The second book of the Pentateuch. If Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war (431–404 BCE) attempted to narrate events accurately and trace their causes and consequences and as such is to be taken as a model of ancient historical writing, then Exodus is not a work of history of the same order. It is, rather, a description of events in Hebrew memory portrayed in such a way that the nation could understand and value itself. It takes its title from the Greek LXX and means ‘departure’; it is divided by scholars, like other parts of the Pentateuch, into the sources J, E, and P, with the greatest parts in this book being assigned to J and P. The book consists of an account of the birth and calling of Moses (chs. 2 to 6); the contest between Moses and Pharaoh, and the plagues, culminating in the death of the first-born (chs. 7 to 12); the march out of Egypt (chs. 13 to 15); wanderings in the wilderness (chs. 15: 22 to 18); and the meetings at the mountain (chs. 19 to 40).

In the J source God is the primary agent of the exodus and Moses little more than his mouthpiece. But there is much rebellion and murmuring amongst the people, culminating in the construction of the golden, or molten, calf (Exod. 32), a story which seems to reflect the apostasy of the northern kingdom under Jeroboam (about 920 BCE), who set up golden calves for worship in Daniel and Bethel. It could be that this source in Exodus was written to reassure loyal believers living in the north under Jeroboam—God’s promises still hold good, even after backsliding.

The P narrative contains some of the stories of the plagues and the defeat of the magicians, and the inauguration of the covenant at Sinai. This was the decisive moment in the nation’s realization of itself as the people of Yahweh, when all the pain of the wanderings since they abandoned the fleshpots of Egypt (Exod. 16: 3), found a significance. The P narrative concentrates on instructions for sacrifices and worship, which was of vital interest to Jews after the Return from Exile when the Temple was being restored: from 520 BCE it became the focus of the nation’s very life, replacing in that role the dynasty of David. What was formerly a Canaanite agricultural festival in spring was taken over and turned into the annual commemoration of the Exodus so that it should never be forgotten. The festival was Passover and Unleavened Bread.

A reader of the book of Exodus might discern in the J source a hope that in spite of rebellion and discontinuity at Sinai God does not forsake his people; in P a reader might infer that between Sinai and the second Temple there is a divine continuity. A modern reader might express astonishment that descendants of a group of slaves who fled out of Egypt over 3,000 years ago still survive in spite of all the vicissitudes of history, in the land those Hebrews then invaded. Modern readers in South America or Africa or Asia living under oppression and in poverty have been inspired by the account in Exodus of a people’s liberation and it has legitimized their own aspirations.