The Book of Exodus


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

The second book of the Hebrew Bible and the story of Moses’ call by God to rescue his people from oppression in Egypt. After encountering God and entering into a convenant in the wilderness at Sinai, the Israelites constructed a portable shrine (tabernacle) and set out on a journey toward Canaan, the land promised by God to their ancestors as an inheritance. Exodus is the book’s Greek title in the Septuagint (lxx); in Hebrew it is called (from its opening words) veÔelleh shƒmoth, ‘And these [are] the names,’ or simply Shƒmoth, ‘Names.’


The Book of Exodus

The Event: The event was the successful escape of Semitic residents from hardship and forced labor in northern Egypt. According to the Joseph stories (Gen. 37; 39-50) they had entered the country considerably earlier to avoid famine in Canaan (perhaps as part of a larger population movement). The underlying historical events are now obscure. Later Israelites frequently retold their past and reenacted it in worship, but they inevitably expanded and modified the very traditions they preserved. The resulting narratives contained the people’s self-understanding and gave it unity and cohesion, but the narratives did not always record past events with historical accuracy.

Like the biblical accounts in their time, modern reconstructions of the exodus event cannot avoid being partially subjective. Judgments about content or tone, about what is possible or likely depend on the evaluator’s training, attitudes, and experiences of God’s presence in (or apparent absence from) human life. Different experiences or different perceptions may lead to different evaluations of the biblical record. No reassessment of historical likelihood can be compulsory, but such reassessment may lead to new insights or better understanding.

The movement of Israel’s ancestors into Egypt and out again is hard to reconstruct. Some groups may have gone there as early as the late eighteenth century b.c., at the start of foreign (Hyksos) rule; others may have arrived in the late fourteenth or early thirteenth century, only a few years before the oppression reflected in Exodus 1. Similarly, groups of these ancestors may have left Egypt at different times, separated by many years, and under varied circumstances. The later Israelites preserved few stories from the period of their ancestors’ earliest movements into Egypt until the oppression and exodus, but they knew it had been very long (430 years, Exod. 12:40; 400 years, Gen. 15:13). If there were repeated departures from Egypt, surviving traditions merged them into one complex movement. That simplification, the distance in time between even the latest departures from Egypt (thirteenth century b.c.) and the composition of the major literary sources for Exodus (tenth to sixth centuries or later), and the likelihood that the biblical authors knew nothing of the geography of the exodus events make it unwise to propose one route for the exodus or to expect that all the exodus stories will form a fully consistent narrative.

The exodus traditions are marked by humor and lively imagination (especially in the repeated confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh). The accounts of the covenant at Sinai represent varied theological understandings of its consequences for the people’s life. The wilderness traditions have been shaped by later writers to provide useful perspectives on Israel’s subsequent experiences in the land. Emphasis on the miraculous serves to highlight God’s involvement in the people’s deliverance. The traditions also record many individual episodes.

Most scholars tend to date the (final) Exodus from Egypt early in the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II (ca. 1290 b.c.), so that the oppression would have begun not long after the nineteenth dynasty took power (ca. 1350 b.c.), and the invasion of Canaan would have started some years before the end of Ramesses’ reign (ca. 1230 b.c.). Another view is that the Hebrew tribes entered Egypt from Canaan at the time of the Hyksos, that the rise of the eighteenth dynasty (ca. 1580 b.c.) began the oppression, and that the Exodus occurred during the reign of Thutmose III (ca. 1450 b.c.). This is in harmony with the statement (1 Kings 6:1) that the construction of Solomon’s Temple (ca. 970 b.c.) began 480 years after the Israelites left Egypt. This figure (twelve generations of forty years) is too exact and probably secondary.

Different routes have been proposed for the Exodus, as well. One route turns south after crossing the line of the modern Suez Canal (near the Bitter Lakes), parallels the eastern coast of the Gulf of Suez to the vicinity of the turquoise mines at Serabit el-Khadem, and continues inland to the traditional site of Mount Sinai at Gebel Musa. After the stay at Sinai, the people would have journeyed in a northeasterly direction to the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, then around Edom and Moab, and on to Transjordan. While this route locates Mount Sinai at the place accepted since Byzantine times, it lacks earlier support and conflicts with the biblical view that the people first headed for Canaan and were only condemned to wander after they had been at Sinai and had rejected the report of the spies sent into the land from Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran (Num. 13-14).

Another route runs north (a little east of the present Suez Canal), turns east along the Mediterranean coast, and follows the narrow strip of land that divides Lake Sirbon from the sea. This allows Lake Sirbon to be identified as the sea where Israel was delivered and the Egyptian pursuers were drowned (Exod. 14-15). Unfortunately, there is no obvious route from Lake Sirbon to Kadesh nor any easy access across the sand dunes to Sinai proper. Consequently this route also has little to recommend it.

At least three trails extend east-west across the northern half of Sinai: a coastal road just south of Lake Sirbon and on past Gaza and Megiddo toward Damascus; a central route from Lake Timsah through Khatmia Pass, south of Gebel el Maghara, north around Gebel Halal, then southeast to Ain Qudeirat and Kadesh, and northeast toward Beer-sheba, Hebron, and Shechem; a southern road (the Darb el-Hajj or ‘Pilgrim’s Road’ to Mecca) from the northern end of the Gulf of Suez eastward through Mitla Pass and then southeast toward the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba. Three other routes across Sinai connect those roads: one branching northeast off the road from Suez to Aqaba and extending to Kadesh; another heading southeast from Kadesh to Aqaba; and a third north from Aqaba to the southern end of the Dead Sea. The different Pentateuchal sources may have put the route of the Exodus on different combinations of these trails, but all apparently located it in the northern half of Sinai with a stop at Kadesh-barnea and an approach to the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba.

The Book: The book of Exodus is based on the unified J (Yahwist) source, supplemented by a number of E (Elohist) passages and a few from D (Deuteronomist), with a new outline and a great deal more material from P (Priestly writer). While the details of source division are often disputed, and some scholars question the main lines of the analysis, the general validity of the Pentateuchal sources may be assumed.

J’s version of Exodus, part of a longer narrative extending from the creation account in Genesis 2 to the Balaam stories in Numbers 22-24, presents a general theology of human life in covenant with God. People can on occasion acknowledge their weakness and their need of divine assistance, but more often they respond inappropriately to God and to the challenges of human life. Consequently, God appears as the dominant agent in J, Moses is more of a witness or messenger than a primary actor, and the people’s role is to ‘stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work’ (Exod. 14:13). The human propensity for failure or inappropriate response finds expression in disbelief, murmuring, even open rebellion against the Lord and his chosen representatives. The incident of the golden calf (Exod. 32) is an integral part of the J narrative and has been shaped to make two related points: first, the people’s failure was present from the earliest moments of the Sinai covenant (but God’s care for them continued); and, second, the Northern Kingdom’s departure from the Davidic covenant after the death of Solomon is not the collapse of the divine plan, but another instance of the constant human tendency to reject the good. God’s care will continue even now, and the divine assistance will be available for those who do not walk away (or who return). Even when the Exodus generation failed to trust the Lord’s help and were excluded from entry into the Promised Land, God’s promises remained in effect for their descendants (cf. Num. 13-14).

The intent of the J narrative in Exodus (and generally) was to encourage and support faithful members of the covenant community discouraged at that covenant’s apparent collapse in Jeroboam’s (ca. 924 b.c.) revolt and the split between north (Israel) and south (Judah) by suggesting that the crisis was neither unique nor definitive. Only God’s reaction really matters, and God can be trusted to be faithful to the chosen ones.

The elements from E are hard to detect, at least in Exodus, and no clear statement can be made about their nature and purpose. The D materials in Exodus are also too limited for analysis here.

P expanded the available J traditions and recast them into a new work with an entirely different intention. Thus the plague narratives (Exod. 7-12) become a dramatic contest between God’s champions (Aaron and Moses) and those of Pharaoh (the magicians). Bit by bit the magicians are defeated, and finally they disappear from view. Somewhat earlier, in Exod. 6:14-25, P’s genealogy of Moses and Aaron is carried down an extra generation to culminate in the birth of Aaron’s grandson Phinehas; he will have a decisive role in the climactic incident where ‘a covenant of eternal priesthood’ is promised to him and his descendants after him (Num. 25:6-13). The Sinai events are important to P primarily because they provide a context for the revelation of instructions for the proper performance of worship. That is, Temple worship can be the continuation and completion of what was begun at Sinai, and consequently the absence of a Davidic ruler in the Exile or after the return is not particularly important for P or for the audience to which the P version is directed.

Deliverance from bondage, protection in the wilderness, and covenant at Sinai all find their deepest meaning and abiding value, for P, in the proper performance of the worship whose regulations were communicated through Moses at Sinai. This narrowing of focus stands in some tension with the J materials, and that tension is itself a part of the biblical challenge for readers of the present book of Exodus. Discovering how to respond to that challenge is the task that beckons each person who reads Exodus with care.

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