8 Exodus and Moses: the beginning of the Yahwist Movement

Xanten Bible, Exodus 1, New York Public Library Archive
Xanten Bible, Exodus 1, New York Public Library Archive


The book of Exodus is the story of how the promises given to Abraham in Genesis come to fruition. Genesis ends with a question as to how the fulfillment of these promises will possibly happen, as the people are not even in the land that was promised to them.  They are in Egypt.  This is not the land that they had hoped to inhabit.  This is not the life that they had hoped to live.


The first fifteen chapters of Exodus tell the story of Israel in Egypt.  It is all about the rise of a new pharaoh who didn’t know Joseph, the oppression of the Israelites, their enslavement in a state labor force, the killing of all first born Hebrew males.  And more, it is about the birth, the early life, and the call of Moses.  Most of all, however, this is a story about the Israelite struggle for freedom.  And it is a messy, complicated and very human story.

In that struggle for freedom, Moses will plead with the pharaoh to let his people go and worship their God in the wilderness.  In the midst of Moses’ trying to obey this odd and commanding voice from a fire, in the midst of all the struggle with all the forces against the Hebrew people,  there is the final liberation, when God does something at the Reed Sea so that the Israelites can pass, leaving the heavy Egyptian chariots to flounder in the mud.

Exodus 15:22 until chapter 18 recounts the journey towards Sinai once the escaping slaves are beyond Egyptian borders. This is a journey filled with complaints from the Hebrew people. They are clearly scared and frustrated and not particularly patient with this whole “escape from slavery” event, since every step has required sacrifice on their part. Slavery was bad, but the whole escape seems pretty bad, too.

But Chapters 19 to 24  contain the self-revelation of God to the Israelites, and the covenant that is concluded at Sinai.  And this is the essential, messy, scary, and wonderful piece of the story.  The covenant is the real point of the story here, even more than the escape.

Dance around the golden calf, Herrad of Landsberg c. 1180
Dance around the golden calf, Herrad of Landsberg c. 1180

Chapters 25 to 40 contain, beside the seriously unpleasant incident with the golden calf which is in Exodus 32, God’s instructions on how to build the tabernacle, and then an account of the Israelites actually constructing the tabernacle.

Now, the question of whether this Exodus story was an actual historical event has fascinated scholars for generations. Could the Exodus really have happened? And if so, when? And does it matter? And is there any evidence for this story in external sources outside the Bible?


A very helpful summary: NOVA’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets has some useful detail about the writing of the Bible in it.  It is almost 2 hours–but will set into context what came before Exodus, and how Exodus becomes the center of Jewish ideas and faith.  There will be key archaeological discoveries that help cement parts of the Bible in history, and that also continue to emphasize history from more than one point of view.



In Depth: examining Exodus


Merneptah Stele known as the Israel stela (JE 31408) from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Merneptah Stele known as the Israel stela (JE 31408) from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The story of the Exodus, the receiving of the covenant, the people’s wandering years, and the settling of the Hebrew people in Canaan is clearly the central story of Judaism.  It occupies the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy, and involves enormous amounts of consolidated narrative, poetry, and legal reflection. That some sort of event, where a small number of Hebrew people left the Nile Delta for a journey to Canaan may well have happened, although the numbers found in the Exodus account are clearly exaggerated.

In looking at actual historic evidence for or against the coming of the people to the place called Israel, there is a victory hymn that was inscribed on a stele, erected in the year 1208 BCE by Pharaoh Merneptah. In this victory hymn Merneptah is boasting of his victory over various groups in Canaan, and one of the groups he claims to have defeated is Israel. This is an important inscription, because it is the earliest known reference outside of the Bible to any person, place. or entity that is mentioned within the Bible, and it suggests that a people known as Israel was indeed in the land of Canaan by the end of the thirteenth century BCE. Whether they arrived there after an exodus from Egypt is obviously not indicated anywhere on this stele, nor anywhere else that has been found to this date.

In fact there is no archeological evidence of any particular large group entering the land of Canaan at this time. There is evidence of small but steady groups of people coming into the area from the region around Canaan, and there is also good evidence of assimilation and integration of migrants and nomads into the Canaanite culture. There is no evidence of the destruction one would expect to see as coming from a big invasion as described in the Bible, especially in the book of Joshua.  There is not even evidence of any large group coming to settle in Canaan peacefully!  Scholars and archaeologists only find evidence of the steady arrival and integration of neighboring cultures into Canaan in any of the archaeological evidence to date.  And, in fact, the real evidence is that the Israelites are actually the Canaanites, those Canaanites who  moved away from city states, rebelled against the powerful or wealthy people of the era, moved into the hills and wilderness areas of the region, and created small independent settlements and tribes.  Did people come to Canaan and join these small groups from outside the area?  Probably–people at the time were nomadic and mobile, looking for land and a place to make a living.  Were Israelites invaders who conquered the Canaanites? The evidences says–clearly not.

The Bible itself contains contradictory statements regarding the length of the Israelites’ stay in Egypt.  Exodus 6:16-20 says that the Israelites were there for only four generations, maybe 80-100 years, from Levi to Moses.  In Exodus 12:41, it states that the Hebrew people were there 430 years.  This is a contradiction, but a fairly common occurrence as oral or differing written accounts are assembled into a single written narrative.

Archaeologically it is clear that the fortified city of Pi-Ramses was rebuilt in the early thirteenth century BCE. The city was being reoccupied in the time of Ramses II. There is written records that Egyptian officials allowed nomads to enter the Nile delta region in order to work for food. There are written records that indicate that Semitic slaves were in Egypt at this time, too, working on the projects from this rebuilding. There was a people called the Hapiru or ‘Apiru. They don’t seem to be an ethnic group so much as a marginalized social class, but some have suggested a connection of this term with the word “Hebrew.” It is known that the Hapiru  worked on the capital city of Ramses II. But there is no indication of the Hapiru taking over Canaan.

The debates about the historicity of Exodus are endless. One thirteenth-century BCE Egyptian papyrus describes Egypt’s tight control of her border areas, and another reports some Egyptian officials pursuing some runaway slaves. The Exodus story also contains many Egyptian elements. The names Moses, Aaron, Phinehas…these are all Egyptian names.

Moses with tablets of the Ten Commandments (1659), painting by Rembrandt
Moses with tablets of the Ten Commandments (1659), painting by Rembrandt

And yet there’s no Egyptian record of the Biblical Moses, no record of plagues, no record of a defeat of Pharaoh’s army. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence, and some scholars think that that lends plausibility to a story of slaves working on building projects who escape from Egypt at this time.  If there is any historical basis to the Exodus, say those scholars, then the most plausible time for it would be the thirteenth century BCE. Some scholars assume there is a historical memory behind the elaborate and dramatic story of a miraculous redemption by God. Why would anyone invent a national hero for the Hebrew people who is entirely Egyptian and has an Egyptian name? Why would anyone invent a myth of origins in which the ancestors are slaves?

Some scholars want to place the Exodus in the 15th century BCE during the Hyksos era, but given that there is no indication of a place called Israel in documents of that time, which would likely have happened, it is much more commonly felt that any kind of event leading to the establishment of the 12 tribes of Israel in the land of Canaan would have happened later–the 13th century BCE is most commonly held to be the timeframe for this.

As emphasized earlier in the patriarchal stories, what is being written here is sacred history. This is a highly embellished and theologically interpreted myth of origins for an entire nation, a whole people. So much more important than historical verifiability is the heartfelt conviction of the ancient Israelites who received and venerated these traditions and stories. The Hebrew people developed the stories, embellished them, passed them on, and the story states that God acted on their behalf, rescuing them from bondage, binding them to God in an eternal covenant. This is their salvation story–a story about the rescue of the Hebrew people from danger, harm, suffering and slavery.  What elements here might have some basis in fact is not as important as the central message.

Big Themes

So start at the beginning of the Exodus story, past the time of Joseph. At this point, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Israelites have multiplied and filled the land in Egypt that had been given to them during Joseph’s tenure in office.  But a new pharaoh came to power who didn’t know Joseph or all that Joseph had done for Egypt.  This pharaoh feared the influence and growing power of the Hebrew people, and so forced all of the adult Hebrew males into slavery.

The text of Exodus says that there was “harsh labor at mortar and brick,” but the text also says, “the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out. ”  Because of the increasing numbers of these Hebrew slaves, says the story, the pharaoh resorted to more drastic measures. He decreed the murder of all newborn Israelite males at the hands of Egyptian midwives. Pharaoh is thwarted by the midwives, however, who choose to bring life into the world, not death.  They don’t cooperate in the killing of these Hebrew babies.

Moses found in the river. Fresco from Dura Europos synagogue. Date 244–255 CE
Moses found in the river. Fresco from Dura Europos synagogue. 244–255 CE

Moses is born and hidden away for three months after his birth.  He is placed one day by his mother in a waterproof wicker basket and set among the bulrushes at the edge of the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter will eventually discover him there. His own birth mother will volunteer to be his nurse, and this pharaoh’s daughter will eventually adopt him and name him Moses, an Egyptian name, not a Hebrew name.

A lot of scholars have noted that this early part of the Exodus story is full of irony. The rescue of Moses, who will foil  this pharaoh, happens at the hands of the daughter of that pharaoh, and Moses grows up and is sheltered right in the the pharaoh’s own palace. Further, the significance of Moses is hinted at through literary allusions in the narrative of his birth and infancy. The basket in which he is placed is called an ark: the Hebrew word is tevah. This word is used precisely twice in the entire Hebrew Bible. It’s not the same word that’s used for Ark of the Covenant, by the way: the Ark of the Covenant, the word is aron. This word for ark, tevah, occurs exactly twice: here, and in the story of Noah’s ark. Noah’s ark is a tevah.

This tevah is “the instrument of salvation through perilous waters”.  Moreover, the basket is placed among the reeds — the Hebrew word for reeds is suph — and that is a hint or an allusion to the fact that Moses will lead the Israelites through the “Reed Sea,” the Yam Suph. It is not, in Hebrew,  the Red Sea, it is actually the Reed Sea. Early translations got it wrong, and that error has continued to be an problem for generations.

This legendary birth story for Moses has important parallels in Ancient Near Eastern literature, and in the literature of other cultures, even in Europe and Africa. It is very common to find stories of the extraordinary events that surround the birth of someone who will later become great: Cyrus of Persia, Oedipus, and many more.  Scholars have pointed out that this story of Moses’ birth is paralleled by the birth story of a great Akkadian king, Sargon, from about 2300 BCE.  In it, Sargon is placed in a basket lined with tar and put in the river. It underscores the degree to which this story is part of a literary genre, how much the Exodus story itself is very much an Ancient Near East literary story.


Moses killing the Egyptian, an Egyptian smiting an Israelite. From the Haggadah for Passover (the 'Sister Haggadah'). Date2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century
Moses killing the Egyptian, an Egyptian smiting an Israelite. From the Haggadah for Passover (the ‘Sister Haggadah’).
14th century CE

Nothing is said of Moses’ childhood in the Bible, but we learn that he knew of his Israelite identity, in the following passage, Exodus 2:11-15:

11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.

But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well. (NRSV)


So coming to the aid of an oppressed kinsman, Moses kills an Egyptian, and has to flee to the territory of Midian.

Continuing the story in verses 16 and 17 of Exodus 2:

16 The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defense and watered their flock. (NRSV)


This is a key to Moses’ character, aiding the defenseless. Moses will later marry Zipporah, one of these women who came to draw water, and will live as a shepherd in Midian for about 40 years. By the time Moses gets pushed by the divine voice into returning to Egypt, he has had a full life.

Now, the situation of the Israelites in Egypt remained bitter throughout the time Moses was away.

Exodus 2:23-24:

23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (NRSV)

One day in the wilderness, at a place called Horeb, also in Sinai, where there is a mountain, Moses sees a flame in a bush that kept on burning, and then he hears a voice. The voice says to him, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and at this Moses hides his face in fear, but God continues to talk.

God has a job for Moses as stated in Exodus 3:7-10:

Then the Lord said, “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 sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (NRSV)

Moses demurs, and has the temerity to argue with this deity and says, in essence, “Why me?”   Moses insists that the divine speaker should choose Moses’ big brother Aaron, and says that Aaron is a much better public speaker. Moses says, “I’m slow of tongue” as a way to justify avoiding any speaking in public.  But God chooses whom God chooses  (all through the Bible this happens), and the reasons for any divine choice aren’t always easily fathomed.  So Moses reluctantly agrees, under protest and pressure.  But there is just one essential thing that he wants to know.


Moses asks to know God’s name.




Mount Sinai (Arabic: طور سيناء‎ Ṭūr Sīnāʼ  or جبل موسى Jabal Mūsá ; Egyptian Arabic: Gabal Mūsa, lit. "Moses' Mountain" or "Mount Moses"; Hebrew: הר סיני‎ Har Sinai ), also known as Mount Horeb, is a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt that is the traditional and most accepted identification of the biblical Mount Sinai. The latter is mentioned many times in the Book of Exodus in the Torah, the Bible,[1] and the Quran.[2] According to Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, the biblical Mount Sinai was the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
Mount Sinai (Arabic: Ṭūr Sīnāʼ  or  Jabal Mūsá ; Egyptian Arabic: Gabal Mūsa, lit. “Moses’ Mountain” Hebrew: Har Sinai ), also known as Mount Horeb, is a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt that is the traditional and most accepted identification of Mount Sinai. The latter is mentioned many times in the Book of Exodus in the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran.

Who is this Yahweh?

“The Israelites will want to know who has sent me”, says Moses.

God replies with a sentence, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.”

This is a first person sentence that can be translated, “I am who I am,” or perhaps, “I will be who I will be,” or even, “I cause to be what I cause to be.” It is hard to know with any precision what the translation should be, but it has something to do with “being.” So Moses asks who God is, and God says, “I am who am I am” or “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.”

Yahweh asher Yahweh” is another way to write this sentence.

God’s answer to the question is this sentence,  and that sentence eventually gets shortened to “Yahweh.” This is the Bible’s explanation for the name Yahweh, and as the personal name of God, some have argued that the name Yahweh expresses the quality of being, an active, dynamic being. This God is one who brings things into being, whether it is a cosmos from chaos, or now a new nation from a band of runaway slaves. But it could also be that this is simply God’s way of not answering Moses’ question. The Bible makes it clear that people were leery about revealing names, and the divine being who struggled and wrestled with Jacob sure did not want to give Jacob any name. So did the divine being in this story say to Moses,  “Who am I? I am who I am, and never you mind what my name is…”


Exercise: Time to reflect

Judaism has thought, discussed, rehashed, elaborated, argued and struggled with this central story of Exodus for centuries.  Take a short pause, and listen to this interview from the broadcast OnBeing.  Avivah Zornberg[1] is a scholar of Torah and rabbinic literature, and author of several books including The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.

The Transformation of Pharaoh, Moses and God


There are certain important and unique features of this burning bush dialogue between YHWH and Moses. First God’s words seem to be trying to establish an unbroken historic continuity between the present revelation to Moses, and the revelations and promises that are received by Israel’s forefathers, the patriarchs. And yet God reveals to Moses a new divine name, Yahweh.  So Yahwism, and the Yahweh followers, can only be said to begin with Moses and his people.  Is Yahweh the God El Shaddai, Elohim, or El?  Is this the same God of Abraham?

To understand that new beginning for the Hebrew people, we need to look at the differences between patriarchal religion, and the new Yahwism.

In Genesis God is six times called El Shaddai. Other names used are El ‘Elyon,  El Olam, El Ro’i, and El Beyt El.  One can see the translations of these: the everlasting God, God most high, the God of seeing, the God of the house of God, and so on. And remember that El is the name of the chief God in the Canaanite pantheon.


Key Idea:  What are the divine names, and what do they mean?

Watch this short 3  minute clip from PBS on the Story of the Jews:  The Names of God


The early worship practices of ancient Israel and Judah clearly resemble what we know of Canaanite and Ancient Near Eastern worship practices. Canaanite religious ritual took place in small temples that housed cultic statues. There were stone pillars that were thought to be symbols of the gods or memorials to the dead. There were altars for animal, cereal, and liquid sacrifices. Similarly, Israel’s gods (eventually Israel’s God) was worshiped at various high places. Worship at these local altars and high places would eventually come to be banned. The book of Deuteronomy will insist that all worship must occur in one central sanctuary and will decree the destruction of all of these high places with their altars.  The temple in Jerusalem, built many years later, is for followers of Yahweh.

It’s clear that the patriarchs and matriarchs are not really strict Yahwists, as scholars come to understand that term. The P and the E sources preserve this insight; and they preserve it in their insistence that the Patriarchs worshiped God as El, but at the time of the Exodus, God was revealed as Yahweh.

There is some historic indication that the Midianites (once located in the very southern part of Israel and the northernmost tip of Saudi Arabia), where Moses lived for 40 years, had a deity named YHW.  Is this the predecessor term to the name YHWH? Is this Midianite deity one that migrated with various groups north into central Canaan, into the small settlements of the hill country, to become the key deity of those groups who turned into the people of Israel? Some scholarship indicates that this is possible.

There is an interesting passage in Joshua 24:14-15. Joshua was the successor to Moses. He presents the Israelites with the following choice:

“Now therefore revere Yahweh, and serve him with undivided loyalty. Put away the gods that your forefathers served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt”– “Choose this day which ones you are going to serve, but I and my household will serve Yahweh”.

What appears in the Bible as a battle against the Canaanites can be actually be better understood as a struggle between Yahweh-only Israelites, and the Israelites who are participating in the cult of their ancestors in worshipping in the Canaanite manner. with a pantheon of deities.

The story continues…

Following the vision at the burning bush, Moses reluctantly decides to return to Egypt, and he initiates what will become a battle of wills between Pharaoh and Yahweh.  The Egyptian magicians who are initially able to mimic some of the plagues that are brought on by God are quickly bested, and Yahweh’s defeat of the magicians is tantamount to the defeat of the gods of Egypt.


An early 15th century manuscript copied around 1430 in square Ashkenazic script. Its decorations contain initial word panels, a few fully framed borders, and two full-page miniatures. The full-page miniature is the adaptation of medieval Christian iconography for the purposes of illustrating the importance of study and discussion in the celebration of the Passover Seder. Every figure (men and women) is holding a book, presumably a Haggadah, and is involved in discussing the Exodus from Egypt. The text on this page begins Psalm 79 verse 6. Original: Darmstadt, Hessische Landes-und Hochschulbibliotek
A manuscript copied around 1430 in Ashkenazic script. Every figure is holding a book, presumably a Haggadah, and is involved in discussing the Exodus from Egypt. The text on this page begins Psalm 79 verse 6.

There are ten plagues listed in Exodus. These include a pollution of the Nile, swarms of frogs, lice, insects, affliction of livestock, boils that afflict humans and animals, lightning and hail, locusts, total darkness, and then all of this climaxes in the death of all the firstborn males of Egypt in one night.

Source critics looking at this material discern numerous, diverse sources that are interwoven throughout.  According to the source critical analysis, no source contains ten plagues. J has eight and E has three, and P has five, and some of them are the same as one another, and some of them are different, and so on. Ultimately, the claim is that these have all been merged, and have made the story to have an overall total of ten plagues.

The sequence of plagues leads to the final and most horrific plague, the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn sons. The slaughter may be understood as measure for measure punishment for the Egyptians’ earlier killing of Hebrew infants, but it’s represented in the Biblical text as retaliation for Egypt’s treatment of Israel.

In Exodus 4:22, Yahweh tells Moses to say to Pharaoh,

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is my firstborn son. I have said to you, “Let my son go, that he may worship me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your firstborn son.’”

This last plague is retaliation as God (or the angel of death) passes over Egypt at midnight, slaying every Egyptian firstborn male. Moses orders each Israelite to perform a ritual action to protect their families from the coming slaughter. The ritual consists of two parts. Each family is told to sacrifice a lamb. The lamb will then be eaten as a family meal, and its blood will be smeared on the doorposts to mark the house, so the angel of death knows to pass over that house, — and the pun works in Hebrew [pass over], as well as English, which is helpful to understanding the term of the ritual. In addition, each family is to eat unleavened bread, indicating their willingness to flee even before their bread is risen and baked. So according to Exodus, this Passover ritual was established on Israel’s last night of slavery while the angel of death passed over the dwellings that were marked with blood


Example: Embroidery

Embroidered Border: The Making of Unleavened Bread and the Israelites Sent Away Object typeEmbroidery Description The border fragments on the left tell the story of the Israelites baking unleavened bread during the first Passover, after which they were delivered out of captivity in Egypt. In the top panel, bakers mix and knead the dough; the bottom panel shows the bakers standing on a tiled floor while placing the bread into a brick oven. This common household scene would have been familiar to Italian audiences during the Renaissance. Two fragments depict events recorded in the book of Exodus. In the top panel, the pharaoh is shown releasing the Israelites after the last plague (1939.355). In the bottom panel, he changes his mind and pursues them across the parted Red Sea, only to be swallowed up after the Israelites safely crossed (1939.352). Date 1500s-1600s
Embroidered Border: The Making of Unleavened Bread and the Israelites Sent Away


The border fragments on the left tell the story of the Israelites baking unleavened bread during the first Passover, after which they were delivered out of captivity in Egypt. In the top panel, bakers mix and knead the dough; the bottom panel shows the bakers standing on a tiled floor while placing the bread into a brick oven. This common household scene would have been familiar to Italian audiences during the Renaissance. Two fragments depict events recorded in the book of Exodus. In the top panel, the pharaoh is shown releasing the Israelites after the last plague . In the bottom panel, he changes his mind and pursues them across the parted Reed Sea, only to be swallowed up after the Israelites safely crossed
Date 1500-1600 CE


Following the last horrific plague, Pharaoh finally allows the Israelites to go into the desert to worship their God.   As soon as they have left, however, Pharaoh changes his mind about this and sends his chariots in hot pursuit of the Israelites.  The escaping slaves soon find themselves trapped between the Egyptians and something referred to as Yam Suph, which translates precisely to the  Reed Sea. It isn’t the Red Sea. That is a mistranslation that occurred very early on translation history and led to the notion that the Hebrews were at the Gulf of Aqaba, or somewhere near the actual ocean.

Some of the Israelites despair at this point, and they want to surrender. “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying let us be, we will serve the Egyptians, for it’s better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

But Moses rallies them, and then in the moment of crisis, God intervenes on Israel’s behalf. Once again, source critics see in the account of the parting of the Reed Sea, in Exodus 14 and 15, three different versions of the event that have been interwoven. One thing that most agree on is that the oldest account of the event is a poetic fragment found in Exodus 15. This is often referred to as the Song of the Sea, and here the image is one of sinking and drowning in the Sea of Reeds. There is a wind that blasts from God’s nostrils, the waters stand straight like a wall, and at a second blast, the sea then covers the Egyptians, and they sink like a stone in the majestic waters.

The hymn doesn’t refer to people crossing over on dry land. It seems to depict a storm at sea, almost as if the Egyptians are in boats, and a big wind makes a giant wave, and another wind then makes it crash down on them, swamped by these roiling waters. But the name Yam Suph, Reed Sea, implies a more marsh-like setting, rather than the open sea.

Later writers take this poetic image of waters drowning the Egyptians and compose the prose accounts in Exodus 14, in which the metaphor of waves is made literal. According to these prose accounts, Pharaoh’s army was literally drowned in water. In the material usually associated with P, Moses is depicted as stretching out his staff, first to divide the waters, which stand like a wall so that the Israelites can cross over on dry land; and then, he holds out his staff to bring the waters crashing down on the Egyptians.

But according to one little section — this is just verses 24 and 25 in Exodus 14, usually attributed to J — it seems that the Egyptians were stymied by their own chariots. The image we get there is that the Israelites are working their way through the marsh on foot, and the Egyptians’ chariot wheels can’t make it through the marsh. They get stuck in the mud, and this forces them to give up the chase.

So, the final narrative that emerges from this long process of combining sources about the escape from Egypt comes down to this:

  • Start with the image of the Hebrews escaping on foot
  • Egyptian chariots follow and are bogged down in the marshes
  • A poem is then created that describes the defeat of Egyptian followers in metaphorical terms, using a drowning and sinking image to indicate their inability to capture the escaping people
  • Prose elaboration on the previous poetic tradition is created that has a very dramatic element of the sea being parted and crashing down on the Egyptians, a metaphor, again, for their defeat

A long process of transmission, interweaving, and literary embellishment has gone into the creation of this account in Exodus 14 and 15. But the story as it stands reiterates a motif that is seen before: that of the threatened destruction of God’s creation, or God’s people, by chaotic waters, and of divine salvation from that threat.

Here in Exodus, it seems that just as the nation of Israel is coming into existence, just as the Israelites are making the transition from a nomadic existence to a more settled way of life ultimately in their own land, there may be a collective memory of a similar change in religion. Like the storm gods in the myths of Israel’s neighbors, Yahweh heaps up the waters with a blast of wind. Yahweh wins a stunning victory and gets established as the god of the Israelites in place of El, who was worshipped by Israel’s patriarchs.

Salvation and Covenant

Gramastetten ( Upper Austria ). Saint Lawrence parish church: Stained glass window ( 1883 ) by Josef Kepplinger - Moses gets the Ten Commandments.
Gramastetten ( Upper Austria ). Saint Lawrence parish church: Stained glass window ( 1883 ) by Josef Kepplinger – Moses gets the Ten Commandments.



The Exodus event became the paradigm of God’s salvation of the Hebrew people, and when the term salvation is used in Judaism, it is not meant in the later Christian sense of personal salvation from sin. That is a notion that is anachronistically read back into the Hebrew Bible, and it is simply not found there.

When Biblical writers speak of Yahweh as Israel’s redeemer and savior, they are referring to Yahweh’s physical deliverance of the nation from the hands of Israel’s foes.


Salvation in the Hebrew Bible does not refer to an individual’s deliverance from a sinful nature It refers instead, to the concrete, collective, communal salvation from national suffering and oppression, particularly in the form of foreign rule or enslavement.


The Exodus is a paradigm for salvation, but it would be a mistake to view the Exodus as the climax of the preceding narrative. After this big dramatic scene at the Reed Sea, the physical redemption of the Israelites is not in fact the end of the story. It’s a dramatic step in a story that’s going to reach its climax in the covenant that will be concluded at Sinai.


God’s redemption of the Israelites is a redemption for a purpose, a purpose that doesn’t become clear until Sinai, for at Sinai the Israelites will become God’s people, bound by a covenant.


After the Exodus the Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Sinai, and they camp at the mountain where Moses was first called by God. The covenant created at Sinai is referred to as the Mosaic covenant. The Mosaic covenant differs radically from the Noahide and the Abrahamic/patriarchal covenants because here God makes no promises beyond being the patron or protector of Israel.  In this covenant, God sets terms that require obedience to a variety of laws and commandments.  If Israel doesn’t obey God’s Torah, and live in accordance with God’s will, as expressed in the laws and instructions, then God will not fulfill the obligation of protection and blessing towards Israel.


The words "I am the Lord your God, who" in the 4Q41 scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The words “I am the Lord your God, who…” in the 4Q41 scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Scholars tend to place great emphasis on the deliverance from Egypt as the high point in the Exodus narrative, rather than the more natural literary climax, which is the conclusion of the covenant at Mount Sinai, and the delivery of the commandments. The Israelites are affirming their identity and their relationship with God by telling this story, a story which states, emphatically, that God is trustworthy.  Unless one recognizes that the road from Egypt leads to Sinai, that the story of national liberation is only the lead up to God’s covenantal stipulations and the observance of God’s laws, then one mistakes the real reason for the whole story. If Exodus is read, first and foremost, as a story of a miraculous delivery one can miss that this is the story of a human/divine relationship, which is expressed through obligations to specific laws, commandments, and instructions.


The Covenant Commandments: Exodus 20: 1-17  (NRSV)

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.


Just as the Ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaties specified that vassals of a suzerain are to treat other vassals of the suzerain well, Israelites are bound to one another as vassals of their same suzerain God, and are to treat one another well. The covenant in Israel becomes the basis of social ethics. It is the reason that God gives instructions regarding the treatment of one’s fellow Israelites. So the suzerain-vassal relationship grounds the social ethic within Israel.  It becomes a key element in Judaism, the social ethics that binds the people to one another and to the practices of their faith.  Christianity adopts these commandments as well, and with a different emphasis, also insists that its believers follow these rules.


Watch this video from the Library of Congress

According to Jenna Weissman Joselit[2], a Princeton University professor, the Ten Commandments cast a long shadow over the body politic these days. Angry words about the appropriate role for the commandments in 21st century America fill the air as proponents and opponents square off. Have the Ten Commandments always been the stuff of controversy, or is this a new phenomenon–the consequence of a rapidly changing world? Joselit suggests that the Ten Commandments have long exercised the popular imagination, especially at the grassroots level. Throughout much of the mid-19th and 20th centuries, Americans of all stripes identified strongly with the Decalogue and the figure of Moses, incorporating them into the domestic sphere as well as the public square, into the nation’s visual culture as well as its political rhetoric.

Holy Moses! A Cultural History of the Ten Commandments in Modern America


The covenant with Yahweh will also preclude alliances with other human competitors. If Israel serves a divine king, Israel can’t then serve a human king. That is an idea that will express itself in Biblical texts that are clearly opposed to the creation of a monarchy in Israel. Not everyone was on board with the idea that Israel should be ruled by a king.

There are also texts that are going to object to alliances with any foreign king, or subservience to any foreign king, whether it is Egypt or Assyria or Babylon. So subservience to a human king, native or foreign, is considered a rejection of the divine kingship, which is the ideal — the exclusive kingship of Yahweh — and it is seen as a breach of the covenant.

The covenant concept is critical to the Bible’s portrayal and understanding of the relationship between God and Israel. The entire history of Israel, as portrayed by Biblical writers, is going to be governed by this one outstanding reality of covenant. Israel’s fortunes will be seen to ride on the degree of its faithfulness to this covenant.

After the embarrassing episode of the golden calf, worshiped by the Israelites while Moses was talking to God, the punishment dealt out to the people is that they will have to wander for 40 years in the desert until all of those who left Egypt as adults pass away. This will leave a new generation that hasn’t really tasted slavery to enter the land and form a new nation.  And Moses will not be the one to lead them into the promised land.  It will be up to Joshua, instead.

The relationship between Moses and God is a very intimate one in the story.  They are partners in the preparation of Israel for life in God’s land as a nation and as a people. In many ways, Moses performs a double duty common to classical prophets. He chastises and upbraids the Hebrew people for their rebellion and failures on behalf of Yahweh.

But at the same time, Moses consoles the people when they fear they have driven God away irreparably, and when he addresses God, he defends the people before God. He pleads for mercy when the Hebrew people do in fact deserve punishment — and Moses knows  that they deserve punishment. At times Moses expresses his frustration with the difficulty of his task, and expresses resentment that all this has been assigned to him.

The book of Numbers that follows the book of Exodus recounts the itinerary of the Hebrew people throughout the 40 years of their wanderings. It also talks about the encampments around the sacred tabernacle. The tabernacle always moves in the center of the tribes, and the tribes are positioned in certain specific locations around the tabernacle as they move during those 40 years.  The book of Numbers contains some law and narrative material. The narrative material tells of God’s provision for the people in the desert, but it also tells of the Hebrew people’s constant complaining, and rebellion. The people rebel against Moses and God, and they long for an easier life in Egypt forgetting how they hated slavery and plead for rescue. There are several times when God threatens to exterminate them because of all this, but Moses manages to dissuade Yahweh from giving up or destroying the people.

It is a long 40 years.  For everyone.


Learning about a Seder: celebrating Pesach

Seder plate with Passover ingredients
Photo of Passover Seder Plate showing (clockwise, beginning from top): maror (romaine lettuce), z’roa (roasted shankbone), charoset, maror (chrein), karpas (celery sticks), beitzah (roasted egg).

Learn more about the haggadah, about the practice of celebrating Pesach/Passover, and about the events found in a Seder.

The Seder







The Beginnings of Israel

The beginnings of an organized nation-state called Israel are rather unclear.  There is evidence that a loose assembly of tribes existed in the area called Israel.  It is also fairly certain that the tribes’  boundaries and names changed over the years.  The number of tribes seems to be fairly consistent–12.  Some of the people involved in these tribes may have been Hebrew people who left Egypt.  Others in these tribes may have been people who had never left Canaan, or nomads from other places, or even merged groups of locals and foreigners who decided to accept the common covenant and worship  (eventually!) the one god Yahweh.  Early Israel (under the leaders that they call judges in the Bible) seems a little like  a loose and ancient version of NATO–the tribes were each self sufficient, more or less, but had overlapping cultural practices.  And they all had agreed to come defend another tribe if there was military reason.

Christine Hayes, Introduction to the Old Testament, Yale University: Open Yale Courses, http://oyc.yale.edu (April 2022). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA Some materials here used from Yale University, copyright 2007 Some rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated on this document or on the Open Yale Courses web site, all content is licensed under a Creative Commons License (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0).

“Passover: The Seder.” The Passover Seder, Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-passover-seder.

Weissman Joselit, Jenna. “Holy Moses! A Cultural History of the Ten Commandments in Modern America.” The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/webcast-4209.

British Library Sacred Texts: Judaism, Sept. 2019, https://www.bl.uk/sacred-texts/videos/judaism.

Gabel, John B. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2006.

May, Herbert G., et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha: Revised Standard Version, Containing the Second Edition of the New Testament and an Expanded Edition of the Apocrypha. Edited by Michael D Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2007.

“The Story of the Jews.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 25 Mar. 2014, https://www.pbs.org/video/story-jews-program-hebrew-bible/.

“Avivah Zornberg — The Transformation of Pharaoh, Moses, and God | the on …” OnBeing, https://onbeing.org/programs/avivah-zornberg-the-transformation-of-pharaoh-moses-and-god/.

“The Bible’s Buried Secrets.” NOVA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GySaPvzlh8U.



  1. https://www.avivahzornberg.com/bio.html
  2. A professor of American studies and modern Judaic studies at Princeton, Jenna Joselit started her appointment at the Kluge Center on June 1, 2007. Her residence concluded on Aug. 31, 2007. Joselit is a nationally acclaimed scholar who has taught, lectured and published widely on both the modern Jewish experience and American vernacular culture. She is a frequent contributor to The New Republic and a long-standing columnist for The Forward. She is also the author of "A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character and the Promise of America" and "The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950," which received the National Jewish Book Award in History. A recipient of several grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she has served as curator and contributed to more than 30 exhibitions throughout the United States and Israel, including the shows "Getting Comfortable in New York" and "A Worthy Use of Summer," both at the Jewish Museum in New York, and "The Glitter and the Gold: Fashioning America's Jewelry" at the Newark Museum. She was a consultant to the Library of Congress on its exhibition "From Haven to Home."


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Reading the Bible as Literature: a Journey Copyright © 2022 by Jody L Ondich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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