Study Guide

The Israelites in Book of Exodus

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The Israelites

Would You Like Some Manna With That Whine?

The Israelites sure are a crabby bunch. Sure, it was pretty tough going for them, but man, does it take a long time—and a lot of complaining—to get them from point A to point B.

Every time a new crisis comes up, these guys complain to Moses, Aaron, or God. Why would a writer keep doing this? Don't you want your supporting actors to be sympathetic characters? Well, all this grouchiness gives God tons of opportunities to prove himself. And since God is out to prove his chops, it works out. It usually looks something like this:

Israelites complain.

God shows off some magic.

Israelites pipe down.

And then, of course, they find something new to complain about it. Most often, it's basic stuff like water and food (15:24, 16:2, and 17:2-5)—fair enough—but sometimes they gripe to Moses about his decisions (14:11). These people don't really trust their leader. Would you?

Morally Suspect Actions

Not to bring these guys down another notch, but the Israelites definitely have their fair share of morally ambiguous situations. Here's one example:

The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians. (12:35-36)

Hmmm. Plundering's never a great thing, right? Does the fact that God told them to do it make it any better? We mean, the Egyptians just had ten plagues rained down upon them, and now they're supposed to give up their possessions to the Israelites? Doesn't really seem like a clean or graceful exit by our standards. But this is the ancient world, and you take what you can get.

Speaking of not-so-stand-up situations, the golden calf incident is pretty messy. On the surface, the Israelites definitely screw up. How ungrateful is it to abandon the God who just freed them? On the other hand, Moses kind of abandoned them with no explanation, and they want to take control of their own lives.

Bottom line: maybe the Israelites aren't so bad after all.

Size Matters

When we say Israelites, are we talking "Joneses" or "Americans"? Is this still a family drama, like in Genesis, or have we moved onto a national scale?

In 12:33, the text claims that 600,000 men left Egypt with more women and children. Check out the detailed summary of "Chapter 12" for more on this, but for now, you should know that a number like that makes this a national epic, not just a ragtag group of rebel fighters.

But this doesn't mean the Israelites are totally united. Or are they? Let's take a look at some telling moments:

  • In 32:27, the Levites (a tribe) kill their "brothers, friends, neighbors" for worshipping the golden calf.
  • The Israelites are referred to as a confederation, and each tribe gets its own unique pillar in 24:4. 
  • All the Israelites speak "with one voice" (24:3).

The text skates over these points, but they're crucial—and super confusing—in trying to assess Israel's character as a nation. How do you interpret them?

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