The history of Israel (1) enslaved, (2) redeemed, (3) consecrated religiously and politically to God. There are two distinct parts: (1) Exodus 1-19, the history of Israel's deliverance from the beginning of their Egyptian bondage to their arrival at Sinai; (2) Exodus 20-40, the giving of the law and Israel's organization as "a kingdom of priests and an holy nation." The two parts, though differing in style as in subject matter, are closely intertwined, the institutions of the law in the second part resting on the historical facts recorded in the former part. The term Exodus, "the going forth," is drawn from the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Alexandrian Jews settled in the same country from whence Israel had "gone forth." The Palestinian Jews called the book from its first two Hebrew words, 'elleh shemot; "these are the names." Its separation from Genesis is marked by the different circumstances under which it presents Israel at its commencement as compared with the close of Genesis.
The first seven verses are the introduction briefly recapitulating previous events and stating the existing condition of affairs. Its close is marked by the completion of the tabernacle. Its several sections were probably written on separate papyri or parchments (according to an inscription of Thothmes III his campaigns were written on parchment and hung up in the temple of Ammon). The breaks in the narrative, and the repetitions, accord with the theory that there were distinct sections, composed separately by Moses as the events transpired, and read publicly at successive times. All would be united in one work toward the close of his life, with but a few additions and explanations. The feature which is inexplicable if anyone else were the author is this, the writer's evident unconsciousness of the personal greatness of the chief actor.
The Egyptians recognized his greatness (Exodus 11:3); but the writer, while recognizing the greatness of Moses' mission, dwells especially on his want of natural gifts, his deficiencies of character and the hindrances thereby caused to his mission, and the penalties he incurred; his hasty intervention between the Israelite and Egyptian, the manslaughter, and the Israelites' rejection of him as a ruler, and his exile for the prime 40 years of his manhood. Then his unbelieving hesitancy at the divine call and pertinacious allegation of personal incapacity in spite of the miracles which might have convinced him of God's power to qualify him (Exodus 3:10-13). Then the Lord's visitation on him (probably sudden and dangerous sickness) for neglecting to circumcise his son (Exodus 4:24-26). (See CIRCUMCISION.) Then his passionate reproach of Jehovah for the failure of his first appeal to Pharaoh, which only brought more bitter hardship on Israel (Exodus 5:20-23).
His courageous boldness before Pharaoh is never praised. Not his wisdom or foresight, but God's guidance, is prominent throughout. The first battle fought is under Joshua's lead. The only step attributed to human sagacity, the organizing of a body of assistant judges (Exodus 18), is attributed to Jethro not Moses. The same feature appears in subsequent books of the Pentateuch, his shrinking from self-vindication when assailed by Miriam and Aaron (Numbers 12); his impetuous temper at the water of Meribah Kadesh, smiting the rock irreverently and hence excluded by God from the promised land. This all is what we might expect if Moses was the author; but no later writer would be so silent as to the sublime greatness of his character. Contrast the three closing verses of Deuteronomy, added by a reviser in order to record his death. Again, Exodus was evidently written by one minutely acquainted at once with Egypt and the Sinaitic peninsula.
The route from Egypt to Horeb is traced with the local coloring and specific accuracy of an eyewitness No eyewitness of Israel's journeyings possessed such means of observation as Moses. The miracles severally suit the place, the time, and the circumstances under which they are stated to have been wrought; the plagues are essentially Egyptian; the supply of Israel's wants in the wilderness is in harmony with the national characteristics of the country. Cook (Speaker's Commentary) truly says, "we find nature everywhere, but nature in its Master's hand." The nine plagues stand in three groups, each increasing in severity. Then the tenth is threatened and the failure of the other nine declared. "Jehovah hardened Pharaoh's heart so that he would not let Israel go." The delay answered a double purpose. To Pharaoh it was the longsuffering appeal of God, who is slow to anger, and who tries the milder chastisements to bring the sinner if possible to repentance before resorting to the more severe. To Israel it afforded ample time for preparation for the Exodus.
Two months elapsed between Moses' first and second interviews with Pharaoh; the former in April, when the Israelites were scattered throughout all Egypt gathering the stubble of the harvest just reaped (the reapers leaving the stalks standing and cut close to the ears), the latter in June at the time of the Nile's yearly overflow when "the king went out unto the water" to offer his devotions to Apis, whose embodiment the river was (Exodus 5:12; Exodus 7:15). Israel's "scattering" tended to uproot them from their long settlement in Goshen and to train them for their approaching wilderness life. The Nile, the center of Egypt's national and religious life, was smitten, assuring Israel of Jehovah's interposition.
Three months elapsed before the next plague, giving them time to look about them for the means of escape from present wrongs. The plague of frogs attacked the Egyptian worship of nature under that revolting form (Heka, a female deity with a frog's head, the symbol of regeneration, wife of Chnum, the god of the inundation; Seti, father of Rameses II, is represented offering wine to an enshrined frog, with the legend "the sovereign lady of both worlds"); this was in September, when the inundation is at its height and the frogs (dofda, usually appea). Of the third plague no warning was given; so the third is marked in each of the other two groups of plagues. The lice or mosquitoes (kinnim) penetrating into the nostrils and ears, or rather the tick (the size of a grain of sand, which when filled with blood swells to the size of a hazel nut), came soon after the frogs, early in October.
So closed the first group, none of the three causing great calamity; but enough to warn the Egyptians and to give hope to Israel. The second group began with the 'arob, dog flies (whose bite inflames severely, and particularly the eyelid), or else beetles (worshipped by the Egyptians as the symbol of creative and reproductive power; the sun god was represented as a beetle; thus their god was fittingly made the instrument of their punishment, inflicting a painful bite, and consuming various articles). This plague, exceeding the former in severity, came in November at the critical time to Egyptian agriculture when the Nile's inundation has subsided. Then first Goshen was severed from Egypt and spared the plague. Pharaoh shows the first signs of yielding, but when the plague ceased would not let Israel go.
Then came the cattle murrain or mortality, striking at the resources of Egypt; a contagious epidemic which broke out in Egypt often after the annual inundation had subsided. The cattle tire in the fields from December to April, the change from the stalls to the open air and to fresh pastures predisposing them to it. Israel's separation of their cattle from the contagion would be a step in their preparations for the Exodus. The boils (burning carbuncles) were the third and closing plague of the second group, sent without previous notice, and warning the Egyptians during its three months continuance that their bodies would suffer if Pharaoh should still resist God. The third group began with the hail, which as in the present day prevailed from the middle of February to the beginning of March. Moses for the first time warned Pharaoh to bring all cattle out of the field, on pain of their destruction.
Many of the Egyptians feared Jehovah's word and obeyed, while the rest suffered for their disregard. In Goshen alone was no hail, so Isaiah 32:18-19. Pharaoh for the first time cried, "I have sinned this time, Jehovah is righteous, I and my people are wicked" (Exodus 9:27). The flax being "boiled," i.e. in blossom, marks the time as the middle of February, when also the "barley" is "in the ear." Wheat and rye (rather spelt or doora are not ready until April, and so escaped. Israel received leave to go, and now knew they had sympathizers even among Pharaoh's servants. The locusts followed on Pharaoh's retracting leave. Vegetation was then at its full in the middle of March. The dread of such a scourge made Pharaoh's servants intercede to "let the men go" lest "Egypt should be destroyed." Pharaoh consented, but on hearing Moses' demand that young and old, sons and daughters, flocks and herds, should go, refused peremptorily, saying "evil is before you," i.e., your intentions are evil.
The E. wind upon Moses' stretching his rod over Egypt by Jehovah's command brought up the locusts. They oftener come from the western deserts, but sometimes from the E. and S.E. On Pharaoh's confession of sin and entreaty Moses besought the Lord and they disappeared as quickly as they came, before a wind from the sea (Hebrew), i.e. N.W, wind, sweeping transversely all Egypt and casting them into the Red Sea. The third of the third group followed, as in the close of the former two groups, without warning; the three days "darkness which might be felt" (probably owing to the S.W. wind from the desert after the spring equinox filling the air densely with fine sand, so that none during it rise from their place, men and beasts hide, this darkness could literally be "felt".) This preceded by but a few days the slaying of the firstborn, the plague which stands by itself, alone bringing death into every Egyptian family and ensuring Israel's deliverance.
Thus, the plagues have a genuine Egyptian coloring, and at, the same time the requisite adaptation to Israel's position, awakening their expectations and securing to them time for organization, without which they would have been an undisciplined mob in their march. None but, one thoroughly acquainted with Egypt could have written the account. Pharaoh and his people rightly regarded the successive visitations as natural to Egypt, yet so overruled in their intensity, in their coming and going at Moses' call to Jehovah, and in their gradual heightening when the divine will continued to be resisted, as to be supernatural and palpably sent from above. The divine aim was to vindicate Jehovah's lordship, not merely over the enslaved Hebrew but over Egypt and its king, the representative of the pagan world powers with whom God's controversy is, "to the end that thou mayest know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth" (Exodus 8:22).
The most appropriate way to effect this was not to send strange terrors but to show, by intensifying and controlling at will the visitations ordinarily felt in Egypt and falsely attributed by them to particular idols, that all these visitations are at Jehovah's absolute disposal to inflict, increase, or wholly withdraw, subserving His purposes of wrath to His adversaries, of mercy to His people, and of the setting forth of His own glory to the whole world (Exodus 9:16); compare Psalm 78:43-49, "sending evil angels among them"; the plagues are figuratively His messengers ("angels") in the hands of heavenly angels, of whom the destroying angel was in closest communion with Jehovah (Psalm 78:51); compare Exodus 12:18; Exodus 12:23; Exodus 12:29; Hebrews 11:28, for God sends good angels to punish the bad, and bad angels to chastise the good.
The plagues were so mutually connected as not to leave any place for any considerable interpolations. None could be omitted without breaking the moral and natural order which is so clearly indicated though not formally expressed. Nor could they have been so harmoniously, and at the same time so artlessly, woven together from documents of different ages. Cook, whose remarks are here epitomized, gives a list of words found only in Exodus, or in the pentateuch, derived from roots common to Hebrew and Egyptian, or found only in Egyptian; and these occur indiscriminately in the so-called Jehovistic and Elohistic passages. No Hebrew born and brought up in Israel from the Exodus down to Solomon would have had the knowledge of the Egyptian tongue apparent in Exodus; and no author would have given the Egyptian words without explanation, had he not known that his readers would be equally familiar with them.
None but one in Moses' circumstances could have described the wanderings in the wilderness of Sinai with such a peculiarly local coloring. At the same time the very objections to some of his details, on the ground of the different state of the peninsula now in some respects, only confirm the antiquity and genuineness of his record. The desert now would be utterly incapable of sustaining such a host, nor is it a sufficient answer to this objection to say that Providence interposed to feed them. For these providential interpositions were restricted to particular occasions. Ordinarily, according to God's usual way of dealing with His children, they depended on natural supplies. Inscriptions both in Egypt and in the peninsula, as early as Snefru of the third dynasty and of the three following dynasties, and of Hatasu, widow of Thothmes II (drowned in the Red Sea), describe victories over the Mentu, the mountaineers of the peninsula, and other native tribes. These prove the existence then of a population so considerable that they resisted large Egyptian armies.
The Egyptians succeeded in working copper mines at Sarbet el Khadim and Mughard, where there are many inscriptions. The springs and wells were then carefully preserved, in order to keep open their communication with these settlements. The inscription as to the gold mines near Dakkeh mentions a well 180 ft. deep, dug by order of Seti I and Rameses II. The trees were religiously preserved and fresh plantations made. But since Egypt's power has gone the Arabs have for ages cut away the trees on which the rain, and so the fertility of the district, chiefly depend. The following undesigned coincidences between the present state of the peninsula and the accounts in Exodus confirm the accurate truth and genuineness of the book.
Exodus describes water as wanting where none now is found, abundance where springs still exist and traces of a far greater supply anciently, tracts at the same distances where food would not be found, a natural manna in the rainy season especially, but not adequate in quantity and nutriment without supernatural modification; nomadic hordes attack Israel just where and when the attack, judging from present appearances of the locality, might well be expected. The unvarying tradition of the Jews, to whom Exodus was addressed, confirms the impression of genuineness which the internal innumerable coincidences produce on the mind. Finally, the form, structure, and materials of the tabernacle belong to the wilderness. The shittim or acacia, its material, was the wood of the desert; cedar took its place in Solomon's temple. The skins, its covering, belong to the same locality (See BADGER).
The bronze ("copper"), silver, and gold Israel brought from Egypt; and probably they had not mine workings until they were long settled in their inheritance. The names of many of the materials, implements, furniture, dress, and ornaments of the priests were Egyptian. The arts necessary in constructing the tabernacle were precisely those which Israelite artisans, as Bezaleel and Aholiab, would have acquired from dwelling in Egypt, the mistress of those arts; the embroidery of curtains, carving of cherubs, capitals, ornaments in imitation of natural objects. In Israel, on the contrary, such arts were little practiced, as being often associated with idolatry in the surrounding nations; even Solomon had to call in artists from Tyre to do work for the temple which natives apparently could not. Two distinct accounts are given of the rearing of the tabernacle; in the first Moses recites his instructions, in the second the execution of them.
A later history would never have given such a double recital. Moses wrote each at the time and on the occasion to which it refers; first the instructions, that the people might know the materials and the work required of them; secondly, when the work was completed, an account of the details, in order to take away all suspicion of malappropriation of their offerings, and also to show that the divine instructions bad been duly fulfilled. In the two accounts the order is reversed; in the instructions the inner and essential objects stand first, as being those on which the people should fix chief attention, the ark, mercy-seat, cherubs, table of shewbread, golden candlesticks; then the accessories of the tabernacle, and lastly the dress of the priests. But in the account of the work executed the tabernacle comes first, being that which would naturally be begun first, then the ark, etc.
Fausset, Andrew Robert M.A., D.D., "Definition for 'exodus, the book of' Fausset's Bible Dictionary".