Exodus: The Story of Moses and the Ten Commandments

One of the most important chapters of Jewish history is told in Exodus, the second book of the Torah. It is the story of how God freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and led them back to the land of Canaan. The word exodus actually means a mass departure.
As you will see, God chooses Moses to go before Pharoah, the king of the Egyptians, and demand freedom for the Hebrew slaves. After Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt, he takes them to Mount Sinai where they receive the 10 commandments and the rest of the Torah. The Torah forms the bedrock of Judaism, containing detailed instructions on day-to-day living, rules by which Jews still live today. Thus, Moses is revered as the most significant Hebrew prophet, and the Exodus as the most significant event in Jewish history.
Many scholars think the Exodus took place around 1250 BCE. According to the traditional Biblical story, the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt four hundred years before the "going out."
The Birth of Moses
Before the time of Moses' birth, Hebrew tribes had lived and prospered in Egypt. But the new Pharoah of Egypt felt threatened by the strength and influence of the Israelites.
Pharaoh ordered his soldiers to enslave the Hebrew people. He set cruel taskmasters over them. Without a moment's rest, the Hebrews were forced to build the stone-cities of Pithom and Raamses.
Now, though they were oppressed, the Israelites continued to multiply. They remained a proud and spirited people. The king of Egypt, sensing their resilience, grew determined and finally commanded his people to cast every newborn Hebrew son into the Nile. He allowed the daughters to live.
During this time, in the tribe of Levi, a son was born to a couple named Arnram and Jochebed.
Just then, Pharaoh's daughter, with her maidens beside her, came down to bathe at the river. She saw the basket in the reeds and sent her maid to fetch it. When she saw the crying child, the Princess felt great pity and compassion.
"This is one of the Hebrews' children," she said.
Seeing this, the baby's sister, Miriam, came forward and asked if the Princess would need a nurse to care for the child. She agreed, and so Miriam went to fetch her mother.
"Take this child," Pharoah's daughter said to Jochebed, "and nurse him for me. I will give you wages." Unknowingly, the princess had asked the baby's own mother to raise him!
So the mother took her child and nursed him. The child grew and was brought to Pharoah's daughter and became her son. She named him Moses, which means drawn out, because she drew him out of the Nile. Moses grew up as an Egyptian prince in the luxury of Pharaoh's court.

Moses in Midian

Moses was now grown. Fortunately, his mother, Jochebed, was at his side, teaching him compassion and justice. One morning, he came upon an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly whipping a Hebrew, one of his own people. Making certain none of Pharaoh's men were watching, Moses killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
The next day, Moses attempted to settle a dispute between two Hebrews who were arguing. When he asked one of them why he hit the other, the first responded, "Will you kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Soon after, Pharoah learned of the murder and ordered the death of Moses. Fearing for his life, Moses escaped to the land of Midian.
Traveling one day, Moses came upon a well where seven women were filling troughs. These were the daughters of the priest of Midian. When some shepherds tried to drive the women away, Moses protected them. The priest heard of the Egyptian's kindness and invited him to share his home. Soon, Moses married Zipporah, one of the seven daughters. Together they had a son, Gershom, which means a stranger there. Moses chose that name because he, too, felt like "a stranger in a strange land."
In time, the king of Egypt died, but the oppression of the Israelites continued.

The Burning Bush

One day when Moses was tending his father-in-law's flock, he came to Mount Sinai deep in the desert. Suddenly, he saw a bush on fire. Strangely, though the bush burned, it was not being destroyed. When Moses came forward, God spoke to him from inside the bush.
"I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have come to deliver them out of that land, into a land flowing with milk and honey. Come now, I will send you to Pharaoh. Lead my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt."
Moses wondered why he should be the one to free the Hebrews, but God reassured him. Then, God told him to gather the Hebrew elders and to beg Pharaoh to allow them three day's journey in the desert to worship the Lord God. Then God added,
"I am sure the king of Egypt will not let you go, but I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders. After that he will let you go."
"But they will not believe me," answered Moses.
Then, God asked Moses to cast his shepherd's rod to the ground. And when he did, the rod became a snake. But when Moses retrieved the rod, it returned to its original form. Next, God had Moses place his hand to his breast. When he removed it, his hand was white and decayed like a leper's. Again he put his hand against his breast, and it became normal.
"If they believe neither of these signs," instructed the Lord, "pour water from the river on the land. The water will become blood."
Because Moses had difficulty speaking, God told him that his brother, Aaron, would speak on his behalf.

Moses Returns to Egypt

And so Moses returned to Egypt with his family and his brother, Aaron. Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh and said to him, "These are the words of the God of Israel: 'Let my people go, so that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness."'
But Pharaoh did not believe them and sent them away. His heart hardened, and that same day he gave these orders to the taskmakers: "No longer give the people straw to make bricks. Let them gather straw for themselves. But demand the same number of bricks they made before, for they have grown lazy"
After Pharaoh's command, the misery of the slaves was multiplied. Though they worked relentlessly, they could not make enough bricks. For this they were beaten and even killed. The Hebrews felt great resentment toward Moses and Aaron, for the brothers had made their plight even worse.
Moses returned to the Lord and asked him why his people had been treated so badly. Why had they not been saved? God assured Moses that the people of Israel would be freed and instructed him to return to Pharoah.

"Tell Pharaoh to send the children of Israel out of his land. Pharaoh will not listen, so I will perform many miracles and bring my people out of Egypt. And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord."

The Ten Plagues

Moses was eighty years old and Aaron was eighty-three years old when they went before Pharaoh. Upon instruction from God, Moses handed his shepherd's rod to Aaron. Aaron cast it on the ground, and the rod became a snake.
But Pharaoh was not impressed. He sent for his wise men and magicians who turned their rods into snakes. But Aaron's rod swallowed up all the others.
Because Pharaoh would not listen, God told Moses to go out in the morning to the river Nile. There, in the presence of Pharaoh, Moses handed his rod to Aaron, who struck the water. The water turned to blood. The fish died, the river smelled foul, and the Egyptians could not drink.
But again Pharaoh called upon his wise men and magicians. They, too, could turn the water to blood, and his heart remained unmoved.
Seven days later, God sent another plague. This time, when Aaron struck the river, thousands of frogs came from its banks. They swarmed Egypt, entering every corner of every house and covering the land.
Seeing this, Pharaoh called upon Moses:

"Pray to the Lord to take the frogs from my people, and I will let your people go worship in the wilderness."

Moses prayed to God accordingly, and God answered his prayer. The frogs died. But when Pharoah saw the plague had ended, he changed his mind. He would not let the people go. So God sent a plague of lice to infest the animals and people. Yet Pharaoh remained unmoved.
The plague of flies came next. Swarms descended upon the land and the houses. Only this time, the land of Goshen, where the Hebrews lived, was untouched. Seeing this, Pharoah agreed to let the Hebrews go into the wilderness. Again Moses prayed that the plague be lifted and the flies disappeared. And once more, Pharaoh did not let the Hebrews go.
Even after witnessing the next plague—the death of all Egyptian cattle—Pharaoh would not budge.
The sixth punishment was the plague of sores. Sores appeared upon the bodies of all people and beasts of Egypt. Still, Pharoah did not set the captives free.
The next plague caused terrible hail, the worst ever in Egypt. Many witnessed the death of their livestock Pharoah agreed he had sinned and that he would let the people go. But again, he broke his promlse.
When swarms of locusts invaded households and fields, the same process took place. The ninth plague caused three days' darkness to fall upon Egypt; yet still Pharoah did not listen.
Although warned of the tenth plague, Pharaoh responded only with anger. All the first-born in Egypt will die, Moses told him, including the first-born cattle. But none of the children of Israel would die.

The Night of Passover

That night, Moses instructed his people to wipe lamb's blood upon the doorways of their houses. He told them to eat the lamb and be ready to depart thereafter. The Lord, Moses said, would not bring death to their houses. Seeing the lamb's blood, God would pass over their homes.
Pharoah woke that evening to the sounds of great cries. There was not a home in Egypt where someone was not dead. Even his own son died. Finally, after ten plagues, Pharoah set the Hebrews free.
That very night, after over four hundred years captivity, the Hebrew people journeyed on foot from Raameses to Succoth.

Crossing the Sea of Reeds

God guided the Israelites as they traveled. By day, the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud. By night, a pillar of fire protected them. But it was not long before Pharoah's anger rose against his former captives. He took his army and his best armored chariots to retrieve the Hebrews. Camping beside theSea of Reeds, the Israelites saw the Egyptians marching upon them. Frightened and bitter, they asked their leader if they had escaped to the wilderness only to die. But Moses reassured them.
Moses turned in prayer to God, and God answered:

"Why do you cry to me? Tell your people to go forward. Lift up your rod and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it. And the children of Israel will go through the middle of the sea."

So Moses stretched out his hand and a strong wind blew all night. The sea divided, and the Israelites walked into the middle of it, a wall of water on either side.
The Egyptians followed, but God made the wheels of the chariots get stuck in the muddy sea bottom, slowing them down.

And when the Hebrews had crossed the Sea, God told Moses to stretch his hand over the waters again. As he did, the Sea collapsed on the pursuing Egyptians, drowning them all.

The Ten Commandments

For three months they traveled the desert. They passed through the wilderness of Shur, through Marah and Elim, the wilderness of Zin, and Rephidim. Though they were weary and the land was parched, God always provided. Finally, they came to Sinai and camped before the mountain.
Moses went up Mt. Sinai to talk with the Lord. God told him to prepare his people for a special treasure. Moses told his followers to prepare themselves with prayer, that in three days the Lord would appear on the mountain.
When the third day came, a thick cloud with thunder and lightning lay on the mountain. A trumpet called so loudly that the people trembled. Moses led them to the foot of the mountain. Then, God called the prophet to the top and delivered to him the Ten Commandments:

"I am the Lord your God.
You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make for yourself a graven image . . . you shall not bow down to them and worship them.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honor your father and mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house . . . or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

For forty days and forty nights, Moses stayed upon Mount Sinai listening to God's instructions. God told Moses laws regarding criminal behavior, destruction or theft of property, proper treatment of other people, and celebrating the Sabbath and other holidays. In addition, God instructed Moses to build a special Ark to carry the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and a holy Sanctuary, called the Tabernacle, to house the Ark and in which to make offerings of grain, fruit, and animal sacrifices to God.

The Making of the Golden Calf

Now, while Moses was upon the mountain, his people grew uneasy. Though they had been led out of Egypt, though they had witnessed miracles, they felt insecure without their leader. They turned to Aaron and begged him to make them a god so that they might not be alone.
Aaron told them to gather all their gold jewelry. Then, he melted it down and sculptured a golden calf and built an altar before it. The Israelites made offerings to the idol and celebrated.
Seeing this, God grew very angry.
"I will destroy them," God said to Moses, "and make a great nation of you alone."
But Moses pleaded with God not to destroy the Israelites, and God listened. Moses descended the mountain. He looked angrily upon his people who were dancing and singing before the golden calf. In fury, he hurled the stone tablets from his hands, and they broke at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the calf and burned it. He ground it into a powder, sprinkled it in water, and made the people drink. The children of Israel mourned in shame.
Again, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to ask forgiveness for his people. God granted them permission to continue their journey through the wilderness. God told him to make two more tablets of stone and return in the morning, and the words would again be written upon them. Moses did so and remained again forty days and nights. Though punishment came upon the guilty, God promised to have mercy and lead the Israelites into Canaan, driving out all the inhabitants of the land.
After forty years of traveling the desert wilderness, Moses finally delivered the children of Israel to the O River Jordan, bordering the land of Canaan. Their entire journey can be seen on the map titled Traditional route of the Exodus.
It was at the River Jordan, at one hundred and twenty years of age, that Moses completed his work. God told Moses he would not go into Canaan. After freeing the Hebrew slaves and leading them through the desert, it was time for him to die. He climbed Mt. Nebo, near Jericho, and God showed him the land the Israelites would inherit. The children of Israel wept for their great leader.


Traditional Route of the Exodus