Explore the Bible Series
March 7, 2010
Background Passage: Exodus 1:1-4:31
Lesson Passage: Exodus 2:23-3:10, 19-20
Introduction to the Book of Exodus
Central to the history of the Hebrew people is the story of the Exodus; indeed, it may serve as the defining saga in Jewish life and faith.
Opinions differ widely concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch, and, of course, that debate influences any theories about the origins of Exodus. The majority of scholars, influenced by various versions of the Documentary Hypothesis, fix the date of final composition quite late, Fifth Century, B.C. These scholars, therefore, do not trace the genesis of the Pentateuch to Mosaic authorship, and they affirm a lengthy, complex redaction history. This hypothesis dates to the work of a French scholar, Jean Astruc, during the Eighteen Century. Astruc distinguished between “sources” that used Elohim (the earlier term) and Yahweh (the later term) as names for God. Other Old Testament scholars built on Astruc’s earlier work: Eichhorn, Geddes, Delitzsch, Graf, and Julius Wellhausen. Modern scholars, except for conservatives, universally hold to some form of this view, thus dating the composition of Exodus as a late, progressive process.
Conservative academics have challenged the Documentary Hypothesis. Gleason Archer, in particular, has discussed the alleged weaknesses of the liberal position, and I encourage Bible students to read pertinent sections of his A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. R.K. Harrison’s Introduction of the Old Testament provides an excellent discussion of the history of Pentateuch interpretation. The limitations of this outline format (and my limitations as an Old Testament scholar) prohibit detailed analysis of the problems of authorship and date, but, until convinced otherwise, it seems best to acknowledge the essential Mosaic authorship of this body of material. It seems logical that some of the materials could not have been written by Moses (like his own death narrative), but the essential materials came, it seems, from Moses’ hand. Those who hold to opposing positions must deal with Jesus’ attributions of this material to Moses.
Assuming Mosaic authorship, we can piece together some details about the great statesman’s personal life. He was born to Amram and Jochebed, from the Tribe of Levi, and he had at least two siblings, Aaron and Miriam. He married a Midianite woman named Zipporah, daughter of Jethro (Reuel), and the couple had at least two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. Moses’ life falls into three distinct eras, each lasting about forty years: the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, sojourn in the wilderness of Midian, and statesman over Israel.
Date of the Exodus:
Again, scholars differ widely on this important topic. Carol Redmount, Professor of Archeology at Cal State Berkley, downplays the historical reliability of Exodus, in The Oxford History of the Biblical World. She cites the general lack of corroborating evidence from secular historical sources or archeological witness for much of the Exodus materials as evidence that this book cannot be history, in the modern sense of the term. Other academics echo her views. As I read Redmount, it seems that she rejects the miraculous elements of the story; thus, this propensity may lead her to question some aspects of the historical nature of the work. She does, however, provide a useful discussion of the Exodus pharaoh. She dates the Exodus story during the late Bronze Age (c. 1550-1200 B.C.), and centers attention of Rameses II (1279-1213 B.C.) and Merneptah (rules c. 1213-1203). Conservatives do not have major disagreements with Redmount’s dating, but most would surmise a somewhat earlier date (c. 1450 B.C.), during the reign of Thutmose I.
I. A Brief Summary of Israel’s History in Egypt (1:1-22)
A. The immigration of the Hebrews (vv. 1-7): This paragraph serves as a bridge between Genesis and Exodus. Genesis closed with an account of the immigration of Jacob’s family, during a season of severe famine, to Egypt. Joseph had risen to second in command, and he paved the way for his kinsmen to settle in Goshen (See Genesis 47:27), a fertile region in the delta of the northern Nile. Both Genesis and Exodus claim that the Hebrews thrived in their new home.
B. Pharaoh’s oppression of Israel (vv. 8-22)
1. A new dynasty of Egyptian rulers (vv. 8-9): If we take the earlier date of the Exodus, perhaps Joseph came to Egypt during the reign of the Hyksos monarchy (c. 1700-1500 B.C.), Semitic rulers who governed Egypt for more than a century.
2. The enslavement of the Hebrews (vv. 10-14): Whatever the chronology of these events, a new dynasty arose, and these new rulers did not have any allegiance to the memory of Joseph. The extraordinary growth of Israel’s population and prosperity troubled Pharaoh, and he subdued the Israelites, forcing them into slave labor in the construction of the storage cities Pithom and Raamses. The author used vivid language to describe the severity of this slavery (ruthlessly, bitter, hard service).
3. The murder of the male children (vv. 15-22): Pharaoh tried to force Hebrew midwives to kill the male babies, but Puah and Shiphrah, in faithfulness to God’s regard for human life, secretly refused to obey the king’s cruel directive. Two midwives could have never served the needs of such a large community; thus, it seems reasonable that these two women may have led a guild for midwives. Having failed in his original plan, Pharaoh ordered all of Egypt to kill Hebrew boys by casting them into the Nile.
II. The Early Life of Moses (2:1-25)
A. Moses’ birth (vv. 1-10): Amram and Jochebed, a Levite couple, had a son, and the boy’s mother hid him for the first three months of his life. When it became impossible to conceal the child any longer, Jochebed made a small craft of reeds and pitch, and floated the little ark in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter discovered and adopted the child, and Jochebed was chosen to nurse the baby. We know almost nothing of Moses’ childhood, but he must have enjoyed great privilege and affluence.
B. Moses’ murder of the Egyptian taskmaster and exile in the wilderness (vv. 11-22): Though raised in Pharaoh’s household, Moses identified with the suffering of God’s people. When he saw an overseer mistreating a Hebrew slave, Moses murdered the Egyptian. Two Hebrews threatened to expose Moses’ crime (apparently these men alerted Pharaoh to Moses’ crime), and, fearing retribution, Moses fled to the wilderness of Midian.
C. Moses’ encounter with Jethro (Reuel), a priest of Midian (vv. 16-22): Moses took refuge by a well, and while refreshing himself, he met the daughters of a Midianite priest. The Midianites were descendants of Abraham and his second wife Keturah, and they dwelled in the region east of the Sinai Peninsula. We cannot know if Jethro was a pagan priest, but the Midianites closely associated with the idolatrous people of Moab. Moses married Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, and she bore a son named Gershom.
D. God’s attentiveness to Israel’s travail (vv. 23-25): After one of the Pharaohs died, the Hebrews cried out for God to deliver them from Egyptian tyranny, and God heard their pleas, prayers he answered because of the Abrahamic covenant.
III. Moses’ Call as Israel’s Deliverer (3:1-4:17)
A. The site of Moses’ call (3:1): Moses had settled into a comfortable life as a nomadic herdsman in the employ of his father-in-law Jethro, but God had other plans. At first glance, it may seem that Moses had wasted his life during these years of tending sheep in the wilderness, but the Exodus events eventually led him to precisely this region as he led the Israelites to Mount Sinai. The Sinai Peninsula rests to the west of ancient Midian, and Moses took Jethro’s flocks to graze in this rocky, barren area. Scholars debate the exact location of Mount Sinai (also called Mount Horeb). The traditional site is located in the southern peninsula, and today is identified with Jebel Musa (Mount of Moses), a granite peak that rises to 7500 feet. Some Bible scholars think the holy mount was located far north of the traditional site of Sinai.
B. The burning bush (3:2-12): The text says that an angel appeared to Moses in the midst of a burning bush, aflame but not consumed by the fire. Moses turned to observe the phenomenon, and God spoke to the simple herdsman. The story reveals that God required Moses to remove his sandals, and Moses covered his face at the appearance of the divine presence in the blaze. The Lord assured Moses that the sufferings of Israel had not escaped divine attention, and the Lord intended to use Moses as his instrument of deliverance. The Hebrews, under Moses’ leadership, would leave Egypt and settle in the fertile land of the Canaanites, a region that God had promised to Abraham. Moses recoiled from the Lord’s direction.
C. Moses’ reluctance to engage such a task (3:13-4:17): Moses, perhaps driven by genuine humility, listed the reasons why he could not complete this monumental task.
1. “What shall I say to them?” (3:13-22): To this point in redemptive history, the Hebrews, in a sense, worshiped an unnamed God. Who was Moses to assert such authority without divine sanction? God revealed his name as YHWH, “I Am Who I Am” (the Hebrew verb of being), the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses was to go in the name of YHWH to tell Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go into the wilderness, a three-day journey, to worship the Lord. God knew, of course, that Pharaoh would resist this request, a resistance that would eventfully lead to the defeat and plunder of Egypt.
2. “They will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say. ‘The Lord did not appear to you.” (4:1-9): In answer to Moses’ protest, the story reveals that God gave Moses two miraculous signs to convince the people: a staff that would turn into a serpent and a hand that would turn leprous, and then be cleansed. If the people would still not listen to Moses, the herdsman was to pour water on the ground, water that would turn to blood.
3. “I am not eloquent… I am slow of speech and of tongue” (4:10-17): At this point in the narrative, Moses humility verged on disobedience, and God grew impatient with his servant. The Lord promised to speak through Moses, and he provided Aaron, Moses’ brother, to help for the reluctant man.
IV. Moses’ Return to Egypt (4:18-30)
A. Moses request of Jethro (vv. 18-20): Moses showed respect for his father-in-law by asking leave to travel to Egypt; so, Moses, accompanied by his wife and sons, set out for Egypt.
B. The passage to Egypt (vv. 21-26): Moses had failed to circumcise Gershom, and God refused to allow his servant to enter this critical task without a ceremonially clean household. God attacked Moses, and the assault continued until Zipporah circumcised the boy. After this unusual incident, Aaron came to accompany his brother on the remainder of the journey. Moses recounted, to his attentive brother, the instructions the Lord gave at the burning bush, and together they spoke God’s words to the elders of Israel. The Hebrew leaders received Moses’ counsel with thanksgiving and worship.