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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 13

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-16

C. God’s redemption of His people 12:1-13:16

Scholars differ in their opinions as to when Israel actually became a nation. Many have made a strong case for commencing national existence with the institution of the Passover, which this section records. The proper translation of the Hebrew word pasah is really "hover over" rather than "pass over." [Note: Meredith G. Kline, "The Feast of Cover-over," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37:4 (December 1994):497-510.]

". . . properly understood, the Exodus also is precisely the event and the moment that coincides with the historical expression of God’s election of Israel. The choice of Israel as the special people of Yahweh occurred not at Sinai but in the land of Goshen. The Exodus was the elective event; Sinai was its covenant formalization." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "A Theology of the Pentateuch," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 31. Cf. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 259.]

God gave the Israelites a national calendar that set them apart from other nations (Exodus 12:2). They also received instructions for two national feasts that they were to perpetuate forever thereafter (Exodus 12:14; Exodus 12:17; Exodus 12:24). Also Moses revealed and explained the event that resulted in their separation from Egypt here.

Verses 1-2

"Every" refers to the first-born males only (Exodus 13:2). This is clear from the Hebrew word used and the context (Exodus 13:12-13).

Verses 1-16

5. The sanctification of the first-born 13:1-16

This section is somewhat repetitive, but the emphasis is on the Lord’s right to the first-born in Israel and how the Israelites were to acknowledge that right. The repetition stresses its importance.

Verses 3-10

The Passover ("it," cf. Exodus 13:3) was to be a sign to the Israelites of God’s powerful work for them.

Verses 11-16

The dedication of every first-born Israelite male baby was to take place after the nation had entered the Promised Land (Exodus 13:5; Exodus 13:11-12). This was to be a memorial of God’s redemption from Egyptian slavery, as were the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread (cf. Exodus 12:14). However, God took the Levites for His special possession in place of the first-born. This happened at Mt. Sinai (Numbers 3:12-13). Consequently this dedication never took place, but the Israelites did circumcise their sons and observe the Passover when they first entered the Promised Land (Joshua 5:4-7).

God may or may not have intended that the Jews should literally wear the "phylacteries" (lit. frontlet-bands, or head-bands, Exodus 13:16; Heb. tephilin).

"The line of thought referred to merely expresses the idea, that the Israelites were not only to retain the commands of God in their hearts, and to confess them with the mouth, but to fulfil them with the hand, or in act and deed, and thus to show themselves in their whole bearing as the guardians and observers of the law. As the hand is the medium of action, and carrying in the hand represents handling, so the space between the eyes, or the forehead, is that part of the body which is generally visible, and what is worn there is worn to be seen. This figurative interpretation is confirmed and placed beyond doubt by such parallel passages as Prov. iii. 3, ’Bind them (the commandments) about thy neck; write them upon the tables of thine heart’ (cf. Exodus 13:21-22, iv. 21, vi. 21, 22, vii. 3)." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 2:37.]

"For two thousand years and more, observant Jews have taken those passages literally. The paragraphs that form their contexts (Exodus 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21) are written on four strips of parchment and placed in two small leather boxes, one of which the pious Jewish man straps on his forehead and the other on his left arm before he says his morning prayers. The practice may have originated as early as the period following the exile to Babylon in 586 B.C.

"It hardly needs to be said that there is nothing inherently wrong with such a custom. The boxes, called ’phylacteries’ are mentioned in Matthew 23:5, where Jesus criticizes a certain group of Pharisees and teachers of the law for wearing them. Our Lord, however, condemns not the practice as such but the ostentatious use of ’wide’ phylacteries as part of a general statement about those who flaunt their religiosity in public: ’Everything they do is done for men to see.’

"But although the proper and modest use of phylacteries might be spiritually legitimate, it is probably best to understand the references from Exodus and Deuteronomy as figures of speech, since similar statements are found elsewhere in the Old Testament." [Note: Youngblood, pp. 66-67.]

Verses 17-21

D. God’s completion of Israel’s liberation 13:17-15:21

The Israelites now began their migration from Goshen to Canaan.

Verses 17-22

1. The journey from Succoth to Etham 13:17-22

"The way of the land of the Philistines" refers to the most northern of three routes travelers took from Egypt to Canaan (Exodus 13:17). The others lay farther south. The Egyptians had heavily fortified this caravan route, also called the Via Maris (the way of the sea). The Egyptians would have engaged Israel in battle had the chosen people gone that way.

The people marched in an orderly fashion (Exodus 13:18). This is the meaning of "martial array." Moses had not yet organized them as an army.

Succoth was evidently north and west of the Bitter Lakes (Exodus 13:20). Today the Suez Canal connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean by way of the Bitter Lakes. Archaeologists have not yet identified certainly the sites referred to here such as Succoth and Etham, as well as many of those mentioned in the records of the Israelites’ journey (e.g., Numbers 33). Consequently it is virtually impossible to pin down their exact locations. Many of these sites were nothing more than stopping points or oases; they were not established towns. Kaiser wrote concerning their locations, "Everyone is guessing!" [Note: Kaiser, "Exodus," p. 385.] The only stopping-place in the wilderness wanderings that scholars have been able to identify without dispute is Kadesh Barnea.

The wilderness referred to in this verse would have been the wilderness of Shur located to the east of the Nile delta.

There was only one cloudy pillar (Exodus 13:21; cf. Exodus 14:24). Sailhamer believed there was one pillar of cloud and another pillar of fire, but this is a rare view. [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 269.]

"Like the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), the pillar was the visible symbol of God’s presence among His people. The Lord Himself was in the pillar (Exodus 13:21; Exodus 14:24) and often spoke to the people from it ([chs. 19-20;] Numbers 12:5-6; Deuteronomy 31:15-16; Psalms 99:6-7). The later hymn-writers of Israel fondly remembered it (Psalms 78:14; Psalms 105:39). A similar cloud of smoke came to represent the glory of the Lord in the sanctuary throughout much of Israel’s history (Exodus 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11; Isaiah 4:5; Isaiah 6:3-4)." [Note: Youngblood, pp. 74-75. See also Richard D. Patterson, "The Imagery of Clouds in the Scriptures," Bibliotheca Sacra 165:657 (January-March 2008):24-25.]

The pillar of cloud and fire remained over the Israelites until they entered Canaan under Joshua’s leadership (Exodus 13:22). Perhaps it appeared as Meyer imagined it.

"When the excessive heat made it necessary for Israel to march at night, the light of the Fiery Pillar was enough to light the way: and when in the day the scorching glare of the sun was blinding, the cloud spread itself abroad like a great umbrella, so that the women and children could travel in comparative comfort [cf. Psalms 84:11]." [Note: Meyer, p. 158.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Exodus 13". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/exodus-13.html. 2012.
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