Structural Analysis – Sefer Shemot
"From Paroh's Slaves to Hashem's Servants"

Boundaries of the Book

"Birth of a Nation: From Paroh's Slaves to Hashem's Servants"

    • Names – The name "וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת", which is derived from the opening words of the book,1 dates back to antiquity.2 Sefer Dikdukei HaTeamim records two additional and more descriptive titles, "ספר יציאת מצרים" ("Exodus")3 and "ספר הברית"‎4 ("The Book of the Covenant"). These two names focus on different halves of the book5 and may express competing claims as to the book's central theme.6 In contrast, RambanIntroduction to ShemotAbout R. Moshe Nachmanides entitles the book "ספר הגאולה", and he suggests that this name incorporates the motifs of all of the main sections of the book.7
    • Theme – Sefer Shemot forms a discrete unit, distinct from both books which surround it. While Sefer Bereshit describes a continuous process of selection and rejection of individuals, Sefer Shemot speaks of how Yaakov's descendants became a nation and developed a bond with Hashem. Sefer Vayikra then proceeds to detail many of the laws that are to govern that relationship.
    • Setting – Most of the stories of Sefer Bereshit take place in the Land of Canaan, while those in Sefer Shemot occur in exile, either in Egypt or in the Wilderness. All of the events of Sefer Vayikra transpire in just one place, Mt. Sinai.
    • Timing – Sefer Bereshit extends over a period of thousands of years, from Creation until the descent to Egypt, and it is marked by a series of genealogy lists. In contrast, the first few chapters of Sefer Shemot span a couple of hundred of years,8 while the rest of the book occurs over a period of just one year. Sefer Vayikra contains no explicit dates, and it appears to take place in the very short timeframe between the books of Shemot and Bemidbar.9
    • Characters – Whereas Sefer Bereshit tells the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, concentrating on the family unit, Sefer Shemot focuses on the Israelite nation as a whole.10 Though Sefer Vayikra similarly speaks of the entire nation, in many cases it singles out the priestly class.
    • Genre – Both Sefer Bereshit and Sefer Shemot contain mainly narrative material, but Sefer Vayikra is almost exclusively legal in nature.
    • Resumptive repetition – The first several verses of Sefer Shemot constitute a flashback to the end of Sefer Bereshit.11 Such a repetition is logical at the beginning of a new unit, but would be superfluous were it only a continuation.12
      • The list of those who come to Egypt in 1:1-5 parallels the list in Bereshit 46:8-27.
      • Yosef's death mentioned in Shemot 1:6 repeats its mention in Bereshit 50:26.
      • Israel's proliferation in 1:7 parallels Bereshit 47:27.13
    • Shemot as a fulfillment of Bereshit – Much of the first half of Sefer Shemot constitutes a fulfillment of promises made to the forefathers in Sefer Bereshit:
      • The promises of plentiful seed ("פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ") mentioned repeatedly in Sefer Bereshit14 are fulfilled to the letter in Shemot 1:7,12,20.15
      • Hashem's words to Avraham in the Covenant of the Pieces predicting exile, slavery, and oppression ("גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם") come true in Shemot 1:11,13 ("וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל", "וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ")‎.16
      • Hashem's subsequent declaration that He will punish the oppressor ("וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי") gets fulfilled through the series of plagues described in Chapters 7-12.
      • The promise in Bereshit 15:14 of departure with great wealth ("וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל") is granted as the Israelites leave Egypt laden with gold and silver vessels and with much cattle (Shemot 12:35-38).
      • Yosef's deathbed charge (Bereshit 50:25) to his brethren to take his bones with them when Hashem redeems them ("פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱ-לֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִתֶם אֶת עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה"), is faithfully carried out by Moshe during the Exodus (13:19).

Division into Units

I. Slavery and Redemption (1:1 – 15:21)
II. A Nation in Transition (15:22 – 18:27)
III. Servants of Hashem (19:1 – 40:38)

  • Plot – Sefer Shemot describes the process by which the Israelites transform from a nation of slaves to Paroh to a nation of free people serving Hashem.17 The first section of the book focuses on the period of bondage and the plagues which led to the nation's emancipation, while the closing unit turns to the formation of their covenant with Hashem and the building of the Tabernacle.18
  • Transition unit – The middle section describes the brief interim period in which the Israelites begin to confront the challenges of nationhood, having already achieved physical freedom but not yet entered into a covenantal relationship with Hashem.19 The structure presented here regards Yitro's visit in Chapter 18 as part of the transitional section since it discusses the difficulties faced by the nation and is recorded before the story of the revelation at Sinai.20
  • Characters – The opening of the book speaks of the interactions between Moshe and Paroh and their two nations, while the second and third sections focus on the triangular relationship between the Israelites, Moshe, and Hashem.
  • Setting – The first unit of the book takes place primarily in Egypt,21 the second section occurs en route in the wilderness, while the last unit transpires as the nation is encamped at Mount Sinai.
  • Timing – The first portion of the book spans many years, the transition section takes a month or two, while the rest of the book occurs during the remaining nine months of the first year in the desert.
  • Literary marker – The Song of the Sea marks the closure of the first section, separating the prose narratives which surround it.

Subdivision of Unit I – "Slavery and Redemption"

A. Slaves to Paroh (1:1-22)
B. First Mission Fails (2:1 – 6:1)
C. The Road to Redemption (6:2 – 15:22)

  • Plot – The first chapter introduces Paroh's decrees of slavery and extermination, the middle section of Chapters 2–5 describes the first failed attempt at redemption which leads to an intensification of the bondage,22 while the third part (Chapters 6–15) describes the chain of events which culminates in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians at Yam Suf.23
  • Characters – While the first section focuses on the Israelite nation as a whole and their enslavement by Paroh and the Egyptian people, the latter two sections train the spotlight on Moshe.
  • Timing – The first unit begins by recounting the death of the generation of Yosef and his brothers, the second section opens with the birth of Moshe, while the last section opens when Moshe is eighty. Thus, the first chapter covers a period of hundreds of years, the second a span of eighty years,24 and the last section no more than one year.25
  • Refrains – There are certain phrases that appear repeatedly throughout the third section, unifying and distinguishing it from the preceding ones:
    • The hardening of Paroh's heart occurs nineteen times in slightly varying formulations throughout the chapters.26
    • The phrase "So that you shall know that I am God" and similar ones appears over ten times in this section.27
    • The root "נטה" is mentioned sixteen times in the unit.28

Subdivision of Section A – "Slaves to Paroh" (1:1-22)

Subdivision of Section B – "First Mission Fails" (2:1 – 6:1)

  • Plot – The first subsection introduces Moshe, the future savior. The next unit describes his commissioning, while the last chapter tells of his initial attempts at negotiations.
  • Characters – Although Moshe appears in all of the chapters, he interacts with different players in each unit, first with those who are (or become) members of his family, then with Hashem, and finally with the Israelites and Paroh.
  • Setting – While the first and third subunits take place in Egypt and Midyan,29 the middle section is set in the Sinai Desert.

Subdivision of Section C – "The Road to Redemption" (6:2 - 15:21)

  • Plot – The introduction to the unit charges Moshe with a double mission: to prepare the nation of Israel for the impending redemption and to demand from Paroh that he let the people go. The dual instructions to Moshe encapsulate the essence of each of the three stages of the redemption process, and this is highlighted by the linguistic parallels connecting the introduction with each subsequent stage:30
    • Stage 1: The hardening of Paroh's heart and the accompanying visitation of the "Signs and Wonders" – Hashem's words regarding Paroh, "וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת אֹתֹתַי וְאֶת מוֹפְתַי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה וְנָתַתִּי אֶת יָדִי בְּמִצְרָיִם" are fulfilled in the opening stage (7:8 – 11:10)31 and then summarized in almost verbatim language: "לֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיכֶם פַּרְעֹה לְמַעַן רְבוֹת מוֹפְתַי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם... וַיְחַזֵּק ה' אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה" ‎(11:9-10).32
    • Stage 2: The Plague of the Firstborn which leads to the actual Exodus33 – The implementation of the original promise both to the Israelites, "וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם... וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים", and to Paroh, "וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת צִבְאֹתַי אֶת עַמִּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בִּשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים", is described using parallel language "אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים... הוֹצִיא ה' אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם".
    • Stage 3: The ultimate recognition of Hashem at Yam Suf – The twin goals of recognition of Hashem by both the Egyptians, "וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי אֲנִי ה'", and the Children of Israel, "וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם", are realized in the final stage, where verses 14:4,18,31 echo the original statements, "וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי אֲנִי ה'", "וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת ה' וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה'".
     המשימה הכפולה
    (ו':ב' – ז':ז')
    הביצוע והקיום
    (ז':ח' – ט"ו:כ"א)
    אותות ומופתים
    (שלב א')
    "וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת אֹתֹתַי וְאֶת מוֹפְתַי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה וְנָתַתִּי אֶת יָדִי בְּמִצְרָיִם" (ז':ג'-ד') "לֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיכֶם פַּרְעֹה לְמַעַן רְבוֹת מוֹפְתַי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם... וַיְחַזֵּק ה' אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה" (י"א:ט'-י')
    יציאת מצרים
    (שלב ב')
    "וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם... וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים" (ו':ו')
    "וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת צִבְאֹתַי אֶת עַמִּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בִּשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים" (ז':ד')
    "אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים..." (י"ב:י"ב)
    "הוֹצִיא ה' אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם" (י"ב:מ"א,נ"א)
    קריעת ים סוף
    (שלב ג')
    "וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם" (ו':ז')
    "וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי אֲנִי ה'" (ז':ה')
    "וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת ה' וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה'" (י"ד:ל"א)
    "וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי אֲנִי ה'" (י"ד:ד',י"ח)
     Dual Mission
    (6:2 – 7:7)
    (7:8 – 15:21)
    Signs and Wonders
    (Stage 1)

    The Exodus
    (Stage 2)

    Splitting of the Sea
    (Stage 3)

  • Literary Markers – Each of the stages concludes with a summary statement which portrays man doing Hashem's bidding and Hashem fulfilling His promises. The root עשה appears in each:
    • Introduction: "וַיַּעַשׂ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֹתָם כֵּן עָשׂוּ"‎ (7:6)34
    • Stage 1: "וּמֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן עָשׂוּ אֶת כָּל הַמֹּפְתִים הָאֵלֶּה לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וַיְחַזֵּק ה' אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שִׁלַּח אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאַרְצוֹ"‎ (11:10)
    • Stage 2: "וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כָּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה' אֶת מֹשֶׁה וְאֶת אַהֲרֹן כֵּן עָשׂוּ. וַיְהִי בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה הוֹצִיא ה' אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם"‎ (12:50-51)35
    • Stage 3: "וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה' בְּמִצְרַיִם וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת ה' וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה' וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ"‎ (14:31)36
  • Characters – The Introduction is a series of dialogues between Hashem and Moshe discussing Paroh and the Children of Israel. In Stage 1, the Israelites fade into the background as Moshe's interactions with Paroh and the Egyptian nation become the focus.37 However, in Stages 2 and 3, the Children of Israel play a prominent role and share the spotlight with Moshe.
  • Genre – The storyline of the Introduction is interrupted by genealogical material, Stage 1 is pure narrative, Stage 2 contains narrative interspersed among legal texts,38 and Stage 3 combines narrative with poetic song.

Subdivision of Unit II – "A Nation in Transition"

Subdivision of Section A – "Lack of Food and Water" (15:22 – 17:7)

Subdivision of Section B – "Amalek's Attack and Defeat" (17:8-16)

Subdivision of Section C – "Yitro's Visit and Administrative Advice" (18:1-27)

Subdivision of Unit III – "Servants of Hashem"

Subdivision of Section A – "Making a Covenant With God" (19:1 – 24:11)

Subdivision of Section B – "Building a Long Term Relationship" (24:12 – 40:38)