Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible


Book Overview - Exodus

by Peter Pett


By Dr. Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Publishd by Bluebox Publishing.

This commentary can be purchased through Amazon or any good bookseller ISBN No. 978-0-9566477-5-7.


The Book of Exodus contains the remarkable story of how God raised up a man, Moses, and used him to deliver His people out of slavery in Egypt and how they began the journey that took them to the land promised by Him to their ancestors.

It then reveals how God made a unique covenant with them at Sinai, and established them as His chosen people, with His earthly Dwellingplace among them.

It will be noted that Exodus demands, and depends on, a knowledge of Genesis. It is a knowledge of the experiences of the patriarchs, to say nothing of the earlier history, that illuminates and makes sense of Exodus.

Exodus Continues The Story of Genesis.

Genesis has explained the origin of the people who went down into Egypt, and the promises that they had received from God. Exodus continues the story. Genesis begins with one man. Exodus begins with seventy men, a number signifying divine perfection intensified. But while Exodus 1 covers centuries of history during which Israel develop and then face oppression, and Exodus 2 the life of Moses up to the burning bush, (said to be ‘eighty years’ - 7:7), the remainder of Exodus covers the two years that complete and follow Moses life in Midian during which he inflicts under God’s hand the ten plagues on Egypt, leads the people out to safety, establishes the covenant of Mount Sinai and erects the Dwellingplace of Yahweh.

There are interesting comparisons with Genesis. Genesis 1-11 covered hundreds of years and prepared the way for the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and God at work in them, Exodus 1 covers hundreds of years and prepares the way for Moses and God at work through him. It is not history that is prominent here but the activity of God in history. Until God begins to act history is simply summarised and preparatory.

But there is also a comparison in the detail. Genesis was the book of beginnings. Exodus is the book of a new beginning. In Genesis 3 man had been sentenced to hard toil because of sin, the same occurs to Israel in Exodus 1. They too are subjected to hard toil, for they should by this time not have been in Egypt. There is thus the same example of disobedience followed by hard toil. The sin of man leads to the building of cities in Genesis 4:17; Genesis 11:1-9, the sign of man’s independence of and rebellion against God. In Exodus 1 the children of Israel are set to the task of building cities. Cities are ever in Scripture a picture of man setting himself up against God. Stress is laid on the fact that all men die, ‘And Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation’ (Exodus 1:6 compare Genesis 5). The nations expand and flourish in Genesis 10, the same occurs to Israel in Exodus 1. In both cases there is phenomenal expansion ready for the purposes of God to begin. For God’s purposes will flourish in spite of man’s sin. God raised up Abraham in Genesis 11-12, and here in Exodus 2 God raises up Moses. Noah was saved by an ‘ark’ which had been waterproofed in Genesis 6-8 and here in Exodus 2:3 the baby Moses is saved in an ark that has been waterproofed. Genesis describes a murderer who fled to the land of wandering from the face of Yahweh. Exodus 2 describes another murderer who fled into the wilderness, this time from before the face of Pharaoh. Genesis 3 describes God’s triumph over the snake and his promise that man will defeat the snake. One of the signs that Moses has to give to Israel and Pharaoh is of his triumph over a snake through the power of Yahweh (Exodus 4:4), and Yahweh’s power over the Egyptian snakes. In Genesis 4 God puts a mark on Cain. The second sign to Moses is that he is marked with a loathsome skin disease on his hand, he is marked as a murderer, but in his case the mark is removed (Exodus 4:6-7) in order to indicate that Yahweh is with his hand. There is thus a similar pattern, which we can hardly fail to see as deliberate, revealing sin, punishment, rebellion, and deliverance.

The Overall Sevenfold Structure of Exodus.

The book is composed on a sevenfold structure:

1). The condition of Israel and preparation of Moses ready for Yahweh’s assault on Egypt because of the enslaving of His people (Exodus 1-4).

2). Their covenant God acts powerfully to deliver Israel from Egypt (Exodus 5-12).

3). The journey of His redeemed people to Mount Sinai (Exodus 12-18).

4). The giving of the covenant (Exodus 19-24).

5). Moses’ period in Mount Sinai while the people wait below, during which he is given instruction concerning the Tabernacle and the Priesthood (Exodus 25-31).

6). The breaking of the new covenant and its renewal (Exodus 32-34).

7). The setting up of the Tabernacle (mishkan - Dwellingplace) and its commissioning by the descent of the glory of Yahweh (Exodus 35-40).

We have here a series of contrasts. In (1) the people are enslaved under Pharaoh, in (7) they are established as Yahweh’s people under Yahweh. In (2) Yahweh powerfully delivers His people revealing His faithfulness, in (6) His people fail in their response and reveal their faithlessness. In (3) we have progress towards the making of the covenant by Yahweh with His people in which first foundations are laid down, and in (5) we have the means provided by which they can maintain their covenant relationship with Yahweh. In (4), central to all, is the Covenant itself.

We may differ as to where each section actually commences and finishes but the overall pattern is clear. These sections reveal especially His patience and longsuffering, His power and might, His tenderness and love, His trustworthiness and faithfulness, His desire for fellowship with His people, His forgiveness and mercy, and His assured triumph in the end. The book can be summed up in the words of Exodus 19:4-6 : "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be My own possession from among all peoples: for all the earth is mine: and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation".

Exodus Is Preparing For The Books That Follow.

It should be clear to all that Exodus could not stand on its own. It requires Genesis to provide the explanation of who these people were, and it requires Leviticus and Numbers in order to explain the details of the ceremonial law and the movement on to Canaan. Without Leviticus we would not know what happened in the Tabernacle (the Dwellingplace). Without Numbers we would not know how they reached Canaan. And this last is the aim which is in mind throughout the book (Exodus 3:17; Exodus 6:8; Exodus 23:20 ff; Exodus 32:34; Exodus 33:1 ff ; Exodus 33:12 ff ; Exodus 34:9 ff) and is required by the covenant legislation (Exodus 21:1 ff; Exodus 34:11 ff).

Did The Exodus Happen?

That the Exodus happened we can be in no doubt. Its centrality in Israel’s future faith confirms it. This is demonstrated by its regular representation in the Psalms as something to be sung about and seen as central to their worship, especially as related to the Reed Sea deliverance and Mount Sinai. And no nation of antiquity would have invented a story so demeaning to itself. When nations invented stories it was in order to glorify themselves not in order to demean themselves.

The book reveals a nation of slaves (in the ancient sense of the term), and a man trained up in Egypt in administration and leadership, gaining knowledge of the wilderness in exile, who tackles the mighty Egyptian king face to face and outfaces him, leads a conglomerate people made up of many nations, but whose core is the Israelites, out of Egypt and through the wilderness, and establishes a basis of nationhood for them in the Covenant of the Ten Commandments, the Book of the Covenant and the laws that follow.

He could not do this without appealing to their general and religious background and there can be no doubt that he would call on their ancient records as the basis for their faith. It was therefore extremely likely, even from a human point of view, that he would take those records and incorporate them in some kind of continual narrative (if that had not already been done) so that the large number of foreign elements within the group could be made familiar with the background and ethos of this people with whom they had joined themselves in the Exodus. They needed to be established in the traditions of Israel. As also did Israel itself need to be reminded of its own traditions. This was the final origin of the Book of Genesis which was based on those ancient records (apart possibly from a few later scribal amendments which were a quite normal procedure). Exodus continues the story.

The word ‘exodus’ is Greek meaning ‘a going out, departure’ and was not the original title of the book. It appears in the LXX version of Exodus 19:1.

The Authorship of the Book.

There is a continuous testimony throughout history that the book was mainly the work of Moses. No one will deny that other Old Testament books assert the essential Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch demonstrating the strong tradition supporting the claim (see for example Joshua 8:31-32; Joshua 23:6; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Kings 23:25; 2 Chronicles 23:18; 2 Chronicles 25:4; 2 Chronicles 34:14; 2 Chronicles 35:12; Ezra 3:2; Ezra 6:18; Nehemiah 8:1; Nehemiah 8:14; Nehemiah 13:1; Daniel 9:11; Daniel 9:13; Malachi 4:4). And this list only includes actual references to his writing. To list all the reference referring to God’s command given through Moses would require a number of pages. Very important among the above is Joshua 8:31-32 which testifies to the fact that what Joshua had written on the stones came from the written law of Moses. Accepting that Joshua did write on those stones (and we have no reason for doubting it) this takes the testimony back to eyewitnesses. Through all this period there is no hint that it was written by anyone else. More importantly Jesus Christ Himself saw the Pentateuch as the writings of Moses (John 5:46-47), as without error (Matthew 5:17-18), and indicated Moses’ connection with Deuteronomy (Matthew 19:7-8; Mark 10:3-5). See also Peter (Acts 3:22), Stephen (Acts 7:37-38), Paul (Romans 10:19; 1 Corinthians 9:9), and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:28).

Thus the weight of all the earliest evidence, and of the Scriptural evidence, is that Moses was its source. His ‘authorship’ is therefore something that has to be disproved for those disinclined to accept it, rather than something that has to be proved.

Of course when we speak of Mosaic authorship we must understand what is being claimed. It is not necessarily believed that Moses wrote every word of the book in his own hand, for it would be quite in accordance with the day for him to use a scribe. Mosaic authorship instead is intended to indicate that Moses is the source of the information in it, although the actual recording would have been done by the scribe that he chose, with the finalising possibly done after his death when there was no longer the living voice. This was possibly done by Joshua, although it may have been Eliezer or some other godly scribe unknown to us who was Moses’ confidant. But that Moses insisted on putting things in writing comes out throughout the Pentateuch (Exodus 17:14; Exodus 24:4-8; Exodus 34:27; Numbers 33:1-2; Deuteronomy 31:9; Deuteronomy 31:22) and the number of times that we are told ‘Yahweh said to Moses’ (or the equivalent) are legion. And we must remember that Israel’s most sacred relic was the Ark of the Book (Testimony).

It is frankly quite difficult to believe that having been told to record the details of the battle with Amalek (Exodus 17:14) Moses would not then consider recording the details of other equally traumatic events. Indeed he had probably already recorded the incident of the Reed Sea in his song of Exodus 15. And we certainly learn that he had a ready pen (Exodus 24:4-8; Exodus 34:27; Numbers 33:1-2; Deuteronomy 31:9; Deuteronomy 31:22).

The problem with the Pentateuch was that because of the effectiveness of its message and its sacred significance it was preserved and used continually on and off by the people. Had it been lost and only come to notice through being discovered in the ruins of the Temple what reverence would have been paid to it by scholars. How much more carefully they would have treated its contents. How much more credence it would have been given.

For the first thing we must dispose of here is the idea that used to be prevalent that the Pentateuch is the product of a number of documents somehow joined together. This idea, which prevailed for so long on doubtful grounds, is completely demolished when we study the Book. For as the commentary will make clear, it was written according to a distinct pattern which if it came from joining together different authors would have required a genius beyond telling. There is a constant pattern all the way through which demands unity of authorship (study Exodus and Numbers yourself carefully with our commentaries and see whether you can honestly deny it). It will be noted that those who claim disparate authorship never consider the chiastic patterns that clearly underlie Exodus and Numbers especially. In these patterns certain things are often spoken of and then their consequences related in the reverse order. But the commentary must speak for itself on this.

That is not to deny that there are traces of sources. Moses would have written down parts of the covenant even as they were received, for God had already emphasise the importance of memorial writing at the defeat of Amalek in Exodus 17, and in those days that was the way with covenants and their surrounding history. Indeed there is good reason to believe that Genesis was mainly composed of written records made to record covenant situations (why else a covenant or saying with every chapter?). But with a mixed multitude of various origins making up the people (Exodus 12:38), and the likelihood of their being spread out once they were in the land, Moses would have been criminally negligent not to ensure that the details of the covenant were written down, and that includes far more than the book of the covenant which was hardly sufficient. Of course there may have been occasional odd notes of explanation tacked on later, and there may have been an updating of the grammar to make the ancient Hebrew understandable (such as an English copyist might do to Chaucer), but that is not to get away from essential Mosaic authorship on the terms described above.

The sacredness of the text would have ensured that such upgrading was done with great care, but in the end the requirement for it to be understood would presumably have prevailed. However, even then some especially sacred parts would be left untouched. (We can compare the initial upgrading of the King James Version in the English speaking world, although the comparison fails because in this case we have ancient texts in the original languages which could be used to correct it. Unlike the way that the Law of Moses would have been seen, the King James version was only one of many, even though an important one for the UK and the US). Thus it would give the appearance etymologically and grammatically of containing old and new, which it undoubtedly did. Indeed it is precisely what we would expect of so ancient and sacred a book which in the good times was in regular use. But none of this is evidence of its essentially Mosaic content being open to doubt, and the chiastic constructions (which such updatings would not have affected) is evidence enough for its essential oneness. But we need not think that these constructions were artificial. They were a dynamic consequence of their way of thinking. Every statement had to have its parallel or contrast.

The Date of the Exodus

There are two centuries which are mooted as being the date of the Exodus, some favour the 15th century BC and some the 13th. Archaeological evidence is cited for both and dependent on the view taken will depend the name of the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The problem is that during that period it was the custom in Egypt not to connect the name of the Pharaoh with his title and we thus have no clue in the Book of Exodus itself as to which Pharaoh it was. Points arising with regard to this will be dealt with in context.

We will now examine the Biblical criteria with regard to this, but as we do so we must remember that the ancients used numbers far differently than we do. They did not have a fixation with chronology and the reconciling of time periods, they used numbers to indicate facts in a different way. Their chronology was based on moon periods, with twelve or thirteen of these making up a year as was necessary to keep the seasons in synchronisation, and in the early days they would not necessarily have had a long term calendar or recognised overall year system, rather linking the passing of years to different important events of the not too distant past (see Amos 1:1). It was the coming of the new moon in spring that determined their festal ‘year’ from Passover to Tabernacles. We must beware therefore of taking numbers too literally without asking ourselves whether they in fact have another and deeper meaning (as the number seven almost always does).

In Genesis 15:13 it was predicted that Abraham’s descendants would be ‘a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them, and they shall afflict them four hundred years.’ But ‘four hundred years’ is clearly a round number and may well have been intended merely to indicate ‘four generations’ (as Genesis 15:16 suggest). In those days of patriarchal longevity a generation may well have been described in terms of ‘one hundred years’, especially in view of the fact that Isaac was born when Abraham was ‘one hundred’. This is supported by the fact that it is said in the same context as the four hundred years that they will return ‘in the fourth generation’ (Genesis 15:16). This suggests that ‘one hundred years’ is intended here to represent ‘a generation’. The actual length of generations would apparently have been somewhat different from later.

More indicative at first sight appears to be Exodus 12:41. ‘Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, which they sojourned in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years. And it happened at the end of four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it happened, that all the hosts of Yahweh went out from the land of Egypt.’ But the selfsame day from what? Presumably from the entry into Egypt.

However this figure may be based on the ‘four hundred years’ of Genesis 15:13 with a further period added, thirty years, to reflect a complete and exact period (three intensified), to cover the working out of the deliverance from Egypt. They looked at and interpreted numbers far differently from us. Most did not use numbers regularly in their daily lives, and they did not have a fixation with numerical exactness. The statement about the self-same day may thus simply be saying that it happened exactly as God had planned.

This is further complicated by the fact that here the LXX has a different reading for it reads ‘in Egypt and in Canaan’. It is possible that this was the original text but it looks far more like an attempt to solve a difficulty caused by the fact that Exodus 6:16-20 does reveal four generations from Levi to Moses (compare Leviticus 10:4 also Numbers 26:5-9 of Korah. 1 Chronicles 6:1-3 is taken from here). But note for example that there were a greater number of generations from Ephraim to Joshua (1 Chronicles 7:20-27).

We now know in fact that in these genealogies it was often only considered necessary to put in the important names so that generations could be omitted with no difficulty and ‘begat’ means ‘was the ancestor of’ and ‘son of’ means ‘the descendant of’. This is archaeologically evidenced again and again in different parts of the ancient world. Indeed four generations may have been deliberately selected to bring out the fact that they were in a foreign land, for four is the number indicating the world outside the covenant (consider four rivers outside Eden (Genesis 2), four kings from foreign parts against Abraham (Genesis 14), four beasts representing world empires (Daniel 2, 7) and so on). Amram and Yochebed may have been only ‘descendants of’ Kohath or they may even have been ancestors of Moses and not his direct father and mother.

So we must be careful about attempting to apply our criteria to figures in the Old Testament.

A similar thing can be said about the seemingly exact ‘four hundred and eighty years’ in 1 Kings 6:1. This may well have been a way of indicating ‘twelve generations’ taking a generation as forty years (it is used a few hundred years later when life spans had decreased). Its intention may have been, for example, to signify that there had been twelve high priests between Aaron and the building of the temple. Thus the method of adding the four hundred and eighty here to the four hundred and thirty in Exodus 12:41 may well only produce spurious results as neither number is certain as to meaning and may be based on different criteria. If, for example, the average generation after the time of Moses was actually 25 years, a reasonable assumption, ‘the four hundred and eighty years’ would represent three hundred actual years.

The truth is thus that if we are to date the Exodus we must do so by external means. And this we do not intend to attempt. It requires a great amount of uncertain and complicated detail, is adequately done elsewhere, is not conclusive and diverts from our main purpose, the meaning of the text. (But see the article, "Dating of Exodus") for a preliminary (if unsatisfactory to those who want certainty) survey.