The Book of Exodus

The book of Exodus tells the tale of Israel's liberation and birth, and of the beginning of God's covenanted nation.


Excerpted from The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, with the permission of UAHC Press.

Exodus is the book which speaks of the physical and spiritual birth of Israel as a nation. It contains the stories of enslavement and liberation, of revelation and wanderings, of belief and apostasy; it is the repository of fundamental laws and of the rules governing national worship. It has two settings, Egypt and the wilderness of Sinai, and its timeframe is the latter part of the 13th century B.C.E.

A Continuation of Genesis

It is important to see the book as a continuation of Genesis, which we described earlier as a tale of beginnings and of God‘s disappointments (see “Introducing Genesis”). After many trials and disillusionments, God chooses a particular people whom in time to come He will make His allies and helpers. He selects Abraham and Sarah as the ancestors of this nation‑to‑be, and the rest of Genesis is the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their families who will be the physical and spiritual forebears of the peofople Israel.

moses in basketDuring a severe famine Jacob and his children and grandchildren migrate to Egypt. They leave Canaan behind, the land which God had promised them as their permanent inheritance. Their fate will be now forged in a strange land, amidst a people who will turn from welcoming hosts into a nation of oppressors. It is at this point of change that the Book of Exodus begins it will tell of the fashioning of Israel, the people of God’s choice, the nation that God needs.

History and Faith

The tales of Genesis were a mixture of myth, legend, distant memory, and search for origins, bound together by the strands of a central theological concept. With Exodus, the Pentateuch enters the realm of history, albeit not history in the modern sense. The latter describes events which are rooted exclusively in the human realm; the former depicts the will of God as the hinge on which human events must turn. In that sense, Exodus is history grounded in faith. Thus, the escape of the Israelites from Egypt may be said to represent history in the accepted, contemporary meaning [though many scholars questions whether even this much took place historically]; that this was brought about by divine interference, and was so experienced by Israel, gives the tale of liberation an additional faith dimension.

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W. Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) was a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism. He was rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. Rabbi Plaut is the author of numerous books including The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Haftarah Commentary.

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