“Exodus,” the name of the second book of the Pentateuch or the Torah, is derived from Greek and refers to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The account in this book starts with the period of oppression in Egypt before the birth of Moses and then continues with the birth of Moses, his role in Israelite history from then onward, the ten devastating plagues that led to the Israelites being liberated from enslavement and able to leave Egypt, the destruction of Pharaoh and his forces in the Red Sea, experiences of the Israelites as they traveled in the Sinai Peninsula, their receiving the law at Mount Sinai, the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood, and the institution of an arrangement for worship centered at a tabernacle. One of the serious ways in which the Israelites failed to remain loyal to their God YHWH was involvement in the worship of the representation of a calf.
The name of the Pharaoh who was responsible for the oppression of the Israelites is not provided nor is any information recorded about who the Pharaoh was when the Israelites left Egypt. Based on what is contained in the account in Exodus, one cannot establish a specific link to what is known about ancient Egyptian history. The first extant reference to Israel is commonly considered to be on a victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah, who is thought to have reigned from 1213 to 1203 BCE. More than a century ago, the boastful words of this ruler were translated, “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” In more recent years, however, whether Israel is actually mentioned has been questioned and another rendering of the words that omits any mention of Israel has been proposed. This serves to illustrate the difficulty in matching Egyptian inscriptions with biblical accounts. One event from a much later time does coincide with the biblical record. This is the invasion of Pharaoh Shishak (Sheshonk I) in the fifth year of the reign of the Judean king Rehoboam. (1 Kings 14:25, 26) A relief on a temple wall at Karnak lists numerous cities of Judah and Israel that Pharaoh Sheshonk I captured.
A question that is often raised about the book of Exodus relates to the number of able-bodied men who left Egypt. Exodus 12:37 says that it was about 600,000. According to the census taken in the second year after the Exodus, the number was 603,550. (Numbers 1:1, 2, 45) This would mean that the total number of Israelites who left Egypt numbered between two and three million persons. Many have found it difficult to believe that there could have been so many people who wandered thereafter in the Sinai Peninsula. Additionally, the people brought with them much livestock — cattle, sheep, and goats.
In the book of Deuteronomy (8:15), the arid region through which the Israelites traveled is described as “the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) A cow may drink up to thirty gallons (c. 114 liters) of water each day. This amount of water would be significantly less when there is a high moisture content in the grass on which the cow feeds. A sheep may drink up to five gallons (c. 19 liters) of available water daily, and a goat up to two or three gallons (c. 7.5 to 11 liters). Goats need three to four percent of their body weight in the form of vegetation each day. Daily, a cow will eat the equivalent of two percent of its body weight. Sheep require enough pasture to consume between two and half and three percent of their body weight each day. Anciently, far more vegetation may have flourished in the Sinai Peninsula than presently, and much more water may have been accessible. The description in the book of Deuteronomy and biblical references to oases in the arid region, however, do suggest that the wilderness had limited lush pasture and not abundant water for many thousands of domestic animals. This is additionally confirmed by the necessity of miraculous provisions of drinking water for the people.
Regarding Canaan itself, the nations residing there are said to have been “greater and mightier” or more populous and in possession of greater military strength than the Israelites. (Deuteronomy 4:38) Today in that region west of the Jordan River more than 13.5 million make their home, and that includes cities with far larger populations than existed in ancient times. It is inconceivable that there were nations with populations in the millions that resided in ancient Canaan.
After their entrance into Canaan on the west side of the Jordan River, the Israelites ceased to benefit from miraculous provisions of food. They were to live on the produce of the land in the area surrounding their encampment near Jericho. (Joshua 5:11, 12) In this encampment, there were fewer Israelites than there had been when the people first arrived on the east side of the Jordan, for the households of the men from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh remained settled on the east side. Nevertheless, with over 600,000 able-bodied men in addition to the women and children of the men from the other tribes, the camp would have been larger than the largest refugee camp of modern times. That there would have been enough grain to be harvested in a relatively small area near Jericho to supply more than 600,000 able-bodied men besides women and children does appear questionable. Moreover, the people needed to relieve themselves outside the camp, and one must consider the distance they would have to walk to get outside a camp that accommodated so many men, women, and children. Thousands of tents would have been required to shelter the people.
In view of the aforementioned factors and others that could be mentioned, one may conclude that the numbers in the Pentateuch could have a different significance, but the question is open as to how best to explain the numbers. One conjecture is that the Hebrew word rendered “thousand” (’eleph) refers to a unit or the chieftain of a unit or clan, greatly reducing the number of people who actually left Egypt. None of the various conjectures, however, provides anything close to a definitive resolution about how the numbers in the Pentateuch are to be understood, especially since the Septuagint and Josephus agree in saying that the men who were able to serve as warriors numbered about 600,000. (Antiquities, II, ix, 3; xv, 1)
The descendants of the eleven sons of Jacob (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher) who came with their households to Egypt and the descendants of Joseph (who already was there at that time) increased greatly in number after all members of the first generation in the land had died. (1:1-7; regarding the “70 souls” (“75 souls” [LXX]), see the comments on Genesis 46:26, 27, and the accompanying note.)
The “new king” who arose in Egypt may well have been a man with whom a new dynasty had its start. His not knowing Joseph may signify that he gave no recognition to Joseph and the service that he had rendered for the Egyptians. In his Antiquities, (II, ix, 1), Josephus specifically mentions that the “crown” had “come into another family.” The new ruler perceived that the sizable population of Israelites, the descendants of Jacob’s sons, posed a potential threat to the Egyptians, as he feared that, in a time of conflict, they might side with the enemies of the Egyptians. Therefore, he instituted forced labor, impressing the Israelites into hard service for building projects (the store cities of Pithom and Raamses [Pithom, Ramesse, and On, that is, Heliopolis (City of the Sun), LXX]) and agricultural operations. The oppressive measures did not prevent an increase in the Israelite population, but it did make life bitter for the people. (1:8-14)
In view of the continued increase of the Israelite population, the Egyptian ruler determined to stop it and commanded the midwives Shiphrah and Puah (Sepphora and Phoua [LXX]) to kill all baby boys immediately at birth and to preserve only the lives of the baby girls. The Hebrew text indicates that the midwives were Hebrews, as were the Israelites. Josephus, however, referred to them as “Egyptian midwives,” indicating that, as Egyptians, their greater loyalty would have been to the ruler so that they would not have been inclined to “transgress his commands.” (Antiquities, II, ix, 2) The Septuagint would allow for this understanding, for it identifies them as “midwives of the Hebrews,” which could be understood to mean that they were appointed as midwives for the Hebrews. It appears that the two midwives, likely heads of the other midwives for the Hebrew community, could not bring themselves to kill the baby boys. They had a fear of God, possibly meaning (if they were Egyptians) that they had a sense of accountability to a deity. Hebrew midwives would have had a wholesome fear or regard for their God. (Exodus 1:15-17; see the Note section.)
Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler, demanded to know why the midwives had not killed the male babies as he had instructed them to do. They answered that the Hebrew women were not like the Egyptian women. Even before the midwives arrived to assist in the delivery, the Hebrew women had already given birth. The Israelites continued to increase in number, and the action of the midwives led to God’s blessing them, for they came to have their own families. Pharaoh determined to continue a campaign of genocide, commanding his subjects to throw every Hebrew male baby into the Nile River but to preserve the female babies. (1:18-22)
Targum Jonathan mentions that the chief Egyptian magicians Jannis (Jannes) and Jambres told Pharaoh that, “by the hand” or power of a child to be born to the Israelites, all the land of Egypt would be destroyed. This prompted Pharaoh to seek the death of all the Hebrew male babies. Josephus wrote (Antiquities, II, ix, 2) that one of the sacred scribes told the king that a child would be “born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low and would raise the Israelites,” and that this one would “excel all men in virtue and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages.”
The Levite (“man from the house of Levi” or a descendant of Jacob’s son Levi) was Amram. He married Jochebed who also was a descendant of Levi. According to the Hebrew text of Exodus 6:20, Jochebed was the sister of Amram’s father or Amram’s aunt. This may explain the comments in Targum Jonathan. It says that, on account of the decree of Pharaoh, Amram had separated from his wife and when they were again reunited she was 130 years old. By a miracle, she returned to the years of her youth and became pregnant. In the Septuagint, however, Iochabed (Jochebed) is identified as the daughter of the brother of Amram’s father or Amram’s cousin. (2:1)
Upon giving birth to her son, Jochebed saw what a fine or beautiful baby her son was, and she hid him for three months. The Septuagint rendering indicates that both parents recognized the beauty of the baby. When circumstances made it impossible for the baby to remain concealed and thus saved from being tossed into the Nile River to perish, Jochebed constructed a waterproof “ark”or a covered basket, placed her baby in it, and positioned the container among the reeds growing along the banks of the Nile. At a distance from where the basket had been placed, Miriam (the baby’s sister), undoubtedly at her mother’s direction (as Josephus wrote specifically [Antiquities, II, ix, 4]), watched to see what would happen to her baby brother. (2:2-4) Targum Jonathan says that the baby could not be hidden any longer because the Egyptians had become aware of his existence. (See the Notes section.)
Acts 7:20 refers to the baby as “beautiful to God,” which suggests exceptional beauty and may also indicate that this exceptional beauty indicated that he would become God’s special instrument for delivering his people from Egyptian enslavement. In his Antiquities (II, ix, 6), Josephus commented on the three-year-old boy’s beauty when others saw him. They were amazed at seeing the “beauty of his countenance.” Upon seeing him carried along the road, they would turn, stop their labors, and stand still for a great while to look at him. “The beauty of the child was so remarkable and natural to him on many accounts that it detained the spectators and made them stay longer to look upon him.”
Accompanied by her female servants, the daughter of Pharaoh came to the Nile to bathe. Noticing the basket among the reeds, she sent one of her servants to get it. Upon opening it, she saw the crying baby boy and took pity on him, concluding that the infant was one of the children of the Hebrews. (2:5, 6) Josephus wrote that Pharaoh’s daughter was named Thermuthis and that she wanted to keep the infant as her own. She asked her servants to bring her a wet nurse, but the infant refused to suckle the breast of any of the women whom they brought. Miriam approached Pharaoh’s daughter but made sure not to appear as though she had been there on purpose. She is quoted as telling Pharaoh’s daughter, “It is in vain that you, O queen, call for these women to nourish the child, [women] who are in no way related to it, but still, if you would order one of the Hebrew women to be brought, perhaps it may admit the breast of one of its own nation.” (Antiquities, II, ix, 5)
Both the extant Hebrew text and the Septuagint mention that Miriam asked Pharaoh’s daughter whether she should call one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for her. Miriam was requested to do so, and she brought her mother to Pharaoh’s daughter, who then requested that she function as the wet nurse for the infant and said that she would pay her wages for the service. (2:7-9) Josephus added that the mother was not known to anyone there and that the infant “gladly admitted [her] breast and seemed to stick close to it.” (Antiquities, II, ix, 5)
Probably when her son no longer needed to be nursed, Jochebed brought him to the daughter of Pharaoh. It was the daughter of Pharaoh who then named the child Moses, saying, “For I drew him out of the water.” The Hebrew text appears to link the name Moses to the Hebrew verb mashah (“draw out”). (2:10) This association with mashah, however, may simply be a way to express what the daughter of Pharaoh meant by the name she gave to the infant, for she would not have been a speaker of Hebrew. Josephus indicated that the name Moses is derived from two Egyptian words. He wrote that the word for water that the Egyptians used was mou, (mo), and they called persons who were saved out of water eses. (uses). Josephus then indicated that the combination of the two words was the basis for the name Moses. (Antiquities, II, ix, 6)
In ancient Egypt, women enjoyed many of the same rights as did men, including the right to adopt children. One early case involved a woman named Nau-nakht. She adopted and raised the freed children of her female servant because of the kindness they had shown to her. So there appears to have been nothing extraordinary about the daughter of Pharaoh adopting Moses as her own son. (See the Notes section regarding the comments of Josephus about what Moses did while still a small child.)
The Exodus account makes no mention of any developments in the life of Moses as a member of the household of Pharaoh until circumstances forced him to flee from Egypt. Although there is no reference to the age of Moses when he fled from Egypt, Stephen, a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ, said that Moses was 40 years old. In his defense before the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, Stephen also stated that Moses was educated in “all the wisdom of the Egyptians” and was “powerful in his words and works.” (Acts 7:22, 23) What Moses said must have reflected exceptional insight, and his accomplishments must have been significant. (See the Notes section about what was believed in the first century CE about the instruction Moses received and for an example of his impressive deeds.)
Although Moses had been primarily reared in the royal surroundings of Egypt, he did not forget his ties to his fellow Hebrews. When, on one occasion, he left the royal dwelling to see what his “brothers” or fellow descendants of his ancestor Jacob were enduring as persons subjected to bearing burdens, he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster submitting a Hebrew to violent abuse, and came to the defense of the victim. After looking around to see that no one was in sight, Moses killed the Egyptian who had been beating the Hebrew and then hid the dead body in the sand. (2:11, 12; Acts 7:23, 24) Apparently to justify what he did, Targum Jonathan says that Moses, through the operation of the holy spirit, came to know that there would never come to be a proselyte from the line of the Egyptian abuser, and so he killed him. In his Antiquities (II, xi, 1), Josephus makes no mention of the incident but attributes the flight of Moses to plots that were directed against him. He wrote: When Moses “learned beforehand what plots there were against him, he went away privately; and because the public roads were watched, he took his flight through the deserts and where his enemies could not suspect he would travel.” (See the Notes section.)
In view of his having taken action for his people, Moses thought that they would “understand that, by his hand, God was granting them deliverance, but they did not understand [this].” (Acts 7:25) The next day their failure to recognize a divinely chosen deliverer became apparent. When Moses saw two Hebrews fighting with each other, he tried to effect a reconciliation so that they would be at peace. To the one who wronged his fellow Hebrew, Moses said, “Why do you strike your fellow?” The man responsible for the mistreatment responded angrily and dismissively, “Man, who made you prince and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me like you killed the Egyptian [yesterday (LXX)]?” Upon hearing this angry retort, Moses perceived that his killing of the Egyptian had become known. It was this development that led him to flee from Egypt. Moreover, the report about the slaying of the Egyptian reached Pharaoh, who then determined to kill Moses, prompting him to make his escape. He fled to the land of Midian (probably a region east of the Gulf of ’Aqaba in the northwestern part of Arabia.) Apparently tired from the journey, Moses seated himself by a well in the area. (2:14, 15; see the Notes section.)
While Moses was seated there, the seven daughters of Reuel (Ragouel [LXX]; Ragouelos [Josephus]), the priest of Midian, arrived to draw water from the well to water their father’s flock. The nature of Reuel’s priesthood is not disclosed in the account. Possibly his role was that of a chieftain who led his household in worship. He was also known as Jethro (Iothor [LXX]; Ietheglaios [Josephus], 3:1) and Jether (Iothor [LXX], 4:18) This could mean that he had several names or that his personal name was Reuel and that the designation Jethro (Jether) functioned as his title. (2:16)
As Reuel’s daughters were in the process of watering the sheep, shepherds arrived and drove them away. Moses stood up and came to the aid of the women, helping them to water their flock. Josephus expands on the reason Moses came to their assistance. “Thinking it would be a terrible reproach on him if he overlooked the young women under unjust oppression and should permit the violence of the men to prevail over the right of the maidens, he drove away the men” who wanted more than their share of the water. (Antiquities, II, xi, 2) Aware of what his daughters usually faced at the well, Reuel asked them how it happened that they had returned so quickly. They explained that an Egyptian had delivered them from the “hand” or power of the shepherds and had watered the flock for them. Likely the daughters assumed that Moses was an Egyptian on the basis of his appearance and attire, for they did not know that he was a Hebrew. After asking where the man who had helped them was and why they had left him standing, Reuel asked his daughters to invite him for a meal. (2:17-20)
Josephus (Antiquities, II, xi, 2) represents Reuel’s invitation for Moses to come as having been prompted by the daughters. They entreated their father that “he would not let this generous action be done in vain, nor go without a reward. Now the father took it well from his daughters that they were so desirous to reward their benefactor and asked them to bring Moses into his presence that he might be rewarded as he deserved.”
Moses was willing to stay with Reuel, and he gave him his daughter Zipporah (Sepphora [LXX]) to be his wife. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son whom Moses named Gershom (Gersam [LXX]). This name indicted that Moses found himself as a resident alien in a foreign land. Gershom is linked to the Hebrew expression ger sham, which may be translated a “resident alien there.” (2:21, 22)
After a long time had passed, the Pharaoh who sought to kill Moses died, but this brought no relief from oppression for the descendants of Jacob (the “sons of Israel”). They cried out to God for his help, and he “heard their groaning” and “remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” God took note of the mistreatment they were enduring and he remembered or purposed to take action in harmony with the covenant he had concluded with their ancestors. He “saw” what the people of Israel were experiencing and he “knew” or was fully aware of their plight and took notice of it. According to the Septuagint, “God looked upon the sons of Israel and made himself known to them.” (2:23-25)
In his Antiquities (II, ix, 2-7), Josephus added numerous details about the early life of Moses but did not identify the sources on which he based his comments. Whereas the Hebrew text and the Septuagint focus on what Jochebed did, Josephus wrote much more about Amram her husband. While Jochebed was pregnant, Amram was fearful about what would happen to the nation on account of Pharaoh’s decree for the baby boys to be killed and the resultant future lack of young men. Not knowing what to do, he prayed. In answer to his prayer, God revealed the following to him: “I shall provide for you all in common what is for your good, and particularly for yourself what shall make you famous; for that child, out of dread of whose nativity the Egyptians have doomed the Israelite children to destruction, shall be this child of yours and shall be concealed from those who watch to destroy him. [See the Note section for chapter 1.) … When he is brought up in a surprising way, he will deliver the Hebrew nation from the distress they are under from the Egyptians.” (Antiquities, II, ix, 3)
After having successfully hidden and cared for the infant in their home, Amram feared that he would be discovered and incur Pharaoh’s displeasure, leading to his own death and that of his son and jeopardizing the fulfillment of God’s promise. Therefore, he determined to entrust the “safety and care of the child to God” and not “to depend on his own concealment of him.” Amram “believed that God” would see to the safety of the child so that the “truth of his own predictions” would be secure. Both he and his wife participated in constructing a waterproof ark, laid their son inside it, and set it afloat on the Nile River, leaving “its preservation to God.” (Antiquities, II, ix, 4)
Pharaoh’s daughter adopted Moses, for she had no child of her own. She thought of her adopted son as her father’s successor to the throne. Josephus quoted her as telling her father the following on one occasion: “I have brought up a child who is of divine form and of a generous mind. As I have received him from the bounty of the river in a wonderful manner, I thought proper to adopt him for my son and the heir of your kingdom.” She then placed the infant in her father’s hands, and he embraced him close to his breast. On account of his daughter, he put his diadem on the boy’s head. “Moses threw it down to the ground” and “trampled upon it with his feet.” The scribe who had foretold that one of the Hebrew children to be born “would bring the Egyptian dominion low” recognized, by what Moses did, that he was this child and, therefore, urged that he be killed. Pharaoh’s daughter snatched the boy away and prevented him from being slain. (Antiquities, II, ix, 7)
The comments of the Jewish philosopher Philo provide some insight regarding what was believed in the first century CE regarding the kind of instruction Moses received. “His mother [Jochebed], who was also his nurse, came to bring him back to the princess who had given him to her, inasmuch as he no longer required to be fed on milk, and as he was now a fine and noble child to look upon. And when the king’s daughter saw that he was more perfect than could have been expected at his age, and when from his appearance she conceived greater good will than ever towards him, she adopted him as her son.”
“The child being now thought worthy of a royal education and a royal attendance, was not, like a mere child, long delighted with toys and objects of laughter and amusement, even though those who had undertaken the care of him allowed him holidays and times for relaxation, and never behaved in any stern or morose way to him; but he himself exhibited a modest and dignified deportment in all his words and gestures, attending diligently to every lesson of every kind which could tend to the improvement of his mind. And immediately he had all kinds of masters, one after another, some coming of their own accord from the neighboring countries and the different districts of Egypt, and some being even procured from Greece by the temptation of large presents. But in a short time he surpassed all their knowledge, anticipating all their lessons by the excellent natural endowments of his own genius; so that everything in his case appeared to be a recollecting rather than a learning, while he himself also, without any teacher, comprehended by his instinctive genius many difficult subjects; for great abilities cut out for themselves many new roads to knowledge.
“And just as vigorous and healthy bodies which are active and quick in motion in all their parts, release their trainers from much care, giving them little or no trouble and anxiety, and as trees which are of a good sort, and which have a natural good growth, give no trouble to their cultivators, but grow finely and improve of themselves, so in the same manner the well-disposed soul, going forward to meet the lessons which are imparted to it, is improved in reality by itself rather than by its teachers, and taking hold of some beginning or principle of knowledge, bounds, as the proverb has it, like a horse over the plain. Accordingly he speedily learned arithmetic, and geometry, and the whole science of rhythm and harmony and meter, and the whole of music, by means of the use of musical instruments, and by lectures on the different arts, and by explanations of each topic; and lessons on these subjects were given him by Egyptian philosophers, who also taught him the philosophy which is contained in symbols, which they exhibit in those sacred characters of hieroglyphics, as they are called, and also that philosophy which is conversant about that respect which they pay to animals which they invest with the honors due to God.
“And all the other branches of the encyclical education he learned from Greeks; and the philosophers from the adjacent countries taught him Assyrian literature and the knowledge of the heavenly bodies so much studied by the Chaldaeans. And this knowledge he derived also from the Egyptians, who study mathematics above all things, and he learned with great accuracy the state of that art among both the Chaldaeans and Egyptians, making himself acquainted with the points in which they agree with and differ from each other — making himself master of all their disputes without encouraging any disputatious disposition in himself — but seeking the plain truth, since his mind was unable to admit any falsehood, as those are accustomed to do who contend violently for one particular side of a question; and who advocate any doctrine which is set before them, whatever it may be, not inquiring whether it deserves to be supported, but acting in the same manner as those lawyers who defend a cause for pay, and are wholly indifferent to the justice of their cause.” (On the Life of Moses, I, v, 18-24)
According to Josephus (Antiquities, II, x, 1, 2), Moses was a mature man when the Ethiopians invaded Egypt and succeeded in conquering many of the cities. On account of an oracle, Moses was appointed as the general to deal with this serious military threat. In command of the Egyptian forces, Moses defeated the Ethiopians, “deprived them of the hopes they had of success against the Egyptians, and went on to overthrow their cities.”
Among the Romans, a man’s coming to the defense of a severely mistreated slave and killing the cruel taskmaster would have been regarded very unfavorably. Possibly, therefore, Josephus chose to omit the reference to what Moses did for his abused fellow Hebrew. (2:11, 12)
In the Septuagint, the wording of the angry response to Moses in Exodus 2:14 is the same as that in Acts 7:27, 28.
One day while shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro (Reuel) the “priest of Midian,” Moses found himself at the “mountain of God” or Horeb (Choreb [LXX]). Seemingly, Horeb is called the “mountain of God” because of the divine revelation that Moses received there. Josephus, however, wrote that men believed that God resided there and that shepherds did not dare to ascend the mountain. (Antiquities, II, xii, 1) It appears that Horeb was also called Mount Sinai (See Exodus 3:12; 19:1, 2, 10-12.) In other contexts, Horeb designated the mountainous area in which Mount Sinai was located. (3:1)
In the area, Moses noted that a bush was in flames, but the fire did not consume it. Therefore, he turned aside to determine why the bush was not burned up. From the midst of the bush, Moses then heard the voice of YHWH’s angel. That angel was the direct representative of YHWH and spoke in his name. Therefore, the account represents YHWH as speaking to Moses and telling him not to come near and to remove his footwear because the place where he stood was holy ground. The ground was holy, apparently because God had revealed himself there to Moses. Speaking in God’s name, the angel said: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Numerous translations render the singular “father” as “ancestors.” (CEV, NJB, TEV) It is preferable to retain the singular “father,” as this is also the rendering in the Septuagint. The reference to “father” could be understood to apply to Amram, the father of Moses. His forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) worshiped the only true God and so did his father Amram. Accordingly, there existed a relationship in the ancestral family with God, which included trust in him as the one who would make it possible for their descendants eventually to possess the land of Canaan. Seemingly, in recognition of his lowliness and flawed human condition, Moses, out of “fear” or reverential regard, concealed his face so as not to look upon God or upon the angel in his capacity as God’s direct representative. (3:2-6)
Through his angel, God revealed that he was fully aware of the suffering of his people and that he had heard their outcry for help and relief. He had “come down” or turned his attention to them for the purpose of bringing them out of Egypt and settling them in a land “flowing with milk and honey.” There would be an abundance of milk from female goats and cows and much honey from wild bees and also in the form of syrup obtained from fruit. At the time, the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites (Gergesites [LXX]), Hivites, and Jebusites were inhabiting the land. God commissioned Moses to go to Pharaoh and to lead his fellow Hebrews (“sons of Israel”) out of Egypt. (3:7-10)
Moses did not consider himself qualified for the task and raised the question, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” Speaking for God, the angel assured Moses with the words, “I will be with you, and this will be the sign for you that I have sent you: When you have led the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain” (Horeb or Mount Sinai). (3:11, 12)
Moses believed that, upon hearing that God had sent him, the “sons of Israel” (apparently the representatives of the people) would ask him, “What is his name?” He wondered what reply he should give. The answer in the Hebrew text is, ’ehyéh ’ashér ’ehyéh, (I will be who I will be), and the rendering of these words in the Septuagint is, egó eimi ho ón (I am the one who is). Both the Hebrew words and the Septuagint rendering associate the answer with the thought of “being.” Moses was to say to the “sons” or people of Israel, ’Ehyéh (I will be [ho ón (the one who is), LXX] “has sent me to you.” The Hebrew expression ’ehyéh ’ashér ’ehyéh, may be understood to indicate that God would be exactly who he has revealed himself to be. He is the ultimate Source of everything that exists and that will come to be in fulfillment of his word and purpose. Never will he deviate from what he has declared or revealed he would prove himself to be. The rendering of the Septuagint egó eimi ho ón may in a more specific way identify God as the Eternal One, the One who is and who always will be. (3:13, 14)
Moses’ question about God’s name may relate to his wondering whether God would reveal himself under a new name that would reflect his purpose respecting his people. The words of the representative angel then specifically focused on the name that appears to incorporate the Hebrew root hayáh (to be.) “Thus say to the sons of Israel, YHWH, God of your fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name for all time to come, and this is my memorial from generation to generation” (or throughout all generations). The distinctive name represented by the four Hebrew consonants (yod, he, waw, and he) was the name by which God wanted to be remembered for all future time. It was to be his “memorial.” He is identified as the same God who had revealed himself to the forefathers of the people of Israel, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (3:15; see the Notes section.)
YHWH’s angel instructed Moses to assemble the elders of Israel and tell them that YHWH the God of their fathers or ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) had appeared to him and that he had observed their mistreatment in Egypt. Moses was to assure them that YHWH would deliver them from the affliction they had experienced in Egypt and lead them to the land that the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, (Gergesites [LXX]), Hivites, and Jebusites were then inhabiting. It was a land “flowing with milk and honey.” (3:16, 17; see 3:8 for additional comments.)
The angel told Moses that the elders would listen to him or believe his words. Accompanied by the elders, Moses was to go to Pharaoh, saying to him that “YHWH the God of the Hebrews” had encountered them and that they desired permission for a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to YHWH their God. The petition for a few days to leave Egypt was reasonable, and it served to test Pharaoh. If the request then had been for a permanent departure of all the people with their livestock, Pharaoh’s refusal might have been understandable. YHWH knew, however, that Pharaoh would not grant the reasonable request and that he would not let the people leave unless he was forced to do so upon experiencing a “mighty hand” or power directed against him. (3:18, 19)
Through his angel, YHWH declared that he would strike Egypt with his wonders or with deeds that would give rise to astonishment and fear. Thereafter Pharaoh would let the people depart. At that time, YHWH would “give favor” to his people before the “eyes of the Egyptians” so that they would not leave the land empty-handed. There would be no doubt in the minds of the Egyptians that the Israelites were YHWH’s people and under his care and protection, resulting in their coming to have great respect for and a measure of fear of them. As a consequence, the Egyptians would be prepared to grant their requests. The Israelite women were to ask their Egyptians neighbors or any woman residing in a neighbor’s house for articles of silver and gold and clothing. With the obtained items, the Israelite women were to dress and adorn their sons and daughters. The enslaved Israelites had worked for nothing in Egypt, and the Egyptians had greatly profited from their labor. Rightfully, then, the Israelites could exact payment and thereby despoil the Egyptians. (3:20-22)
Throughout the centuries, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob used the name YHWH freely. The abbreviated form of the name (Yah) is part of many personal names, and the name itself was used in naming places (YHWH-jireh, YHWH-nissi). In the book of Psalms, one often finds the expression “hallelujah,” which means “praise Yah [Jah]” or “praise YHWH.” Military correspondence from the time of the Babylonian conquest of the kingdom of Judah and written on pottery fragments that were found at Tell ed-Duweir in 1935 contain the name YHWH. Long before that time, non-Israelite peoples were familiar with this name. For example, in the ninth century BCE, the Moabite Stone (or Mesha Stele) was set up by King Mesha. It refers to the God of the Israelites as YHWH. In connection with his victories over Israel, Mesha boasted, “I took [vessels] of YHWH.”
In the sixth century BCE, a temple for the worship of YHWH existed in the land of Egypt, and sacrifices were offered on the altar there. A papyrus letter (written in Aramaic) from the fifth century BCE says that, when Cambyses came to Egypt, he found this temple in Elephantine. Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great who conquered Babylon with the military forces under his command, died in 522 BCE. This means that, before the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, a functioning temple existed in Egypt. According to the letter, the temple in Elephantine was destroyed at the instigation of Vidranga. His son Nefayan led Egyptians with other forces to Elephantine and leveled the temple to the ground. The letter from the fifth century BCE was addressed to “Bagoas [Bagohi], governor of Judah,” and petitioned him for support in having the temple rebuilt. Bagoas was the Persian governor, and the letter to him referred to God as YHW (the Aramaic letter represented the divine name with three letters, not four). Nevertheless, it shows that non-Israelites would have understood who was being designated by the name YHWH.
At the time Judea came under the control of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BCE, a campaign against the Jews prohibited them from using the divine name (YHWH). According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah, 18b), the Grecian government had forbidden the Israelites to mention God’s name. (Also see 1 Maccabees 1:10-61 about what the Jews experienced.) When, however, the “Hasmoneans became strong and defeated them” (the forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes), they ordained that the people should include the name of God even in legal documents. The sages objected, claiming that once a debt was repaid, the debtor would throw the document away and God’s name would be dishonored.
It appears that, after the view of the “sages” came to be the dominant one, the use of the name YHWH became progressively more restrictive. This is also suggested in the way the name YHWH was written in Hebrew manuscripts. The Great Isaiah Scroll (dated between 150 and 100 BCE) contains the name YHWH in the same script as the rest of the text. In the best preserved scroll of the book of Psalms (11Q5, dated between 30 and 50 CE), the name YHWH is written in paleo-Hebrew script. It may well be that this different treatment of the divine name alerted the reader not to pronounce it. An even clearer indication of this are ancient manuscript fragments that represent the divine name by four dots (1QS, 4Q175, 4Q176). In what is called the “Community Rule” (1QS), the penalty for uttering the divine name for any reason whatsoever was expulsion, and the individual was not allowed to return to the “Council of the Community.” Josephus, probably expressing the view of the Pharisees, wrote, “God declared to [Moses] the holy name, which had never been discovered to men before; concerning which it is not lawful for me to say any more.” (Antiquities, II, xii, 4)
In ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures such as the fragmentary Minor Prophets Scroll (8HevXIIgr), the name YHWH appears in paleo-Hebrew script. Without knowing the ancient Hebrew script nor how the name should be pronounced, the presence of the divine name would have been meaningless to a Greek reader. It would have been comparable to the experience of someone today who only knows English and then finds Hebrew letters in an English text. Another factor that poses a problem when Hebrew letters are inserted into a Greek text is that Hebrew is read from right to left, whereas Greek is read from left to right. Some copyists of the Hebrew name YHWH made it resemble the Hebrew in Greek capital letters (Π Ι Π Ι), which led to the mispronunciation of the divine name as Pipi. A fragment of a Greek translation of the book of Leviticus [4Q129, thought to date from the first century BCE] transliterates the divine name as IAO, which would suggest the pronunciation Yahoh. This Greek transliteration may have been widely known, for it is found in the writings of the historian Diodorus Siculus (c. 80 BCE to c. 20 BCE). Diodorus Siculus mentioned “Moses [Moyses] and the God who is invoked as Iao.” (Book I, 94) Possibly IAO was the manner in which the oldest Greek manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures represented the divine name. In later centuries, this transliteration of the name YHWH seems to have disappeared, and the Jews, in general, did not pronounce the name. As a memorial name, only the four letters have been preserved, but the ancient pronunciation has been lost, apparently on account of developments that started in the second century BCE.
Although having been assured that the elders of Israel would heed his words, Moses was hesitant. Perhaps he recalled what had happened when he came to the defense of a fellow Hebrew and afterward tried to restore peace between two Hebrews who were quarreling. Moses felt that the people would not believe him, questioning that YHWH had indeed appeared to him. (4:1)
Through his angel, YHWH empowered Moses to perform three signs or miracles to back up his words. The angel told him to cast his rod on the ground,and it became a serpent from which Moses fled. Moses was then to grasp the serpent by the tail, and it became a “rod in his hand.” Next Moses was to place his hand into his bosom or the upper fold of his garment. Upon taking the hand out, he saw that it had turned white like snow as if stricken with leprosy. Upon returning his hand into his bosom and taking it out again, Moses saw that the skin of the hand looked like the rest of his skin (literally, “flesh”). The angel continued to speak, saying that, if the Israelites did not believe Moses and disregarded the first sign (the one involving the rod), they may believe the second sign (the change of the skin of the hand to a leprous condition and then back to a healthy state). If the people did not believe upon witnessing the two “signs,” Moses could take water from the Nile River and pour it on the ground. That water would become “blood on the dry ground.” It would not be transformed into human or animal blood but would come to have the appearance of blood. This is also the way in which Josephus (Antiquities, II, xii, 3) understood the miracle to take place when he referred to it as being done initially at Mount Sinai. “[Moses] also, upon God’s command, took some of the water that was near him and poured it upon the ground, and [he] saw the color was that of blood.” (4:2-9)
Despite being empowered to perform miracles, Moses considered himself unqualified for the commission that had been given to him. Forty years previously he had thought that fellow Hebrews would understand that he was God’s chosen instrument to deliver them from Egyptian enslavement. (7:7; Acts 7:23-25) At the age of 80, however, he presented reasons for being unsuitable to function in this capacity. Directing his words to YHWH, Moses said, “My Lord, I am not a man of words” [or eloquent], either yesterday or three days ago or since you have spoken to your servant, for I am slow of speech (weak-voiced [LXX]) and slow of tongue.” The expression “yesterday or three days ago” is a Hebrew idiom that may be understood to mean “recently or in the past.” Moses’ words indicate that he did not consider himself a good speaker at any time in the past nor then but regarded himself as a man who had difficulty in expressing himself. (4:10)
YHWH’s response, conveyed through his angel, reproved Moses. “Who made man’s mouth [gave man a mouth (LXX)], or who makes the speechless or the deaf, or the seeing or the blind? Is it not I, YHWH?” The various conditions in which humans may find themselves have come to be because YHWH has permitted them to exist. He does not directly cause individuals to be speechless, deaf, or blind. As the One who fully understands the organs involved in speaking, he can use whoever he may choose as his messengers. YHWH did not release Moses from the assignment he had given him, but instructed him to go and assured him that he would be with him and tell him what to say. Still, Moses continued to object to his being commissioned to appear before Pharaoh and to ask that his fellow Hebrews be liberated from enslavement. He requested that a more qualified person be sent and thereby incurred YHWH’s anger or displeasure. YHWH called Moses’ attention to his brother Aaron who could indeed speak and fill the role of his spokesman. At the time, Aaron was on his way to meet him and, “in his heart” or his inmost self, would be happy to see him. (4:11-14)
Moses was to be the one to relay the words that his brother Aaron would then speak. YHWH told Moses that he would be with his mouth and with that of Aaron, assuring Moses that whatever either one of them would say had his backing. Moreover, YHWH promised to teach both men what they were to do. Aaron would function as the spokesman for Moses to the people, acting as the “mouth” for him. Moses’s role would be that of God to Aaron, for Moses would be speaking the words that God had given him and would be functioning as his representative. The Septuagint indicates that, with reference to Aaron, Moses would be occupied with “matters pertaining to God.” To perform the signs or miracles that he had been empowered to do, Moses was instructed to take with him the rod he held in his hand (literally, the “rod of God” [“the rod (which was) from God” (LXX)]). (4:15-17)
Thereafter Moses asked his father-in-law Jethro (Reuel) whose flock he shepherded (3:1) for permission to return to his “brothers” or kinsmen in Egypt to see whether they were still alive (or how they were faring). Jethro wished him well, saying, “Go in peace.” (4:18)
The account does not reveal how Moses received the message from YHWH that instructed him to return to Egypt and informed him that all the men who had been seeking his soul, or wanting to take his life, were dead. With his wife Zipporah and his two sons Gershom and Eliezer (2:21, 22; 18:2-4), Moses departed. He seated his wife and children on a donkey (draft animals [LXX]), and he appears to have walked with the rod that he would later use to perform signs or miracles (literally, the “rod of God” [“the rod [which was] from God” (LXX)]). (4:19, 20)
YHWH directed Moses to perform all the “wonders” or miracles that he had been empowered to do before Pharaoh. The Egyptian ruler, however, would not be responsive to the request that the Israelites be permitted to leave the country. YHWH is quoted as saying that he would “harden [Pharaoh’s] heart,” allowing him to persist in his refusal to let the people depart. As he was the source of the signs Moses performed and the plagues that followed, YHWH hardened Pharaoh’s heart or caused him to be stubbornly defiant by means of them. The message to Pharaoh was to be: “Israel is my son, my firstborn [God’s people with whom he had a special relationship like that of a father to his firstborn son]. And I have said to you, Let my son go that he may serve me. And should you refuse to let him go, look, I will slay your son, your firstborn.” (4:21-23)
While Moses and his family were on their way and had stopped to rest for the night, something unexpected happened. According to a literal reading of the Hebrew text, “YHWH met him and sought to kill him. And Zipporah took a flint stone, cut off the foreskin of her son, and touched his feet and said, A bridegroom of blood you [are] to me. And he withdrew from him. Then she said, A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (4:24-26)
From the context, one cannot definitively determine whose life was in danger, whose feet the foreskin touched, whether the word for “feet” is used euphemistically to denote the organ of procreation, and what the expression “bridegroom of blood” meant. The obscurity of the Hebrew text has led to a variety of interpretive renderings. “On the journey, while they were encamped for the night, the LORD met Moses and would have killed him, but Zipporah picked up a sharp flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ genitals with it, saying, ‘You are my blood-bridegroom.’ So the LORD let Moses alone. It was on that occasion she said, ‘Blood-bridegroom by circumcision.’” (REB) “At a camping place on the way to Egypt, the LORD met Moses and tried to kill him. Then Zipporah, his wife, took a sharp stone, cut off the foreskin of her son, and touched Moses’ feet with it. Because of the rite of circumcision she said to Moses, ‘You are a husband of blood to me.’ And so the Lord spared Moses’ life.” (TEV) “One night while Moses was in camp, the LORD was about to kill him. But Zipporah circumcised her son with a flint knife. She touched his legs [either those of Moses or those of the boy (footnote)] with the skin she had cut off and said, ‘My dear son, this blood will protect you [or you are a man of blood (footnote)].’ So the LORD did not harm Moses. Then Zipporah said, ‘Yes, my dear, you are safe because of this circumcision.’” (CEV) In view of the fact that Moses was chosen to liberate his people from enslavement in Egypt, it appears puzzling that YHWH, by his representative angel, purposed to kill Moses. Contextually, however, Moses appears to be the one whose life was in danger, for the third person singular does not fit the reference to “sons.” One conjecture is that Moses also was not circumcised and that, vicariously by the circumcision of the firstborn son, he was circumcised and thus, in a new sense, became the bridegroom or husband of Zipporah through the blood of circumcision. It, however, is unlikely that Moses was uncircumcised, for baby boys were circumcised on the eighth day in obedience to the covenant God concluded with Abraham. (Genesis 17:9-14)
Like numerous modern translations, Targum Jonathan is specific in indicating that the life of Moses was in danger. It says that, because of the objection of Jethro, the father of Zipporah, Gershom was not circumcised but that Moses and Jethro made an agreement for the second son, Eliezer, to be circumcised. Targum Jonathan continues: “And Zipporah took a stone, and circumcised the foreskin of Gershom her son, and brought the severed part to the feet of the angel, the Destroyer, and said, The husband sought to circumcise, but the father-in-law obstructed him; and now let this blood of the circumcision atone for my husband. And the destroying angel desisted from him, so that Zipporah gave thanks, and said, How lovely is the blood of this circumcision that has delivered my husband from the angel of destruction!”
The Septuagint differs from the way the account about the circumcision is narrated in the Hebrew text. It indicates that, after Zipporah circumcised her son, she fell at the feet of the angel and said to him that the “blood of the circumcision is stopped” or had ceased to flow. The Septuagint concludes with the words, “And he [the angel] went away from him, for she said, The blood of the circumcision of my child is stopped.” Perhaps at this point, Zipporah and her two sons returned to the household of her father, for it was not until the Israelites left Egypt as a free people that she and her two sons were reunited with Moses. (4:24-26; 18:2-6)
Possibly through an angel, YHWH revealed himself to Aaron, directing him to go into the wilderness to meet his brother Moses. They met at the “mountain of God” (Horeb or Sinai). Aaron kissed his brother. Moses told Aaron all that YHWH had made known to him and about the signs or miracles that he had been empowered to perform. After arriving in Egypt, Moses and Aaron arranged for the elders of the people of Israel to assemble. Aaron, as Moses’ spokesman, related all the “words that YHWH had spoken to Moses and performed the signs before [their] eyes.” The assembled elders believed (“and rejoiced” [LXX]) that YHWH had “visited,” or turned his attention to, his people and had “seen” or become fully aware of their affliction. This moved them to bow their heads and to prostrate themselves in worship. (4:27-31)
After having met with the elders of the “sons [or people] of Israel,” Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, informing him that “YHWH the God of Israel” was telling him to let his people depart from Egypt to observe a festival in the wilderness. Defiantly, Pharaoh declared: “Who is YHWH that I should obey [literally, hear] his voice and let Israel go? I do not know YHWH, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” Pharaoh knew that YHWH was the God of the people he had enslaved, but he did not “know” or recognize him as the true God who had to be obeyed. Furthermore, he did not believe that he would face serious consequences for resisting YHWH’s will. (5:1, 2; see the Note section regarding the comments of Josephus.)
Apparently Moses related the message to Aaron who then conveyed it to Pharaoh, saying: “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Let us go, we request, a journey of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to YHWH our God, lest he fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” Disobedience would have led to his withdrawing protection from his people, leading to their either being afflicted with serious disease or coming under military attack in their vulnerable position in the land of Goshen. In response, Pharaoh accused Moses and Aaron of keeping the people from their labors and added, “Get to your burdens [or labors].” It appears that he believed that, for the Israelites to desist from their burdens would be disruptive to Egypt, for the people were numerous. So he objected with the words, “And you made them rest from their burdens [or labors].” (5:3-5)
Pharaoh decided to make the labors of the enslaved Israelites more difficult. That same day he gave a charge to the taskmasters and the foremen of the people of Israel not to provide them with straw as an ingredient for making bricks. Instead, they were to gather it themselves and still make the same quantity of bricks as had been their previous quota. He claimed that they were lazy and that, because of not having enough to do, they wanted to leave and sacrifice to their God. Pharaoh insisted that heavier work be imposed on the Israelite men so that they would cease paying attention to lying words. Apparently what he termed “lying words” or deceitful promises related to the opportunity the Israelites would have to depart in order to sacrifice to their God. (5:6-9)
In keeping with the command of Pharaoh, the taskmasters and foremen told the Israelite laborers that they would not be given any straw. (5:10) To make the bricks, workers would mix finely chopped-up pieces of straw with the clay, moisten the mixture with water, and trample it underfoot. With the straw in the clay, the substance was easier to mold by hand or to be pressed into four-sided wooden molds. Additionally, as has been established by experiments in modern times, the inclusion of straw in the clay made the sun-dried or kiln-dried bricks three times stronger than bricks made without the use of straw.
After being told that they would have to get the straw themselves and still have to produce the same amount of bricks, the laborers scattered throughout Egypt to find stubble. Although this required significant time that otherwise could have been used for making bricks, the Egyptian taskmasters insisted that the workers meet the daily production quota. When they failed, the Israelite foremen whom the Egyptian taskmasters had placed in charge of the Israelite workforce were beaten and asked why the daily quota of bricks had not been attained. Therefore, the foremen complained to Pharaoh for what had happened to them because the workers were not given straw. He callously answered them, “You are idle; you are idle. Therefore, you say, Let us go to sacrifice to YHWH. And now go, work; and straw will not be given to you, and the same number of bricks you must deliver.” (5:11-18)
The Israelite foreman recognized the impossible situation in which they had been placed. So when they met Moses and Aaron after having left Pharaoh’s presence, the foremen said to them, “May YHWH look upon you and judge, for you have made us a stench in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants [or court officials] and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” According to the Septuagint rendering, the foremen blamed Moses and Aaron for having put such a sword into the hand of Pharaoh so as to kill them. Disheartened by the unfavorable developments, Moses directed his complaint to YHWH. “Why, O Lord, have you done evil to this people? Why now did you send me? And since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered [literally, and delivering, you have not delivered] your people.” (5:19-23)
In his Antiquities (II, xiii, 2), Josephus indicated that Moses called Pharaoh’s attention to what he had done for the Egyptians. Moses “came to the king who had indeed but lately received the government and told him how much he had done for the good of the Egyptians when they were despised by the Ethiopians and their country had been laid waste by them; and how he had been the commander of their forces and had labored for them as if they had been his own people.” Moses “informed him in what danger he had been during that expedition, without having any proper” rewards given to him “as he had deserved.” He also told Pharaoh concerning what had happened to him at Mount Sinai, what God had said to him, and the signs God did to assure him of the authority of the commands he had given him. Moses also exhorted Pharaoh not to disbelieve what he had told him nor to oppose God’s will.
In response to his complaint as to why God had let the people of Israel continue to experience affliction, Moses received the divine assurance that he would see Pharaoh, by a “strong hand” (“by a strong hand” and a “raised arm”), or mighty divine power directed against him, forced to drive the people out of Egypt. God is then quoted as telling Moses: “I am YHWH, and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty, and by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them.” (6:1-3; see the Notes section.)
In his dealings with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God revealed himself as the Almighty. For example, he demonstrated his role as the Almighty One when he revived the reproductive powers of Abraham and Sarah, making it possible for Sarah to give birth to Isaac in her old age. Moreover, based on the blessings and protective care they experienced, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would have discerned that God was the Almighty One, the Sovereign. According to the Genesis account, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and persons who lived long before their time were acquainted with the name YHWH. Therefore, their not knowing the unique name appears to relate to their not knowing everything that it signified — the fuller knowledge of the Almighty as the God to whom people of all the nations must submit. It would be futile for individuals, tribes, and nations to resist God’s will.
For the Israelites in the time of Moses, the name YHWH would come to have greater significance than it did for their forefathers. This is evident from the quoted words of YHWH that follow. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob received the promise that their descendants, the Israelites, would receive the land of Canaan as their possession, a land in which their forefathers lived as resident aliens. The Israelites would come to know YHWH as the fulfiller of his promise and as the God who was fully aware of their suffering and groaning in Egypt. He would not forget the covenant he had concluded with their forefathers, but would demonstrate that he remembered it by acting in harmony therewith. YHWH would display his mighty power (literally, his “outstretched arm”) and deliver the Israelites from Egyptian enslavement and oppression. They would witness the impressive judgments of YHWH in the form of ten devastating plagues upon the Egyptians. Furthermore, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as a people would be brought into a special relationship with YHWH. They would come to be his own people, and he would be their God YHWH, their God under whose protection and care they would find themselves. The Israelites would come to know YHWH in a greatly expanded way because of his freeing them from the harsh bondage that the Egyptians had imposed on them. They would take possession of the land that he swore (literally, “lifted up his hand” [as when taking an oath]) to give to their forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). (6:3-8)
As at other times, YHWH likely used his representative angel to speak to Moses. Thereafter Moses related the words to the “sons [or people] of Israel.” They, however, did not “hear” or “listen” to Moses from the standpoint of their not believing his words. The people were disheartened or discouraged (literally, they experienced “shortness of spirit”) on account of the harsh bondage to which they had been submitted. When YHWH told Moses to go to Pharaoh and inform him that he should let the “sons [or people] of Israel” depart from his land, he objected that the “sons of Israel” had not listened to him. So how could it be that Pharaoh would listen? Moses then referred to his lack of eloquence, saying, “And I am a man of uncircumcised lips” (as if a man with a speech impediment who could not express himself well). Nevertheless, YHWH gave Moses and Aaron the charge that applied both to the “sons of Israel” and to Pharaoh. That charge was for the “sons [or people] of Israel” to be led out of Egypt. According to the Septuagint, God instructed Moses and Aaron to inform Pharaoh that he should “send the sons of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” (6:9-13; see the Notes section.)
At this point in the narrative, the heads of three paternal houses of the people of Israel are listed. They are: The sons of Reuben (Rouben [LXX]) the firstborn of Israel — Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi (Enoch, Phallous, Asron, and Charmi [LXX]); the sons of Simeon (Symeon [LXX]) — Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul the son of a Canaanite woman (Iemouel, Iamin, Aod, Iachin, Saar, and Saoul the one from the Phoenician [LXX]); the sons of Levi (Leui [LXX]) — Gershon, Kohath, and Merari (Gedson [Gerson], Kaath, and Merari [LXX]). In view of the role of Moses and Aaron, the family line of Levi is continued. Levi died at the age of 137. The sons of Gershon (Gedson [Gerson], LXX) were Libni and Shimei (Lobeni and Semei [LXX]). Kohath (Kaath [LXX] had four sons (Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel [Ambram, Issaar, Chebron, and Oziel (LXX)]) and lived 133 (130 [LXX]) years. The sons of Merari were Mahli and Mushi (Mooli and Omousi [LXX]). (6:14-19)
Amram (Ambram [LXX]) married Jochebed (Iochabed [LXX]) the daughter of his father’s brother or his aunt. According to the Septuagint, however, Jochebed was Amram’s cousin (the daughter of his father’s brother). Jochebed gave birth to the sons Aaron and Moses (Moyses [LXX]) and their sister Miriam (Mariam [LXX]). Her husband Amram died at the age of 137. (6:20; for additional comments, see Exodus 2:1 and the Notes section.)
The sons of Izhar (Issaar [LXX]) were Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri (Kore, Naphek, and Zechri [LXX]). Uzziel (Oziel [LXX]) had three sons (Mishael, Elzaphan, and Sithri [Elisaphan and Setri (LXX); Mishael is omitted in Rahlfs’ text of the Septuagint]). Aaron the brother of Moses married Elisheba (Elisabeth [LXX]) the daughter of Amminadab (Aminadab [LXX]) and the sister of Nahshon (Naasson [LXX]). She gave birth to four sons (Nadab, Abihu [Abioud (LXX), Eleazar, and Ithamar. The sons of Korah (Kore [LXX]) were Assir (Asir [LXX]), Elkanah (Elkana [LXX]), and Abiasaph. Aaron’s son Eleazar married one of the daughters of Putiel (Phoutiel [LXX]), and she gave birth to Phinehas (Phinees [LXX]). (6:21-25)
The more extensive listing of the family line of Levi through Kohath served to identify the two brothers Aaron and Moses as the ones whom YHWH had commissioned to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The two brothers informed Pharaoh regarding this. At the time YHWH, probably through his angel, spoke to Moses, he said, “I am YHWH; speak to Pharaoh the king of Egypt everything that I speak to you.” Considering himself to be not well-suited for the task, Moses objected, “Look, I am uncircumcised of lips [weak-voiced (LXX)]. How then will Pharaoh listen to me?” (6:26-30; see the Notes section.)
It appears that Josephus (Antiquities, II, xii, 4) believed that the revelation of the name YHWH did not precede the time of Moses. Also in modern times, many basically have agreed with this interpretation of the words of Exodus 6:3. The literal view of these words would require interpreting the references to the name YHWH in the Genesis account as reflecting what the Israelites knew at the time the account came to be in its final written form and not what individuals knew about God’s name YHWH and their use of the name in earlier centuries.
The Septuagint does not use the expression “uncircumcised of lips.” In verse 12, the rendering is alogós, and this word commonly means “unreasonable.” Possibly the thought is that Moses lacked eloquence or the ability to express himself well as would be characteristic of a person lacking reasonableness. In verse 30, the Septuagint reads, ischnóphonós (weak-voiced).
Before the Israelites received the law at Mount Sinai, marriage to an aunt was not prohibited. If the Hebrew reading of Exodus 6:20 preserves the original text, Amram married his aunt Jochebed. Manuscripts of the Septuagint vary about the age at which Amram died (132, 136, 137).
YHWH purposed to make Moses “God” to Pharaoh and his brother Aaron his “prophet.” In his role as “God” to Pharaoh, Moses would represent YHWH, speak the words he revealed to him, and do everything he commanded. As Moses’ prophet, Aaron would relate and act according to the messages that his brother received from YHWH. Moses was to speak everything that YHWH commanded him, and Aaron would then tell Pharaoh everything, with the main message being that Pharaoh should permit the Israelites to leave Egypt. (7:1, 2)
YHWH knew beforehand that Pharaoh would defiantly refuse to obey. By allowing him to become obstinate, YHWH hardened his heart or his disposition and used the time during which Pharaoh manifested his stubborn attitude to perform impressive signs and wonders in Egypt, revealing himself to be the Supreme Sovereign whose will could never be successfully resisted. YHWH determined to lead his people out of Egypt subsequent to inflicting severe judgments upon the Egyptians. After he “stretched out [his] hand,” or directed his power, against the Egyptians and liberated his people from enslavement, they would “know” or be forced to recognize him as YHWH, the Almighty God, and their own gods and goddesses as powerless to help them. (7:3-5)
Moses and Aaron did everything YHWH commanded them to do. At the time of their speaking to Pharaoh, Moses was 80 years old and Aaron was 83. (7:6, 7) There were times when Aaron’s speaking was accompanied by his use of the rod that Moses had used as a shepherd. When Aaron held it and was directed to use it, this rod is identified as Aaron’s rod.
Upon Pharaoh’s asking for a (sign or [LXX]) wonder, YHWH directed that Moses tell Aaron to take his rod and throw it down on the ground before Pharaoh (“and before his servants” [or officials in the court]). It would then become a serpent (dragon [LXX]). Moses and Aaron did what they had been commanded, Aaron threw down his rod, and it turned into a serpent (dragon [LXX]). In response, Pharaoh summoned his sages and sorcerers or magicians. Resorting to their secret arts, these men threw down their rods and they became serpents (dragons [LXX]). Aaron’s rod, however, swallowed up their rods, establishing the superiority of the wonder that he performed. The Exodus account does not reveal whether the magicians seemingly duplicated the wonder through slight of hand or by holding the serpents in a manner that made them stiff and look like a rod until they were cast down. (7:8-12; see the Notes section regarding the comments of Josephus about this incident and also that of Targum Jonathan concerning the magicians.)
Despite witnessing what the “rod of Aaron” had done, Pharaoh continued to have a hardened heart or stubbornly to resist letting the Israelites leave. As YHWH had revealed to them beforehand, Pharaoh refused to listen or heed what Moses and Aaron said. YHWH then instructed them to take along the rod that had been turned into a serpent and to wait for Pharaoh at the edge of the Nile the next morning, at which time he would be arriving. (7:13-15) The Exodus account does not explain why Pharaoh would come to the Nile in the morning. Targum Jonathan says that he did this to “observe divinations at the water as a magician.” Another reason, in view of the importance of Nile flooding to supply water for irrigation, could be that Pharaoh may have been on an inspection tour to see the level of the river.
The message for Pharaoh was that “YHWH, the God of the Hebrews,” had sent Moses to him to request that he let his people leave to serve him in the wilderness, but he had not obeyed. Therefore, YHWH purposed to have the Nile struck “with the rod” so that the water would be turned into blood. The river would become toxic, causing the fish to die. It would become fowl smelling, and the Egyptians would not be able to drink the water. This would make it clear to Pharaoh that the God who had sent Moses was YHWH and needed to be obeyed. (7:16-18)
YHWH instructed Moses to tell Aaron to take his rod and stretch out his hand, apparently the arm of the hand that held the rod, over the water of Egypt. This is probably to be understood concerning the section of the Nile where they were standing and over the canals, ponds, and pools of water. All visible water would become blood, including that in wooden and stone vessels. Before the “eyes” or in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants or court officials, Aaron did as he was directed, and the water changed into blood. This was not human blood nor that of any specific animal, but the water came to look exactly like blood and came to have toxic properties. Fish were killed, and the Egyptians could not drink the water. (7:19-21) The way the water then looked may have resembled a satellite image of the Nile River that was taken in 2016. Infrared technology revealed the water to have taken on a deep red color which had resulted from the heat of the surrounding vegetation.
With their secret arts, the magicians of Egypt were able to change water into blood. The Exodus account does not say where they obtained the water. According to verse 24, the Egyptians could obtain drinking water by digging for it along the banks of the Nile. So there is a possibility that this was the source for the water the magicians used. Targum Jonathan indicates that the waters of Goshen were not affected by the miracle and says that the magicians changed these waters into blood. Subsequently Pharaoh’s heart was hardened or he became stubbornly and defiantly resistant to heeding YHWH’s word directed to him through Moses and Aaron. Pharaoh returned to his own house and gave no consideration to the miracle he had witnessed after Aaron stretched out his rod. Meanwhile, the Egyptians had to continue digging for drinking water by the Nile, for the plague lasted seven days. (7:22-25; see the Notes section.)
According to Josephus, Pharaoh derided Moses, claiming that he had run away from Egyptian slavery and returned “with deceitful tricks, wonders and magical arts to astonish him.” Moses was undaunted by what the men he whom Pharaoh summoned did with their rods. He is quoted as telling Pharaoh: “‘I do not myself despise the wisdom of the Egyptians, but I say that what I do is so much superior to what these do by magic arts and tricks, as divine power exceeds the power of man. I will demonstrate that what I do is not done by craft, or counterfeiting what is not really true, but that [the wonders] appear by the providence and power of God.’ When he had said this, he cast his rod down upon the ground and commanded it to turn itself into a serpent. It obeyed him, went all around, and devoured the rods of the Egyptians, which seemed to be dragons, until it had consumed them all. It then returned to its own form, and Moses took it into his hand again.” (Antiquities, II, xiii, 3)
Targum Jonathan names two magicians Janis and Jamberes (Jannes and Jambres). In his second letter to Timothy (3:8), the apostle Paul also referred to Jannes and Jambres as resisting Moses.
The changing of the water of the Nile River into blood (7:19-25) would have revealed the impotence of the Nile god Hapi, a fertility deity that was regarded as responsible for the Nile floods that supplied the needed water for irrigation. As Exodus 12:12 indicates, the judgments were also directed against “all the gods of Egypt.”
Regarding the effect from the plague on the water of the Nile, Josephus wrote: “The water was not only of the color of blood, but it brought upon those who ventured to drink of it great pains and bitter torment.” (Antiquities, II, xiv, 1)
YHWH commanded Moses to return to Pharaoh and again request that he let his people depart from Egypt to serve him. If he refused to let them leave, Egypt would be overrun by a plague of frogs that would come up from the Nile. (8:1-4 [7:26-29])
YHWH directed Moses to tell Aaron to stretch out his hand with the rod (the arm of the hand with which he held the rod) over the rivers, canals and pools to cause frogs to come up and spread out over the land of Egypt. Aaron did so and the frogs covered the land. With their secret arts, the Egyptian magicians also seemed to cause frogs to come up from the water, but they were unable to end the plague. The croaking of frogs and their presence in houses, sleeping quarters, beds, ovens, and kneading bowls must have been extremely annoying, prompting Pharaoh to summon Moses and Aaron with the request that they entreat YHWH to end the plague. He even agreed to let the Israelites depart from Egypt to sacrifice to YHWH. (8:5-8 [8:1-4]; see the Notes section.)
Moses granted Pharaoh the honor over him to designate the time for the entreaty to be made so that the frogs would no longer plague him and his people, perishing from the houses and only remaining in the river. After Pharaoh asked that it happen the next day, Moses said that it would take place so that Pharaoh would come to know or recognize that there is no one like YHWH, the God of his people Israel. Frogs would cease to be in the houses and would only remain in the Nile. After leaving the presence of Pharaoh with his brother Aaron, Moses prayed to YHWH regarding the frogs. God answered according to Moses’ petition, and the frogs in the houses, courtyards, and fields died. The Egyptians piled up the dead frogs and the land began to stink as the frogs decayed. (8:9-14 [8:5-10])
After Pharaoh experienced relief from the plague of frogs, he went back on his word. He “hardened his heart” or stubbornly refused to let the Israelites depart to sacrifice in the wilderness to YHWH their God. Just as YHWH had revealed beforehand, Pharaoh refused to heed the words conveyed to him through Moses and Aaron. (8:15 [8:11])
YHWH told Moses to direct Aaron to stretch out his rod and to strike the dust of the earth or land, causing the dust to give rise to gnats . After Aaron acted on the directive and gnats came to be on people and animals, the Egyptian magicians tried to do the same with their secret arts but were unsuccessful. They said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger [or power] of God.” Targum Jonathan refers to them as saying that the plague was “not by the power or strength of Mosheh and Aharon [Moses and Aaron],” but that it was a plague “sent from before YY” (Yeya [YHWH]). Despite what he had witnessed, Pharaoh continued his stubborn resistance, not permitting the Israelites to leave in order to sacrifice to YHWH in the wilderness. His “heart” was hardened or he remained defiant in his refusal to heed the words of Moses and Aaron. (8:16-19 [8:12-15]; see the Notes section.)
YHWH instructed Moses to rise early in the morning and then to head for the water, evidently the Nile River, to meet Pharaoh. The ruler of Egypt would be coming to the water. His reason for arriving in the morning is not stated in the Exodus account. Possibly it was to make an inspection of the water level, for water from the Nile was needed for irrigation purposes. Targum Jonathan refers to Pharaoh as going forth “to observe divinations at the water, as a magician.” Again the word of YHWH for Pharaoh was, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” If he refused, Pharaoh, his officials, and his subjects would experience a plague of stinging flies. These could have been horseflies or “dog flies” (LXX). Female horseflies are blood-sucking insects, and both male and female dog flies suck blood. These insects can inflict significant pain on their victims. In the case of this particular plague, the Egyptians would see that they alone had swarms of these insects fill their houses and that they would be throughout their land, but the Israelites would be spared. None of these insects would be found in Goshen. This demarcation between the Egyptians and the Israelites would serve to let Pharaoh know that YHWH is the God “in the midst of the land” or the God who was actively involved in everything that occurred in the land of Egypt or in all lands (or in the whole “earth”) (8:20-22 [8:16-18]; see the Notes section.)
YHWH revealed that the plague would start the next day. After Pharaoh, his officials, and his subjects suffered from the effects of the plague, he summoned Moses and Aaron and told them that they could sacrifice to their God in the land (in Egypt). To this Moses replied that it would not be acceptable to do so in Egypt, as the Egyptians would regard the sacrificing as abominable and would kill the Israelites by stoning. In the fifth century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus (Histories, II, 65) wrote that the punishment for killing a sacred animal intentionally was death. Therefore, the Israelites needed to undertake a journey of three days into the wilderness and there sacrifice to YHWH their God as he had commanded them. (8:23-27 [8:19-23])
Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites go to sacrifice to YHWH, but he did not want them to go so far away into the wilderness. Moreover, he wanted YHWH to be entreated for him. Before departing from Pharaoh’s presence and telling him that he would pray to YHWH so that the plague would end the next day, Moses made it clear that he should not trifle with the Israelites, going back on his word and refusing to let the people go to sacrifice to YHWH. In answer to Moses’ prayer, YHWH brought an end to the plague. After experiencing relief, Pharaoh did not keep his word. He hardened his heart or continued to be stubborn in his refusal to let the Israelites leave to sacrifice to YHWH. (8:28-32 [8:24-28])
The plague of frogs may especially have been troubling to the Egyptians, as their goddess Heqet (also spelled Heket, Heqtit, Heqat, and Heqt), a deity of childbirth and fertility, was powerless to do anything to stop the plague. This goddess was represented as a frog or as a woman with the head of a frog, and what was sacred to her had been transformed into an annoying plague.
There is some uncertainty about the Hebrew word rendered “gnats” (ken, kinnim [plural]). It was most likely a blood-sucking insect like a gnat, mosquito, louse, or flea. The plague of these insects could not be duplicated by means of the Egyptian secret arts, and would have exposed the weakness of the god Thoth (the inventor of magic) and the god Heka (Hekau), a deity associated with magic and medicine.
In a significant manner, the fourth plague (8:18 [8:14]) exposed the Egyptian deities as powerless. Whereas YHWH protected his people from the effects of this plague, the gods and goddesses whom the Egyptians revered could not shield them from experiencing its full impact.
Again YHWH, probably by means of his representative angel, told Moses to go to Pharaoh, informing him that YHWH, the God of the Hebrews, was requiring that he permit his people, the Israelites, to leave Egypt in order to serve him. Refusal on his part would lead to his witnessing the “hand [or power] of YHWH” directed against cattle, horses, donkeys, camels, and herds (of cattle) and flocks (of sheep and goats) out in the field. The domestic animals would be afflicted with a serious pestilence that would result in a high mortality rate. None of the domestic animals belonging to the Israelites, however, would die. As announced beforehand, the pestilence did strike the next day, with only the animals of the Egyptians dying. Pharaoh apparently sent men in his service to investigate the situation among the Israelites and received a report that not one of their animals had died. Nevertheless, Pharaoh did not change his attitude. He hardened his heart, remaining stubbornly defiant, and refused to let the people of Israel leave. (9:1-7; see the Notes section.)
The word of YHWH, doubtless through his representative angel, directed Moses and Aaron to take handfuls of ashes or soot from a kiln and then for Moses to throw the ashes skyward before the “eyes” (or in the sight) of Pharaoh. By means of this act, the Egyptians and their domestic animals would be stricken with painful boils. The pain proved to be so severe that the magicians of Egypt were unable to stand before Moses. Pharaoh, however, did not change his attitude. YHWH permitted him to remain defiant and thus hardened his heart. Pharaoh, as YHWH had revealed beforehand, refused to listen to Moses and Aaron, remaining unresponsive to the request that he permit the Israelites to leave Egypt in order to serve their God. (9:8-13; see the Notes section.)
YHWH’s purpose in sending the plagues was to make it clear to Pharaoh, his officials, and his subjects that there was no god like him in all the earth. In this case, “earth” includes Egypt and lands far beyond its borders. YHWH could have taken the life of Pharaoh and of his subjects, but he chose to let Pharaoh live, using the opportunity to show his power and to have his name declared “throughout all the earth.” (9:14-16) The name of YHWH did become widely known. About 40 years later, Rahab of Jericho in the land of Canaan recalled what YHWH had done in drying up the water of the Red Sea and liberating his people. (Joshua 2:10) Centuries thereafter, the Philistines still knew about the mighty God who had struck the Egyptians with every kind of plague. (1 Samuel 4:8)
Pharaoh continued to exalt himself over the Israelites, maintaining an arrogant bearing toward them as he refused to let them leave to sacrifice to YHWH their God. Therefore, YHWH decreed that the Egyptians would experience a hailstorm of such severity as had never occurred in the history of their country. The Egyptians were advised to bring all their animals under shelter and to leave no slaves out in the fields. Those who “feared,” or trusted, that the word of YHWH would be fulfilled the next day brought their animals and slaves into the safety of a shelter, but those who had no regard for (literally, “did not set [their] heart on”) YHWH’s word left their slaves and animals out in the open. When Moses, at YHWH’s command, stretched out his rod toward the sky, it began to thunder and hail, and “fire” or lightning struck the ground. All during the time the hail fell, lightning flashes were visible in the midst of it. Every man and every animal out in the field were struck down. All plants were flattened, and all trees were shattered. In Goshen, where the Israelites resided, there was no hail. (9:17-26; see the Notes section.)
Apparently the severity of the hail and the damage it caused prompted Pharaoh to acknowledge that he had been in the wrong when refusing to allow the Israelites to depart for the wilderness to sacrifice to YHWH. After summoning Moses and Aaron, he is quoted as saying to them: “I have sinned this time. YHWH is righteous [just or in the right], and I and my people are guilty [or in the wrong (impious [LXX])].” He requested that they entreat YHWH to bring an end to the thunder (literally, “voices [or sounds] of God”) and hail (“and fire” or lightning [LXX]). Pharaoh also consented to permit the Israelites to depart. (9:27, 28)
Moses agreed to stretch out his hands to YHWH upon being outside the city. This meant that he would lift his arms and open palms skyward in an attitude of prayer, petitioning YHWH to cause the thunder and the hail (“and the rain” [LXX]) to stop. Moses wanted Pharaoh to “know” or to recognize, based on the cessation of the hail, that the “earth” or land belonged to YHWH or that everything was under his control. Nevertheless, Moses revealed that he knew that Pharaoh and his servants or officials did not at that time really fear, or have a proper regard for, YHWH. (9:29, 30)
The plague of hail probably occurred in the middle of February or early in March, for the hail ruined the flax and the barley. Wheat and spelt, grains that matured later, were not destroyed. (9:31, 32)
After Moses made his appeal to YHWH, the thunder (literally, “sounds” or “voices”), the hail, and the rain stopped. Having experienced relief from the hailstorm, Pharaoh and his servants or officials revealed that they had not come to fear YHWH. They hardened their hearts and stubbornly resisted his words that were conveyed to them through Moses. Just as YHWH had made known in advance, Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites depart. (9:33-35)
The deadly pestilence that affected domestic animals (9:3-6) would have revealed the impotence of Apis (the sacred bull deity), Hathor (a goddess represented as a cow, a woman with the head of a cow, or a woman with the ears of a cow), and the sky goddess Nut (represented as a woman or a cow forming the sky over the land and with stars on her body).
For the Egyptians there was no cure for their painful boils or sores. (9:10, 11) Deities to which they may have looked for relief could not help them. These deities may have included the goddesses of healing (Heka and Sekhmet), the goddess Isis, and the gods Thoth and Ptah.
Any appeal to the Egyptian deities to cause the hailstorm to end would have been in vain. No aid would have come from Tefnut (the goddess of rain), Set (the god of desert storms), Reshpu (a god who was believed to control lightning) and Thoth (a god to whom power over rain and thunder was attributed). (9:22-25)