The Exodus

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Departure of the Israelites (David Roberts, 1829) David Roberts-IsraelitesLeavingEgypt 1828.jpg
Departure of the Israelites (David Roberts, 1829)

The Exodus is the charter myth of the Israelites. [1] [lower-alpha 1] Spread over the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it tells the myth of the enslavement of the Israelites in ancient Egypt, their liberation through the hand of their tutelary deity Yahweh, the revelations at biblical Mount Sinai, and their wanderings in the wilderness up to the borders of Canaan, the land their god has given them. [2]


Its message is that Israel was delivered from slavery by Yahweh, and therefore belongs to him through the Mosaic covenant. The covenant's terms are that Yahweh will protect his chosen people, as long as they will keep his laws and exclusively worship him. [1] [3] The Exodus and its laws remain central to Judaism, recounted daily in Jewish prayers and celebrated in festivals such as Passover, as well as resonating with non-Jewish groups, from early American settlers fleeing persecution in Europe to African Americans striving for freedom and civil rights. [4] Jan Assmann refers to it as possibly "the most grandiose and influential story ever told." [5]

The consensus of modern scholars is that the Bible does not give an accurate account of the origins of Israel, which formed as an entity in the central highlands of Canaan in the late second millennium BCE from the indigenous Canaanite culture. [6] [7] [8] Most scholars believe that the story of the Exodus has some historical basis, but that any such basis has little resemblance to the story told in the Bible. [9] [10] There is a widespread agreement that the composition of the Torah or Pentateuch, the biblical books which contain the Exodus narrative, took place in the Middle Persian Period (5th century BCE), [11] although the traditions behind it are older and can be found in the writings of the 8th-century BCE prophets. [12] [13]

Biblical narrative


Israel in Egypt (Edward Poynter, 1867) 1867 Edward Poynter - Israel in Egypt.jpg
Israel in Egypt (Edward Poynter, 1867)

The story of the Exodus is told in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the last four of the first five books of the bible (also called the Torah or Pentateuch). In first book of the Pentateuch, the Book of Genesis, the Israelites had come to live in Egypt in the Land of Goshen during a famine due to the fact that an Israelite, Joseph, had become a high official in the court of the pharaoh. Exodus begins with the deaths of Joseph and the ascension of a new pharaoh "who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). The pharaoh becomes concerned by the number and strength of Israelites in Egypt and enslaves them, commanding them to build at two "supply cities" called Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1:11). [lower-alpha 2] The pharaoh also orders the slaughter at birth of all male Hebrew children. One Hebrew child, however, is rescued by being placed in a basket on the Nile. He is found and adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, who names him Moses. Moses eventually kills an Egyptian he sees beating a Hebrew slave, and is forced to flee to Midian, marrying a daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro. The old pharaoh dies and a new one ascends to the throne.

Moses, in Midian, goes to Mount Horeb, where Yahweh appears in a Burning Bush and commands him to go to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves and bring them to the promised land in Canaan. Yahweh also speaks to Moses's brother Aaron; they both assemble the Israelites and perform signs so that they believe in Yahweh's promise. Moses and Aaron then go to the Pharaoh and ask him to let the Israelites go into the desert for a religious festival, but the Pharaoh refuses and commands the Israelites to make bricks without straw and increases their workload. Moses and Aaron return to the Pharaoh and this time ask him to free the Israelites. The Pharaoh demands for Moses to perform a miracle, and Aaron throws down Moses' staff, which turns into a snake; however, the Pharaoh's magicians [lower-alpha 3] are also able to do this, though Moses' staff devours the others. The Pharaoh then refuses to let the Israelites go.

Illustration of the Exodus from Egypt by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907 Israel's Escape from Egypt.jpg
Illustration of the Exodus from Egypt by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907

After this, Yahweh begins inflicting the Plagues of Egypt on the Egyptians for each time that Moses goes to Pharaoh and Pharaoh refuses to release the Israelites. Pharaoh's magicians are able to replicate the first plagues, in which Yahweh turns the Nile to blood and produces a plague of frogs, but are unable to reproduce any plagues after the third, the plague of gnats. After each plague Pharaoh allows the Israelites to worship Yahweh to remove the plague, then refuses to free them. In the final plague, Yahweh kills all the firstborn children of Egypt, but the Israelites, who have been commanded to kill one lamb per family and smear its blood on their doorposts, are spared. Yahweh commands that the Israelites observe a festival as "a perpetual ordinance" to remember this event (Exodus 12:14). Pharaoh finally agrees to let the Israelites go after his firstborn son is killed. Yahweh leads the Israelites in the form of a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night. However, once the Israelites have already left, Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues the Israelites to the shore of the Red Sea. Moses uses his staff to part the Red Sea, and the Israelites cross on dry ground, but the sea closes down on the pursuing Egyptians, drowning them all.

The Israelites now begin to complain about Aaron and Moses, as Yahweh miraculously provided them first with water and food, eventually raining manna down for them to eat. Amalek attacks at Rephidim but is defeated in battle. Jethro comes to Moses with Moses's wife and sons; on Jethro's advice, Moses appoints judges for the tribes of Israel. The Israelites reach the Sinai Desert and Yahweh calls Moses to Mount Sinai, where Yahweh reveals himself to his people and establishes the Ten Commandments and Mosaic covenant: the Israelites are to keep his torah (i.e. law, instruction), and in return he will give them the land of Canaan. Yahweh establishes the Aaronic priesthood and various rules for ritual worship, among other laws. However, in Moses's absence the Israelites sin against Yahweh by creating the idol of a golden calf, and as retaliation Yahweh has the Levites kill three thousand people (Exodus 32:28) and Yahweh sends a plague on the Israelites. The Israelites now accept the covenant, build a tabernacle for Yahweh, and receive their laws. Yahweh commands Moses to take a census of the Israelites and establishes the duties of the Levites. Then the Israelites depart from Mount Sinai.

Yahweh commands Moses to send twelve spies ahead to Canaan to scout the land. The spies discover that the Canaanites are strong, and, believing that the Israelites cannot defeat them, the spies falsely report to the Israelites that Canaan is full of giants so that the Israelites will not invade (Numbers 13:31-33). The Israelites refuse to go to Canaan, so Yahweh manifests himself and declares that the generation that left Egypt will have to pass away before the Israelites can enter Canaan. The Israelites will have to remain in the wilderness for forty years, and Yahweh kills the spies through a plague except for the righteous Joshua and Caleb, who will be allowed to enter the promised land. A group of Israelites led by Korah, son of Izhar, rebels against Moses, but Yahweh opens the earth and sends them living to Sheol.

The Israelites come to the oasis of Kadesh Barnea, where Miriam dies. The people are without water, so Yahweh commands Moses to get water from a rock by speaking to it, but Moses strikes the rock with his staff instead, for which Yahweh forbids him from entering the promised land. Moses sends a messenger to the king of Edom requesting passage through his land to Canaan, but the king refuses. The Israelites then go to Mount Hor, where Aaron dies. The Israelites try to go around Edom, but the Israelites complain about lack of bread and water, so Yahweh sends a plague of poisonous snakes to afflict them. After Moses prays for deliverance, Yahweh has him create the brazen serpent, and the Israelites who look at it are cured. The Israelites are soon in conflict with various other kingdoms, and king Balak of Moab attempts to have the seer Balaam curse the Israelites, but Balaam blesses the Israelites instead. Some Israelites begin having sexual relations with Moabite women and worshipping Moabite gods, so Yahweh orders Moses to impale the idolators and sends a plague, but the full extent of Yahweh's wrath is averted when Phinehas impales an Israelite and a Midianite woman having intercourse (Numbers 25:7-9). Yahweh commands the Israelites to destroy the Midianites and Moses and Phinehas take another census. They then conquer the lands of Og and Sihon in Transjordan, settling the Gadites, Reubenites, and half the Tribe of Manasseh there.

Moses then addresses the Israelites for a final time on the banks of the Jordan River, reviewing their travels and giving them further laws. Yahweh tells Moses to summon Joshua, whom Yahweh commissions to lead the conquest of Canaan. Yahweh tells Moses to ascend Mount Nebo, from where he sees the promised land and where he dies.

Covenant and law

The climax of the Exodus is the covenant (binding legal agreement) between God and Israel mediated by Moses at Sinai: Yahweh will protect Israel as his chosen people for all time, and Israel will keep Yahweh's laws and worship only him. [3] The covenant is described in stages: at Exodus 24:3–8 the Israelites agree to abide by the "book of the covenant" that Moses has just read to them; shortly afterwards God writes the "words of the covenant" – the Ten Commandments – on stone tablets; and finally, as the people gather in Moab to cross into Canaan, the land God has promised them, Moses makes a new covenant between Yahweh and Israel "beside the covenant he made with them at Horeb" (Deuteronomy 29:1). [16] The laws are set out in a number of codes: [17]

Development and final composition

Ezra Reads the Law to the People (Gustave Dore's illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours, 1866) 109.Ezra Reads the Law to the People.jpg
Ezra Reads the Law to the People (Gustave Doré's illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours, 1866)

The earliest traces of the traditions behind the exodus appear in the northern prophets Amos (possibly) and Hosea (certainly), both active in the 8th century BCE in northern Israel, but their southern contemporaries Isaiah and Micah show no knowledge of an exodus. [12] (Micah 6:45 contains a reference to the exodus, which many scholars take to be an addition by a later editor.) [lower-alpha 4] There is evidence in the Bible itself (mainly in the Books of Kings) that the Exodus from Egypt formed a "foundational mythology" or "state ideology" for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. [19] Nadav Na'aman argues that it is nevertheless not credible that the story was totally unknown in the south, given the incredible political importance it was to assume for the southern kingdom, as evidenced by reference to it in the Song of the Sea, as well as Psalm 78 and Psalm 114. [20] The story may, therefore, have originated a few centuries earlier, perhaps in the 9th or 10th BCE, and there are signs that it took different forms in Israel, in the Transjordan region, and in the southern Kingdom of Judah before being unified in the Persian era. [21] There is widespread agreement, moreover, that the notion of the revelation of the law in Deuteronomy was originally separate from the Exodus: [22] the original version of Deuteronomy is generally dated to the 7th century BCE. [23] The contents of the books of Leviticus and Numbers are late additions to the narrative by priestly sources. [24] The Exodus narrative was most likely further altered and expanded under the influence of the return from the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE. [20]

Scholars broadly agree that the publication of the Torah (or Pentateuch) took place in the mid-Persian period (the 5th century BCE), echoing a traditional Jewish view which gives Ezra, the leader of the Jewish community on its return from Babylon, a pivotal role in its promulgation. [25] Many theories have been advanced to explain the composition of the first five books of the Bible, but two have been especially influential. [26] The first of these, Persian Imperial authorisation, advanced by Peter Frei in 1985, holds that the Persian authorities required the Jews of Jerusalem to present a single body of law as the price of local autonomy. [27] Frei's theory was demolished at an interdisciplinary symposium held in 2000, but the relationship between the Persian authorities and Jerusalem remains a crucial question. [28] The second theory, associated with Joel P. Weinberg and called the "Citizen-Temple Community", proposes that the Exodus story was composed to serve the needs of a post-exilic Jewish community organised around the Temple, which acted in effect as a bank for those who belonged to it. [29] The books containing the Exodus story served as an "identity card" defining who belonged to this community (i.e., to Israel), thus reinforcing Israel's unity through its new institutions. [30]

Origins and historicity

There are two main positions on the historicity of the Exodus in modern scholarship. [6] The majority position is that the biblical Exodus narrative has some ultimate historicity, although there is little of historical worth in the biblical narrative. [10] [9] [1] The other main position, often associated with the school of Biblical minimalism, [31] is that the Exodus has no historical basis. Both positions are in agreement that the biblical Exodus narrative is best understood as a founding myth of the Jewish people, explaining their origins and providing an ideological foundation for their culture and institutions, not an accurate depiction of the history of the Israelites. [32] [1] A third position, that the biblical narrative is essentially correct ("Biblical maximalism"), is today held by "few, if any [...] in mainstream scholarship, only on the more fundamentalist fringes." [6]

Mainstream scholarship no longer accepts the biblical Exodus account as accurate history for a number of reasons. No modern attempt to identify a historical Egyptian prototype for Moses has found wide acceptance, and no period in Egyptian history matches the Biblical accounts of the Exodus. [33] Some elements of the story are clearly meant to be miraculous and defy rational explanation, such as the Plagues of Egypt and the Crossing of the Red Sea. [34] Lester Grabbe argues that "attempts to find naturalistic explanations [for these events] [...] miss the point: the aim of the narrative is to magnify the power of Yhwh and Moses." [35] The Bible also fails to mention the names of any of the Pharaohs involved in the Exodus narrative. [36] While ancient Egyptian texts from the New Kingdom mention "Asiatics" living in Egypt as slaves and workers, these people cannot be securely connected to the Israelites, and no contemporary Egyptian text mentions a large-scale exodus of slaves like that described in the Bible. [37] The earliest surviving historical mention of the Israelites, the Egyptian Merneptah Stele (c. 1207 BCE), appears to place them in or around Canaan and gives no indication of any exodus. [38] The numbers of people involved in the Exodus as given in the Bible are fanciful, as the Sinai Desert could never have supported the 603,550 Israelites mentioned in Numbers 1:46. [39] Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman say that while archaeology has found traces left by small bands of hunter-gatherers in the Sinai, there is no evidence at all for the large body of people described in the Exodus story: "The conclusion – that Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible – seems irrefutable [...] repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided even the slightest evidence." [40] Instead, modern archaeology suggests continuity between Canaanite and Israelite settlement, indicating a primarily Canaanite origin for Israel. [41] [42]

A majority of scholars nevertheless still believes that the Exodus has some historical basis, [9] [10] with Kenton Sparks referring to it as "mythologized history." [1] Evidence in favor of historical traditions forming a background to the Exodus myth include the documented movements of small groups of Ancient Semitic-speaking peoples into and out of Egypt during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, some elements of Egyptian folklore and culture in the Exodus narrative, [43] and the names Moses, Aaron and Phinehas, which seem to have an Egyptian origin. [44] The expulsion of the Hyksos, a Semitic group that had conquered much of Egypt, by the Seventeenth Dynasty of Egypt is frequently discussed as a potential historical parallel or origin for the story. [45] [46] [47] Avraham Faust and William Dever argue that a group of Egyptian origin, whom Dever cautiously identifies as "the house of Joseph", [48] may have joined the Israelites after their initial formation in Canaan, and that their story could have become adopted as the national myth of the Israelites. [49] [50] It is also possible that oppressive Egyptian rule of Canaan during the late second millennium BCE may have aided the adoption of the story of a small group of Egyptian refugees by the native Canaanites among the Israelites. [45] Most proposals for a historical Exodus of any sort place it in the sixteenth, fifteenth, or thirteenth centuries BCE. [51] Alternatively, Nadav Na'aman argues that oppressive Egyptian rule of Canaan during the Nineteenth and especially the Twentieth Dynasty may have inspired the Exodus narrative, forming a "collective memory" of Egyptian oppression that was transferred from Canaan to Egypt itself in the popular consciousness. [52]

Some scholars, including the biblical minimalists, show more skepticism toward ascribing any historicity at all to the exodus, [53] with some arguing that the myth has its origins in the exilic and post-exilic Jewish community and has little to no historical basis. [54] Lester Grabbe, for instance, argues that "[t]here is no compelling reason that the exodus has to be rooted in history," [55] and that the details of the story more closely fit the seventh through the fifth centuries BCE than the traditional dating to the second millennium BCE. [56] Rejecting the traditional view that the Exodus records pre-exilic traditions, Philip R. Davies suggests that the story may have been inspired by the return to Israel of Israelites and Judaeans who were placed in Egypt as garrison troops by the Assyrians in the fifth and sixth centuries BCE. [57] Historian Graham Davies has criticized minimalist scholars for relying too heavily on archaeology, stating "a historian cannot simply ignore the textual evidence (both biblical and non-biblical) that is relevant to an issue, and in this case the textual evidence purports, at least, to give a different view from that which archaeologists now tend to favor (or most of them, anyway)." [58]

Cultural significance

A Seder table setting, commemorating the Passover and Exodus A Seder table setting.jpg
A Seder table setting, commemorating the Passover and Exodus

The Exodus is invoked daily in Jewish prayers and celebrated each year at the feasts of Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot, the two being known respectively as "the time of our freedom" and "the time our Torah was given". [59] The two are closely linked, with Pesach announcing that the freedom it introduces is only fully realised with the giving of the law (the Torah). [59] A third Jewish festival, Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, is associated with the Israelites living in booths after they left their previous homes in Egypt. [59] The festivals now associated with the Exodus (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) began as agricultural and seasonal feasts but became completely subsumed into the central Exodus myth of Israel's deliverance from oppression at the hands of God. [59] The fringes worn at the corners of traditional Jewish prayer shawls are described as a physical reminder of the obligation to observe the laws given at the climax of Exodus: "Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord" (Numbers). [60]

A number of historical events and situations have been compared to the Exodus. Many early American settlers interpreted their flight from Europe to a new life in America as a new exodus. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin recommended for the Great Seal of the United States to depict Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. African Americans suffering under slavery and racial oppression interpreted their situation in terms of the Exodus, making it a catalyst for social change. [61] [62] [63]

See also


  1. The name "exodus" is from Greek ἔξοδος exodos, "going out". For "myth" see Sparks, 2010, p. 73: "Charter (i.e., foundation) myths tell the story of a society's origins, and, in doing so, provide the ideological foundations for the culture and its institutions." [1]
  2. The Septuagint version includes a reference to a third "supply city": " On, which is Heliopolis" (LXX Exodus 1:11, trans. Larry J. Perkins).
  3. These magicians are referred to in the Hebrew text as ḥartummîm, which derives from Ancient Egyptian ḥrj-tp (Demotic p-hritob, Akkadian: ḥar-tibi) a title meaning "chief" and shortened from "chief lector priest". [14] The Pharaoh's magicians are able to replicate Moses and Aaron's actions until the third plague (gnats), when they are the first to recognize that a divine power is at work (Exodus 8:19). In plague four (festering boils), they themselves are afflicted and no longer contest with Moses and Aaron. [15]
  4. Micah 6:45 ("I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord”) is a late addition to the original book. See , [18] Miller II, Robert D. (25 November 2013). Illuminating Moses: A History of Reception from Exodus to the Renaissance. BRILL. p. 19. ISBN   978-90-04-25854-9., McDermott, John J. (2002). Reading the Pentateuch: A Historical Introduction. Paulist Press. p. 90. ISBN   978-0-8091-4082-4., McKenzie, Steven L. (15 September 2005). How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature--Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference and What It Means for Faith Today . Oxford University Press. p.  78. ISBN   978-0-19-803655-5., Collins, John J. (15 April 2018). Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: Third Edition. Augsburg Fortress, Publishers. p. 354. ISBN   978-1-5064-4605-9. Many scholars assume that the appeal to the exodus here is the work of a Deuteronomistic editor, but this is not necessarily so. and Wolff, Hans Walter (1990). Micah: A Commentary. Augsburg. p. 23. ISBN   978-0-8066-2449-5. apud Hamborg, Graham R. (24 May 2012). Still Selling the Righteous: A Redaction-critical Investigation of Reasons for Judgment in Amos 2.6-16. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 156–157. ISBN   978-0-567-04860-8.

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Sparks 2010, p. 73.
  2. Redmount 2001, p. 59.
  3. 1 2 Bandstra 2008, p. 28-29.
  4. Berlin & Brettler 2004.
  5. Assmann 2018, p. 1.
  6. 1 2 3 Grabbe 2017, p. 36.
  7. Meyers 2005, pp. 6–7.
  8. Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 81.
  9. 1 2 3 Faust 2015, p. 476.
  10. 1 2 3 Redmount 2001, p. 87.
  11. Romer 2008, p. 2.
  12. 1 2 Lemche 1985, p. 327.
  13. Redmount 2001, p. 63.
  14. Assmann 2018, p. 139.
  15. Assmann 2018, pp. 139-142.
  16. McKenzie 2000, p. 4–5.
  17. Bandstra 2008, p. 146.
  18. Lemche 1985, p. 315.
  19. Assmann 2018, p. 50.
  20. 1 2 Na'aman 2011, p. 40.
  21. Russell 2009, p. 1.
  22. Assmann 2018, p. 204.
  23. Grabbe 2017, p. 49.
  24. Dever 2001, p. 99.
  25. Romer 2008, p. 2 and fn.3.
  26. Ska 2006, pp. 217.
  27. Ska 2006, pp. 218.
  28. Eskenazi 2009, p. 86.
  29. Ska 2006, pp. 226–227.
  30. Ska 2006, p. 225.
  31. Davies 2004, p. 23-24.
  32. Collins 2005, p. 46.
  33. Grabbe 2014, pp. 63-64.
  34. Dever 2003, pp. 15-17.
  35. Grabbe 2017, p. 93.
  36. Grabbe 2014, p. 69.
  37. Barmash 2015b, pp. 2-3.
  38. Grabbe 2014, pp. 65-67.
  39. Dever 2003, pp. 18-19.
  40. Finkelstein & Silberman 2001, p. 63.
  41. Barmash 2015b, p. 4.
  42. Shaw 2002, p. 313.
  43. Meyers 2005, pp. 8-10.
  44. Redmount 2001, p. 65.
  45. 1 2 Faust 2015, p. 477.
  46. Redmount 2001, p. 78.
  47. Redford 1992, pp. 412–413.
  48. Dever 2003, p. 231.
  49. Faust 2015, pp. 476–477.
  50. Dever 2003, pp. 229–231.
  51. Redmount 2001, p. 77.
  52. Na'aman 2011, pp. 62-69.
  53. Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 95.
  54. Russell 2009, pp. 11-14.
  55. Grabbe 2014, p. 84.
  56. Grabbe 2014, p. 85.
  57. Davies 2015, p. 105.
  58. Davies 2004, p. 25.
  59. 1 2 3 4 Tigay 2004, p. 106.
  60. Sarason 2015, p. 53.
  61. Tigay 2004, p. 107.
  62. Assmann 2018, p. 335.
  63. Coomber 2012, p. 123.


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