What’s in a name?
The English name Exodus comes from the Septuagint title for the book, Exodos, which means “road out” or “way out.” The first part of the book culminates in Israel’s going out of Egypt and crossing the Red Sea – a defining moment in Israel’s history.
In a literal rendering of the Hebrew text, the book of Exodus begins with the word and, thus emphasizing its continuity with Genesis. The Hebrew title for Exodus is derived from the first two words in the book, we’elleh shemoth, which mean “And these are the names” (1:1).
The book continues the story of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Exodus begins with a list of the sons of Jacob, who were the focus of the last part of the book of Genesis.
Exodus can be divided into three sections: the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (1:1 – 15:21), the journey to Mt. Sinai and the establishment of the covenant there (15:22–24:18) and the building of the tabernacle where God was to dwell (25:1–40:38).
Throughout each of these sections, we see Israel’s lack of faith – first not trusting God to deliver them from the Egyptians (14:10-12), then continual complaint and unrest as they journeyed between the Red Sea and Mt. Sinai (15:22-27; 16:1-3; 17:1-7), and finally worshiping the golden calf against God’s specific commands regarding idolatry (32:1-8). Yet, despite Israel’s inadequacies, God continually extended mercy to his people.
How to read this book
Although Exodus is concerned with historical events of extreme importance to Israel, it is not written in the style of a modern history book: “The chronological setting is given only in general terms, consistent with the Hebrew treatment of history as [a] series of events and not as a sequence of dates” (New Bible Dictionary, p. 360).
The central message of Exodus is God’s grace toward Israel. God redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, miraculously saved them from the Egyptian army, led them through the Red Sea and established a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai.
As with Genesis, and indeed every book of the Bible, we should be less concerned with historical details than with God’s revelation of his purpose for us: “That there are problems in Exodus, not even the most conservative of scholars would wish to deny: but many of them are geographic or historical and few of them, if any, affect the theological message of the book” (R. Alan Cole, Exodus [Tyndale Old Testament Commentary], 15). For example:
We do not know how long Israel was in Egypt…. We do not know the exact date of the exodus…nor the route that Israel took, nor even the exact site of Sinai…. Yet not one of these affects the main theological issue, and therefore we must not allow them to loom too large in our thinking. It is not essential that we know the numbers, or route, or date of the exodus. It is enough that, with later Israel, we know and believe that such an event happened, and that we too interpret it as a saving act of God. (ibid., p. 16)
Learning about God
God revealed his name to Moses as “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14). God alone has life inherent; everything else depends on God for its existence.
Exodus also tells us that:
- The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was also the God of Moses (3:16), the God who led his people through the Red Sea. God fulfills his purpose through historical acts. The exodus was a critical event in his plan of redemption.
- God is all-powerful. Nobody can successfully oppose him. For example, one pharaoh attempted to thwart God’s purpose for Israel by trying to drown all the Israelite baby boys. God used these circumstances to enable his servant, Moses, to receive otherwise unobtainable training in Pharaoh’s own court (1:22–2:10). Later, another pharaoh stubbornly refused to let the Israelites go free. God simply used this stubbornness as the stage on which he revealed himself, through a series of miracles, to be Israel’s all-powerful Savior (6:28–12:36).
- God is concerned for his people. God protected the Israelites from the Egyptians (14:13-31), he provided manna for them (16:4-5) and he gave them victory over the Amalekites (17:8-16).
Exodus also foreshadows Christ’s sacrificial act of redemption for his people. God commanded the Israelites to kill the Passover lamb and put some of the blood on the top and both sides of the doorframe. God would then save them from death (12:21-23). The New Testament writers speak of “Christ, our Passover lamb,” who was sacrificed for us (1 Corinthians 5:7). When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he exclaimed, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
The Ten Commandments: One of the best-known parts of the Bible is Exodus 20:1-17, where God gave the Ten Commandments. The first four commandments concern the relationship with God, and the last six our relationship with fellow human beings. Jesus later explained the spiritual intent of the law, especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7).
The Sabbath: In addition to being the Fourth Commandment, Sabbath keeping is mentioned both before (16:22-30) and after (31:12-17) the giving of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath was crucial for Israelite identity.
Passover: The Passover was first kept on the night God’s angel killed the firstborn of Egypt, and Israel was commanded to keep it every year thereafter as a memorial of their deliverance (12:12-14). The blood of the Passover lamb symbolized God’s protection and mercy for his people, Israel, as his firstborn (4:21-23; 12:1-14, 21-28). This foreshadowed the sacrifice of “Christ, our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
God also commanded the people to put out all yeast or leaven from their houses, and to remember their flight from Egypt by eating unleavened bread for seven days every year (12:15-20; 13:6-10). The unleavened bread would remind them of the haste with which they left Egypt (12:39).
The dwelling of God: Several chapters are devoted to describing God’s tabernacle, its construction and the various regulations regarding worship at the tabernacle (Exodus 25–31, 33–40). The tabernacle, and in particular the Most Holy Place, was to be a physical reminder that God lived among his people. Eventually, the tabernacle was replaced by a temple built in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6).
Covenants: Having previously made covenants with Noah and with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 9:8-17; 17:1-14; 26:23-25; 28:10-22), God now made a covenant with the entire nation of Israel, the terms of which are recorded in Exodus 20–23. God thus made the people of Israel his own nation. This was a glorious covenant, but the new covenant would be far more glorious (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).
What this book means for you
Exodus shows the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob making a covenant with their descendants, the Israelites. God expected Israel, as his covenant nation, to live according to his holy law. The first and most important law was to have no other gods – to have an undivided loyalty to the true God. This principle is still true.
Although the principle of worship is still valid, most of the details we see in the Mosaic code are not. They were appropriate for Israel at that time in history, but in the new covenant they are no longer required. Many of the civil laws are based on timeless principles, and can be instructive for Christian life today, although some adaptation is needed for modern circumstances.
In addition to its moral teaching regarding everyday living, the book of Exodus has tremendous significance as an analogy of a Christian’s journey from sin to the kingdom of God. The crossing of the Red Sea foreshadows Christian baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). The Israelites left Egypt, never to return. At baptism, a Christian forever renounces a former life of sin. The Israelites entered into an old covenant relationship with God, mediated by Moses; Christians enter into a new covenant relationship with God through the mediation of Jesus Christ.