Book of Exodus

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Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicholas Poussin

The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Bible. Starting with the deliverance of Moses by Pharaoh's daughter, it recounts the revelation at the Burning bush where he was called by Yahweh to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. After Pharaoh rejected his and Aaron's demands, according to the book, the Almighty inflicted ten Plagues on Egypt resulting in the Exodus. The Mosaic covenant was made at the biblical Mount Sinai, and subsequently the Tabernacle, with a "divine indwelling" of God with Israel.[1]


Children of Israel in Egypt (1867 painting by Edward Poynter)

The English name Exodus comes from the Ancient Greek: ἔξοδος, romanized: éxodos, lit.'way out', from ἐξ-, ex-, 'out' and ὁδός, hodós, 'path', 'road'.

In Hebrew the book's title is שְׁמוֹת, shemōt, "Names", from the beginning words of the text: "These are the names of the sons of Israel" (Hebrew: וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמֹות בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל‎).[2]


There is no unanimous agreement among scholars on the structure of Exodus. One strong possibility is that it is a diptych (i.e., divided into two parts), with the division between parts 1 and 2 at the crossing of the Red Sea or at the beginning of the theophany (appearance of God) in chapter 19.[3] On this plan, the first part tells of God's rescue of his people from Egypt and their journey under his care to Sinai (chapters 1–19) and the second tells of the covenant between them (chapters 20–40).[4]


Jacob's sons join their brother Joseph in Egypt with their families, where their people begin to grow in number. Four hundred years later, Egypt's new Pharaoh, who does not remember how Joseph had saved Egypt from famine, is fearful that the Israelites could become a fifth column. He forces them into slavery and orders the throwing of all newborn boys into the Nile, so as to reduce the population. A Levite woman (Jochebed, according to other sources) saves her baby by setting him adrift on the river Nile in an ark of bulrushes. Pharaoh's daughter finds the child, names him Moses, and out of sympathy for the Hebrew boy, brings him up as her own.

Aware of his origins, an adult Moses kills an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and flees into Midian to escape punishment. There, he marries Zipporah, daughter of a Midianite priest Jethro, and suddenly encounters God in a burning bush. Moses asks God for his name, to which God replies: "I Am that I Am," the book's explanation for the origins of the name Yahweh, as God is thereafter known. God tells Moses to return to Egypt and lead the Hebrews into Canaan, the land promised to Abraham in the Book of Genesis. On the journey back to Egypt, God seeks to kill Moses as he has not circumcised his son, but Zipporah saves his life.

Moses reunites with his brother Aaron and, returning to Egypt, convenes the Israelite elders, preparing them to go into the wilderness to worship God in a spring festival. Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites from their work for the festival, and so God curses the Egyptians with ten terrible plagues, such as a river of blood, an outbreak of frogs, and the thick darkness. Moses is commanded by God to fix the first month of Aviv at the head of the Hebrew calendar, and instructs the Israelites to take a lamb on the 10th day of the month, sacrifice the lamb on the 14th day, daub its blood on their mezuzot—doorposts and lintels, and to observe the Passover meal that night, during the full moon. The 10th plague then comes that night, causing the death of all Egyptian firstborn sons, and prompting Pharaoh to command a final pursuit of the Israelites through the Red Sea as they escape Egypt. God assists the Israelite exodus by parting the sea and allowing the Israelites to pass through, before drowning Pharaoh's forces.

Geography of the Book of Exodus, with the Nile River and its delta, left, Red Sea and Sinai desert, center, and the land of Israel, upper right

As desert life proves arduous, the Israelites complain and long for Egypt, but God miraculously provides manna for them to eat and water to drink. The Israelites arrive at the mountain of God, where Moses's father-in-law Jethro visits Moses; at his suggestion, Moses appoints judges over Israel. God asks whether they will agree to be his people. They accept. The people gather at the foot of the mountain, and with thunder and lightning, fire and clouds of smoke, the sound of trumpets, and the trembling of the mountain, God appears on the peak, and the people see the cloud and hear the voice (or possibly sound) of God. God tells Moses to ascend the mountain. God pronounces the Ten Commandments (the Ethical Decalogue) in the hearing of all Israel. Moses goes up the mountain into the presence of God, who pronounces the Covenant Code of ritual and civil law and promises Canaan to them if they obey. Moses comes down from the mountain and writes down God's words, and the people agree to keep them. God calls Moses up the mountain again, where he remains for forty days and forty nights, at the conclusion of which he returns, bearing the set of stone tablets.

God gives Moses instructions for the construction of the tabernacle so that God may dwell permanently among his chosen people, along with instructions for the priestly vestments, the altar and its appurtenances, procedures for ordination of priests, and the daily sacrifice offerings. Aaron becomes the first hereditary high priest. God gives Moses the two tablets of stone containing the words of the ten commandments, written with the "finger of God".[5]

Worship of the Golden Calf, Gerrit de Wet, 17th century

While Moses is with God, Aaron casts a golden calf, which the people worship. God informs Moses of their apostasy and threatens to kill them all, but relents when Moses pleads for them. Moses comes down from the mountain, smashes the stone tablets in anger, and commands the Levites to massacre the unfaithful Israelites. God commands Moses to construct two new tablets. Moses ascends the mountain again, where God dictates the Ten Commandments for Moses to write on the tablets.

Moses descends from the mountain with a transformed face; from that time onwards he must hide his face with a veil. Moses assembles the Hebrews and repeats to them the commandments he has received from God, which are to keep the Sabbath and to construct the Tabernacle. The Israelites do as they are commanded. From that time God dwells in the Tabernacle and orders the travels of the Hebrews.


Departure of the Israelites by David Roberts, 1829


Biblical scholars describe the Bible's theologically-motivated history writing as "salvation history", meaning a history of God's saving actions that give identity to Israel – the promise of offspring and land to the ancestors, the Exodus from Egypt (in which God saves Israel from slavery), the wilderness wandering, the revelation at Sinai, and the hope for the future life in the promised land.[6]


A theophany is a manifestation (appearance) of a god – in the Bible, an appearance of the God of Israel, accompanied by storms – the earth trembles, the mountains quake, the heavens pour rain, thunder peals and lightning flashes.[7] The theophany in Exodus begins "the third day" from their arrival at Sinai in chapter 19: Yahweh and the people meet at the mountain, God appears in the storm and converses with Moses, giving him the Ten Commandments while the people listen. The theophany is therefore a public experience of divine law.[8]

The second half of Exodus marks the point at which, and describes the process through which, God's theophany becomes a permanent presence for Israel via the Tabernacle. That so much of the book (chapters 25–31, 35–40) describes the plans of the Tabernacle demonstrates the importance it played in the perception of Second Temple Judaism at the time of the text's redaction by the Priestly writers: the Tabernacle is the place where God is physically present, where, through the priesthood, Israel could be in direct, literal communion with him.[9]


The heart of Exodus is the Sinaitic covenant.[10] A covenant is a legal document binding two parties to take on certain obligations towards each other.[11] There are several covenants in the Bible, and in each case they exhibit at least some of the elements in real-life treaties of the ancient Middle East: a preamble, historical prologue, stipulations, deposition and reading, list of witnesses, blessings and curses, and ratification by animal sacrifice.[12] Biblical covenants, in contrast to Eastern covenants in general, are between a god, Yahweh, and a people, Israel, instead of between a strong ruler and a weaker vassal.[13]

Election of Israel

God elects Israel for salvation because the "sons of Israel" are "the firstborn son" of the God of Israel, descended through Shem and Abraham to the chosen line of Jacob whose name is changed to Israel. The goal of the divine plan in Exodus is a return to humanity's state in Eden, so that God can dwell with the Israelites as he had with Adam and Eve through the Ark and Tabernacle, which together form a model of the universe; in later Abrahamic religions Israel becomes the guardian of God's plan for humanity, to bring "God's creation blessing to mankind" begun in Adam.[14]

Judaism's weekly Torah portions in the Book of Exodus

Moses with the Ten Commandments, by Rembrandt (1659)
  • Shemot, on Exodus 1–5: Affliction in Egypt, discovery of baby Moses, Pharaoh
  • Va'eira, on Exodus 6–9: Plagues 1 to 7 of Egypt
  • Bo, on Exodus 10–13: Last plagues of Egypt, first Passover
  • Beshalach, on Exodus 13–17: Parting the Sea, water, manna, Amalek
  • Yitro, on Exodus 18–20: Jethro's advice, The Ten Commandments
  • Mishpatim, on Exodus 21–24: The Covenant Code
  • Terumah, on Exodus 25–27: God's instructions on the Tabernacle and furnishings
  • Tetzaveh, on Exodus 27–30: God's instructions on the first priests
  • Ki Tissa, on Exodus 30–34: Census, anointing oil, golden calf, stone tablets, Moses radiant
  • Vayakhel, on Exodus 35–38: Israelites collect gifts, make the Tabernacle and furnishings
  • Pekudei, on Exodus 38–40: Setting up and filling of The Tabernacle

See also



  1. Sparks 2010.
  2. Dozeman 2009, p. 1.
  3. Meyers, p. 17.
  4. Stuart, p. 19.
  5. Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10
  6. Dozeman, p. 9.
  7. Dozeman, p. 4.
  8. Dozeman, p. 427.
  9. Dempster, p. 107.
  10. Wenham, p. 29.
  11. Meyers, p. 148.
  12. Meyers, pp. 149–150.
  13. Meyers, p. 150.
  14. Dempster, p. 100.


External links

Book of Exodus
Preceded by
Hebrew Bible Succeeded by
Old Testament

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