Israel Out of Egypt (On Exodus 1-18)


Where Genesis follows the family story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, Exodus begins some four hundred years later, when Israel has become an expansive ethnic group, called the Hebrews. From the twelve sons of Jacob, Israel now numbers in the hundreds of thousands, evidently having fulfilled the creation mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Their growing size and power presents a threat to a new Pharaoh, who enslaves the Israelites and makes “their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field” (Exodus 1:14). Pharaoh even goes so far as to order Egyptian midwives to kill new-born Hebrew sons.

Pharaoh’s order sets up the unique circumstances of Moses, a Hebrew boy who is put in a basket on the river, and discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter and subsequently raised in Pharaoh’s house. Thus Moses, though a Hebrew, grows up with intimate knowledge of the Egyptian government, its ruling family, and its treatment of the Israelites. The political conflict between Pharaoh and the Hebrews thereby doubles as a family drama, and when Moses begins to take the side of the Hebrews, Pharaoh seeks to have him killed. Exodus 2-4 follows Moses’ exile, his marriage, and most importantly, his encounter with God at the burning bush. There, God reveals to Moses his personal name — YAHWEH, which means “I am who I am” — and sends Moses on a mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3:14).

Moses’ return to Egypt sets up the famous process in which Pharaoh repeatedly refuses to allow the Hebrews to leave, only to be smitten with another plague. Nine plagues pass, including blood, frogs, flies, and the rest, and still Pharaoh does not relent. The Lord then prepares one final plague, the most horrible of them all, in which He will come to Egypt and kill every first-born son. The plague serves as an ironic inversion of Pharaoh’s initial policy against the Hebrews. On the eve of the plague, God instructs his people to slaughter lambs and to put the lamb’s blood over their doors. By that sign God would pass over their houses, accepting the lamb as a substitute. In Jewish religion, this “Passover” would be repeated annually, to remember God’s salvation of his people and their deliverance from Egypt. For Christians, Christ is the fulfillment of the passover, the substitute for our sin, by whose blood we are delivered.

The denouement of the Exodus story comes at the crossing of the “Yam Suf,” usually translated the “Red Sea,” but which could refer to another body of water. After the Israelites leave, Pharaoh has another change of heart, and decides to pursue them. Just when it seems Pharaoh has the Israelites cornered, God makes a way for the Israelites through the Sea, and when Pharaoh follows, God closes up the water and drowns him, with all his army.

Among scholars, there has been much debate about whether any of our archaeological evidence directly supports the Exodus account. Those who argue for a connection point to the Egyptian building programs of the 14th and 13th centuries BC, which did employ a huge force of slave labor, together with reports of slave revolts. Slightly later, there is reference in the Amarna Letters — a set of clay tablet letters written to Egypt from Canaan — to a conquering group of “Apiru,” perhaps a precursor to the word “Hebrew.” The Biblical text also correctly identifies Egyptian place names and other Egyptian terms, including Moses’ name.

Perhaps the most suggestive detail of all is the song of Moses, in Exodus 15. Linguistic analysis of Hebrew word forms has led many scholars to argue that this is the most ancient text in the Hebrew Bible. If so, even a skeptical reader must recognize that the Exodus story is grounded in ancient historical experience and preserved in heroic poetic form. If we do not doubt that the Iliad is grounded in a historical conflict, why should we doubt the Exodus? And when we read the song of Moses (best read aloud), we both see and feel that it is a story worth recounting:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my son, and he has become my salvation; this is my God and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him (Genesis 15:1-2).

Peter Johnston