Exodus is the second book of the Bible. Its name comes from Greek and Latin and means “departure,” which reflects the central theme of the book. It is worth noting that the English titles of many biblical books are derived from Greek and Latin because these were the two major translations of the Hebrew Old Testament for Christians throughout much of church history. (The Greek text is called the Septuagint and the Latin text is called the Vulgate.)
Like Genesis, Exodus is quite lengthy, and so it might help to break it up into sections. In fact, it is simplest to think of Exodus as a two-part book. Chapters 1-15 describe Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery under Moses. Chapters 16-40 describe the journey to Mt. Sinai and what happens there: the giving of the law and the building of Israel’s portable worship tent, the tabernacle. As we can see, more than half the book takes place at Mt. Sinai. In terms of the broader narrative of Israel’s history (as given in the Pentateuch), Israel will not leave Mt. Sinai until the fourth book of the Pentateuch, Numbers 10. Most of the action in the Pentateuch takes place at Mt. Sinai, which tells us something of the importance of Mt. Sinai for Israel’s faith.
The first part of Exodus is where much of the drama takes place, picking up where Genesis leaves off. Israel is in Egypt living well, but then a new Pharaoh arises, not knowing Joseph and all that he had done to keep Egypt from starving in the famine. This new Pharaoh is fearful that the Israelites will become so numerous that they could take over Egypt. In order to address this threat, Pharaoh enslaves Israel and puts them to work on many building projects.
In response, God raises up Moses to deliver the Israelites (or better, God would deliver the Israelites through Moses). Throughout this section, Moses and Pharaoh go head to head over who will control Israel’s fate, but the conclusion of this contest is never in doubt. Through a series of ten plagues, God effortlessly and relentlessly brings judgment upon Egypt. Though God could have moved more swiftly, God takes God’s time, savoring the victory. Each of these plagues is also strategic. They dismantle Egypt’s economic base by wreaking havoc on the country. They also dismantle Egypt’s religious system, since the gods were intimately connected with nature. For example, the plague of blood on the Nile is an attack not only on Egypt’s source of life, but also an attack on the god of the Nile, Hapi (or perhaps an attack on the god of the Nile’s annual flooding, Osiris). In the plague of darkness (plague nine), Yahweh asserts himself over both the sun god Ra and Pharaoh himself (Pharaoh was considered the son of Ra). In essence, the ten plagues depict God marching into Egyptian territory, the super power of the ancient world at the time, and pummeling their gods, their king, and their country. The result of this offensive is Pharaoh practically begging the Israelites to leave. They do, passing through the Red Sea. (The Hebrew is “Sea of Reeds” and does not refer to the Red Sea of today but a different, and indeterminate, body of water.)
The second part of Exodus takes place on Mt. Sinai. These chapters contain the more tedious sections of the book, for they are all about the details of God’s law and the building of the tabernacle. However, the fact that more than half of Exodus is taken up with these things should alert us to the fact that they are central to the message of Exodus. For example, the entirety of the book of Exodus shows that God delivered the Israelites from Egypt not simply to give them “freedom,” but to bring them to Mt. Sinai. It is at this significant location where the Israelites could learn about who God is and what God requires of God’s people, Israel. The purpose of the Exodus is to prepare Israel to become an independent nation under God and enter Canaan and set up their kingdom. The laws show them how they are to act as God’s people, while the tabernacle shows them how they are to worship as God’s people. These two things—law and worship—define what Israelite faith is all about, and so Exodus spends a lot of time spelling it out. The book ends with the completion of the tabernacle.
The exodus narrative is fascinating literature, but it creates certain obstacles for modern readers. Within modern biblical studies, there has been an strong consensus that an exodus as described in the book of Exodus did not occur. One reason for this conclusion is that there is no written record of anything like the traditional exodus within Egypt’s history (which is very unusual). The sheer size of the exodus population within the biblical account is also questionable. The Bible says that about 600,000 men left Egypt. Including woman and children, the estimate rises to about 2,000,000 people. Given that the entire population of Egypt was probably about 3,000,000 at the time, such a massive exodus would likely not have remained unaddressed in the literature of Egypt or other surrounding nations and raises the question of the authenticity of the entire account.
Another reason scholars raise for questioning the historical accuracy of Exodus concerns the conquest of Canaan. The towns said to have been destroyed and repopulated by invading Israelites according to the book of Joshua do not show evidence of such invasions by outsiders. This has led to the common archaeological conclusion that the towns of Canaan were settled by an indigenous population, not by a mass group coming out of Egypt and through the desert. Hence, biblical scholars have tended to conclude that the story of Moses and the exodus is a legend with some historical roots, which includes the presence of Semitic slaves in Egypt at some point.
The crossing of the sea raises two issues for careful readers. First, the parting of the sea to reveal dry land is very similar to what God does in Genesis 1, where God divides the waters to reveal the habitable land. This account of God’s parting of the sea is not just a trick to get the Israelites out of a jam, but a theological statement about Israel’s beginnings. By passing through the sea, Israel is saying that they were “created” by God as God’s people. Second, the violence at the Red Sea is a problem for many readers. In fact, the violence begins in the plagues, where many Egyptians met their death. Then, in the Red Sea, the entire Egyptian army drowns. Was there no other way for God to deliver the Israelites than through mass killing? This has been a problem for readers for a very long time. Simple answers here will not suffice.
Another significant stumbling block for readers is the entire second half of the book. The laws are tedious, unfamiliar, and largely irrelevant to modern readers (e.g., what to do if your bull wanders onto someone else’s property) Others raise moral questions, such as the law treating virgin daughters as property (Exodus 21:7-11, 16-17). The tabernacle section is especially long and repetitive. First the instructions are given, and then much of the information is repeated in the building of the structure itself. Sandwiched in between is the famous story of the golden calf Aaron built while Moses was on the mountain receiving the law. God kills many Israelites for their disobedience, and God even seems a bit temperamental, needing to be calmed down by Moses so that God does not walk away from God’s plan to make Israel into a nation.
Despite these challenges to modern readers, Exodus is a central book in the Old Testament. Israel begins its journey as a fledgling nation and is given the two central components of their faith that will dominate the remainder of the Old Testament: right behavior (law) and right worship (tabernacle). Israel’s repeated failure to live up to this standard will quickly become a common theme in the Old Testament with the golden calf incident being a preview of things to come. Israel will continue to have trouble remembering that their God, Yahweh, is their creator and deliverer.
– Peter Enns