Introduction to the Book of Exodus

Second Book of the Bible & of the Pentateuch

Exodus is a Greek word meaning "exit" or "departure." In Hebrew, though, this book is called Semot or "Names". Whereas Genesis contained many stories about many different people over the course of 2,000 years, Exodus focus on a few people, a few years, and one overarching story: the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

Facts About the Book of Exodus

  • Exodus is the second book of the Bible, the Torah and, the Pentateuch
  • Exodus has 40 Chapters & 1,213 Verses
  • Exodus starts 300 years after Genesis ends
  • Chapter & verse divisions are of Christian origin

Important Characters in Exodus

  • Moses: Leads the Hebrews out of Egypt and towards Canaan.
  • Aaron: Moses' older brother
  • Miriam: Moses' sister
  • Pharaoh: Unnamed ruler of Egypt, responsible for keeping the Hebrews enslaved

Who Wrote the Book of Exodus?

Traditionally the authorship of the Book of Exodus was ascribed to Moses, but scholars began to reject that in the 19th century. With the development of the Documentary Hypothesis, the scholarly view on who wrote Exodus has settled around an early version being written by the Yahwist author in the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE and the final form being put together in the 5th century BCE.

When Was the Book of Exodus Written?

The earliest version of Exodus probably wasn't written any earlier than the 6th century BCE, during the exile in Babylon. Exodus was probably in its final form, more or less, by the 5th century BCE but some believe that revisions continued down through the 4th century BCE.

When Did the Exodus Occur?

Whether the exodus described in the Book of Exodus even occurred is debated — no archaeological evidence whatsoever has been found for anything like it. What's more, the exodus as described is impossible given the number of people. Thus some scholars argue that there was no "mass exodus," but rather a long-term migration from Egypt to Canaan.

Among those who believe that a mass exodus did occur, there is debate over whether it occurred earlier or later. Some believe that it occurred under the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep II, who ruled from 1450 to 1425 BCE. Others believe that it occurred under Rameses II, who ruled from 1290 to 1224 BCE.

Book of Exodus Summary

Exodus 1-2: By the end of Genesis, Jacob and his family had all moved to Egypt and become wealthy. Apparently this created jealousy and, over time, Jacob's descendants were enslaved. As their numbers grew, so did the fear that they would pose a threat.

Thus at the beginning of Exodus we read about the pharaoh ordering the death of all newborn boys among the slaves. One woman saves her son and sets him afloat on the Nile where he's found by the pharaoh's daughter. He's named Moses and must later flee Egypt after killing an overseer beating a slave.

Exodus 2-15: While in exile Moses is confronted by God in the form of a burning bush and ordered to free the Israelites. Moses returns as instructed and goes before the pharaoh to demand the release of all the Israelite slaves. Pharaoh refuses and is punished with ten plagues, each worse than the last, until finally the death of all first-born sons forces pharaoh to submit to Moses' demands. Pharaoh and his army are later killed by God when they pursue the Israelites anyway.

Exodus 15-31: Thus begins the Exodus. According to the Book of Exodus, 603,550 adult males, plus their families but not including the Levites, march across Sinai towards Canaan. At Mount Sinai Moses receives the "Covenant Code" (the laws imposed on the Israelites as part of their agreeing to be God's "Chosen People"), including the Ten Commandments.

Exodus 32-40: During one of Moses' trips to the top of the mountain his brother Aaron creates a golden calf for people to worship. God threatens to kill them all but only relents because of Moses' pleading. Afterwards the Tabernacle is created as a dwelling place for God while among his Chosen People.

The Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus

The Book of Exodus is one source of the Ten Commandments, though most people aren't aware that Exodus contains two different versions of the Ten Commandments. The first version was inscribed on stone tablets by God, but Moses smashed them when he discovered the Israelites had started worshipping an idol while he was gone. This first version is recorded in Exodus 20 and is used as by most Protestants as the basis for their Ten Commandments lists.

The second version can be found in Exodus 34 and was inscribed on another set of stone tablets as a replacement — but it is radically different from the first. What's more, this second version is the only one which is actually called "The Ten Commandments," but it looks almost nothing like what people usually think of when they think of the Ten Commandments. Usually people imagine the expected list of rules which is recorded in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5.

Book of Exodus Themes

Chosen People: Central to the entire idea of God taking the Israelites out of Egypt is that they were to be God's "Chosen People". To be "chosen" entailed benefits and obligations: they benefited from God's blessings and favor, but they were also obliged to uphold special laws created by God for them. Failure to uphold God's laws would lead to a withdrawal of protection.

A modern analog to this would be a form of "nationalism" and some scholars believe that Exodus was largely the creation of a political and intellectual elite trying to arouse strong tribal identification and loyalty — possibly during a time of crisis, like the exile in Babylon.

Covenants: Continued from Genesis is the theme of covenants between individuals and God and between entire peoples and God. Singling out the Israelites as the Chosen People stems from God's earlier covenant with Abraham. Being the Chosen People meant that there was a covenant between the Israelites as a whole and God — a covenant that would also bind all their descendants, whether they liked it or not.

Blood & Lineage: The Israelites inherit a special relationship with God through the blood of Abraham. Aaron becomes the first high priest and the entire priesthood is created from his bloodline, making it something acquired through heredity rather than skill, education, or anything else. All future Israelites are to be considered bound by a covenant solely because of inheritance, not because of personal choice.

Theophany: God makes more personal appearances in the Book of Exodus than in most other parts of the Bible. Sometimes God is physically and personally present, as when talking to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Sometimes the presence of God is felt through natural events (thunder, rain, earthquakes) or miracles (a burning bush where the bush is not consumed by fire).

In fact, the presence of God is so central that the human characters hardly ever act of their own accord. Even the pharaoh only refuses to release the Israelites because of God compelling him to act in that way. In a very real sense, then, God is practically the only actor in the entire book; every other character is little more than an extension of God's will.

Salvation History: Christian scholars read Exodus as part of the history of God's efforts to save humanity from sin, wickedness, suffering, etc. In Christian theology the focus is on sin; in Exodus, though, the salvation is the physical deliverance from slavery. The two are united in Christian thought, as seen in how Christian theologians and apologists describe sin as form of slavery.