Overview – Sefer Shemot

Structure of the Book

Sefer Shemot tells how the Israelites transformed from a nation of slaves serving Paroh to a nation of free people serving Hashem.  It can be divided into three main sections:

  • "Slavery and Redemption" – The first unit, Chapters 1:1 – 15:21, speaks of the period of bondage and Israel's physical emancipation by Hashem.1
  • "A Nation in Transition" – The second section, Chapters 15:22 – 18:27, is a transition unit which describes the short period when the nation is already free, but have not yet covenantally bound themselves to God. It describes the people's first challenges on the road to nationhood.
  • "Servants of Hashem" – The last section, Chapters 19:1 – 40:38, speaks of the nation's spiritual redemption and their entering into a covenantal relationship with Hashem.2

This division is based on the above thematic issues, the different settings of each unit,3 and the varying protagonists highlighted in each section.4  The Song of the Sea (Chapter 15) serves as a further literary marker, festively closing the first unit and separating the prose accounts which surround it. For elaboration on the book's structure and further subdivisions of each of its sections, see Structure – Sefer Shemot.

Names of the Book

Several titles have been given to the book:

  • The name "וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת" is derived from the opening words of the book, and dates back to antiquity.5
  •  Sefer Dikdukei HaTeamimSefer Dikdukei HaTeamim #70 (p.57) records two additional and more descriptive titles, "ספר יציאת מצרים" ("Exodus")6 and "ספר הברית"‎ ("The Book of the Covenant").7 These two names focus on different halves of the book and may express competing claims as to the book's central theme.8
  • RambanShemot IntroductionAbout R. Moshe b. Nachman entitles the book "ספר הגאולה" ("The Book of Redemption"), and claims that it encompasses the motifs of both halves of the book. While the first part of the book recounts the people's physical redemption, it is only at the end of the book, with the completion of the Tabernacle, that the spiritual redemption occurs.


Nation Building: Becoming עם ישראל

R. D"Z HoffmannShemot IntroductionAbout R. David Zvi Hoffmann points out that just as Sefer Bereshit speaks of the creation of the world, Sefer Shemot speaks of the creation of the Nation of Israel. Indeed, much of the book revolve around this theme, making the reader ponder both how a nation is initially formed and how it successfully develops.

  • From family to nation – What defines nationhood?  At what point do the tribes switch from being the sons of Yaakov to the "Children of Israel"?  What role did the trials of exile and enslavement play in this transition?  See Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage.
  • Preparing for autonomy – How does a nation of slaves ready itself for autonomous rule? Were the people prepared for freedom, let alone nationhood, when they left Egypt? How did the Wilderness experience contribute to the peoples' maturation and independence? See Ramban in A Three Day Journey and The Roundabout Route.
  • Challenges faced – The nascent nation faced many challenges, both in the physical and in the spiritual realm, including drought, hunger, war and questioning of God. How did they deal with these? See Miracles and Mitzvot at MarahThe Manna in Art, Annihilating Amalek, and Sin of the Golden Calf.
  • Creating a legal system – Parashat Yitro and Mishpatim detail the initial laws given to the fledgling nation. How does Israel's law code set it apart from its neighbors?  What are its underlying values and principles?  See The Torah and Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes.
  • Leadership - See the section below which is devoted to this theme.

Servants of Hashem: Becoming 'עם ה

Through the events of the Exodus and Revelation at Sinai, the Nation of Israel begins to forge a covenantal relationship with Hashem.  What does Sefer Shemot teach about Israel's religious journey?

  • Religiosity in Egypt – What did the Israelites know of Hashem before the Exodus? Did they keep a distinct lifestyle in Egypt, or had they acculturated into their surroundings?  See Religious Identity in Egypt and The Exodus Narrative and the Four Children.9
  • Growth through suffering and salvation – How did the nation's experiences in Egypt, both the suffering of the bondage and the miracles of the redemption, affect their religious identification and relationship with Hashem? See Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage and Purpose of the Plagues.
  • Doubts – Did the nation willingly follow Moshe and Hashem out of Egypt, or were some hesitant to venture into the unknown and take on the responsibilities of Judaism? See A Three Day Journey, The Roundabout Route, and The Exodus Narrative and the Four Children.
  • Marah – The nation's first stop in the Wilderness after attaining freedom is Marah. Here, we are told, the people received "חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט".  What were the first lessons that Hashem wanted to instill in the nascent nation? How did these help them develop as both a people and in their relationship with Hashem? See Miracles and Mitzvot at Marah.
  • Wilderness wanderings - In the nation's first months in the Wilderness they encounter both lack of food and water and attacks by enemies, but also God's miraculous assistance.  Do these instill faith or remove it?10
  • Revelation – What was the experience of revelation like?  Did the entire nation hear all ten Dibrot directly from Hashem or did Moshe act as intermediary for either some or all of the experience?  What would be the purpose of a middle-man?  How would either scenario have affected the people's later belief and observance? For elaboration, see The Decalogue: Direct From Hashem or Via Moshe?
  • The Decalogue – Why were these ten statements chosen to be the ones revealed by Hashem to the nation at Sinai?
  • The Mishkan – Much of the second half of Shemot revolves around the building of the Mishkan.  Why was such an edifice needed for Divine worship? Did it serve mainly as a vehicle for revelation, or for atonement? Why was centralization of worship so important? See Purpose of the Mishkan
  • Sin of the Golden Calf – All relationships have their ups and downs, and Israel and Hashem are no exception.  Shortly after receiving the Decalogue the people appear to revert back to idolatry, as they build a Golden Calf. What prompts them to do so?  Did they really try to replace God so soon after the Revelation at Sinai?  How could Aharon have been a part of such a rite? See Sin of the Golden Calf.

Challenges of Leadership

Sefer Shemot introduces the first national head of Israel, Moshe, and in so doing touches upon many issues related to leadership:

  • What makes a leader? Why was Moshe chosen to lead the Jewish people? What do the incidents of Shemot Chapters 2-4 suggest?
  • Relating to God, relating to man – Are the qualities needed to become the highest of prophets the same as those required to be a political and national leader?  Did Moshe excel in both areas equally?  Contrast the opinions of Ralbag and Abarbanel in Did Moshe Need Yitro's Advice?11
  • Moshe's early religiosity – What was Moshe's religious outlook before being called by Hashem at the Burning Bush? How aware was he of his Israelite background? How aware was he of Hashem?  What does Moshe's decision to marry the Midianite Zipporah suggest?  See Moshe's Family Life and Mystery at the Malon.
  • Family life – What toll does leadership take on the quality of one's family life? How did Moshe's duties affect his relationship with Tzipporah? See אחר שלוחיה, Mystery at the Malon, Moshe's Family Life, and Miryam's Critique of Moshe and his Cushite Marriage.
  • Impediments to leadership – Moshe is described as being "כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן". Why would Hashem choose an orator with speech difficulties?  How might this choice have affected Moshe's ability to lead? How might have it affected the nation's perception of him?  See Moshe's Speech Impediment.
  • Responsibilities – What were Moshe's various responsibilities as Israel's leader?  How much time did he spend on each of his judicial, administrative, military and prophetic duties? Which of these was he willing to delegate to others?  Which did he think only he could carry out?  Why? See Moshe's Duties and Yitro's Advice.
  • Who gets to lead? Is it better to be led by a few or by the many?  Yitro's system of judges of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands would suggested a very Bloated Bureaucracy; was that really efficient?  Is it preferable that cultic roles be assigned to each family or be limited to just one tribe? Should leadership be related to lineage (and thus dynastic), or should it be a meritocracy? See Selection of the Priests and Levites.
  • Flawed leadership? Must our leaders be viewed as perfect role models, or is it legitimate to criticize some of their actions? Was Moshe's taking the law into his own hands to kill the Egyptian an act deserving of praise or condemnation? How is one to understand Aharon's role in the Sin of the Golden Calf
  • Righteous Gentiles – Who were the midwives who risked their lives in disobeying Paroh?  Were they Jewish or Gentile?  What gives one the strength to stand up to authority and fight injustice? See Who are the Midwives.

Fulfillment of Patriarchal Promises

Much of the first half of Sefer Shemot constitutes a fulfillment of promises made to the forefathers in Sefer Bereshit.

The Legal Sections of Shemot

Sefer Shemot contains a significant amount of legal material.  These units raise several important questions regarding the Torah's judicial code:

  • Law and order? – Is the purpose of the Torah's commands to lay down principles of right and wrong or to preserve law and order? Is it possible that certain commandments are only a concession to human foibles, or that others serve purely a practical or utilitarian purpose?12  What do the legal sections of the Torah suggest?  Shemot topics which touch on these questions include: Purpose of the Pesach"עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן" – An Eye for an Eye, and Purpose of the Mishkan.
  • Divine civil law – One of the hallmarks of the Torah is that it incorporates both cultic and civil legislation. Not only are religious observances ordained by Hashem; secular law is as well. What are the advantages of such a system? How does it compare to a system which has a separation of church and state?  [See the Akeidat Yitzchak in Did Moshe Need Yitro's Advice?]
  • Punishment – In setting penalties for crimes, which of the following objectives should take precedence: compensation to the victim, rehabilitation of the criminal, retribution, or deterrence?  Which goals are accomplished through the Torah's choice of punishments? See An Eye for an Eye, Injury to Bystanders and the Meaning of "יהיה אסון", Arei Miklat – Cities of Refuge or Exile, and Annihilating Amalek.
  •  טעמי המצוות – The Torah does not normally provide the reasoning for its commandments.  Though most interpersonal laws are self-explanatory, many laws between man and God are not.  Is it preferable to look into the reasons for mitzvot, or to simply accept them without questioning? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?  [For discussion of how different commentators understand various mitzvot, see the above topics and Chametz and Matzah in Pesach Mitzrayim, Purpose of Shemittah and Purpose of the Shulchan and Lechem HaPanim.]

Theological Issues

Many theological and philosophical issues are raised through the various stories of Sefer Shemot:

  • צדיק ורע לו – Sefer Shemot does not preface the description of the nation's bondage with mention of any sin, making one question what they did to deserve such a fate. Why was the decree of exile and enslavement necessary? In general, why is suffering sometimes part of the Divine plan?  See Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage and, for a general discussion of the issue of theodicy, see צדיק ורע לו.
  • Free will – Throughout the story of the Plagues, we read how Hashem repeatedly hardened Paroh's heart, causing him to persist in the enslavement of the Israelites. Taken at face value, these verses suggest that Hashem actively made Paroh sin. Why would Hashem try to keep someone from repenting?  Moreover, do these verses suggest that man does not always have free will?  See Hardened Hearts for elaboration.
  • Divine deception? Twice in the early chapters of Shemot, Hashem seems to command the nation to deceive Paroh and/or the Egyptians. Hashem tells Moshe to ask Paroh for only a three day furlough in the Wilderness, while His real intent is for them to leave for good. Later, he instructs the nation to request items of gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors even though the objects are not to be returned.  How is such seeming duplicity to be understood?
  • Nature of prophecy Who merits to prophesy?  Must one be chosen by God, or can one train one's self to receive Divine inspiration?  How did Moshe's prophecy compare to others? See Prophecy, and Rambam in The Decalogue: Direct From Hashem or Via Moshe.13
  • Nature of miracles – Miracles abound in Sefer Shemot, from the ten plagues to the splitting of the sea, water-spouting rocks, and heavenly manna.  How are these to be understood?  Are they purely supernatural phenomenon or does Hashem bring miracles by harnessing the laws of nature? See שְׂלָו – Fish or Fowl, The Plagues – Natural or Supernatural?, Yam Suf – Natural or Supernatural?
  • Prophetic autonomy – How much autonomy does a prophet have? Is he simply Hashem's mouthpiece, or is he allowed to act on his own? Is it possible for him to speak on his own initiative, and to then attribute that speech back to Hashem? Can he declare a miracle on his own, and expect that nature will be overturned at his word? These questions come up numerous times in Sefer Shemot as Moshe speaks in Hashem's name, 14 or declares miracles,15 apparently without prior divine communication. 
  • Vicarious punishment?   The verse "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" appears to suggest that, at least in certain circumstances, Hashem allows innocent children to be punished while their sinful parents go free. How does this manifest Divine justice?  Is there any other way of understanding the verse?  When, if ever, is collective punishment justified?  Can the same reasoning apply to vicarious punishment? See Are Children Punished for Parents' Sins.
  • Troubling laws – Certain laws, taken at face value, sometimes trouble modern readers who view them as unjust.  For example, as the penalty for certain forms of physical assault, the Torah puts forth a principle of "measure for measure" punishment, declaring that one give an "eye for an eye". Is this the fairest form of justice, or "cruel and unusual" punishment? Is the command to annihilate Amalek justified?  What was so terrible about the attack that we are directed to obliterate an entire nation?

Dating and Chronological Issues

The dating and chronology of several stories in Sefer Shemot is disputed:

  • Duration of the Egyptian Exile – Commentators disagree regarding the length of Israel's stay in Egypt with opinions ranging from 210 to 430 years.  The disagreement relates to the apparent contradictions between explicit verses which speak of 400 or 430 years and others which speak of just four generations.
  • Chronology – Shemot 18 – Sources disagree regarding the timing of almost every event in Shemot 18, from Yitro's arrival in Sinai, to his advice to Moshe and the implementation of that advice. Some ramifications of the different approaches include whether or not Moshe's children participated in the Revelation at Sinai, the dating of the Decalogue, Yitro's motivations and religious identity, and which commandments were given at Marah.
  • Building the Tabernacle – While the commands to build the Mishkan are elaborated upon in Parshiot Terumah and Tezaveh, before the Sin of the Golden Calf, they are only implemented afterwards. Commentators, thus, disagree regarding the chronology of the building enterprise with some taking the verses at face value and others positing achronology.  The difference of opinion impacts greatly on how one understands the Purpose of the Mishkan.
  • Selection of the Priests and Levites  –  Parashat Tetzaveh opens with the directive to consecrate Aharon and his sons, suggesting that they were selected to serve as priests before the Sin of the Golden Calf. However, Devarim 10:8 suggests that both the Priests and Levites were chosen only in the aftermath of the sin. How are these verses to be reconciled?  When were each of the Levites and Priests chosen, and what does this suggest about why they specifically were selected for these tasks?

Ancient Near East

  • Egyptian backrgound  – Several aspects of the Exodus narrative allude to Egyptian culture, beliefs or practices and might be seen as a reaction against these.  See, for example, how the phrases "mighty arm" and  "כבד לב", and the choice of plagues might all come to mock Paroh and the Egyptian gods in Egyptian Background and the Exodus Narrative
  • Hero legends – Numerous legends from both the ancient and classical periods share the motif of a hero being abandoned at birth, recalling the story of Moshe's infancy.  The Mesopotamian legend of Sargon is perhaps one of the closest parallels.  What does a comparison of the two stories reveal about how the Torah views its leaders and what prerequisites it requires of them? See Moshe's Birth and the Legend of Sargon.
  • Law codes – How does the Torah's legal system compare to other ancient near eastern law codes?  Where do they overlap; where does Torah pave a new path?  Most importantly, what might a comparison reveal about the different underlying values and principles of the cultures, and their different conceptions of justice and punishment? See The Torah and Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes for more.