). Moses persuades God to relent (32:14), and
the Israelites proceed to construct the Tabernacle—complete with its altars, laver, and ark—according to the instructions Moses
has received so that God may “dwell among them” (25:8).
Date of the Exodus
scholars disagree about whether the events described in the book of Exodus took
place in the 15th or in the 13th century BC. Arguments for a late date of around 1260
include the names of the Egyptian cities mentioned in Exodus 1:11 and burn
lines found at Lachish,
Debir, and Bethel
dating to about 1200. Arguments for an
early date of around 1445 include scriptural evidence in 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges
11:26 and archeological evidence provided by the Merneptah
Stele and the Amarna letters, all of which seem to
indicate that the Israelites arrived in the land long before the time suggested
by the late-date theories.
Location of the Reed Sea
crossing of the sea in Exodus 14 also presents some historical
difficulties. The Hebrew text of Exodus
13:18 actually reads “Sea
not “Red Sea.”
In light of this fact, there are several possible locations for the sea
crossing. One option suggests that the
crossing occurred in the region of Lake Timsah and
the Bitter Lakes, East of the Nile River and North of the Gulf of Suez, since
these freshwater lakes would have had more surrounding plant life (hence “Reed
Sea”) than would the salty Red Sea.
Another possible location for the crossing is at the Gulf of Suez—the
northern tip of the Red Sea—which borders the Sinai peninsula on its western side. Likewise, there are more than six
geographically divergent sites that have been identified as possibilities for
the location of Mount Sinai.
Key Theological Themes
revelation of his character takes on new meaning in Exodus. The name Yahweh (translated LORD in most
English Bibles), revealed to Moses at the burning bush (3:14; 6:3), is related
to the Hebrew word “to be” and carries with it the connotation of eternal self-sufficiency. The Israelite’s understanding of God as
Yahweh is greatly impacted in Exodus as God remembers his covenant obligations
his law (ch. 19-31), responds to intercessory prayer
(32:11-14), and dwells in the midst of his people in the Tabernacle (ch. 40). In
addition, the plagues on the Egyptians reveal God’s mighty power to redeem his
people with an outstretched arm, demonstrating to the people of Israel and
Egypt that he is Yahweh (6:6f; 7:5; 10:2).
Presence of God
presence of God among his people is tangibly displayed in Exodus in several
ways. God leads the people out of Egypt,
appearing as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night
(13:21). God’s presence is manifested
further at Sinai (ch. 19) and in his revelation of
his presence to Moses (ch. 33). In the closing chapters of Exodus, God’s
presence comes to reside in the Tabernacle (ch. 40),
and in this way God is present with his people in a tangible sense, dwelling in
a tent in the midst of his people as they make their pilgrimage through the
wilderness of Sinai dwelling in tents themselves.
God liberates his enslaved people by breaking the bonds of Egyptian
oppression. The idea of redemption
implies salvation that comes about by paying a price, and God’s redemption of
his people from slavery is an important theme throughout the Bible. The redemption of Israel
was to be remembered as part of the reason for the Sabbath (Dt.
6:15), and Israelites were commanded to redeem the firstborn of their children
and animals (Ex. 13:2).
It is at Mount
Sinai that Israel
receives the Torah—the instructions that define and detail the way God wants
his people to live. Often known as the
Sinai covenant, this development fills out the promises made to Abraham. Both casuistic and apodicitic laws are found in the Torah. This law code provides stability and order
for the Israelite nation, emphasizing the importance of social justice and holy
lifestyles consistent with a nation living in the presence of God. Significant parallels exist between the
Mosaic law code and other Ancient Near Eastern law
codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, the Ur Nammu Code and the Hittite law code.
Questions Raised by Exodus
The book of Exodus contains many paradoxes that become
apparent as we see God working with Moses and dwelling in the midst of his
people. Consider the following questions
as you read Exodus:
1) Does the fact that God blessed the midwives
imply that the Bible condones lying (1:15-21)?
2) Does God harden peoples’ hearts (4:21; 7:3,
13; 9:12; 10:1, etc.)?
3) Does God approve of slavery and
polygamy? What impact does culture have
on the shaping of the law (21:2-11)?
4) How do we understand lex talionis (the law of retaliation)
5) Can God change his mind? How can God be omniscient and still allow for
genuine freewill on the part of humankind?
Can prayer impact God’s decisions (ch. 32)?
Exodus continues the story of the Israelites who begin to
develop a national identity during their time in the wilderness, transitioning
from their roles as slaves of Pharaoh to that of being servants of Yahweh. Throughout the narrative and the legal
material in Exodus, God’s presence with and concern for his people continue to
be revealed in increasing depth and fullness.