The book of Exodus is the story of God rescuing the children of Israel from Egypt and forging a special relationship with them. Exodus is the second book of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses), and it’s where we find the stories of the Ten Plagues, the first Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, and the Ten Commandments.
The book gets its name from the nation of Israel’s mass emigration from Egypt, but that’s only the first part of the story. This book follows Israel out of Egypt into the desert, where the nation is specifically aligned with God (as opposed to the idols of Egypt and the surrounding nations). This is the book in which God first lays out his expectations for the people of Israel—we know these expectations as the 10 Commandments. Most of the Old Testament is about how Israel meets (or fails to meet) these expectations. So if you want to understand any other book of the Old Testament, you’ll need a basic understanding of what happens in Exodus.
Important characters in Exodus
Exodus has a tight cast of important characters to keep an eye on.
God (Yahweh)—the creator of heaven and earth and the divine being who chooses the nation of Israel to represent him on earth. God goes to war against the gods of Egypt, frees Israel from their tyranny, and then makes a pact with the new nation. While the rest of the nations serve lesser gods, Yahweh selects the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the people group that will serve him and him alone.
Moses—the greatest of the Old Testament prophets who serves as a go-between for God and the other humans in the book of Exodus. Moses negotiates with Pharaoh for Israel’s freedom, passes God’s laws on to the people of Israel, and even pleads for mercy on Israel’s behalf when they anger God.
Aaron—Moses’ brother and right hand. Aaron assists Moses as a spokesperson, and eventually is made the high priest of the nation of Israel.
Pharaoh—the chief antagonist in the Exodus story. Pharaoh enslaves the nation of Israel, commits genocide, and is generally a huge jerk. .Pharaoh is worshiped as part of the Egyptian pantheon: a lesser god laying an illegitimate claim to God’s people. God defeats Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt by sending a series of ten devastating plagues, and finally destroying Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.
Key themes in Exodus
Exodus is all about God making Israel his own. God rescues the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (whom he made some important promises to back in Genesis). Then, he gives them his expectations—a list of dos and don’ts. Finally, God sets up camp in the midst of the new nation: they are his people, and he is their God.
When God gives Israel the Ten Commandments, he frames them by stating his relationship to the Hebrews. This verse sums up the themes of Exodus nicely:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Ex 20:2)
It’s hard to miss this one! The entire book is about God hearing Israel’s cries for help, rescuing them from their oppressors, and making them his own.
Like the rest of the Torah, covenant is a big theme here. God makes a solemn, binding agreement with the people of Israel, establishing himself as their god and them as his people. This relationship comes with certain expectations, with benefits for the Israelites if they uphold their end of the agreement, and consequences if they do not.
Toward the beginning of the book, the cries of Israel rise up to God, who hears them and remembers his promises to Abraham back in Genesis. In the middle of the book, God meets Israel in the wilderness: he is high atop a mountain, and they are on the plain below. God is closer to the people, but still a ways off. However, by the end of the book, God is dwelling in the middle of Israel’s camp in the wilderness. Moses believes that it is God’s presence among the people that sets Israel apart from every other nation in the world (Exod 33:16).
This is related to the theme of covenant—specifically, the expectations God has for the people of Israel. From chapter 20 onward, we start seeing more and more directives for the people on how to live as the people of God.