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.