Wĕʾēlleh šĕmôt begins the book of Exodus, “And these are the names.” This phrase serves as the Hebrew name for Exodus, and as a convenient linking of its narrative with the preceding narratives in the canon. Indeed, the beginning of the list of the descendants of Israel in Genesis 46.8 employs precisely the same words as does Exodus 1.1, and much as the narrative of Genesis 12–50 is concerned with the promise of Yahweh to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of progeny and land, the narrative of the book of Exodus is concerned with various dimensions of the fulfillment of that promise.


Most of the book of Exodus is prose, as straightforward narrative, as lists of laws in apodictic (universal) or casuistic (specific case) form, or as instructions related in one way or another to worship. One important section is poetry (15.1b–18, 21), and there is one three‐line poetic stanza at 32.18.

The subject matter of the book of Exodus is far more disparate in content than in form. There are narratives about Moses alongside narratives of Israel's oppression, and narratives of the intransigence of the Pharaoh of Egypt alongside narratives of rescue and provision by Yahweh. There are instructions appropriate to an agricultural setting alongside instructions appropriate to an urban life. There are dramatic accounts of the coming and appearance of Yahweh alongside the most elaborate descriptions of the objects designed to suggest and memorialize Yahweh's nearness. There are stories intended to prove that Yahweh is present alongside stories of Israel's fear of both his presence and his absence. And there are reports of the authentication of Yahweh's representative alongside the instructions for the ordination and the specifications of the vestments designed to symbolize that authority.

All these quite different sequences are set into a loose geographical and chronological framework. For roughly the first third of the book of Exodus, the setting is Egypt (1.1–13.16). For the next five chapters, the setting is the wilderness en route to Sinai (13.17–18.27). And for just over the second half of the book, as also for Leviticus and nearly the first third of Numbers (through Num. 10.11), the setting is the plain before Mount Sinai (19.1–40.38). The chronological sequence of the book extends from the rise of a new dynasty in Egypt some time after Joseph's death to the birth of Moses in the context of a bitter oppression of Israel, through Moses' growth to maturity, his flight to Midian, his call there and his return to Egypt to lead Israel, through the sequence of the mighty acts demonstrating Yahweh's presence with his people, through the event of the Exodus and Israel's deliverance at the sea (see Red Sea) to the subsequent journey in the wilderness to Sinai. There, after an appropriate preparation, Israel experienced the advent of Yahweh, received the revelation of the “ten words” (Exod. 34.28; see Ten Commandments) and the gift of covenant relationship. The remainder of the sequence of Exodus, involving special instructions for the apparatus and personnel of worship, the rebellion involving the golden calf, Yahweh's punishment and mercy, the renewal of the covenant relationship, and the execution of the special instructions all occurs within what is represented as a brief period of time.

Unfortunately, there is no way to locate this admittedly loose chronological sequence with any precision, either in an Egyptian setting or in a wilderness setting. A wide variety of dates has been suggested, from the first half of the fifteenth century BCE to the early part of the thirteenth century BCE.

Literary Structure.

From the beginning of critical inquiry into the Bible, the disparity of the various sections of the book of Exodus has been noted, and during the latter third of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth, this disparity was generally attributed to the differences in vocabulary, style, and interest of the Pentateuchal or, more recently, Tetrateuchal sources. The Yahwistic (J) and Elohistic (E) sources were regarded as present, usually in a kind of foundational amalgam onto which the Priestly (P) material had been grafted or attached as extended addenda here and there. In commentaries published in the sixty years following 1875, the assignment of verses and verse fragments to these “documentary” sources was made with both assurance and precision. This procedure sometimes led, however, to an absurd fragmentation of the text of Exodus, so much so that the source hypothesis came to be put forward with more caution, and eventually to be emphasized or deemphasized according to the format of a given commentary series and the interests of individual authors.

Attention to the motifs underlying these sources has led to a larger view of the book of Exodus, both as a part of a continuing narrative and also as a whole within itself. Exodus continues a narrative begun by Genesis and provides the foundation for another continued by Numbers and Deuteronomy (see Pentateuch). Indeed, Exodus is a foundation for the entire Bible, for it sets forth a kind of first presentation of the themes of coming and presence, relationship and responsibility, which are so much a part of the biblical message. (see Exodus, The.)

The literary structure of the book of Exodus is certainly composite, whether by that one means the joining of traditions, the weaving of sources, or the exposition of themes. There is, however, an important sense in which Exodus is in itself a whole, one that needs to be taken seriously. Whatever may lie behind the book, in a literary history that can only be speculated, the canonical text of Exodus presents a whole that cannot be denied, whether or not it can be understood. On a first reading, that whole may appear somewhat more disjointed than it really is, in part because of the prejudice of years of thinking of the book of Exodus in pieces. A closer reading reveals a literary structure that is not only deliberate but also quite effective in organization.

Composition and Compilation.

The composition of the book of Exodus took place over a long period of time. That much is established by the patchwork nature of the book's literary structure. Yet just how long that period of time may have been, or just when it may have begun, can only be speculated. No assignment of any part of the book of Exodus to a definite author can be made; many minds are evident in the forty chapters that comprise the book.

Tradition has ascribed Exodus, along with the other four of the first five books of the Bible, to Moses, both because of his significant role as Yahweh's representative and also on the basis of such references as Deuteronomy 1.1; 2 Kings 14.6; Ezra 6.18; 2 Chronicles 25.4; and Mark 12.26. This tradition and such references were probably never intended to suggest a Mosaic authorship, but rather to establish a Mosaic authority, a kind of guarantee of an ancient and accurate record. From the earliest history of the Bible, the book of Exodus has been recognized as a collage of sometimes conflicting and often very different traditions. Also from an early period, both Jewish (Philo, Josephus, the Talmud) and Christian literature have connected Moses with the Pentateuch, and for appropriate reasons. The historicity of Moses is the most reasonable assumption to be made about him. There is no viable argument why Moses should be regarded as a fiction of pious necessity. His removal from the scene of Israel's beginnings as a theocratic community would leave a vacuum that simply could not be explained away. Moses may be connected with the earliest substratum of the book of Exodus, specifically with the accounts of call and theophany and perhaps also with the Ten Commandments. What cannot be said, of course, is that there are, anywhere in Exodus or in the Bible, words that can be said certainly to be Moses' own.

What may be proposed in theoretical reconstruction of the composition of the book of Exodus is a substratum of narrative, cultic instruction, covenant formulary, hymnody, authorization sequences, etiological legends, and wilderness routes, gathered across the years from the time of the Exodus itself until at least the postexilic period of Israel's history. Through that period of approximately seven centuries, the book of Exodus was being composed and, in a sense, recomposed, as the gathering strata that comprise the canonical book were created, then joined, often in new arrangement. It is through these centuries that the process of composition became a process of compilation, and the canonical book is the product of this latter process.

The compilation of Exodus was by no means the haphazard arbitrary shuffle frequently implied by literary‐critical essayists and commentators. Too much attention is given to the book of Exodus that might have been, and not enough to the book that is. The discontinuity and disparity in content, style, vocabulary, and organization are the result of an inevitable variation in source material, along with the growth of the book to its present form across a lengthy period of time. By no means are they the sign of careless or ignorant editorial work. Indeed, given this inevitable variation, the book of Exodus displays a remarkable unity of purpose and wholeness of organization.

The material often regarded as intrusive and even disruptive of the sequence of Exodus, such as the “Book of the Covenant” (20.22–23.33), and the two Priestly sections dealing with the media of Israel's worship (25.1–31.18 and 35.1–40.38), may be seen as deliberately placed pieces of a whole concept. The “Book of the Covenant” functions not as a displaced collection of loosely assembled laws, but as a practical and specific application of the principles of relationship set forth in the Ten Commandments. And the section on the symbols and acts and ministers of worship in Yahweh's presence are logically located, even in a narrative sequence that they disrupt. The revelation of the instructions for the creation of the media of such worship is placed immediately after the long composite narrative describing the promise of Yahweh's presence, the demonstration of Yahweh's presence, and the advent of Yahweh's presence, brought to a climax by the establishment of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. The report of the fulfillment of those instructions is appropriately placed after the narratives describing the breaking of the covenant relationship, the consequent judgment upon Israel, the return of Yahweh's presence, and the renewal of the covenant commitment. The places of worship and their furnishings are not to be constructed until the relationship between Yahweh and Israel has been reestablished, and only when all the work of building has been determined to be in exact accord with Yahweh's direction does his presence settle upon the tabernacle (Exod. 39.42–43; 40.34).

An even more dramatic example of the literary and thematic unity of Exodus as a compilation is provided by Exodus 18, a chapter often considered dislocated in the narrative sequence of the book because it describes events that occur in the camp at the foot of Sinai/Horeb before Israel is said to have reached there and because it is concerned with the administration of Yahweh's requirements before they have actually been given. These inconsistencies of narrative sequence cannot, of course, have gone unnoticed by the compilers of the book of Exodus, so some other reason must be sought for the location of Exodus 18 where it now stands in the received text instead of after chap. 24 or even after chap. 34—a reason that sets aside the advantages of logical or chronological sequence. That reason is to be found in a thematic consideration: the reunion of Moses with his Midianite family, specifically Jethro, particularly in company with his people Israel freed from bondage in Egypt, amounts to an important reuniting of the two parts of a family divided by the expulsion of Cain (Gen. 4.10–16), by Abraham's sending forth of Keturah's sons (Gen. 25.1–6) and his disinheriting of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 21.8–21), and by the conflict between Jacob and Esau (Gen. 25.19–34; 27.1–45; 28.6–9; 32.3–6; 33.1–20). The redactors who compiled the book of Exodus were eager to have a reunited family of Israel before the great theophany and covenant‐making at Sinai, and so they set what is now Exodus 18 where they did, ignoring other considerations.


What makes the book of Exodus as it stands a carefully organized whole is neither literary form nor authorship, neither historical sequence nor uniformity of content. Exodus is bound together by a theological intention: the presentation by narrative, by didactic device, by song, by dialogue, by legal specification, by liturgical arrangement, by a round of festival and solemn ceremony, by high drama, by symbol, by a witty and very direct picture of human nature, and by a soaring depiction of the majesty and the mystery of God, of theological themes that are foundational to the Bible and to Judaism and Christianity, as well as to Islam.

The most important of these theological themes is the repeated assertion that Yahweh is present in the ongoing daily life of Israel, his people of promise and covenant. This theme functions as a kind of center from and to which other themes are connected, as spokes to a hub. Yahweh, who made promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is present and hence those promises are being kept; with the development of that assertion, the book of Exodus is begun. Yahweh, to be present with his people, must come to them, must bring them to himself; thus, there are in Exodus the narratives of his advent, in chaps. 3 and 4, 19 and 20, 24, 33 and 34, and 40. Yahweh must be known to be present, by his people and by those who would oppose them alike: therefore a proof‐of‐the‐presence sequence, dramatically moved forward by Pharaoh's recalcitrance, increasing in seriousness and brought to a climax in the deliverance at the sea, is provided.

If Yahweh is present, his people will be cared for; so there are accounts of guidance through a great and terrible wilderness, and stories of the provision of water and foodstuff in the form of the manna and the quails. Because Yahweh is present, the enemies of his people must be bested; as a result, the Egyptian learned men are in due course frustrated, the Egyptians are humbled and despoiled, Pharaoh himself is defeated, and Amalek is vanquished at Rephidim. Since Yahweh is present, his people should know that presence in a unique manner; hence, he prepares them and comes to them at Sinai/Horeb, having given them already through Moses his unique and descriptive name, a name suggesting his very nature as the “one who really is” (see Tetragrammaton). The presence of Yahweh realized can only mean a response of some kind; thus, Yahweh gives his guidance for life in his presence, in the Ten Commandments, and opens himself to his people in covenant with them. The direction of life in Yahweh's presence involves a concrete application of the broad principles of life in relationship with him; therefore the Ten Commandments are applied by a rambling collection of specific case provisions.

The living memory of Yahweh's proof of his presence to Israel is essential for the generations to come; thus, provision is made for the seasonal reenactment of event, in the ritual testimony of the requirement of the firstborn, the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of the Passover, and perhaps even a covenant‐renewal festival (see Exod. 19.4–6 and 24.3–8). (see Feasts and Festivals). A constant reminder of Yahweh present among his people is also important; hence, the lengthy and detailed chapters on the media of worship, media that symbolize the circles of nearness to Yahweh's presence in the tabernacle of Israel's devotional life, moving from the primary symbol of Yahweh's presence, the Ark in the holiest space, to the altar of wholly consumed offerings in the circle of the outer court, the area of preparation for entry into Yahweh's presence in worship. The instructions for the creation of the media of worship (Exod. 25–31) are ended with the specification of the Sabbath as a sign in perpetuity of relationship with Yahweh present. The narrative of the fulfillment of those instructions (Exod. 35–40) is begun with this emphasis on the Sabbath, and ended with an account of the settling of Yahweh's presence onto the place of worship erected in their midst. Thus, the theology of Yahweh present is asserted in the book of Exodus as a presence incarnate in both the worship and the life of Israel.

Appropriately, the extended sequence of symbol is interrupted, between instruction and fulfillment of instruction, by a narrative of disobedience and forgiveness that affords a context for still other motifs of the theology of coming and nearness. Israel's sin of the golden calf is a fundamental violation of the covenant relationship, involving disobedience to at least the first two of the Ten Commandments. As a result, Israel falls under the threat of the cancellation of the gift of Yahweh's presence, in effect a negation of the remainder of the book of Exodus. In a narrative filled with tension, Israel is judged and forgiven, and Moses witnesses a unique revelation, by Yahweh, of his own nature and attitude (Exod. 34.6–7), a revelation that extends the earlier revelation of his unique name, at the time of Moses' call. It is a sequence that provides a setting for two additional symbols of Yahweh's nearness, the tent of promised presence (Exod. 33.7–11) and the shining face of Moses (Exod. 34.29–35).

In the book of Exodus, one is brought to the thematic beginning of the Bible. For in Exodus, the biblical story and its major themes are presented, in narrative, in symbol, in expectation, or in promise. The book that begins “And these are the names” ends with a declaration that the cloud of Yahweh's presence, filling the tabernacle, provided for all Israel a vision of Yahweh's nearness to them by day and by night. And there, given all that lies between that beginning and that ending, one is in the middle of a story that is unfolding still.

John I Durham