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.

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The stories of enslavement and release are not attested by extrabiblical  sources. There are scholars who therefore consider these memories to be pious constructions, folktales, and frameworks for the exaltation of Israel's God. But this is a minority view. Rather, it is generally agreed that no people would freely invent a history of slavery and that the events told in the first chapters of the book have a historical basis. The name Raamses (1:11) probably refers to Ramses II, who belonged to the Nineteenth Dynasty and reigned from 1304‑1237 (B.C.E.). Either he or his son Merneptah was the pharaoh of the Exodus.

Who Were the People Enslaved in Egypt?

They were Hebrews, possibly those who had come to Egypt from Canaan when the Hyksos ruled and were enslaved when the latter fell from power in the 16th century B.C.E. The Hebrews were apparently an aggregate of tribal and/or social groupings who traced their origins to a common ancestor, a legendary, "eponymous" father figure Jacob. Certain scholars believe that only a few tribes (those identified with Joseph and Benjamin, the "Rachel" tribes) were lodged in Egypt, while other Hebrew groupings (the "Leah" tribes) never left Canaan, and that all these tribes joined hands during the invasion.

This highly speculative theory has not been taken into account in the preparation of this commentary. Rather, we have proceeded from the text as it now stands, and in this way--after its final redaction--it has been accepted by Israel and has exerted an enormous influence. Whether or not the events happened exactly as described is in the final instance less important than the way in which they were experienced and comprehended. Whether or not God "objectively" rescued Israel from Egypt is a question to which no historian can provide an answer. But Exodus, the repository of Israel's experience, says that He did, and on this basis history and faith together have shaped the minds and hearts of Israel…

Literary Aspects

The material contained in Exodus may be classified as consisting of biography, narrative, poetry, law, and archival records. A number of major and minor motifs are clearly discernible, some of which are paralleled in other biblical literature and in ancient Near Eastern texts.

The three major motifs are:

The wilderness theme: A person or nation has to be isolated and refined by trial in the desolate desert.

The covenant theme: The divine or earthly suzerain and his vassal enter into a treaty which sets forth the obligations of both partners.

The exaltation theme: The deity is exalted in hymn and enthroned in a special structure.

Among the minor motifs are:

The deity overcomes the powers of the deep and commands the sea.

An infant who is to become ruler or savior is exposed to the elements and is wondrously rescued.

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Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut

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.