Introduction to Exodus
The book of Exodus opens and closes with Israel at work. At the onset, the Israelites are at work for the Egyptians. By the book’s end, they have finished the work of building the tabernacle according to the Lord's instructions (Exod. 40:33). God did not deliver Israel from work. He set Israel free for work. God released them from oppressive work under the ungodly king of Egypt and led them to a new kind of work under his gracious and holy kingship. Although the book’s title in Christian Bibles, “Exodus,” means “the way out,” the forward-leaning orientation of Exodus could legitimately lead us to conclude that the book is really about the way in, for it recounts Israel’s entrance to the Mosaic covenant that will frame their existence, not only in the wilderness wanderings around the Sinai Peninsula but also in their settled life in the Promised Land. The book conveys how Israel ought to understand their God, and how this nation should work and worship in their new land. On all counts, Israel must be mindful of how their life under God would be distinct from and better than life for those who followed the gods of Canaan. Even today, what we do in work flows from why we do it and for whom we are ultimately working. We usually don’t have to look very far in society to find examples of harsh and oppressive work. Certainly, God wants us to find better ways to conduct our business and to treat others. But the way into that new way of acting depends on seeing ourselves as recipients of God’s salvation, knowing what God’s work is, and training ourselves to follow his words.
The book of Exodus begins about four hundred years after the point where Genesis ends. In Genesis, Egypt had been a hospitable place where God providentially elevated Joseph so that he could save the lives of Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 50:20). This accords well with God’s promises to make Abraham into a great nation, to bless him and make him a blessing to others, to make his name great, and to bless all families of the earth through him (Gen. 12:2-3). In the book of Exodus, however, Egypt was an oppressive place where Israel’s growth raised the specter of death. The Egyptians hardly saw Israel as a divine blessing, though they did not want to let go of their slave labor. In the end, Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea cost Pharaoh and his people many lives. In light of God’s promises to Abraham’s chosen family and God’s intentions to bless the nations, the people of God in the book of Exodus are very much in transition. The magnitude of Israel’s numbers indicated God’s favor, yet the next generation of male children faced immediate extinction (Exod. 1:15-16). The nation as a whole was still not in the land God had promised to them.
The entire Pentateuch echoes this theme of partial fulfillment. God’s promises to Abraham of descendants, favored relationship with God, and a land in which to live all express God’s intentions, yet they are all in some state of jeopardy throughout the narrative. Among the five books of the Pentateuch, Exodus in particular takes up the element of relationship with God, both in terms of God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt and the establishment of his covenant with them at Sinai. This is especially significant for how we read the book for insights about our work today. We value the shape and content of this book as we remember that our relationship with God through Jesus Christ flows from what we see here, and it orients all of our life and work around God’s intentions.
To capture Israel’s character as a nation in transition, we outline the book and assess its contribution to the theology of work according to the geographical stages of its journey beginning in Egypt, then at the Red Sea and on the way to Sinai, and finally at Sinai itself.
In Hebrew, the title is simply shemot, the word for “names of,” which appears in the first sentence.
David J. A. Clines, Theme of the Pentateuch, 2nd ed. (London: T&T Clark, 1997), 29.
David J. A. Clines, Theme of the Pentateuch, 2nd ed. (London: T&T Clark, 1997), 47.