“The story of the Israelites from their escape from slavery to receiving the law.”

Exodus continues the story of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. It opens with the birth and youth of Moses and follows his life along with the trials of the Jewish people in Egypt. Moses’ unique childhood in the household of the pharaoh positions him to become a leader of his people. After the Israelites had fallen away from relationship with God, Moses hears His voice and calls the people back.

The story continues with the difficult path which must be followed to emerge from Egypt and make the 40-year trip to the promised land. God delivers the ten commandments, the first of his laws, meant to aid man in finding the way God would have him live.

As you study this book, you will see the events which are remembered by Jews today in their rituals and celebrations. Remembering that Jesus was raised in the Jewish tradition. This book and its stories were the foundation of his understanding of his earthly ancestry and his father, God.

Meet Our Professors

Joel Baden

Professor of Hebrew Bible

Professor Joel Baden is a specialist in the Pentateuch, Biblical Hebrew, and disability theory in biblical studies. He is the author of the numerous articles, essays, and books on individual pentateuchal texts, critical methodology, and Biblical Hebrew; future projects include commentaries on Deuteronomy and Exodus. He holds degrees in Judaic Studies (BA, Yale), Semitic Languages (MA, University of Chicago), and Hebrew Bible (PhD, Harvard).

John J. Collins

Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation

John J. Collins, a native of Ireland, was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the University of Chicago from 1991 until his arrival at YDS in 2000. He previously taught at the University of Notre Dame. He has published widely on the subjects of apocalypticism, wisdom, Hellenistic Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He has participated in the editing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and is the general editor of the Yale Anchor Bible series. He holds degrees from University College Dublin (BA, MA, and an honorary D. Litt.) and Harvard University (PhD).



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I. Introduction

The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. It takes the story of the Israelites from their presence in and oppression by Egypt up to the reception of the divine law that occupies the entire book of Leviticus and much of Numbers. It contains many of the central moments of the early history of Israel, both narratively and theologically: Egyptian bondage, the ten plagues, the Passover, the Exodus from Egypt proper, the crossing of the sea, the divine revelation and law-giving at Sinai, and the apostasy of the golden calf.

Exodus and the Patriarchs

In terms of the overarching plot of the Pentateuch, the book of Exodus is the continuation of the story of the patriarchs and Joseph recounted in Genesis. This is clear from its opening lines: the enumeration of Jacob’s sons who went down to Egypt, the notice of their deaths, and the statement that a new king arose who did not know Joseph—that lack of knowledge forming the background for the oppression that will immediately follow.

Despite these links between the patriarchal (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Genesis) era and that of the exodus, there is good reason to think that the stories of the patriarchs and that of the exodus were originally distinct, at least at an oral level, before they were combined into the familiar progression that we now see before us. The patriarchs and the exodus (including its conclusion in the conquest under Joshua) represent two different concepts of Israel’s claim to the land of Canaan and their relationship to their god. The patriarchs move through the land, building altars, settling in various towns, and burying their dead. It is reasonable to suppose that there was an indigenous tradition among early Israelites that this was how they came to occupy the land, centered around God’s promise of that land to their ancestors. With the beginning of the exodus story, however, all of the work the patriarchs did to lay claim to Canaan is instantly undone; for all intents and purposes, they might as well have gone to Egypt right away, rather than wandering around Canaan for three generations. The exodus tradition seems to have at its center the notion that it is God’s rescue of the Israelites from Egypt that constitutes the foundation of their relationship: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Exod 6:7). It is likely that an independent exodus story was brought to Israel at an early stage and was incorporated as the continuation of the indigenous tradition of the patriarchs.

It is this supposition that gives us entry into the question of the historicity of the Exodus story. Archaeological and comparative studies have all but ruled out the possibility of a truly national exodus as described in the Bible. There is no Egyptian notice of the enslavement of an entire foreign population, nor of their departure, nor of a series of miraculous plagues; there is not a single archaeological find in the Sinai desert that would indicate the journeys of a substantial number of people, much less the two million or so that the biblical account says made the trip; nor is there evidence for a conquest of Canaan by incoming Israelites as the book of Joshua describes. There is reason to think that the entire story is not a complete invention, however. Perhaps the foremost argument in that regard is: what people, given the opportunity to create from whole cloth the story of their origins, would choose to start off as slaves in a foreign country? This is known as the criterion of embarrassment: it is hard to imagine anyone telling this story unless it had a grain of truth to it, a grain that could not be avoided. Thus it is important that although the grand biblical account may not be substantiated by scholarly investigations, what we do have evidence for is the enslavement in Egypt of some Semitic peoples, in small numbers, at various times in Egyptian history. We also have Egyptian documents that describe some of those slaves escaping (though no more than a handful at a time). The most we can say with any measure of probability about the historicity of the exodus is that some Semitic bands may have left a situation of enslavement in Egypt and made their way through the desert into Canaan, where they joined up with the emerging Israelite population in the hill country. It is not the biblical exodus; but over a few generations of integration and oral tradition, it is not difficult to see how the story could have grown from its humble roots into the sweeping epic we have before us. It is the story that, as readers of the Bible, we are interested in anyway; we should favor story, and the meanings that have been and are attached to it, over the mere events of history, which are devoid of inherent meaning until they are put into narrative form.

The sources in Exodus

Despite its independent origins, the exodus story is very much integrated into the complete pentateuchal narrative that runs from Genesis through Deuteronomy. In fact, it is incorporated three distinct times, for the book of Exodus is not a unified composition by a single hand. It is, rather, like the other books of the Pentateuch, a combination of three originally independent documents, three separate narratives of Israel’s early history, each with its own theological perspective, literary style, and, most importantly, narrative claims about what exactly happened to the Israelites at each stage of their story. Scholars call these narratives the Yahwist (known for short as J, from the German spelling “Jahwist”), named as such because this document claims that the divine name Yahweh was known to Israel since the beginning of time; the Elohist (known as E), which claims that the divine name was revealed first only in the time of Moses, and therefore uses the designation “Elohim” for God up until that revelation in Exodus 3; and the Priestly document (known as P), whose distinctly priestly perspective is evident throughout, and nowhere more clearly than in the book of Leviticus, which is attributed entirely to that source.

The presence of multiple authors in the book of Exodus is evident on multiple levels throughout the book. The divine name is revealed to Moses twice, in Exodus 3 and 6, in each case, it would seem, for the first time. These two revelations belong to E and P, respectively. (J, as mentioned above, needs no new revelation, as people have known Yahweh’s name since the beginning of Genesis.) The sources differ on what happened at the mountain in the wilderness, and even on the name of the mountain: for J and P, it is called Sinai; for E, it is called Horeb. According to E, the Ten Commandments and the laws of Exodus 21–23 were given there, sealed by a covenant ceremony; according to P, the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle were given on the mountain (and the laws of Leviticus and Numbers were given from the Tabernacle itself after it was constructed); according to J, no laws were given in the wilderness at all, but rather a covenant was made between God and Israel regarding the conquest of the land and the worship of foreign deities.

More minor discrepancies emerge elsewhere. What was the name of Moses’s father-in-law? How are Moses and Aaron (and Miriam) related? What happened at the escape from the Egyptians by the sea? How many times did Moses go up the mountain in the wilderness? What is that mountain called? What and where is the Tent of Meeting? And so on. These three documents J, E, and P were combined together into the Pentateuch basically as we now have it sometime in the Persian period. Because the person who interwove them into a continuous narrative took great care to preserve as much of each of his sources as possible, we are still able to isolate them and describe their individual characteristics. It is their differences that explain most of the difficulties we encounter when reading the book of Exodus as a whole: the contradictions, repetitions, and other narrative discontinuities that occur regularly throughout.

For the contemporary reader of the Old Testament, it is of course the final canonical form of the text that must be wrestled with. Yet the final form could not exist without the three documents that it comprises. The aim of identifying its source documents is not mere historical curiosity, but rather a deeper understanding of why the book looks the way that it does. These three authors, or perhaps better schools of authors, contributed the narrative and theological building blocks for the text that became scripture. There is inherent value in recognizing that in ancient Israel, in the context from which the Old Testament emerged, there were multiple understandings of Israel’s history and theology—sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary, but in any case different—and that the book of Exodus preserves them in tandem. There is no preference shown to one viewpoint over another, as each is equally present in the text, even when their most significant theological statements are deeply at odds with each other. There is virtually no attempt to impose a coherent theological perspective on the whole, nor any attempt to align the claims of the various authors into some single overarching concept. Each ancient voice has its own independent value. The book of Exodus is a repository for (some of) the diverse worldviews present in ancient Israel.

It is crucial to understand that, given this situation, the canonical story that we are most familiar with was not actually written by any individual. Some aspects of the story were told by all: the existence of Moses, the presence of the Israelites in Egypt, their departure, their journey to a mountain in the wilderness where something special happened. But the details differ widely, and sometimes in ways that may seem almost unthinkable to those who know only the canonical text. For instance, the burning bush is known to only the J document. No author ever thought there were ten plagues: P has seven plagues, J has six, and E has none. In J the Israelites escape hastily at night, giving us the tradition of unleavened bread; in P they walk out boldly during the day. E has no notion of manna. The Ten Commandments, the tablets, and the golden calf are completely unknown to J and P. The crossing of the sea is unknown to E. The Tent of Meeting is known only to E and P. There is no ark in E. There is no Joshua in J. Miriam is only in E.

The contradictions that were created when these stories were put together have been a fount of interpretation from the earliest post-biblical period to the present. Whether or not, like the rabbis of the first millennium CE, one holds firmly to the notion of Mosaic authorship (a claim that is not made in the book of Exodus, nor anywhere in the Pentateuch itself), the interactions between the source documents provide us with almost unlimited opportunity for exegesis. We grapple with the same questions that motivated the earliest readers of the text.

As part of the Pentateuch, and, in its components, parts of three originally continuous documents stretching beyond its borders, the book of Exodus as such is something of a false data set. There was no concept of a “book” of Exodus per se, as an independent literary unit. It is, rather, a single volume of a continuous five-volume work, separated from what comes before and after probably on simple material grounds: it was not possible in ancient Israel to have the entire Pentateuch on a single scroll of parchment. In this regard, the tradition Greek name “Pentateuch,” meaning “five books,” is misleading. The Jewish term for the Torah, “hamisha humshei Torah,” meaning “the five fifths of the Teaching,” is more accurate (if also more unwieldy).

At the same time, the Pentateuch is not divided into books just anywhere they ran out of room. There is a natural break in plot, both at the beginning and at the end of Exodus. The era of the patriarchs has come to an end with the death of Joseph at the end of Genesis, a situation that is recalled explicitly at the beginning of Exodus: “Joseph and his brothers and all that generation died” (Exod 1:6). We have a clear transition from the story of a family in Genesis to the story of a nation in Exodus, a transition that is marked by the shifting meaning of the phrase bnei yisrael—literally “the sons of Israel,” as it means almost everywhere in Genesis, the actual twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob/Israel; but after the death of Jacob’s sons in Exod 1:6, the phrase refers exclusively in the rest of Exodus and beyond to “the Israelites” as a people.

Similarly, the end of the book of Exodus is a sensible break before the ritual laws of Leviticus are given. Exodus concludes with the construction of the Tabernacle, the divine abode of Yahweh, from which the laws will be given. In the very last moments of Exodus 40, God descends and inhabits his new mobile home: “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of Yahweh filled the Tabernacle” (Exod 40:34). Exodus therefore takes us on a path from a single relatively small family of Jacob’s descendants stuck in a foreign land to a people two million strong with their God dwelling firmly in their midst. This is the path that we will be exploring in this series.

Basic Reading:

J. S. Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch (Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 13–33.

John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (2nd edition; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014) 109-142.

Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. L. Keck et al.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1994) 1.677-87.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is the relationship of the story told in Exodus to the patriarchal story that precedes it in Genesis?
  2. What does it mean to talk about the “book” of Exodus?
  3. Why do scholars identify multiple source documents in Exodus?
  4. What is the value of recognizing these sources?



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II. Exodus 1-6: The Burning Bush

The Book of Genesis ends with the story of Joseph, which explains how the Israelites, the sons of Jacob, came to be in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into Egypt as a slave, but had risen to be Pharaoh’s viceroy, with authority over the whole land of Egypt. His brothers came to seek grain in time of famine, but were invited by their powerful brother to bring down their father and settle in Egypt. They prospered and multiplied. Genesis ends with the death, first of Jacob and then of Joseph. The Book of Exodus then begins with a new situation: “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exod 1:8).

At this point, the success of the Israelites becomes the cause of their undoing. The new king fears that they have become too numerous and powerful, and feels that they will be a threat to Egypt. To contain this threat, he subjects them to forced labor and oppression. This creates the premise for the story of the Exodus. The Israelites become slaves in the land of Egypt.

The motif of the multiplication of the Israelites also provides the occasion for the story of the birth of Moses. The king of Egypt orders the midwives to kill the male children of the Hebrews. The mother of Moses, however, contrives to place her son in a papyrus basket and place him on the waters of the Nile. Here he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescues him, and even employs his mother as a nurse. Consequently, Moses does not experience the hard labor of other Israelites, but is raised in Pharaoh’s palace. (There is a famous parallel to the story of Moses in the legend of Sargon of Akkad, who lived about a thousand years before Moses. It is quite possible that the older story was known to the biblical authors, and that they claimed for their hero the wonderful adventure of the pagan king).

Moses evidently knew whence he came, and when he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew, he killed him furtively. His action is fraught with implications for biblical ethics, and has been much discussed in the context of liberation theology. Is resort to violence justified in face of oppression? His action, however, does not win him any plaudits from those he sought to protect. When he tries to break up a fight between two Hebrews, one of them asks, “Who made you ruler and judge? Will you kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” The upshot is that Moses has to flee from Egypt, and settles in the land of Midian, not in the Sinai peninsula but east of the Gulf of Aqaba, in Arabia. There he marries the daughter of the priest of Midian, whose name is given variously as Reuel or Jethro.

Moses in Midian

In Midian, Moses has his encounter with God at the burning bush. This happens at “Horeb, the mountain of God.” Horeb is the name for the mountain of revelation in the Elohistic and Deuteronomic traditions. It means simply “wilderness.” The bush (Hebrew sneh) evokes rather Mt. Sinai, as the mountain is called in the Yahwist and Priestly traditions. The traditional site identified with Mount Sinai, is Jebel Musa, in the Sinai peninsula, west of the Gulf of Aqaba, not in Midian. This identification can be traced back to the early Christian era.

It is apparent that two sources (J and E) are woven together in Exodus 3. Twice God says that he has heard the cry of the Israelites (3:7, 9); twice he says he will take them out of Egypt (3:8, 10). In some places (E) it says that Moses is sent to free the people (3:10, 12, 13, 14, 15); in others (J) that Yahweh appeared to Moses to announce that he, Yahweh, would free them (3:8, 16-17). In one strand (E), Moses receives only an auditory revelation; in the other (J), he receives a visual revelation, in the burning bush. These narrative doublets match up with the alternation of designations for the deity: Yahweh (J) and Elohim (E), at least in the first fifteen verses.

The most celebrated part of this passage is the exchange between Moses and God in 3:13-14. When Moses asks for God’s name he is told, “I am who I am” (Hebrew  ehyeh  asher  ehyeh). The Greek translators of the Bible rendered this passage as eimi ho on, “I am the one who is.” Beginning with Philo of Alexandria, around the time of Christ, countless generations of theologians argued that the God revealed to Moses was identical with absolute Being, in the sense in which that term was understood in Greek philosophy. The Greek translation became the foundation for a theological edifice that assumed that Greek philosophy and biblical revelation could be correlated, and were two ways of getting at the same thing. Historically, however, it is impossible to find this meaning in the Hebrew text. Hebrew simply did not have a concept of Being, in the manner of Greek philosophy. This fact does not invalidate the theological correlation of the Bible with Greek philosophy, but neither does it give it any real support. No such correlation is envisioned in the Hebrew text.

The actual meaning of the Hebrew phrase is enigmatic. The proper Hebrew name for the God of Israel, Yahweh, can be understood as a form of the verb “to be”—specifically the causative (Hiphil) third-person singular imperfect. It can be translated “he causes to be.” It has been suggested that this name is a way of referring to a creator God. The Deity is often called “the Lord of hosts” (Yahweh Sabaoth), and it has been suggested that this means “he causes the hosts (of heaven) to be” or “creator of the hosts.” Whether the name was originally understood as a verbal form, however, is uncertain. It often appears in Hebrew names in the form yahu or yaho, which would not be so easily parsed. In Exodus 3, in any case, the association with the verb “to be” is assumed. The phrase “I am who I am” in effect changes the verbal form to the first person. The phrase may be taken as a refusal to divulge the divine name, in effect brushing off Moses’ question. In favor of this suggestion is the fact that Jewish tradition is reluctant to pronounce the divine name. Rather, it substitutes Adonai, “the Lord.” But elsewhere in Exodus the name Yahweh is used freely, and it is explicitly revealed in the Priestly passage in Exodus 6. It may be that the passage is only an attempt to put the divine name YHWH, understood as a form of the verb “to be,” in the first person.

In any case, Exodus 3 goes on to give a fuller explanation of the identity of the Deity. He is the God of the ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The key element, however, is what he promises to do in the future: “I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (3:17), in effect fulfilling the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15. The Deity is motivated by the suffering of Israel: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt, I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering and I have come down to deliver them” (Exod 3:7-8). YHWH may already have been worshiped in Midian as a god who appeared in fire on the mountain, but henceforth he would be worshiped as the God who delivered the Israelites from Egypt.

The promise that God would deliver Israel from servitude in Egypt is taken as paradigmatic by Liberation Theology, a movement that developed in South America in the second half of the twentieth century (Gustavo Gutierrez is a leading exponent). The Liberation theologians view the Exodus as revelatory of how God deals with all peoples. They speak of an “option for the poor” and say that God is on the side of the oppressed. They insist that the story is about deliverance from economic and social deprivation. Some more conservative critics take issue with this interpretation (e.g., Harvard professor Jon Levenson, who is Jewish, and the late John Howard Yoder, who was a Mennonite Christian). They argue that the question “liberation for what?” is more important than “from what,” and insist that Israel is liberated so that it can serve Yahweh. (In Exodus 7:16, Moses reports to Pharaoh the divine command: “Let my people go that they may serve me”). The Israelites are told to request permission from the Egyptians to go three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to their God. Exodus is the prelude to the covenant between God and Israel, which binds the Israelites to obey the laws that will be revealed on Sinai. Levenson cites Lev 25:55, from the Priestly source: “For it is to me that the Israelites are servants; they are my servants whom I freed from the land of Israel.”

In fact, there is more than one theological perspective on the Exodus in the Pentateuch. The Yahwist source does not have the emphasis on laws that we find in the other sources, and P (the Priestly source) has a distinctive cultic emphasis. But all accounts of the Exodus start from the liberation from slavery. Without that liberation, the Israelites are not free to worship God, or to live in accordance with their own laws. Without social and economic liberation there is no Exodus. To that degree, at least, the Liberation theologians are correct.

Some scholars also question the analogical use of the Exodus. They argue that Israel was liberated because it was Yahweh’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that it implies no promise of deliverance for anyone else. This objection raises a fundamental question about one’s view of Scripture. If Scripture has any relevance to the modern world, and especially to the Gentile world, including Christianity, that relevance depends on analogy. Liberation theologians like Gutierrez counter that God is the creator of all, not just the God of Israel, and that anyone, especially any oppressed people, can identify with the story of Israel. In fact, the story of the Exodus has inspired many movements of liberation. Martin Luther King is a notable example in recent American history. The meaning and relevance of a story cannot be restricted to its original context.

The words of God to Moses in Exodus 3, however, touch on another issue that is fraught with significance for revolutionary movements that seek inspiration in the Exodus. In 3:19 we read: “I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand.” In the book of Exodus, the Lord himself supplies the mighty hand, by smiting Egypt with plagues. But divine assistance of this sort is not always forthcoming. Hence the dilemma for revolutionaries: should they try to supply the mighty hand themselves by revolutionary violence? The book of Exodus skirts this issue, because divine intervention relieves the Israelites of recourse to violence. Other books of the Bible, notably Joshua, show no compunction about violent action. Biblical attitudes to violence, however, are complex, too complex to be treated here. Exodus, like much of the Bible, suggests that the violence can, and should, be left to God, but as we have seen in the case where Moses killed the Egyptian in chapter 1, human violence is not necessarily excluded.

 Exodus 6

Exodus 6 contains a parallel account of the revelation of the divine name, from the Priestly source. Here Moses is told explicitly: “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them” (6:2). For the Priestly tradition, as for the Elohist, this God was not known to the patriarchs by his proper name, although the name is used in the Yahwist source throughout Genesis. The passage goes on to link the revelation of the name with the promise of liberation from slavery in Egypt. Again, there is an obvious sociopolitical dimension to this liberation. But it also involves a religious commitment, and entails a covenant between Israel and Yahweh: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (6:7). The Israelites will no longer serve the Egyptians, but will serve Yahweh instead. Yahweh brings Israel out of Egypt in order to give it “the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (6:8). As a result, “you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians” (6:7). This act of deliverance, rather than the thunder on Mt. Sinai or the study of nature, is the primary revelation of God in the Hebrew Bible.

Basic Reading:

B. S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974) 1-120.

W. Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994) 690-737.

Further Reading:

J. J. Collins, “The Exodus and Biblical Theology,” in Encounters with Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) 67-77.

E. Dussel,” Exodus as a Paradigm in Liberation Theology,” in Exodus: A Lasting Paradigm (ed. B. van Iersel and A. Weiler; Edinburgh: Clark, 1987) 83-92.

G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1973).

J. D. Levenson, “Exodus and Liberation,” in The Hebrew Bible, The Old Testament and Historical Criticism (Louisville: Westminster, 1993) 127-59.

M. Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

J. H. Yoder, “Probing the Meaning of Liberation,” Sojourners 5/7 (1976) 26-9.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What indications are there that different sources are combined in the Book of Exodus? Why is this important?
  2. Is Moses justified in killing the Egyptian?
  3. How does God respond to Moses’ request to know the divine name? How should we understand the enigmatic phrase “I am who I am”?
  4. How important is social-economic liberation in the story of Exodus?
  5. Is it legitimate to use this story as a paradigm for liberation for any people?



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III. Exodus 7-11: The Plagues

Between the call of Moses in Exodus 3 and 6 and the Israelite departure from Egypt in Exodus 12 stands the narrative of the ten plagues. These are the miraculous punishments that afflict Egypt with increasing severity, until; finally, Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites go. It is by the mechanism of the plagues that the Israelites gain their freedom. Yet this relatively simple story is not nearly as straightforward as it first appears, or as it is usually told.

Two sources

The plagues narrative, like so many others in Exodus, is a composite story, the combination of the two documents J and P. Each tells of these miraculous events, but, as always, tells it differently: different plagues, different rationales, and different chronology. There are some plagues that are held in common, and some that are distinctive to each; it is by the combination of the two that we end up with the final count of ten. The J narrative contains blood, frogs, insects, pestilence, hail, and locusts; the P story has the staff turning into a serpent (actually probably a crocodile), blood, frogs, lice, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness.

Though external confirmation of scholarly source division is often impossible, the plagues are one case where we probably do have convincing evidence that we have unraveled the two strands in the text correctly. Two of the psalms, 78 and 105, recount in poetic form much of the history described in prose in the Pentateuch. When they come to the plagues, the two look very different. Psalm 105 tells the story very much as it appears in the canonical text. Psalm 78; however, does not seem to recognize any of the plagues that are exclusively from P: no lice, no boils, no darkness. Whether Psalm 78 knew J, or vice versa, or whether both emerged from the same school of thought, we can probably not say. But the psalm does provide good evidence for the existence of a J-like tradition, and is a strong support for the division between J and P in the plagues particularly.

As for the differences between J and P, we can see the basic distinctions between the two if we look at the plague of blood, in Exod 7:14–24. Here are the J and P stories side by side:



14The Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go. 15Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake. 16And say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.” But you have paid no heed until now. 17Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the rod that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood; 18and the fish in the Nile will die. The Nile will stink so that the Egyptians will find it impossible to drink the water of the Nile.’” 20He lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood 21and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile. 23Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this. 24And all the Egyptians had to dig round about the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile.


19And the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” 20Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded.  21And there was blood throughout the land of Egypt. 22But when the Egyptian magicians did the same with their spells, Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he did not heed them—as the Lord had spoken.

The two sources both recount a plague of blood, but they do so in totally distinctive ways. We can note some of the smaller differences first. Which water turns to blood? In J, it is only the water of the Nile; in P, it is all of the water, even the water in cups and barrels. This difference explains the last verse, 7:24, in which the Egyptians have to dig holes away from the Nile in order to find water. In its canonical form, this sentence makes little sense, as even distant from the Nile there will be no water, only blood. But in the context of the J story, it is perfectly sensible. Who performs the miracle? In J, it is Moses alone, with his rod; in P, it is Aaron, acting on Moses’s instructions (given to him by God, of course). This solves one of the more difficult parts of the canonical story: the question of why Moses should be told to bring his rod along when he goes to Pharaoh, if in fact Aaron then goes ahead and uses his own staff. How is the miracle brought about? By striking the water, or by holding a staff over the water? In J, it is by striking; in P, it is by holding. In the canonical text, it is apparently by both: Moses says that he will strike the water with his rod (7:17), but in P Aaron is instructed to “hold your arm over the waters of Egypt” (7:19). Are there magicians? In J, the answer is no; in P, it is yes—at least until the magicians are unable to conjure the same sorts of tricks themselves.

There are more major issues, however. In the J narrative, there is a confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses goes to Pharaoh and speaks to him, in an attempt to convince the king to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh, however, is stubborn—he is unmoved by the plague. In the P narrative, there is no dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh. Throughout the P story, neither Moses nor Aaron nor Pharaoh ever speaks. Only God speaks, and only to instruct Moses and Aaron. In other words, there is no attempt to convince Pharaoh with words in the P story, nor is Pharaoh given any opportunity to express his opinion on the matter.

This observation goes to the very heart of the matter: what is the purpose of the plagues? In J, they are truly plagues: divine miracles that punish the Egyptians, with the intent of convincing Pharaoh to change his mind and let the Israelites go. Thus between each plague there is a passage of time, in which Pharaoh can feel the effects of the preceding plague and decide whether he can stand another. Moses goes to Pharaoh and tells him about each plague beforehand, to give the king a chance to avert it. Moses often speaks to Pharaoh afterward; all of the scenes where Pharaoh relents somewhat before becoming angry and stubborn again are from J. In J, Pharaoh really does let the people go, eventually. This is the point of the plagues, as God says to Moses: “You shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, manifested himself to us. Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God.’ Yet I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of a greater might. So I will stretch out my hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them; after that he shall let you go” (Exod 3:18–20).

In P, however, none of this is the case. Moses does not announce the plagues; Pharaoh cannot avert them. He is given no opportunity to decide whether he can stand another. In fact, in P, virtually all of the plagues happen in a single day, in a single session of Moses and Aaron standing before Pharaoh. There is no significant passage of time: it is one divine punch after another. (The exception is the plague of darkness, which lasts three days—because darkness for a moment is hardly rare or a hardship, nor is it a sure sign of divine power.) And this is because the object of the plagues is not to convince Pharaoh to let the people go. It is to punish him, and his people, for their treatment of the Israelites. It is to demonstrate God’s supreme power, nothing else. And thus it is in P that Pharaoh is not stubborn of his own free will; rather, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart precisely so that God can pile up the plagues—which, in P, are not called plagues at all, but, more accurately, signs and wonders. P’s statement introducing the plagues lays this out clearly: “The Lord replied to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and deliver my ranks, my people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst” (7:1–5).

The P narrative in particular raises a thorny moral dilemma for the reader of the plagues narrative: can we celebrate Pharaoh’s downfall, the destruction of his land and people, if he did not have free will to prevent or allow it? In J, we are allowed to enjoy ourselves: Pharaoh makes his own mistakes, and we can agree that he deserves everything he gets. There is even an element of comedy: the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh are all about how the Israelites have to go sacrifice to Yahweh in the wilderness, after which they promise to return. We know, however, that this is a ruse: the Israelites are not planning to return, nor are they planning to go sacrifice. Moses is simply trying to get Pharaoh to let the people go, young and old, with all of their possessions: “we won’t know what we are supposed to worship Yahweh with until we get there,” says Moses (Exod 10:26). The reader can laugh at how completely Moses tricks Pharaoh, much as we enjoy Jacob’s trickery in Genesis. But in P—and therefore in the canonical (presentation of the composite from the three sources) story too, which contains the repeated refrain of “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart”—there is nothing to celebrate. That the Israelites will eventually leave is known from the beginning; the plagues, in fact, have nothing at all to do with it. They are a display of divine power, pure punishment. They border on petty.

The plagues are one of the aspects of the Exodus story that has been most subject to attempts at identifying some historical kernel, or, more accurately, some naturalistic explanation. It has been noted that some of the plagues have an authentically Egyptian flavor: swarms of locusts, for example, are a documented ancient Egyptian nuisance. It is suggested that the waters turning to blood could be explained by a rare red algae bloom that gives the Nile the occasional appearance of redness; darkness could be a solar eclipse, etc. Recently, some have claimed that almost the entire sequence of plagues could be explained as a result of climate change.

These sorts of naturalistic claims may help explain the traditional origins of the particular plagues recounted—it is possible that a momentary redness in the Nile could stand behind the idea that the river might turn to blood—but it hardly does justice to the biblical story itself. The story of the plagues is one of divine miracles, not of natural phenomena. The meaning of the story is entirely dependent on these signs and wonders and plagues being sent by God, either to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go or to punish him for having enslaved them. The reader, like Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and even like the Israelites themselves, is supposed to understand from these wondrous happenings that God is at work on behalf of Israel. “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might” (Exod 6:1). It is the greater might of God that is the constant throughout the plagues cycle. To remove that aspect in favor of a naturalistic explanation is to miss the point of the story entirely.

Basic Reading:

Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” 743-73.

Childs, The Book of Exodus, 121-77.

Further Reading:

Moshe Greenberg, Understanding Exodus (New York: Behrman, 1969), 151-92.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What are the major differences between the J and P plagues narratives?
  2. What is the purpose of the plagues, for J, for P, and for the canonical text?
  3. How should we think about the moral question regarding Pharaoh’s free will?
  4. Why are naturalistic explanations of the plagues misguided?



Yale Bible Study


IV. Exodus 12-13: The Passover

The plagues narrative comes to its climax in Exodus 11–13 with the final plague, the death of the Egyptian first-born, and with the subsequent departure of the Israelites from Egypt. The bulk of these chapters are taken up with the detailed instructions for the Passover festival, the first festival legislated in the Pentateuch and still among the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar.

Again we have to reckon with multiple accounts of these final moments for the Israelites in Egypt. And again, neither J nor P tells the complete narrative as we have come to know it. The J narrative has Moses tell Pharaoh, as usual, that the plague is coming: “Thus says the Lord: Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians, and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die” (Exod 11:4–5). But Moses also announces, in advance, that the Israelites will be unaffected: “Not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at man or beast, in order that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (11:7). In J, therefore, there is no need for the famous blood on the lintel to distinguish the Israelites from the Egyptians: God is capable of distinguishing them without such a sign. This is largely because according to J the Israelites live separately from the Egyptians: the Israelites reside in the distinct territory of Goshen, as they have since the time of Joseph.

The death of the first-born

After the plague, Moses tells Pharaoh, all of Egypt will demand that we leave. And so it comes to pass: in the middle of that night God strikes the first-born of Egypt, and Pharaoh and his people urge the Israelites to leave at once. Finally given the opportunity they had been waiting for since the beginning of the plagues narrative, the Israelites gather all of their possessions hurriedly, including their unleavened dough. They escape under the cover of night, in case Pharaoh might change his mind as he had done so many times before.

In the P story, again as usual, there is no advance warning of the death of the first-born for Pharaoh or the Egyptians. Rather, God tells Moses and Aaron to instruct the Israelites to slaughter a lamb and put its blood on the lintels of their houses so that when God goes through Egypt he knows which houses are Israelite and which are Egyptian. This conforms to P’s notion of where the Israelites live: according to P, they do not live apart from the Egyptians, but rather intermingled with them. The Israelites do just as God commands them, and once God has laid this final punishment upon the Egyptians, the Israelites depart.

For many readers, the death of the first-born is a difficult climax to the plagues story. Whether Pharaoh was stubborn or had no free will, whether it is presented as necessary for the release of Israel or not, this plague inevitably entails the deaths of the innocent, particularly of innocent children. For those readers who have suffered the loss of a child, it is nearly impossible to celebrate this as a moment of triumph. Rarely does God’s work on behalf of the Israelites create such a moral conundrum—though we may also point to the divine command to Joshua to slaughter every man, woman, child, and animal during the conquest of Canaan. Today we have a sense of children as inherently innocent; it is unclear, however, whether such a notion was present in ancient Israel, or, to put it differently, whether this is a concept that the God of the Hebrew Bible ever takes into consideration. Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter, the generation of the Flood—there are plenty of examples. Perhaps the best we can say is that this is indeed a moment of sadness: sadness that the evil of the Egyptians was such that this plague was the only way to make Pharaoh and his people understand what they had done, and to let Israel go. It is a cold comfort.

The Passover

As we turn to the Passover proper, a brief word is needed about the term “Passover” itself. This is the common translation of the Hebrew word pesakh, which is both the name of the festival and, as in English, the word for what God does with regard to the Israelites. Yet it is basically agreed in scholarship that the word does not mean “pass over,” as it appears in virtually all translations. It means, rather “protect”: “when I see the blood I will protect you so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exod 12:13).

Now to the festival itself. There are in fact three distinct elements at play in Exodus 12, where the Passover festival is introduced and described, though all of them come from the same priestly school (if not the same priestly hand).  The first is the set of instructions for the Israelites at this particular historical moment, in the land of Egypt: in other words, the first Passover, described in Exod 12:1–13, 21–23. Within the context of the narrative, these instructions are the only thing that is really important. This is what the Israelites must do in order to avoid having their first-born die along with those of the Egyptians: slaughter a lamb and eat it, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This part of God’s speech does not mention any future recurrence of such a meal; it is purely focused on the narrative present.

The second element here is, naturally enough, the broadening of this historical event to a regular part of the Israelite festival calendar. This occurs later in the chapter, in Exod 12:24–27 and 42–49: “”You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and your descendants” (12:24). In these verses we are told that the practice of slaughtering and eating the lamb will occur annually, on this same day, and we learn who may and must and must not eat it, be it a native Israelite or a resident alien or a slave or a hired laborer. Included in this section is the famous injunction to explain this ritual to one’s children: “When your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he protected the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians but saved our houses’” (12:26–27). This statement, and its parallels elsewhere in Exodus and Deuteronomy, form the primary motivation for the Jewish custom of telling the Exodus story every year on Passover. It is also a reminder that it is through telling a story, rather than through proving historical veracity somehow, that meaning and values are to be communicated.

Unleavened Bread

The third element of Exodus 12 is one that seemingly has little connection to the narrative, but which we cannot today consider Passover without: the week of eating only unleavened bread. This feature is mentioned exclusively in (Exod 12:114–20); nowhere else in the chapter is it suggested that the Israelites cannot eat leaven for a week after the celebration of the Passover night. And, conversely and strikingly, nowhere in the verses that give instructions regarding unleavened bread is there any mention of the Passover event, sacrifice, or celebration. Indeed, what is described here seems to be an entirely separate festival, one that is called the “Feast of Unleavened Bread”—a name that appears, independently of any mention of Passover, also in the brief festival calendars in Exod 23:15 and 34:18. This festival lasts seven days, with the first and last being particularly sacred.

The relationship of Passover—a single night, and a sacrifice—to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which lasts for a week and entails mostly a dietary restriction, is not entirely obvious. It is clear, even from Exodus 12 alone, that they were originally separate religious celebrations. The Feast of Unleavened Bread appears in lists of older agricultural festivals (along with Sukkot, “Booths,” and Shavuot, “Weeks,” the fall and spring harvest festivals, respectively), and it is generally understood that it too was originally tied to the agricultural calendar, and was unrelated to the historical narrative of the exodus from Egypt. Along with the festivals of Sukkot and Shavuot, the Feast of Unleavened Bread was a pilgrimage festival, in which the Israelites were expected to go to the sanctuary to offer sacrifices and celebrate as a community.

In contrast, the Passover sacrifice does not appear in any of the oldest lists of Israelite festivals, and certainly not pilgrimage festivals. It is unclear whether it too has an origin independent of the exodus narrative—if so, we cannot reconstruct what its original function may have been, though given the title, properly “protection,” we might surmise that it had to do with an annual request for God to keep watch over his people. But we know it exclusively as tied to the departure from Egypt, celebrating that historical moment in Israel’s past.

The combination of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread happens here in Exodus 12 and also, separately, in Deuteronomy 16, and it is safe to say that neither is prescribing the combination for the first time, but that both are rather reflecting a combination that was effected in the Israelite community in practice. This sort of conflation of seasonal and historical celebrations, and more specifically the shift from season to historical celebrations, is a common feature of religious events, in both Judaism and Christianity. The festival of Shavuot, originally the spring harvest, came in Judaism to celebrate the giving of the law at Sinai; the festival of Sukkot, originally the fall harvest, came to be associated with the journey through the wilderness. Christmas, of course, combines the birth of Jesus with the winter solstice. And so on. In practice, then, the one-night celebration of Passover, recalling that one night in Egypt, is aligned with the first day of the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread, giving us the week-long Passover that is still celebrated to this day.

Despoiling the Egyptians

Among the deaths of the first-born and the instructions for the Passover and Feast of Unleavened bread are two brief references to a seemingly odd aspect of the narrative. Before the final plague, God tells Moses to instruct the people to borrow some silver and gold from their Egyptian neighbors (Exod 11:2–3). And, we are told, the people did so (12:35–36). How does this stripping of the Egyptians fit into the rest of the narrative? In the J story, the Israelites and the Egyptians aren’t neighbors; they live apart and have no contact with each other, especially during the plagues cycle. In the P story, there is no interaction between the Israelites and the Egyptians, nor even between Moses and Pharaoh. What we have here, then, is part of the E story, which has been largely silent during the preceding few chapters. But this taking of gold and silver from the Egyptians is an important element in the larger E narrative; for it is from these precious metals that the Israelites will go on to create the calf in Exodus 32, a story that occurs only in E.

A mixed multitude

Near the end of Exodus 12, as the text relates the actual departure from Egypt, we are told that the Israelites number around six hundred thousand men, not counting children, a number which is usually extrapolated to about two million people total (including both women and children). We are also told that a “mixed multitude” went up with them. The precise meaning of this phrase is disputed, though groups of non-Israelites who were also under Egyptian bondage may well be intended. What might underlie this enigmatic phrase is the historical recognition that ancient Israel was not an ethnically monolithic society. Rather, it was a patchwork of various peoples, some inhabiting their own isolated territories within Israel, some intermingled with the Israelites. In the historical memory of Israel, it had always been thus; and so if Israelite history was to be traced back to the entire nation emerging from Egypt, it would make sense for them to imagine that the ethnic diversity they saw around them would have also originated from there.

The death of the first-born and the departure from Egypt appear to be the high point of the plot: finally the enslavement that sparked the narrative back in Exodus 1 has ended, and the Israelites are on their way to the promised land, led by their God. Yet there is much more to come: the exodus is not truly underway until the Israelites have escaped from the Egyptians one final time, at the sea in Exodus 14–15; and the Israelites have not established their true relationship with God until the theophany and law-giving at Sinai. The Passover is a central historical moment, but it is not the end of the story.

Christian tradition

The Passover takes on new significance in Christian tradition, because of its association with the death of Jesus. The Last Supper of Jesus was a Passover meal, on the night before he died, and his death was interpreted as the counterpart of the sacrifice of the paschal lamb.

Basic Reading:

Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” 774-84.

Childs, The Book of Exodus, 178-214.

Further Reading:

B. Bokser, The Origin of the Seder (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1984)

A. J. Saldarini, Jesus and Passover (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist, 1984).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How do we deal with the morality of God killing all the Egyptian first-born?
  2. What is the relationship of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread?
  3. How does the text transform a one-time event into an annual occurrence?
  4. What is the importance of the repeated instruction to tell the Exodus story to one’s children?



Yale Bible Study


V. Exodus 14-15: The Crossing of the Sea

The story of the exodus reaches its narrative climax in the episode of the crossing of the sea. According to Exodus 13:17-18 (usually ascribed to E), when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was shorter, but by a roundabout way in the desert, toward a body of water that is known in Hebrew as yam sup. The conventional translation, “Red Sea,” derives from the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, which was then adopted by the Latin Vulgate. In modern terms, the Red Sea is the body of water between Africa and the Arabian peninsula, ranging in width from 100 to 175 miles, which splits at its northern end into two gulfs, the Gulf of Suez (20-30 miles wide) between Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gulf of Aqaba (east of the Sinai peninsula, 10-20 miles wide). The Hebrew expression yam sup is used several times in the Bible to refer to the Gulf of Aqaba (for example, in 1 Kgs 9:26 it is said to be in the land of Edom) and may refer to the Gulf of Suez on a few occasions (for example, in Exod 10:19, where God drives the locusts from Egypt into the yam sup). The Hebrew word sup, however, does not literally mean “red” but “reed,” and some scholars have suggested that in the story of the exodus the yam sup was not a great sea but a reedy marsh or lake. The main route from Egypt to Canaan is called “the way of the land of the Philistines” anachronistically in Exodus 13, since the Philistines moved into the area only around the same time as the emergence of Israel. It is easy enough to see why fugitives would avoid this route, because of the presence of Egyptian patrols and border guards. It is difficult, however, to see why they would go toward the Gulf of Suez, still less the Gulf of Aqaba. For this reason, many people have found the suggestion of “the Sea of Reeds” attractive. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the sea of the exodus seems to be distinguished from the yam sup in Num 33:8-10 (in which the Israelites reach the yam sup after Exodus 15, rather than before).

 The hymn in Exodus 15

The prose account of the crossing of the sea in Exodus 14 does not identify the sea in question. In 15:4, however, we are told that Pharaoh’s officers were sunk in the yam sup. Exodus 15:1-18 is a hymn, which is generally believed to contain some of the oldest poetry in the Bible, and to be older than the J and E sources. (The argument is based on the use of archaic expressions, and similarity to Ugaritic poetry.) A summary form of the hymn is attributed to Moses’ sister Miriam in 15:21. The hymn was evidently known in more than one form.

The hymn does not actually speak of people crossing through the sea, and makes no mention of dry land. In fact, Israel is not mentioned at all in the verses that deal with the conflict between Yahweh and Pharaoh. The central theme is how Yahweh, the Lord, cast Pharaoh and his army into the depths of the sea. It is important to remember, however, that this is a hymn, not a ballad, and that its purpose is to praise God, not to describe an historical event.    The poem’s ill fit with its narrative context is most evident in its second half, where it describes how God led the Israelites to his holy dwelling, planted them in his mountain sanctuary. Clearly at this point Moses could not be describing what had just occurred.

The imagery of sinking in water is used elsewhere in Hebrew poetry as a metaphor for a situation of distress. In Psalm 69 the psalmist prays:

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.

I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold

I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me.

As the psalm goes on, however, it becomes clear that drowning is not the problem at all. Rather:

More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me, my enemies who accuse me falsely.

Similarly, a psalm found in Jonah 2 says: “The waters closed in over me; weeds [Hebrew sup!] were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.” (Jonah is supposedly in the belly of the whale, but the psalm, like that in Exodus 15, was not composed for that context.) In these cases, sinking in the depths is not a description of a physical condition, but simply a metaphor for distress. By analogy, we might suppose that the hymn in Exodus 15 is simply celebrating the defeat of Pharaoh. To say that he and his army sank in the depths like a stone is a metaphorical way of saying that they were completely defeated and destroyed. We do not actually know what defeat of Pharaoh was originally in question, or whether the hymn was composed to celebrate the exodus. It may have been a celebration of the withdrawal of Egypt from Canaan, or it may have had a specific battle in mind. It is poetic language, and it does not lend itself to the reconstruction of historical events. 

The Yahwist account

The biblical prose writers, however, wanted to describe the overthrow of Pharaoh in more concrete, specific terms. The most familiar part of Exodus 14, where Moses stretches his hand over the sea, is from the Priestly source, but a complete J account can also be reconstructed. The J account reads as follows:

14:5. When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” 6. So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; 7. he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. 10. As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them, and they were in great fear. 11. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” 13. But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

19. The angel of the Lord who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. 21. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land. 24 At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25. He clogged their chariot wheels, so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” 27. And at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 30. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

Here again we are not told that the Israelites crossed the sea. We are left with the impression of a tidal wave, which returned and engulfed the Egyptians. One can imagine how this account might have been inferred from the poetry of Exodus 15. The Yahwist adds a few distinctive touches, such as the role of the pillar of fire and cloud.

The Priestly account

The Priestly account adds further embellishment to the story. Moses is told to stretch out his hand over the sea so that the waters are divided (cf. Gen 1:6-10, where God separates the waters, and gathers the waters under the sky in one place, so that dry land appears). The Israelites pass through, but then Moses again stretches out his hand and causes the waters to return on the pursuing Egyptians. This vivid account is the culmination of a long process. It should not be viewed as an historical memory but as one of a series of imaginative attempts to give concrete expression to the belief that Yahweh had rescued his people and overthrown the Egyptians.

The sea imagery continues to exercise a powerful effect on the religious imagination of ancient Israel. As we saw in chapter one, other ancient Near Eastern peoples had stories of combat between a god and the sea, or a sea monster. The Ugaritic myth of Baal and Yamm is the one closest to the context of Israel. The battle between Marduk and Tiamat in the Babylonian Enuma Elish is also relevant. In the biblical psalms, too, we often find that Yahweh is said to do battle with the sea. In Psalm 114 we are told that the sea looked and fled before the Lord. Psalm 77 also says that the waters were afraid, in view of the thunder and lightning of the Lord, as he led his people. One of the most vivid passages is found in Isa 51:9-11, where the prophet asks: “Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” Rahab and the dragon were sea monsters, supposedly defeated and slain by Yahweh in the process of creation (although this story is never narrated in the Bible). The exodus, in the view of the prophet, was an event of the same type. It would not be too much to say that the exodus was the creation myth of Israel, and that the sea imagery provided a powerful way to give expression to its mythic character. Just as the ancient Near Eastern myths provided paradigms, through which various events could be viewed and endowed with meaning, so the exodus became the paradigm for understanding later events in the history of Israel. We shall find that the prophets imagined a new exodus, as a way in which Israel might start over, and renew its relationship with its God. This motif becomes especially important after the Babylonian exile, either in the form of return from exile or of a final, eschatological deliverance.

A warrior God

One other theme in the accounts of the episode at the sea requires comment. The hymn in Exodus 15 declares: “Yahweh is a warrior, Yahweh is his name!” The idea that gods are warriors was a common one in the ancient Near East. A major reason why the early Israelites worshiped Yahweh was that they believed that he was a powerful warrior, who could help them defeat their enemies (or simply defeat them on their behalf). Implicit in this image of God is an agonistic view of life, as an arena of constant conflict between competing forces. The book of Exodus makes no pretense that we should love our enemies. This view of God and of life was qualified in the later tradition to a considerable extent, but it has never been fully disavowed. It persists in the last book of the Christian Bible, the book of Revelation, where Jesus comes as a warrior from heaven to kill the wicked with the sword of his mouth (Revelation 19). Some people in the modern world may find the violence of such imagery repellent, but its power cannot be denied. In the context of the exodus, it is the power of God as warrior that gives hope to people in slavery, and has continued to give hope to people suffering oppression down through the centuries. Warrior-gods were also thought to act on behalf of the powerful, and in that case the imagery can support an oppressive view of the world. In Exodus, however, the warrior God is on the side of the weak, and this imagery has continued to inspire and support liberation movements down to modern times.


In the end, very little can be said about the exodus as history. It is likely that some historical memory underlies the story, but the narrative as we have it is full of legendary details and lacks supporting evidence from archeology or from nonbiblical sources. The story of the crossing of the sea seems to have arisen from attempts to fill out the allusions in the hymn preserved in Exodus 15. That hymn celebrates some defeat of a Pharaoh, but the references to drowning are poetic, and cannot be pressed for historical information.

Regardless of its historical origin, however, the exodus story became the founding myth of Israel (especially in the northern kingdom) and of later Judaism. It is more important than any other biblical story for establishing Israelite and Jewish identity. It is repeatedly invoked as a point of reference in the Prophets, later in the Writings, and in the New Testament. It has served as a paradigm of liberation for numerous movements throughout Western history, from the Puritans to Latin America. It can fairly be regarded as one of the most influential, and greatest, stories in world literature.

Basic Reading:

Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” 790-809.

Childs, Exodus, 215-53.

Further Reading:

J. S. Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch (New Haven: Yale, 2012) 193-213.

B. Batto, Slaying the Dragon (Louisville: Westminster, 1992) 102–52.

F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973) 112–44.

T. B. Dozeman, God at War: Power in the Exodus Tradition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What exactly is described in the poetry of Exodus 15?
  2. What different accounts of the crossing of the sea are combined in Exodus 14?
  3. What can be said about the literary genre of these chapters?
  4. What is the symbolic significance of the sea in biblical tradition?
  5. How do we now appropriate the idea that God is a warrior?



Yale Bible Study


VI. Exodus 19-20, 24: Sinai

 From the sea, the Israelites proceed to Mt. Sinai. We have already seen that the location of this mountain is quite uncertain. Traditionally, it has been located in the south of the Sinai Peninsula, but some passages seem to locate it east of the Gulf of Aqaba, in Midian. Several old poetic passages speak of Yahweh as a divine warrior who marches from Sinai, or somewhere to the south of Israel, without reference to the exodus from Egypt. So, for example, we read in Deuteronomy 33:

The Lord came from Sinai and dawned from Seir on us

Or again in Judges 5:

Lord when you went out from Seir

when you marched from the region of Edom . . .

The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai,

Before the Lord, the God of Israel.

It is likely that the tradition of the revelation at Sinai was originally independent of the story of the Exodus. As the book of Exodus stands, however, the two are integrally related, and culminate in the giving of the law. The complex of exodus, revelation at Sinai and the law are key ingredients in the covenant between Yahweh and Israel that is one of the central concepts in the Hebrew Bible.


In the last half century or so, it has been widely accepted that the covenant between God and Israel was modeled on the treaties that ancient empires made with their vassals, or subject peoples. We have such treaties from the Hittites, who lived in modern Turkey, from the late second millennium BCE, and from the Assyrians in the 8th-7th centuries. At the heart of these treaties were stipulations, or laws. If the subject peoples abided by these stipulations all would be well. If not, dire consequences would follow. The consequences of the treaties were spelled out in curses and blessings. Curses were especially prominent in Assyrian treaties. The Hittite treaties typically had historical prologues that recounted the course of events that led up to the making of the treaty. This historical retrospective might inspire fear of the might demonstrated by the Hittite armies, or gratitude for their willingness to make a treaty at all. Most of the elements of the treaty form can be found in the Bible, especially in the book of Deuteronomy. While the biblical covenant resembles the Hittite treaties in its recollection of history, most scholars agree that the closest parallels are between the Assyrian treaties and Deuteronomy. The relevance of the treaty model to Exodus is less clear, in part because different sources are woven together in the account of the revelation on Mt. Sinai. The Yahwist source does not involve the giving of laws at Sinai at all. There are no curses or blessings attendant on the covenant. The recollection of history is minimal, specifying only that God brought Israel up from the land of Egypt. In the composite text of Exodus, the scene for the giving of the law is set, not by historical recollection, but by the revelation of Yahweh in cloud and thunder on the mountain.

Exodus 19 is clearly composite. Even a cursory reading of the text shows that Moses spends an undue amount of time going up and down the mountain. It begins with the announcement of a covenant (19:5), but then proceeds to have a notably cultic character. Much of what follows has to do with setting limits for the people. They are not to touch the mountain or go near a woman. Moses assumes the role of mediator, but at the end he is invited to bring up his brother Aaron, the priest. This is no eyewitness account of events at Sinai, but a narrative about how people should behave in the presence of the divine that is constructed on the basis of cultic experience.

The most salient difference between the various sources in the Sinai narrative has to do with the rationale and purpose for the revelation (the fact of a revelation at a mountain being about the only aspect that they all agree on). In P, no laws are given to Moses atop Sinai; God descends in the partially obscured view of the people, Moses goes up, and what he receives is nothing more than the blueprint for Yahweh’s new earthly dwelling, the Tabernacle (the construction of which is described in excruciating detail in Exodus 25-31 and 35-40). In the view of the priestly authors, all law-giving took place from the Tabernacle, not from the mountain.

For J, the theophany is (as it was in Exodus 3 as well) a visual one: the people are to witness the descent of Yahweh onto the mountain. But that is the extent of it: “On the third day, the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people on Mount Sinai” (19:11). This theophany is in response to the repeated doubts of the Israelites regarding Yahweh’s protective presence, which culminate in the last J passage before Exodus 19, where the people ask outright, “Is Yahweh in our midst or not?” (17:7). The revelation at Sinai is the answer to that question.

The intention of the E revelation is stated clearly: “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you, and so trust you forever” (19:9). The reason for God’s appearance to the people is not so that they can see him, as in J, but so that they can hear him. When the Israelites hear God speaking to Moses, they will believe, forever thereafter, when Moses reports God’s words to them (which is precisely what happens: see 20:18–19). This is a moment of prophetic authorization first and foremost, and it paves the way for the laws that are delivered in chapters 21–23, the Covenant Code. It is these laws that are alluded to in the mention of covenant in 19:5, and it is these laws that are sealed by a second covenantal passage in Exodus 24.

Here again there are manifold signs of different hands; witness how often Moses is said to ascend the mountain. The description of the glory (Hebrew kabod) of YHWH in vv. 16-18a is usually assigned to the P source. Verses 9-11, however, which say that seventy elders, as well as Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, went up on the mountain and saw the God of Israel, is an old tradition. It is remarkable for its blunt statement that “they saw the God of Israel” and yet lived. The usual biblical position is that humans cannot see God and live, but there are several notable exceptions in the prophetic literature (Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1; the story of Micaiah ben Imlah in 1 Kings 22). All these texts, including Exodus 24, are important for the later development of Jewish mysticism.

The central text of the chapter is vv. 3-8, where the covenant was sealed with a sacrifice. The blood of the covenant, splashed on the people and on the altar, signifies that the people are joined to God in a solemn agreement. The idea of the blood of the covenant becomes important in the New Testament in connection with the interpretation of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice.

The Decalogue

The Ten Commandments as found in Exodus 20 are usually attributed to the E source of the Pentateuch. The closest parallel to Exodus 20 is found in Deut 5:6-21 (which is dependent on Exodus 20). Other lists of commandments that partially overlap the Decalogue are found in Lev 19:1-18 and Deut 27:15-26. The requirements of the covenant are said to be “ten words” in Exod 34:27-28; Deut 4:13; 10:4. In fact, there is some variation in the way that the commandments are counted. Jewish tradition distinguishes five positive commandments (down to honoring parents) and five negative. Christian tradition generally distinguishes between obligations to God and obligations to one’s neighbor. In some Christian traditions (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) the obligations to God are counted as three. (The prohibition of idolatry is subsumed under the first commandment). A distinction is made between coveting one’s neighbor’s wife and coveting other property. The Reformed tradition groups the commandments as four and six, distinguishing the prohibition of idolatry and regarding the prohibition of coveting as a single commandment. This division of the commandments seems to be most in line with the text of Exodus.

The first four commandments, then, deal with Israel’s obligations to Yahweh. The first forbids the worship of any other gods. This is not yet monotheism: the existence of other gods is not denied. (The biblical demand that only one god be worshiped is sometimes called henotheism.) Around the time of the Babylonian exile we shall find stronger assertions that YHWH is the only true God, in the prophet we call Second Isaiah, but strict monotheism is developed only in the Hellenistic period, under the influence of Greek philosophy. The prohibition is directly analogous to the requirement in the treaty texts that the vassals serve no other overlord. The restriction of worship to one god was exceptional in the ancient world.

The rejection of all gods except YHWH was a revolutionary move, all the more so because it forbade the worship of any goddess in Israel. Historically, it served to distinguish Israel most immediately from its Canaanite neighbors. It is clear from the Bible that this distinction was not easy to maintain. Other deities besides YHWH were in fact worshiped in ancient Israel. The prophets and Deuteronomistic History repeatedly condemn the Israelites for worshiping Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility. The biblical texts usually imply that there was a clear choice between Baal and Yahweh, but in fact many people may have seen no problem in worshiping both. Moreover, we now know from inscriptions that the well-known Canaanite goddess Asherah was worshiped in Judah in connection with YHWH. The word “asherah”is used some 40 times in the Bible in reference to a wooden image of some kind, a pole or tree, The wooden image was a symbol of the goddess Asherah. We also know that a goddess called Anat-Yahu (YHWH’s Anat) was venerated by a Jewish community in Elephantine in southern Egypt in the fifth century b.c.e. There can be little doubt that these Jews preserved a cult that they had already practiced in the land of Israel before they migrated to Egypt.

In light of this evidence, there is some doubt as to whether the demand that Israel worship only Yahweh really goes back to the beginning of Israel in the time of Moses. The prophets in the ninth and eighth centuries who demanded the worship of YHWH alone seem to have been a minority.

Neither is there any hard evidence for the date of the second commandment, which forbids the making of idols or images. This commandment complements the previous one, since images played an essential part in the worship of pagan deities. Worshipers in the ancient world did not think that the image was actually a god or goddess, although biblical writers often caricature them in this way (see especially Isa 44:9-20). Rather, as was usual in the ancient Near East, the statue was where the god manifested his presence. In the cult in Jerusalem in the period of the kingdoms there were statues of cherubim, the mythical creatures of Near Eastern art, part human, part animal, part bird. Yahweh was thought to be enthroned above the cherubim. Neither Israelite nor Judahite religion completely renounced the making of images. At some point, the making of images of other deities was forbidden, and we have no evidence that Yahweh was ever represented by images or statues. Later, the commandment is even extended metaphorically to exclude overly specific interpretations of the divine being.

Exod 20: 5-6 reinforces the prohibition of images: “for I the Lord am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” The jealousy of Yahweh is a recurring motif in the Hebrew Bible. The idea that God might punish children for the sins of their parents would later be called into question by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 18).

The third commandment, prohibiting wrongful use of YHWH’s name, refers especially to false or frivolous oaths, considered as an affront to the Deity. It did not originally intend to outlaw any non-liturgical mention of God’s name.

The fourth commandment requires observance of the Sabbath day. The name is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning “to rest.” The weekly day of rest would become a distinctive characteristic of Judaism, and a subject of mockery among some pagans in antiquity, who thought it a sign of laziness. The origin of the custom is unknown. In ancient Babylon, the Akkadian word shappatu designated the middle day of the month, the festival of the full moon. The Sabbath is associated with the festival of the new moon in Amos 8:5 and Isa 1:13. It may be that the Sabbath was originally linked to the waxing and waning of the moon, but in the Bible it is independent of the lunar calendar. The rationale given for the observance of the Sabbath in Exodus 20 is a later insertion into the Decalogue in light of the Priestly source and links it to the account of creation in Genesis 1.

The remaining commandments concern relations in human society. All societies have laws governing such matters as these. The Bible is distinctive only in the solemnity with which they are proclaimed.

The command to honor father and mother is a staple element of Near Eastern wisdom literature, as can be seen in Proverbs and Ben Sira.

The sixth commandment is usually translated “you shall not kill,” but it is clear from the following chapters that a blanket prohibition on all forms of killing is not intended. The Hebrew verb ratsach is often used for murder, but also sometimes for unintentional killing. The effect of this law is not to prevent all killing, but to regulate the taking of life and to make it subject to community control.

The prohibition of adultery is concerned with violations of marriage; it does not encompass other kinds of fornication, and is distinguished from them elsewhere in biblical law. One should keep in mind that polygamy was permitted in ancient Israel (Solomon was the most famous practitioner). Either men or women could be guilty of adultery, but the man offended against the husband of his partner in sin, while the woman offended against her own husband.

The commandment against stealing does not offer any specification of what is stolen. Some scholars have argued that it was originally concerned with stealing persons (kidnapping), but the commandment as it stands is more general.

The importance of truth in witnessing is illustrated by those cases where someone is put to death on the basis of false witness (e.g., the story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21). Later laws warn that no one should be put to death on the word of just one witness (Num 35:30; Deut 19:15).

Finally, the tenth commandment supplements the injunctions against adultery and stealing by forbidding even the coveting of another’s goods. The most notable aspect of this commandment is surely the inclusion of the neighbor’s wife along with his slaves and his ox and donkey. We need not conclude from this that adultery was considered only a property offense. It was also regarded as shameful, and an offense against God. But there is no doubt that it was also regarded as a property offense.

Basic Reading:

Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” 830-53.

Childs, Exodus, 339-439.

Further Reading:

T. B. Dozeman, God on the Mountain (SBLMS 37; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).

J. D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Winston, 1985) 15–86.

W. Harrelson, The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Macon, Ga.: Macon Univ. Press, 1997).

B. D. Sommer, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (New Haven: Yale, 2014).

P. D. Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster, 2009)

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How do the Israelites encounter God on Mount Sinai?
  2. Do the people receive the revelation directly from God, or is it always mediated by human interpreters?
  3. Is Exodus clearly monotheistic?
  4. Does the Bible forbid the taking of human life?



Yale Bible Study


VII. Exodus 21-23: The Book of the Covenant

The Decalogue is followed by the so-called Book of the Covenant in chapters 21–23. These two groups of laws are different in kind. The Decalogue is apodictic law: it consists of absolute commandments or (more often) prohibitions, with no conditional qualifications: “you shall not murder, steal,” and so on. The Book of the Covenant, in contrast, is mostly casuistic law, of the type “if x, then y.” There was a long-standing legal tradition in the ancient Near East, reaching back to the end of the third millennium b.c.e. Famous law codes were associated with the names of the Mesopotamian kings Ur-Nammu (twenty-first century b.c.e.), Lipit-Ishtar (twentieth century) and Hammurabi (eighteenth century). These great law codes are made up primarily of casuistic laws. At one time it was thought that apodictic law was distinctively Israelite, but this position cannot be maintained. The apodictic form seems to be well suited to proclamation in a cultic setting. The casuistic law is more indicative of the actual practice of law.

The casuistic laws in the Book of the Covenant qualify the apparent absolute character of the apodictic laws. For example, we are given several cases where killing is permissible, or even commanded, despite the apparent finality of the sixth commandment. It is apparent that these laws were formulated in a settled, agrarian, community; they are not the laws of nomads wandering in the wilderness. We do not know exactly when they were formulated. They are clearly presupposed in Deuteronomy, but could have originated either in the premonarchic tribes or in the early monarchy. Various scholars have argued that these laws should be associated with the setting up of the northern kingdom by Jeroboam I in the late tenth century b.c.e., or with the reform of King Hezekiah of Judah in the late eighth, but such suggestions, however plausible they may seem, are only conjectures.

We cannot comment on all these laws, but can discuss a few illustrative cases. The first issue raised may surprise the reader in the context of the exodus: “when you buy a Hebrew slave. . . .” If Israel had its origin in liberation from slavery, how could buying a Hebrew slave be condoned? But in fact slavery is taken for granted, and remains a problem in varying degrees right through the biblical corpus, including the New Testament (see the Epistle to Philemon). The most common cause of enslavement in the ancient world was debt: people who could not pay their debts were forced to sell their children, or themselves, into slavery. Prisoners taken in battle were also often sold into slavery. From early times, people in the ancient Near East saw the need to set some limits to debt slavery. Babylonian kings traditionally proclaimed an act of “justice” or “equity” at the beginning of their reigns, and at intervals of seven or more years thereafter, remitting debts and causing landholdings to revert to their original owners. We have an example of such a proclamation in the Edict of Ammisaduqa, a king of Babylon in the seventeenth century b.c.e. (ANET, 526-28). It includes a provision for the release of slaves who had sold themselves or their families into slavery. It goes on to state that this does not apply to people who were born in servitude.  The law in Exodus is more systematic, insofar as it is not a one-time liberation at the pleasure of the king, but provides that the service of Hebrew slaves be always limited to six years. No such limit is imposed in the case of foreign slaves. Moreover, if the master gives the slave a wife, she and her children remain the master’s property, and the slave may decline his liberty because of his family ties. The biblical law, then, is only a modest advance over the Near Eastern precedent. Moreover, women who have been sold into slavery are not granted the same right of liberation after six years. They are granted rights, however, and are entitled to their freedom if these rights are denied. These laws on slavery are revised and liberalized somewhat in Deuteronomy 15 (the distinction between men and women is erased), but the institution of slavery is not questioned.

The rights of slaves are again at issue in Exod 21:20. An owner who beats a slave to death is liable to punishment, but only if the slave dies immediately. Here, as in the laws just discussed, there seems to be an attempt to balance the rights of the slave with the interests of the slave owners. The casuistic form of the laws suggests that they resulted from a process of negotiation. There is an evident concern for the rights of slaves and other people who are vulnerable in society, but there are also compromises with the conventions of society. We do not know how far these laws were ever enforced, but they are designed to be realistic and practical in the society of their time; they are not purely idealistic.

In general, the laws of Exodus stand in the legal tradition of the ancient Near East. The classic example is the case of the ox that gores (Exod 21:28). Laws on this subject are found in the codes of Eshnunna (§§53-54) and Hammurabi (§§250-51) in the early second millennium b.c.e. The Mesopotamian codes differ from the biblical one in placing greater emphasis on monetary compensation. The biblical law requires that an ox that kills a person be stoned and its flesh not eaten, as if the action of the animal had made it taboo. If an ox kills another ox, the price of the live ox and the meat of the dead ox must be divided (Exod 21:35). This prescription corresponds exactly to the Code of Eshnunna §53.

Several laws in this collection deal with the consequences of violence. The most famous is undoubtedly that found in Exod 21:22-25. The first part of this law relates to the case where people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that she suffers a miscarriage. This law was later interpreted as prohibiting abortion, but it actually only addresses the accidental killing of the foetus. The Bible is silent on the subject of abortion, although the procedure was certainly known in the ancient world.

The discussion in Exodus goes on to enunciate a general principle: “if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (21:23–25). This law has often been derided for inculcating a spirit of vengefulness. In the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus cites this law as an example of the old order that he is superseding: “But I say to you, Do not resist any evildoer, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt 5:38-39). But Jesus was enunciating a moral ideal; he was not legislating for a community. Taken in context, “an eye for an eye” is not vengefulness, but moderation. The point is that you may not kill someone who knocks out your eye. In the words of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, the object all sublime is to make the punishment fit the crime.

The modern reader cannot fail to be struck by the frequency with which the death penalty is prescribed in these laws. Examples include striking father or mother, or cursing them. It is unlikely that the death penalty was enforced in all these cases, but the laws project a sense of severity. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing at the end of the first century c.e., was proud of this severity, and claimed that it showed the superiority of Jewish law to that of the Greeks. Modern reformers who reject the death penalty find no support here, but this is only one of many examples that could be given of the gulf that divides ancient and modern sensibilities on ethical issues. It is noteworthy, however, that the Bible does not invoke the death penalty for property crimes.

Several other laws require a brief comment. Exodus 22:16 stipulates that if a man seduces a virgin, he must pay the bride-price for her and make her his wife. The woman is not consulted as to her feelings. The issue is primarily an economic one. A woman who has been defiled would not be able to find another husband (compare the story of the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34).

Exodus 22:21 forbids Israelites to oppress a resident alien, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (so also 23:9). The appeal to the experience in Egypt is exceptional in the Book of the Covenant, but is typical of Deuteronomy. The law protecting the poor from their creditors (22:25) is also similar in spirit to Deuteronomy, but there is no reason why such sentiments could not also be found in the older law code. Compare the commands to help the animal of one’s enemy in Exod 23:4-5.

Exodus 22:28, “you shall not revile god,” uses the Hebrew word elohim, which is a plural form, for “God.” The Greek translators rendered it by the plural “gods.” The philosopher Philo of Alexandria, writing in the first half of the first century c.e., inferred from this that Israelites were forbidden to revile the gods of other peoples, lest the Gentiles be incited to revile the God of Israel in return.

One of the most striking commandments is found in Exod 22:29, “the firstborn of your sons you shall give to me.” The context is the need to give thanks to God, by offering the firstfruits, whether of the harvest or of the womb. It is quite clear that sacrifice is involved: “you shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.” In Exod 34:20 this commandment is qualified; the firstborn son must be redeemed by offering something else in his place. This qualification is not found in Exodus 22. It is difficult to believe that any society would systematically require the sacrifice of the firstborn sons, but it may have been proposed as an ideal in early Israel. Abraham does not hesitate to comply with the demand that he sacrifice his only son in Genesis 22. The prophet Micah envisions a person deliberating whether he should offer his firstborn as atonement for his sin (Micah 6:7).

The need to give thanks by giving back to God underlies the cultic regulations in Exodus 23. The Sabbath law is spelled out in 23:12. The motivation that is given is practical: so that people and livestock may be refreshed. Similarly the land is to be allowed to rest every seventh year. The law in Exodus should be interpreted in terms of rotation of fields—not all the land need lie fallow at the same time. Later, however, this law is clearly taken to refer to a general practice in fixed years.

The cultic calendar in 23:14-17 specifies three major feasts. These were occasions when the males were to “appear before the Lord” by going to a sanctuary. The Hebrew word for such a pilgrimage feast is chag, which is related to the Arabic name for the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the haj. The first is the Festival of Unleavened Bread (matsot), which marked the beginning of the barley harvest. The new bread was eaten without leaven, that is, without anything from the harvest of the previous year. It should be noted that this festival was not yet linked with the Passover in the Book of the Covenant. Passover was not a pilgrimage festival, but was celebrated in the home. The second festival is here called the harvest festival, and is related to the wheat harvest. It is later known as the Feast of Weeks. Finally the third festival was that of Tabernacles or Sukkoth in the fall. This was the most important and joyful of the three festivals. In Leviticus it is called simply “the feast of YHWH.” In Exodus 23 it is called the festival of ingathering. This was the celebration when all the produce of the fields had been gathered in, including the grapes that were used to make wine.

This cultic calendar will be developed and modified in later biblical law codes. Here we need note only the preponderantly agricultural character of the festivals. Each of them is an occasion for giving thanks to God after a harvest. This is not the calendar of tribes wandering in the desert, but of an agricultural people, settled in their land.

One final law must be noted, because of its far-reaching effect on later Jewish life: “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (23:19). It is because of this law that Jews do not combine meat and dairy products in the same meal. No reason is given for the prohibition. Some scholars have speculated that it was intended to reject a Canaanite ritual, and a text from Ugarit was thought to lend support to this view, but it is now clear that the text does not refer to cooking a kid at all. The most plausible explanation of the commandment is the intuitive one: to cook a kid in its mother’s milk is unnatural, and violates the life-giving character of mother’s milk. In this case, as in the laws protecting aliens and the poor, the Covenant Code shows a humane spirit that we will find amplified later in Deuteronomy.

Basic Reading:

Brueggemann, “ The Book of Exodus,” 855-75.

Childs, Exodus, 440-96.

Further Reading:

D. Patrick, Old Testament Law (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) 63-96.

R. Westbrook and B. Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel. An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster, 2009).

D. Wright, Inventing God’s Law. How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabbi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is the biblical attitude to slavery?
  2. Why does the Bible appeal so often to the death penalty?
  3. How should we understand the principle, an eye for an eye?
  4. What does the Bible say about abortion?
  5. Can we discern any principles underlying this collection of laws?



Yale Bible Study


VIII. Exodus 32-34: The Golden Calf

With Moses on top of the mountain for forty days and forty nights to receive the inscribed tablets of the Ten Commandments and the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, the Israelites get restless. They confront Aaron, who has been left in charge, and demand that he—presumably in his role as priest—make them a god “who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him” (Exod 32:1). They are feeling the loss of leadership; having previously accepted that Moses would intercede with God for them, they are now rudderless, stranded in the desert. Thus their request is specifically for a god who will lead them—that had been Moses’s job, but he is nowhere to be seen.

The golden calf

Aaron complies: he requests and receives all of the Israelites’ gold earrings—the gold that the Israelites had “borrowed” from their Egyptian neighbors—and melts them down, casting them into a calf-shaped form. The people then exclaim, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4). Aaron announces a festival the next day, and the people bring sacrifices and eat and drink and dance and make merry.

Two significant elements of this famous story are raised right here at the beginning. The first is the strange use of the plural in the people’s exclamation: “These are your gods.” This seems odd in context, but is less so when we recognize it as a reference to 1 Kings 12:28. There we read about Jeroboam, first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel after it had split from Judah in the wake of Solomon’s death, who in order to draw pilgrims away from the ark in Jerusalem built two sanctuaries, one at Dan and one at Bethel, and installed a golden calf in each, saying: “You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough; these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” There the plural makes sense: two sanctuaries, two golden calves. Here in Exodus 32, we are meant to recognize the political commentary in Israel’s apostasy at the mountain: the sin of Jeroboam is akin to the greatest sin in Israel’s history. The first moment of disobedience after Israel has received the law is aligned with the first moment of cultic infidelity after Israel has divided into two nations.

In other words, we must remember that many of the stores in the Bible, if not most, are not only about what is taking place on the level of plot. They interact with a wide frame of ancient contemporary referents, some of which—as in this case—we can identify because we know them from elsewhere. But many such referents must be unidentifiable. Without the text of 1 Kings, would we know that the golden calf story was political-religious commentary on the cult of the northern kingdom? What would we make of the plural “gods”?

What the relationship to the story of Jeroboam also reveals is that the golden calf is not meant to represent any deity other than Yahweh. Jeroboam is not trying to make the Israelites worship another god; he wants them to worship the same god, just in a different place. So too the Israelites in Exodus 32 are not introducing a new god. They say explicitly that the calf represents the god who took them out of Egypt—and that was Yahweh. The festival that they hold the next day is not a festival to Baal, or any other foreign god—it is explicitly a “festival of Yahweh.” The story of the golden calf is commonly misconstrued to be about idolatry, but it is not. It is, rather, about the incorrect worship of Yahweh: the kind of worship that requires a physical shape. Although the text appears to make reference to it, the Israelites are not disobeying the first of the Ten Commandments: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; you shall have no other gods besides me” (Exod 20:2–3). They are, rather, disobeying the first law of the Covenant Code: “You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens; with me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold” (20:22–23).

Apostasy is therefore the wrong term for what takes place in Exodus 32. It is, rather, disobedience of the first law regarding the proper worship of Yahweh. This is precisely how God describes their actions: “They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them” (32:8). That “way” is the Covenant Code, the laws on the basis of which God and Israel made a solemn covenant, sworn in blood. The sign of that covenant, the symbol that would stand before both God and the people to mark their mutually agreed terms (i.e., the laws), is the tablets of the Ten Commandments. And thus Moses’s famous destruction of those very tablets, despite having been inscribed by the finger of God, is a perfectly appropriate response to the people’s sin. They have broken the terms of the treaty—only mere moments after having agreed to it—and thus the tablets he carries are worthless, and might as well be broken themselves.

The figure of the calf in particular has a long history in ancient Israel. In Canaanite religion it was deeply associated with the god Baal—son of El, who was represented as a bull. As the emerging Israelites began the process of separating themselves from their context and finding their own identity, they still could not help but adopt some of the traditions of the culture from which they emerged. Thus, although worship of Yahweh might have been particularly Israelite, the Israelite perception and understanding of Yahweh naturally took on some features of Canaanite religion: in particular, Yahweh has much in common with both El and Baal, including the storm imagery associated with the latter and, it would seem, the calf imagery as well. It is not that Yahweh was confused with Baal, or that the Israelites thought they were worshipping a Canaanite deity. But gods in the ancient world blended into each other more readily than we are usually willing to admit.

Before descending the mountain, Moses has a conversation with God that is of great theological importance. God, seeing the people’s calf, declares his intention to destroy the “stiff-necked” Israelites entirely and make a new nation from Moses. This declaration reveals something of the relationship God envisions between himself and his people: God is not beholden to the Israelites by virtue of any history between them, but only because they have a contract, the covenant; and if the Israelites aren’t going to hold up their end of the deal, then God may as well not have taken them out of Egypt. Moses’s response does not deny the intransigence of the Israelites, but appeals to God’s ego: “Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth’” (Exod 32:12). In other words: God’s reputation is at stake here. Moses then goes on to appeal to God’s promise of land to the patriarchs, and God relents.

This is not the only time in the Pentateuch that God considers destroying the Israelites and starting again with Moses (see Num 14:12, in the episode of the spies—the other low point for the Israelites in the wilderness). The very possibility of such a thing gives some indication of the relative positions of God and the people: the people cannot do without God, but God can always find another people, or start again. The Israelites, it would seem, are not inherently special—God has chosen them not for their own sake but because, by virtue of having taken them out of Egypt, they owe him their obedience. They should be attached to him; he is not attached to them. The only thing that saves Israel from God’s wrath is Moses’s clever appeal to God’s reputation.

And what of Aaron? It was his idea to make the calf; yet when Moses confronts him, he claims that rather than casting the mold himself, he simply threw the gold into the fire and “out came this calf!” (32:24). Somehow this suffices.

The Levites

The confrontation with Aaron is followed by perhaps the strangest episode in the story of the calf. Upon seeing that the Israelites are out of control, Moses asks for assistance in controlling them: “Whoever is for the Lord, come here!” (32:26). It is the Levites who heed Moses’s call, and he proceeds to instruct them to go through the camp killing whomever they encounter: “Slay brother, neighbor, and kin” (32:28). The Levites do so, killing three thousand fellow Israelites, for which Moses declares that they have earned the right minister to the Lord. This passage, so odd in its context, participates in a broader tradition that associates the Levites with violence: there is their murderous response to the rape of their sister Dinah in Genesis 34; there is the declaration that they kill in anger in Genesis 49; and there is this story. It may be that the notion of righteous anger was associated with dedication to God—we might think of Samson as another potential example.

Exodus 33-34

The story of the golden calf continues in Exodus 34, with the making of a new set of tablets and a second trip up the mountain for Moses, complete with the forty-day-and-night stay (but without any calf this time). The people having been punished for their disobedience—both by the Levites and by a divine plague at the end of Exodus 32—the covenant is back in force, and therefore a new set of tablets to symbolize the covenantal agreement must be constructed. This is the conclusion of the E story of the mountain in the wilderness, which comprises the entire golden calf narrative.

In between, in Exodus 33, we have a different account: a conversation between God and Moses regarding whether and how God will lead the people through the wilderness into the promised land. God tells Moses to lead the Israelites, but refuses to go along with them, because they are so difficult that God fears he will destroy them on the way (as, indeed, he almost does in the episode of the spies). Moses, however, implores God, and God quickly relents. But Moses presses his advantage: “He said, ‘Oh, let me behold your presence!’” (Exod 33:18). God says that he will make his “goodness” pass before Moses, and proclaim his qualities, but Moses cannot see his face. In Exodus 34, this is precisely what comes to pass: Moses goes up the mountain, and God passes before him, proclaiming, “The Lord is a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet he does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Exod 34:6–7).

This famous statement resounds in different ways throughout the Hebrew Bible. Later in the Pentateuch, in the episode of the spies, when God threatens to destroy the Israelites, Moses looks back to these words, particularly the first ones. The question of transgenerational justice—the sin of the parents being visited upon the children—so unambiguously proclaimed here was evidently a point of theological contention in ancient Israel. There are numerous other biblical texts that take up and, at time, explicitly contradict the opinion expressed here. See, for example, Deut 24:16: “Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents.”

The final moment at the mountain, before the construction of the Tabernacle and the ritual laws that are proclaimed therein, is the divine speech that God delivers to Moses after proclaiming his divine qualities. The speech comprises a covenant—not the same covenant as was made back in Exodus 20–24, on the basis of those laws, but an entirely different covenant, with different terms. Here God promises to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan, as long as the Israelites promise to destroy all the Canaanite cult sites and refrain from engaging in social intercourse with the Canaanites (the laws in 34:17–26 are widely accepted in scholarship to be one of the latest texts in the Pentateuch, a compendium of legal materials from E, D, and P). This covenant in Exodus 34, along with the interactions between God and Moses that introduce it, are from J; the golden calf story, as noted above, is from E. When the two were interwoven, it was natural for the only covenant in J to be aligned with the refashioning of the tablets from E. This led to the canonical situation, in which this covenant in Exodus 34 looks like not a new thing, but rather like the renewal of the previous relationship, the one that was shattered during the sin of the golden calf. Given God’s proclamation of his qualities in Exodus 34, it appears that the relationship between God and Israel is restored with a new sense of grace and mercy. Neither J nor E ever envisioned such a thing; but this is one of the places where the combination of the sources has led to a whole that may be greater than the sum of its parts.

Basic Reading:

Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” 927-56.

Childs, Exodus, 553-624

Further Reading:

Moses Aberbach and Leivy Smolar, “Aaron,  Jeroboam, and the Golden Calves,” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967): 129-40.

R. W. L. Moberly, At the Mountain of God: Story and Theology in Exodus 32–34. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is the actual sin of the golden calf?
  2. What is the basis of the relationship between God and Israel as expressed in these chapters?
  3. How can we understand the motivations of the Levites?
  4. What is the theological import of God’s proclamation in Exod 34: 6-7?