Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Exodus

Book of the covenant

The term “book of the covenant” commonly refers to Exodus 20:22-23:33, but the reference to “all the words that the LORD has spoken” in 24:3 has led some to include the Decalogue as well. Further, Exodus 19-24 is considered a unit despite its probable extended process of composition. The laws in Exodus 20:22-23:33 have different forms, and scholars have developed varying classification systems. A commonly employed set distinguishes casuistic laws from apodictic laws. The former occur in Exodus 21:1-22:17 and are constructed with an “If…, then…” pattern. The latter occur in Exodus 20:22-26 and 22:18-23:19, are characterized by direct prohibition, and use an imperative form: “You shall/shall not….” The infractions mentioned in the laws suggest a settled, not nomadic, lifestyle, but the lack of any mention of monarchic practices suggests an early date for the core material. The extent of later revisions embedded in the present text is debated, but specific laws were clearly revised later in Israel’s history. For example, Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 provided evidence of significant later revision of the slave law in Exodus 21.

Composition history

As soon as interpreters recognize that Exodus was not composed by a single author such as Moses, they are confronted by a complex and ambiguous history of composition. The book of Exodus does not itself claim Moses as the author in any modern sense of authorship. Data such as two narratives introducing the divine name (Exodus 3 and 6) and variations in the name of Moses father-in-law (Exodus 2 and 18) undergirded the theory of multiple narratives telling the Exodus story, each at the same time reflecting concerns of its own era. The documentary hypothesis, as it was termed, posited a collation of these prior narrations into one continuous narrative in the postexilic period. Confidence in this reconstruction has diminished, but that has not led to a return to the notion of a single author such as Moses. Rather, there has been recognition of prior blocks of material such as Exodus 21-23. The period of composition is thus seen as an ongoing process of telling and retelling of the accounts to shape identity and to form practice in varied circumstances, most of which are now no longer recoverable with historical exactness.

Connections to the rest of the Pentateuch

Exodus can be read as a freestanding book moving from building store cities in slavery to building a tabernacle in service to a liberating and forgiving God. However, there are many indications that those who shaped the present form of the book intended it to be part of a larger whole. Exodus 1, for example, begins by tying Exodus to Genesis by means of a genealogy of the family of Jacob. Israel’s plight commences with a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, but the reader presumably knows from the narratives at the end of Genesis what Joseph had earlier meant to Egyptian survival. When God hears the cries of Israel at the end of Exodus 2, God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, again connecting Exodus with Genesis. Exodus is also linked to the remainder of the Pentateuch. For example, God’s instructions for the appointment of priests (Exodus 29) are not fully implemented until Leviticus 8, and the book ends with clear indications of further journeying. Sinai is not imagined as the destination point.

Date of the exodus

For most interpreters determining the date of the exodus has become more complicated than simply moving back 480 years from the building of the temple by Solomon (1 Kings 6). The same can be said for determining the length of the period of enslavement in Egypt. Genesis 15:13 mentions four hundred years of oppression but speaks of returning to the land of Abraham’s sojourning in four generations. The genealogy in Exodus 6:14-25 also works with a four-generation structure. If 1 Kings 6:1 is the starting point, attempts are made to correlate the archaeological data in Palestine with a conquest forty years after 1446 B.C.E. Proposed alignments have caveats and counter interpretations. The Merneptah Stela, dating from approximately 1210 B.C.E., mentions a group named Israel and it provides many interpreters with an anchor date leading to the conclusion that the mid-1200s is the likely date of the exodus. Other interpreters have abandoned the quest for a date, positing that the conquest was a matter of small infiltrations or a peasant revolt joined at most by a few groups from Egypt. In this view there is no need to find a specific date for the exodus. The nature of the biblical narrative and the way the Bible’s authority is understood influence these views on the date of the exodus.

Decalogue/Ten Commandments

The number ten and its association with two tablets are derived from Exodus 34. In Exodus 20 these commandments are editorially separated from the rest of the statutes and ordinances given to Israel at Sinai. The text mentions both before and after the words of the Commandments that God communicates from a cloud surrounded with thunder and lightning. Before the Commandments are given, Moses is commanded to warn the people not to approach the mountain lest they die. After the text of the Commandments is given, the people ask Moses to receive communication from God for they fear they will die if God communicates to them directly. This framing heightens the importance of the Ten Commandments. The opening segment of the Ten Commandments relates to God and the remainder addresses intracommunal conduct. The two segments should not be sharply separated as other legal material intersperses social regulations with requirements for appropriate conduct with regard to God. The preface, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of salvery” (20:2), arcs across these commandments. Some have speculated that all of the commandments may have had a short form such as the prohibition against murder. In their current form they are grounded in God’s bringing Israel out of bondage, and they stand at the head of all law grounded in revelation at Sinai.


Interpreters will encounter difficulty in tracing the exodus geographically. While it is plausible that Israel was part of Semitic groups that episodically resided in the Nile Delta region, the exact location of Israel’s residence in Egypt has not been recovered. Whether or not the storehouse cities can be pinpointed is debated. While it is clear that Israel did not follow the most direct route from Egypt to the land of Canaan, there remains debate about what path was followed as they left Egypt. One view has Israel navigating through a marshy lake region and translates the biblical phrase yam suph (used to describe the body of water throughout the Exodus narrative) literally as the “Reed Sea” (for example, Exodus 13:8). Others insist that the water must be the Red Sea (as translated in the NRSV). Once beyond the sea, the wilderness stops also cannot be pinpointed. Finally, the location of Sinai is debated. While the correlations with extrabiblical data are not so minimal as to preclude the historicity of the narrative, interpreters must acknowledge that the historicity is at best plausible, not proven. The plausible narrative background does not by itself prove that the specifics of an event occurred as narrated.

Hardening the heart

Pharaoh hardened his heart (for example, Exodus 8:15); God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (for example, Exodus 9:12). Relating these two themes is a perennial task for interpreters. The issue loops into many others, especially election. God chose Israel; God did not choose Pharaoh. In Romans 9, St. Paul couples this theme with the choice of Jacob over Esau. Modern interpreters inevitably bring a discussion of free will into the picture. Many attempts have been made to soften the impact of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart with its implication that Pharaoh was doomed from the beginning. A common move is to argue that there is a progression from Pharaoh’s persistent hardening of his heart to God’s eventual giving in to Pharaoh’s intent, the latter encompassing the language of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. A fundamental narrative obstacle to this approach is Exodus 4:21 where God announces to Moses even before he returns to Egypt God’s intention to hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Although the question of free will must inevitably be faced, it is not the focus of Exodus. Exodus articulates the depth of God’s commitment to Israel, a commitment now put to the test by slavery in Egypt. It is a narrative about the mighty being brought low and the lowly being exulted, not about the intricacies of philosophical and theological debates over free will.


Manna provides an interesting example of attempts to specify information beyond that given in the Bible. Proposals have been made to identify manna with known edible secretions of plant life or insects. None of the proposed sources are naturally available throughout the calendar year. These attempts to prove the plausibility of the biblical narrative ironically undercut it. If the identifications are accurate, they raise serious questions about the numbers for the population of Israel in the wilderness. The supposed naturally occurring manna would not come close to providing for the nutritional needs of such a large population. The miracle of God’s provision is not verified by making it a natural process. Theologically the central point is that God gave the manna (Exodus 16; see also Numbers 11) both to provide for Israel’s need and to test whether Israel would follow God’s instruction, specifically with regard to the Sabbath. There was always the right amount for every one, and no one was allowed to accumulate surplus. Israel was to learn to depend on a dependable God, a lesson commemorated by keeping a portion of the manna in the ark (Exodus 16:32-34).


In recurrent episodes in Exodus 15:22-17:7, Israel complains about the lack of water and food and the quality of the water. These narratives are commonly referred to as “murmuring,” although many translations, including NRSV, use the term “complaining.” The needs in each case are real, and interpreters should be at least as restrained in judging Israel as is the text. God does not punish Israel for these murmurings as in Numbers 11. Perhaps the divine restraint is shaped by the fact that the formal enactment of the Sinai covenant will come later. The episodes are used to test and to teach Israel as it becomes a people freed from Egyptian tyranny. These actions also involveIsrael testing God, a fact remembered in the name given to the location, namely, Massah (see Psalm 95:8-9). Full-blown opposition to God occurs in the golden calf episode where God’s judgment is clearly articulated. The stories of murmuring in Exodus are a prelude to later blatant disobedience. They set an ominous trajectory, but the reader should empathize more than condemn at this point.

Narrative coherence

The documentary hypothesis emphasized tensions within and between narratives in the book of Exodus. Interpreters highlighted such features as the threefold occurrence of God’s commands to Moses and Moses’ exact execution of those commands in Exodus 13 and 14 before and after the people cross on dry land (for example, “stretch out your hand over the sea” and “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea,” [14:16, 21 and again in 14:26-27]). Mixed in with this almost liturgical pageantry are references to Israel’s fear, Moses’ command to stand still and see how the Lord will fight for them, the movement of the pillars during the night, and Israel’s awakening to the sight of dead Egyptians on the seashore. From such observations, multiple prior documents were posited. More recent literary interpretations have sought instead to highlight what connects narrative elements despite surface level tensions. For example, literary interpreters will emphasize three series of plagues consisting of three each, with each series having the same pattern of forewarnings and instructional formulae. Narrative coherence is emphasized at the level of theology and confession rather than at a level that would satisfy the interest of an historian.


As with the Joseph story in Genesis, interpreters have been endlessly frustrated by the lack of a proper name by which to identify the specific Egyptian ruler involved in the narrative. Three different Egyptian rulers are implied or referred to in Exodus: (1) one or more who, at the outset, were grateful to Joseph and consequently shielded Israel; (2) a ruler who did not know Joseph and consequently oppressed the Israelites and from whom Moses fled; (3) a ruler who opposed the release of Israel and ends up drowned in the sea. The biblical story can be plausibly read against several periods with interpreters making different judgments about the degree of correlation. The more confident one is of the correlations, the more puzzling it is that none of the pharaohs is named. Some have understood not naming the Pharaoh as a narrative technique to undercut the presumptions of the Egyptian ruler. He lacks divine powers and he cannot maintain order to protect his people; he has not stature as a ruler. Or, is it because the only king recognized by the narrative is the Lord (see Exodus 15:18)? The absence of a proper name in royal psalms has also been offered as an analogy. Or, assuming historic-but now unidentifiable-pharaohs, the role of “Pharaoh” has become perpetual and thus paradigmatic (see Deuteronomy 6:20-25). Rather than verifying the story in the past, readers can recognize the role of pharaoh embodied in their own world.


The plagues are also called “signs” or “wonders” in Exodus. Deuteronomy regularly employs the phrase “signs and wonders,” which includes all the wonders done against Egypt to bring about the exodus from Egypt. Many attempts have been made to correlate the “plagues” with natural phenomena that occur in the region of Egypt. The assumption is that if such correlations are successful, the unusual dimension of the plagues would be shifted to a matter of fortunate timing. More recent attempts have been made to correlate Pharaoh’s social tyranny with ecological consequences. Both moves seek to tone down the degree to which one speaks of divine intervention. Within the biblical text, the concern focuses on the purpose for and impact of the plagues. Israel is to be impressed with the power of God. Egyptians are to be overwhelmed and to come to know the power of Israel’s God, recognizing at the same time their own ineffectiveness as well as that of their gods. The plagues are intertwined with the theme of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Modern concerns regarding free will and the integrity of nature are not taken up. Rather, the plagues are celebrated as part of God’s deliverance of Israel from the bondage of Egypt, a deliverance that Israel knows it had no power to implement.


Key questions are asked by characters in the exodus narratives, questions that are informational, ironic, and challenging. Moses anticipates the Israelites question concerning the one who sent him, “What is his name?” (3:13). The name Yahweh is provided as an answer. Pharaoh asks, “Who is the LORD?” (5:2). His question may not have been sincere, but from the reader’s point of view the answer is clear: The Lord is the one who brought Israel out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:2). Even before the plagues, Moses asked, “Why did you ever send me?” (5:22). His question is echoed in the later question of Israel, “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (14:11). They later ask in one of the murmuring episodes, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children…?” (17:3). At times the questions are purely factual: “What shall we drink?” (15:24). On other occasions they imply disobedience: “Is the LORD among us or not?” (17:7). Others are occasions for paradigmatic instruction: “What do you mean by this observance?” (12:26). While these questions are embedded in the plot line, they may also provide readers with insight into the kerygmatic emphases of the narrative.


The first explicit reference to the Sabbath occurs in Exodus 16. It is termed holy to the Lord and a day of solemn rest. No manna was to be collected on that day. The Sabbath law, however, is given prior to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Some interpreters argue that the Sabbath practice has already been in place narratively since Genesis 2:2-3; the  Ten Commandments merely formalized it. Other interpreters see this as one more indication of a complicated, multileveled history of composition. In Exodus 20 the motivation for keeping the Sabbath is grounded in the six-day creation pattern of Genesis 1. In Deuteronomy 5, in contrast, the motivation is grounded in the memory of slavery in Egypt in which there was no time for rest. The need for rest is also cited in Exodus 23:12 (note the use of “the seventh day” rather than “Sabbath”). Exodus 31:12-17, in the midst of instructions for building the tabernacle, lifts up Sabbath observance as an ongoing sign of the covenant and adds the death penalty for violators. The death penalty is again cited in Exodus 35:2-3, and restrictions on fires are added. There is no one place that gathers all Sabbath regulations, an indication for some interpreters that Sabbath regulations developed over time and were attached to prior narratives.


The instructions for the tabernacle are given to Moses after formalizing the covenant between God and the people who had come out of Egypt (Exodus 24). The initial revelation at Sinai had terrified the people; both the outward presence of thunder and lightning and the danger of encroaching on the boundary of God’s holiness fueled the fear. Only a select few were allowed to approach God on the mountain. In addition since Israel’s destination was the promised land, not Sinai, the question of how God would continue to be present needed to be answered. The tabernacle addressed these issues. God commits to be present in the community and provides prescriptions for a regularized manner to honor boundaries. God was not locked into being present only at Sinai; the tabernacle provided a mobile presence. Readers find it difficult to sort out the overlap between the tabernacle, which was at the center of the community, and the tent of meeting, which was at the periphery. Moses was able to consult God at both places. The golden calf episode disrupts the flow from instructions to implementation of the building plans. Whether or not God will continue to be present with the people is a contested issue because of Israel’s act of idolatry. God’s decision to continue to be present is embodied in the building of the tabernacle, and the book of Exodus ends with the presence of God occupying the tabernacle.