As well as there being two halves to the book of Exodus, there are ten different portions within it: six sections in Chapters 1-18 and four in Chapters 19-40. They can be arranged as shown in the following table.

Chapters 1-18

Chapters 19-40

(people mobile) (people stationary)
Key Themes Key Themes
The Sections The Sections
1. 1 Multiplication and murder 7. 19-24 Commandments and covenant
2. 2-3 Bulrushes and burning bush 8. 25-31 Specification and specialists
3. 5-11 Plague and pestilence 9. 32-34 Indulgence and intercession
4. 12-13:16 Feast and first-born 10. 35-40 Construction and consecration
5. 13:17-15:21 Delivered and drowned
6. 15:22-18:27 Provided and protected

The first part (Chapters 1-18) details the events preceding and following their flight from Egypt. It includes many miracles, including the most famous, how the Israelites were protected when the first-born of Egypt were killed, and how they were able to pass through the Red Sea. It also includes the less famous but no less remarkable provision of God as they journey from Egypt to Sinai. During the Yom Kippur war of 1973 the Egyptian army was unable to last more than three days in the desert, yet in Exodus 2.5 million people survived there for 40 years.

In the second part the focus is on legislation. The Ten Commandments appear first, but there is also other legislation concerned with God’s intention to live among his people. Just as they lived in tents, so God would join them in their camp. But his own tent would be distinct and separate from theirs. These people had never made anything but mud bricks until that point, but God gave them the skills to work with gold, silver and wood.

The second part does also include some narrative. Here we read the saddest part of the whole book, as the people indulge themselves and make a golden calf to worship. The book finishes with the construction of the tabernacle. God takes up residence and the glory comes down on his tent.

Chapters 1-18

Many perceive the first part of Exodus to be full of problems because it is such an unnatural story. There are so many extraordinary events that many people suggest that what we have here is a series of legends rather than truth. So, are the events described part of a myth or a miracle?

Myth or miracle?


The problem is not just with the nature of the events themselves, but also with the fact that the events are not backed up by any secular, historical record. All we have is just one mention of “the jabiru” in Goshen – a possible reference to the “Hebrews”, as the “children of Israel” were known. This lack of documentation should not surprise us, however. The Exodus of the Jews was one of the most humiliating events in Egypt’s experience. They suffered severe plagues, including the death of their first-born. Their best charioteers were drowned in the Red Sea. This hardly made for comforting reflection.


Many people find the story hard to believe due to the large numbers involved. We are told there were 2.5 million slaves who left Egypt. By any reckoning this is a huge number. If they marched five abreast, the column would be about 110 miles long, and that does not include the livestock. It would take months for them to move anywhere. It is also a huge population to keep fed and watered in a desert for 40 years.


There is also a question about the dating of the events. As we have no other record outside the Bible we cannot date the events with any certainty. So we do not know for sure which Pharaoh was involved and when it all took place. The choice seems to be between Rameses II, who had a powerful military force, who erected huge statues of himself and whose sons’ tomb has only recently been discovered, and Dudimore, according to the “new chronology” of David M. Rohl.*


There is controversy concerning the route which the Israelites took when they left Egypt, too. There are three possibilities to consider: a route to the north, a route to the south, or one through the middle. We will come back to this question on page 102.


Other scholars find problems with God’s words to Moses in Exodus 6:3 where he says: “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.”

That last phrase may either be a statement (I did not make myself known), in which case Abraham knew him as “God”, but without a personal name distinguishing him from other gods; or a question (did I not make myself known?), in which case Abraham knew God by name as well as Moses. The latter is less likely.


All these questions have made scholars doubt whether they are reading fact, fiction or perhaps “faction”. Those who do not believe the events need to ask why they cannot. Is it prejudice or a so-called scientific view of the universe which prevents them believing? At the same time we can also try to look for the most understandable explanation for the facts which are indisputable.

1. Nobody can dispute that there is a nation called Israel in the world today. So where did they come from? How did they get started? How did they ever become a nation if they were originally a bunch of slaves? We do know from secular records that they were a bunch of slaves. Something dramatic is needed to explain the existence of Israel.

2. Every year, every Jewish family celebrates the Passover. Why do they do it? This is a ritual which has survived for many thousands of years and also needs some explanation.

These two known facts at least need explanation, therefore, and it is the book of Exodus which provides the answers. Next week we will look at each section, following the structure laid out in the table above, and consider some of the questions surrounding the text.