Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

Evidence of Deliberate Literary Structure in Sefer Shemot

There is a clear literary structure to the Book of Exodus. It runs far deeper than just the bare outline of the tale, opening with the enslaved Israelites being forced to build pyramids for Pharaoh and ending with them liberated, voluntarily constructing a tabernacle for God. The details of the plot, and the very choice of vocabulary itself indicates a deliberate contrast between the first and second halves of the book.

We would expect a transformation in the character both of Moses and Israelites as the narrative progresses from slavery to freedom. The evidence for literary structure is in the way the transformed characters are enhanced images of their earlier selves. Compare Moses the baby, abandoned in the bulrushes, alone and without sustenance, vulnerable to both Pharaoh and nature, with Moses the sage, alone on the mountain, forty days without food and water.  Physically invulnerable, his fear now is not the Egyptians but the Almighty.

Or contrast the Moses who slays an Egyptian, quarrels with his fellow Hebrews and feels the need to flee, with the Moses who, on descending from the mountain and seeing the Golden Calf, rebukes the Hebrews and gives orders to slay the offenders. Or again, compare Moses the shepherd who shrinks from God’s command at the burning bush, with Moses the leader of people who speaks back to God and has the chutzpah to ask to see his face.

As for the Hebrews, the Torah dwells at length on the rigours of their slavery but dismisses, in just half a sentence, their task of building Pitom and Rameses, Pharaoh’s two treasure cities.  Yet when it comes to its description of the building of the Tabernacle, in place of slavery we twice have the injunction to rest, to keep Shabbat. As for their task, the Torah dedicates no less than thirteen chapters to the construction of the building, its furnishings and ritual appurtenances; repeating the details twice. In both slavery and freedom their tasks were to construct edifices, but it is the contrast between their descriptions that points to deliberate literary structure.

When they were slaves, the Hebrews were forced to go into the fields to gather straw to make bricks to build Pharaoh’s cities, when they built the Tabernacle they donated the materials voluntarily. The culmination of the flight to freedom is recounted as a mirror image of the story of servitude.

We see a similar transformation in the words the Torah selects to tell its tale. As slaves, the people are referred to as Hebrews, as free people they are the Children of Israel. The word Hebrews is a loose epithet, meaning something akin to ‘the people from over there’. Children of Israel on the other hand is an acknowledgement of their ancestry and status.

At the Burning Bush Moses is told to gather the Hebrews and announce the redemption. The word used for to gather is asf, which has the sense of rounding up or collecting. But when he gathers them prior to building the tabernacle, the verb used is khl with its the sense of congregating. He now calls them adt, a congregation, previously they were just ‘my people’. From a disparate group of slaves they have become a unitary nation.

God’s instructions to the enslaved Hebrews are conveyed through the word pkd, a term which appeals to their emotions, conveying a direct, personal sense of remembering or visiting. When they are free their emotional dependence on God is transformed into one of obligation; now the word used is tzvh, or command.

There is much more. The genius of the Bible is that it does not only convey its messages through grand ideas and sweeping statements. Its meaning can also be found in the details and nuances of the individual words. In several places the Talmud speaks of God decorating the letters of the Torah with crowns; jots and tittles as the Christian Bible calls them. Rabbi Akiva would expound even these decorations. The Bible operates on many levels. Jots and tittles are one. Literary structure is just one.

My latest book on the history of the Kabbalah has just been published by Bloomsbury UK and will be published in the USA in May. My earlier book, The Talmud: A Biography is now available in paperback. More info at

About the Author
My latest book, Reason to Believe is the authorised biography of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs. Louis Jacobs was Britain’s most gifted Jewish scholar. A Talmudic genius, outstanding teacher and accomplished author, cultured and easy-going, he was widely expected to become Britain’s next Chief Rabbi. Then controversy struck. The Chief Rabbi refused to appoint him as Principal of Jews’ College, the country’s premier rabbinic college. He further forbade him from returning as rabbi to his former synagogue. All because of a book Jacobs had written some years earlier, challenging from a rational perspective the traditional belief in the origins of the Torah. The British Jewish community was torn apart. It was a scandal unlike anything they had ever previously endured. The national media loved it. Jacobs became a cause celebre, a beacon of reason, a humble man who wouldn’t be compromised. His congregation resigned en masse and created a new synagogue for him in Abbey Road, the heart of fashionable 1970s London. It became the go-to venue for Jews seeking reasonable answers to questions of faith. A prolific author of over 50 books and hundreds of articles on every aspect of Judaism, from the basics of religious belief to the complexities of mysticism and law, Louis Jacobs won the heart and affection of the mainstream British Jewish community. When the Jewish Chronicle ran a poll to discover the Greatest British Jew, Jacobs won hands down. He said it made him feel daft. Reason To Believe tells the dramatic and touching story of Louis Jacobs’s life, and of the human drama lived out by his family, deeply wounded by his rejection. Reason to Believe was published by Bloomsbury Continuum in November 2020 in the UK and will be published on 12 January 2021 in the USA. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at