(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.
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.
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.