The Exodus

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This article is about the events related in the Torah. For the second book of the Torah and the Old Testament, see Book of Exodus. For other uses, see Exodus (disambiguation).
Departure of the Israelites, by David Roberts, 1829

The Exodus (from Greek ἔξοδος exodos, "going out"; Hebrew: יְצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם yetzi'at mitzrayim) is the founding, or etiological, myth of Israel, telling how the Israelites were delivered from slavery by Yahweh and therefore belong to him through the Mosaic covenant.[1][lower-alpha 1] Spread over the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it tells of the events that befell the Israelites following the death of Joseph, their departure from Egypt, and their wanderings in the wilderness, including the revelations at Sinai, up to their arrival at the borders of Canaan.[2]

The archeological evidence does not support the historical accuracy of the biblical story.[3] The story was not intended to be understood as history in the modern sense, but rather to demonstrate God's actions in the history by recalling Israel's bondage and salvation and the fulfillment of Israel's covenant.[4] The opinion of the overwhelming majority of modern scholars is that it was shaped in the post-Exilic period,[5] but the traditions behind it are older and can be traced in the writings of the 8th century BC prophets.[6] It is unclear how far beyond that the tradition might stretch, and its substance, accuracy and date are obscured by centuries of transmission.[4]

The Exodus is central to Judaism, and even today it is recounted daily in Jewish prayers and celebrated in the festival of Passover.[7] For Christians by contrast it has always been read as reliable history, a history which begins with the Creation of the world and leads to the Resurrection of Christ. In addition, the Exodus has served as an inspiration and model for many non-Jewish groups, from early Protestant settlers fleeing persecution in Europe to African-Americans striving for freedom and civil rights.[7]

Narrative summary

The story of the Exodus is told in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the last four of the five books of the Torah (also called the Pentateuch). It tells of the events that befell the Israelites following the death of Joseph, their departure from Egypt, and their wanderings in the wilderness, including the revelations at Sinai, up to their arrival at the borders of Canaan.[2] The story begins with the Israelites in slavery in Egypt.[8] Moses leads them out of Egypt and through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, where Yahweh reveals himself and offers them a Covenant: they are to keep his torah (i.e. law, instruction), and in return he will be their God and give them the land of Canaan.[8] The Book of Leviticus records the laws of God.[8] The Book of Numbers tells how the Israelites, led now by their God, journey on from Sinai towards Canaan, but when their spies report that the land is filled with giants they refuse to go on and Yahweh condemns them to remain in the desert until the generation that left Egypt passes away.[8] After thirty-eight years at the oasis of Kadesh Barnea the next generation travel on to the borders of Canaan, where Moses addresses them for the final time and gives them further laws.[8] The Exodus ends with the death of Moses on Mount Nebo and his burial by God, while the Israelites prepare for the conquest of the land.[8]

Cultural significance

Main article: Passover

The Exodus is remembered daily in Jewish prayers and celebrated each year at the feast of Passover.[9] The Hebrew name for this festival, Pesach, refers to God's instruction to the Israelites to prepare unleavened bread as they would be leaving Egypt in haste, and to mark their doors with the blood of slaughtered sheep so that the "Angel of Death" or "the destroyer" tasked with killing the first-born of Egypt would "pass over" them. Despite the Exodus story, a majority of scholars do not believe that the Passover festival originated as described in the biblical story.[10] Jewish tradition has preserved national and personal reminders of this pivotal narrative in daily life. Examples include the wearing of tefillin (phylacteries) on the arm and forehead, the wearing of tzitzit (knotted ritual fringes attached to the four corners of the prayer shawl), the eating of matzot (unleavened bread) during the Pesach, the fasting of the firstborn a day before Pesach, and the redemption of firstborn children and animals.[citation needed]

Statuette of a Semitic prisoner. Ancient Egypt, 12th dynasty (18–19th Century BC).[11] Hecht Museum


The Torah and its traditions

Scholars broadly agree that the first publication of the Pentateuch (the Exodus story) took place in the mid-Persian period (approximately 450-400 BC).[12] There are two important hypotheses explaining the background to this, the first being Persian Imperial authorization, the idea that the post-exilic community needed a legal basis on which to function within the Persian Imperial system,[13] and while this theory as originally proposed has been effectively demolished, the question of the relationship between the Persian authorities and events in Jerusalem remains a valid one.[14] The second theory proposes that the Exodus story was composed as an "identity card" for the Persian-era Jewish community, defining who belonged to "Israel."[15] In either case the Exodus is a "charter myth" for Israel, telling how Israel was delivered from slavery by Yahweh and therefore belongs to him through the covenant.[1]

The Exodus tradition has left traces in over 150 references throughout the Bible outside the Torah.[16] It first appears in the prophets Amos (possibly) and Hosea (certainly), both active in 8th century BC Israel, but their southern contemporaries Isaiah and Micah show no knowledge of an Exodus, suggesting that the story was of no importance in 8th century Judah.[6] It may therefore have originated in the north a few centuries earlier, perhaps the 9th or 10th, 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.[16]

Behind the Exodus traditions: Possible sources and parallels

The scholarly consensus is that there was no Exodus as described in the Bible.[17] Nevertheless, there is also a general understanding that something must lie behind the traditions, even if Moses and the Exodus narrative belong to collective cultural memory rather to history.[18] Most scholars agree that the narrative has a historical core, and that some highland settlers came from Egypt.[19]

The Expulsion of the Hyksos

Canaanite populations first appeared in Egypt towards the end of the 12th Dynasty c. 1800 BC, and either around that time, or c. 1720 BC, established an independent realm in the eastern Nile Delta. In about 1650 BC, this realm was assumed by the rulers known as the Hyksos, who formed the Fifteenth Dynasty.[20][21]

It has been claimed that new revolutionary methods of warfare ensured the Hyksos the ascendancy in their influx into the new emporia being established in Egypt's delta and at Thebes in support of the Red Sea trade.[22][23] However, in recent years the idea of a simple Hyksos migration, with little or no war, has gained support.[24][25]

In any case, the 16th Dynasty and the 17th Dynasty continued to rule in the South in coexistence with the Hyksos kings, perhaps as their vassals. Eventually, Seqenenre Tao, Kamose and Ahmose waged war against the Hyksos and expelled Khamudi, their last king, from Egypt c. 1550 BC.[20][page needed]

The saga of the Hyksos was recorded by the Egyptian historian Manetho (3rd century BC), chief priest at the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis, which is preserved in three quotations by the 1st century AD Jewish historian Josephus.[26] In Manetho's History of Egypt, as retold by Josephus, Manetho describes the Hyksos, their lowly origins in Asia, their invasion and dominion over Egypt, their eventual expulsion, and their subsequent exile to Judaea and their establishing the city of Jerusalem and its temple. Manetho defined the Hyksos as being the Hyksos or "Shepherd Kings" or "Captive Shepherds" who invaded Egypt, destroying its cities and temples and making war with the Egyptian people to "gradually destroy them to the very roots". Following a war with the Egyptians a treaty was negotiated stipulating that these Hyksos Shepherds were to exit Egypt.[27]

The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus said that Manetho's Hyksos narrative was a reliable Egyptian account about the Israelite Exodus, and that the Hyksos were 'our people'.[28][29][30] Martin Bernal found that a direct relationship between the Hyksos and Israelites is plausible, although it cannot be proven. He noted that the name of the pharaoh Yaqub-Har is similar to the name of the Israelite patriarch Jacob, and that the highest density of Hyksos scarabs is found in the Israelite West Bank.[31] Donald Redford said that the Exodus narrative is a Canaanite memory of the Hyksos descent and occupation of Egypt.[32]

Most modern historians reject any identification of the Hyksos with the Israelites, largely because it is generally believed that the early Israelites evolved within the land and culture of Canaan, rather than emerging from Egypt.[33] There is a current scholarly consensus that if the Israelites did emerge from Egypt, it must have occurred sometime during the 13th century, because there is no archaeological evidence of any distinctive Israelite material culture before that time.[34]

Akhenaten and the end of the Amarna period

Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV, was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. This Pharaoh presided over radical changes in Egyptian religious practices. He established a form of solar monotheism or monolatry based on the cult of Aten, and disbanded the priesthoods of all other gods. His new capital, Akhetaten or 'Horizon of Aten', was built at the site known today as Amarna.[35][36] The city was built hastily, mostly using mud bricks. After Akhenaten's death, it was abandoned. The temples, shrines, and royal statues were razed later, during the reign of Horemheb.[37]

The idea of Akhenaten as the pioneer of a monotheistic religion that later became Judaism has been considered by various scholars.[38][39][40][41][42][43] One of the first to mention this was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in his book Moses and Monotheism.[44] Basing his arguments on a belief that the Exodus story was historical, Freud argued that Moses had been an Atenist priest forced to leave Egypt with his followers after Akhenaten's death. Freud argued that Akhenaten was striving to promote monotheism, something that the biblical Moses was able to achieve.[38] Following his book, the concept entered popular consciousness and serious research.[45]

However, Donald Redford said that there is little evidence that Akhenaten was a progenitor of Biblical monotheism. To the contrary, he said, the religion of the Hebrew Bible had its own separate development beginning 500 years later.[46]

Other non-biblical sources seem to parallel the events which occurred at the end of the eighteenth dynasty, when the new religion of Akhenaten was denounced and his capital city of Amarna was abandoned. These tales often combine elements of the Hyksos expulsion.[47] For example, Hecataeus of Abdera (c. 320 BC) tells how the Egyptians blamed a plague on foreigners and expelled them from the country, whereupon Moses, their leader, took them to Canaan.[48] There are more than a dozen versions of this story, all of them adding more detail, most of them profoundly anti-Jewish.[48] Manetho tells how 80,000 lepers and other "impure people", led by a priest named Osarseph, join forces with the former Hyksos, now living in Jerusalem, to take over Egypt. They wreak havoc until eventually the pharaoh and his son chase them out to the borders of Syria, where Osarseph gives the lepers a law-code and changes his name to Moses, although the identification of Osarseph with Moses in the second account may be a later addition.[49][50] Josephus vehemently disagreed with the claim that the Israelites were connected with Manetho's story about Osarseph and the lepers.[51] The stories told by Hecataeus and Manetho seems to be related in some way to that of the Exodus, although it is impossible to tell whether they both bear witness to historical events, or Manetho is a polemical response to the Exodus story, or the Exodus story a response to the Egyptian stories.[52]



The consensus of modern scholars is that the Bible does not give an accurate account of the origins of Israel.[53] There is no indication that the Israelites ever lived in Ancient Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula shows almost no sign of any occupation for the entire 2nd millennium BC, and even Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites are said to have spent 38 years, was uninhabited prior to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy.[54] Such elements as could be fitted into the 2nd millennium could equally belong to the 1st, and are consistent with a 1st millennium BC writer trying to set an old story in Egypt.[55] So while a few scholars, notably Kenneth Kitchen and James K. Hoffmeier, continue to discuss the historicity, or at least plausibility, of the story, arguing that the Egyptian records have been lost or suppressed or that the fleeing Israelites left no archaeological trace or that the large numbers are mistranslated, the majority have abandoned the investigation as "a fruitless pursuit".[56][57]

Numbers and logistics

According to Exodus 12:37–38, the Israelites numbered "about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children", plus many non-Israelites and livestock. Numbers 1:46 gives a more precise total of 603,550 men aged 20 and up. It is difficult to reconcile the idea of 600,000 Israelite fighting men with the information that the Israelites were afraid of the Philistines and Egyptians.[58] The 600,000, plus wives, children, the elderly, and the "mixed multitude" of non-Israelites would have numbered some 2 million people.[59] Marching ten abreast, and without accounting for livestock, they would have formed a line 150 miles long.[60] The entire Egyptian population in 1250 BC is estimated to have been around 3 to 3.5 million,[61][59] and no evidence has been found that Egypt ever suffered the demographic and economic catastrophe such a loss of population would represent, nor that the Sinai desert ever hosted (or could have hosted) these millions of people and their herds.[62] Some have rationalised the numbers into smaller figures, for example reading the Hebrew as "600 families" rather than 600,000 men, but all such solutions have their own set of problems.[63]


A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness,[64] and archaeologists generally agree that the Israelites had Canaanite origins.[65] The culture of the earliest Israelite settlements is Canaanite, their cult objects are those of the Canaanite god El, the pottery remains are in the Canaanite tradition, and the alphabet used is early Canaanite.[66] Almost the sole marker distinguishing the "Israelite" villages from Canaanite sites is an absence of pig bones, although whether even this is an ethnic marker or is due to other factors remains a matter of dispute.[66]


Despite the Bible's internal dating of the Exodus to the 2nd millennium BC, details point to a 1st millennium date for the composition of the Book of Exodus: Ezion-Geber (one of the Stations of the Exodus), for example, dates to a period between the 8th and 6th centuries BC with possible further occupation into the 4th century BC,[67] and those place-names on the Exodus route which have been identified – Goshen, Pithom, Succoth, Ramesses and Kadesh Barnea – point to the geography of the 1st millennium rather than the 2nd.[68]

Similarly, the Pharaoh's fear that the Israelites might ally themselves with foreign invaders seems unlikely in the context of the late 2nd millennium, when Canaan was part of an Egyptian empire and Egypt faced no enemies in that direction, but does make sense in a 1st millennium context, when Egypt was considerably weaker and faced invasion first from the Achaemenid Empire and later from the Seleucid Empire.[69]

The mention of the dromedary in Exodus 9:3 also suggests a later date of composition – the widespread domestication of the camel as a herd animal is thought not to have taken place before the late 2nd millennium, after the Israelites had already emerged in Canaan,[70] and they did not become widespread in Egypt until c. 200–100 BC.[71]


The chronology of the Exodus story likewise underlines its essentially religious rather than historical nature. The number seven was sacred to Yahweh in Judaism, and so the Israelites arrive at the Sinai Peninsula, where they will meet Yahweh, at the beginning of the seventh week after their departure from Egypt,[72] while the erection of the Tabernacle, Yahweh's dwelling-place among his people, occurs in the year 2666 after Yahweh creates the world, two-thirds of the way through a four thousand year era which culminates in or around the re-dedication of the Second Temple in 164 BC.[73][74]


Attempts to date the Exodus to a specific century have been inconclusive.[75] 1 Kings 6:1 places the event 480 years before the construction of Solomon's Temple, implying an Exodus at c. 1450 BC, but the number is rhetorical rather than historical, representing a symbolic twelve generations of forty years each.[76][77] There are major archaeological obstacles to an earlier date: Canaan, also known as Djahy, was part of the Egyptian empire, so that the Israelites would in effect be escaping from Egypt to Egypt, and its cities were unwalled and do not show destruction layers consistent with the Bible's account of the occupation of the land (e.g., Jericho was "small and poor, almost insignificant, and unfortified (and) [t]here was also no sign of a destruction". (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2002).[78] William F. Albright, the leading biblical archaeologist of the mid-20th century, proposed a date of around 1250–1200 BC, but his so-called "Israelite" evidence (house-type, the collar-rimmed jars, etc.) are continuations of Canaanite culture.[79] The lack of evidence has led scholars to conclude that the Exodus story does not represent a specific historical moment.[80]


The Torah lists the places where the Israelites rested. A few of the names at the start of the itinerary, including Ra'amses, Pithom and Succoth, are reasonably well identified with archaeological sites on the eastern edge of the Nile Delta,[68] as is Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites spend 38 years after turning back from Canaan; other than these, very little is certain. The crossing of the Red Sea has been variously placed at the Pelusic branch of the Nile, anywhere along the network of Bitter Lakes and smaller canals that formed a barrier toward eastward escape, the Gulf of Suez (south-southeast of Succoth), and the Gulf of Aqaba (south of Ezion-Geber), or even on a lagoon on the Mediterranean coast. The Biblical Mount Sinai is identified in Christian tradition with Jebel Musa in the south of the Sinai Peninsula, but this association dates only from the 3rd century AD and no evidence of the Exodus has been found there.[81]

See also


  1. "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]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Sparkes 2010, p. 73.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Redmount 2001, p. 59.
  3. Meyers 2005, pp. 5–6.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Redmount 2001, p. 63.
  5. Enns 2012, p. 26.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lemche 1985, p. 327.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Tigay 2004, p. 107.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Redmount 2001, p. 59-60.
  9. Tigay 2004, pp. 106–07.
  10. Prosic 2004, p. 31.
  11. Liphschitz 1998, p. 258.
  12. Romer 2008, p. 2.
  13. Ska 2006, pp. 217.
  14. Eskenazi 2009, p. 86.
  15. Ska 2006, p. 225.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Russell 2009, p. 1.
  17. Merrill, Rooker & Grisanti 2011, p. 194.
  18. Meyers 2005, p. 10.
  19. Faust 2015, p. 476.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Ryholt & Bülow-Jacobsen 1997.
  21. Lloyd 1993, p. 76.
  22. Winlock 1947.
  23. Breasted 2003, p. 216.
  24. Booth 2005, p. 10.
  25. Callender 2003, p. 157.
  26. Josephus 2006, p. 1:14, 1:16, 1:26..
  27. Josephus 2006, p. 1:14-15.
  28. Droge 1996, pp. 121–22.
  29. Josephus 2006, p. 1:26.
  30. Hengstenberg, Egypt and the Books of Moses 1843, p. 254.
  31. Bernal 1991, p. 357.
  32. Redford & 1992, p. 412.
  33. Johnston 2004, p. 181.
  34. Geraty 2015, p. 58.
  35. David 1998, pp. 124-126.
  36. Dominic Montserrat, Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt, Routledge 2000, ISBN 0-415-18549-1, pp.36ff.
  37. Stevens, Anna. "The Archaeology of Amarna". Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 17 September 2017. 
  38. 38.0 38.1 Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays.
  39. Gunther Siegmund Stent, Paradoxes of Free Will. American Philosophical Society, DIANE, 2002. 284 pages. Pages 34 - 38. ISBN 0-87169-926-5
  40. Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Harvard University Press, 1997. 288 pages. ISBN 0-674-58739-1
  41. N. Shupak, The Monotheism of Moses and the Monotheism of Akhenaten. Sevivot, 1995.
  42. Montserrat, (2000)
  43. Albright, William F. (1973). "From the Patriarchs to Moses II. Moses out of Egypt". The Biblical Archaeologist. 36 (2): 48–76. doi:10.2307/3211050. 
  44. S. Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXIII (1937-1939), "Moses and monotheism". London: Hogarth Press, 1964.
  45. Edward Chaney, ‘Freudian Egypt’, The London Magazine, April/May 2006, pp. 62-69 and idem,‘Egypt in England and America: The Cultural Memorials of Religion, Royalty and Revolution’, in Sites of Exchange: European Crossroads and Faultlines, eds. M. Ascari and A. Corrado (Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2006), pp. 39-69.
  46. "Aspects of Monotheism", Donald B. Redford, Biblical Archeology Review, 1996
  47. Assmann 2009, p. 29.
  48. 48.0 48.1 Assmann 2009, p. 34.
  49. Droge 1996, pp. 134–35.
  50. Feldman 1998, p. 342.
  51. Assmann 2009, pp. 30-31.
  52. Gmirkin 2006, p. 170.
  53. Davies 2015, p. 51.
  54. Redmount 2001, p. 77.
  55. Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 90.
  56. Moore & Kelle 2011, pp. 88–89.
  57. Dever 2001, p. 99.
  58. Miller 2009, p. 256.
  59. 59.0 59.1 Kantor 2005, p. 70.
  60. Cline 2007, p. 74.
  61. Butzer 1999, p. 297.
  62. Dever 2003, p. 19.
  63. Grisanti 2011, pp. 240–46.
  64. Meyers 2005, p. 5.
  65. Shaw 2002, p. 313.
  66. 66.0 66.1 Killebrew 2005, p. 176.
  67. Pratico & DiVito 1993, pp. 1-32.
  68. 68.0 68.1 Van Seters 1997, pp. 255ff.
  69. Soggin 1998, pp. 128–29.
  70. Finkelstein & Silberman 2002, p. 334.
  71. Faye 2013, p. 3.
  72. Meyers 2005, p. 143.
  73. Hayes & Miller 1986, p. 59.
  74. Davies 1998, p. 180.
  75. Killebrew 2005, p. 151.
  76. Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 81.
  77. Thompson 1999, p. 74.
  78. Finkelstein & Silberman 2002, pp. 77–79, 82.
  79. Killebrew 2005, pp. 175–77.
  80. Killebrew 2005, p. 152.
  81. Hoffmeier 2005, pp. 115ff.


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