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The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Study Bible that provides essential scholarship and guidance for Bible readers.

Exodus - Introduction

The book of Exodus is named after the subject of the first fifteen chapters of the book: the liberation of Israel from Egypt by “the God of Abraham … Isaac, and … Jacob” ( 3.15 ). The book continues with various laws that distinguish the community (chs 20–23,34 ), as well as the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle (chs 25–40 ), which are narrated in great detail, and assure that a holy God will reside among the people.

It is impossible to discern what historical events lie behind the book of Exodus, given the lack of contemporaneous evidence outside the Bible. Reconstructions run the gamut from identifying the Pharaoh of the plagues with Rameses II (1279–1213 BCE) to asserting that the entire story is metaphorical, and Israel was never in Egypt. Those favoring a historical reading of the book have noted that no nation is likely to make up a story that its ancestors had been slaves. Those favoring a metaphorical reading have suggested that the tyranny experienced reflects Egypt's political and economic domination of the land of Canaan in the Late Bronze Age. They emphasize the continuity of Israelite culture with Canaanite (rather than Egyptian) culture in architecture, crafts, language, and worship. There is also uncertainty about most of the place names in the book, even about the location of Mount Sinai, where the covenant between God and Israel is made. Nor is there a consensus on the authorship and date of the various parts of this complex work. Some sections are Priestly (compare 20.8–11 with Gen 2.1–3 , and note the interest in the priestly tabernacle in chs 25–40 ), a few are clearly reminiscent of Deuteronomy (compare 23.23–33 with Deuteronomy 7 ), and some contain material usually ascribed to JE, traditionally considered to be the earliest sources of the Pentateuch. Underlying the final form of the book is a complicated literary prehistory, in which the sources or “documents” of the Pentateuch (J, E, and P; see pp. 4–6 HB ) have been combined in a way that values the preservation of divergent traditions more than a superficial consistency. The book also includes an often bewildering variety of smaller units from various stages of Israel's history. These include hymns and hymnic fragments, itineraries, ritual traditions, and legal codifications, along with elements of myth and folklore, and birth and contest narratives. Some of these traditions are relatively ancient and may well reflect authentic historical memory.

In the absence of a consensus concerning the book's historicity and composition, it is best to read Exodus as a finished narrative, a story—though never forgetting that it has a prehistory, and that in its final form within the larger story of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, it is the definitive story of the establishment of Israel as a people freed from human tyranny who became slaves to their own loving God.

God's purpose in liberating Israel is expressed in several similar ways: in order to establish an exclusive relationship (“I will take you as my people, and I will be your God,” 6.7 ; “I … brought you to myself,” 19.4 ), to make them unique (“my treasured possession out of all the peoples, … a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” 19.5–6 ), and to “dwell among them” ( 29.46 ). Indeed, the Exodus is inextricably tied to the provisions of the covenant by providing reason and motivation for much of what God expects of the people. In worship, the experience of liberation from slavery prompts the Israelites to reinterpret ancient festivals, instilling them with completely new meaning: passover ( 12.1–13n. ), unleavened bread ( 12.14–20n. ), and sacrifice of firstborn ( 13.1–2n. ). Likewise, in late biblical legislation, the festival of booths comes to commemorate the wilderness wandering (Lev 23.39–43 ), and in postbiblical Judaism, the festival of weeks celebrates the giving of the covenant at Sinai ( 19.1n. ). The central commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me,” is immediately preceded by the identification of God as the one “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” ( 20.1–3 ). An important part of teaching children is to explain that many customs are based on the experience of liberation ( 12.24–27n. ). Ethically, God uses the experience of oppression to motivate the covenant partner: the Israelites' memory of being aliens in Egypt gives them empathy for aliens within Israel ( 22.21; 23.9 ). Thus, the Exodus is truly the central, unifying focus of the book.

One way to express the movement in Exodus is to say that chs 1–15 tell the story of freedom from slavery, while chs 16–40 tell the story of the freed Israelites entering into a set of obligations with their God. This is explicitly reflected in 7.16 , where the LORD sent Moses to demand of the Pharaoh: “Let my people go, so that they may worship [literally, serve/be slaves to] me” (see also 4.23 ). The people are still servants, but the change of masters makes all the difference. Additionally, Israel was forced to serve Pharaoh, while it freely decides to serve the LORD ( 24.3,7 ).

Another way to understand the book is to visualize its geographical movement. Chapters 1–15 tell the story of leaving the city where the evil Pharaoh reigns and enslaves the Hebrews; chs 16–40 tell the story of arriving at the mountain where a holy God reigns and creates the people of Israel. In Egypt a royal construction program enslaves Hebrews, Hebrew boys are killed, and in the end God claims the lives of all the firstborn of Egypt, human and animal alike. At Sinai all the firstborn males of Israel, human and animal alike, are equally claimed by God. A new royal construction program is inaugurated, for building the portable tabernacle that assures the continuing presence of God among the new people as they travel to the promised land.

Indeed, this geographical movement can be understood more specifically as a pilgrimage undertaken first by Moses alone (chs 2–4 ), then by all the people (chs 13–40 ). Each pilgrimage proceeds from the evil land where Pharaoh reigns, through the desert to the holy mountain where the God of Sinai reigns. The goal of each pilgrimage is experiencing God through a theophany, a divine appearance, and receiving a commission. The first theophany is for Moses alone ( 3.1–6 ), the second is for all Israel ( 19.16–19 ) but is too much for them to bear ( 20.18–21 ), so the third is for the leaders only ( 24.9–11 ), and the fourth is for Moses alone as covenant mediator ( 24.15–18 ). While Moses' commission is to act as God's agent in freeing the people (chs 3–4 ), Israel's commission is to act as God's holy people in all areas of life (chs 19–24 ) and to build a shrine so that God may dwell in their presence (chs 25–31 ). The first effort to fulfill each commission fails: Moses' first appearance before Pharaoh only makes the oppression worse (ch 5 ), and Israel's first impatient attempt to ensure God's continuing presence among them, the construction of the calf, almost brings complete destruction (ch 32 ). But after each commission is restated ( 6.2–7.7; 34.10–28 after a fifth theophany, again for Moses alone, 33.17–34.9 ), the second attempt is successful. Moses finally leads the slaves to freedom (chs 7–15 ), and Israel finally builds the tabernacle so that God may dwell among them (chs 35–40 ).

There is more than one way to outline the book, since many of the stories it narrates point both backward and forward. For example, the hymn in ch 15 points backward to celebrate the victories of the divine warrior, while it also points ahead to anticipate the terror of the other peoples and the march forward to God's mountain. Thus, the following suggested structure of the book is necessarily one‐dimensional.

  • 1.1–15.21 . God liberates Israel from slavery by defeating Pharaoh

  • 15.22–18.27 . God journeys with Israel to Mount Sinai

  • 19.1–31.18 . God establishes the covenant with Israel

  • 32.1–34.35 . Israel breaks the covenant, but God reestablishes it

  • 35.1–40.38 . Israel obeys instructions, and God takes up residence with them

Many recurrent words and themes tie the book's different parts together. For example, some of the themes that frame the first part of the story, that of liberation, are women's activities ( 15.19–21n. ), a life‐threatening body of water with reeds ( 2.3n. ), a loud cry ( 2.23n. ), the plundering of Egypt ( 3.21–22n. ), God's claim on the firstborn son ( 4.22–23n. ), and ritual with blood (as protection against death at God's hand, 4.24–26n. ).

The Hebrew word for heaviness ( 5.9 ), referring not only to the “hardening” of Pharaoh's heart ( 7.14; 8.15,32; 9.7,34; 10.1 ) but also to God's “glory” ( 14.4,17–18; 16.7,10; 24.16–17; 29.43; 33.18,22; 40.34–35 ), unifies the book. Other themes tie the parts of the story together: knowledge, or better, acknowledgment of God ( 5.2n. ); the distinction between Israel and other peoples (Egypt, 8.22–23n. ; other peoples, 15.13–18n. ); and proper service/worship: first the right object of service, not the Pharaoh but God; second, the right means of worship, not a golden calf (ch 32 ) but a tabernacle (chs 25–31; 35–40 ). Several of the themes that frame the first part of the story, liberation, recur in the second half, covenant, thus linking the two sections together: the treasures from Egypt used both to break and to keep the covenant ( 3.21–22n. ); the firstborn ( 4.22–23n. ); and ritual with blood (now sealing the covenant between God and Israel, 24.3–8n. ; and consecrating the priests, 29.20–21n. ).

Another important pattern is God's precise command followed by Moses' exact obedience. It can be seen ( 7.6n. ) in Moses' two commissions, the plagues, the victory at the sea, several incidents during the journey, and preeminently the instructions for making the tabernacle (chs 25–31 ). The one case of disobedience, the construction of the golden calf (ch 32 ), disrupts this theme. Moses must intercede four times, many Israelites must die, and three chapters are required before the story can get back on track. Finally the commands of chs 25–31 are carried out in chs 35–40 , and God indeed takes up residence among the people.

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