The books that we today refer to as the five books of Moses (or the Pentateuch) were originally one continuous volume. The Hebrews made the division into five sections so that the extremely long book would fit conveniently on to five scrolls. Exodus, being only one part of a much longer book, is therefore best understood in connection with what precedes and what follows it.
(For the authorship of Exodus see PENTATEUCH.) The name Exodus, meaning ‘ a going out’, was given by those who made the first Greek translation of the Old Testament. It refers to the central event of the book, Israel’s escape from Egypt.
Message of the book
God had promised that from the descendants of Abraham he would make a nation that would in a special sense be his people, and he would give them Canaan as their national homeland (Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-16; 17:6-8; 22:17-18). The chosen descendants of Abraham settled in Egypt in the fertile region of the Nile Delta. There, over the next four centuries, they multiplied and prospered (cf. Gen 15:13; Exod 12:41), till the time approached when they would be strong enough to move north and conquer Canaan. They were sadly disappointed when the Egyptian rulers, fearing the growing Israelite power, made them slaves. Among the cities built by the Israelite slaves was Rameses (Gen 15:14; Exod 1:8-12; see EGYPT; RAMESES). But God had not forgotten the covenant he had made with Abraham. He therefore freed Israel from Egypt’s power and set the people on their way to the promised land (Exod 2:24; 6:6-8). After three months journey they settled for a time at Mt Sinai. There God formally established his covenant with Israel as his chosen people, giving them a law-code and a religious order to govern their national life. The instructions concerning these matters begin in Exodus and carry on unbroken through Leviticus and into Numbers. The book of Numbers goes on to record how the people, after almost one year at Sinai, resumed their journey to Canaan (cf. Exod 19:1; Num 10:11). The events of the exodus from Egypt and the establishment of the covenant at Sinai are therefore the main issues of the book of Exodus. Israel’s experiences were part of the fulfilment of God’s covenant promises. God was in control of events and was directing them towards the goals that he had set (Exod 14:31; 15:1-18; 19:4-6; 29:45-46; 33:14). Through all these experiences the Israelites began to understand the character of this God who had chosen them. Above all they came to know him as their Redeemer (Exod 3:13-17; 6:6-8; 20:2).
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Summary of contents
God saw how the Israelites were oppressed in Egypt (1:1-22), and prepared Moses to be the deliverer to save them. Moses was brought up in the Egyptian palace, but after forty years in Egypt he renounced his Egyptian status and spent the next forty years in the barren regions of the Sinai Peninsular (2:1-25). There God revealed himself to Moses as Yahweh, the eternal and self-sufficient God who would use Moses to save his people from Egypt (3:1-4:17; see YAHWEH). Moses then returned to Egypt. With his brother Aaron, who was his assistant, he tried to persuade Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but without success (4:18-6:27). This began a long conflict between Moses and Pharaoh, which resulted in repeated plagues upon Egypt (6:28-10:29; see PLAGUE). In the end God destroyed the eldest in each family in Egypt. He passed over the Israelite households, because they had already sacrificed a lamb in the place of the person under judgment. The Passover was God’s great act of judgment for Egypt and redemption for Israel (11:1-13:16; see PASSOVER). The Israelites at last were free.
When the Egyptians persisted in pursuing them, they were overthrown in the Red Sea (13:17-15:21). In spite of the complaints of the journeying Israelites, God graciously preserved them through all their dangers and hardships, whether from thirst, disease, hunger or war (15:22-17:16). Because of the people’s demands upon him, Moses appointed responsible men to help in the administration of Israel (18:1-27). Once the people had established their camp at Mt Sinai, God prepared them for the formal establishment of his covenant with them (19:1-25; see COVENANT). He gave the basic principles of the covenant in the form of the Ten Commandments (20:1-17), and added miscellaneous laws that were collected in a document known as the Book of the Covenant (20:18-23:33). The covenant was sealed in a blood ritual (24:1-18), after which God gave Moses instructions for the building of the tabernacle and the establishment of the priesthood (25:1-31:18; see PRIEST; TABERNACLE).
Before Moses had passed on these instructions to the people, they had already broken the covenant through their idolatry. God threatened to destroy the nation, but Moses pleaded with him for mercy. God heard Moses’ prayer and, in response to further pleas, gave the assurance that he would not desert the people on their journey to Canaan (32:1-33:23). The covenant was then renewed (34:1-35) and the people got to work and built the tabernacle as God had instructed (35:1-40:38).
Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt is commonly known as the exodus (meaning ‘a going out’). The most likely date for the event is about 1280 BC, and the historical account of the event is given in the book of Exodus (see EXODUS, BOOK OF).
Significance of the exodus
The actual going out from Egypt was but one part of a series of events that gave the exodus its great significance in Israel’s history. It was preceded by God’s judgment on Egypt through a number of plagues (Exod 1-11; see PLAGUE); it came about through the decisive judgment on Passover night and the subsequent crossing of the Red Sea (Exod 12-15; see PASSOVER; RED SEA); and it was followed by the covenant ceremony at Mt Sinai, where God formally established Israel as his people (Exod 16-24; see COVENANT). After giving them his law, God directed them to the new homeland he had promised them in Canaan. Throughout the years that followed, Israelites looked back to the exodus as the decisive event in their history. This was not just because the exodus led to the establishment of Israel’s national independence, but more importantly because it showed them the sort of person their God was. Yahweh revealed his character, showing that he was a God who redeems (Deut 15:15; 2 Sam 7:23; Neh 1:8-10; Micah 6:4; cf. Exod 6:6-8; 15:2,13; see REDEMPTION). The exodus was a sign to the people of this Redeemer-God’s love (Deut 4:37; 7:8; Hosea 11:1), power (Deut 9:26; 2 Kings 17:36; Ps 81:10) and justice (Deut 6:21-22; Josh 24:5-7). In demonstrating the character of God, the exodus gave assurance to God’s people that they could trust in him. At the same time it reminded them that he required them to be loyal, obedient and holy (Lev 11:45; Deut 4:37-40; 5:6-7; 7:7-11; cf. Hosea 11:1-4).
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The pattern repeated
Even with the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC and the subsequent captivity in Babylon, God’s people never forgot his redeeming power. They looked for a ‘second exodus’ when he would again deliver them from bondage. They prayed that as he had first brought them out of Egypt and into the promised land, so he would now bring them out of Babylon and back to their homeland (Isa 43:1-7; 43:14-21; 48:20-21; 49:25-26; 51:9-11; 52:11-12; Jer 31:10-12; Micah 7:14-17). The exodus theme is prominent also in the New Testament. The word ‘exodus’ (RSV: ‘departure’) is used of Jesus’ death, by which he delivers people from the bondage of sin (Luke 9:31; cf. Col 1:13; Heb 2:14-15; see REDEMPTION). As the Passover lamb, he died in the place of those under judgment and so achieved redemption for them (1 Cor 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19; see PASSOVER). Those redeemed through Christ can therefore sing the song that the redeemed Israelites sang, but with new meaning (Rev 15:2-4; cf. Exod 15:1-21). They must also heed the lessons that the Israelites failed to learn in the wilderness years that followed their deliverance (1 Cor 10:1-11; Heb 3:7-19).