The Book of Exodus begins more than four hundred years
after Joseph, his brothers, and the Pharaoh he once served have
all died. The new leadership in Egypt—feeling threatened by Jacob’s
descendants, who have increased greatly in size—embarks on a campaign to
subdue the Israelites, forcing them into slavery and eventually decreeing
that all Hebrew boys must be killed at birth in the Nile River.
The Hebrew women resist the decree, and one woman opts to save her
newborn son by setting him afloat on the river in a papyrus basket.
Fortunately, Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the abandoned child and
raises him after he has been nursed, naming him Moses.
Moses is aware of his Hebrew roots, and, one day, he
kills an Egyptian who is beating an Israelite worker. Moses flees
in fear to Midian, a town near Sinai, where he meets a priest named
Jethro and marries the man’s daughter, beginning a new life as a
shepherd. God, however, is concerned for the suffering of the Israelites,
and he appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush. God speaks
to Moses, informing him of his plan to return the Israelites to Canaan—to
“a land flowing with milk and honey” (3:8)—and
to send Moses back to Egypt to accomplish this task. Moses is timid and
resists, citing his lack of eloquence and abilities, and refuses
to go. God is angered but encourages Moses, presenting him with
a staff for performing miracles and instructing Moses to take his brother,
Aaron, with him as an aid. When Moses asks God what his name is,
God replies, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14).
Moses and Aaron return to Egypt, where Moses
organizes the Israelites and confronts the Pharaoh, demanding the
release of the Hebrew people. Moses performs a miracle, turning
his staff into a snake, but Pharaoh is unimpressed and only increases
the workload for the Israelites. God responds by inflicting a series
of ten plagues on Egypt. God turns the Nile River into blood, causes
frogs to cover Egypt, turns all of the dust in Egypt to gnats, and
causes swarms of flies to come into the houses of Pharaoh and his
officials. God then strikes Egypt’s livestock with a disease, creates
festering boils on humans and animals, and sends thunder, hail,
and fire that destroy crops, livestock, and people. God sends swarms
of locusts, and covers Egypt with “a darkness that can be felt”
(10:21). Before each
plague, Moses demands the Israelites’ release, and after each plague,
God purposefully “hardens” Pharaoh so that he refuses the request
The tenth and final plague kills all the firstborn males in Egypt.
Before the plague, Moses instructs the Hebrew people to cover their
door posts in the blood of a sacrificed lamb as a sign for God to
protect their homes from his killings. Pharaoh relents and releases
the more than 600,000 Israelites
who, in turn, plunder the Egyptians’ wealth. Upon leaving, Moses
enjoins the Israelites to commemorate this day forever by dedicating
their firstborn children to God and by celebrating the festival
of Passover, named for God’s protection from the final plague (12:14–43).
Guided by a pillar of cloud during the day and
by fire during the night, Moses and the Israelites head west toward
the sea. Pharaoh chases them. The Israelites complain that Moses
has taken them to die in the wilderness, and Moses, at God’s bidding,
parts the sea for the people to cross. Pharaoh follows and Moses
closes the waters back again, drowning the Egyptian army. Witnessing
the miracle, the people decide to trust Moses, and they sing a song
extolling God as a great but loving warrior. Their optimism is brief,
and the people soon begin to worry about the shortage of food and
water. God responds by sending the people food from heaven, providing
a daily supply of quail and a sweet bread-like substance called
manna. The people are required only to obey God’s commandments to
enjoy this food. Soon thereafter, the Israelites confront the warring
Amalekite people, and God gives the Israelites the power to defeat
them. During battle, whenever Moses raises his arms, the Israelites
are able to rout their opponents.
Three months after the flight from Egypt, Moses
and the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, where God appears before
them, descending on the mountain in a cloud of thunder and lightning.
Moses climbs the mountain, and God gives Moses two stone tablets
with ten commandments inscribed on them regarding general, ethical
behavior as well as an extended series of laws regarding worship,
sacrifices, social justice, and personal property. God explains
to Moses that if the people will obey these regulations, he will
keep his covenant with Israel and will go with them to retrieve
from the Canaanites the land promised to Abraham. Moses descends
from the mountain and relates God’s commandments to the people.
The people agree to obey, and Moses sprinkles the people with blood
as a sign of the covenant. Moses ascends to the mountain again where
God gives him more instructions, this time specifying in great detail
how to build a portable temple called an ark in which God’s presence
will dwell among the Israelites. God also emphasizes the importance
of observing the Sabbath day of holy rest.
Moses comes down from the mountain after forty days,
only to find that Aaron and the Israelites have now erected an idol—a golden
calf that they are worshipping in revelry, in direct defiance of the
ten commandments. Moses breaks the stone tablets on which God has
inscribed the new laws, and God plans to destroy the people. Moses
intercedes on the Israelites’ behalf, begging God to relent and
to remember his covenant. Pleased with Moses, God is appeased and
continues to meet with Moses face to face, “as one speaks to a friend,”
in a special tent set aside for worship (33:11). God
reaffirms his covenant with Moses, and, fashioning new stone tablets
to record his decrees, God declares himself to be a compassionate,
loving, and patient God. At Moses’s direction, the Israelites renew
their commitment to the covenant by erecting a tabernacle to God
according to the exact specifications God has outlined.
While Genesis explains the origins of the world and of
humanity, Exodus is the theological foundation of the Bible. Exodus
explains the origins of Torah—the law of the Jewish people and the
tradition surrounding that law. Torah is not merely a list of laws,
but, rather, the notion of law as a way of life. Indeed, the law exists
as a way of life for Moses and his people. Although portions of
Exodus are devoted to legal matters, the declaration of law in Exodus
always comes in the form of a story, relayed by discussions between
God and Moses, and between Moses and the people.
These laws and tradition are filled with symbols of God’s
promise to the Israelites. In Genesis, God uses symbols such as
the rainbow and gives people new names, like Abraham, as signs of
his covenant. Such personalized signs are useful when communicating
a promise to a single person or family. In Exodus, however, God attempts
to communicate his promise to an entire nation of people. Social
laws about how the Israelites should treat their slaves and annual
festivals such as Passover are signs that a community of people
can easily recognize and share. In this sense, obedience to God’s laws
is less a means of achieving a level of goodness than it is a way for
the people to denote their commitment to God’s covenant.
The Hebrew word for “Exodus” originally means
“names,” and Exodus is often called the Book of Names. The book
discusses the different names God takes and the various ways God
manifests himself to the Israelites. When God tells Moses that his
name is “I AM” (3:14), God
defines himself as a verb (in Hebrew, ahyh) rather
than a noun. This cryptic statement suggests that God is a being
who is not subject to the limits of people’s expectations or definitions.
Most often, however, God reveals himself to the people through theophany:
extraordinary natural phenomena that signal God’s arrival or presence.
Theophanic events in Exodus include the pillars of cloud and fire,
the thunder at Mount Sinai, and the miraculous daily supply of manna.
Such spectacles demonstrate God’s attempts to prove his existence
to a nation of doubting people from whom he has been decidedly absent
for more than four hundred years. The unwillingness of the people
to accept God’s existence is never more apparent than when the Israelites
worship a golden calf in the shadow of the thunderous Mount Sinai.
As a result, God’s final manifestation of himself is the tabernacle—specifically,
the Ark of the Covenant, a golden vessel in which God’s presence, or
spirit, will reside. Like the law, the Ark is an effective symbol
of God, for it is an object that the people not only build as a
community according to God’s specifications but also as a religious vessel
that can be picked up and carried wherever Israel goes.
Moses is the first true hero we encounter in the Hebrew
Bible. He manifests all the traits of a traditional hero. He overcomes
timidity and inner strife. He challenges Pharaoh, leading Israel
to great feats. And he wields his own weapon, the miraculous staff.
These elements give Moses traditional heroic status, but Moses also
presents us with a new type of hero—the religious priest. All of
Moses’s political and military dealings serve the one end of delivering
the Israelites to God, physically moving them from Egypt to Mount
Sinai and interceding to God for them when they disobey. As God
declares early on, Moses is God’s representative to the people,
and Moses makes God’s relationship with Israel a personal one. Instead
of a series of incendiary explosions, Moses presents God’s instructions to
the people through conversation and conveys God’s desire to destroy
the Israelites by breaking the stone tablets in front of them. Most
importantly, Moses’s dialogue with God enables the author to portray
God in softer, human terms—as someone who listens, grieves, and
is actually capable of changing his mind.