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Introduction to the Book of the Exodus

Table of Contents

General Info

After a few verses of transition, the narrative in Exodus picks up approximately 400 years after the end of Genesis.  Like the other four books of the Pentateuch, the Hebrew title comes from the first word or words of the book.  In this case, the Hebrew title is named after the first two words, we’elleh shemoth (“These are the names of”) or sometimes simply called “Names” (shemoth).  We get our English title from a Greek noun in the Septuagint, namely exodos, which means “the way out”, “exit” or “departure,” the major event of the first half of the book, in which the Lord brings Israel out of Egypt.  The chief event in the second half is the Mosaic covenant at Mt Sinai, where God gave the moral law, including the Ten Commandments to the Israelites through Moses, thus by His covenant, establishing the Israelites as a nation of His people, and distinguishing them from all other peoples of the world.

With the giving of the law, God graciously reached out and provided the Israelites with the method by which they were to approach Him and maintain their relationship to Him and to each other.  This law was later fulfilled by Jesus Christ, and all who trust and believe in Him are credited with keeping the law (Rom 8:4, 2Cor 5:21).

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Brief Survey

Exodus begins where Genesis leaves off, with the descendants of Jacob (aka Israel) living in Egypt.  The first few verses tell us that after a few years, in which the Israelites greatly increased in number, a new ruler arose in Egypt, who knew not Joseph, and subjected Abraham’s decedents to the cruel bondage of slavery.  This is followed by the birth of Moses, his flight from Egypt, his calling by God, and his return (ch 2-4).  Chapters 5-12 describe the events leading up to the Israelites exodus from Egypt.  God sends Moses and his brother Aaron to the Egyptian Pharaoh with a demand to free the Jews.  When Pharaoh refuses, God sends ten plagues on Egypt, culminating with the death of the first-born children, except those of the Israelites observing the Passover.

Chapters 12-15 illustrate the events of the exodus itself, including crossing of the Red Sea, where God parted the waters and destroyed the Egyptian army.  The next section (ch 15-24), chronicles the Israelites journey to Mt Sinai and the giving of the Law which established the Nation of Israel as a Theocracy.  Along the way, we see much grumbling, disobedience and rebellion against Moses and ultimately God.

The narrative of the book then skips around on a few subjects, beginning with detailed instructions on materials and furnishings for the Tabernacle (ch 25-31), moving back to more directives, the golden calf, and renewal of the covenant (ch 32-34), before returning to the construction of the Tabernacle (ch 35-40).  Exodus ends with the Glory of God filling the Tabernacle.  This leads directly into Leviticus, which opens with God speaking to Moses from the Tent of Meeting (the Tabernacle).

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Key Verses

So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey... (3:8)

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (3:14-15)

"Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants.  When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’”  Then the people bowed down and worshiped. (12:24-27)

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” (19:5-6)

And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me...” (20-1-3 from the Ten Commandments 20:1-20)

Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD.  And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.  Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished...” (34:5-7)

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.  Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.  In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out--until the day it lifted.  So the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels. (40:34-38)

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Author and Date

Like most of the OT books, Exodus does not explicitly announce its author.  The traditional view proclaims Moses as the author based up internal (17:14, 24:4, 34:28) and external content.  Many other books of the Old and New Testament refer to Moses as the author, including several quotes from Jesus.  Most of the book's material was probably recorded during the desert wanderings in the latter part of the 1400s BC.

See Introduction to the Pentateuch - Author for more information, including modern challenges to the authorship.

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Historical Background

In Genesis, we witnessed God’s choosing of Abraham to be the ancestor of the nation of Israel.  We then saw God’s promise renewed in Isaac and Jacob (Israel), and observed God’s preservation of His people through Joseph in Egypt.  Genesis ends with the death of Joseph and the vow to later transport his bones to the Promised Land.  Exodus picks up the narrative by reporting that the nation was fruitful, and had multiplied and filled the land.  After about 400 years, a new dynasty arose in Egypt, who feared and enslaved the Israelites.  Exodus then recounts the story of God delivering His people from Egyptian bondage, their initial wanderings in the desert, and the giving of the law at Mt Sinai which established them as His chosen people.

The Exodus occurred during Egypt’s 18th dynasty (1550–1295 BC), when Egypt was arguably the greatest military power in the world.  In addition, Egypt’s culture, including worship of their patron god, Amon-Re, gained dominance throughout the region.  So, the Israelites departed from Egypt not a time of Egyptian weakness, but God led them out when Egyptian strength was at its peak.

When Exodus was written, the people of Israel had recently been released from 400 years of slavery in Egypt.  Moses then guided them through the desert, where God had established a covenant relationship with them at Mount Sinai and had given them the law.  Israel was now preparing to enter the Promised Land and receive the inheritance that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham.

See Intro to the Pentateuch for the timeline chart.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

During their stay in Egypt, the Israelites had adopted many pagan ideas and customs from their Egyptian masters.  They had been greatly influenced for hundreds of years by a culture which embraced false Gods, idols, and immoral practices.  Perhaps they had given up on the great promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob being fulfilled, or possibly, they had even forgotten them altogether.  Before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites needed to understand the nature of God, and be reminded of their unique special relationship with Him.  They needed to embrace their identity as His chosen people, the apple of His eye.

Thus, in Exodus, God continues to reveal His Name, character and attributes such as His holiness, faithfulness, truthfulness, justice and mercy, often through narratives of Him working with His people.  God’s Law, which establishes Biblical ethics and morality, is not just some arbitrary rules, but is based upon His very nature and character.  With the giving of the Law and the sealing of the Mosaic covenant, He begins to define how He is to be worshiped.  The theme of worship is expanded in the last few chapters, which details the building of the Tabernacle and it being filled with the Glory of God.

We also begin to see the next steps in the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and the other patriarchs.  The theme of deliverance, which began in the call of Abraham, continues with Israel’s release from Egyptian bondage, which is a type of our redemption from the bondage of sin.  A few theologians have even gone so far as to state that the Exodus event was the OT act of redemption.  In addition, we receive an awesome foreshadowing of propitiation (appeasement) by the blood of Christ in the Passover narrative in Chapter 12.  Just as the Angel of Death “passed over” the houses which had the blood of a lamp applied to the doorposts, those of us protected by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, will not see spiritual death.

The theme of the covenant is prevalent throughout the OT, and Exodus is no exception.  By the Mosaic covenant at Mt Sinai, God established the Jewish people as His nation, setting them apart to be a blessing for the other nations of the world.

We also see the beginning of the priesthood, as Moses acts as a “covenant mediator”, making intercession on behalf of the people before God after they molded and worshiped the golden calf.  This foreshadows Jesus the Messiah who, as the ultimate mediator of the new covenant, now sits at the right hand of God constantly making intercession with the Father on our behalf.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Exodus is a historical epic and a book of law which is primarily delivers its material through narratives.  It is not an exhaustive historical account, but focuses on events illustrating God’s dealing with His people at this particular time in history.  The law portions provide us not only with moral and ethical instructions, but a glimpse into the very nature and character of God.  See our Genre Analysis of the Laws and Narratives for more information on interpreting these types of literature.

All events within Exodus, including the commandments and instructions given by God must be interpreted within the larger context of God’s covenant promises to Abraham (2:24, 6:2-8).  These promises included the land and numerous offspring, and by extension, blessing to Abraham’s descendants (the Israelites) and the nations (Gen 12:1-3).  We see the beginning of their fulfillment with God’s miraculous rescue of the Hebrews from slavery, His covenant though the gift of the Law which established them as a theocratic nation, and His continuous presence in the cloud and Tabernacle.

In turn, these promises should be interpreted in the ultimate context of the history of God’s plan of salvation.  Since God always takes the first step, it began with the call of Abraham and the preserving of his descendants as recorded in Genesis.  The Egyptian bondage demonstrated how the nation needed a Deliverer, just as we need a Savior from the bondage of sin.  Next, God sent ten plagues upon Egypt, each of which was a slap in the face to one of the false Egyptian Gods.  The tenth plague, which forcing Pharaoh to free the Israelites, instituted the Passover (chapter 12), which foreshadowed our protection from spiritual death by the blood of the ultimate Lamb (Jesus).  The exodus event itself was the chief type of deliverance in the OT, which established the identity of the Nation of Israel as the people of God, and foreshadowed the salvation of all believers by the work of Jesus the Christ on the cross.  It also identified God as One who cares for His people.  God then leads them to Mount Sinai, gives them his laws and seals His covenant with them, establishing the nation as a theocracy.  Despite their prompt disregard of their covenantal relationship in the worship of the golden calf, at the intercession of Moses (as Jesus intercedes for us), God forgives the Israelites and renew the covenant.  The book ends with the construction of the Tabernacle, and it being filled with the glory of God, as He prepares the people for the journey to the Promised Land.

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Chapters 1–15 are about the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, being set free from bondage.  Next, they continue to learn who God is and what he is like through the covenant at Sinai in chapters 16-24.  Finally, in chapters 25-40, God teaches them how to fellowship with Him through the building and dedication of the Tabernacle.

1:1 – 2:25 Prologue, Growth of the Nation of Israel; New Pharaoh and Oppression; Birth and Escape of Moses
3:1 - 4:31 Israelites in Bondage in Egypt; Burning Bush, Call of Moses and his return to Egypt
5:1 - 7:7 God Promises Deliverance; Moses and Aaron Approach Pharaoh
7:8 - 11:10 The Ten Plagues against Egypt
12:1 - 12:28 The Passover
12:29 - 15:21 The Exodus (Israel’s Departure from Egypt); Parting of the Waters and Crossing the Red Sea
15:22 - 18:27 Israelites’ Journey to Mt Sinai
19:1 - 24:18 Mosaic Covenant Established at Sinai; the Ten Commandments; Detailed Instruction from God
25:1 - 31:17 Instructions for the Tabernacle and Furnishings, Ark of the Covenant, Consecration of the Priests
32:1 - 34:35 The Golden Calf; Renewal of the Covenant
35:1 - 40:34 Construction, Erection and Dedication of the Tabernacle
40:34 - 40:38 The Glory of the Lord fills the Tabernacle

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