The Biblical narratives are distinguished by portrayals of historical figures that lend the accounts an undeniable air of realism. Nowhere are the storiesand characters more compelling than the account in the Book of Exodus of the Israelites’ escape from the powerful Egyptian empire to which they had become slaves, and their eventual deliverance into the Promised Land of Canaan. The narrative begins in Genesis when Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, is sold into slavery by his step-brothers, and works his way up the ladder, from servant in the house of an officer of Pharaoh to virtual co-ruler of Egypt under Pharaoh. His success derives largely from his ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and thereby predict, and prepare for, a serious famine, which ensures a high place for Joseph in the Pharaoh’s government.
The Book of Exodus then begins sometime after the death of both Joseph and Pharaoh, however, when a new Egyptian ruler has become concerned about the growing presence of the Hebrews in his land and downgrades them to the status of slaves. The new Pharaoh, who has been identified historically as Rameses II, puts the Hebrews to work in his massive building program, and makes “their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field.”
The man who will lead them out of bondage, Moses is born to Hebrew parents during the stage of Egyptian captivity when all male children of the Hebrews were to be put to death at birth. Moses’ mother leaves him in a basket made of bulrushes at the riverbank, and the Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him there. But when the adult Moses sees an Egyptian beating a fellow Hebrew, he kills the man and hides his body in the sand. Found out, he flees from Egypt to the land of Midian, where God appears to him “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.” Identifying Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He promises to deliver Moses’s people “out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Exodus then recounts the stunning escape of the Israelites from Pharaoh around 1260 BCE, and Moses’ role in leading his people out through the desert and up to the Promised Land of Canaan. In the process, Moses receives for transmission to the Israelites the Ten Commandments, plus a long list of other laws, known as mitzvot, most of which have to do with making restitution for various accidental or intentional injuries to the person or livestock of one’s neighbors. (Later tradition attributed the number of these laws as 613, which does not correspond to the number of laws actually stated in the relevant books of the Bible.)
When Moses first encounters God in the burning bush in Exodus 3, and God tells Moses that He has “come down to deliver” the Israelites from the Egyptians, Moses asks by what name he should refer to God when he reports his vision to the people. God answers, “Eheish Asher Eheieh,” (“I Am Who I Am” or “I Am What I Am”), and goes on, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”