Book Overview - Exodus
by John Dummelow
1. Title and Contents. The second book of the Pentateuch is designated in Hebrew, from its opening words, Elleh Shemoth, 'These are the names,' or simply Shemoth, 'The names.' Exodus is the Latin form of the title prefixed to the book by the Greek translators of the OT. It means 'exit' or 'departure,' and refers to the main event which the book records, viz. the departure of the Israelites from the land of Egypt.
The book of Exodus continues the narrative of Genesis and carries it down to the erection of the Tabernacle at Sinai, in the first month of the second year of the departure from Egypt. It is mainly historical, but contains important legislative matter. It falls naturally into three great divisions: Part 1. Israel in Egypt: their Oppression and Deliverance, Exodus 1 - Exodus 15:21. In this section the events leading up to the deliverance of the Israelites by the hand of Moses are described. Part 2. The March from the Red Sea to Mount Sinai, Exodus 15:22 to Exodus 18:27. Part 3. Israel at Sinai, Exodus 19-40 : This last section really extends from Exodus 19 to Numbers 10:10, and covers in all a period of eleven months. During this time the people were encamped in the vicinity of Mt. Sina, and were engaged in receiving that Law, both of morals and ceremonies, which was the basis of the covenant between them and Jehovah, and the foundation of their distinctive national and religious life.
2. Origin and Composition. The question as to the authorship of the Pentateuch is discussed in a separate article. Here it will suffice to say a few words as to the confirmation given to the history and legislation contained in Exodus from other sources.
With regard to the historical part of the book, while it cannot be said that the residence of the Israelites in Egypt and their departure from it are directly confirmed by the records of profane history and the monuments, what we know from the latter as to the history and condition of Egypt in early times at least leaves room for the biblical account and harmonises with it. (a) The Pharaoh of the Oppression is usually supposed to have been Rarneses II, and the Pharaoh of the exodus his son and successor Merenptah, who began to reign about the year 1300 b.c. Reckoning back 430 years, the extent of the sojourn in Egypt, we reach a time when Egypt was ruled by an alien dynasty, called the 'Hyksôs' or Shepherd kings. These were of Asiatic origin, and would be naturally inclined to favour the Hebrews. There can be little doubt that the Pharaoh to whom Joseph was Prime Minister was one of these Hyksôs kings. A famine is recorded to have occurred during the reign of one of the last of this dynasty, Apepi, who may have been the Pharaoh of Joseph. But the Hyksôs were expelled by a native Egyptian dynasty who would look with disfavour on everything Asiatic. This revolution, with the consequent change of treatment afforded to the Hebrew settlers in Egypt, agrees with what is said at the beginning of the book of Exodus that 'there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.' See Exodus 1:8 and note in the commentary there. (b) Again we read that the Israelites built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raameses. The former has been discovered at Tel el Maskhuta, and is found to have been a store city built by Rameses II and dedicated to Turn, the god of the setting sun. The site of Raameses has not been discovered, but the city is mentioned in the Egyptian texts as having been built by Raameses II (see on Exodus 1:11). (c) Egyptian history is silent on the plagues and the incidents accompanying the exodus, but that is not surprising when we take into account the little that we know of the history of Egypt, and the improbability that the monuments would be employed to perpetuate the memory of such untoward events. The biblical account, however, is full of local colour. The plagues are just such as might well occur in Egypt, being for the most part aggravations of evils natural to the climate of Egypt, and owing much of their force to the fact that they strike at the superstitions of the Egyptians. (d) The route of the exodus and the various halting-places are not fully identified, but so far nothing has been discovered that cannot be harmonised with the biblical account. The discovery that the Red Sea at one time extended much further north than it does at present, removes much of the difficulty formerly attaching to the account of its crossing. So far, then, the biblical account has been confirmed instead of contradicted by modern discovery. It is not unreasonable to expect that, as discovery proceeds, further confirmation will be obtained and obscurities removed. For the present we have every reason to believe that in the main the story of the origin of the Israelitish nation is trustworthy.
As regards the legislation contained in Exodus, it is generally admitted that at least the Ten Commandments, the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23), and the laws in Exodus 34, may well go back to the time of Moses. To what extent the laws he promulgated were modified and expanded in later times, we may never be able precisely to determine; but the investigations of most recent times seem to point to the possibility of ascribing more, instead of less, of the legislation of Israel to Moses than was formerly allowed. It has been usual, e.g. to argue that the legislation of the Pentateuch is too advanced to have originated at such an early period as the exodus. But the force of this argument is considerably weakened when it is found that the legislation of Israel, both moral and ceremonial, has many points of contact with that of the earlier civilisations of Babylonia and Egypt. It has come to light in recent times that Babylonian and Egyptian influences extended over Canaan and the Sinaitic peninsula before the time of the exodus, and that Babylonia and Egypt had much to do with each other at a very early date. Consequently, laws and practices, which were supposed to have first come into existence at a comparatively late period in the history of Israel may really have been introduced much earlier. See on Numbers 13:21.
The question of the originality of the legislation of Moses has quite recently come prominently to the front as a result of invesligations and discoveries made in connexion with the earlier religions of Egypt and Babylonia. It is an undeniable fact that many of the laws and rites of the Pentateuch bear a resemblance to what we find among these other nations of antiquity. The Babylonians, e.g. observed laws of 'clean and unclean'; they kept the seventh day rest; they knew of peace offerings, heave offerings, and sacrifices for sin. The Egyptians practised circumcision and offered incense; the description of the tabernacle is full of allusions to Egyptian customs; the strict rules for the purifying of priests, the ephod of the high priest, the pomegranate decoration of the hem of his robe, his breastplate and his mitre, had all their counterpart among the Egyptians. The newly discovered Code of Hammurabi displays many features similar to the legislation of Moses: see art. 'Laws of Hammurabi.' Of course resemblance does not prove derivation; but even should it have to be admitted that many elements in the moral and ceremonial law of the Israelites were taken from other civilisations, this need occasion neither surprise nor dismay. God is not the God of the Hebrews only; 'He has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth,' and it is not strange that the Gentiles who have not the (Mosaic) Law, should 'do by nature the things contained in the Law' (Romans 2:14). What is distinctive in the Mosaic legislation is the new spirit which it exhibits. It is emphatically ethical; and it lifts morality to a higher plane, in accordance with its fundamental conception of a spiritual and holy God, who enters into a covenant relationship with His people on a moral basis. The aim of the Mosaic legislation was 'not so much to create a new system as to give a new significance to that which had already long existed among Semitic races, and to lay the foundation of a higher symbolism leading to a more spiritual worship.' The glory of the Mosaic law, and its indefeasible claim to divine inspiration, reside in the fact that it took existing customs and ceremonies and infused into them a new spirit, elevating, purifying, and transforming them.
3. Religious Value. It is well nigh impossible to overestimate the religious value of the book of Exodus. Nowhere else save in the Christian revelation is there to be found so sublime a conception of the nature of God, or a loftier and purer idea of morality as springing out of man's relationship to Him. In the OT. itself Exodus holds a fundamental position. It depicts the early civic and religious development of a people destined to occupy a unique place among the nations, and to exert upon the world the very greatest spiritual influence. In this book we see the beginning of the fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham, the original ancestor of the Hebrew people, 'in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.' The events which it records in connexion with the birth of the nation, and its deliverance from bondage, stamped themselves indelibly on the memory and imagination of succeeding generations, and are frequently employed by prophets and psalm-writers, to enforce lessons of duty and faithfulness, trust and hope, warning and encouragement: see e.g. Hosea 2:15; Hosea 12:9; Hosea 13:4; Amos 2:10; Micah 6:3-4; Psalms 78:12.; Psalms 81:8.; Psalms 105:23; Psalms 106, 114, 136. Much of the subsequent teaching of the OT. is but the interpretation and enforcement of the spiritual and moral truths communicated to Israel at the time of the exodus.
The great underlying idea of the book is that of revelation. God is everywhere represented as in the act of self-manifestation. He manifests His power over nature, in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and at Mt. Sinai. In every event His hand is discernible. 'He made known His ways unto Moses, His acts unto the children of Israel.' He constantly speaks to Moses, giving to His servant His counsel in times of emergency, and the knowledge of His nature and will to be communicated to the people. We cannot read the book without being impressed with the writer's convietion that God, while exalted far above the comprehension of His creatures, who are able to see, not His face, but only Hie 'back parts' (Exodus 33:23), does not dwell remote from the world, but is everywhere present and active in nature and in history. This sense of the personal agency of God is expressed frequently in a very bold and anthropomorphic way, somewhat startling to us with our more abstract and spiritual conception of the divine nature and the method of its operations: see e.g. Exodus 4:24, Exodus 14:24-25; Exodus 24:10, Exodus 24:11. In their more fervid utterances, OT. writers in general do not hesitate to transfer human conditions, actions, and passions to the Divine Being, though the extent to which they do so diminishes with the course of time. The frequency with which this form of thought appears in Exodus is an eloquent testimony to the intensity of religious feeling that pervades the book. To us, whose conception of God tends always to be more and more abstract and attenuated, this insistence on the truth of the nearness of God and His active interference in the world of human affairs is not the least necessary and valuable lesson conveyed by the book of Exodus.
Another characteristic and fundamental idea of the book is that Israel is the chosen people of Jehovah. It is nowhere asserted that Jehovah is the God of the Hebrews only. He rules over the land of Egypt, and He is the Creator and Lord of nature. All the earth is His (Exodus 19:5). But He has chosen Israel to be 'a peculiar treasure' unto Him above all people (see on Exodus 19:3-6) and He enters into a covenant with them on the basis of the moral law (Exodus 24:3-8). This idea of the election, or selection, of Israel runs all through the OT., and even passes over to the Christian Church under the 'new covenant, (see on Exodus 19:6). It is essentially an election, not to privilege, but to duty. Israel is chosen, enlightened, instructed, disciplined, in order to communicate to the world the knowledge of God and prepare the way for the perfect revelation of His grace in Christ. It is a noble idea, that of a theocracy, a 'kingdom of God,' a people who are each and all 'priests' unto God (Exodus 19:6). Hence the duty of personal holiness and national righteousness; hence the minute ceremonial system, with its detailed prescriptions regarding the tabernacle, its furniture, the priesthood, sacrifice, etc., all emphasising the lesson that God is holy and must be served and worshipped by a holy people.
The book of Exodus has been in all ages a source whence both Jews and Christians have drawn lessons of encouragement and warning, applicable to the individual soul no less than to the Church of God. The bondage in Egypt, the deliverance, and the experiences of Israel in the wilderness, have very naturally been regarded as types of man's deliverance from the bondage of sin and error, and of God's grace and providence in guiding, defending, and supplying the wants of His people all through the pilgrimage of life. In Israel men have seen themselves, their need of redemption, their sin and weakness, their continual dependence on God, and their proneness to forget and mistrust Him to whom they owe everything; while in the record of God's gracious dealings with Israel they have read their own experience of the power and grace of the Covenant God whose name is still 'The Lord, the Lord, a God full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin: and that will by no means clear the guilty,' and whose promise to those who trust in Him is still, 'My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest' (Exodus 34:6-7; RV Exodus 33:14).
the Third Week of Lent