(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


(Also known as Shemot, Sefer ’Elleh Shemot, Exodos Aigyptou, Exagoge, and Book of Names) Second book of the Old Testament, circa 10th-5th century B.C.

Exodus is the second book of the Pentateuch, the first group of books of the Hebrew Bible. Although Pentateuch authorship has traditionally been assigned to Moses, scholars believe that the books are actually composite works redacted from several different sources. Specifically, these sources are referred to as J, for Jahwistic, circa 10th century B.C.; E, for Elohistic, circa 8th century B.C.; D, which refers to Deuteronomy, circa late 7th century B.C.; and P, or Priestly Code, from about the 6th or 5th centuries B.C. Exodus details the slavery of the Israelites under Pharaoh, the birth of Moses, and offers an account of how Moses led the Israelites from captivity in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. Exodus also sets down rituals and rules by which God's people should live their lives. In addition, Exodus contains many of the most memorable episodes of the Bible, including the burning bush, the ten plagues, the parting of the Red (or Reed) Sea, and the delivery of the Ten Commandments. As a history of Israel and its relations with Egypt, it is considered indispensable by many scholars, but others note that solid historical data is sparse and that the yearly chronologies are contradictory and confusing, suggesting instead that Exodus is better read as a document of faith.

Plot and Major Characters

Moses is the central figure of Exodus. When the book begins, the Israelites are slaves under Pharaoh, who orders that all male Hebrew babies be drowned in the Nile; the infant Moses, however, is saved when his mother puts him in a basket and sets him adrift on the river. He is subsequently found by Pharaoh's daughter and grows up in the palace. The narrative resumes with Moses now a full-grown man. He returns to his people, but filled with feelings of inadequacy, he flees. God then appears to him in the from of a burning bush, commanding Moses to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites. Moses and his brother Aaron attempt to persuade the new Pharaoh to free his slaves. Following Pharaoh's refusal, Moses, once again viewing himself as a failure, returns to God to ask for help. In turn, God causes the waters of the Nile to change into blood, but Pharaoh remains steadfast. God then subjects Egypt to the ten plagues; only after the tenth plague does Pharaoh finally relent, and Moses leads the Israelites on their way to freedom. Pharaoh, however, has decided that the Israelites should not have been allowed to leave after all and pursues them with his army. Moses stretches his hand over the Red Sea and God causes the waters to recede, allowing His people to cross. When they are safely on the other side, Moses stretches his hand over the sea once more, and God causes the waters to flow once more, drowning Pharaoh's army. Moses and the Israelites journey on through the wilderness, where God makes a new covenant with the Israelites, essentially the Ten Commandments.

Major Themes

Primary among Exodus's many important themes is the premise that the Jews are God's chosen people, as well as the idea of the power of names. The book also emphasizes the meaning and purpose of history and God's role in its unfolding. God is viewed as the redeemer and a power who cannot be defied. Another key aspect of Exodus is its focus on the possibility of overcoming oppressive circumstances and obstacles.

Critical Reception

Scholars have long been fascinated with determining the various sources for Exodus and the process through which it was compiled into its final form. The consensus seems to be that little future progress beyond the present state is likely in this area of historical study. While many critics now focus on taking stock of the work done by experts in the field from past generations, others stress that historical analysis was always the wrong approach to take, and that Exodus is more a legendary than historical work. John J. Bimson critiques the main theories concerning the historicity and dating of the Exodus. James K. Hoffmeier focuses on Moses, the plagues, and elements of Egyptian origin. Jonathan Boyarin, in an overview of assorted readings of Exodus, contends that it cannot be understood solely as history, nor can it be used as a perfect model for the present. He believes that the meaning of Exodus is suspended somewhere between the era of its creation and our own time and that to fully appreciate the text, it is necessary to place it in the context of similar narratives and also to recognize its political implications. Richard Coggins also presents an overview of different approaches to reading the book. Nahum M. Sarna discusses Exodus's contents, its description of the nature of God, and its setting, calling it “the great seminal text of biblical literature.” In addition to full-length studies of the work, there are also numerous studies by many scholars who take a small section, even just one line, of text and subject it to painstaking analysis. For example, Moshe Anbar examines Exodus 23.32 and the political aspects of prophecy; E. W. Nicholson analyzes Exodus 24.9-11, its background, origin, and purpose; and C. Houtman studies Exodus 4:24-26, a difficult passage dealing with Moses's circumcision.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

The Bible (American Standard Version) 1901

The Bible (New Revised Standard Version) 1952

New Century Bible: Commentary on Exodus (translated by J. Philip Hyatt) 1971

The Old Testament Library: Exodus (translated by Brevard Childs) 1974

Now These Are the Names: A New English Rendition of the Book of Exodus (translated by Everett Fox) 1986

The Anchor Bible: Exodus 1-18 (translated by William H. C. Propp) 1999

The New Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version Bible with the Apocrypha. 3rd edition. 2001

E. W. Nicholson (essay date April 1976)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Nicholson, E. W. “The Origin of the Tradition in Exodus XXIV 9-11.” Vetus Testamentum 26, no. 2 (April 1976): 148-60.

[In the following essay, Nicholson discusses the religious and historical background of the tradition of divine manifestation.]

In two previous articles (‘The Interpretation of Exodus xxiv 9-11’, VT 24 (1974), pp. 77-97, and ‘The Antiquity of the Tradition in Exodus xxiv 9-11’, VT [Vetus Testamentum] 25 (1975), pp. 69-79) I argued that this short passage is a separate unit of tradition in the Sinai pericope; that the introduction to these verses in Exodus xxiv 1-2 is not original; that...

(The entire section is 5504 words.)

John J. Bimson (essay date 1978)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Bimson, John J. Introduction to Redating the Exodus and Conquest, pp. 10-28. Sheffield, England: The Almond Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, first published in 1978, Bimson examines several different theories concerning the historicity of Exodus.]


It is a fundamental assumption of this work that the biblical traditions of the bondage in Egypt and of the Exodus have a firm historical basis. In 1925 J. W. Jack wrote: “… It is far from likely that any nation would have placed in the forefront of its records an experience of hardship and slavery in a foreign country, unless this had been a real and...

(The entire section is 8659 words.)

C. Houtman (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Houtman, C. “Exodus 4:24-26 and Its Interpretation.” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 11 (1983): 81-105.

[In the following essay, Houtman analyzes Exodus 4:24-26 and surveys assorted interpretations of it.]

24 On the way, while he spent the night somewhere, YHWH attacked him and sought to kill him. 25 Then Zipporah picked up a flint and cut off her son's foreskin. She brought it down on his “feet” and said: “Surely you are a bloody bridegroom to me.” 26 Thereafter he abandoned him. At that occasion she said “bloody bridegroom” with respect to the circumcision.


(The entire section is 11691 words.)

Nahum M. Sarna (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Sarna, Nahum M. Introduction to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, pp. xi-xv. Philadelphia, Penn.: The Jewish Publication Society, 1991.

[In the following essay, Sarna provides background for Exodus.]


The commonly known Hebrew title for the second book of the Torah is Shemot, shortened from the opening words ve'elleh shemot. This follows an ancient and widespread Near Eastern practice of naming a literary work by its initial word or words. In Genesis Rabba1 we find the full title: Sefer 'Elleh Shemot, “The Book of ‘These are the Names.’” The Hebrew name was transliterated in Greek as...

(The entire section is 2556 words.)

Jonathan Boyarin (essay date summer 1992)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Boyarin, Jonathan. “Reading Exodus into History.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 23, no. 3 (summer 1992): 523-54.

[In the following essay, Boyarin explores the relationship between textual tradition and Jewish identity as it relates to Exodus.]


In an earlier paper on the shifting significance of Palestine as the ground of Jewish historical identity, I broached several critical questions, one of which was phrased as follows: “What are the grander links among the ancient Jewish state, the Western cultural complex of ‘Zion’ through the Bible, traditional Jewish culture in the...

(The entire section is 14615 words.)

Moshe Anbar (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Anbar, Moshe. “‘Thou Shalt Make No Covenant with Them’ (Exodus 23.32).” In Politics and Theopolitics in the Bible and Postbiblical Literature, edited by Henning Graf Reventlow, Yair Hoffman, and Benjamin Uffenheimer, pp. 41-48. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Anbar uses Exodus 23.32 to illustrate how prophecy figured into politics.]

The Mari texts cover a highly eventful period of numerous political upheavals in which a role was played by monarchs of powerful kingdoms and rulers of small city-states. Political events of worldwide impact, as well as the everyday life of the ruling classes and the common...

(The entire section is 3088 words.)

James K. Hoffmeier (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoffmeier, James K. “Moses and the Exodus.” In Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition, pp. 135-63. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Hoffmeier discusses the quest for the historical Moses and offers literary considerations of the plague narratives.]

Moreover, the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh's servants and in the sight of the people

Exod. [Exodus] 11:3


No figure casts a greater shadow in the...

(The entire section is 14860 words.)

Richard Coggins (essay date 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Coggins, Richard. Introduction to The Book of Exodus, pp. xi-xix. Peterborough, England: Epworth Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Coggins discusses various approaches to reading and analyzing Exodus.]

The Book of Exodus is a strange mixture. Its first half offers us an exciting story of the escape from Egypt of a group of slaves, under the human leadership of Moses but with God pictured as playing an active role. They reach a holy mountain, Sinai, and are given commandments to shape and guide their life. But at that point the story seems to lose momentum. Instead of making further progress on their journey to the land which has been promised to them...

(The entire section is 3748 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Althann, Robert. “Unrecognized Poetic Fragments in Exodus.Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 11 (1983): 9-27.

Suggests various consonantal divisions and vocalizations for ten different problematical passages.

Berge, Kåre. “Introduction: Literarkritik and the Call of Moses.” In Reading Sources in a Text. Coherence and Literary Criticism in the Call of Moses: Models—Methods—Micro-Analysis, pp. 1-10. St. Ollilien: EOS Verlag Erzabtei St. Ottilien, 1997.

Explains the lack of consensus for the literary-critical interpretation of chapter 3.

Cassuto, U. A...

(The entire section is 644 words.)