The Meaning and Themes of Exodus: What's It Really About? | Aleph Beta

God Choosing Man, Man Choosing God

The Meaning Of The Book Of Exodus

Immanuel Shalev


Parshat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38) is the conclusion of Exodus, which is the perfect time to ponder: what is the Book of Exodus really about? Exodus touches on many major themes – it is known for Israel’s escape from Egypt, the sea splitting, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, and the Tabernacle. We read these stories year after year, but how often do we stop and consider – what do the main themes of Exodus really teach us? What is the main concept of the Book of Exodus? What makes it all hold together?

After all, the Author of this book, God, wrote it as an integrated whole, and we are its intended audience. What meaning does He want us to get out it? In this video, we zoom out to look at the main themes that connect the stories, and how this affects the meaning of the Book of Exodus as a whole.


Immanuel: The Book of Exodus is well known for the story of Israel's escape from Egypt, the sea splitting, some grumbling in the desert, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, and the Tabernacle. We read these stories year after year, but what is their significance to us? The author of this book, God, wrote this story as an integrated whole, and we are its intended audience. What does He want us to get out of it?

What Is the Book of Exodus Really About?

David: This week, for Parshat Pekudei, the very last parsha in the book of Exodus, we wanted to take a look back at the book. By examining Exodus from God's perspective, we might get a new sense of the book, and even more importantly, perhaps we will understand what He means for us to learn from it all. Hi, I'm David Block.

Immanuel: And I'm Imu Shalev

David: And welcome to The Parsha Experiment.

Immanuel: The book of Exodus picks up the storyline from the previous book, Genesis.

In Genesis, God tells of the world He created for Man. He put man in His Garden – a place where He could live together with mankind. But they sinned and turned away from Him. And as history began to unravel, mankind moved further and further away from Him until the world became full of moral corruption. But even so, the ideal never changed – the goal was for mankind and God to once again have a close relationship, to live with each other, like they once did in God's garden. To bring about that ideal, God charged one man – Abraham – with a particular destiny. Abraham would start a family that would model what it means to be in a relationship with God to all the other families of the earth, and thereby bring great blessing to the entire world. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob face a series of struggles to prove that they can prevail, and, in the end, when the book of Genesis ends, they find themselves in Egypt.

David: Ultimately, Exodus is a book about restoring what was lost in Genesis. It's about God helping the descendants of that chosen family – Israel – find their way to back that relationship with God. Let's take a look at how that's meant to happen.

Hundreds of years pass, and Israel is enslaved by Egypt. From Israel's perspective, we know the story: God sends 10 plagues, and manages to set Israel free. But that's just what happens to Israel. It's not what the book is meant to teach us. From God's perspective, the story is a lot more rich, and certainly more meaningful for us.

What Is the Deeper Meaning of the Book of Exodus?

Immanuel: When Exodus begins, we learn that there is a new Pharaoh who forgets Joseph. Why is this significant? Because the former Pharaoh wasn't just impressed with who Joseph was, he was impressed with who his God was: וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה, אֶל-עֲבָדָיו: הֲנִמְצָא כָזֶה–אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים בּוֹ. And Pharaoh said unto his servants: 'Do you know of any other man like this, a man in whom the spirit of God dwells?" The former Pharaoh was the greatest leader of the greatest nation on the Earth, and here he was, beginning to be impressed and influenced by Israel. All was going according to God's plan.

But a new king arises in Egypt...He forgets Joseph, takes advantage of the blessings given to Israel and their population growth and enslaves them for the betterment of Egypt. And when the population is too much to handle, he begins to murder Israelite babies and lets the Nile wash away the crime.

David: In this dark hour, God sees an opportunity. It's a chance not only to set His people free and help them resume their destiny of bringing blessing to the families of the earth, but also to reveal Himself as God, as Creator, to the greatest power of the ancient world.

If God could get a place like Egypt to recognize Him, to abandon idolatry, immorality, and corruption, then the notion of recognition of God and a loving relationship with Him would spread from Egypt and beyond.

And so, in Shmot, God demands that Pharaoh recognize Him, and free His people. Pharaoh refuses. In Va'era and Bo, in plague after plague, God unites all the elements to war against Pharaoh and Egypt, crushing any notions of polytheism and bringing a stubborn and cruel Egypt to its knees, all in an attempt to have Egypt recognize Him as the Creator. Ultimately, in Beshalach, Pharaoh and his people refuse a relationship with God, and like the generation of the flood, they are wiped out. But in this crucible, Israel's Abrahamic destiny is renewed.

They're free to once again be God's firstborn, the child who will represent Father's values to the rest of His children.

Immanuel: And now that God's people are free, we would expect them to travel peacefully into the sunset together with Him, lovingly united, spreading God's morality to all of humanity. But shockingly, right after the sea splits, the people start to complain.

Understanding the Main Themes of Exodus

Immanuel: Instead of God abandoning an ungrateful people, and instead of meting out punishments against those that dare question Him, God is patient. God is compassionate.

He understands that after just a few days in desert, the people have run out of water and food, and they have started to lose resolve. The people still doubt Him and they ask: הֲיֵשׁ יְהוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן. Is God actually with us?

Here was humanity, unsure whether God was really committed to them. And so God redoubles his efforts to show them that He really is there – he provides them with food from the heavens, water from a rock, and helps them defeat the attacking nation of Amalek. He is their provider and their protector.

David: And it's here that we learn one of the main themes of this book: God seems to be telling us that as incredulous as it is – Israel is a small nation, and possibly undeserving – God really does love us.

In Yitro, after God lovingly courts His people in the desert, He demonstrates His commitment to Israel incontrovertibly. God directly reveals Himself to Israel at Sinai. To clear up any doubts about whether God was with Israel, God's very first words to them are: אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם: I am Hashem your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. It wasn't accidental, I chose you, I want a relationship with you.

What Does the Major Theme of Exodus Teach Us?

David: God tells Israel, וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ: and you shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Now that they have met God, Israel will be the priests, God's representatives to the rest of the world.

Immanuel: Israel's destiny has concrete expression in the realm of law. God gave Israel Ten Commandments, which represented larger moral principles that He wanted the people to embody. And in Parshat Mishpatim, these principles are captured in mundane laws. In keeping these laws, Israel is surrounded by the awareness of God in their everyday life.

And for the first time, Israel accepts these laws overwhelmingly – they cry out naaseh v'nishmah; we will do and we will listen. The relationship of father to infant has begun to mature as Israel agrees to turn a one-sided relationship into a partnership between mankind and the divine.

From God's perspective, He is beginning to achieve his relationship with humanity. But there is still a great distance to be overcome. Yes, for a fleeting moment at Sinai, the people connected and met with God, but could humanity ever return to its ideal state? Could they live together with God, every day, like they did back in the Garden?

David: That brings us to Terumah and Tetzaveh. Once God reveals himself, once the people see that He is with them, and once He gives them a way to live Godly lives in all that they do, He says: asu li mikdash v'shachanti bitocham – make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst you. The experience of connection at Sinai shouldn't just stay as a one-time experience, a moment of inspiration… it should be carried with you always. We should always live together.

In Ki Tisa, we continue the theme of the impossible relationship between a benevolent God and an undeserving humanity. Israel betrays God with the sin of the Golden Calf. Once again humanity has become corrupt. Once again God threatens to wipe them out. Once again God wants to start over with one man, Moses, instead of Noah.

From God's perspective, this episode is utterly devastating. Over and over, humanity turns its back on God. Never before had a nation been rescued from the hands of its oppressor with signs and wonders, taken into the desert to be nourished and protected, encountered God in a loving embrace of closeness and been handed a special destiny. And now, it could all be lost.

The Change in Concept From Genesis to Exodus

Immanuel: But what once caused God to regret having made man and bring a flood, now, in a world defined by mercy and compassion, caused God to relent from His decision to destroy Israel. Moses was able to help Israel earn God's forgiveness, and Israel mourned the distance they themselves had created in their relationship with God. God thereby chooses to forgive Israel and resolves to dwell amongst them once more.

It is here that the earlier theme of God's incredulous love for Israel resurges, except this time, even more powerfully than the last. Israel truly deserved destruction, but the message of the book is that even if you stumble, even if you truly are unworthy, as long as you want a relationship with God, He will have you back.

David: In Vayakhel and Pekudei, we hear about the actual construction of the Mishkan, this time, from the perspective of Israel. A book that began with God's signs and wonders, God's sustenance and nurturing, ends with Israel's side of the relationship.

They declare that they will do and they will listen. They will keep God's laws. And they will build the Mishkan.

The Meaning of the Book of Exodus

David: The Creator began the book of Genesis by creating a space for us, literally, by creating time, space and our world, out of love and out of a desire for a relationship with us. We end the book of Exodus by choosing Him back, and by literally building a space for Him in our world.

God's story of overture after overture, of loving kindess for humanity and an invitation to a real relationship with Him, is deeply moving. Exodus's message to us is that the invitation for that relationship is always open – it is up to us to take it and to respond in kind, to live His values and to make a space for Him in our world.

Immanuel: But now that God wants to live amongst the people, they need to live in a deep sensitivity to the Divine presence. It's this sensitivity, or holiness, that the next book, Vayikra, is all about. Join us next week on The Parsha Experiment.

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