In Exodus 17:14 Moses is commanded to “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (all verses are in ESV, unless otherwise stated, with the emphases mine). This is the first place in the Bible that Moses is told to write something down (the first place anyone is told to write something down, for that matter).
It certainly won’t be the last time Moses is told to write.
Traditionally, the first five books of the Bible – called the Pentateuch, or sometimes the Torah – have been ascribed to the hand of Moses. This would, of course, include the book of Exodus. But did Moses actually write Exodus?
Formally, the book is anonymous, meaning that it does not begin or end with, “The words that Moses wrote,” or the like. It’s not like the New Testament epistles, almost all of which begin with the author’s name. Exodus just begins (just as all the other narrative books in the Bible).
So why do we think Moses wrote this book, as well as four others? To deal mainly with Exodus, we see that there are several occasions in the book when Moses is told to write something down. God originally writes the 10 Commandments for Moses with His own finger, carving them into two slabs of stone (Ex 31:18). Later, after Moses smashes them at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when the second set of 10 Commandments is made, the text tells us that Moses wrote the words on the slabs (34:28).
In Exodus 21:1, right after God gives Moses the 10 Commandments, God tells Moses that “these are the rules that you shall set before them.” God is referring to the so-called Book of the Covenant (or the Covenant Code), which is made up of all the laws set forth from chapters 21-23. The text then explicitly says in 24:4, after God is finished dictating the covenant commands to Moses, that “Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD.”
Traveling forward to chapter 34 once again. Much of chapter 34 is a reiteration of certain parts of the Book of the Covenant, with God selecting certain representative parts of the earlier Law Code to reestablish the covenant He made with Israel that they had so badly failed with the sin of the Golden Calf (ch 32). After this reiteration, Moses is again told to “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel” (34:27).
So at the absolute minimum, if we are to take the words of Exodus at face value (which not all people do – but that’s not a topic nor a presupposition that I am dealing with in this blog), then we can conclude that Moses wrote down for Israel 1) the inscription on the altar (17:14), 2) the 10 Commandments (ch 20), 3) the Covenant Code (chs 21-23), and 4) the reiteration of the Covenant Code (ch 34).
But this is not all we can say, for we also have the testimony of the rest of the Old and New Testament for support.
Countless times in the Old Testament, the Pentateuch or part thereof is referred to as “The Book of Moses” or “The Law of Moses” or something similar (ex: Josh 23:6, 2 Kgs 14:6, 2 Chr 8:13, 25:4, Ezra 3:2, Neh 8:1, Dan 9:11, etc.). So the uniform voice of the Old Testament associates the Law/Pentateuch with Moses. The unanimous understanding of the other authors of Scripture and early Jews (not to mention Church History) was that Moses wrote the Pentateuch.
Does the New Testament back this up as well? It sure does!
Mark 12:19 shows a Sadducee (a religious ruler) starting a conversation with Jesus by saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife…” He is referring here to a law in Deuteronomy 25:5. Jesus’s response then includes the sentence, “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush…” (Mk 12:26). This is a clear reference to the book of Exodus. So in this one passage from Mark, both Exodus and Deuteronomy are attributed to Mosaic authorship or origin.
Perhaps one of the strongest statements in the New Testament comes right from the mouth of Jesus in John 5:46-47: “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” It doesn’t get much clearer than that! Notice how Jesus plainly assumes Mosaic authorship here, and I would argue that He’s referring to authorship of the entire Pentateuch, for over and over again in the New Testament the Pentateuch as a whole is referred to simply as “Moses” (see Luke 24:27, 44 for a good example of this). They are nearly interchangeable terms, since Moses was the author of the Pentateuch. Jesus also in John 5 uses the plural, “writings.” Multiple books or documents. He didn’t write just the Covenant Code or just the 10 Commandments. There were multiple books he wrote.
The bottom line is, if we want to say Exodus was written by anyone other than Moses himself, John 5 alone would force us to call Jesus a liar. The voice of the Bible clearly attributes the first five books to Moses.
I will deal with one general reaction to this line of thinking. The critic might point to several verses in the Pentateuch or Exodus that seem to indicate an author other than Moses. Here are a few examples:
Genesis 36:31 These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.
Numbers 12:3 Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.
Deuteronomy 34:7 Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated.
The Genesis example is found in a genealogy, where it mentions many kings that reigned in Edom. It seems to assume knowledge that the audience is living in a time when there were kings in Israel. But the first king of Israel (Saul) didn’t reign until hundreds of years after Moses died.
The Numbers example claims that Moses was the most humble/meek man who walked the earth. Would the world’s most humble man write a statement about being the world’s most humble man?
The Deuteronomy example records Moses’s death, and the next verse even includes 30 days of mourning after his death. Furthermore, verse 10 of the same chapter seems to point to a time in the distant future of Moses’s life; otherwise, it is a flat statement.
What are we to make of verses like these (and there are others)? There are several typical options. The first is simply that Moses did indeed write them. He wrote them prophetically, under the inspiration of God. If we believe in prophecy and miracles and the power of God to work through His people, this option cannot be ruled out.
The other way to look at this is to say that Moses didn’t write these particular verses. Someone came along and edited them later, perhaps Joshua, perhaps David, perhaps Ezra. But they were edited or added under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We can still attribute these books to Moses, generally speaking, in the same way we might contribute a movie to a certain director that has its special effects later touched up by another person many decades later. We would still attribute the movie to the original director, even though another has come along and worked some modern updates (perhaps even sanctioned by the original production house, to keep with the divine inspiration analogy. Also, I should note that I owe the influence of this analogy to Dr. Gary Schnittjer, a professor at Cairn University). We can easily imagine Joshua (again, under the inspired guidance of God) finishing the end of Deuteronomy after Moses passed away.
There are other ways to look at these challenges, some exegetical and specific to the passages, and others broader. But I would say that the bottom line is still the bottom line: we can, with the confidence of Jesus, say that Moses is the author of Exodus.
For those interested, I am including a link here to an article that outlines Dr. Andy Davis’s method for memorizing Scripture (he’s the guy that’s memorized 42 books of the Bible!).