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The Book of Exodus - Introduction

by James Carroll Tollett, Doctorate of Divinity
Pastor, Liberty Church
Assistant Professor of Evangelization,
Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Exodus, meaning way out, was the title the early Greek translation, the Septuagint, gave to the second book of the Torah (compare Exod. 19:1).

Some interpreters understand statements within Exodus (17:14; 24:4 34:27) to mean that Moses is the author of the final form of the book. Other scholars take such statements to mean that Moses wrote only specific portions of Exodus, such as the account of the defeat of the Amalekites (17:8-13), the "Book of the Covenant" (chaps. 21-23), and the instructions in Exodus 34:10-26. Only the most radical critics have denied Moses any link with the materials in Exodus. (See "Literary Forms"; also see the article "Critical Methods and the Old Testament".

Interpreters who accept the traditional authorship of Exodus hold that Moses put it in its present form as early as the sojourn at Sinai (about 1444 BC) or as late as the encampment on the plains of Moab just before his death (about 1406 BC). Except for Exodus 1:1-2:10, Moses was eyewitness to virtually all the incidents of the book. The early section could certainly have come to him by means of either written or oral sources. The remainder of the book gives every evidence of having been composed as a journal, recorded as the various episodes themselves transpired. Author then designates Moses as the final editor of a collection of memoirs. Other interpreters view the Book of Exodus as the product of the inspired reflection of many generations of GOD's people who worked to discern the meaning of the exodus event for worship and practice. (HBH)

Exodus is the key Old Testament book about Israel's beginning and early years as a nation. It takes its name from the event known as the Exodus, the dramatic deliverance of the Hebrew people from enslavement in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Throughout Exodus we meet a GOD who is the LORD of history and the Redeemer of His people. These themes, repeated throughout the rest of the Bible, make Exodus one of the foundational books of the Scriptures.

Author: Moses, according to tradition

Date: Around 1400 B.C.

Theme: Liberation

Key Words: Liberate, sacrifice, sign, tabernacle, sanctuary

Content: The Book of Exodus falls naturally into three major divisions: (1) Israel in Egypt (1:1-12:36); (2) Israel in the wilderness (12:37-18:37); and (3) Israel at Mt. Sinai (19:1-40:38).

Exodus begins where the Book of Genesis leaves off - with the descendants of Joseph who moved to Egypt to escape famine and hardship in their own land. For many years the Hebrew people grew and prospered with the blessings of the Egyptian ruler. But then with one transitional verse, Exodus explains the changing political climate that brought an end to their favored position: "Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph" (1:8). The Hebrews were reduced to the status of slaves and put to work on the Pharaoh's building projects. As any subjected group, the Hebrews complained of their situation. Their cries were not only directed at their captors, but also to their GOD (2:23-25). GOD heard their cries and put a plan into action to free them. To accomplish this, he selected a prophet called Moses (3:1-10).

The liberation didn't take immediate form; it was a process. It required much time and GOD sent the twelve plagues to liberate the Hebrews from the Pharaoh's forces. With the plagues, two important things were obtained: first, they demonstrated the superiority of the Hebrew GOD over the Egyptian gods; and second, they brought the liberty of His people.

The second section of Exodus relates the miraculous march to Mt. Sinai (13:17-18:27) of those who left Egypt. Four great events occur in this section. First, the Hebrews are witnesses of GOD's miraculous power, which freed them from Egyptian persecution (13:17-15:21). Second, they experience first-hand GOD's willingness and ability to provide for his people (15:22-17:7). Third, they receive protection from their enemies, the Amalekites (17:8-16). Fourth, power was handed over to the elders to maintain peace among the people (18:1-27). These four great events reveal something important: GOD cares for the lives of those who make up His chosen people. By being witnesses of His presence and knowing the way that GOD helps them, they can adjust their way of life to the divine will to continue receiving His blessings.

The final section brings the miraculous revelations of GOD in the Sinai (19:1-40:38). The liberation of the Hebrew people by GOD was for the specific purpose of converting them into the people of the covenant. This section has three principal components. First, giving them the Ten Commandments, and the detailed instructions as to how these commandments should be manifested in the life of the people of the covenant (19:1-23:19). The results of moving away from the stipulations of the covenant are demonstrated in the incident of the golden calf (32:1-35). Second, the instructions concerning the building of a tabernacle and its furniture. Third, its construction and the presence of the GOD who dwells throughout the enclosure. The book ends as Moses and the workmen under his supervision build a tabernacle in the wilderness around Mt. Sinai at GOD's command. A cloud, symbolizing GOD's presence, rests on the tabernacle, and the entire building is filled with His glory (36:1-40:38).

Authorship and Date: Moses, whose name means "drawn from the waters", is the central figure of Exodus. The name personifies the Hebrew prophet who guided the Israelites out of Egypt.

Exodus is one of the first five books of the Old Testament - books that have traditionally been assigned to Moses as author. But some scholars insist that Exodus was compiled by an unknown writer or editor who drew from several different historical documents. There are two sound reasons why Moses can be accepted without question as the divinely inspired author of this book.

First, Exodus itself speaks of the writing activity of Moses. In Exodus 34:27 GOD commands Moses to "write these words". Another passage tells us that "Moses wrote all the words of the LORD" in obedience to GOD's command (24:4). It is reasonable to assume that these verses refer to Moses' writing of material that appears in the Book of Exodus. Second, Moses either observed or participated in the events described in Exodus. He was well qualified to write about these experiences, since he had been educated in the household of the Pharaoh during his early life.

Since Moses wrote Exodus, it must be dated some time before his death about 1400 B.C. Israel spent the 40 years preceding this date wandering in the wilderness because of their unfaithfulness. This is the most likely time for the writing of the book.

Background: The Book of Exodus is the continuation of the story of Genesis, and deals with the development of a small group of seventy people into a nation of several million inhabitants. The Hebrews lived in Egypt for 430 years, the greater part of them in slavery. Exodus records the history of Moses, the liberation of the people of Israel from bondage, the journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai, where they received the tablets of GOD's Law, and his instructions on how to construct the tabernacle. It ends with the edification of the tabernacle as GOD's dwelling place.

Historical Setting: (IDB) Exodus covers a crucial period in Israel's early history as a nation. Most conservative scholars believe the Hebrews left Egypt about 1440 B.C. Some believe it took place much later, around 1280 B.C. About two-thirds of the book describes Israel's experiences during the two years after this date. This was the period when Israel traveled through the wilderness toward Mt. Sinai and received instructions from GOD through Moses as he met with GOD on the mountain.

Theological Contribution: (IDB) The Book of Exodus has exercised much influence over the faith of Israel, as well as Christian theology. The Bible's entire message of redemption grows out of the covenant relationship between GOD and His people first described in this book. In addition, several themes in the book can be clearly traced in the life and ministry of Jesus. Moses received the Law on Mt. Sinai; Jesus delivered the sermon on the Mount. Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to give life to the people; Jesus was lifted up on the cross to bring eternal life to all who trust in Him.

The Passover, first instituted by GOD for the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery, became one of the focal points of Israel's faith. It also served as the base on which Jesus developed the Last Supper as a lasting memorial for His followers. With clear insight into Exodus, the message of the Bible and the meaning of the life of Jesus dawns with greater understanding for Christian believers.

Special Considerations: (IDB) The Book of Exodus is a dramatic testimony to the power of GOD. The signs and plagues sent by GOD to break Pharaoh's stubbornness are clear demonstrations of His power. In addition to setting the Israelites free, they also dramatize the weakness of Egypt's false gods. The puny idols of Egypt are powerless before the mighty GOD of Israel.

The crossing of the Red Sea is one of the most dramatic events in all of the Bible; the biblical writers repeatedly refer to it as the most significant sign of GOD's love for Israel. A helpless slave people had been delivered from their enemies by their powerful Redeemer GOD. They celebrated their victory with a song of praise that emphasizes the theme of the Book of Exodus:

    I will sing to the LORD
    For He has triumphed gloriously!
    The horse and its rider
    He has thrown into the sea!
    The LORD has become my salvation.

Theme: (HBH) Deciding on a single theme that unifies all the varied materials of Exodus is difficult. One approach views the Sinai meeting where the redeemed nation encountered Yahweh and agreed to enter into covenant with Him as the theological center. The persecution of Israel in Egypt; the birth of Moses, his exile to Midian, and his return to Egypt as Israel's leader; the plagues upon Egypt; and the mighty exodus event itself - these all add up to the climax of covenant commitment. Likewise, everything after that - the establishment of methods of worship, priesthood, and tabernacle - flow from the covenant and allow it to be put into practice.

A second approach views the present of Yahweh with and in the midst of Israel as central. Yahweh's saving presence with Israel results in its deliverance from Egyptian slavery (Exod. 1-15). Yahweh's continuing presence with Israel calls for obedience to covenant commitments and for worship (Exod. 16-40).

A third approach views the lordship of Yahweh as the central theological theme. In Exodus GOD is revealed as LORD of history (1:1-7:7), LORD of nature (7:8-18:27), LORD of the covenant people Israel (19:1-24:14), and LORD of worship (25:1-40:38).

Literary Forms: (HBH) Exodus includes various literary types and genres including poetry, covenant texts, and legal materials. It isn't possible here to examine the entire book and identify the rich variety of literary expression, so a few passages will have to suffice.

One of the great poems of the OT is "The Song of the Sea" (Exod. 15:1-18,21). This piece celebrates Israel's exodus deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea (15:1a). The poem mixes the traits of a hymn of praise, a coronation song, a litany, and a victory psalm. Its mixed form suggests that it is multipurposed.

The presence in the song of certain themes and terms characteristic of Mesopotamian and Canaanite myths neither suggests that the song is only a myth nor even patterned after a myth. It is merely employing the vivid images and style of mythical poetry in order to communicate the awesome majesty of Yahweh and His dominion over His foes. On the other hand, the parallels between it and Ugaritic epic poetry of the Late Bronze Age (about 1500-1200) lend credence to its great antiquity and Mosaic composition.

Even greater benefit has come from the discovery that parts of Exodus, specifically 20:1-23:33, resemble in both form and content certain covenant texts and law codes from the ancient Near East. Scholars have observed striking parallels between ancient Hittite texts and covenant and law texts of the OT. One result is that these Exodus passages at least are now thought by many scholars to be much earlier than some had generally held.

According to some scholars Exodus 20-23 follows the pattern of a sovereign vassal treaty in which a great king such as the Hittite king initiated a contract with a defeated or less powerful king. Such a treaty made certain demands on the weaker king (now a vassal or agent of the Hittites) and pledged certain commitments on the part of the Hittite king. Hittite treaty texts invariably contain certain clauses in a generally unalterable order.

The covenant text of Exodus 20-23, like Hittite treaties, contains both basic and specific stipulations. The Ten Commandments (20:1-17) make up the so-called "basic stipulation" section of the covenant text. They lay down fundamental principles of behavior without reference to motive or results.

The second main section, Exodus 21:1-23:19, is otherwise described as the "specific stipulations". Its purpose is to elaborate on the principles established in the Ten Commandments and to address particular concerns faced by the community. The first subdivision of this portion (21:1-22:17) consists of case law. There the statutes read, "If one does thus and so...then here is the penalty." The second subdivision (22:18-23:19) is mainly moral absolutes - "Thou shalt not" or "If you do thus and so...you shall not do thus and so." (See the feature article on "Near Eastern Treaties".)

The important theological insight gained by recognizing that Exodus 20-23 is covenant in nature and not just law does not finally depend on comparison with ancient Near Eastern treaties. Exodus "sandwiches" legal material (Exod. 20-23) between narratives that anticipate (Exod. 19) and relate Israel's commitment to the covenant (Exod. 24). This "sandwich" structure suggests the legal portions find their rightful place in the context of the covenant. In other words, Exodus is not an "abstract" legal treatise. Rather, Exodus is law born in the "concrete" situation of Yahweh's covenant commitment to the nation Israel, whom He has freed from Egyptian slavery.

Literary STructure: (HBH) Discovering the literary structure of Exodus is a difficult task. Some interpreters discern a geographic outline.

    Israel in Egypt (1:1-13:16)
    Israel in the Wilderness (13:17-18:27)
    Israel at Sinai (19:1-40:38).

Others focus on content in outlining Exodus:

    Deliverance from Egypt and Journey to Sinai (1:1-18:27)
    Covenant at Sinai (19:1-24:18)
    Instructions for Tabernacle and Worship (25:1-31:18)
    Breach and Renewal of Covenant (32:1-34:35)
    Building the Tabernacle (35:1-40:38)

Still other interpreters focus on a central theological theme. For example, Exodus can be divided into two parts focusing on the physical (1:1-15:27) and spiritual birth (16:1-40:38) of the nation Israel. The outline that follows takes the presence of Yahweh as the central theme of Exodus.

  1. GOD's Saving Presence: Liberation from Egyptian Slavery (1:1-13:16)
  2. GOD's Guiding, Providing Presence: The Journey to Sinai (13:17-18:27)
  3. GOD's Demanding Presence: Sinai Covenant (19:1-24:18)
  4. GOD's Worshipful Presence: Rules for the Tabernacle and Priests (25:1-31:18)
  5. GOD's Disciplining, Forgiving Presence with a Disobedient People (32:1-34:35)
  6. GOD's Abiding Presence with an Obedient, Worshiping Community (35:1-40:38)

Purpose and Theology: (HBH) The Book of Exodus is the story of two covenant partners - GOD and Israel. Exodus sets forth in narrative form how Israel became the people of Yahweh and lays out the covenant terms by which the nation was to live as GOD's people.

Exodus defines the character of the faithful, mighty, saving, holy GOD who established a covenant with Israel. GOD's character is revealed both through GOD's name and GOD's acts. The most important of GOD's names is the covenant name Yahweh. Yahweh designates GOD as the "I AM" who is there for His people and acts on their behalf. (See the feature article "Names of GOD" and the commentary on Exodus 3.) Another important name, "the GOD of Abraham, the GOD of Isaac and the GOD of Jacob" (3:6,15-16), pictures GOD as the One who is true to His promises to the patriarchs.

Exodus also reveals GOD's character through His acts. GOD preserved Israel from famine by sending Joseph to Egypt (1:1-7). Pharaohs come and go (1:8); GOD, however, remains the same and preserves His people through the oppression of slavery (1:8-2:10). Israel's GOD rescues and saves (6:6; 14:30), guides and provides (15:13,25; 16:4,8), disciplines and forgives (32:1-34:35).

Exodus also defines the character of GOD's people. Lines of connection to Genesis, especially to the narratives of the patriarchs, demonstrate that the purposes of the LORD for Israel rested on the promises to the fathers. Exodus also looks to the future, to the land of promise, for the land was indispensable to Israel's full nationhood. Exodus stands then at a crossroads between the promises of the past and their culmination in the future.

A theological high point in Exodus appears in 19:4-6, which outlines Israel's true nature and role within GOD's plan. Yahweh had judged the Egyptians, had delivered His own people "on eagles' wings," and had brought them to Himself at Sinai. There the LORD offered Israel a covenant. If it was accepted and lived out, the covenant would result in Israel's being GOD's "treasured possession," a chosen "kingdom of priests," and a "holy nation." The people accepted these terms and pledged, "We will do everything the LORD has said" (19:8).

For Israel to be a kingdom of priests implied that GOD's people functioned as mediators and intercessors, for that is at the heart of the priestly function. Israel was to bridge the gap between a holy GOD and an alienated world. In other words, Israel was made a servant people, a servant of Yahweh, whose task was to be the channel of reconciliation. This mission was already anticipated in the Abrahamic covenant where Abraham's offspring (Israel) was destined to become the means whereby all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3; 22:18; 26:4).

Israel's call to covenant was founded not on its merit but on GOD's free choice: "I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself" (Exod. 19:4). The covenant then did not make Israel the people of Yahweh. They were the people of Yahweh by descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the recipients of GOD's promises. Even the exodus, therefore, did not create the people of GOD. It rescued Yahweh's enslaved people, forged them into a nation, and brought them to the historical and theological position where they could willingly accept (or reject) the responsibility of becoming GOD's instrument for blessing all nations (compare Ps 114:1-2).

In other words, the offer of covenant entailed function only. It did not make Israel Yahweh's people, for that relationship had long since been established and recognized (compare Exod. 3:7; 4:22-23; 5:1). What the Sinai covenant did was to define the task of the people of Yahweh.

In conclusion, the theology of Exodus is rooted in servanthood. It centers in the truth that a chosen people, delivered from bondage to a hostile power by the power of Yahweh, were brought to a point of decision. What would they do with GOD's offer to make them the servant people long before promised to Abraham? Their willing acceptance of this generous offer then obligated them to its conditions, conditions spelled out in the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20:1-23:33) and the remainder of the Book of Exodus.

Personal Application: The first concept that stands out in the book of Exodus is that GOD blesses those who remain within the covenant. He is their GOD and they become his holy people.

Second, GOD explains with great detail what is acceptable to Him.

Third, GOD frees those who find themselves in servitude. The liberation may not arrive immediately, but reaches those who expect it and are prepared for when it happens. This liberation is based on obedience to GOD's expressed will and moving out when he ordains it. The children of Israel had to wait until the Passover meal and until the angel of death had passed; afterward, GOD gave them the order to march. We should also wait, but be ready to move when GOD orders it.

Christ Revealed: Moses is a symbol of Christ, because he liberates people from bondage. Aaron also serves as another symbol of Jesus, in his role of high priest (28:1), by interceding before the altar of incense (30:1). The Passover indicates that Jesus is the Lamb of GOD who was sacrificed for our redemption (12:1-22).

The passages in the Gospel of John that begin with "I am" have their antecedents in Exodus. John affirms that Jesus is the bread of life; Moses speaks of the bread of GOD in two ways, as the manna (16:35) and as the bread of the proposition [shewbread in KJV] (25:30). John tells us that Jesus is the light of the world; in the tabernacle the candlestick holds a light that never goes out (25:31-40).

The Holy Spirit in Action: The oil in the book of Exodus symbolically represents the Holy Spirit (27:20). For example, the anointing oil, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit is used to prepare those who worship and the priests for the divine service (30:31).

The fruit of the Holy Spirit are identified in Galatians 5:22,23. A parallel list can be found in Exodus 34:6,7, that mention GOD's attributes as being merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, good, trustworthy and forgiving.

The most direct references to the Holy Spirit can be found in 31:3-11 and 35:30-36:1, when it speaks of individuals who, thanks to the Holy Spirit, become great artisans. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the natural abilities of these individuals were increased and extended to accomplish urgent tasks with excellence and precision.

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