Lesson 1 of 6
In Progress

Summary of Exodus

Revised by Cameron B.R. Howard (5/24)

Exodus begins with a depiction of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt and God’s selection of Moses to move Israel out of that enslavement. Pharaoh contests this intention of God, and God responds by sending plagues on Egypt that culminate with the death of the firstborn and deliverance at the sea. Israel prepares for this deliverance by founding the Passover and responds with triumphant singing after the deliverance. Israel journeys to Sinai, murmuring along the way. At Sinai, Israel receives the Ten Commandments and the covenant relationship is established. While Moses is receiving additional instructions from God on Sinai—notably the designs for the tabernacle—Israel rebels by building the golden calf. Moses intercedes successfully for Israel, and God relents and recommits to the covenant. Israel then builds the tabernacle as instructed.


The foundational narratives of the Book of Exodus seek to articulate the Lord’s claim to Israel’s allegiance and to shape the identity of Israel, its liturgical practices, and its legal traditions.


Exodus is the second book of the Old Testament. It follows Genesis and precedes Leviticus.


Traditionally Moses was understood as the author, although the book of Exodus does not make that direct assertion. While many interpreters concede great antiquity to many sections of the book and even consider Moses at the core of its origin, Moses is not seen as the single author in a contemporary sense of authorship. Rather, Exodus, like the rest of the Pentateuch, shows evidence of multiple authorship over time. One popular view, known as the “Documentary Hypothesis,” proposes four distinct documents were later merged into the common narrative we now have. Other scholars propose that ancient narratives more fragmentary than full-fledged “documents” were later brought together by a Priestly editor, who also added their own material. Regardless of whether one subscribes to the details of a particular hypothesis, the authorship of Exodus most likely belongs to multiple anonymous ancient writers. 


Dating the Book of Exodus is interconnected with the issue of authorship, in that different authors and editors added new elements to the book over time. For example, if one adopts the Documentary Hypothesis, then the earliest strand was written in the period of David and Solomon and the latest in the exilic or postexilic period, with final editorial work being completed in the postexilic era. Most proposals agree that the Pentateuch, and thus the book of Exodus, was completed during the period of biblical history when Persia ruled Judah—that is, in the fifth or fourth century BCE.


Exodus narrates Israel’s deliverance from tyranny in Egypt, the establishment of God’s covenant with Israel, the reception of core commandments at Sinai, the paradigmatic rebellion of Israel in the golden calf incident, and the obedient building of the tabernacle through which God would be present to accompany Israel to the Promised Land.


The Book of Exodus can be read as testimony of God’s faithfulness to Israel, of God’s special attention to the oppressed, and of the law as a covenantal gift from God. The people of Israel are freed from service to Pharaoh in Egypt for service to YHWH, the LORD. The preface to the Ten Commandments sets the core message: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2). From this core, Israel forges practices of social justice and liturgical commemoration. The book also depicts Israel’s persistent and increasing rebellion against serving YHWH as they travel through the wilderness. The foundational narratives of Israel’s rebellion and obedience are bracketed by YHWH’s persistent fidelity to the covenant with Israel. Readers are to understand these narratives as anchor points for shaping the covenantal story from generation to generation.