Book of Exodus

EXODUS, BOOK OF. The second book of the Bible. The title is a Latin term derived from the Greek word Exodos, “a going out.” The book is called Exodos in the LXX. The title in the Hebrew tradition is comprised of the first several words of the book, “and these are the names.” It refers to the names of the Israelites who came out of Egypt. Tradition ascribes the authorship of the book to Moses. It covers the history of the Israelites from the events surrounding the Exodus to the giving of the Law at Sinai.

I. The Israelites in Egypt (Exod.1.1-Exod.12.36). The historical events recorded in this section flow logically from the last chapters of the Book of Genesis where we are told how Jacob and his sons came to live in Egypt. The clan grew into a nation, but the lot of the Hebrew people changed when a pharaoh arose who did not remember the contributions of Jacob’s son Joseph who had been elevated to prominence in the Egyptian government years before (Exod.1.8). This king forced the Hebrew people into hard servitude (Exod.1.13-Exod.1.14). The birth of Moses and his providential preservation, when the Pharaoh ordered the death of every male child born to the Hebrews (Exod.1.22), is recorded in Exod.2.1-Exod.2.25.

The account of Moses’ call to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt (Exod.3.1-Exod.4.17) contains the classic statement of the Lord in which he depicts his divine character in the words, “I am who I am ” (Exod.3.14) or “I am the one who is.” While this statement has been understood in various ways, the context emphasizes the continuity of the promise made to the forefathers (Exod.3.13, Exod.3.15-Exod.3.16). It is probably best to understand the words as connoting the continuity of God’s dealings with his people—“I am the God who is,” or “I am the God who continues to be,” that is, the God who appeared to Moses was the same God who gave his gracious promises to their forefathers. The God of Moses was the God of Abraham.

The efforts of Moses to free his people met with no success until the first-born in Egypt were stricken by God. Only then were the Hebrews able to escape (See also Exodus).

II. From Egypt to Sinai (Exod.12.37-Exod.19.2). Three important Hebrew traditions were formalized just after the flight from Egypt: the Passover (Exod.12.43-Exod.12.49), which commemorated the fact that the Lord had passed over the houses of the Israelites (Exod.12.27); the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exod.13.3-Exod.13.10); and the consecration to God of every first-born male “whether man or animal” (Exod.13.2). When the Israelites had fled from Egypt the Pharaoh realized that he had lost a major source of manpower (Exod.14.5) and pursued them to the Red Sea, where God miraculously brought about their escape (Exod.14.21-Exod.14.31).

The period of Israelite history between the Exodus and the giving of the Law at Sinai was marked by frequent complaining by the people against God and their leader Moses. The complaints were often due to a lack of sustenance, but the deprivation was always met by miraculous displays of God’s power. The bitter waters at Marah were made sweet (Exod.15.22-Exod.15.25), the hunger of the people was satisfied by the supply of manna (Exod.16.2-Exod.16.4) and quails (Exod.16.13), and their need for water on another occasion was met when God brought water out of a rock (Exod.17.2-Exod.17.7).

III. The Israelites at Sinai (Exod.19.3-Exod.40.38). One of the most momentous events in Israelite history—the giving of the Law—is recorded in this section. The Law was given in three general categories: the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments (Exod.20.2-Exod.20.17), civil and societal laws (Exod.21.1-Exod.23.11), and ceremonial laws (Exod.23.12-Exod.31.18). Moses' delay in returning from the mountain where the Law was given was the cause of another period of apprehension and complaining on the part of the people. This led to the construction of a golden calf that Aaron, Moses’ brother, proclaimed to be Israel’s god (Exod.32.4). The cult of the golden calf, which was also observed many years later in the northern kingdom of Israel (1Kgs.12.25-1Kgs.12.30), appears not to have been an outright rejection of Yahweh, but rather a syncretistic combination of worship of Yahweh and the calf. 1Kgs.12.5 makes it clear that the worship associated with the golden calf was really directed to Yahweh. In the ancient world animal forms were often used to represent the point at which the spiritual presence of a deity was localized. For example, the storm god of Mesopotamia was prefigured as a lightning bolt set on the back of a bull. This is somewhat similar to the presence of Yahweh over the cherubim on the ark of the covenant.

The remainder of the Book of Exodus records the implementation of the ceremonial law in the construction of the tabernacle (Exod.35.4-Exod.38.31) and the fashioning of the priests’ garments (Exod.39.1-Exod.39.43). When the tabernacle was completed it was filled with the glory of the Lord (Exod.40.34-Exod.40.38).

Bibliography: U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 1951; J. P. Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus (NCB), 1971; R. E. Clements, Exodus (CBC), 1972; R. A. Cole, Exodus: An Introduction and Commentary (TOTC), 1973; B. C. Childs, The Book of Exodus, 1974.——TEM

EXODUS, BOOK OF. The second book of the Bible, often called “The Second Book of Moses,” as in Luther’s VS and the KJV.


General features


In the Heb. Bible, this book, as the other books of the Pentateuch, takes its name from its opening words וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת, “These are the names of,” or more briefly שְׁמוֹת “names of,” since it begins with the names of the patriarchs who went down into Egypt. The Eng. designation is taken from the LXX title, ̓́Εξοδος, “departure” (from Egypt), which accurately describes the first thirteen chs. of the book.

Relation to the rest of the Pentateuch.

The narrative of Exodus is closely connected with that of Genesis, for it carries forward the history of the descendants of the patriarchs from the point where it ended in Genesis 50, even though considerable time intervened between the death of Joseph and the first events of Exodus (1:7ff.), during which the people of Israel had been brought into a position of servitude. After describing the departure from Egypt, the book tells of the giving of the law and the building of the Tabernacle. The rules for sacrifice that naturally follow make up the first part of Leviticus. Exodus is not so much an independent book, as a somewhat arbitrarily delimited portion of the section of the Pentateuch comprised in its middle three books, and the division between Exodus and Leviticus is similar to that between 1 and 2 Samuel or between 1 and 2 Kings.

Unity and authorship.

From a very early time, Jewish tradition held that the entire book was written by Moses. Only within the last two centuries has any considerable number of writers questioned this origin, but lately it has frequently been denied, as a result of the spread of the critical theories which, beginning with Genesis, were extended to the Pentateuch, and today are widely taught (see section VI).

General structure.

The book is almost equally divided between narrative and legal sections. The first nineteen chs. are almost entirely narrative, except for short legal sections in 12:14-27, 42-49; 13:1-16. The remainder of the book is largely law, except for ch. 24, which describes the adoption of the covenant, and chs. 32-34, which describe the people’s rebellion, Moses’ intercession, and the renewal of the covenant.

Principal emphases.

Historical background

As the principal features of historical background, geographic location, and chronology are treated in the article on the Exodus, the present article will include merely a brief resumé of some of these features, with a discussion of certain archeological and historical matters.

The first twelve chs. mainly describe occurrences in Egypt during the latter half of the 2nd millennium b.c. The events of the remaining chs. take place in the Sinaitic peninsula.

Although there is much in the book that reflects the background of Egyp. life and history, there is little that specifically indicates the precise time of the events. The king of Egypt is called either “Pharaoh” or “the king of Egypt.” In no instance is an Egyp. monarch mentioned by name. The statement in 1:8 that a new king arose “who did not know Joseph,” strongly suggests that the expulsion of the Hyksos occurred between the death of Joseph and the birth of Moses, and makes it easy to see why the new king would have an unfriendly attitude toward those whom he connected with the Hyksos, who were also Asiatics and who had held Egypt in unwelcome subjection for a considerable time.

The problem of dating the oppression and the Exodus has been much discussed, but the data is insufficient for a final decision. Though much relevant archeological material has been found, further discoveries are needed. The names of the two store cities, Pithom and Raamses (1:11) have been advanced as proof that the events described could not have occurred until the 19th Dynasty, because the first kings bearing the name of Raamses belonged to that dynasty. However, it would not be at all impossible that the original names should have been changed in the text to those that were known later, just as it might be said that the Dutch founded New York in 1626, even though the city did not receive this name until its conquest by the English in 1664, having been previously known as New Amsterdam. That the kings by the name of Ramses did not reign until the 19th Dynasty does not necessarily prove that a city might not have been named Raamses at a previous period, for worship of the god Re (or Ra) was prominent in most periods of ancient Egyp. history, and mss is a common ending in personal names. Whereas evidence of the names is therefore not conclusive proof that the events described did not occur until the 19th Dynasty, the lack of archeological evidence of previous occupation at the probable sites of both store cities constitutes important evidence in this direction (cf. Exodus).

The Egyp. oppression is described as very severe. Some have thought that this indicates the Egyptians’ mobilization of great multitudes of people to build the colossal pyramids. This is not relevant, however, as the pyramids must have been standing at least a thousand years before the time of the Exodus. Nonetheless, there is abundant evidence from the period of the 18th and 19th Dynasties of the harshness shown by Egyptians toward slaves and foreigners. The hieroglyphic sign representing a foreigner is a picture of a bound man with blood flowing from a wound in his head. This sign is used even in connection with the names of honored foreign kings with whom treaties were being made. Egyptian hatred of foreigners and severe Egyp. oppression of slaves is well evidenced and fits precisely with the events set forth in the early portion of Exodus.

Sometimes the historicity of the Exodus and of the deliverance at the Red Sea has been questioned on the ground that they are not mentioned in the known remains of ancient Egypt. This objection rests on a misconception of the nature of Egyp. archeology. Most of the day-to-day ephemeral records of ancient Egypt, and the remains of the homes of the people, are largely beneath the water table in the delta, which was the region where most of the people lived. Although the extant remains of ancient Egypt are very extensive, they consist largely of burial places and monuments erected in the desert to celebrate Egyp. achievements and victories. Defeats such as the departure of the Israelites and the failure of Pharaoh to recapture them would hardly result in the erecting of monuments.

At one time it was thought that the date of the Exodus could be ascertained by determining which Pharaoh had drowned. The passage, however, does not necessarily indicate that the king was drowned, but that he suffered a considerable defeat that included the sinking of his chariots and his host, and the drowning of his chosen captains (15:4). An argument that Pharaoh himself perished has been built on 15:19 (KJV), which says that “the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea.” The form here tr. “horse” is identical with that used in 14:9 and 23, where it clearly is used as a collective, and refers to the group of horses, rather than to an individual horse.

There is much yet unknown about the historical background of Exodus, but it can safely be said, though the dates of the events are not yet certain, that there is no reasonable ground for denying that the book could have been written by a contemporary.




Exodus describes one of the few periods in Biblical history when God chose to work a substantial number of miracles. Long sections of the Bible contain no account of any such incident. The purpose of a miracle is to show that a greater than human power, namely the power of God, is involved, and to establish God’s authority in the presence of doubt or apostasy.

The modern distinction between supernatural acts and providential acts is not specifically indicated in Scripture. The Eng. word “miracle” is generally used to indicate an act that involves direct use of supernatural power, but there is no such distinction in the Heb. and Gr. words that are used. In both Testaments, the words sometimes tr. “miracle” are often tr. “sign” and are frequently used in connection with actions in which no supernatural power is involved. The word אוֹת, H253, which is tr. “miracle” in Numbers 14:22, is tr. “sign” and used as referring to the continuing observance of the Sabbath in Exodus 31:13 and 17. It would require divine omniscience to draw an exact line between what God does providentially with forces He has already established in the world, and what He does by introducing new supernatural forces. Use of the word “miracle” does not necessarily mean that a supernatural power is directly involved; it points to a sign that could rightfully be accepted by an observer as evidence that divine activity was present regardless of whether this activity was exerted through acts of providence or through direct intervention of supernatural power.

The first miracle in Exodus is the burning bush (3:2). Moses saw a flame of fire coming out of a bush and yet the bush was not consumed. There is no way of knowing whether God created something entirely new to produce this impression upon Moses or whether He made an unusual use of forces that He had already established in His universe. The account is very brief. All that is certain is that something occurred that Moses had never seen before and that he correctly considered it to be extremely remarkable.

This was soon followed by a group of miracles given to Moses to enable him to prove to the Israelites that God had really sent him (4:1-9). The first of these was the turning of his rod into a serpent. This was evidently a complete surprise to Moses, since Moses fled before it. Then God performed a new miracle by enabling Moses to seize it by the tail, whereupon it again became a rod. This double miracle was later used for the purpose of convincing both the Israelites and the Egyptians that Moses actually spoke for God (4:30; 7:10).

The second sign given to Moses for this purpose is described in 4:6, 7. Moses was permitted, after putting his hand into his bosom, to withdraw it leprous as snow, and then, replacing it in his bosom, to pull it out completely recovered.

If the Israelites should still fail to be convinced, a third sign was promised in 4:9. Moses would be enabled to take water from the river and pour it on the dry land, and it would immediately become blood.

All of these miracles, those given to Moses as signs to show the Israelites or the Egyptians, and the burning bush to attract Moses’ attention, were quite beyond Moses’ understanding and gave him and those before whom he later showed them clear evidence of divine intervention.

The next group of miracles consisted of the ten plagues of judgment upon Egypt. It is interesting to notice that every one of these, with the possible exception of the tenth, consists of something that might naturally occur in the land of Egypt. There are, however, four unique features that set them apart as extremely unusual events and thus give definite proof of the action of supernatural power and wisdom. These unique features are: (1) intensification, whereby the phenomenon was extremely severe; (2) acceleration, whereby all these great plagues occurred within a comparatively short space of time; (3) specification, whereby the land of Goshen was exempted from certain plagues; and (4) prediction, whereby Moses was able to foretell when the plague would occur. In the tenth plague, it was not unnatural for many children to die very suddenly from unexplained causes. The miraculous element was that the first-born of every family in Egypt would be killed. God gave an important lesson by not simply sparing the Israelites because they were Israelites, but because they obeyed God’s order for a lamb to be slain for each household and the blood to be placed upon the two side posts and on the upper door posts of the houses. This indicated that every family was under sentence of death for its sin, and that only when the blood of the Lamb was shed and appropriated could punishment be escaped.

The third group of miracles was connected with the wilderness journey. Near the outset of the journey God allowed the people of Israel to become hemmed in by the sea in a place where they could easily be attacked, with no possibility of escape. Then He made it possible for them to cross over the sea on dry land, after which He brought back the waters so that when the Egyptians tried to cross they were drowned. It has been suggested that a ledge may have crossed this body of water a few ft. below the surface. When Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, “the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided” (14:21). Deep water would remain on both sides, constituting a wall of protection against attack. Whereas it is possible that God introduced some new force other than the one mentioned in the Scripture, the specific statement about the E wind forcing the sea back, strongly indicates His providential use of forces He had already placed in the earth, that He caused these forces to become operative just when they were needed to perform His purpose and to display His power.

Another supernatural element in the wilderness journey was the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night by which God lead the people (14:19, 20). The movement of the cloud in the direction desired or its standing still in obedience to the Lord’s will, manifest the strong supernatural element involved.

On two occasions during the portion of the wilderness journey described in Exodus, God miraculously provided water. There was sufficient water at Marah, but the people could not drink it because it was so bitter (15:23). God showed Moses a tree, which, when cast into the waters, made them sweet. At Rephidim (17:1-7) there was no water at all for the people to drink. God told Moses to smite a rock with his rod. When he did so, water flowed out. This may have been a new supernatural creation, or God may have chosen to cause a great underground stream gradually to burrow its way into the rock, perhaps over a period of years, so that when Moses struck it, an opening could be made through which an abundant supply of water would force its way. (A similar event, recorded in Numbers 20:2-13, occurred later.)

Another aspect of God’s miraculous care during the wilderness journey was His provision of food. After the sweetening of the water at Marah, the people soon began to fear starvation and to long for the “flesh pots” of Egypt (Exod 16:1-3). Unlike the longer account in Numbers 11:31-35 of the provision of meat through quails and of the serious epidemic that followed, Exodus 16:11-13 includes only a brief mention of quails being provided. Here is no suggestion that a supernatural act of creating quails was involved. Quails are known to travel in large flocks only a few ft. above the ground. God caused them to migrate in great numbers just at this time, and at a height at which they could easily be struck and brought down.

Exodus 16 devotes more attention to the provision of the manna. This may have been a direct creation of God, or a supernatural intensification and miraculous increase of a natural product of the area. Somewhat similar materials have been noted in this region, which crystallize at night and fall from trees to the ground. These partial parallels fall far short of what God provided for the Israelites. It would seem that He did indeed “rain bread from heaven” (16:4; cf. Ps 78:24; 105:40).

A remarkable supernatural event is described in Exodus 20 where God spoke the Ten Commandments audibly so that the words could be understood by Moses and the listening people. This struck terror to the hearts of the people; they begged that further revelations be transmitted through Moses rather than directly from God. The wording in Exodus is not absolutely explicit that the people could understand the words beyond the mere sound of thunder, but Deuteronomy 5:24 makes it clear that the words were actually heard and understood.

It is also stated that the Ten Commandments were originally written with the finger of God on tablets of stone (31:18; 32:16). The original tablets were broken (32:19). God commanded Moses to prepare new tablets, on which the commandments would be written (34:1, 27, 28).

Exodus describes one of the great periods of miraculous divine intervention in the Scripture, yet it contains very few such occurrences as the raising of the dead by Elisha, or the walking on the water by Christ—incidents that would seem necessarily to involve the sort of creative power that God used in forming the universe in the first place. Many of its miracles may have been the use of forces that God implanted in nature and prepared long before the time of the Exodus, but became operative at precisely the time when God willed that they should occur and in response to the action of Moses, His divinely appointed leader. It is absolutely clear that whether the miracle was of direct supernatural intervention, or natural forces under a work of providence, in either case every one of them was definitely an evidence of the presence and activity of God.

The legal sections of Exodus

General remarks.

Prior to the Book of Exodus, the only legal sections in the Bible are the short commands contained in the various covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, including the law of circumcision (Gen 17:10-14). Such laws were given in connection with promises of divine blessing to God’s people.

A new emphasis is found in Exodus. Every legal section in Exodus is firmly based upon a great past event—the redemption of the people from Egyp. bondage. As a sign of gratitude for what God has done, His people took upon themselves the obligation of carrying out His will. Therefore Exodus presents far more extensive and detailed legal sections than any previously given.

There is a second reason why the legal sections in Exodus are so much longer than those in Genesis. Exodus describes God’s dealings not with a few individuals, but with an entire nation. If multitudes are to live together in orderly fashion, detailed regulations for the conduct of the people in many situations are necessary. The laws of Exodus have two purposes: (1) to regulate the relationship of the redeemed to God; (2) to establish order and justice between man and man.

Relation to the law codes of other nations.

A cent. ago many critics declared that the laws of the Pentateuch could not possibly have been written as early as the time of Moses, since life was then much too primitive for such advanced laws. Then the Code of Hammurabi was discovered in Mesopotamia in 1901. It was at once apparent that the laws of the Pentateuch are not too complex to have been written at so early a date, for the laws of the Code of Hammurabi, written centuries earlier, are far more complex.

Since that time, still earlier Mesopotamian law codes have been found. An extensive Hitt. law code from Asia Minor has also been discovered. Egyptian records contain references to the great scrolls of Egyp. law, but no portion of these laws has yet been recovered.

As a result of these discoveries, the critical argument was reversed, and it was suggested that much of the law of Moses had been taken over from the Code of Hammurabi or from other ancient codes. Closer examination shows this view also to be unfounded. The laws in the Pentateuch that have direct relationship to individual laws in any of these codes are comparatively few. The Code of Hammurabi is strictly a secular code and has little to say about religious matters, except for particular privileges or responsibilities of the priestly class. In contrast, fully half of the laws of the Pentateuch are concerned with specifically religious matters. Much of the Pentateuch includes regulations for sacrifice and for annual festivals or other religious services, matters that the Code of Hammurabi does not touch.

For further development in this discussion, see section 4 below.

The originality of the laws.

According to the Pentateuch, the laws of Exodus were given to the people by God through Moses in the wilderness. The greater portion of these laws has no precise counterpart in anything else that has been discovered in the ancient world. The secular portion of the laws have definite contacts with laws that have been found from earlier times. This does not in any way cast question upon the authenticity of the laws as given by Moses, or upon the validity of their claim to represent God’s will for His people.

It is necessary to note the nature of God’s revelation. Everything that can be known with certainty about eternal things, about the origin of the universe, about its ultimate destiny, and about the future of the individual man or God’s will for him, requires direct revelation from God, as He alone knows these matters. Everything of this sort that is contained in the Bible is a direct revelation, and could not otherwise be made known to man.

The case is somewhat different regarding the divine teaching about man’s relation to his fellows. When the Israelites left Egypt, their minds were not blank concerning laws of human relations. The effects of many judicial enactments and customary observances become part of the outlook of every individual by the time he becomes an adult. Many matters are settled by customary procedure of the area in which a person lives, by the ideals that he hears expressed, and by the results of law cases that come to his attention. After the Israelites left Egypt, there was no reason to expect that a completely new legal system of relationship between human beings should be introduced. It was necessary at that point only to state those principles and precepts that were most urgent and vital, in order that the life of the Israelites should show forth the justice and lovingkindness of the God who had redeemed them.

Types of law.

Although many of the laws of Exodus treat secular matters, it is impossible to sharply divide these laws into religious laws and secular laws. All were based upon the covenant obligation to the Lord, who had redeemed His people from bondage, and to whose righteous law they therefore owed obedience. Many laws were concerned exclusively with ritual or with an individual’s relation to God; even most of the secular laws have a religious tinge or at least a humanitarian attitude such as is not usually found in the law of other nations of the time.

In a famous article entitled “The Origins of Hebrew Law,” published at Leipzig in 1934 (Eng. tr. in A. Alt, Essays on Old Testament History and Religion, [1966]), Albrecht Alt suggested that light could be thrown on the origin of OT laws by dividing them into two types that he called apodictic and casuistic. He pointed out that about half of the laws in what is sometimes designated as the Book of the Covenant (Exod 20:22-23:33) are casuistic in form, in contrast to the other half. By casuistic Alt meant laws that treat specific situations, and formulate the judgment that should be given under various conditions. These laws generally begin with the particle כִּי, “if,” introducing a description of the general situation. This is sometimes followed by one or more occurrences of the particle אִם, H561, (also tr. “if”), which introduces the more specific situation plus a statement of the appropriate penalty or action. Such laws give the impression of having been developed through actual cases. In the codes from Mesopotamia and in the Hitt. code, this is the most common type of law.

By apodictic type, Alt indicates laws that are categorically stated, usually without a penalty, as in the Ten Commandments, but also including those legal statements that simply end with such a phrase as “he shall be put to death” or as are preceded by the words “cursed be he who....” In view of the great similarity of form between the casuistic laws in the Pentateuch and those in the codes of the highly developed nations of Mesopotamia or Asia Minor, Alt suggests that the casuistic law in the Pentateuch was taken over from the Canaanites, but that the apodictic law, in contrast, had a specifically Israelite origin.

This view of the difference of origin of the two types of law is flatly denied by G. E. Mendenhall in his article “Covenant” in the IDB, where he declares that this distinction can no longer be taken as an evidence of a different origin since he finds laws of both types not only in the covenant code of Exodus 21 to 23, but also in the Hitt. treaties and laws from Asia Minor.

In any event, derivation of these laws from the inhabitants of Pal. must be recognized as entirely conjectural, since no non-Israelite code has yet been found in that area. The Israelites were doubtless familiar with this type of law from their experience in Egypt; moreover, the patriarchs who came out of Mesopotamia must certainly have had wide acquaintance with it. Some of these laws are very similar to laws in one of the Mesopotamian codes or in the Hitt. code from Asia Minor. Others are strikingly different.

The arduous labors of Moses in judging the people are alluded to in Exodus 18:13ff. From such labors, a body of precedents would naturally emerge. There is no evidence that the Bible claims to set forth a complete code for this sort of judgment. Doubtless many issues were decided on the basis of equity and of precedent.

In Exodus, casuistic law is not grouped by itself as distinct from apodictic law. Most of the law in Exodus, outside of chs. 21 to 24, is apodictic law. In these chs., the two types of law are about equally intermixed. The purpose of the section is not to provide a complete code for all situations, but to produce an impression of the sort of conduct that the people were expected to maintain, while giving specific guidance in a few common types of legal situations and constantly stressing the necessity of complete loyalty to the true God, utter abandonment of all fealty whatever to false gods or idols, and careful observance of the principles of benevolence and humanitarianism that God desires in His people.

Survey of the legal sections.

The principal legal sections of Exodus, some of which shall be discussed in more detail below, are as follows:

(1) The law of the Passover (12:1-27, 43-49)

(2) The first-born set apart (13:1-16)

(3) The law of the manna (16:16, 23-33)

(4) The Decalogue (20:1-17)

(5) The “Book of the Covenant” (20:22-23:33)

(6) Regulations for the Tabernacle and the priesthood (25:1-31:17)

(7) The laws of Exodus 34 (34:10-26)

(8) Renewed emphasis on the Sabbath (35:1-3)

(9) Orders to establish the Tabernacle and the Priesthood (40:1-15)

Laws given before Sinai.

Before the solemn and rather lengthy presentation of God’s law at Sinai, three briefer legal passages occur in Exodus. The last of these, which regards the manna, was directly tied to the immediate need to regulate the collection and use of this food.

The other two legal sections that precede the experiences at Sinai did not similarly fill a definite immediate need in connection with the progress of the Israelites toward the Promised Land. On the contrary, they would seem rather to slow up and hinder this progress.

The nine great plagues had been completed, and the effect upon Egyp. determination to hold the Israelites in bondage must have been tremendous. When the last and most terrible plague occurred, the Egyptians did not merely permit the Israelites to leave; they urged them to go quickly (12:31-33). Later events proved that Pharaoh and his leaders soon regretted this decision and set out to recapture the Israelites to bring them back (14:5-9). Under these circumstances, from a human viewpoint, it must have seemed advisable at the time of the tenth plague that the Israelites should leave as quickly as possible. Yet in the midst of these circumstances the Lord gave explicit and full orders for the ceremony of the Passover (12:3-13), and, in addition, took time to lay down permanent regulations regarding the future keeping of this great annual festival and the setting apart of the first-born (12:43-49; 13:1-16). Only one conclusion is possible. More important than deliverance from bondage was the impression of great concepts upon their minds and hearts and the setting up of regulations whereby this impression would be continued and reinforced in subsequent years.

Therefore, the Passover had further lessons to stress in addition to the one great purpose of remembering the deliverance. Although the tenth plague came to force Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, it was also important to impress upon the Israelites that they also could not escape God’s wrath except through a sacrifice. Nor would one sacrifice do for the nation. Each family must have its own lamb; the sacrifice was necessary. A lamb must be provided and be slain as a substitute for the sinful family. Each family was responsible before the Lord. It was necessary to interrupt the procedure of leaving Egypt to initiate this great ceremony in careful detail and beyond that, to lay down regulations for its continuous observance in future years.

The Decalogue.

The Ten Commandments, which are contained in Exodus 20:2-17 and repeated with slight differences in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, stand apart from all other legal sections of the OT. Their importance is stressed in a very special way. Exodus 19 describes the stirring events that prepared men’s minds to realize the tremendous importance of what was about to occur. It is clearly implied in Exodus 20:18, 19, and explicitly stated in Deuteronomy 5:4, that God spoke these words so that all the people could hear. All other commandments in the Bible were given through individual prophets, such as Moses. The Ten Commandments were spoken directly to the nation as a whole.

The Ten Commandments summarize the ethical law. All are stated in absolute form. There is little detailed explanation. Thus stealing is forbidden, but the nature of private property, which such a law assumes, is not spelled out in detail. Murder is forbidden, but the difference between murder and justifiable homicide is left for separate explanation later (21:12-14).

The Sabbath commandment in Exodus and Deuteronomy contains hortatory statements of why it should be obeyed, and also specific detail as to its application in particular circumstances. The command regarding parents is called by Paul in the NT, “the first commandment with a promise” (Eph 6:2). Such elements are notably lacking in other portions of the Ten Commandments. No specific penalties are mentioned in any of them. Infraction of the command on coveting would be impossible for men to punish, since it is an internal, spiritual matter.

Most legal sections of Exodus include some provisions that are civil law rather than moral law; i.e., they relate to particular circumstances that might be subject to change. Nothing of this nature is found in the Ten Commandments. Nor do these Commandments include any details of ritual or ceremonial law.

Some critics have suggested that a ritual decalogue preceded the ethical decalogue of Exodus 20.

It has been questioned whether the Ten Commandments in the present form represent exactly the form in which they were originally given. The difference in wording between the Sabbath command in Exodus 20:8-11, and its counterpart in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 suggests that the command was originally either longer so as to include all that is in both forms, or shorter, being thus presented only in bare outline. To those who believe in the plenary inspiration of the Scripture, it would seem more likely that the full commandment included every word of both sections rather than that it was originally given in shorter form. Wellhausen and other critics have held that the Ten Commandments represent an advanced form of law which could hardly have come into existence until the time of the later Israelite kingdom. More recently, a number of critics have taken the view that the commandments in a much shorter and more primitive form originated in the time of Moses.

There have been various modes of enumerating the commandments. Josephus’ listing (Antiq. III. c. 6, sec. 5) shows that he followed the arrangement now common in most non-Lutheran Protestant churches and in the Greek church. This arrangement was followed by Jerome and Gregory Nazianzen.

The Talmud takes the introductory statement (Exod 20:2) as the first “Word,” and then combines the command on worshiping no other God with that against idolatry to form the second commandment. This is not as strange as it appears, for the Ten Commandments might also be called “the Ten Words,” since the Heb. word tr. “commandment” in Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 is more commonly tr. “word.”

Augustine adopted a different mode of enumeration in which he took as the first commandment, the combination that the Talmud calls the second commandment, and then secured the number ten by considering the coveting of a man’s wife as the ninth commandment and the coveting of the house or other property as the tenth commandment. This arrangement is generally followed by the Roman Catholic church and by most Lutheran divines, but strikes an obstacle in that in Exodus, coveting the house is mentioned first and coveting the wife, second.

There has been discussion as to the arrangement of the commandments on the tables. Augustine suggested that the first three were on the first table, and seven on the second table. Calvin suggested that four were on the first table and six on the second. Philo and Josephus explicitly held that five were on each table. There is no scriptural evidence on which to make a decision among these different views.

The covenant code.

It is customary among Bible scholars to call the section from Exodus 20:22 to 23:33 “the Covenant Code” or “The Book of the Covenant.” The latter title would seem to imply that this was the section read to the people by Moses, as described in Exodus 24:7, when they agreed to obey “the book of the covenant.” It seems more likely, however, that the actual covenant consisted of the Ten Commandments, and that this portion was a further explanation and enlargement of the duties that would rest upon the people, rather than the actual constitution referred to in that verse, particularly in view of the reference to the Ten Commandments in 20:22.

This section consists of laws that were particularly important to present to the people at this stage of their religious life, at a time when they were looking forward to life in Canaan as the people of God (cf. Exod 3:12). Consequently its laws look forward to Canaan and imply at many points a settled life in the land that the Lord would give them, and at the same time include provisions applicable to the situation during the time when they would still be in the wilderness. It had not yet been revealed that their unfaithfulness at Kadeshbarnea would result in a forty-year period of wandering, though God knew this would happen, and He so regulated the laws that they would be applicable to both situations.

These laws divide naturally into certain sections. They begin with a reiteration of the warning against idolatry—a very important warning since they were so soon to fall into the sin of worshiping the golden calf. This is followed by specific regulations for worship in the wilderness. As the community moved through the wilderness it would be necessary to construct an altar at each place where sacrifice would be offered. General regulations for the type of altars are given (20:24-26).

A long section follows, which is mostly secular rather than specifically religious. It stresses humanitarian principles in the relation of master and servant, lays down rules for preservation of property, gives laws of compensation for personal injuries, prescribes regulations for the preservation of property rights, and then proceeds to declare specific commands against immorality, bestiality, spiritism, unkindness to the weak or the oppressed, etc.

Interspersed among these regulations, particularly toward the latter part, are comparatively simple rules for the general direction of the ritual and religious life of the people. Three annual feasts are presented and their importance is stressed. Avoidance of the Canaanite rite of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk is ordered. The principle of the sabbatical year is laid down. The commands to avoid any relationship to false gods or to any false type of sacrifice are stressed, and the weekly Sabbath is emphasized.

A particularly important ordinance is the law of asylum, given in its first brief form in Exodus 21:12-14. According to the Wellhausen view this was the first stage in a development. Such an interpretation, however, is quite unnecessary. It should be noticed that it is not here said that the altar is the place of asylum. It is rather declared that a murderer is to be executed, and is not to be safe even at such a holy place as the altar. Only the man who is guilty of accidental homicide is to be protected. The words, “I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee,” could have found fulfillment during the time in the wilderness through some special arrangement by Moses. After the conquest of Canaan, it was fulfilled by the establishment of the cities of refuge.

It was not the purpose of the secular portions of the Covenant Code to provide a complete set of laws for all the different types of problems that might arise, but merely to give an indication of the type of judgment to be made in certain common situations. In the main, they were a reiteration of principles already known. It contained a few specific ordinances that were vital for immediate application and presented the general attitude that God’s people would be expected to maintain after entering Canaan. The purpose of this law, as far as the secular portions are concerned, was to illustrate the high moral principles and benevolent attitudes the Lord desired in the conduct of His people.

For another vital characteristic of the Covenant Code, note the discussion above in section 4, “Types of laws.”

Regulations for the Tabernacle and for the establishment of the priesthood.

During the first period of forty days and forty nights during which Moses remained on the mount, the Lord gave him instructions for the establishment of the permanent system of Israelite worship. Plans for the building of the Tabernacle were set forth in precise detail. Four times it was stressed that everything about the Tabernacle must be built exactly in accordance with the pattern that God had caused Moses to see in the mount. The language used in 25:9, 40; 26:30; and 27:8 raises the question whether the revelation was simply given in words, or whether Moses actually was shown a model of the complete Tabernacle.

The great emphasis laid on precise details of worship in these chs. and later on in the Pentateuch is in striking contrast to the very meager detail regarding divine service for the Christian in the NT. The difference is that when the NT worship was instituted, Christ already had been crucified and raised from the dead. The great central facts of the Christian religion had occurred and had been clearly explained. The ceremonies of the Christian religion looked back to something already fully known. Since a variety of forms could remind the hearer of these vital matters, there was no longer the same need to stress precise forms of worship. In the OT, on the other hand, everything looked forward to the great events that God intended to bring about through the Incarnation and the Atonement. All this was seen by the OT believer through a glass darkly. Therefore it was necessary that the forms be strictly observed; otherwise the ceremony might fail to accomplish its purpose, or might even have the opposite effect of suggesting things that were not God’s intention at all.

The details in the establishment of the Tabernacle meant much to the Israelite believer. Its place in the very center of the camp during the wilderness journey would constantly remind him of the place that God should occupy in the life of the nation and of every individual member of it. The daily sacrifices (29:38-42) would remind him that his sin constantly needed expiation and that nothing that man himself could do would provide a permanent atonement. This could be secured only by that to which the sacrifices looked forward as they pointed to the death of Christ. The place of the great brazen altar in the outer courtyard barring the entrance to the tabernacle stressed the fact that only through atonement could anyone have access to God. The laver emphasized the requirement of holiness without which no one could see the Lord. The first part of the Tabernacle, with the altar of incense and the table of showbread, demonstrated the importance of the worship of God’s people and the need of constant appropriation of Christ, the Bread of Life. The veil between the holy place and the holy of holies showed how sinful man was unable to approach God until a new and living way was opened. In the holy of holies, the Ark represented the throne of God and His abiding presence with His people. This Ark would contain reminders of the time in the wilderness, such as the tables of stone, to emphasize the importance of the moral law in any relation between God and man, and the pot of manna to show God’s marvelous provision in the wilderness journey and the fact of His constant presence with His people. All these matters were presented to Moses in his first period in the mount, and the necessity of carrying out the details with complete accuracy was emphasized.

The laws of Exodus 34.

After the Covenant had been ceremonially established (Exod 24), and Moses had gone up to the mount for forty days to receive the plans for the Tabernacle, the apostasy of the golden calf occurred. Moses condemned the terrible apostasy of the people who had already fallen into idolatry, and God visited severe punishment upon those involved. Then God promised Moses that He would renew the covenant and make it possible for the tables that Moses had broken (32:15-19) to be replaced by a new set containing the basic law. Between the promise that the tables would be replaced (34:1) and the statement that such tables were actually prepared (34:27, 28) is an interesting section in which a number of the previous laws are repeated in a different order.

In this section, stress is laid on the covenant that God was renewing, and on His wonderful promises to bring His people into the Promised Land. Some of the most important of the Ten Commandments and of the religious ordinances of the Book of the Covenant are repeated, but none of its secular or casuistic laws.

When still a young man, the poet Goethe suggested that the laws of this section were the original Ten Commandments written on the two tables. Julius Wellhausen accepted this idea, though admitting that Abraham Kuenen, his important co-worker in the development of the documentary theory, resolutely denied it. C. A. Briggs in The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch (1893), presented the view as definite fact, and maintained that the “ritual decalogue” of Exodus 34 was later displaced by the “ethical decalogue” of Exodus 20. However, H. Gressman (1913) and R. H. Pfeiffer (1941, 1948) strongly opposed it, insisting that Exodus 34 represents a later, rather than an earlier, form. The present tendency of many critical scholars is to feel that the Ten Commandments, although in a more simplified form, actually go back to the Mosaic period.

An apparently conclusive objection to the view that this is the primitive decalogue is that it contains not ten laws but either twelve or thirteen, depending upon how they are divided, and that hardly any two scholars agree as to which of these twelve or thirteen should be designated as later insertions to secure the number ten, which is specifically mentioned in v. 28 of this chapter. The laws of Exodus 34, however, are in no sense an earlier form of the Ten Commandments, but were simply a reiteration for the particular needs of the situation of some of the laws previously given, including some of the Ten Commandments and also some sections of the Book of the Covenant.

The Sabbath.

Unless it be the commands against compromising with false gods or falling into idolatrous practices, no feature of the law is more repeated in Exodus than that of the maintenance of the weekly Sabbath. This was stressed in the wilderness when the manna was first given by a special supernatural arrangement concerning the times when the manna would come (16:22-30). It could not be gathered at all on the Sabbath. If more than enough for the day was gathered on any day except Friday, it would spoil during the night. On Friday, however, a double amount was given, and it would remain fresh for two days. Thus the importance of the Sabbath was stressed. Neither here nor in Exodus 20:8 was the Sabbath presented as something new, but as something that must be faithfully observed.

In the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath commandment is strongly emphasized (20:8-11), and the people were reminded that its validity rests upon the arrangement followed in the creation of heaven and earth (20:11). In the midst of the Book of the Covenant, Exodus 23:12 again urges observance of the Sabbath. In the period on the mount, when the directions for worship were being given, Exodus 31:12-17 emphasizes the importance of Sabbath observance and again mentions its relation to the creation. In the laws particularly emphasized after the punishment for the apostasy of worshiping the golden calf, Exodus 34:21 urges Sabbath observance, and Exodus 35:1-3 stresses this aspect of the life of the Israelites. Thus in the early part of this nation’s experience, after its deliverance from Egyp. bondage, emphasis is given to the importance of maintenance not merely of the day of rest that man needs, but also of the ceremonial provision that pointed forward to the goal of divine rest God provides for His people (Heb 4:9, 10).

The higher criticism of Exodus

The Book of Exodus occupies a prominent place in the history of the higher criticism, yet it is so closely related to the higher criticism of the Pentateuch as a whole that this aspect will be mainly discussed in the article Pentateuch. Here it should be noted that those who follow the Wellhausen theory in general have differed greatly in recent years in their interpretations of the Book of Exodus—for example, certain followers of the documentary theory attribute considerable historicity to the career of Moses, whereas others almost completely deny it.

One of the cornerstones of the documentary theory, the interpretation of Exodus 6:3, is discussed in the article Pentateuch.

Special problems

The number in Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt (1:5).

Ingenuity has been expended in the attempt to prove that the number of Israelites who went down to Egypt was exactly seventy. It should be recognized, however, that this is a round number and is not intended as a precise enumeration.

The new king who did not know Joseph (1:8).

No name is given for the new king “who did not know Joseph.” There is a strong suggestion, however, that it may indicate not merely a change of monarch but a change of dynasty. This would fit well with the possibility that the kings who received the Israelites into Egypt were Hyksos, and recognized the Hebrews as being Asiatics like themselves, whereas the new king belonged to a native Egyp. dynasty after the expulsion of the Hyksos. This could be true, whether the king referred to here belonged to the 18th or to the 19th dynasty.

The names of the cities Pithom and Raamses (1:11).

It has been alleged that the second of these names proves that the events here described could not have occurred until the 19th dynasty, because the first prominent kings by the name of Ramses belonged to that dynasty. However, this is not a necessary conclusion. It is not impossible that this place name was changed to another name by which it was known later. Also, the fact that the kings of Egypt by the name of Ramses did not reign until the 19th dynasty is not complete proof that a city could not have been named Raamses in the 18th dynasty. After all, worship of the god Ra was common in many periods of Egyp. history, and meses is a common ending in names at many periods.

The number of Hebrew midwives (1:15).

The historicity of the first ch. has been questioned on the ground that so great a multitude of people as the Israelites would certainly have required more than two midwives. The allegation, however, is not vaild. The passage does not say that these were the only midwives. They are merely the only two mentioned by name. They could have been particular ones who were singled out to receive praise for their zeal in saving the lives of the Heb. male children, or they might have been the head supervisors of a large group of midwives. Professor W. F. Albright has pointed out that these are common NW Sem. women’s names of the 2nd millennium b.c. (From the Stone Age to Christianity [1957], 13).

The story of Moses in the bulrushes (2:1-10).

Objection has been raised to the story of putting Moses into the bulrushes and his discovery and deliverance through the daughter of Pharaoh, with the suggestion that it is an echo of the story of Sargon who was cast adrift in a boat on the water and was rescued by those who found him. Certain considerations should be noted: (1) The story of Sargon comes from distant Mesopotamia and would not likely be the basis for the invention of a story in Egypt. (2) Such instances are fairly common in all periods. To people living next to a great river it could be similar to the incident today of a child abandoned on a doorstep. The existence of stories having this theme detracts nothing from the factual nature of this narrative about Moses.

Moses’ name (2:10).

The name Moses is particularly appropriate because it would equally well fit either a Heb. or an Egyp. context. To a Heb. it would suggest the Heb. root mashah (“to draw out”) and therefore would be a good name for the one who was providentially drawn out of the water. To an Egyp. it would suggest the common Egyp. element mes, mesu (or just ms) meaning “child” or “son,” which appeared in such names as Ramses (a son of Ra, the sun god) or Tut-mose.

Reuel (Jethro) (2:18; 3:1).

It is sometimes alleged that there is a contradiction in that the priest of Midian is called “Reuel” in 2:18 and “Jethro” in 3:1. However, if all the circumstances were known, there would prob. be no difficulty. Most people in history have more than one name, and it was common to refer to an individual by various names. There is no need of inferring any confusion or contradiction. According to the critical view, one of these names must belong to one document and the other to another document, and the use of the two names would prove that a combination of documents had occurred. If this was the case, however, the redactor who combined the two narratives would surely have felt it necessary to repeat the first name along with the second when he put the documents together. That he did not do so shows that he found no difficulty in referring to the same man by these two names. If to a redactor there appeared to be no difficulty, there is no reason why an original writer should not have used both names.

“I AM WHO I AM” (3:14).

The cryptic statement by which God here designates Himself has been the subject of much discussion. Pointing to the use of the Heb. imperfect, some have even alleged that it shows a changing character of God. Much more probable is the interpretation that points to the fact that He is the only God who exists, the One who has created all things. It is interesting that in the gospel of John, the word: “I AM” is applied to Jesus many times in connection with various figures or attributes.

Borrowing from the Egyptians (3:22).

Some interpreters have found a moral problem here caused by the KJV tr. of the Heb. שָׁאַל, H8626, as meaning “borrow.” This is an unfortunate tr. The word is actually tr. many times in the KJV in its simple meaning of “ask,” e.g., 13:14; 18:7. The Egyptians had forced the Israelites to work for many years without compensation. God declared that a certain measure of compensation would be given them as they left. They are simply to ask for things and these will be given. There is no suggestion in the v. that the things asked for would ever be returned to the Egyptians.


J. G. Murphy, Exodus (1866); J. P. Lange, Exodus (1874); G. Rawlinson, “Exodus” in Ellicott’s Commentary (1882); H. Gressmann, Mose und seine Zeit (1913); R. Smend, Das Mosebild von Heinrich Ewald bis Martin Noth (1959).