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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8
Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16
Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20
Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24
Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28
Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32
Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36
Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40

Book Overview - Exodus

by Charles John Ellicott











In tracing the steps of this change, the author of the book pursues the ordinary historical and chronological method. Having recapitulated (from Genesis 46) the family of Jacob, and mentioned the death of Joseph (Exodus 1:1-6), he sketches rapidly the condition of the descendants of Jacob during the period which intervened between Joseph’s decease and the birth of Moses, dwelling especially on the rapid increase of the Israelites (Genesis 27:7; Genesis 27:12; Genesis 27:20), and relating incidentally the steps in the “affliction” to which they were subjected by the Egyptians, according to God’s prophecy to Abraham (Genesis 15:13). From this he passes to the birth, providential escape, and bringing up of Moses, their pre-destined deliverer, and to the circumstances which compelled him to quit Egypt, and become an exile in the land of Midian. The call and mission of Moses are next related, together with the circumstances of his return from Midian to Egypt, the consent of Jethro to his departure (Exodus 4:18), the circumcision of Eliezer (Exodus 4:24-26), the meeting with Aaron (Exodus 4:27-28), and the acceptance of Moses for their leader by the people (Exodus 4:29-31). The account of Moses’ first application to Pharaoh follows, and its result—the increase of the people’s burthens, with their consequent despair, and the despondency of Moses (Exodus 5; Exodus 6:1-13). After a genealogical parenthesis (Exodus 6:14-27), the narrative of the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh is resumed, and carried on through five chapters (Exodus 7-11), which contain the account of all the “plagues of Egypt,” except the last, and exhibit in a strong light the tergiversation and final obduracy of Pharaoh. The crisis now approaches, and in preparation for it the Passover is instituted, with full directions for its continued observance (Exodus 12:1-28). The blow then falls—the firstborn are slain—and the Israelites are not only allowed to depart, but are sent out of Egypt “in haste” (Exodus 12:33), laden with presents from those who wished to expedite their departure (Exodus 12:35-36). The account of the “Exodus “itself is then given, and the journey traced from Rameses, by way of Succoth and Etham, to Pi-hahiroth, on the western shore of the Red Sea (Exodus 12:37 to Exodus 14:4). Upon this follows an account of the pursuit made by Pharaoh, of the miraculous passage of the sea by the host of Israel, and the destruction in the returning waters of the entire Egyptian chariot and cavalry force (Exodus 14:5-31). This portion of the narrative is appropriately concluded by the song of triumph sung by Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15:1-21).

Israel being now in safety, the account of their journey is resumed. Their line of march is traced through the wilderness of Shur to Marah (Exodus 15:22-26); from Marah to Elim (Exodus 15:27); thence through the wilderness of Sin to Rephidim (Exodus 17:1); and from Rephidim to Sinai (Exodus 19:2). On the march occur the murmuring and miracle at Marah (Exodus 15:23-25); the giving of the quails and of manna (Exodus 16:4-36); the great battle with the Amalekites at Rephidim (Exodus 17:8-13); and the visit of Jethro to Moses, with his advice, and the consequent organisation of the people (Exodus 18:1-27).

The scene of the rest of Exodus is Sinai and the plain at its northern base. In Exodus 19 the author describes the preparations made for the giving of the fundamental law, which is then explicitly stated in four chapters (Exodus 20-23), and consists of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17) and the “Book of the Covenant” (Exodus 20:22-23). In Exodus 24 he tells of the acceptance of the covenant by Israel (Genesis 27:3-8), and of the first ascent of Moses into the mount (Genesis 27:9-18). After this, seven chapters (Exodus 25-31) relate the directions there given to Moses by God with respect to the mode in which He would be worshipped, and the “house” which He would have constructed for Him. In Exodus 32 Israel’s apostacy is related, together with its immediate punishment; and in Exodus 33 we have an account of the steps taken by Moses to obtain from God a renewal of the forfeited covenant. In Exodus 34 the writer relates the circumstances of Moses’ second ascent into the mount, and declares the terms upon which the covenant was renewed. The construction of the various parts of the tabernacle and of the priestly garments is then given in five chapters (Exodus 35-39); and the work concludes with an account in one chapter (Exodus 40) of the setting up of the tabernacle, and the entrance of the “Glory of God” into it.

III. Divisions.—Primarily, the work divides itself into two portions:—1. An historical narrative of the fortunes of Israel from the death of Joseph to the arrival of the nation in front of Sinai (Exodus 1-19). 2. A didactic portion, containing all the most essential points of the Law and of the worship (Exodus 20-40). This didactic portion is, however, historical in its setting, and is intermixed with some purely historical sections, as especially Exodus 24 and Exodus 32, 33.

Part. I. may be sub-divided as follows:—




Exodus 1

The oppression of Israel in Egypt.


Exodus 2

The birth, escape from death, and bringing up of Moses. His first attempt to deliver his people, and flight to Midian.


Exodus 3:4

The call and mission of Moses, and his return to Egypt.


Exodus 5, Exodus 6:1-13.

The first interview between Moses and Pharaoh, with its result—the increase of the people’s burthens, their despair, and the despondency of Moses.


Exodus 6:14-27; Exodus 7-11

The genealogy of Moses and Aaron.

The efforts made by Moses, under Divine guidance, to overcome the obstinacy of Pharaoh. The first nine “plagues of Egypt.”


Exodus 12:1-28.

The institution of the Passover.


Exodus 12:29-36.

The tenth plague, and its consequences.


Exodus 12:37 to Exodus 14:4.

The departure from Egypt, and the journey to Pi-hahiroth.


Exodus 14:5-31.

The pursuit of Pharaoh. The passage of the Red Sea. Great destruction of the Egyptians.


Exodus 15:1-21.

The song of triumph sung by Moses and Miriam.


Exodus 15:22-27

The journey of the Israelites from the Red Sea to Rephidim. The victory ever the Amalekites.


Exodus 18

Jethro’s visit to Moses.


Exodus 19

Arrival of Israel before Mount Sinai, and preparations made for the giving of the Law.

Part II. contains the following sub-divisions:




Exodus 20

Delivery of the Decalogue.


Exodus 21-23

Words of the “Book of the Covenant”


Exodus 24

Acceptance of the covenant, and ascent of Moses into the mount.


Exodus 25-26

Instructions given to Moses with respect to the structure of the tabernacle, and the consecration and attire of the priests.


Exodus 32-34

Infraction of the covenant by the idolatry of the calf, and renewal of it through the intercession of Moses.


Exodus 35-39

Construction of the tabernacle and its furniture. Making of the “holy garments.”


Exodus 40

Erection of the tabernacle, and entrance of the “Glory of God” into it.

IV. Date of the Composition.—The antiquity of the Book of Exodus is evidenced by the simplicity of its constructions, and the occurrence in it of a certain number of extremely archaic forms. Its composition by an eye-witness of most of the events which it relates is indicated by the vividness with which they are portrayed, and the details and unnecessary minutiœ into which the writer enters. The descriptions of the effect of the hail upon the Egyptian standing crops (Exodus 9:31-32), of the character and appearance of the manna (Exodus 16:14-31), and of the descent of Jehovah upon Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19; Exodus 20:18) have all the appearance of being by an eye-witness. Who but an eye-witness would note the exact number of the wells at Elim, and of the palm-trees that grew about them (Exodus 15:27)? Or the fact that the first tables of stone were “written on the one side, and on the other” (Exodus 32:15)? Or the circumstance that Moses and Joshua heard the sound of the idol feast in honour of the golden calf before they got sight of it (Exodus 32:17-19)? What Israelite of later times would have presumed to fix the exact date of the setting forth from Elim as “the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 16:1)? Or to state that Miriam and the Israelite women accompanied their song of triumph “with timbrels” (Exodus 15:20)? Or to give the precise position of Pi-hahiroth as “between Migdol and the sea, over against Baal-zephon” (Exodus 14:2)? Who but an eye-witness would have noticed that the locusts were taken away by “a strong west wind,” or would have ventured to state that “there remained not one locust in all the coasts of Egypt” (Exodus 10:19)? Little graphic touches strongly indicative of the eye-witness are such as the following:—“Zipporah cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet” (Exodus 4:25) “Aaron met Moses in the mount of God, and kissed him” (Exodus 4:27). The officers of the Israelites “met Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh” (Exodus 5:20). “The frogs died out of the houses, out of the villages, and out of the fields; and they gathered them together in heaps” (Exodus 8:13-14). “The Lord sent thunder and hail, and the fire ran along upon the ground” (Exodus 9:23). “The locusts covered the face of the earth, so that the land was darkened” (Exodus 10:15). “Darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt” (Exodus 10:21). “And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt” (Exodus 12:30). “The people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders” (Exodus 12:34). “The Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night” (Exodus 14:21). “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea shore” (Exodus 14:30). The Egyptians “sank into the bottom as a stone; they sank as lead in the mighty waters” (Exodus 15:5-10). “The quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning the dew lay round about the host” (Exodus 16:13). “They did mete the manna with an omer” (Exodus 16:18). “When the sun waxed hot, the manna melted” (Exodus 16:21). “Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and did obeisance, and kissed him” (Exodus 18:7). “The whole mount (Sinai) quaked greatly” (Exodus 19:18). “All the people answered with one voice, and said: All the words which the Lord hath said we will do” (Exodus 24:3). The subject need not be further pursued. It is evident that the style of narration is exactly that of an eye-witness, and we must either suppose intentional fraud, or the composition of Exodus by one of those who quitted Egypt at this time under the circumstances narrated. The date of the final completion of the work will therefore be, at the latest, some twenty or thirty years after the entrance into Canaan.

Again, a strong argument for the Mosaic authorship may be drawn from the entire manner in which Moses is portrayed and spoken of. Whereas to the Hebrew nation—who owed him so much—Moses had always been the first and greatest of men, the writer of Exodus is unconscious of his possessing any personal greatness at all. The points in the personality of Moses which have impressed him the most, and on which he lays the greatest stress, are his deficiencies in natural gifts, and his numerous imperfections of temper and character. Rash and impetuous, beginning his public life with a crime (Exodus 2:12), and following up his crime with an assumption of authority that was unwise (Exodus 2:13), he next shows a timid spirit, when he finds that his crime is known (Exodus 2:14-15), and betaking himself to exile, relinquishes all patriotic effort. Called by God, and entrusted with the mission of delivering Israel, he holds back, hesitates, pleads his personal defects, until he angers God, and loses half his leadership (Exodus 4:1-14). Unsuccessful in his first application to Pharaoh, he utters a remonstrance which verges on irreverence (Exodus 5:22-23). Encouraged by fresh promises, and bidden to make a second application, he responds by a fresh disparagement of his natural powers (Exodus 6:12). When at last he makes up his mind to carry out his struggle with Pharaoh to the bitter end, he shows, no doubt, courage and confidence in God; but still he is never praised: no single word is uttered in commendation of his moral qualities; once only is he said to have been “very great in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and of the people” (Exodus 11:3). It has been urged that he would not have spoken of himself in this tone—and it is just possible that the words are a later addition to his work—but still they contain no praise; they do but note a fact, and a fact of importance to the narrative, since it accounts for the gifts lavished upon Israel at their departure. In the later portion of Exodus, it is absence of all words of praise rather than any record of faults that we note; nothing calls forth from the writer a single sentence of approval; even when the offer is made to be blotted out of God’s book for the sake of his people (Exodus 32:32), the same reticence is observed: no comment follows; there is no apparent recognition that the offer was anything but a small matter. Nor is any notice taken of the courage, faith, and wisdom exhibited by Moses in the performance of his mission from the time of his second appearance before Pharaoh (Exodus 7:10). Contrast with this silence what later writers say of him, as the son of Sirach (Sirach 45:1-5), the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews Hebrews 11:24-28; comp. Hebrews 3:5), and the completer of Deuteronomy (Exodus 34:10-12). It will be sufficient to quote the last-named passage to show what his countrymen generally thought of their deliverer. “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh,” &c. The humble estimate formed of the deliverer, and the general reticence, are quite intelligible, and in harmony with the rest of the Scripture, if the author was Moses. They are wholly unintelligible on any other hypothesis.

At the present day, the credibility of Exodus is assailed on two principal grounds:—1. The miraculous character of a large portion of the narrative. 2. The exaggeration, which is thought to be apparent, in the numbers. A school of foreign critics denies the possibility of a miracle; and among ourselves there are many who accept the view of Hume, that it is more probable that the witnesses to miracles should have been deceived, than that the miracles should have happened. It is impossible, within the limits of an “Introduction,” to discuss these large questions. Every Christian, every believer in the Apostles’ Creed, must accept miracles. And when the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord are once accepted, any other minor miracles cease to be felt as difficulties. In the present case, it is observable:—(1) that the miracles were needed; (2) that they were peculiarly suitable and appropriate to the circumstances; and (3) that they were of such a nature that it was impossible for eye-witnesses to be deceived with regard to them. Moses especially, whom we have shown to have been almost certainly the writer of Exodus, could not have been deceived as to the miracles. He must have known whether he performed them or not. Even if the writer be a companion of Moses (Joshua or Caleb), and not Moses himself, deception is inconceivable. Either the plagues of Egypt happened, or they did not. Either the Red Sea was divided, or it was not. Either the pillar of fire and of the cloud guided the movements of the host for forty years, or there was no such thing. Either there was manna each morning round about the camp, or there was none. The facts were too plain, too simple, too obvious to sense for there to be any doubt about them. The record is either a true account, or a tissue of lies. We cannot imagine the writer an eyewitness, and reject the main features of his tale, without looking on him as an impudent impostor. No “enthusiasm,” no “poetic temperament,” could account for such a record, if the Exodus was accomplished without miracles. The writer either related the truth, or was guilty of conscious dishonesty.



THE question of the exact time in Egyptian history to which the circumstances related in the Book of Exodus belong is one rather of secular interest than of importance for Biblical exegesis. Yital to the Jewish nation as was the struggle in which Moses engaged with the Pharaoh of the time, to Egypt and its people the matter was one of comparatively slight moment—an episode in the history of the sons of Mizraim which might well have left no trace in their annals. Subject races, held as bondmen by the monarchs, were common in the country; and the loss of one such race would not have made any great difference in the general prosperity of Egypt; nor would the destruction of such a chariot and cavalry force as appears to have perished in the Red Sea have seriously crippled the Egyptian military power. The phenomena of the plagues—aggravations mostly of ordinary Egyptian scourges—would not necessarily have attracted the attention of any writers, while they would, no doubt, have been studiously concealed by the historiographers of the kings. As M. Chabas observes—“Des événements de ce genre n’ont pas dû être inscrits sur les monuments publics, où l’on n’enregistrait que des succès et des gloires.”(60) No one, therefore, has the right to require of the Biblical apologist that he should confirm the historical narrative of Exodus by producing references to it in the Egyptian records. The events themselves may never have been put on record in Egypt, or, if recorded, the record of them may have been lost. It is not, perhaps, generally known what large lacunœ there are in the Egyptian annals, nor how scanty are the memorials even of the best known times. The argument a silentio, always weak, has absolutely no value in a case where the materials on which the history is based are at once so limited and so fragmentary.

Still, an interest will always attach to the connection of sacred history with profane, and speculation will always be rife as to the identity of Pharaohs mentioned in the Bible with monarchs known to us from the Egyptian remains. Readers will naturally expect the writer of such a comment as the present to have some view, more or less distinct, as to the period in Egyptian history whereto the events recorded in Exodus belong, and may fairly claim to have such view put before them for their consideration.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 24th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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