The Book of Exodus

This book narrates one of the most remarkable stories ever told. It is a story not just about the departure of the people of Israel from Egypt but about the formative moment when the Jewish people’s vision of the world was molded. The shift from polytheism to monotheism, the idea of having communal responsibility (election), and that life is as much a taking as a giving (covenant) are concepts that were, and still remain vital issues in Judaism and the Western world.

Both the subject of Jewish identity and the role God plays in every life are central to a book that belongs to a genre of religious and legal writings intended for public discussion.

Though the Seder night was intended to be the forum for this discussion, the Haggadah brings only a few verses from the Torah and it already interprets them. The full biblical version of the story is absent and there is little room for free, unscripted interpretations.

The book of Exodus, on the other hand, was intended for discussion in a manner that whoever wrote the book could not control what readers understand. If the author was God, then, following a fundamental principle of Jewish interpretation, God intended for the story to have all the meanings we are able to discern.

There is more to interpreting the book than demonstrating that this or that happened.

 Francis Bacon famously advised: “Read not to contradict and refute, not to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.”

Reading this Jewish literary masterpiece requires some guidance because of its use of legends, mythic language, and imagery, all of which aim to preserve traditions rooted in history.

Consequently, I have designed a three-week syllabus that brings together the accumulated understandings of past and present generations of scholars who have read and have considered carefully what the Book of Exodus tells us.

Judaism is the accumulated experiences of the Jewish people. The perseverance of its lengthy history can be attributed to the generations’ loyal commitment to pass on to the next generation what they have learned.

Jewish power and wealth, contrary to what antisemitism claims, comes not from accumulating wealth and real estate but from the learned lessons of life and from ensuring that this information is preserved, examined and expanded, by every generation.

It would be great if you post your own thoughts on the page and we can start a conversation. There is so much to discuss right now. The issues we confront as Jews are ones we haven’t faced in a very long time.

Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

Exodus-Chapter 1

The book of Exodus continues where the Torah’s first book, Genesis (Bereshit) left off. The opening six words of Exodus, which name the sons of Jacob including the tradition that in total seventy individuals entered Egypt, mirrors exactly the first eight words of Genesis 46: 8. The family of the book of Genesis became a large nation whose story begins to be told here. The family has now become a people.

For the first time in the Torah the term “people” is applied in this chapter (Ex.1: 9) to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The phrase will occur in Exodus, 125 times.

Remarkably the one first using the classification of “people” or “nation” is not an Israelite but Pharaoh himself. After having lived in Egypt for almost four hundred years (Ex. 12: 40), the Egyptians do not see the Israelites as part of the Egyptian people but as strangers.

We know nothing of Israel’s religious situation in the Egyptian age nor of any cultural distinctiveness that could explain why after 400 years the Egyptians still looked at the “children of Israel” as foreigners. This of course raises plenty of questions regarding assimilation and the roots of anti-Semitism.

The only thing we know is that:

7*And the children of Israel were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased more and more, so that the land was filled with them.


8*A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph

The Torah was not concerned to inform us who this king was. By using the term “new king,” however, the book may want to probably indicate “the founder of a new dynasty.”

Only from what we are subsequently told about the store- cities we can indirectly infer, who is the monarch alluded by the text.

9*And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel is more numerous and vaster than we.

There is an evident element of exaggeration in the picture of Pharaoh’s fears that the Israelites would soon be more numerous than the Egyptians themselves. What this is, is the classic demographic anxiety: “too many of them, not enough of us.”

10*Come, let us be shrewd with them lest they multiply and then, should war occur, they will actually join our enemies and fight against us and go up from the land.”

Who are these “enemies” and why the Israelites are suspected of joining with them?

Numerous supporting pieces of evidence attest to the deep semitization  experienced at this time in northern Egypt, particularly the northeastern Delta. Semitic influences poured into Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1802 B.C.E.), when Canaan, Phoenicia and southern Syria belonged to the sphere of Egyptian suzerainty.

These Semites were everything, from lower class and slaves (called variously Shasu, ‘Apiru, Habiru) to a dynasty of Pharaohs (the Hyksos, the Fifteenth Dynasty (1650- 1550 B.C.E.).


The Hyksos occupation was a shameful humiliation for the Egyptians that had a profound effect upon the national psychology.

It is against this background that the opening chapter of the Book of Exodus becomes comprehensible.

Following the expulsion of the Hyksos, the Egyptians developed a severe case of xenophobia and tried to take precautions against any possibility of a Hyksos-type invasion in the future. The Semitic groups living in Egypt, who had been reduced to a servile status, were kept carefully under thumb.

Curiously, the theme of the Egyptian attempts to check Israelite increase is never really resolved. By the time we reach the goal of the narrative, the birth of Moses, the problem of Israelite proliferation is all but forgotten. “Having provided the backdrop for the birth account of Moses, the theme of pharaoh’s attempt to counter Israelite proliferation drops from the remainder of the exodus account.” [1]

11*So, they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Paharaoh: Pithom and Rameses

Forced labor was regularly imposed on prisoners of war and subjugated populations. Above all, it was the commonest means of punitive detention (there being no prisons, only a system of pretrial confinement). Those punished in this way were mostly consigned to backbreaking work in the quarries. Nothing would have seemed more natural in Egypt than to subject foreigners—especially prisoners of war.  The transition from conscripted labor, an accepted and far from dishonorable form of work in Egypt, to forced labor, which was considered highly demeaning owing to its punitive character and no doubt took place under conditions of strict supervision, presumably represents a first intensification of the repressive measures taken by the Egyptian state against the Israelites. The Hebrew concept of bêt ʿabdôt, “house of bondage,” refers to this institution of forced labor.” [2]

The TaNaKh, to be sure, never describes the Israelites as “slaves.”

“I’m just struck by the absence of that word “slave,” which is thrown about so casually everywhere else in the Bible (and which we repeat endlessly at the Passover Seder: “We were slaves in Egypt …”) “[3]

“This is the only passage in the Book of Exodus that refers directly to the time and place of the narrative.”[4]

 “Pithom and Rameses were cities in the delta region, part of a building project of Egypt’s nineteenth Dynasty. Because these cities were much more to the Egyptian than “store-cities,” however, they are used by the narrator primarily as symbols of oppression rather than as an effort to ground the story in historical reality.” [5]

“[…] the ‘store cities in Pithom and Ramses’ (Ex. 1: 11) […] probably went with the new residence in the eastern Delta constructed by the Ramessids in the middle of the thirteenth century (There is a broad consensus that this account is historically reliable, despite some differences over details).”[6]

““Pharaoh” itself simply means in Egyptian “The Great House,” just as “The Palace” or “The White House” or “City Hall” would be used today.

12*But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.
13*So, the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor

Tellingly, their oppression in Egypt and the religion that liberates them from it are both given the same Hebrew word here: aboda or ‘service’.

“[…]God helps the slave to go free by making the master more and more cruel. Somehow or other, wherever masters own slaves, the slaves seem willing to remain slaves so long as they get food and shelter. But after a while the master, in his cruelty, goes too far, and tries to make his slaves work for him without giving them what they need in order to live. He is not satisfied only to profit by their work. He tries to get more and more from them. In the end they rebel. This is the story of every revolution. If the rulers used their intelligence, they would understand that their slaves would be satisfied as long as they did not go hungry; but, in every case, God hardens the hearts of the rulers. They become greedy. They want everything for themselves, and do not trouble to think about their slaves. Then they are faced with rebellion.

Thus, there is a Force in the world that helps men become free by urging the oppressors to imitate Pharaoh. If we understand this correctly, we will see in every tyrant and oppressor a reminder to us that we must make use of the Power in us that demands freedom.”[7]

15*The king of Egypt spoke to the midwives of the Hebrew women, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,

Does pharaoh speak to the Hebrew midwives or he speaks to the midwives of the Hebrews? In other words, are the midwives Hebrew or Egyptian?

“The Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know to which people Shifra and Puah belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race.”[8]

“In a narrative which shows virtually no concern for names (pharaoh, pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ mother and father and sister remain unidentified), the names of these two women are recorded, thus assuring that they will be remembered throughout generations for their important contribution.” [9]

16*saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.
17*The midwives, fearing God, did not so as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.

There is no biblical Hebrew word that translated “conscience,” the biblical terms that comes closest to the character and role of conscience is “fear of God.” Faced with an irreconcilable conflict between obedience to the sovereign’s depraved law and allegiance to the higher moral law of God, the midwives chose in favor of the transcendent imperative of morality.”

The two midwifes, Shifrah and Puah, who disobey Pharoh’s order to kill every male Israelite child (Ex. 1:15-21), represent the first recorded incident of civil disobedience.

“[…] women nurture the revolution. The Hebrew midwives disobey Pharaoh. His own daughter thwarts him, and her maidens assist. This Egyptian princess schemes with female slaves, mother and daughter, to adopt a Hebrew child whom she names Moses. As the first to defy the oppressor, women alone take the initiative which leads to deliverance (Ex. 1: 15- 2:10). If Pharaoh had realized the power of these women, he might have reversed his decree (Ex. 1: 16, 22) and had females killed rather than males!” [10]

21*And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them

“This is the only mention of God in the whole introductory section (Ex. 1: 1- 2: 22), but still it does not related God directly to the Israelites. Those who feared God and received a reward from him were not, it would seem, Israelites.” [11]


[1] EXUM, CHERYL, J.: “You Shall Let Every Daughter Live”: A Study of Exodus 1: 8- 2: 10,” The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics, Semeia 28, 1983, p. 66

[2] ASSMANN, JAN: The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus (Kindle, loc. 2052)

[3] PLOTZ, DAVID: “Moses and God, the Sitcom,” “Blogging the Bible,” June 07, 2006

[4] ASSMANN, JAN: The Invention of Religion: Faith and Covenant in the Book of Exodus (Kindle, loc. 2033)

[5] FRETHEIM, TERENCE, E.: Exodus: Interpretation, (Kindle location p. 27)

[6] ALBERTZ, RAINER: A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period: Volume I: From the Beginnings to the End of the Monarchy, p. 44

[7] EISENSTEIN, IRA: What we mean by religion…, p. 131

[8] SACKS, JONATHAN: Covenant & Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption, (Kindle loc. 320)

[9] EXUM, CHERYL, J.: “You Shall Let Every Daughter Live”: A Study of Exodus 1: 8- 2: 10,” The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics, Semeia 28, 1983, p. 70

[10] TRIBLE, PHYLLIS: “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” in The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, Elizabeth Koltun, ed., p. 221

[11] PLASTARAS, JAMES: The God of Exodus, p. 41

Read more commentaries about the Book of Exodus from Rabbi Moshe Pitchon

Exodus-Chapter 2

  1. A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.
  2. The woman conceived and bore a son’ and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.
  3. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and place it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.

Nowhere does God appear to rescue the child; rather, everything has a ‘natural’ cause. Yet it is clear that the writer sees the mystery of God’s providence through the action of the humans involved.” [1]

4* And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.
5* The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it.

“Instead of “Pharaoh’s daughter” read “Hitler’s daughter” or “Stalin’s daughter” and we see what is at stake. […] That the Torah itself tells the story the way it does has enormous implications. It means that when it comes to people, we must never generalize, never stereotype. The Egyptians were not all evil: even from Pharaoh himself a heroine was born. Nothing could signal more powerfully that the Torah is not an ethnocentric text; that we must recognize virtue wherefore we find it, even among our enemies; and that the basic core of human values-humanity, compassion, courage- is truly universal. Holiness may not be; goodness is.”[1]

6* When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a body crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.”

“The infant Moses is saved by his mother Yocheved, who sets him adrift on the Nile, by his sister Miriam, who risks her life to track the basket, and by Pharaoh’s daughter, who draws him out of the river and raises him in contravention of her father’s commands. None of these women has a decree from God or his prophets to teach them that to save the child is right. The reasoning that leads them to this is entirely their own. (Ex. 2: 1-10).” [1]

“Here, as throughout the whole story, when we look for God’s providential action, it is to be found not in divine direct intervention but through the sagacity and resourcefulness of these women.” [2]

“An inherent narrative irony presents itself; without Moses there would be no story, but without the initiative of these women, there would be no Moses!” [3]

7* Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?”
8* And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So, the girl went and called the child’s mother
9. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So, the woman took the child and nursed it.
10* When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.”

Moses is in reality and Egyptian name, a shortened form of Egyptian names like Ahmosis, Thutmosis, etc. meaning ‘son,’ ‘child’ (Rameses “son of Ra,” Tutmose, “son of Tut.”).

This Egyptian name, however, recalled the Hebrew verb masa [‘draw out’], the princess had this in mind for she said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’ The TaNaKh possibly intends to indicate, that his child was destined to be ‘the deliverer [ of his people.’

Isaiah underscores the princess’ message by designating Moses as moshe amo , “the drawer-out of the nation,” Isa. 63: 11).

11* In those days, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his brothers and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers

The incident begins, “in those days” Which days?

Exodus is silent on what happened to Moses from the day he was rescued from the Nile until the day when, a grown man and a prince of Egypt, he wandered out of the palace and came upon a scene that opened his eyes to the fate of his brothers

Note the stress to identify Moses as ‘brother’ of the enslaved Hebrew

12* He turned this way and that way and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

Post biblical literature argues that the real motive for Moses to look “this way and that way,” was not to find out if there would be no-witnesses but to see if anyone else might intervene to protect the slave and thus spare Moses the task of spilling the blood of another human being. When he sees that no one else is willing and able to do what is necessary, Moses acts courageously to carry out what he sees as his solemn moral duty.

13* When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?”
14*He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known!

“A question had been raised which is just as relevant today as it was in pharaonic Egypt: what is the ultimate authority for the exercise of force when the authorities themselves engage in clandestine murder?” [1]

17* But shepherds came and drove them off. Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock.

“In the first two episodes (Ex. 2: 11-12, 13, 14) Moses plays the royal role of defending his people and adjudicating among them, and in the third he defends foreigners and strangers (Ex. 2: 16-17), showing that his passion for justice makes no distinctions between nations.”[1]

[1] BERLIN, ADELE & BRETTLER, ZVI, MARC: The Jewish Study Bible, p. 109

“Moses is unable to answer the question: “Who has appointed you ruler and judge over us” The episode narrated in Ex. 2: 11-15 serves to underline the hopelessness of the situation. Moses was powerless to save his brothers, even if they had wished to be saved by him.”[2]

15* When pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well.

Midian is a term that describes more an ethnic or political entity than a location, although archaeological research has safely demonstrated Midianite presence near the Gulf of Aqaba in the Sinai Peninsula.

“The Midianites among whom Moses took refuge were actually a confederation of semi-nomadic tribes, basically five in number. (Gen. 25: 2, 4; Num. 31: 8; Josh. 13: 21). They tanged over a very wide area of the Near East stretching from the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, up through the Syro-Arabian Desert, and into the border areas of the land of Israel, west and northwest of Elath.

The friendly relations between Israel and the Midianites that are reflected in the story of Moses are consonant with the account in Gen. 25: 2 that traces the lineage of Midian back to Abraham. They also accord with the later report in Ex. Chapter 18 of Midianite influence upon the organization of the Israelite judiciary system.

This amicable situation must be both authentic and quite early because toward the end of the period of the wilderness wandering and during the period of the Judges, relations between Israel and Midian were thoroughly hostile. (Num. 22: 4, 7; 25: 6-7, 16; 31: 1-12; Josh. 13: 21; Judg. Chaps. 6-8; Isa. 9: 3, 10: 26; Ps. 83: 10). No one, therefore, would likely have invented such stories depicting the Midianites in so favorable a light with very close kingship ties to Israel.” [1]


[1] SARNA, NAHUM, M.: Exploring Exodus: The Origins of  Biblical Israel, p. 35

[1] MENDENHALL, E. GEORGE: The Tenth Generation. The Origins of the Biblical Tradition, p. 20

[2] PLASTARAS, JAMES: The God of Exodus, p 45

[1] HAZONY, YORAM: The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, p. 229

[2] SCHULLER, EILEEN: “Women of the Exodus in Biblical Retellings of the Second Temple Period,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, Peggy L Day, (ed.), p. 180

[3] EXUM, CHERYL, J.: “You Shall Let Every Daughter Live”: A Study of Exodus 1: 8- 2: 10,” The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics, Semeia 28, 1983, p. 75

[1] SACKS, JONATHAN: Covenant & Conversation Exodus: The Book of Redemption, (Kindle loc. 415)

.[1] CHILDS, BREVARD, S.: The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, p. 13