Leon R. Kass—
Exodus, the second of the Five Books of Moses (The Torah), contains some of the most famous stories in Western literature: the enslavement of the Children of Israel by Pharaoh in Egypt, the rescue of baby Moses from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter, God’s call to Moses out of the burning bush, the ten plagues that God sends against the Egyptians, the midnight exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt as God passes over their houses while slaying every Egyptian firstborn, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, manna from heaven in the wilderness, God’s pronouncement of the Ten Commandments at Sinai, Israel’s worship of the golden calf, and the building of the Tabernacle, a sanctuary for the Lord. Yet the power of these stories lies not only in their drama. They are here because each plays an indispensable part in the book’s overarching purpose: to narrate the birth of the Israelite nation and to present the moral-political founding of a people called to carry God’s Way for humankind. Exodus is therefore a work of enormous importance, both for the Bible as a book and for the world that bears its influence.
Within the Hebrew Bible, Exodus is the foundational political text. It moves us from the anarchic familial world of the patriarchs in Genesis to a new order of law and peoplehood. The rest of the Bible explores the trials and tribulations of the Israelite nation in the world that Exodus brings into being. Those books recount their turbulent wanderings in the wilderness, their entrance into the Promised Land, their battles with their enemies, their internal struggles and divisions, and their efforts—mainly failures—to follow the Law they received in Exodus. Yet even in times of decay and decline, the Founding Law given in Exodus remains a benchmark. When, centuries later, the prophets chastise the people for their moral failings, they do so in the name of the Torah, summoning them to return to God’s Way.
Exodus has played an enormous part in the history of the world, well beyond its role in forming the people of Israel. Its stories and teachings have attracted followers and served as models for other “Israels,” beginning with Christianity, which regarded itself as the “New Israel” and which eventually brought the Ten Commandments to much of the world. Ideas first put forth in Exodus—the principles of human dignity and human equality; the demand for justice, tempered by mercy; the injunctions to honor one’s father and mother, to care for the vulnerable, and to respect the stranger; the summons to righteousness and holiness— became the moral, political, and spiritual wellsprings of Western civilization. For more than two millennia, the teachings of Exodus have guided millions of human beings, and its moral and political influence on the peoples of the West is unsurpassed. For it is the story of a particular nation with universal—and permanent—significance. And if read philosophically, Exodus still offers thoughtful readers rich material for thinking about nation-building and people formation, slavery and freedom, morality and law, man and God.
From Founding God’s Nation by Leon R. Kass. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Leon R. Kass is the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago. His books include The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis.