The Book of Exodus

The book of Exodus tells the tale of Israel's liberation and birth, and of the beginning of God's covenanted nation.

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Excerpted from The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, with the permission of UAHC Press.

Exodus is the book which speaks of the physical and spiritual birth of Israel as a nation. It contains the stories of enslavement and liberation, of revelation and wanderings, of belief and apostasy; it is the repository of fundamental laws and of the rules governing national worship. It has two settings, Egypt and the wilderness of Sinai, and its timeframe is the latter part of the 13th century B.C.E.

A Continuation of Genesis

It is important to see the book as a continuation of Genesis, which we described earlier as a tale of beginnings and of God's disappointments (see "Introducing Genesis"). After many trials and disillusionments, God chooses a particular people whom in time to come He will make His allies and helpers. He selects Abraham and Sarah as the ancestors of this nation‑to‑be, and the rest of Genesis is the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their families who will be the physical and spiritual forebears of the peofople Israel. 

moses in basketDuring a severe famine Jacob and his children and grandchildren migrate to Egypt. They leave Canaan behind, the land which God had promised them as their permanent inheritance. Their fate will be now forged in a strange land, amidst a people who will turn from welcoming hosts into a nation of oppressors. It is at this point of change that the Book of Exodus begins it will tell of the fashioning of Israel, the people of God's choice, the nation that God needs.

History and Faith

The tales of Genesis were a mixture of myth, legend, distant memory, and search for origins, bound together by the strands of a central theological concept. With Exodus, the Pentateuch enters the realm of history, albeit not history in the modern sense. The latter describes events which are rooted exclusively in the human realm; the former depicts the will of God as the hinge on which human events must turn. In that sense, Exodus is history grounded in faith. Thus, the escape of the Israelites from Egypt may be said to represent history in the accepted, contemporary meaning [though many scholars questions whether even this much took place historically]; that this was brought about by divine interference, and was so experienced by Israel, gives the tale of liberation an additional faith dimension.

The stories of enslavement and release are not attested by extrabiblical  sources. There are scholars who therefore consider these memories to be pious constructions, folktales, and frameworks for the exaltation of Israel's God. But this is a minority view. Rather, it is generally agreed that no people would freely invent a history of slavery and that the events told in the first chapters of the book have a historical basis. The name Raamses (1:11) probably refers to Ramses II, who belonged to the Nineteenth Dynasty and reigned from 1304‑1237 (B.C.E.). Either he or his son Merneptah was the pharaoh of the Exodus.

Who Were the People Enslaved in Egypt?

They were Hebrews, possibly those who had come to Egypt from Canaan when the Hyksos ruled and were enslaved when the latter fell from power in the 16th century B.C.E. The Hebrews were apparently an aggregate of tribal and/or social groupings who traced their origins to a common ancestor, a legendary, "eponymous" father figure Jacob. Certain scholars believe that only a few tribes (those identified with Joseph and Benjamin, the "Rachel" tribes) were lodged in Egypt, while other Hebrew groupings (the "Leah" tribes) never left Canaan, and that all these tribes joined hands during the invasion.

This highly speculative theory has not been taken into account in the preparation of this commentary. Rather, we have proceeded from the text as it now stands, and in this way--after its final redaction--it has been accepted by Israel and has exerted an enormous influence. Whether or not the events happened exactly as described is in the final instance less important than the way in which they were experienced and comprehended. Whether or not God "objectively" rescued Israel from Egypt is a question to which no historian can provide an answer. But Exodus, the repository of Israel's experience, says that He did, and on this basis history and faith together have shaped the minds and hearts of Israel…

Literary Aspects

The material contained in Exodus may be classified as consisting of biography, narrative, poetry, law, and archival records. A number of major and minor motifs are clearly discernible, some of which are paralleled in other biblical literature and in ancient Near Eastern texts.

The three major motifs are:

The wilderness theme: A person or nation has to be isolated and refined by trial in the desolate desert.

The covenant theme: The divine or earthly suzerain and his vassal enter into a treaty which sets forth the obligations of both partners.

The exaltation theme: The deity is exalted in hymn and enthroned in a special structure.

Among the minor motifs are:

The deity overcomes the powers of the deep and commands the sea.

An infant who is to become ruler or savior is exposed to the elements and is wondrously rescued.

Literary Development

The text of the book as we now have it is the result of a long literary development.  In part it goes back to old traditions which were transmitted orally at first and then committed to writing. That being the case, are there elements in Exodus which may be assigned to Moses and his time? Most likely some traditions went back to him and others may be even older. As the centuries wore on, new materials were added and old ones altered so that even within one segment we may now find diverse reflections. Thus, the first part of the Song at the Sea (chapter 15) is probably of presettlement origin while its second part contains references to postsettlement conditions.

The Book of Exodus is intimately connected with Genesis and Numbers--and after the composition of Leviticus the four--were combined into one book, and later on Deuteronomy was added to form the Torah (or Pentateuch) as we have come to know it.

The Name of the Book

"Exodus" is derived from the Greek exodos which is paralleled by an old Hebrew ascription Sefer Yetziat Mitzrayim ("The book of the departure from Egypt"). But the general Hebrew title is Sefer Shemot ("Book of names"), so called after the opening words of chapter 1: "These are the names..."

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Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.