The Exodus[a] is the founding myth of Israel, telling how the Israelites were delivered from slavery by their god Yahweh and therefore belong to him through the Mosaic covenant.[b] 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.
The exodus narrative was not written as history (no archeological evidence has been found to support the story) but to demonstrate God's purpose and deeds with respect to Israel. It was shaped to its present form in the post-Exilic period, but the traditions behind it are older and can be traced in the writings of the 8th century BCE prophets; it is unclear how far beyond that the traditions might stretch, and their substance, accuracy and date are obscured by centuries of transmission.
The Exodus is central to Judaism, and even today it is recounted daily in Jewish prayers and celebrated in the festival of Passover. 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.
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. The story begins with the Israelites in slavery in Egypt. 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. The Book of Leviticus records the laws of God. The Book of Numbers tells how the Israelites, led now by their god Yahweh, 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. 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. 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.
The Exodus is remembered daily in Jewish prayers and celebrated each year at the feast of Passover. 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.
Scholars broadly agree that the Torah is a product of the mid-Persian period, approximately 450–400 BCE, although some place its final form somewhat later, in the Hellenistic era. Many theories have been advanced to explain its composition, but two have been especially influential. 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. Frei's theory was deconstructed at an interdisciplinary symposium held in 2000, but the relationship between the Persian authorities and Jerusalem remains a crucial question. The second theory, sometimes 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. The Torah (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. Both explanations see the Exodus story as a "charter myth" for Israel, telling how Israel was delivered from slavery by Yahweh and therefore belongs to him through the covenant.
The history of the Exodus story stretches back some two hundred years before the achievement of its current form, to a point in the late 7th century BCE when various oral and written traditions were drawn together into written works which were the fore-runners of the Torah we know today. Traces of these traditions first appear in the prophets Amos (possibly) and Hosea (certainly), both active in 8th century BCE Israel. It has been claimed that their southern contemporaries Isaiah and Micah show no knowledge of an Exodus, however, this is incorrect. Micah chapter 6 verse 4 states 'I [God] brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.' The exodus story may therefore have originated 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.
Possible sources and parallels
The consensus of modern archaeologists is that the Israelites were indigenous to Canaan and were never in Egypt, and if there is any historical basis to the exodus it can apply only to a small segment of the Israelites. Yet there are indications that some historical basis underlies the story: the name of Moses is Egyptian, for example, and many scholars have found it improbable that a humiliating tradition of slavery would simply be invented. Some have tried to maintain a measure of historicity through the concept of "collective memory": the memory of Egyptian oppression, for example, may be based on the harsh treatment of Canaanites inside Canaan during those centuries in the 2nd millennium when the region was ruled by Egypt: these memories could later have been transferred to Egypt itself, and a new exodus story created. A historical Moses associated with a small group may have been later generalised into the savior of Israel, while others have found echoes of the descent into Egypt and the Exodus in the history of the Hyksos, who were Canaanite rulers of the Egyptian Delta in the 16th century BCE. Yahweh himself, the national god of Israel, is not a Canaanite deity but comes from Midian to the south, and it is possible that he was brought north by escaping slaves.
A proposal by Egyptologist Jan Assmann suggests that the Exodus narrative has no single origin, but rather combines numerous historical experiences into "a coherent story that is fictional as to its composition but historical as to some of its components". These traumatic events include the expulsion of the Hyksos; the religious revolution of Akhenaten; a possible episode of captivity for the Habiru, who were gangs of antisocial people operating between Egypt's vassal states; and the large-scale migrations of the 'Sea Peoples'.
The consensus of modern scholars is that the Bible does not give an accurate account of the origins of Israel. 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 BCE, and even Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites are said to have spent 38 years, was uninhabited prior to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy. Such elements as could be fitted into the 2nd millennium could equally belong to the 1st, and are consistent with a 1st millennium BCE writer trying to set an old story in Egypt. 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".
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. The 600,000, plus wives, children, the elderly, and the "mixed multitude" of non-Israelites would have numbered some 2 million people. Marching ten abreast, and without accounting for livestock, they would have formed a line 150 miles long. The entire Egyptian population in 1250 BCE is estimated to have been around 3 to 3.5 million, 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. 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.
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, and archaeologists generally agree that the Israelites had Canaanite origins. 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. 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.
Despite the Bible's internal dating of the Exodus to the 2nd millennium BCE, 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 BCE with possible further occupation into the 4th century BCE, 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.
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.
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, and they did not become widespread in Egypt until c. 200–100 BCE.
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, 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 BCE.
Attempts to date the Exodus to a specific century have been inconclusive. 1 Kings 6:1 places the event 480 years before the construction of Solomon's Temple, implying an Exodus at c. 1450 BCE, but the number is rhetorical rather than historical, representing a symbolic twelve generations of forty years each. There are major archaeological obstacles to an earlier date such as this. 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 (Jericho was "small and poor, almost insignificant, and unfortified (and) [t]here was also no sign of a destruction" (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2002). William F. Albright, the leading biblical archaeologist of the mid-20th century, proposed a date of around 1250–1200 BCE, but his so-called "Israelite" evidence (house-type, the collar-rimmed jars, etc.) are continuations of Canaanite culture. The lack of evidence has led scholars to conclude that the Exodus story does not represent a specific historical moment.
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, 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 CE and no evidence of the Exodus has been found there.
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