Exodus has a bit of everything, from thrilling fire and brimstone stories to (we'll admit it) super-boring legal text.
Put it all together, and we get a taste of everything a new society needs to function: stories on which to base national pride (we were freed from Egypt by God!); laws (and laws…and laws); and hey, why not some poetry to top it all off?
Remember that all of these layers don't necessarily come from the same writer, or even the same era. Let's take a look:
Bottom line: you can't write the entire history of a people in a day. And when you piece bits together, you're bound to get some idiosyncrasies. But what's a good story without some idiosyncrasies?
Nothing too fancy going on here. "Exodus" comes from the Greek word meaning "to come out." Makes sense, right? After all, if the Israelites do anything in this story, it's get the heck out of Egypt.
But wait a second. The Hebrew title actually translates to "Names." Why would the writers have called the book Names? Maybe because it's the first time in the Hebrew Bible that God reveals his name (YHWH) to the Israelites? Any other ideas?
So God just leaves the Israelites in the desert?!
Of course not. The story of Exodus is continued in the Book of Numbers. Time to keep reading.
This might be a story about the Israelites, but we're not in Israel quite yet.
Instead, we find ourselves in Egypt. Yep, that Egypt.
If you know one thing about Egypt, it's probably the Pyramids. If you know two things, it's probably the Pyramids and the Nile. Well, that massive river is a major player in Exodus. Not only is it the reason Moses finds his way to Pharaoh, but it's the reason Egypt has some urban oases in the middle of the desert. Civilizations needed water to survive, after all.
The setting actually forms the impetus for Israelite enslavement. After all, desert nomads don't need hundreds of thousands of slaves. Urban leaders with big projects (Pyramids, anyone?) do.
But wait. It's not all Nile and Pyramids. Don't forget about the barren wastelands of the region into which Moses and his people wander. There, they can't even find food and water and have to rely on God's miracles to survive. It's no accident that the Israelites find their spiritual strength from the desert. It's the anti-Egypt and the place to connect with God. Win win. Win.
P.S. Want to know what route the Israelites took in their Exodus? No problem.
Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink. Oh, did we say water? We meant blood. Well, bloody water. Okay, let's just dive in. (To the text! Don't be gross.)
If you knew one thing about Moses before reading Exodus, it was probably that he was put in a basket in the Nile as a baby. But why do we focus so much on that?
The Nile River was the source of life for ancient Egypt and a main player in its development as a culture. The Nile = irrigation. Irrigation = farming can be done by a few people, instead of a zillion. Fewer people farming = more room for a bustling civilization.
So Moses floats along the river until he's found by Pharaoh's daughter. Normally, class movement like this would be unheard of—unwanted baby to prince!—but the river makes it possible. The motion of the current reflects the motion of the civilization. Up, up, and away.
Humans need water. Case closed. But what about gods?
Well, water was a huge proving ground for ancient gods. Basically, to be anyone in the divine pantheon, you had to prove yourself against the water and the creatures that lurked within it. Having control over water was huge in a farming society. And having control over oceans—these vast bodies of water—well that's just nuts.
God uses water for his own purposes on several occasions: he gets the Israelites through the Red Sea, makes salt water sweet (15:25), and helps Moses release water from a rock (17:5-7). The Red Sea is particularly important because God uses his control over water to save his people. And kill the enemies.
As a bonus, God is even described in sea-monster fashion: "At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea." (15.8). God wins, ocean loses, Israelites survive.
But what exactly did God do? Our modern interpretations suggest that the waters parted, but a closer look at the text reveals other possibilities. Chapter 15:1-19, a super-old part of Exodus, water is a means for destroying the Egyptians, but there is no mention of a "parting" of waters:
We can definitely picture walls of water, but the takeaway is that water is a source of power for God and that he has total control over the elements. If making it swallow up the Egyptians wasn't proof enough, how about when he grants Moses the ability to turn the water of the Nile into bloody torrents?
One last thing. A lot of people reading the Bible associate water with baptism. But it was being used as a symbol of purification long before John the Baptist came on the scene:
The Lord spoke to Moses: You shall make a bronze basin with a bronze stand for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it; with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die: it shall be a perpetual ordinance for them, for him and for his descendants throughout their generations. (30:17-21)
Bottom line: water is everything. It's life, it's power, it's purity. Don't leave home without it.
Sorry to dash your hopes and dreams on the rocks of literary reality, folks. But the Bible gives us no Indiana Jones account of the heroic men and women who dashed to save the Bible from the Amalekite Nazi zombies.
We'll give you a second to recover from this tragic news.
Everyone wants to know where the ark was and what it contained. Well, here's the answer: it was in Capeside, Massachusetts.
The Ark is super important in the Bible—a source of power, history, and gold—but our focus isn't on its location. Yes, Indiana Jones is awesome (in the first three movies, at least), but we want to think about what this artifact does in the context of the story. And why on earth did the writers bother to include dimensions for this crazy thing?
The Ark really goes into action in Numbers, Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, and Chronicles. But here in Exodus, we get the nitty gritty: its dimensions and the materials used to build it. Got a pen? You need
Wait a second. This super-important thing isn't pure gold? Of course not. Money was an issue in the ancient world, too, and gold was just as valuable back then. The Big Guy himself says, "You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a molding of gold upon it all around" (25:11).
And how about those last two ingredients? Those can tell us a lot about the audience of this text. These days, you'd just look online to find a good jeweler or carpenter. But in the wayback days, access to these craftsmen was really limited. Especially if you were a farmer. So we can be pretty sure that this section of Exodus was written to urban elites in cities that would have had access to materials, worshippers, manpower, money, and skilled labor.
Take a look at these two passages spoken by God. You can even read them out loud in a booming voice if that's your cup of tea:
The first refers to the ark and the second an altar, but, um… what? In the first passage, the smith has to actually hammer these things out. In the second, it's blasphemous to alter it. Why? Because the people making the ark were urbanites. They would have had access to the materials, so why not use them?
P.S. What on earth (or in Heaven?) are Cherubim? These are mythological creatures with animal bodies—usually bulls or lions—and human heads. These particular ones have bonus wings. They're the guardians of God's seat on earth, making them part of the divine entourage. And a mercy seat? That's either a cover of some kind, or an actual object placed above the ark, and it's the gateway to communicating with God on earth.
People have been building replicas of this stuff for centuries. It can bring the community together, and hey, the specs are in Bible, so why not?
The Tabernacle is God's pad, where he'll "dwell among" the Israelites (25:8). Apparently he's pretty picky when it comes to living situations, so he gives his people some pretty detailed specs on how to get the thing up and ready. This is going to be one nice tent:
Just like with the Ark, these are urban instructions: you don't think about building nice tents during a stroll in the desert—you think about surviving. Only once you're out of the desert do you have the luxury of thinking about fine twined linen.
But if you're going to connect your image of God to something physical, then that something has to be magnificent. Ever wondered why the Vatican is a huge complex filled with art and gold? Same idea here.
Cubits are the main unit of measurement for all this ancient stuff. Traditionally, it's measured as about the length of your forearm—20 inches or so (source). They didn't exactly have a meter stick handy, so why not use what you've got?
Being a priest in the ancient world wasn't like being a priest now. Sure, there are similarities—both are community leaders and both oversee certain rituals of the religion. But we're pretty sure modern-day priests don't oversee ritual sacrifices.
For the Israelites, the priesthood had a huge role in shaping the faith of their people and of generations of believers after them. Enormous chunks of Exodus and a lot of Leviticus are believed to have been penned by priests for the masses, for their own class, and for posterity.
If these guys did in fact write large manuals on priestly life and then just inserted them into the action of the Exodus story, that means that they were keepers of the original fire and brimstone stuff. That would be like having access to every Harry Potter novel, and inserting a 200-page treatise on Quidditch fouls and play after every match Harry plays in in the original text.
Now that's power.
Because they're so powerful, the priests have their own specialized gear:
The point? The priests were supposed to look fly. You look at them and think, "Wow. These guys must really know what they're doing."
After all, if you're a priest, and you want to make sure that your class (priests) continues to have power in Israelite society, what do you do? Why, you insert descriptions of your awesome outfits into some old-school stories, of course. It's a total branding device.
So what could make a priest look cooler than nifty outfits? Two words: animal sacrifices. To all the vegans and vegetarians out there—the Biblical writers would not have been down. Animal production, consumption, and killing were a huge part of ancient life. You couldn't exactly run down to Sprout for a nice healthy salad. So when a new priest is ordained, check out what happens:
You shall bring the bull in front of the tent of meeting. Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the bull, and you shall slaughter the bull before the Lord, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and all the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar. You shall take all the fat that covers the entrails, and the appendage of the liver, and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, and turn them into smoke on the altar. But the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering. (29:10-14)
It might seem like a bit much to us, but it's a major symbol of power. Even today, power often comes in the form of wasting essential materials, right? Well, cattle and organized animal herding gave the ancients the ability to jumpstart civilization; wasting that material in a religious or spiritual ritual meant you were big time.
Instead of crashing up a Bentley, these guys sacrificed animals. Six of one, you know?
This whole stretch of Exodus—the legalese from 25:1-31:18—makes Aaron look as cool as humanly possible. Before, he was just Moses's sidekick, but now he and his followers get a whole section that nobody other than them (and us?) would ever care about.
As a bonus, this coolness gets passed along generation by generation:
The sacred vestments of Aaron shall be passed on to his sons after him; they shall be anointed in them and ordained in them. (29:29)
Hear that? That's hereditary lineage right there. That means Aaron's legacy will live on. Big time. Check out his "Character Analysis" for more on this guy.
Why should the Israelites follow God and believe in him?
Sure, the philosophy and the Commandments are important, but the wonders, magic, and tricks are really what seal the deal. Remember, this isn't just about getting the Israelites out of slavery. It is about proving that God can compete fiercely among a pantheon of other regional gods. Pharaoh included.
When we hear the word "miracle" today, we think spirituality, moving experiences, and epiphanies. Not so back in the day. The ancients didn't have meteorologists, which meant they had a lot of 'splainin to do when it came to natural phenomena. And how to explain it all? God's magic.
Because of that, God's power and natural power are nearly one in the same. When the writer describes the powers of the Egyptian priests, he talks about their use of "secret arts" (7:11). Yep, God has power, they have arts.
God's first big trick is the whole burning bush thing. Read the detailed summary of "Chapter 3" for more deets, but suffice it to say, God's magic is what lets him communicate with Moses and show him who's boss. (P.S. It's on fire, but it doesn't burn? Don't try this at home.)
In 4:1-9, God gives Moses the ability to perform three tricks—leprous hand, staff becomes snake, water into blood—to prove to the Israelites that he's legit. This power transfer makes Moses an instrument of God's natural power. People's reactions will look something like this: "Wow, you can do what God does! You must be powerful."
The people also experience more direct expressions of God's abilities that are designed to shock and awe. The "pillar of fire" (13:21:22), the parting of the Red Sea (14:15-19), and the manna storm (16:13-15)—God really loves using nature to help out the Israelites.
But the magic isn't always so straightforward. Take a gander at this passage:
Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, "Choose some men for us and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand." So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses' hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword. Then the Lord said to Moses, "Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. (17:8-14)
Hilarious, right? God is parting the waters of the Red Sea, but he can't prevent Moses's arm from getting tired. It's like the coolest Survivor challenge ever. What's the takeaway? God has great power, certainly, but it's by no means absolute at this point in the Bible.
Gold was as fancy then as it is now. Check out our discussion of the "Tabernacle" and the "Ark of the Covenant" to hear how they're totally bedazzled. The point? To display wealth and power to believers. The end.
But gold gets even more screen time.
In Chapter 3, God proclaims:
"I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed; each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor's house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians." (3:21-22)
Yikes. That's a pretty intense instruction. Basically, God tells the Israelites to extract as much wealth as possible from the Egyptians before leaving. Stealing, you say? In the ancient world, you took what you could get. When cities were sacked, the losers ended up as slaves and their treasures were taken. It was just the way of the world.
In case the whole plundering thing didn't clue you in to the ambiguous context surrounding gold, let's hop on over to the golden calf incident. Go reread the detailed summary of Chapter 32 for a refresher and the head back our way.
Sure, this act violates more than a few commandments. But it goes one step further, turning the plunder that the Israelites got from the Egyptians into an idol that spits in God's face. It would be like using money your parents gave you to make anti-parent billboards.
Aaron's explanation of how he made the golden calf reflect the biblical ideas about the value of gold: "So I said to them, 'Whoever has gold, take it off'; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" (32:24). Aaron tries to tell Moses that in trying to demonstrate how petty gold was in comparison to the covenant, the calf itself came out of the fire. Oops!
Scholars have speculated for centuries on the identity of the mysterious "manna," the substance that God sends down for the Israelites to eat in the desert. All you need to know is that manna is directly linked with God's power. Surprise surprise—just like every other symbol in the text.
Manna goes bad if you taste it when God told you not to, and it spoils if you keep it longer than God told you to. Why all the crazy regulations? Well, the manna is meant to demonstrate God's power and mercy at the same time. Sure, he'll provide the hungry with food in the desert, but certain rules have to be followed. It's God's way or the highway.
We know, we know. You're here because you want to know if these plagues really happened. Well, don't hold your breath.
To tell you the truth, fire coming down from God—or not—three thousand years ago isn't going to help you understand the influence these passages have had on our culture. So if you ever figure out the real-or-not-so-much-ness of the plagues, let us know. Until then, we'll have to stick to the stories.
Rivers were the life blood of ancient civilizations—pun totally intended.
Turning the river to blood isn't just a neat trick; it's an attempt to undermine the way Egypt works. The chapter is very careful to tell us that even the tributaries are turned to blood: "Over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water […] may become blood" (7:19).
We're talking total destruction here.
The major takeaway for Plague #2 is that Moses chooses the moment to end the plague. Pharaoh's magicians able to reproduce it, but they can't control it. God can, giving him another moment to outfox Pharaoh's magician power.
Also, these plagues get in your face. Just picture it—frogs in your face. We'd say it's a pretty decent punishment. And after all, that's all these plagues are: a power trippy punishment of the Egyptians for being nasty to the Israelites.
Although the third plague's "gnats" have generally been translated as "lice," everyone pretty much agrees that the Hebrew word refers to mosquitoes. We're going to move on before we get itchy.
The fourth plague gets some pretty distinct interpretations, including both "wild animals" and "flies." That's quite a difference, but we think flies are just fine. We'll let the wild animals hang with Noah. This is the first plague that actually begins to cripple Egypt's very infrastructure: "in all of Egypt the land was ruined because of flies" (8.24). Bloody water might seem grosser, but it takes a lot longer to repair land than it does to dig a well.
Talk about a direct shot. Sure, Egypt is a more urban area than the wilderness, but the economy still relies big time on animals. Donkeys carry goods through the cities, camels carry trade products across the desert, and sheep and oxen help feed the population. Killing these animals would be like destroying all farm equipment, cars, and planes in the modern world. It's crippling, at best.
Now it gets personal. By giving them boils, God is sending a message to each and every Egyptian about his power and anger. Even Pharaoh's magicians can't protect themselves from this one. Sounds like a fun week at the office.
Remember when the U.S. military used "shock and awe" tactics to convince the Iraqis that they couldn't win? Yep. They borrowed that from Exodus.
Aside from destroying a whole bunch of ground structures, this plague is designed to scare the living daylights out of people when they walk outside, morning coffee in hand. Imagine if you walked out your front door, groggy, and you saw fire and hail raining from the sky. Might raise a few eyebrows right?
It's no wonder Pharaoh surrenders on this one—even though, as always, he changes his mind once it stops.
As if all this weren't enough, God now deploys his locust army on the Egyptians. In the ancient world, locusts were the worst thing since drought. Even urban economies were based on farming done by hand, so destroyed crops meant destroyed economies. Locusts are also pretty tough to get rid of without a big fat dose of industrial pesticide, and the ancient Egyptians definitely didn't have DDT on hand.
This is the final blow to Egyptian daily business. No trees, no green—just complete and total desolation.
Might sound fun to us, but this plague was absolutely terrifying. This isn't like living in an Arctic or Antarctic region where it's night all the time. No, the text implies something deeply disturbing and crippling about the darkness: it's "a darkness that can be felt" (10:21). It's frightening, impossible to get rid of, and crippling to even the most mundane of tasks (like, say, going outside).
Why is murdering the firstborn such a big deal? Well, aside from the obvious, the death of the firstborn is a message from God to the Egyptians. In ancient culture, the firstborn son inherits everything. He's the next link in the hierarchy, the inheritance chain, and the royal line—that's a lot of money and a lot of power to lose.
This is no longer just a war between gods, it's also an attempt to mess up the way Egyptian society works. Imagine if half of all legal contracts in the United States were suddenly declared invalid—there'd be institutional chaos for years, right? The tenth plague is God's final strike into the heart of Egyptian civilization. God destroys their economy, their lifestyle, even their bodies. And now, he's crippling their main means of societal continuity.
But remember, Passover isn't just God's opportunity to do a victory dance. It's the beginning of a tradition for the Israelites. Being freed from slavery is a huge milestone, and it affects their rituals, traditions, and cultural thinking for years to come.
Curious? Start with Passover.
Things get pretty ugly in Exodus. Murder, skyfire, bodily injury, lots of blood—the list goes on. Sure, it's all part of the story and it was the way of the world back then, but it's not always easy to stomach.
Sigmund Freud, Moses & Monotheism
Freud used psychoanalysis to try to understand who Moses was and what he was working toward. But you know what? Sometimes a Moses is just a Moses.
Leon Uris, Exodus
Many modern authors have used the founding of the State of Israel (1948) as an impetus to return to the Exodus story. American novelist Leon Uris uses the themes of the biblical story his account of the 20th-century struggle.
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
In one of his famous Revolutionary-era pamphlets, Thomas Paine asserted that Americans had to move past using the Bible as a means of governing life. He even commented specifically on Exodus: "they are no other than an attempted history of the life of Moses, and of the times in which he is said to have lived, and also of the times prior thereto, written by some very ignorant and stupid pretenders to authorship, several hundred years after the death of Moses, as men now write histories of things that happened, or are supposed to have happened, several hundred or several thousand years ago" (source). Well, that's sure to cause some controversy.
Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
The title of this super-famous sci-fi book is taken straight from Exodus. Check out what we have to say about it in our learning guide for the book.
Bob Marley, "Exodus"
Reggae musicians often draw inspiration from Biblical stories. In his 1977 album Exodus, Marley explores his feelings after fleeing an assassination attempt in native Jamaica.
Gandhi, "An Eye for an Eye"
The famous "eye for an eye" passage comes straight from Exodus, and not everyone is down with it. It is said that Gandhi commented on this passage: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."
Debbie Freidman, "Miriam's Song"
Popular Jewish composer Debbie Friedman wrote this song about Miriam and the Exodus moment. Where my girls at?