The Book of Exodus

A Biography

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Joel S. Baden
Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , April
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Books have a life of their own. Princeton University Press (PUP) is taking this seriously with a new series of biographies entitled “The Lives of Great Religious Books,” all in small, concise volumes. Joel Baden tackles the dynamic and extremely influential book of Exodus.

Baden first clarifies a number of key issues surrounding the origin, authorship, and composition of the “book.” “In no sense,” he says on the first page, “is the book of Exodus a unified composition.” Being a specialist in this field—authoring The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale Univeristy Press, 2012)—readers encounter a masterfully insightful account of the most important aspects of this subject. He also addresses the historical viability of the Exodus events (no small debate in recent times). What’s for certain is that “[t]here were Semitic slaves in Egypt, and occasionally they tried to escape to Canaan” (7). How did this forge the epic story of contemporary films and theatre productions? In short: “[f]or the experience of a handful of Egyptian runaways to become the epic narrative of the Bible, three processes likely took place: exaggeration, assimilation, and accretion” (7). 

Interesting for me—a non-Hebrew/Old Testament scholar—was the way in which the story of the Exodus is told through its sources. “The book of Exodus is … the combination of three different Exodus stories—three literary manifestations of the underlying Exodus tradition, each building on a common foundation but erecting very different conceptual and even narrative edifices” (18). Similar themes but also substantial differences therefore emerge: “[i]n P, the proliferation of the Israelites precedes their enslavement; in J, it follows; and in E, there is no enslavement at all, only genocide. In E, Moses is raised in Pharaoh’s palace; not so in either J or P” (26-27), and on it goes. While some readers may take issue with certain conclusions in this type of analysis, there is no question that there are different retellings of the story within our current version of Exodus.

The book then shifts gears to look at the story outsidethe book of Exodus, and its role in the formulation of law and Israel. It’s here that the initial importance of the epic comes to the fore. “The importance of ritual, and the linking of ritual with history; the definition of Israel as people and the formation of community appeals to divine mercy; advocacy for adherence to the law—all are given expression through the Exodus” (40). Moving into the Hellenistic era, readers begin to see how the story and characters mold to the contemporary movements of the day. Josephus, for example, “is reconfiguring the Exodus story to make Moses more recognizable to his Hellenistic audience. Rather than being a charlatan, Moses becomes the very embodiment of classical virtues, the predecessor, and even model, for the heroes of Greek culture” (43). Similarly, “Philo held up Moses as the greatest of all law-givers” (47). The book then covers how the story is implemented in New Testament thought.

The third chapter looks at “Exodus as Ritual”—the story’s relationship to such things as Passover, the Seder, and the Eucharist. “In the questioning and storytelling at the heart of the Seder, we see a reflection of the status of the Exodus story already established in the biblical period … It is definitional: it is how Israel describes itself … In order to participate, one need only feel the force of the story. The ritual retails its power regardless of place or time” (72). Baden then discusses the Exodus story in relation to the law and Ten Commandments in chapter 4.

The book’s reception-history bent gets more down-and-dirty in the fifth chapter, which looks at the story’s role in the Reformation, the Dutch Republic, post-Reformation scholastic period, the American Revolution, and the Mormon Exodus. In virtually every case, there is a Moses figure, a Pharaoh, and an escape to better lands. In some cases, even the plagues are transposed. For example, “[a] pamphlet written in 1643 recognized God’s favor toward the [New England] settlement ‘in sweeping away great multitudes of the natives by the smallpox a little before we went thither, that He might make room for us there” (143). This highlights some of the dangers in such re-applications: “[t]he Puritans … effectively eliminated the Native American population from the narrative of the promised land, reserving it entirely from themselves” (143). The situation isn’t much more pleasant in the next chapter on slavery and civil rights. The final chapters cover the further development and significance of the Exodus story in liberation theology—both Latin and African.

After this kaleidoscope of applications and the momentous events behind them, Baden reflects on the phenomenon as a whole: “[t]t is flexible because we make it so—but we choose it, over other stories, because it contains the crystallization of humanity’s deepest desires: for justice, for freedom, for self-determination” (215). In response we must understand how “we are using it for our own purposes, and to use it responsibly” (215). This wise counsel surely applies to the Bible as a whole—or any other religious literature that inspires.

The Book of Exodus is an excellent short read—not just about how the Exodus story was used in different times and cultures, but for how any story can be reformulated to powerfully speak to people in a situation of related themes. Baden’s consistently clear prose and own biography—combined with PUP’s consistently superior signature-binding (in contrast to Routledge and Oxford’s inferior cut-and-glue process)—make’s this handy volume especially delicious, with a pleasingly mild tart finish. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin A. Hübner is a Research Fellow for the Center of Faith and Human Flourishing at LCC International University in Klaipéda, Lithuania.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joel S. Baden is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School. He is the co-author, with Candida R. Moss, of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press, 2017) and Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness (Princeton University Press, 2015).


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