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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Thora-EXODUS, part 1 -Uwe Rosenkranz


Commentary by NAHUM M. SARNA
5751 / 1991
Exodus Commentary © 1991 by The Jewish Publication Society

Masoretic Hebrew text, Codex Leningrad B19A, taken from
Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) © 1967/77, 1983, by the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart
Synagogue adaptation and revised format © 1989 by The Jewish Publication Society

English translation of the Torah © 1962, 1985, 1989 by the Jewish Publication Society

All rights reserved First edition

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Sarna, Nahum M.
Exodus: the traditional Hebrew text with the new JPS translation /
commentary by Nahum M. Sarna.—1st ed.
p. cm.—(The JPS Torah commentary)
English and Hebrew; commentary in English
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 0-8276-0327-4
1. Bible. O.T. Exodus—Commentaries. I. Bible. O.T. Exodus.
Hebrew. 1991. II. Bible. O.T. Exodus. English. Jewish
Publication Society. 1991. III. Title. IV. Series.
BS1245.3.S27 1991 90-41773
222’.12077—dc20 CIP

Genesis ISBN 0-8276-0362-6
Leviticus ISBN 0-8276-0328-2
Numbers ISBN 0-8276-0329-0
Deuteronomy ISBN 0-8276-0330-4
Five-volume set ISBN 0-8276-0331-2

The JPS Commentary Project
Jerome J. Shestack Chairman
Joseph L. Mendelson Vice Chairman

Designed by Adrianne Onderdonk Dudden

In the last century, a new way of looking at the Bible developed. Research into the ancient Near East and its texts recreated for us the civilizations out of which the Bible emerged. In this century, there has been a revival of Jewish biblical scholarship; Israeli and American scholars, in particular, concentrating in the fields of archaeology, biblical history, Semitic languages, and the religion of Israel, have opened exciting new vistas into the world of the Scriptures. For the first time in history, we have at our disposal information and methodological tools that enable us to explore the biblical text in a way that could never have been done before. This new world of knowledge, as seen through the eyes of contemporary Jewish scholars and utilizing at the same time the insights of over twenty centuries of traditional Jewish exegesis, is now available for the first time to a general audience in The JPS Torah Commentary.
The Commentary is published in five volumes, each by a single author who has devoted himself to the study of the text. Given the wide range of perspectives that now exist in biblical scholarship, the JPS has recognized the individual expertise of these authors and made no attempt to impose uniformity on the methodology or content of their work.
The Hebrew text is that of the Leningrad Codex B 19A, the oldest dated manuscript of the complete Hebrew Bible. Copied from a text written by the distinguished Masoretic scholar Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, who lived in the first half of the 10th century C.E., the manuscript was completed in 1009 C.E. In this edition it has been arranged according to the weekly synagogue Torah readings. The format has been adjusted to correspond to that adopted by the TANAKH, the new translation of the Hebrew Bible, published by the Jewish Publication Society and utilized in the present Commentary.
In this text, the cantillation differs in minor details from that in the Tikkunim used by Torah readers and should not be used to prepare Torah readings for the synagogue or to “correct” Torah readers.
The Jewish Publication Society has completed this project with a full awareness of the great tradition of Jewish Bible commentary, with a profound sense of the sanctity of the biblical text and an understanding of the awe and love that our people has accorded its Bible. The voice of our new Commentary resounds with the spirit and concerns of our times—just as the Jewish spirit has always found its most sincere and heartfelt expression in its appreciation of the Bible; yet it acknowledges the intrinsic value of the tools of modern scholarship in helping to establish the original sense and setting of Scripture.
With all this fixed firmly in mind, the Jewish Publication Society commits its good name and its decades of pioneering in the world of English-language Jewish publishing to this Torah Commentary with the hope that it will serve as the contemporary addition to the classic commentaries created by Jews during past epochs in Jewish history.


And the knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of sky,
וְהַ֨מַּשְׂכִּילִ֔ים יַזְהִ֖רוּ כְּזֹ֣הַר הָרָקִ֑יעַ
And those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.
וּמַצְדִּיקֵי֙ כַּכּוֹכָבִ֖ים לְעוֹלָ֣ם וָעֶֽד
Daniel 12:3
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Rosalie and Joseph Cohen

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In honor of their children and grandchildren

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and brother, Fred Brenner

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and Clara Ruth Schleifer

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GENESIS Nahum M. Sarna
EXODUS Nahum M. Sarna
LEVITICUS Baruch A. Levine
NUMBERS Jacob Milgrom
DEUTERONOMY Jeffrey H. Tigay
For my grandchildren

While, of course, I take sole responsibility for the entire contents of this book, I must acknowledge my great indebtedness to several persons: to Chaim Potok for his skilled editorial labors and the innumerable improvements he made in my manuscript; to Sheila F. Segal, who also edited the book and much enhanced its style; to Marvin Fox, who was kind enough to read the entire Commentary with a critical, scholarly eye and who freely imparted of his learning and insights, from which I have greatly profited. Diane W. Zuckerman and Elissa Biren of the staff of The Jewish Publication Society, Ilene Cohen, the copy editor, and Adrianne Onderdonk Dudden, who designed the volume, have all rendered exemplary service in the production of The Commentary. I take this opportunity to thank Nehama Stampfer Glogower, who typed the entire manuscript and made several very helpful suggestions, Saul Isserow and Lee Mondshein, as well as my sons, David and Jonathan, for their contributions. I am grateful to Saul Leeman for his valuable comments and typographical corrections. I am indebted to the staffs of the libraries of Brandeis University, the Hebrew College, Boston, and the Library of Congress. Finally, I must express my deep appreciation, however inadequately, to my wife, Helen, for her patience, encouragement, and self-sacrifice, all of which enabled me to complete this book.

Nahum M. Sarna


The Commentary to Exodus

Reversal of Fortune
The Birth and Youth of Moses
The Commissioning of Moses
The Challenge of Leadership: Initial Failure
Divine Reaffirmation
The Plagues
The Last Act
Commemorative Rituals
The Exodus
The Song at the Sea: Shirat ha-Yam
Crises in the Wilderness: Water, Food, Amalekites
Jethro’s Visit and the Organization of the Judiciary
The Covenant at Sinai
The Book of the Covenant: The Laws

The Tabernacle
Instructions for the Tabernacle
The Installation of the Priests
An Appendix to the Instructions
Violation of the Covenant: The Golden Calf
Renewal of the Covenant
The Construction of the Tabernacle

Excursuses to the Exodus Commentary

1. The Hebrews
2. The Abandoned Hero Motif
3. “God of the Father”
4. ʾEl Shaddai
5. Tefillin
6. Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Law

Weekly Torah Readings from the Book of Exodus

Ki Tissaʾ

The Title

The commonly known Hebrew title for the second book of the Torah is Shemot, shortened from the opening words veʾelleh shemot. This follows an ancient and widespread Near Eastern practice of naming a literary work by its initial word or words. In Genesis Rabba we find the full title: Sefer ʾElleh Shemot, “The Book of ‘These are the Names.’ ” The Hebrew name was transliterated in Greek as oualesmoth and was used in Latin Bibles in the form of Hebraica veelle semoth.
Another ancient Hebrew name was sefer yetsiʾat mitsrayim, “The Book of the Departure from Egypt,” expressing its central theme. The Jews of Alexandria, Egypt, in preChristian times, rendered this title in Greek as Exodos Aigyptou, abbreviated simply as Exodos, which is how it appears in the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Torah into Greek. This was adopted for use in the Old Latin version of the Bible (pre-fourth century C.E.) in the form of Exodus and so passed into the Vulgate and through it into numerous European languages. Another Greek rendering of the Hebrew title was Exagoge, “The Leading Out/The Departure [from Egypt].” The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E.) used this name and offered his belief that Moses himself had designated the Hebrew title behind it. Exagoge must have been quite well known in Egypt, for the Hellenistic Jewish tragedian Ezekiel (latest date, mid first century B.C.E.) composed a drama by that name.
The Hebrew title sefer yetsiʾat mitsrayim was still current in Palestine in the tenth century C.E., for it is cited in the Dikdukei Ha-Teʿamim (§70) by the Masoretic scholar Aaron ben Moses ben Asher.
Still a third Hebrew name for the book is mentioned in the Talmud: Ḥomesh Sheni, “The Second Fifth [of the Torah].”
The Torah Readings

Present-day editions divide the Book of Exodus into forty chapters. This practice is not rooted in Jewish tradition but was borrowed from Christian Bibles. In the late Middle Ages, the Church forced Jews to engage in disputations, which usually focused upon the interpretation of scriptural passages. This necessitated a common, standardized system of reference, and so the Christian chapter and verse numberings were introduced into the Hebrew manuscript Bibles by Rabbi Solomon ben Ishmael (ca. 1330).
This innovation displaced an earlier Jewish system based upon the weekly Torah readings. In Palestine and Egypt, the entire Pentateuch was originally completed in triennial, or three-year, cycles. The Book of Exodus was variously divided into twenty-nine or thirty-three such sedarim, as the weekly Sabbath readings were called. Eventually, the Babylonian practice of completing the entire Torah in the course of a single year became universal. In this system, the Book of Exodus is divided into eleven sections, each known as a parashah (pl., parashot or parshiyyot) or sidra(h) (pl., sedarot).
The Contents and Character

Using the criterion of geographic location, one may divide Exodus into three parts. Chapters 1:1 to 15:21, which describe the oppression of Israel as well as the struggle for liberation and its final attainment, obviously have as their setting the land of Egypt. The events recorded in chapters 15:22 to 18:27 take place on the way from the Sea of Reeds to Sinai, although the location of chapter 18 is debatable. For the rest of the book, chapters 19 to 40, the scene of the action is Sinai.
Such a simple locational classification, however, obscures the richness and variety of the subject matter, which a glance at the Table of Contents given above will immediately reveal. The Book of Exodus is the great seminal text of biblical literature. Its central theme, God’s redemption of His people from Egyptian bondage, is mentioned no less than one hundred and twenty times in the Hebrew Bible in a variety of contexts. This event informed and shaped the future development of the culture and religion of Israel. Remarkably, it even profoundly influenced ethical and social consciousness, so that it is frequently invoked in the Torah as the motivation for protecting and promoting the interests and rights of the stranger and the disadvantaged of society.8
This pervasive and sustained impact of the Exodus drama is not limited to the period of the Bible itself. It continued throughout history down to the present time and in recent years has been a source of inspiration for the “theologies of liberation” movements. If it has so profoundly affected peoples of widely different cultures, this is hardly because the biblical narrative is a straightforward account of an historical event; it is not. Rather, this influence is due to the special orientation and perspective of Exodus. It is a document of faith, not a dispassionate, secular report of the freeing of an oppressed people. The Book of Exodus possesses a character all its own and must be understood on its own terms.10
A close examination of the constituent elements of the Book of Exodus determines at once that we do not have a comprehensive, sequential narrative, only an episodic account. Moreover, the time frame in which the varied episodes are placed is extremely limited. The afore-cited passage from the Dikdukei Ha-Teʿamim adduces a tradition that one hundred and forty years elapsed between the death of Joseph (1:4)—the first event recorded in the book—and the construction of the Tabernacle almost exactly one year after the Exodus, the last dated occurrence (40:2). Yet, the narrative is most sparing of detail relating to the period of the oppression. Neither the duration of the sufferings of the Israelites nor anything about their inner life and community existence is mentioned. Only incidentally do we learn that the period of Egyptian enslavement lasted at least eighty years. We are told that Moses, who was born after the king’s genocidal decree, was eighty years old when he first presented himself before the pharaoh as the leader of the people. Further investigation reveals that the book really covers the events of just two years: the year-long diplomatic activity as well as the coercive measures taken against the Egyptians and a few incidents from the year in the wilderness following the Exodus. This limitation, together with the paucity of historical data, suggests a high degree of deliberate selectivity. Both the selectivity and the disposition of the featured material stamp the Book of Exodus as falling into the category of historiosophy rather than historiography: Not the preservation and recording of the past for its own sake but the culling of certain historic events for didactic purposes is the intent.
The entire narrative is God centered. Its focal points are God’s mighty deeds on behalf of His people in times of oppression, in the act of liberation, and in the course of the wilderness wanderings. God is the sole actor, the only initiator of events. The various episodes, therefore, project Israelite concepts of God and of His relationship to the world; that is, they embody the fundamental tenets and crucial elements of the religion of Israel and of its world view.
The different aspects of the divine personality, as revealed in Exodus, express a conception of God that is poles apart from any pagan notions. There is but a single Deity, who demands exclusive service and fidelity. Being the Creator of all that exists, He is wholly independent of His creations, and totally beyond the constraints of the world of nature, which is irresistibly under His governance. This is illustrated by the phenomena of the burning bush, the ten plagues, and the dividing of the Sea of Reeds. As a consequence, any attempt to depict or represent God in material or pictorial form is inevitably a falsification and is strictly prohibited. The biblical polemic against idolatry appears here for the first time in the context of the Exodus.
Although the nature of God must be beyond the scope of the human imagination, the texts affirm, as one of their principal teachings, that He is nevertheless deeply involved in human affairs. History, therefore, is not a procession of causeless, undirected, meaningless happenings but is the deliberate, purposeful, unfolding plan of the divine intelligence. God chooses to enter into an eternally valid covenantal relationship with His people, Israel; this legal reality entails immutable and inescapable obligations on their part. The Decalogue and the legislative sections of Exodus thereby constitute divine law. They are not, as is the case with the Near Eastern law collections, the fruit of human wisdom or royal sagacity.
From this flows another credo, first explicated in Exodus, which thereafter animates all of biblical literature: that the welfare of society is conditional upon obedience to God’s law. God is deemed to be absolutely moral, and He correspondingly demands moral standards of behavior from human beings. He delivers the faithful from injustice and oppression and ensures the ultimate and inevitable downfall of the wicked.
The religious calendar of Israel became transformed by the Exodus experience. Formerly tied to an expression of the rhythms of the seasons, the sacred times were reinterpreted in terms of that great historical event. They became commemorations of God’s benefactions upon Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness and were emancipated from phenomena of nature.
Finally, two of the most important institutions of biblical Israel find their origins in this book. The account of the organization of the cult around a central place of worship with a hereditary priesthood occupies nearly one third of the entire book; thirteen of its forty chapters are concerned with this topic. And the prophetic office, of seminal importance for the national history and faith and later also for some of the world’s other major religions, is initiated through the person of Moses. He is the archetypal prophet whose mission epitomizes the distinguishing features of later classical apostolic prophecy.
The Setting in Time

A clear distinction must be made between the special literary mold in which the narrative is cast—with its particular selectivity, emphases, and teachings—and the historical background of the Exodus. This last issue is complicated by the absence from the biblical accounts of certain data essential to establishing chronological parameters. The names of the reigning Egyptian kings are not given; we do not know how long after Joseph’s death the reversal in the fortunes of the Israelites occurred; and we have no extra-biblical documentation that directly refers to Israel in Egypt, to the Exodus, or to the conquest of Canaan.
In addition to these matters, there is the problem that certain biblical texts have not yet yielded their secrets. For instance, Genesis 15:13 foretells that Abraham’s offspring “shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years.” This time span is there coordinated with just four generations. Exodus 12:40–41 states that the Israelites resided in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years. We are not told when this period is thought to have commenced; hence one cannot work backward to the patriarchal era in order to fix the date of Israel’s departure from Egypt, not to mention the fact that the dates of the patriarchs are still a matter of scholarly dispute.
The one apparently unambiguous chronological note is in 1 Kings 6:1, according to which four hundred and eighty years intervened between the building of Solomon’s Temple and the Exodus. The king’s project can be reliably dated to around 960 B.C.E. This would place the great event at about the middle of the fifteenth century B.C.E. Unfortunately, this dating cannot be reconciled with many other details of the biblical narrative. Thus Moses, who lived in the Nile Delta, is easily and frequently in touch with the ruling pharaoh, who must also have had his residence in the area. But in the fifteenth century B.C.E. the Egyptian capital and royal palace were located at Thebes, a distance of more than four hundred miles (ca. 650 km.) to the south of the Delta.
Moreover, commencing about 1550 B.C.E. and for the next few hundred years, energetic and powerful Egyptian monarchs maintained a tight grip on Canaan. This situation would hardly have been conducive to Israel’s departure from Egypt and its conquest of Canaan in this period, especially as Egypt never figures in the biblical account of Joshua’s campaigns.
On the other hand, a thirteenth century B.C.E. dating would seem to be far more satisfactory. It was then that the royal capital was situated in the Nile Delta; it was in this period that archaeological evidence shows the towns of Pithom and Ramses to have been built, and the Bible ascribes their erection to Israelite slaves. It was then that frenetic construction activity took place in the Nile Delta, which would have required the conscription of large numbers of laborers. The end of the thirteenth century was a period of Egypt’s decline and loss of its Canaanite province. The invasion of the Sea Peoples and the Libyans occurred; there was a power vacuum in the East; and generally it was a period of turmoil and upheaval.
Although a mid-thirteenth-century B.C.E. dating for the Exodus presently appears to accommodate more facts than a dating two centuries earlier, it is not without its own difficulties. True, it is reinforced by the Stele of Merneptah, the inscribed monument set up in western Thebes by the pharaoh of that name (ca. 1224 to 1211 B.C.E.) to celebrate his victory over the invaders of Egypt. This stele mentions “Israel” as a people in Canaan but apparently not yet settled down within fixed borders. Nevertheless, the Exodus and conquest in the thirteenth century cannot be reconciled with the above-cited biblical chronology if it is to be taken literally. Moreover, the archaeological data collected from numerous sites in the area do not always fit in with the biblical reports of the towns in Transjordan that the Israelites encountered on their way to Canaan nor of the places that Joshua conquered and destroyed in the course of his campaigns inside Canaan, if a thirteenth century B.C.E. time frame be insisted on. Only future research will be able to solve the problem. In the meantime, it must always be remembered that the biblical narrative is a theological exposition—a document of faith, not a historiographical record.

Abraham ben Maimonides (1186–1237) Son of Moses Maimonides, religious philosopher. Egypt.
Abravanel, Isaac ben Judah (1437–1508) Statesman, Bible commentator, and religious philosopher. Portugal, Spain, and Italy.
Aggadah The nonhalakhic (nonlegal) homiletic side of rabbinic teaching, mostly anchored to the biblical text.
Akedat Yitsḥak A compilation of sermons and philosophic discourses on the biblical text by Isaac ben Moses Arama (ca. 1420–1494). Spain.
Akkadian An ancient Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia; its chief dialects were Babylonian and Assyrian.
Aquila A convert to Judaism from Pontus, Anatolia, and a disciple of Rabbi Akiba. He translated the standardized biblical Hebrew text into Greek in the 2nd century C.E.
Aramaic A Semitic language closely related to biblical Hebrew and known in many dialects and phases, including Syriac. Aramaic flourished throughout the biblical period and thereafter, and is the language of the Targums, the Gemaras, and large sections of midrashic literature.
Avot de-Rabbi Nathan An exposition of an early form of Mishnah Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), transmitted in two versions.
Baal ha-Turim Commentary on the Torah by Jacob ben Asher (1270–1340). Germany and Spain.
Baḥya ben Asher (13th century) Bible commentator and kabbalist. Saragossa, Spain.
Bekhor Shor Commentary on the Torah by Joseph ben Isaac, 12th century. Northern France.
Dunash ben Labrat (mid-10th century) Linguist, grammarian, and poet. Spain.
Exodus Rabba Aggadic midrash on the Book of Exodus, originally two separate compositions, combined ca. 11th or 12th centuries.
Gemara An exposition of the Mishnah in Aramaic and Hebrew.
Genesis Apocryphon An elaboration of the Genesis narratives in Aramaic from 1st century B.C.E. or C.E., found in cave 1 at Qumran near the Dead Sea.
Genesis Rabba Palestinian aggadic midrash on the Book of Genesis, edited ca. 425 C.E.
Genesis Rabbati Midrash on the Book of Genesis ascribed to Rabbi Moses ha-Darshan of Narbonne, 11th century.
Gersonides See Ralbag.
Halakhah The individual and collective rabbinic legal rulings that regulate all aspects of Jewish life, both individual and corporate.
Ḥizkuni Commentary on the Torah by Hezekiah ben Rabbi Manoah, mid-13th century. France.
Ibn Ezra, Abraham (1089–1164) Poet, grammarian, and Bible commentator. Spain.
Ibn Janaḥ, Jonah (first half of 11th century) Grammarian and lexicographer. Spain.
Judah ben Samuel he-Ḥasid (the Pious) (ca. 1150–1217) Ethical writer and mystic; authored a commentary on the Torah. Regensburg.
Judah Halevi (before 1075–1141) Poet, philosopher, and author of The Kuzari. Spain.
Kara, Joseph (b. ca. 1060) Bible commentator. Northern France.
Kere The way the Masorah requires a word to be read, especially when it diverges from the ketiv.
Ketiv The way a word, usually unvocalized, is written in the Bible; see kere.
Kimḥi See Radak.
Kimḥi, Joseph (ca. 1105–1170) Grammarian, Bible commentator, translator, and polemicist. Father of Radak.
Lekaḥ Tov A midrashic compilation on the Torah and the Five Megillot by Tobias ben Eliezer, 11th century. Balkans.
Maimonides, Moses ben Maimon, known as Rambam (1135–1204) Halakhic codifier (Yad Hazakah = Mishneh Torah), philosopher (Moreh Nevukhim, Guide of the Perplexed), and commentator on the Mishnah. Spain and Egypt.
Malbim (1809–1879) Acronym for Meir Loeb ben Yeḥiel Michael. Rabbi, preacher, and Bible commentator. Eastern Europe.
Masorah The traditional, authoritative Hebrew text of the Bible with its consonants, vowels, and cantillation signs, as well as marginal notes that relate to orthographic, grammatical, and lexicographic oddities; developed by the school of Masoretes in Tiberias between the 6th and 9th centuries.
Mekhilta Halakhic midrash on the Book of Exodus in two forms, the Mekhilta de-R. Ishmael and the Mekhilta de-R. Simeon ben Yoḥai, 1st and 2nd centuries C.E.
Menahem ben Jacob ibn Saruq (10th century) Authored Maḥberet, a dictionary of biblical Hebrew. Spain.
Midrash Legal and homiletical expositions of the biblical text, and anthologies and compilations of such.
Mishnah The written compilation of orally transmitted legal teachings covering all aspects of Jewish law, arranged in six orders that, in turn, are divided into tractates; executed by Judah ha-Nasi, ca. 200 C.E. Palestine.
Naḥmanides See Ramban.
Natziv (1817–1893) Acronym for Naphtali Zevi Yehuda Berlin. Rabbinic scholar and head of yeshivah at Volozhin, Poland. Authored Haʿamek Davar, a commentary on the Torah.
Peshitta A translation of the Bible into Syriac, parts of which are said to have been made in the first century C.E.
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer Aggadic work on scriptural narratives, 8th century. Palestine.
Pesikta de-Rav Kahana Homilies on the synagogue lectionaries, (?)5th century C.E. Palestine.
Pesikta Rabbati Medieval midrash on the festivals.
Qumran The site of the caves overlooking the Dead Sea, where Bible manuscripts were found in 1949/50. The manuscripts are identified by such symbols as 4QSama (for manuscript a of Samuel, found in the fourth cave of Qumran); 1QISa (for manuscript a of Isaiah found in the first cave of Qumran).
Radak Acronym for Rabbi David ben Joseph Kimḥi (?1160–?1235) Grammarian, lexicographer, and Bible commentator. Narbonne, Provence.
Ralbag Acronym for Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, known as Gersonides (1248–1344) Mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and Bible commentator. Southeastern France.
Rambam See Maimonides.
Ramban Acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman, known as Naḥmanides (1194–1270) Philosopher, halakhist, and Bible commentator. Spain.
Rashbam Acronym for Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (ca. 1080–1174) Grandson of Rashi. Commentator on the Bible and Talmud. Northern France.
Rashi Acronym for Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040–1105) Commentator on the Bible and Talmud. Troyes, France.
Saadia ben Joseph (882–942) Philosopher, halakhist, liturgical poet, grammarian, and Bible commentator and translator. Gaon (head of academy) of Pumbedita, Babylonia.
Samuel ben Hofni (d. 1013) Talmudist and Bible commentator. Gaon of Sura, Babylonia.
Seder Olam (Rabba) Midrashic chronological work ascribed to Yose ben Ḥalafta, 2nd century C.E. Palestine.
Septuagint The Greek translation of the Torah made for the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt, 3rd century B.C.E.
Sforno, Obadiah ben Jacob (ca. 1470–ca. 1550) Bible commentator. Italy.
Shadal Acronym for Samuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865) Italian scholar, philosopher, Bible commentator, and translator.
Sherira ben Hanina (ca. 906–1006) Halakhist, author of numerous responsa. Gaon of Pumbedita, Babylonia.
Sifra = Torat Kohanim Tannaitic midrashic commentary to the Book of Leviticus, probably compiled about the end of the 4th century C.E. Palestine.
Sifrei Tannaitic halakhic midrash to the Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, probably compiled at the end of the 4th century C.E.
Sumerian A non-Semitic language, written in cuneiform, spoken in the southern part of ancient Babylonia.
Symmachus (2nd century C.E.) Translator of the Bible into Greek.
Talmud The body of rabbinic law, dialectic, and lore comprising the Mishnah and Gemara, the latter being a commentary and elaboration on the former in Hebrew and Aramaic. Two separate talmudic compilations exist: the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud (also known as the Jerusalem Talmud).
Tanḥuma (Yelammedenu) Collection of homiletical midrashim on the Torah, arranged according to the triennial lectionary cycle. Attributed to Tanḥum bar Abba, Palestinian preacher, 4th century C.E.
Tanna(im) The Palestinian sages of the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E., whose rulings are cited in the Mishnah and Tosefta.
Targum Literally, “translation”; specifically of the Bible into Aramaic.
Targum Jonathan An unofficial Aramaic free translation of the Torah, erroneously ascribed to Jonathan ben Uzziel through misinterpretation of the initials “T.Y.” (= Targum Yerushalmi). That scholar is the reputed author of the Targum to the Prophets.
Targum Onkelos The standard, official Aramaic translation of the Torah, made in the 2nd century C.E. and attributed to Onkelos, reputed nephew of the Roman emperor Hadrian and convert to Judaism. The name is probably a corruption of Aquila.
Theodotian (2nd century C.E.) Reviser of the Septuagint.
Tosefta A compilation of tannaitic rulings either omitted from the Mishnah or containing material parallel or supplementary to it. It is arranged according to the six orders of the Mishnah.
Tur Short for ʾArbaʿah Turim, “the four rows”—a four-volumed, systematized compendium of Jewish law by Jacob ben Asher (?1270–1340).
Ugaritic A Semitic language of inscriptions found at Ras Shamra, the site of the ancient city-state of Ugarit on the Syrian coast, in the second millennium B.C.E. Both the language and its literature have shed much light on the Hebrew Bible.
Vulgate The Latin translation of the Bible made by the Church Father Jerome about 400 C.E. It became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church.
Yalkut Shimoni Midrashic anthology on the Bible, attributed to a certain Simeon, 13th century.
Ziyyoni, Menaḥem (late 14th–early 15th century) Kabbalist and Bible commentator. Cologne.

AASOR Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research
AB Anchor Bible
ABR Australian Biblical Review
ADAJ Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan
AfO Archiv für Orientforschung
AHW W. von Soden, Akkadisches Handwörterbuch
AJSL American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures
Akk. Akkadian
ANEP J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near East in Pictures
ANET J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts
Ant. Josephus, Antiquities
AOAT Alter Orient und Altes Testament
Aq. Aquila
Ar. Arakhin
Arab. Arabic
Aram. Aramaic
ARM Archives Royales de Mari
ARN1,2 Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, versions 1 and 2, ed. S. Schechter (1887, reprinted 1967)
ASTI Annual of the Swedish Theological Institute, Jerusalem
Av. Zar. Avodah Zarah
BA Biblical Archeologist
BAP E. C. Kraeling, ed., The Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri
BAR Biblical Archaeologist Reader
BARev Biblical Archaeology Review
BASOR Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research
BB Bava Batra
BDB F. Brown, S. R Driver, and C. A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament
Bek. Bekhorot
Ber. Berakhot
Bets. Betsah
Bib. Biblica
BIES Bulletin of the Israel Exploration Society (= Yediot)
Bik. Bikkurim
BJRL Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester
BK Bava Kamma
BM Bava Metsia
BO Bibliotheca Orientalis
BR Biblical Research
BTS Bible et Terre Sainte
BZ Biblische Zeitschrift
CAD The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
CAP A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C.
CBQ Catholic Biblical Quarterly
CD Damascus Document from the Cairo Genizah
CRAIBL Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres
Dem. Demai
Deut. R. Deuteronomy Rabba
DISO C.-F. Jean and J. Hoftijzer, Dictionnaire des Inscriptions Sémitiques de l’Ouest
EB Encyclopaedia Biblica
Eduy. Eduyyot
EncJud Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971)
Er. Eruvin
EVT Evangelische Theologie
Exod. R. Exodus Rabba
ExpTim Expository Times
Gen. Apoc. Genesis Apocryphon
Gen. R. Genesis Rabba
Git. Gittin
Gk. Greek
GKC Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch and trans. A. E. Cowley
Ḥag. Ḥagigah
Ḥal. Ḥallah
HALAT W. Baumgartner et al., Hebräisches und aramäisches Lexicon zum Alten Testament
Heb. Hebrew
HKAT Handkommentar zum Alten Testament
Hor. Horayot
HTR Harvard Theological Review
HUCA Hebrew Union College Annual
Ḥul. Ḥullin
IDB Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible
IEJ Israel Exploration Journal
Int Interpretation
JANES Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University
JAOS Journal of the American Oriental Society
JBL Journal of Biblical Literature
JCS Journal of Cuneiform Studies
JJS Journal of Jewish Studies
JNES Journal of Near Eastern Studies
JNSL Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages
JPOS Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society
JQR Jewish Quarterly Review
JSJ Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Periods
JSOT Journal for the Study of the Old Testament
JSOTSup Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series
JSS Journal of Semitic Studies
JTS Journal of Theological Studies
KAI H. Donner and W. Röllig, Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften
Ker. Keritot
Ket. Ketubbot
Kid. Kiddushin
Kil. Kilayim
Kin. Kinnim
Lam. R. Lamentations Rabba
Lev. R. Leviticus Rabba
LXX Septuagint
Maʿas. Maʿaserot
Maʿas. Sh. Maʿaser Sheni
Mak. Makkot
Makhsh. Makhshirin
Meg. Megillah
Meʿil. Meʿilah
MdRY Mekhilta de-R. Ishmael
MdRSbY Mekhilta de-R. Simeon bar Yoḥai
Men. Menaḥot
Mid. Midrash
Mid. Ag. Midrash Aggadah
Mik. Mikvaʾot
Mish. Mishnah
MK Moʿed Katan
Naz. Nazir
Ned. Nedarim
Neg. Negaʿim
Nid. Niddah
NJPS New Jewish Publication Society translation
Num. R. Numbers Rabba
OB Old Babylonian
Oho. Oholot
Or. Orlah
OrAnt Oriens Antiquus
OTS Oudtestamentische Studiën
Par. Parah
PdRE Pesikta de-Rav Eliezer
PdRK Pesikta de-Rav Kahana
PEQ Palestine Exploration Quarterly
Pes. Pesaḥim
Pesh. Peshitta
Pesik. Pesikta
Phoen. Phoenician
PJ Palästina-Jahrbuch
PRU Le Palais Royal d’Ugarit
Q Qumran
1QIsaa First copy of Isaiah from Qumran, cave 1
1QM War Between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness from Qumran, cave 1
1QS Rule of the Congregation from Qumran, cave 1
4QDeut Manuscript of Deuteronomy from Qumran, cave 4
4QGen Manuscript of Genesis from Qumran, cave 4
11QTemple Temple Scroll from Qumran, cave 11
RA Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale
RB Revue Biblique
RevQ Revue de Qumran
RH Rosh Ha-Shanah
Sam. Samaritan
Sanh. Sanhedrin
SANT Studien zum Alten und Neuen Testament
SBT Studies in Biblical Theology
Sem Semitica
SER Seder Eliyahu Rabba
Shab. Shabbat
Shek. Shekalim
Shev. Sheviʿit
Shevu. Shevuʿot
Sif. Sifrei
Sif. Zut. Sifrei Zuta
Sifra Sifra
Sof. Soferim
SOR Seder Olam Rabba
Sot. Sotah
ST Studia Theologica
Suk. Sukkah
Sum. Sumerian
Sym. Symmachus
Syr. Syriac
SyroP. Syro-Palestinian
Taʿan. Taʿanit
Tam. Tamid
Tanḥ. Tanḥuma
Targ. Onkelos
Targ. Jon. Targum Jonathan
Targ. Neof. Targum Neofiti
Targ. Yer. Targum Yerushalmi
TDOT G. J. Botterweck and H. Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament
Tem. Temurah
Ter. Terumot
Theod. Theodotian
TJ Jerusalem Talmud
TLA Theologische Literaturzeitung
Toh. Tohorot
Tosaf. Tosafot
Tosef. Tosefta
TY Tevul Yom
TUSR Trinity University Studies in Religion
TynBul Tyndale Bulletin
UF Ugarit-Ferschunden
Ugar. Ugaritic
Uk. Uktsin
UT C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965)
VT Vetus Testamentum
VTSup Vetus Testamentum: Supplements
Vulg. Vulgate
WO Die Welt des Orients
Yad. Yadayim
Yal. Yalkut
Yal. Reub. Yalkut Reubeni
YD Yoreh Deʿah
Yev. Yevamot
Zav. Zavim
ZAW Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft
ZDPV Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästina-Vereins
Zev. Zevaḥim
The editors have adopted a popular system for transliteration of Hebrew, except for the following letters, which have no English equivalent:
ʾ = alef
ʿ = ayin
ḥ = ḥet (pronounced as the guttural “ch” in German)
kh = khaf (pronounced as the guttural “ch” in German)



Reversal of Fortune (vv. 1–22)

The closing chapters of the Book of Genesis told of the settlement of the Israelites in Egypt. Joseph, through foresight and administrative skill, had saved Egypt from starvation during several years of famine, while at the same time shrewdly enhancing the wealth and landed estates of the crown. The Book of Exodus opens with a tale of base ingratitude on the part of a pharaoh and the Egyptian people, which precipitates a radical reversal of fortune for the tribes of Israel.
The text rests upon a knowledge of Genesis; it takes for granted that the reader knows the identity and experiences of Joseph, is aware of God’s promises to the patriarchs, and is familiar with the account of the migration of Jacob and his family to Egypt.
“Strangers in a land not theirs,” as Genesis 15:13 puts it, the Israelites are to be enslaved and oppressed for a long period of time. However, the Narrator of Exodus tells only briefly of the slavery and suffering, compressing it into a few verses. His account, rigorous and austere, offers only the barest of details. Attention is concentrated on the process of liberation. Here, by contrast, the narrative is generously expansive.
A singular tone of secularity seems to pervade the introductory saga of the Book of Exodus. There is no explicit mention of God directing events. Nevertheless, these developments were foretold in connection with God’s covenant with Abraham in that pivotal passage, Genesis 15:13. As in the ostensibly secular story of Joseph, here too there is an unmistakable underlying sense of divine purposefulness.

The sons—that is, the tribes of Israel—are listed within a formulaic framework (vv. 1, 4) that is clearly adapted from Genesis 46:8, 26–27; yet the order does not follow the one given in that chapter. Instead, it is based on Genesis 35:23–26. There is good reason for this seeming anomaly, for this latter chapter contains the divine blessing to Jacob: “Be fertile and increase;/A nation, yea an assembly of nations,/Shall descend from you” [v. 11]. Here, in this opening section of Exodus, the text affirms that the promise has been fulfilled.

1. These are (Hebrew ve-ʾelleh) The initial vav acts as a connective with Genesis, thereby suggesting continuity with the preceding narrative.

Israel As in verse 9, the use of this name denotes a national entity, not just the patriarch.

2–3. Exactly as in Genesis 35:23–26, the sons/tribes are listed matrilineally, with those of the two wives mentioned first in order of seniority, followed by those of the two handmaids in reverse order to form a chiasm:

Reuben Reuben is not termed the “first-born,” as he was in Genesis 46:8. Jacob deprived him of that status in his dying testament.

5. Jacob’s issue Literally, “that came out of Jacob’s loin.” In the Bible, Hebrew yerekh, “thigh, loin,” is the seat of procreative power. The singular form may be a euphemism for the reproductive organ, as in Genesis 24:2.

seventy This harks back to Genesis 46:8–27, which lists all the male descendants of Jacob through his wives and handmaids as follows: Leah 33 + Zilpah 16 + Rachel 14 + Bilhah 7 = 70. However, that total includes Judah’s sons Er and Onan, who died in Canaan, as well as Joseph and his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, who were already in Egypt. The list there specifies that “all the persons belonging to Jacob who came to Egypt—his own issue, aside from the wives of Jacob’s sons—all these persons numbered 66.… Thus the total of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt was 70 persons.” Clearly, seventy here is a round number. Deuteronomy 10:22 repeats the same figure: “Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all.” This context seems to include Jacob and Joseph but would certainly exclude Ephraim and Manasseh. It does not include Jacob’s daughters-in-law and granddaughters.
The number seventy in the Bible is usually meant to be taken as typological, not literal; that is, it is used for the rhetorical effect of evoking the idea of totality, of comprehensiveness on a large scale. Thus, in Genesis 10 precisely seventy nations issue from the three sons of Noah, and these constitute the entire human family.

6. The immigrant generation had wholly died out by the time the oppression began, but we are not told how long this took.

7. This description of the extraordinary fertility of the Israelite population carries strong verbal echoes of the divine blessings of fertility bestowed on humankind at Creation and after the Flood. It suggests a conception of the community of Israel in Egypt as a microcosm, a miniature universe, self-contained and apart from the larger Egyptian society—the nucleus, spiritually speaking, of a new humanity.

the land Not the whole of Egypt, but the area of Israelite settlement known as Goshen.

The Israelites find themselves undergoing a cataclysmic change. A new regime perceives them to be a potential threat to national security. “A new king” probably means a new dynasty, but the anonymity precludes the possibility of positive identification with a known pharaoh. The most reasonable explanation for the change in fortune lies in the policies adopted by the pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty (ca. 1306–1200 B.C.E.), and especially by Ramses II (ca. 1290–1224 B.C.E.), who shifted Egypt’s administrative and strategic center of gravity to the eastern Delta of the Nile, where he undertook vast building projects that required a huge local labor force.
In fact, intimations of a deterioration in the Israelite situation are already discernible in the closing chapters of Genesis. Jacob, on his deathbed, feels the need to give his family the reassurance that “God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.” Joseph voices his anxiety for the future even more strongly. He tells his brothers, “God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”8 The dying statesman knows that his family will not wield the influence necessary to arrange for his burial in his ancestral land as he had been able to do for his father.

8. arose Use of the Hebrew verb k-w-m rather than the usual m-l-k, “to reign,” indicates the inauguration of a new era, not just a change in monarch.

who did not know Joseph He was oblivious of or indifferent to the benefactions that Joseph had bestowed on Egypt and the crown.

know This is the first appearance in Exodus of the verb y-d-ʿ. It is a key term in the Exodus narratives, occurring over twenty times in the first fourteen chapters. The usual rendering, “to know,” hardly does justice to the richness of its semantic range. In the biblical conception, knowledge is not essentially or even primarily rooted in the intellect and mental activity. Rather, it is more experiential and is embedded in the emotions, so that it may encompass such qualities as contact, intimacy, concern, relatedness, and mutuality. Conversely, not to know is synonymous with dissociation, indifference, alienation, and estrangement; it culminates in callous disregard for another’s humanity.

9–10. The initiative for the oppression comes from the king. The historical situation that prompted his fears may be plausibly reconstructed if it is assumed that the text refers to Ramses II. The eastern Delta of the Nile was vulnerable to penetration from Asia. In the middle of the eighteenth century B.C.E. it had been infiltrated by the Hyksos, an Egyptian term meaning “rulers of foreign lands.” The Hyksos were a conglomeration of ethnic groups among whom Semites predominated. They gradually took over Lower Egypt and ruled it until their expulsion in the second half of the sixteenth century B.C.E. After that, the Delta was neglected by the central government, although many Semites remained in the region. A revival of interest in that part of Egypt began with the reign of Haremheb (ca. 1330–1306 B.C.E.) and accelerated under his successors. It probably heightened sensitivity to the presence of a large body of foreigners in that strategic area. This population also constituted a sizeable pool of readily available manpower that could easily be drawn upon.

the Israelite people Hebrew ʿam benei yisra ʾel is a unique phrase. The familial term ʿam, as distinct from the political term goy, “nation,” connotes a group bound by blood ties. It is occasionally also used in the sense of a military force.13 The coining of the present unparalleled combination may be an artful attempt to insinuate the idea of an alien ethnic group that is also a threat.

much too numerous The use of Hebrew rav coupled with ʿatsum probably expresses both multitude and power.

10. deal shrewdly In order to control the growth of the Israelite population. Pharaoh now unwittingly challenges the will of God, for the divine promise to Abraham had pledged that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the heaven and the sands of the seashore.

in the event of war

and rise from the ground This Hebrew phrase, which recurs only in Hosea 2:2, is obscure. It is not likely to mean “shake off oppression” since the Israelites have not yet been oppressed.
Rashbam understands the phrase “go up out of the land” as expressing a fear of losing a potentially rich reserve of manpower. A rabbinic tradition has the king superstitiously substituting the third person (ʿalah) for the first person plural (ʿalinu) to avoid the disagreeable “We shall [be forced] to go up out of the land.” We may be dealing here with a lost idiom that means “to gain ascendancy over.”

11. The Israelites are not pressed into private domestic slavery but are conscripted for compulsory unpaid labor on public works projects for indefinite periods. The two Hebrew verbs used to describe the subjugation of the people (vv. 11–13), ʿ-n-h, “to oppress,” and ʿ-v-d, “to be a slave,” hark back to the prediction of Genesis 15:13, “they shall be enslaved and oppressed.”

forced labor

they built The Hebrew may connote the founding of new cities as well as the rebuilding of existing ones.

garrison cities This rendering of Hebrew ʿarei miskenot, the latter word being of uncertain origin, is supported by the Septuagint tradition and by the other biblical usages of the term.

Pharaoh The title is formed by a combination of two Egyptian words, per-aa, literally, “the great house.” The phrase originally applied to the royal palace and court; later, during the Nineteenth Dynasty (ca. 1306–1200 B.C.E.), it was employed as an honorific title for the reigning monarch. It is thus analogous to the present-day use of “the Palace” or “the White House.”

Pithom and Raamses Both names are well known in Egyptian sources, but their precise location has not been fixed. Pithom is never again mentioned in the Bible. The name derives from the Egyptian pr/pi-ʾtm, which means “the House of Atum,” indicating the presence of a major temple dedicated to the primeval creator god of that name. Obviously, several localities could have borne such a designation, but the site of Tell el-Maskuta in Wadi Tumeilat in the northeastern Delta of the Nile is regarded by many authorities as being the most likely candidate for the city. Raamses can be none other than the famous Delta residence of the pharaoh Ramses II; its beauty and glory were extolled in poems still extant. The city was situated in “the region of Goshen,” a phrase that is synonymous with “the region of Rameses,” where the Israelites lived. This is described as being “the choicest part of the land of Egypt.” It was here that the Israelites assembled in preparation for the Exodus.20 The precise site has not yet been located, but Egyptologists believe that it is the region of modern el-Khataʿna and Qantur in the northeastern Delta.

12. The tyrant’s efforts are inexplicably foiled. Mysteriously, the Israelite population has expanded even more. The lack of a natural explanation for the phenomenon has engendered a sense of disquiet and frustration that finds an outlet in the intensification of the oppression.

13–14. The Israelite labor gangs are now exploited for exhausting toil in construction work and agriculture. This experience indelibly stamped Egypt as the “house of bondage” in the Israelite consciousness.

14. mortar and bricks The prodigious building activity required a brickmaking industry of gargantuan proportions. On this subject, see Comment to 5:7–8.
THE MIDWIVES (vv. 15–22)

In response to the failure of his scheme, the pharaoh resorts to unrestrained cruelty. In addition to the harsh burdens he imposes on the adult males, he now issues a decree of crushing barbarity: infanticide, in order to reduce the Israelite population.

15. Hebrew The origin of Hebrew ʿivri is still a puzzle. It was first used in Genesis 14:13 to designate Abram. Genesis Rabba 42:18 suggests three explanations for the epithet: (i) It is connected with Eber, grandson of Noah; (2) it is derived from Hebrew ʿever, “beyond,” that is, the one who came from beyond the river Euphrates; and (3) it indicates Abraham’s religious nonconformism—“All the world was on one side (ʿever) and he on the other side.” Each of these interpretations is open to serious objections. Another line of investigation has been opened by the discovery of a class of people known as ʿapiru in a variety of Near Eastern texts. On this subject see Excursus 1.

midwives Until as late as the sixteenth century of this era, midwifery was everywhere an exclusively female occupation. It was regarded as a violation of the code of modesty for a male, even a doctor, to be present at a birth. Midwifery was thus one of the few occupations open to women; and it seems to have been a prestigious profession in ancient Egypt.
It is strange that there were only two midwives to service such a large population. Ibn Ezra suggests that these two were the overseers of the practitioners, directly responsible to the authorities for the many women under them. It is also possible that the two names may be those of guilds of midwives.
The Hebrew phrase ha-meyalledot ha-ʿivriyot can mean either “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews”; the latter is how it is understood by the Septuagint and by Josephus as well as by Abravanel. Judah he-Ḥasid cites a tradition that they were Egyptians. However, the two names are Semitic.

Shiphrah The Semitic stem means “to be beautiful.” The name appears in a list of slaves attached to an Egyptian estate and is indicated as being Asiatic.

Puah The daughter of the hero Danel in Ugaritic literature bears this name. Apparently it was originally a term for a fragrant blossom and came to connote “a girl.”
The names of the midwives are recorded but not those of the reigning pharaohs. In the biblical scale of values these lowly champions of morality assume far greater historic importance than do the all-powerful tyrants who ruled Egypt.

16. birtbstool Hebrew ʾovnayim, literally “two stones,” probably refers to the two bricks on which women in labor crouched opposite the midwife during parturition. The squatting position made for easier delivery.

17. Faced with a conflict between the laws of God and those of the pharaoh, the midwives followed the dictates of conscience. Their defiance of tyranny constitutes history’s first recorded act of civil disobedience in defense of a moral imperative. It is stated that they were actuated by “fear of God,” a phrase frequently associated with moral and ethical behavior. “Fear of God” connotes a conception of God as One who makes moral demands on humankind; it functions as the ultimate restraint on evil and the supreme stimulus for good.

let … live The Hebrew verbal form can also denote sustaining life, and a midrash sees the midwives actively providing the indigent mothers with food and shelter in addition to obstetric services.33

19. The evasiveness of the midwives in response to the charge of disobedience is motivated by a sense of self-preservation and by the desire to be able to continue to save lives. At the same time their excuse has a sardonic twist, for it unfavorably contrasts Egyptian women with their Israelite sisters.

vigorous Hebrew ḥayot, literally “lively”. The singular, ḥayyah, was used for “a midwife” in later Hebrew. Here, the women appear to be acting as their own midwives.

20. multiplied and increased The narrative closes on the same note with which it began (v. 7). The pharaoh’s diabolical measures have not changed the situation because God has willed otherwise.

21. established households The meaning of the Hebrew phrase is uncertain because of the unclarity of the subject of the verb and the masculine form of the dative (lahem). Shadal suggests that the midwives were drawn from among the childless women, and God rewarded their virtue by blessing them with families. Saadia and Radak take the phrase to be idiomatic for providing protection, whereas Rashbam, Tur, and Malbim think it means that the pharaoh put them under state control. This last seems the most probable explanation.

22. All else having failed, the pharaoh promulgates one last genocidal decree. He mobilizes “all his people,” the entire apparatus of the state, to annihilate the people of Israel. There is subtle irony in his decree, for the chosen instrument of destruction—water—will in the end become the agency of Egypt’s punishment.

the Nile Hebrew yeʾor is borrowed from Egyptian, where it is used for the Nile and its tributaries.

The Birth and Youth of Moses (vv. 1–25)

The oppressive acts of the pharaoh have built to a climax. Strangely, his third and most barbarous decree—infanticide—is never again referred to in the Bible. We are not told to what extent it was implemented or whether it was later rescinded. The primary function served by its narration is to set the stage for the story of the birth and survival of Moses. His arrival gives new direction to the life of the suffering people. The unseen hand of God is at work so that the king’s crowning evil actually initiates a series of events that is to culminate in the humiliation of its perpetrator and the liberation of Israel.

1. man … woman Amram and Jochebed.

married The Hebrew stem l-k-ḥ, literally “to take,” is frequently used of marriage. The text is henceforth silent about the father. The narrative focuses entirely on the role of the mother.

2. she saw how beautiful he was Hebrew tov, usually “good,” might also here connote “robust, healthy.” The entire clause stirs immediate association with a key phrase, seven times repeated in the Genesis Creation narrative, “God saw that … was good” (tov). This parallel suggests that the birth of Moses is intended to be understood as the dawn of a new creative era.
Based on the use of tov here, a rabbinic comment suggests that Tobiah was the original Hebrew name that Moses received from his parents.

3. The desperate mother must finally comply with the iniquitous decree. But she does so only in a formal way and actually takes every possible precaution to ensure the baby’s safety. On the abandoned hero motif, see Excursus 2.

a wicker basket The receptacle is called a tevah, a term that, in this sense, appears elsewhere in the Bible only as the ark in which Noah and his family were saved from the waters of the Flood. Its use here underscores both the vulnerability of its occupant and its being under divine protection. Evocation of the Flood narrative also suggests, once again, that the birth of Moses signals a new era in history.

wicker Hebrew gomeʾ is the papyrus plant, once abundant in the marshlands of the Nile Delta. Its huge stems, often more than ten feet high, were used by the Egyptians for a variety of purposes, especially for the construction of light boats.

she put … placed Hebrew s-y-m implies gentle, loving action, as opposed to the harsh verb hishlikh, “to abandon,” used in the decree of the pharaoh.

the reeds Hebrew suf is borrowed from Egyptian and means a reed thicket. Placing the basket in the reeds prevented its being carried downstream. This rare word is artfully allusive, prefiguring Israel’s deliverance from the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds (Heb. yam suf).

4. his sister Miriam.

at a distance So as to be inconspicuous and not arouse suspicions that the child was not really abandoned.

5. to bathe in the Nile An Egyptian princess would not bathe publicly in the mighty, crocodile-infested river itself. One of its innumerable rivulets, where privacy and safety could be enjoyed, is certainly intended. This suggests that the mother deliberately selected the spot after observing the character and habits of this particular princess.

6. This is the only biblical report of a baby crying. Otherwise, the verb b-k-h always has an adult as its subject.

7–10. This fateful development is spiced with irony. The evil designs of the pharaoh are unwittingly thwarted by his own daughter. Not only does she save the future redeemer of the Israelites persecuted by her father but she actually pays the mother of the “foundling” to suckle her own baby.
The arrangements she makes follow a pattern found in Mesopotamian legal documents relating to the adoption of foundlings. These “wet nurse contracts” specify payment for the services of nursing and rearing the infant for a specified period; they stipulate that, following weaning, the child is returned to the finder, who adopts it.
That the princess can personally execute such a contract accords with the relatively high social and legal position of women in ancient Egypt. She possessed rights of inheritance and disposal of property, and she enjoyed a fair measure of economic independence.

9. Take Hebrew heilikhi, a very unusual form, which may have been selected to intensify the ironic effect, since the play of language allows the word to signify “here, it is yours” (hei likhi), an unconscious acknowledgment of the true mother.

nurse it The wet nurse is termed meineket in verse 7, a word that corresponds to the Akkadian musheniqtum, “the one who suckles.” She frequently had the additional duties of tarbitum, rearing the child and acting as guardian. From Genesis 24:59 and 35:8 it is clear that Rebekah’s meineket was an esteemed member of the household. Her position is reflected in the rendering of meineket by Targum Jonathan in those passages as padgogtha, from Greek paidagogos, “tutor.” In the case of Moses, one can be sure that the mother nurtured his mind and character and instilled in him the values and traditions cherished by his people.

10. The high infant mortality rate in the ancient world dictated that formal adoption and naming by the adoptive parent be postponed until after the weaning, which took place at a far later age than it would in modern societies.

Moses The Hebrew name is of Egyptian origin. Its basic verbal stem msy means “to be born,” and the noun ms means “a child, son.” It is a frequent element in Egyptian personal names, usually but not always with the addition of a divine element, as illustrated by Ahmose, Ptahmose, Ramose, and Thotmose. Two papyri from the time of Ramses II mention officials named Mose.

explaining The Narrator puts a Hebrew origin for the name into the mouth of the Egyptian princess; unbeknown to her, it foreshadows the boy’s destiny. By means of word play, the Egyptian Mose is connected with Hebrew m-sh-h, “to draw up/out (of water).” The princess explains the name as though the form is mashui, “the one drawn out,” a passive participle, whereas it is actually an active participle, “he who draws out,” and becomes an oblique reference to the future crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Isaiah 63:11 seems to reflect this inner biblical midrash: “Then they remembered the ancient days, Him, who pulled his people out [mosheh] [of the water]: Where is He who brought them up from the Sea.…”

How long Moses remained in the royal palace and how his days were spent there are of no interest to the biblical Narrator. Evidence from the period of the Ramesides for the presence of foreigners, especially of Semites, in the royal schools suggests that, like other privileged boys in court and bureaucratic circles in Egypt, Moses’ formal education would have commenced at an early age and lasted about twelve years. Concentrating largely on the three R’s, it would have been conducted under a regimen of strict discipline, with drill and memorization as the principal pedagogic techniques. Be that as it may, the Narrator is concerned with the character of Moses and the nature of his commitments. These are illustrated by three incidents that display his moral passion and his inability to tolerate injustice: 2:11–12, 13, and 16–17. It is these qualities that mark him as being worthy to lead the struggle for the liberation of Israel.

11. his kinsfolk Literally, “his brethren.” Repetition of the word emphasizes that the years spent in court circles did not alienate Moses from his people and his origins.

witnessed their labors Not as a detached observer but with empathy, wholeheartedly identifying with their suffering.

beating In a life-threatening way.

12. Outraged, Moses at once goes to the aid of the victim. His initial caution is dictated by the knowledge that, in the eyes of Egyptian law, he is about to commit a mutinous act. With this act, he will also sever his ties to the aristocratic society in which he was raised.

be struck down The Hebrew uses the same verb as employed in verse 11 for the action of the Egyptian assailant. A midrash actually has God questioning Moses’ act.

13. he found Hebrew ve-hinneh introduces a totally unexpected development.

the offender Hebrew rashaʿ is often a legal term meaning “the one in the wrong.” According to a midrash, he is so identified because he resorts to the use of force.

14. Moses discovers that some of his own people can act insidiously as informers to the oppressive authorities.

15. Moses is now an outcast fleeing for his life. The “land of Midian,” where he takes refuge, refers to an area under the control of one or more of the five seminomadic tribes that, according to biblical sources, made up the Midianite confederation. The eponymous, or namegiving, ancestor Midian is said in Genesis to be a son of Abraham by Keturah.22 This tradition reflects an early history of close and friendly relations between Israel and the Midianites. By the period of the judges, however, the two peoples had become thoroughly hostile to one another.
The Midianites ranged over a wide area of the Near East, stretching from the eastern shore of the Gulf of Akaba, up through the Syro-Arabian Desert, and into the borders of the Land of Israel, west and northwest of Elath.

a well Wells in the ancient Near East served as meeting places for shepherds, wayfarers, and townsfolk. It was the natural thing for a newcomer to gravitate toward them.
MOSES IN MIDIAN (vv. 16–22)

Moses displays his instinctive intolerance of injustice a third time. Although himself a fugitive, utterly alone in a strange land, he spontaneously comes to the assistance of the weak and defenseless, this time foreign shepherd girls.

16. the priest The high priest, named in verse 18.

to draw water A common occupation of young women in that part of the world.

18. their father Reuel The name means “friend of God.” It is mentioned once again in Numbers 10:29—“Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law”—where it is uncertain which of the two is so designated. From Judges 4:11 it would appear that Hobab is the father-in-law, but in other texts this latter epithet is given to Jethro, who also bears the title “priest of Midian.” Rabbinic exegesis reconciles the discrepancies by assuming that Reuel was the grandfather of the girls and that the other names all refer to the same person, who bore several names.30 Many modern scholars prefer to assign the variants to different strands of tradition. However, it is to be noted that the title “priest of Midian” is only attached to Jethro. This raises the possibility that Hebrew yitro (yeter) is not a proper name but an honorific meaning “His Excellency.” In Akkadian atru (watru) means “preeminent, foremost,” and several old Akkadian names begin with that element. In Ugaritic several personal names are prefixed by the element ytr.

How is it The question suggests that the girls regularly experienced such maltreatment at the hands of the male shepherds.

19. an Egyptian His garb so suggested.

21. he gave The father had the power to make such decisions.

Zipporah The name means “a bird.”

22. Gershom Some intimately personal significance likely attaches to the name, for its stem g-r-sh, “to drive off/out,” is the same used to describe the action of the shepherds in verse 17, which was the occasion for Moses to meet his future wife and to be received into Jethro’s family. But Gershom also carries a wider, national allusiveness, for later in the narrative the stem is used three more times, to underscore the abject humiliation of the stubborn pharaoh as he is forced to reverse his refusal to let Israel go. The folk etymology interprets the name as a composite of ger sham, “a stranger there” and is taken to signify being “a stranger in a foreign land”; this echoes God’s covenant with Abraham, which foretold: “Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs.” The “land” is Egypt, not Midian, and Moses speaks of “there” not “here,” as well as referring to the past. The fulfillment of the predicted slavery evokes the associated promise of liberation, so that the birth of the child may be seen as symbolic of the coming regeneration of downtrodden Israel.

These verses redirect attention to the miserable plight of the Israelites back in Egypt and so serve as a transition to the next development. God breaks His silence and directly intervenes in Israel’s history. Divine causality, hitherto implicit, is now made emphatically explicit by the fivefold reference to God in just three verses.

23–25. It was established practice in Egypt for a new king to celebrate his accession to the throne by granting amnesty to those guilty of crimes, by releasing prisoners, and by freeing slaves. An extant hymn composed in honor of the accession of Ramses IV illustrates the custom. It records “a happy day” for Egypt when “fugitives returned to their towns” and when “those in hiding emerged” and “those in prison were freed.” This being so, the Israelites had good reason to expect that the change in regime would bring with it some amelioration of their condition. But this was not to be. Hence the stress on the intensified misery of the enslaved Israelites. Moses, however, did benefit from the amnesty personally, as 4:19 confirms.
Four terms give voice to Israel’s suffering: “groaning,” “cried out,” “cry for help,” “moaning”; and four verbs express God’s response: “heard,” “remembered,” “looked upon,” “took notice.”

24. remembered The Hebrew stem z-k-r connotes much more than the recall of things past. It means, rather, to be mindful, to pay heed, signifying a sharp focusing of attention upon someone or something. It embraces concern and involvement and is active not passive, so that it eventuates in action. As Menaḥot 43b has it: “Looking upon leads to remembering, and remembering leads to action.”

His covenant The oft-repeated dual promises to the patriarchs of nationhood and national territory.

25. This concise sentence is fully elaborated in 3:7, which shows that the two verbs here mean, respectively, “to empathize” and “to identify with” suffering. On y-d-ʿ, see the Comment to 1:8.

The Commissioning of Moses (3:1–4:17)

God’s “taking notice” of Israel’s sufferings (2:25) foreshadows the action that is about to occur. The appointment of a leader to rally the demoralized people and represent them before the Egyptian authorities is the first stage in the process of liberation.
The account of the commissioning of Moses is divided into three main parts: (1) the theophany at the burning bush (vv. 1–6); (2) the divine call (vv. 7–10); and (3) Moses’ dialogue with God (3:11–4:17).

1. into the wilderness Hebrew ʾaḥar here means westward, in the direction of Egypt from Midian. The orientation to the rising sun gives “front” (kedem) the connotation of “east” and “behind” the meaning of “west.” The “wilderness” (Heb. midbar) is a region of uninhabited and unirrigated pastureland.

Horeb Many texts seem to identify this location with Sinai, but there are also indications that they may not be identical. Thus, while Mount Sinai appears frequently, Mount Horeb is rare, and there is no reference to the wilderness of Horeb as there is to that of Sinai. Further, an impression of some distance between the two is gained from the story of the water crisis at Rephidim as told in Exodus 17:1–7. The divine spirit is said to have been manifest before Moses, close by “on a rock at Horeb”; yet Rephidim was the last station of the Israelites before entering the wilderness of Sinai. We may be dealing with different strands of tradition,5 or Horeb may have been the name of a wider region in which Mount Sinai, a specific peak, was located; perhaps that peak eventually lent its name to the entire area. Horeb means “desolate, dry.” Its location has not been identified.

the mountain of God This description is traditionally taken as anticipating its later role as the site of the national covenant between God and Israel. Even if it indicates a pre-Israelite history as a religious center for the seminomadic tribes of the wilderness,7 the present narrative makes clear that Moses is quite unaware of any prior sanctity attaching to it.

2. an angel of the LORD The “angel” has no role in the entire theophany; it is the fire that attracts Moses’ attention, and it is always God Himself who speaks. Most likely the angel is mentioned only to avoid what would be the gross anthropomorphism of localizing God in a bush.

in a blazing fire Fire, because of its nonmaterial, formless, mysterious, and luminous characteristics, is frequently used in descriptions of the external manifestation of the Divine Presence.

a bush Hebrew seneh occurs only here and in Deuteronomy 33:16, where God is poetically named “the Presence in the Bush.” Seneh is most likely word play on Sinai, an intimation of the Sinaitic revelation foreshadowed in verse 12.
The bush in question has been variously identified as the thorny desert plant Rubus sanctus that grows near wadis and in moist soil, and as the cassia senna shrub known in Arabic as sene.

not consumed The two elements of the spectacle suggest two levels of interpretation. The self-sustaining fire, requiring no substance for its existence or perpetuation, is a clear representation of the Divine Presence. The bush that remains intact in the face of the flames may be symbolic of the people of Israel surviving Egyptian oppression.

3. The startling suspension of nature’s fixed laws arouses Moses’ curiosity.

4. Moses! Moses! In the Bible, repetition of a name often characterizes a direct divine call.

Here I am Hebrew hinneni is the standard, spontaneous, unhesitating response to a call.

5. The idea of explicitly sacred (Heb. kadosh) space is encountered here for the first time. No such concept exists in Genesis, which features only sacred time—the Sabbath. The pagan mythological notion that certain areas are inherently holy does not exist in the Bible. It is solely the theophany that temporarily imparts sanctity to the site, rendering it inaccessible to man.
In the ancient Near East, removal of footwear, here probably sandals of papyrus or leather, was a sign of respect and displayed an attitude of humility. Priests officiated barefoot in the sanctuary; and to this day they remove their footwear before pronouncing the priestly benediction in the synagogue service.

6. I am … This solemn, self-identifying mode of address frequently introduces royal proclamations and inscriptions in the ancient Near East. It lends special weight to the ensuing announcement, which thereby becomes authoritative and unchallengeable. Since this formula is often used in divine communications with the patriarchs,18 it is particularly meaningful in the present context.

the God of your father This epithet, frequently used in the Book of Genesis, all but vanishes in Israel during the period of the Exodus, to be replaced by “the God of the fathers,” the plural form referring to the three patriarchs. In the present instance, the epithet identifies the God who is addressing Moses with the One who made promises of peoplehood and national territory to each of the patriarchs.21 It gives voice to the unbroken continuity of the generations and puts the present plight of the Israelites and the imminent call to Moses into historical and theological perspective. On the “God of the Father,” see Excursus 3.

Moses hid his face His initial encounter with God is a terrifying experience, a reaction shared by other biblical characters. Later in the course of his career, by dint of his intimacy with God, Moses is so emboldened as to request a glimpse of the Divine Presence.23
THE DIVINE CALL (vv. 7–10)

The intimation of deliverance from bondage advanced in 2:24–25 is now elaborated in all its fullness as a clear message of hope and redemption.

7. outcry The Hebrew stem ts-ʿ-k is one of the most powerful words in the language. Pervaded by moral outrage and soul-stirring passion, it denotes the anguished cry of the oppressed, the agonized plea of the helpless victim.

8. I have come down A common anthropomorphic figure of speech used to express God’s decisive involvement in human affairs.

a good and spacious land This depiction of the Land of Israel is drawn from the mental image of an oppressed seminomadic people confined to the limited area of Goshen. Deuteronomy’s description (8:7) does not include the sense of spaciousness found in Nehemiah’s nostalgic review of past glories (Neh. 9:35).

flowing with milk and honey A recurrent symbol of the land’s fertility. The combination of the two products is also popular in classical literature. The phrase is never included in the divine promises made to the patriarchs, for whom famine was frequently a grim reality. Besides, their faith did not need to be reinforced by stressing the attractiveness of the land. For the demoralized, enslaved masses of Israel, however, such an enticement would carry weight. As a matter of fact, ancient Egyptian sources testify to the richness of the land.27
Milk in the Bible is generally from the goat, “the little man’s cow.” A plentiful supply presupposes an abundance of goats, which in turn points to ample pasturage and the prospect of much meat, hide, and wool.
Honey in the Bible (Heb. devash) is predominantly the thick, sweet syrup produced from dates and known to the Arabs as dibs. Apiculture seems to have been unknown in Palestine; the few explicit references in the Bible to bees’ honey pertain to the wild variety. While the date itself is never mentioned, the inclusion of honey among the seven characteristic products of the land listed in Deuteronomy 8:8 indicates that, like all the others, it too derives from the soil.
The combination of milk and honey provides a highly nutritious diet. Milk, widely regarded in the ancient world as a source of vitality, is rich in protein; the dried date is rich in carbohydrates. Ben Sira (39:26) declared milk and honey to be among the chief necessities of human life. Some Arab tribes are known to subsist for months at a time solely on milk and honey.

the region of the Canaanites … The most comprehensive of the numerous biblical lists of the pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land is that of Genesis 15:19–21, which features ten peoples. Other lists register seven, six, five, or even three ethnic groups. The origin of these rosters is obscure, as is the reason for the variations in number, order, and content. The fact that the Jebusites invariably appear in the final position may be an intimation of David’s capture of Jebusite Jerusalem, which was the culmination of his conquests.31
The lists carry significance apart from their immediate context. The extraordinarily complex ethnic situation that they reflect is paralleled by the thirty-one city-states that Joshua encountered in this tiny country, as related in Joshua 12. The explanation lies in the centrifugal forces produced by the accidents of topography and climate. Within the narrow belt between the sea and the desert, about too miles (ca. 161 km.) in width and 160 miles (ca. 258 km.) in length from Dan to Beersheba, are to be found no fewer than four parallel longitudinal zones, each of which undergoes considerable internal modification. The coastal plain gives way to the central mountain region, which in turn yields abruptly to the Jordan Valley, only to be succeeded by the plateau of Transjordan. The extremes of altitude are astonishing. The mountains of Lebanon rise to a height of 8,800 feet (2,531.5 m.) above sea level, and the deepest point of the Dead Sea lies about 2,500 feet (762.5 m.) below the surface of the Mediterranean. The intensity and direction of the winds and air movements, the seasonal rainfalls, the deposits of dew, and the daily variations in temperature are all subject to wideranging regional fluctuations. In addition, the major overland routes of the ancient world passed through the land so that the internal disunity promoted by nature was further intensified by the powerful and diverse external cultural influences and strategic and political forces.
In light of all this, it is not surprising that in the long history of the country it was usually ruled by foreign powers, and its fate was never tied to the fortunes of any one people within it—with the sole and remarkable exception of the people of Israel during the biblical period, the Second Jewish Commonwealth, and today.

10. Come This charge is the pivotal point of the theophany. Moses is elected to be the conscious agent of divine will, the human instrument by which the redemption of Israel is to be effectuated. The biblical institution of the messenger prophet is now initiated.

you shall free In contrast to verse 8, entry into the land is omitted, perhaps because Moses is not destined to experience it.

A lengthy dialogue between Moses and God now takes place. Moses instinctively shrinks from the task assigned him, raising three objections. His reluctance to accept the prophetic call would be characteristic of many later prophets.

11. Who am I … The initial reaction is one of personal unworthiness. This innate humility, mentioned in Numbers 12:3, must have been intensified by his understandable fear for his life and by the recollection of his previous experience with the two quarreling Hebrews.

12. This difficult verse has occasioned much exegesis. The first clause is clear enough. God’s “being with” someone is an assurance of protection. This is usually given at critical moments of human fear and indecision. In the present instance, Hebrew ʾehyeh, “I shall be,” also artfully connects with the next section of the dialogue (v. 14).
The next clause is unclear. Hebrew ʾot, “a sign,” is largely something that functions to corroborate either a promise or an appointment to office. But to what does the Hebrew demonstrative zeh, “this, that,” refer? Is it the spectacle at the bush? This would mean that the phenomenon is the sign that affirms the divinely appointed nature of Moses’ mission. Or is it his unique ability to negotiate freely and safely with the all-powerful pharaoh that will authenticate his calling? Either interpretation makes an independent statement of the last sentence of the verse, which begins with “when.” More difficult and less likely is the possibility that zeh refers to the following clause, yielding the understanding that the worship of God in freedom at Sinai will retroactively legitimate Moses’ role.

you shall worship Whether it be a prediction or a prescription, this phrase is a subtle hint to Moses on how to handle the negotiations with the Egyptian authorities. The motif of the worship of God as one of the objectives of the Exodus is reiterated time and again before Pharaoh. Since the Hebraic stem ʿ-v-d means both “to be in servitude” and “to worship,” the phrase insinuates the idea that worship of God is incompatible with servitude to the pharaoh.

13. Moses’ second objection is related to the inability to represent Israel without a mandate from the people and without even knowing the name of the God for whom he is now asked to speak. The title “God of your father” was a widely used Near Eastern epithet, also applicable to any of the pagan gods, as noted in Excursus 3. By asking for God’s name, Moses implicitly denies knowledge of it, as Rashbam notes.

Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh This phrase has variously been translated, “I Am That I Am,” “I Am Who I Am,” and “I Will Be What I Will Be.” It clearly evokes YHVH, the specific proper name of Israel’s God, known in English as the Tetragrammaton, that is, “the four consonants.” The phrase also indicates that the earliest recorded understanding of the divine name was as a verb derived from the stem h-v-h, taken as an earlier form of h-y-h, “to be.” Either it expresses the quality of absolute Being, the eternal, unchanging, dynamic presence, or it means, “He causes to be.” YHVH is the third person masculine singular; ehyeh is the corresponding first person singular. This latter is used here because name-giving in the ancient world implied the wielding of power over the one named; hence, the divine name can only proceed from God Himself.
In the course of the Second Temple period the Tetragrammaton came to be regarded as charged with metaphysical potency and therefore ceased to be pronounced. It was replaced in speech by ʾadonai, “Lord,” rendered into Greek Kyrios. Often the vowels of ʾadonai would later accompany YHVH in written texts. This gave rise to the mistaken form Jehovah. The original pronunciation was eventually lost; modern attempts at recovery are conjectural.
God’s response to Moses’ query cannot be the disclosure of a hitherto unknown name, for that would be unintelligible to the people and would not resolve Moses’ dilemma. However, taken together with the statement in 6:3, the implication is that the name YHVH only came into prominence as the characteristic personal name of the God of Israel in the time of Moses. This tradition accords with the facts that the various divine names found in Genesis are no longer used, except occasionally in poetic texts; that of all the personal names listed hitherto, none is constructed of the prefixed yeho-/yo- or the suffixed -yahu/-yah contractions of YHVH; that the first name of this type is yokheved (Jochebed), that of Moses’ mother. Ibn Ezra points out that Moses, in his direct speech. invariably uses the name YHVH, not ʾelohim, “God.” Without doubt, the revelation of the divine name YHVH to Moses registers a new stage in the history of Israelite monotheism.

15. My name … My appellation How I am addressed and referred to.

forever … for all eternity God’s unvarying dependability provides assurance that His promises will be fulfilled.

16. the elders Moses’ first concern in his new role must be to win the confidence and support of the acknowledged leaders of the people. These are the elders (Heb. zekenim) who are frequently mentioned in the Exodus narratives, although little information about them is offered. The institution of elders is rooted in the tribal-patriarchal system that shaped the character of Israelite society in early times. The rich Mari archives dealing with Northwest Semitic tribes show that the council of elders was entrusted with considerable authority, judicial and political. Its members acted as the spokesmen and the delegates of the tribes in dealings with the urban administration.43

I have taken note This statement echoes the dying words of Joseph as recorded in Genesis 50:24: “God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” This promise was handed down from generation to generation.

18. The LORD, the God of the Hebrews This divine epithet appears exclusively in the Exodus stories, invariably in connection with addressing the pharaoh and always coupled with a demand for permission to worship in the wilderness. Although this king does not know YHVH, he never claims to be ignorant of “the God of the Hebrews.” This suggests that this epithet, like “the God of the father,” belongs to a pre-Mosaic stage in the history of Israelite religion and was perhaps widely used among the pastoral nomads of the region.45 For that reason, it is carefully identified with YHVH each time it is used by Moses.

manifested Himself Hebrew nikrah, as opposed to the usual nirʾah, “appeared,” emphasizes the sudden and unexpected nature of the encounter with the divine; and it explains to the pharaoh why no such demand had been made before.

three days In the biblical consciousness, this conventionally constitutes a significant segment of time, particularly in connection with travel. In the present context, it may well indicate that the intended sacrifice, which would be anathema to the Egyptians,48 as stated in Exodus 8:22, would take place well beyond the recognized range of Egyptian cultic holiness.

to sacrifice In terms of the corvée system, the state-organized forced labor gangs, this limited request was not exceptional, as is proved by entries in extant logs of their Egyptian supervisors. There is also archaeological evidence for the custom among pastoral nomads of making periodic pilgrimages to sacred shrines in the wilderness.51 On both scores, therefore, the denial of these reasonable and basic demands of the Israelites exposes the true character of the pharaoh and the brutal nature of his tyrannical rule.

19. a greater might Hebrew yad ḥazakah, literally “a strong hand,” meaning the “hand” of God, mentioned again in verse 20, as opposed to the oppressive “hand of Egypt” of verse 8.

20. wonders Hebrew niflaʾot is almost always used of God’s timely, direct intervention in human affairs, which does not necessarily express itself through the suspension of the laws of nature.

stretch out … let you go There is a kind of word play here, for the first and last verbs in the sentence are formed from the same stem sh-l-ḥ. The one will effect the other.

21–22. Such a dignified departure from Egypt was foretold in the original covenant with Abraham: “I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” This promise was fulfilled at the time of the Exodus.54 Early Jewish exegesis as reflected in Jubilees 48:18 and Philo of Alexandria, as well as in the Talmud,56 looked upon these spoils as well-deserved compensation to the Israelites for their long years of unpaid forced labor. It is also possible to interpret the development as being in accordance with the law of Deuteronomy 15:13 that requires the master to provision his slave liberally at the time of emancipation: “When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed.”

22. shall borrow Rather, “shall request,” which is the usual meaning of the stem sh-ʾ-l.

stripping The same Hebrew term is used literally in 2 Chronicles 20:25, but here it should be taken as hyperbole.

1. Moses presents his third objection: the possibility of being rejected by the Israelite masses. God, after all, had mentioned only the elders, not the people, in 3:18. Knowledge of the divine name does not of itself validate a claim to be divinely commissioned. Since the days of Jacob no Israelite had professed to receiving a theophany.

What if …

2–9. This time Moses’ argument is not refuted. Instead, he is instructed how to dissipate popular skepticism should it materialize. Deuteronomy 13:2–6 discusses the role of the sign in the legitimation of a prophet in Israel. Here, the signs, which will be executed in Egypt, possess a distinctly Egyptian coloration. This is not surprising, for magic was a pervasive ingredient of everyday life in Egypt, deeply embedded in the culture. The signs taught to Moses are intended, first and foremost, to validate his claim to be the divinely chosen instrument for the redemption of Israel. On a secondary level, they also function to establish the superiority of Moses over the Egyptian magicians and, by extension, to affirm the superior might of Israel’s God over those whom the Egyptians worshiped as gods.
Moses, however, is not a magician. He possesses no superhuman powers and no esoteric knowledge; he is unable to initiate or perform anything except by precise instructions from God; he pronounces no spells, observes no rituals, and employs no occult techniques, and often he does not know in advance the consequences of the actions he is told to perform.
The First Sign (vv. 2–5)

2. What is that in your band? The query serves to certify that the object is an ordinary shepherd’s crook and is not invested with magical powers.

3. That Moses recoils before the transformed rod expresses his astonishment at the marvel; his act intimates that God, not he, is in command of the situation.

a snake This creature probably serves a dual purpose here, practical and symbolic. As we learn from 7:8–11, the trick is later duplicated by the court magicians, which then enables Moses to demonstrate the superiority of Israel’s God. The rod in ancient Egypt was a symbol of royal authority and power, while the snake, the uraeus, represented the patron cobra-goddess of Lower Egypt. Worn over the forehead on the headdress of the pharaohs, it was emblematic of divinely protected sovereignty, and it served as a menacing symbol of death dealt to the enemies of the crown. See Comment to 7:8–12.
A midrash interprets the scene allegorically as a rebuke to Moses. He had misstated Israel’s faithfulness, just as the serpent had misrepresented God’s word to Eve.

4. by the tail Normally a foolhardy act, it here manifests Moses’ implicit faith in God.
The Second Sign (vv. 6–7)

6. encrusted Hebrew tsaraʿat, usually mistranslated “leprosy,” has none of the major symptoms of that malady, and the descriptions of tsaraʿat given in Leviticus 13–14 are incompatible with Hansen’s disease. The comparison to snow is not in respect of its whiteness but of its flakiness. Apart from the startling phenomenon of the sudden appearance and disappearance of the encrustation, this particular sign has an ominous aspect to it in that it is seen in the Bible as a divine punishment for human misbehavior.
The Third Sign (vv. 8–9)

8. pay heed to Literally, “listen to the voice of.” The sign, as it were, “speaks”; it testifies to the divine commissioning.

9. The third sign. This can be performed only inside Egypt. It later becomes the first of the ten plagues.
The Nile—the life-blood of Egypt—was deified; thus, this sign, like the first, signifies God’s sovereign rule over nature and the subordination of Egypt and its so-called gods to YHVH.

10. Moses puts forth his final objection: his claim of inadequacy to the task of being God’s spokesman before the Egyptian court. The precise nature of the deficiency is unclear as is the variant term “impeded speech” (literally “uncircumcised lips”) used in 6:12, 30. Most traditional commentators understood it as a speech defect, but some construed the phraseology as connoting a lack of eloquence or a loss of fluency in the Egyptian language. Whatever the circumstances, it is certain that the underlying idea is that prophetic eloquence is not a native talent but a divine endowment granted for a special purpose, the message originating with God and not with the prophet.

13. Having exhausted his arguments, Moses makes one last desperate appeal.

14. Aaron Mentioned now for the first time, he is three years older than Moses.

the Levite A strange designation, since Moses too was from the tribe of Levi. There may be an allusion to skill and accomplishment, for the Levites may have constituted an educated elite. Alternatively, the Hebrew can be translated as “your brother Levite.”11

setting out to meet you There must be some lost tradition behind this statement.

16. your spokesman Hebrew peh, literally “mouth,” that is, mouthpiece. The parallel text in 7:1 has “your prophet,” indicating the biblical understanding of the prophet as the spokesman for God.

17. The theophany comes to an end. Moses has nothing more to utter; he succumbs to his fate. Jeremiah (20:7, 9) expresses his own, similar experience as follows: “You enticed me, O LORD, and I was enticed;/You overpowered me and You prevailed.… /I thought, ‘I will not mention Him,/No more will I speak in His name’—/But [His word] was like a raging fire in my heart,/Shut up in my bones;/I could not hold it in, I was helpless.”
The Challenge of Leadership: Initial Failure (4:18–6:1)

This section covers the events between the two great theophanies of 3:1–4:17 and 6:2–8. It subdivides into four sections: (1) leave-taking and departure (4:18–23); (2) the night encounter and circumcision (4:24–26); (3) the acceptance of Moses’ leadership (4:27–31); and (4) the first audience with Pharaoh (5:1–6:1).

18. Moses returns to Midian with the sheep. He needs to obtain his father-in-law’s formal permission to leave his household. He does not disclose the true reason for returning to Egypt, probably because Jethro might think the mission to be impossible and therefore withhold his consent.

my kinsmen The phrase links the return with the original flight, which was a consequence of his having gone out “to his kinsmen” (2:11).

how they are faring Literally, “whether they are still alive.” The Hebrew idiom covers general welfare in a wider sense.

19. Apparently still fearing for his personal safety, Moses tarries; hence the divine directive and reassurance.

are dead See Comment to 2:23.

20. went back This seems to contradict verse 21. Rashi observes that the biblical texts do not always follow strict chronological sequence. Perhaps the Hebrew verb expresses the process rather than its completion.

his wife and sons According to 18:2–5, Jethro brought Zipporah and the two sons from Midian to Sinai after the Exodus. This shows that they were not in Egypt all the while. Possibly, a fuller version of the story behind the incident of verses 24–26 explained why the family returned to Midian. A midrash has Aaron convincing Moses not to subject his family to the rigors of life in Egypt.

sons Only Gershom has so far been mentioned (2:22). The ancient versions have a singular here.

the rod of God The shepherd’s crook mentioned in verses 2–4. The designation has been variously explained: as stemming from its use in performing the divinely ordained miracles, as being the subject of a divine command,17 and as meaning “the rod now invested with divine potency.” The Septuagint rendering, “the rod that he had from God,” recalls a widespread ancient Near Eastern artistic and literary convention, according to which gods carried rods as the symbol of authority and as emblems of supernatural power. Biblical poetic texts occasionally assign such a rod to God as a figure of speech.19 This fanciful notion is elaborated in postbiblical midrashim, which take as one and the same Moses’ rod, Aaron’s rod (mentioned later), and God’s rod. Mishnah Avot 5:6(9) included the rod among ten apparently ordinary objects that play an extraordinary role in God’s intervention in human affairs in the Bible. All were created at twilight on the eve of the original Sabbath. This is the rabbinic way of stating that what appears to be a miraculous suspension of the laws of nature was providentially integrated into the cosmic order at Creation.

21. The verse harks back to 3:19–20. The “marvels” are the forthcoming plagues. Moses is again warned of the obstacles that lie ahead on the road to liberation.

will stiffen his heart The motif of the stiffening, or hardening, of Pharaoh’s heart runs through the entire Exodus story; it appears exactly twenty times. Half of the references are to an essential attribute of the man’s character, half are attributed to divine causality.23 In the biblical conception, the psychological faculties are considered to be concentrated in the heart. Regarded as the seat of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual life of the individual, this organ is the determinant of behavior. The “hardening of the heart” thus expresses a state of arrogant moral degeneracy, unresponsive to reason and incapable of compassion. Pharaoh’s personal culpability is beyond question.
It is to be noted that in the first five plagues Pharaoh’s obduracy is self-willed. It is only thereafter that it is attributed to divine causality. This is the biblical way of asserting that the king’s intransigence has by then become habitual and irreversible; his character has become his destiny. He is deprived of the possibility of relenting and is irresistibly impelled to his self-wrought doom.

22. Thus says the LORD Hebrew koh ʾamar YHVH. This is the first use of the regular formula introducing a prophetic address. Believed to be an adaptation of the conventional opening words of royal heralds, it serves to secure audience attention while emphasizing the unimpeachable authority behind the ensuing proclamation. Moses is to approach the Egyptian king as the emissary of the sovereign Lord of the universe.26

My first-born son The relationship of Israel to God is expressed poetically, in filial terms. All peoples are recognized as being under the universal fatherhood of God, but Israel has the singular status of being the first to acknowledge YHVH and to enter into a special relationship with Him. As such, Israel enjoys God’s devoted care and protection.28 Jeremiah 2:3 expresses the same thought: “Israel was holy to the LORD,/The first fruits of His harvest./All who ate of it were held guilty;/Disaster befell them.” The first-born son in Israel was regarded as being naturally dedicated to God and in early times had certain cultic prerogatives and obligations. It is this that informs the concomitant demand of verse 23 that Israel be allowed to worship in the wilderness. Denial of this right on the part of Pharaoh will incur appropriate punishment.

23. your first-born son Pharaoh here stands for all Egyptians, in parallel with the collective “Israel.” The threat alludes to the tenth plague, the one that finally breaks the tyrant’s obstinacy.

The account of Moses’ return to Egypt is interrupted by a brief but thoroughly perplexing story. At first glance, the obscure, three-verse narrative seems to lack integration into the larger context of the chapter. Moses is not mentioned. If he is the afflicted person, one could well ask how God could want to kill him, the chosen instrument for the liberation of Israel, as he sets out in fulfillment of the divine command. To complicate matters further, the application of some of the verbs, personal pronouns, and pronominal suffixes is unclear. Finally, there is also uncertainty about the meaning of some of the language and about the person to whom it is directed.
These various obscurities arise primarily because the account here is only a truncated version of a larger, popular story that circulated orally in Israel. Its details were well known and were expected to be supplied by the audience. There are several such fragmentary narratives in the Book of Genesis: the marriage of Cain (4:17), the Song of Lamech (4:23–24), the celestial beings and terrestrial girls (6:13), the depravity of Canaan (9:18–29), the nocturnal assailant of Jacob (32:23–33), and Reuben’s affair with his father’s concubine (35:22).
In point of fact, the sketchy tale of the night incident in verses 24–26 is not as unconnected with the larger context as is often claimed. The introductory phrase, “It happened on the way,” immediately establishes the chronological linkage with verse 20. Then there are several verbal tie-ins with both the foregoing and the following texts. Thus, the phrase “sought to kill” in verse 24 echoes “who sought to kill you” in verse 19; “her son” in verse 25 recalls “his sons,” “My son,” “your son” in verses 20, 22, 23, and the Hebrew for “encountered him” (va-yifgeshehu) in verse 24 is identical with that for “met him” in verse 27.
Aside from these shared expressions, there are other indications of careful design. The featuring of the circumcision episode following the reference to the first-born provides an artfully wrought literary framework for the entire narrative, one that encompasses the struggle for liberation from Pharaoh’s oppression. That struggle begins with Moses’ setting out to return to Egypt (v. 20), and its successful conclusion is signaled by the death of the Egyptian first-born (12:29–36). This latter is followed immediately by the law requiring circumcision as the precondition for participation in the paschal sacrifice (12:43–49), which in turn is followed by the law of the first-born (13:1, 11–15). The effect is a thematically arranged chiasm:

In addition to the literary structure, there is also a functional correspondence between the blood of circumcision and the visible sign of the blood on the paschal sacrifice. In both instances, evil is averted on account of it (4:26; 12:7, 13, 22–23). This inextricable tie between circumcision and the Passover, as plainly set forth in 12:43–49, is also unmistakably operative in chapter 5 of the Book of Joshua. It is related there that after crossing the Jordan into the promised land a mass circumcision ceremony was performed as a prelude to the first celebration of the Passover feast inside the country (vv. 2–11).
Rabbinic exegesis gave midrashic expression to this association in interpreting Ezekiel 16:6: “When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’ Yea, I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood.’ ” The Hebrew phrase be-damayikh ḥayi, emphatically reiterated, was interpreted by the rabbis to mean “survive through your blood [plural]”; that is, the survival and redemption of Israel was assured because of the two mitzvot—that of circumcision and that of paschal sacrifice. Genesis 17:9–14, it should be noted, made circumcision the indispensable precondition for admittance to the community of Israel.
In sum, the brief narrative in verses 24–26 underscores the paramount importance of the institution of circumcision and the surpassing seriousness of its neglect.

24. a night encampment Hebrew malon may be word play on the stem m-w-l, “to circumcise,” used in verse 26.

encountered him Whereas polytheistic literature would attribute the experience to a demonic being, Israelite monotheism admits of no independent forces other than the one God. Hence, the action is directly ascribed to Him. In order to soften the anthropomorphism, rabbinic sources, as reflected in the Targums and medieval commentaries, introduce an angel as the instrument of affliction.

sought to Rather, “was on the verge of killing him.” This is the force of the Hebrew phrase. The victim was suddenly smitten with a deadly ailment.

kill him It would be wholly inconsistent with the drift of the preceding narrative to assume that Moses was the one stricken. The sequence of verses strongly suggests that it was Moses’ first-born, Gershom, whose life was imperiled.

25. Zipporah Knowledge of her identity is taken for granted (2:21). It is not to be wondered that she, a Midianite, was familiar with the rite of circumcision; the practice was widespread among the ancient Semites and was prevalent in Egypt. The reason for the mother’s attribution of her son’s illness to uncircumcision must have some background that now eludes us. Moses may well have neglected this rite because of the danger of exposing a newly circumcised boy to the rigors of the journey through the wilderness. This widely held explanation receives some support from Joshua 5:5, 7, which tells that the generation born in the course of the wilderness wanderings was not circumcised. Targum Jonathan reflects a tradition that Jethro had disallowed the operation.

a flint Rather than a metal knife, even though the events occurred in the Late Bronze Age. A stone knife is still widely preferred in primitive societies that practice circumcision, a testimony to both the great antiquity of the rite and the inherent conservatism of religion.

cut off … The unique use of the Hebrew k-r-t for this action rather than the otherwise invariable m-w-l may reflect Midianite terminology. But there may also be a double word play here, for k-r-t berit is the Hebrew term for making a covenant, and in Genesis 17:9–14 circumcision is called “the sign of the covenant.” Further, in that same text (v. 14) it is stated that he who fails to fulfill the rite—the first command in the Torah specifically enjoined upon Abraham and his descendants—“shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant.” The Hebrew term for the prescribed penalty is karet. An uncircumcised Israelite who thereby alienates himself from the community of Israel would be excluded from the Passover and from the redemption from Egypt. Joshua 5:5 explicitly records that all the males who came out of Egypt had undergone the rite. It would have been ironically paradoxical indeed had the son of the central figure in the story of the Exodus been an outsider.

touches his legs Whose legs is unclear, as is the symbolism of the gesture. “Legs” may be a euphemism for the genital organs, here of the child. The act might signify: See, the foreskin has been cut off; the requirement of circumcision has been fulfilled! Or it may well be a reference to placing a bloodstain on the child because the Hebrew verb used here (rendered “touched”) is the same as that used for the daubing of the blood of the paschal lamb on the lintel and doorposts in 12:22 (rendered “apply”). In both cases, the purpose would be the same: The blood would act as a protective sign against plague; the Destroyer would not smite.

a bridegroom of blood This is the traditional English rendering of the unique Hebrew phrase ḥatan damim, for which, so far, no parallel has been found in ancient Near Eastern literature. If ḥatan possesses its usual meaning of “groom,” it would hardly be applicable to Moses, who by now has been married for some time. Conceivably, it might be a term of endearment addressed to the child, but the meager evidence for such a usage stems from rabbinic, not biblical, times. Ḥatan damim may be a linguistic fossil, pre-Israelite or Midianite, the meaning of which has been lost. However, it can hardly be coincidental that in Arabic the stem ḥ-t-n denotes “to circumcise” as well as “to protect.” This latter is also its meaning in Akkadian. Hence, the enigmatic phrase could convey, “You are now circumcised [and so] protected for me by means of the blood—the blood of circumcision.” Curiously, p-s-ḥ, the Hebrew stem behind Passover, can also mean “to protect.” See Comment to 12:11.

26. He let him alone The subject is God. The crisis has passed.

she added Literally, “then she said,” perhaps invoking or coining a proverb that may mean “circumcision has been performed, and he is no longer liable to karet,” the penalty of being “cut off” from one’s kin.

because of the circumcision Hebrew la-mulot is another unique form, apparently an abstract noun.

27. Aaron See verse 14.

the mountain of God See Comment to 3:1.

he kissed him The standard biblical greeting between close relatives.

29. The directive given in 3:16 is carried out.

31. As predicted (vv. 8–9), the signs are accepted as testimony to the reliability of Moses and to the veracity of his message.43

taken note See Comment to 3:16.

bowed low … Here a gesture of thanksgiving.


The narrative moves to a new phase in the tragic history of Israel in Egypt. The new Israelite leadership seizes the initiative with a diplomatic approach. It ends in failure, and the plight of the people becomes an issue in Egyptian public policy. It is now that the struggle for freedom begins in earnest. This chapter serves as an introduction to the narrative of the plagues.
The First Confrontation with the Court (vv. 1–5)

1. Afterward Upon meeting with popular acceptance.

Moses and Aaron Contrary to the instruction in 3:18, the elders are not included. According to a midrash, they lost their nerve, and one by one they dropped off on the way to the palace.

Thus says the LORD See Comment to 4:22.

the God of Israel This epithet more precisely defines the name YHVH.

celebrate a festival Hebrew ḥag is basically a sacrificial feast associated with a pilgrimage to a sanctuary. Arabic haj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, derives from the same stem.

2. Who is the LORD? A contemptuous retort that contrasts starkly with the humble response of Moses to the divine call: “Who am I?” The pharaoh was the incarnation of a god in Egyptian doctrine. This divine status meant that his power was unlimited, that his will was incontestable law, and that his utterances possessed divine force. He regards himself as YHVH’s superior.

I do not know I do not acknowledge His authority. On the key word y-d-ʿ in Exodus, see Comment to 1:8.

3. The reaction of Moses and Aaron is restrained. They seem to be surprised and cowed by the king’s aggressive arrogance.

The God of the Hebrews They use the very language prescribed in 3:18, except that they omit “the LORD” because the monarch has already denied all knowledge of Him. On the “Hebrews,” see Excursus 1.

manifested Himself See Comment to 3:18.

lest He strike us For disregarding our obligation. The pharaoh should be concerned about this since he will lose our labor. The “us” may also be a sly intimation that the Egyptians too will be stricken.6

pestilence or sword These are conventional symbols of divine judgment.

4. Pharaoh treats the request for time out to worship as a ploy to shirk work.

5. This statement can be variously understood. It may explain the economic reasons for refusing the request. The Israelites are so numerous that any interruption of their labors would entail an enormous loss of productivity. It might also take up the original theme of 1:7, 9–10 that the huge population would constitute a power to be reckoned with were they to quit working. Either way, the second half of the verse is exclamatory.

The people of the land Meaning the common laborers, perhaps a derisive term.
A Peremptory Refusal (vv. 6–9)

Moses and Aaron are silent. The disastrous audience with the king is abruptly terminated. The tyrant loses no time in issuing peremptory orders designed to drive home to the Israelites the futility of entertaining any hope of gaining relief.

6. taskmasters and foremen In the Egyptian corvée system the workers were organized into manageable gangs, each headed by a foreman from among their own. He, in turn, was directly responsible to his superior, the “taskmaster.” As verses 14 and 20–21 show, the foremen were Israelites, the taskmasters, Egyptian. The foremen kept careful logs of their wards and the activities of each. Several such logs are extant, some from the time of Ramses II. Hebrew shoter, “foreman,” in fact derives from a stem meaning “to write,” a denotation reflected in the Septuagint rendering grammateus, “scribe, keeper of records.”

7–8. The new directive did not demand “bricks without straw,” as the English saying goes. Rather, it ordered the brickmakers to collect their own straw; until then it had been supplied by the state. Chopped straw or stubble was a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of bricks. It was added to the mud from the Nile, then shaped in a mold and left to dry in the sun. The straw acted as a binder, and the acid released by the decay of the vegetable matter greatly enhanced the plastic and cohesive properties of the brick, thus preventing shrinking, cracking, and loss of shape.

8. to our God Pharaoh does not recognize the Lord and therefore refrains from using the divine name.

9. heavier work Hebrew tikhbad ha-ʿavodah is artfully allusive. The first word derives from the same Hebrew stem k-v-d that is soon to be used of Pharaoh’s “hardening of the heart,” and foreshadows that development. The noun can mean both “work, labor” and “worship.”15 The former meaning is Pharaoh’s response to God’s demand that Israel worship Him in the wilderness. See Comments to verse 18 below and to 3:12.

deceitful promises This refers back to 4:29–31. Egyptian intelligence must have reported back about the promises of redemption.
The Oppression Intensifies (vv. 10–14)

10. Thus says Pharaoh As opposed to “Thus says the LORD” (4:22; 5:1). Pharaoh is now set on a collision course with the God of Israel.

13–14. According to the chain of command, it would have been the Israelite foremen who were pressured. However, the inherent ambiguity in “them” allows a midrash to conclude that the Israelite foremen took pity on their toiling brethren and as a consequence were beaten.
The Foremen Protest (vv. 15–18)

16. the fault is with your own people We are being treated unfairly.

18. Be off now to your work! Hebrew lekhu ʿivdu is tinged with irony because later on Pharaoh will be constrained to use the identical phrase in the sense of “be off now to your worship!”
Demoralization (5:19–6:1)

21. for making us loathsome Literally, “for causing our breath to be malodorous in the eyes of …” The mixed metaphor means “brought us into contempt.”

putting a sword Imperiling our lives.

22–23. Moses’ deep disappointment at his initial failure shows he had unrealistic expectations of early success. The bitterness of his outburst traces back to his original reluctance to accept the divine commission.

22. returned to the LORD He retreated into seclusion to commune with God.

1. a greater might See Comment to 3:19.

drive them from See Comment to 2:22.

Divine Reaffirmation (6:2–7:13)

The preceding verses cite evidence of pervasive demoralization. In order to combat this despondent mood, God now amplifies His response to the complaint of 5:23. Moses lamented the deterioration in Israel’s situation that followed his petition to Pharaoh in God’s name. The divine Name and its significance in relation to the promises made to the patriarchs are now the topic of God’s renewed theophany to Moses. Seven verbs, each in the first person with God as the subject, are employed emphatically to reaffirm the certainty of redemption (vv. 6–8). Significantly, the theophany is framed by the authoritative royal formula of self-identification. For the origin of this formula, see Comment to 3:6.

2–3. Were this statement to mean that a previously unknown divine Name—YHVH—is now to be revealed for the first time, the effect of the “I am” formula would be vitiated. the credibility of a promise is undermined, not enhanced, if it is issued by one whose name is unfamiliar. Furthermore, the phrase “I am YHVH” appears scores of times in the Bible and is widespread in corresponding form in Northwest Semitic royal inscriptions, such as “I am Mesha,” “I am Shalmaneser,” “I am Esarhaddon.” It cannot, therefore, reflect the introduction of a new name. On the contrary, precisely because the bearer of the name is well known, and its mention evokes such emotions as awe, reverence, honor, and fear, its use as the source and sanction of a law or edict reinforces its authority and encourages compliance. In the present context the invocation of a hitherto unknown divine name would hardly serve to counteract the widespread demoralization—which is, after all, the very function of God’s declaration.
In light of these considerations, the meaning of this verse needs to be reexamined. In the ancient Near Eastern world names in general, and the name of a god in particular, possessed a dynamic quality and were expressive of character, or attributes, and potency. The names of gods were immediately identified with their nature, status, and function, so that to say, “I did not make myself known to them by My name YHVH,” is to state that the patriarchs did not experience the essential power associated with the name YHVH. The promises made to them belonged to the distant future. The present reiteration of those promises exclusively in the name of YHVH means that their fulfillment is imminent. This, indeed, is how Rashi, Rashbam, Bekhor Shor, and others construed verses 2–3.
Support for the understanding that “knowing the name of YHVH” means witnessing or being made to experience the display of divine might is found in several biblical passages. The two most illuminating are Isaiah 52:6 and Jeremiah 16:21. The first reads: “Assuredly, My people shall learn [Heb. yedaʿ] My name,/Assuredly [they shall learn] on that day/That I, the One who promised,/Am now at hand.” The second passage states: “Assuredly, I will teach them [Heb. modiʿam],/Once and for all I will teach them [Heb. ʾodiʿem]/My power and My might./And they shall learn [Heb. ve-yadeʿu] that My name is LORD [YHVH].”

El Shaddai The reference is to Genesis 17:1–8 and 35:11–12. Although this divine Name is usually translated “God Almighty,” there are no convincing traditions as to its meaning and little etymological justification for that particular rendering. With the advent of Moses, El Shaddai became obsolete; it is preserved only in poetic texts. See Excursus 4.

4. I also The emphatic Hebrew ve-gam underscores the unalterability of the divine commitment.

to give them The patriarchs received ownership of the land; their descendants would receive possession of it.

5. I have now As before, Hebrew ve-gam is emphatic, with the sense of “indeed.”

I have remembered See Comment to 2:24.

My covenant With the patriarchs.

6. therefore Hebrew lakhen at the beginning of a verse frequently introduces a solemn declaration that has the force of an oath.

I am the LORD See Comment to verse 2. According to several rabbinic sources, it is on account of the following four verbs of redemption—“I will free … deliver … redeem … take you”—that there arose the obligation to drink four cups of wine at the Passover Seder.

free you Literally, “bring you out.” The Hebrew verb y-ts-ʾ is often used in the context of emancipation and liberation.

redeem you The Hebrew stem g-ʾ-l in its verbal and nominal form is a socio-legal term that belongs to the realm of kinship rights and obligations. The goʾel was the near kin who had primary responsibility for protecting or regaining persons and property for the extended family. The term came to be used figuratively, as here, with God as the subject.11 In time, the abstract noun geʾulah acquired messianic associations referring to God’s ultimate redemption of Israel from exile.

outstretched arm … These phrases introduce the plague narrative that begins in the next chapter. The arm is the symbol of strength and power and thus is used metaphorically of God’s mighty deeds, overwhelmingly in connection with the Exodus.

7. This declaration prefigures the covenant that is to be established at Sinai. The phraseology suggests the institution of marriage, a familiar biblical metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. The first two verbs, l-k-ḥ, “to take,” and h-y-h le-, “to be (someone’s),” are both used in connection with matrimony; the second is also characteristic covenant language.16 Similarly, the Hebrew term for a covenant, berit, is also used for the bond of marriage.

you shall know On the verb y-d-ʿ, “to know,” as a key word in the Exodus narratives, see Comment to 1:8.

8. I swore Literally, “I raised my hand,” the phrase deriving from a symbolic gesture accompanying oath-taking, a practice still in vogue. The Bible stresses innumerable times that the Land of Israel was pledged on oath to the patriarchs and their descendants.19

I the LORD See Comment to verse 2.

they would not listen Moses’ message did not succeed in strengthening their morale, in contrast to the experience recorded in 4:31.

their spirits crushed Literally, “from shortness of spirit.” Hebrew ruaḥ is the spiritual and psychic energy that motivates action. Its absence or attenuation signifies atrophy of the will.

Failure to energize the people must not deter Moses from persevering in his mission.

11. Go The place is not specified, but the palace is understood.

12. Moses employs a reasoned argument to justify resistance to the divine command. It is the type of logical inference known in later Hebrew as kal va-ḥomer. The lack of response on the part of the Israelites (5:21; 6:9) will itself impair the effectiveness of Moses’ petition to Pharaoh, and the unfortunate situation will be aggravated by Moses’ own oratorical handicap.

impeded speech Literally, “uncircumcised of lips,” a synonym of “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10). “Uncircumcised” is also used metaphorically of the heart and ear, the idea being that the organ involved is, so to speak, obstructed by a “foreskin” that blocks its proper functioning.

13. Ignoring Moses’ objections, God orders him and his brother to resume their mission to both Israel and Pharaoh. Aaron is introduced here for two reasons. First, he is to act as spokesman and thereby offset Moses’ impairment; second, he is the focus of the following genealogy. His name thus serves to smooth the transition to the next section.
A GENEALOGY (vv. 14–25)

The narrative breaks off at this low point in the wretched fortunes of Israel with the insertion of a genealogy. This interruption is not an interpolation but a literary device that definitively marks off the first stage in the process of liberation—the unavailing human efforts—from the coercive intervention of God that will ensue—the ten plagues. At the same time, it links the time of the Exodus with the patriarchal period. Because a genealogy inherently symbolizes vigor and continuity, its presence here also injects a reassuring note into the otherwise despondent mood.
A detailed analysis of the content of the genealogy discloses careful design and purpose. The line of the Levites is framed by a separate introduction and conclusion (vv. 16, 26); the lifespans of individuals are registered only in the list of Levites (vv. 16, 18, 20); and the descendants of Levi are traced to five generations in contrast to the single generation given for the Reubenites and Simeonites. Still more peculiarities appear in the Levitical listing: Aaron’s name precedes that of Moses (v. 20); Moses’ wife is not mentioned but Aaron’s is (v. 23); only the fathers-in-law of Aaron and his son Eleazar are named (vv. 23–25); only Aaron’s brother-in-law is recorded; only Aaron’s descendants and not those of Moses are listed, and to three generations. To put it all another way, the Levites are here singled out from among the other tribes of Israel; the Aaronides are distinguished from among the other Levitical families; and there is a further differentiation within the Aaronide families themselves.
These special features undoubtedly anticipate later developments: the special status to be granted to the tribe of Levi, the appointment of the Aaronides to serve as priests, and the investment of Aaron as High Priest, with one specific line of his descendants exclusively designated to succeed him. The exaltation of Aaron is enhanced even further by the note about his marriage in verse 23; his brother-in-law, Nahshon, and also presumably his father-in-law, Amminadab, was a chieftain of the tribe of Judah and an ancestor of King David.

14–15. The lists duplicate those of Genesis 46:8–10. Ramban suggests that the genealogy begins with the Reubenites and Simeonites, even though the primary focus is on Levi, in order to emphasize that the last named was not Jacob’s first-born and that the Levites were elevated because of their own merit.

14. their The antecedent is probably “Moses and Aaron.”

15. Zohar In Numbers 26:13 and 1 Chronicles 4:24 this name is replaced by Zerah. Both names mean “shining, brightness.”

a Caananite woman This exceptional notice most likely reflects the disfavor with which intermarriage with the Canaanites was viewed.

16. These three are the heads of Levitical clans that later performed menial duties in connection with the wilderness Tabernacle. The names of the members of their families and the services assigned to them are listed in detail in Numbers 3:17–39.

18. Of the four sons of Kohath, only Hebron’s descendants are not listed, although Numbers 26:58 and 1 Chronicles 15:9 attest to his having had offspring. Rashbam suggests that the omission is because the Hebronites, unlike the others mentioned, play no role in the Torah narratives. According to Ḥizkuni, the same also governs the omission of the descendants of Moses and of Ithamar son of Aaron (v. 23).

20. his father’s sister Marriage to a paternal aunt is prohibited in the legislation of Leviticus 18:12 and 20:19. Therefore, the present notice must preserve a very ancient tradition.

Jochebed She is the anonymous “Levite woman” of Exodus 2:1, the first biblical personage to bear a name composed of yo-, the shortened form of the divine Name YHVH. Her name seems to mean “YHVH is Glory.”

Aaron and Moses The Septuagint, Syriac, and Samaritan texts add, “and their sister Miriam,” just as in Numbers 26:59.

21. Ibn Ezra suggests that the sons of Izhar are recorded on account of Korah, who contended with Moses, as told in Numbers 16.

22. According to Ibn Ezra, these are listed because Mishael and Elzaphan are later mentioned in connection with the death of Aaron’s two sons, as told in Leviticus 10:4.

23. As noted by Lekaḥ Tov, this marriage betokens the interrelationship of the priesthood and royalty, for Nahshon was the ancestor of King David. The two institutions respectively provided the ecclesiastical and secular leadership of later Israel.

Nadab and Abihu Exodus 24:1 introduces the sons of Aaron without any description, presupposing a knowledge of Aaronide genealogy.

24. The Korahites, observes Ibn Ezra, are mentioned on account of the statement in Numbers 26:11 that “the sons of Korah … did not die” in their father’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron. The Korahite clan later became a guild of Temple singers to whom several psalms are attributed. They are also listed as having been “guards of the threshold of the Tabernacle” and as performing other tasks, such as baking and gatekeeping. A bowl inscribed with “the sons of Korah” (bny krḥ) has been uncovered in an Israelite shrine at Arad deriving from the eighth century B.C.E.

25. Putiel’s The text assumes that he was well known although he is not otherwise mentioned. The name itself is a hybrid of Egyptian and Hebrew, meaning “the one whom God has given.”

Phinehas This name is also Egyptian and means “the Nubian/dark-skinned one.” It was fairly common in Egypt in the thirteenth century B.C.E. By virtue of his zeal for the high moral standards of the religion of Israel, Phinehas was granted “a pact of priesthood for all time,” as told in Numbers 25:1–18.

Following the digression this brief concluding summary acts as a resumptive repetition of verses 9–12. It also encloses the genealogy in a literary frame and reconnects it with the account of the Exodus.

26. It is the same That is, the same as those mentioned in the genealogy.

Aaron and Moses The order reflects the focus of the lists, as explained above. It also makes for a chiastic arrangement with verse 13 and verse 27, as follows:

Aaron (v. 13)
Moses (v. 26)
Aaron (v. 27)

troop by troop The narratives employ military terminology for the organization of the Israelites during the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings. Thus, in Numbers 1:52 it is prescribed that “the Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his standard.”

28. In some Hebrew texts the letter samekh follows this verse and signifies the closing of a section (Heb. parashah setumah). However, as Rashi and Ibn Ezra note, this division contradicts the syntax, which requires that the clause be attached to the next sentence. There is as yet no satisfactory solution to this anomaly.
Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus (S. vii–36). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.


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