The second book of the Pentateuch is in many ways its centrepiece. Genesis is about Israel's ancestors, Exodus tells how they became a nation through the action of their God. It is Israel's foundation story, their identity document, telling them where they have come from and showing them their place in the world under God's sovereignty.
Is Exodus a work of history? That is, could it be appropriately put on the history shelves in a library? If we define a historical work as one whose ‘chief purpose is to trace the network of causation between events at a mundane level’ (Johnstone 1990: 31), then Exodus is not one. It portrays the entire sweep of events as the direct result of the purpose and intervention of God. Although people have sometimes tried to understand parts of the story as heightened accounts of natural sequences of events (see EX 7:6–11:10, EX 16, or EX 19 ), this flies in the face of the basic intention of the text, which is to relate the glorious works of God. Not only does God intervene directly in an astonishing series of powerful acts, but he himself appears on the scene several times in more or less plainly visible forms (see EX 3:1–6 ). The writers draw freely on imagination or legend to create the scenes which we read. The historical setting is only very hazily sketched in. In brief, Exodus is not the kind of history recognized by the Greeks or by modern historians.
Yet several points show that its intention is to relate, however imaginatively, a story of the actual past, not a simple fiction. The story focuses on a people of history and is part of a continuous narrative (Genesis to 2 Kings) which takes their story down to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE; and there are links with earlier and later parts of this narrative. Often the story serves to explain known facts, such as the name of Israel's God (see 3:13–15 ). Occasionally, chronological information is given, as in 12:40 . If the writing of history can be defined as imaginatively re-creating a people's past so that they may understand themselves in the present, then Exodus is a work of history. As such, it has literary, historical, and theological aspects, which we shall briefly look at in turn in this introduction.