The Exodus

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Departure of the Israelites, by David Roberts, 1829

The Exodus (from Greek ἔξοδος exodos, "going out"; Hebrew: יציאת מצריםyetzi'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][Notes 1] It tells of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt following the death of Joseph, their departure under the leadership of Moses, the revelations at Sinai (including the Ten Commandments), and their wanderings in the wilderness up to the borders of Canaan.[2] The exodus story is told in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and their overall intent was to demonstrate God's actions in history, to recall Israel's bondage and salvation, and to demonstrate the fulfillment of Israel's covenant.[3]

The archeological evidence does not support the historical accuracy of the Biblical story.[4]The opinion of the overwhelming majority of modern scholars is that this 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 BCE 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.[3]

The Exodus is central to Judaism. It served to orient Jews towards the celebration of God's actions in history, in contrast to polytheistic celebrations of the gods' actions in nature, 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.[7]


Statuette of a Semitic prisoner. Ancient Egypt, 12th dynasty (18–19th Century BCE).[8] Hecht Museum

Many of modern biblical scholars hold the opinion that the Torah, or Pentateuch (the series of five books which consist of the Book of Genesis plus the books in which the Exodus story is told) was shaped in the post-exilic period[5] (c. 538–332 BCE). There are currently two important hypotheses explaining the background to this theory:

  1. The first is Persian Imperial authorization, the idea that the post-exilic community needed a legal basis on which to function within the Persian Imperial system
  2. The second relates to the community of citizens organized around the Temple, with the Pentateuch providing the criteria for who would belong to it (the narratives and genealogies in Genesis) and establishing the power structures and relative positions of its various groups.[9]

In either case, the Book of Exodus is a "charter myth" for Israel: Israel was delivered from slavery by Yahweh and therefore belongs to him through the covenant.[1]

The final form of the Pentateuch was based on earlier written and oral traditions.[10][11] These have left traces in over 150 references throughout the Bible.[12] The earliest traces of these earlier traditions are in the books of prophets Amos (possibly) and Hosea (certainly), both active in 8th century BCE Israel. In contrast, Proto-Isaiah and Micah, both of whom were active in Judah at much the same time, show no similar traces. It thus seems reasonable to conclude the Exodus tradition was important in the northern kingdom in the 8th century BCE, but not in Judah.[6]

In a recent work, Stephen C. Russell traces the 8th-century BCE prophetic tradition to three originally separate variants, in the northern Kingdom of Israel, in Transjordan, and in the southern Kingdom of Judah respectively. Russell proposes different hypothetical historical backgrounds to each tradition:[12]

  • The tradition from Israel, which involves a journey from Egypt to the region of Bethel, he suggests is a memory of herders who could move to and from Egypt in times of crisis
  • For the Transjordanian tradition, which focuses on deliverance from Egypt without a journey, he suggests a memory of the withdrawal of Egyptian control at the end of the Late Bronze Age
  • For Judah, whose tradition is preserved in the Song of the Sea, Russell suggests the celebration of a military victory over Egypt, although it is impossible to suggest what this victory may have been.

Cultural significance[edit]

The exodus is remembered daily in Jewish prayers and celebrated each year at the feast of Passover.[13] 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.[14]

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.


Possible Exodus routes. The traditional Exodus route is in black; other possible routes are in blue and green.


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.[15] 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.[16] 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 huge numbers are mistranslated, the majority have abandoned the investigation as "a fruitless pursuit".[17][18]

Numbers and logistics[edit]

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.[19] The 600,000, plus wives, children, the elderly, and the "mixed multitude" of non-Israelites would have numbered some 2 million people.[20] Marching ten abreast, and without accounting for livestock, they would have formed a line 150 miles long.[21] The entire Egyptian population in 1250 BCE is estimated to have been around 3 to 3.5 million,[22][20] 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.[23] 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.[24][Notes 2]


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,[25] and archaeologists generally agree that the Israelites had Canaanite origins.[26] 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.[27] 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.[27]


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,[28] 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.[29]

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.[30]

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,[31] and they did not become widespread in Egypt until c. 200–100 BCE.[32]


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,[33] 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.[34][35][Notes 3]


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,[29] as is Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites spend 38 years after turning back from Canaan, but other than that 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 (SSE of Succoth) and the Gulf of Aqaba (S 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.[36]

Dating the Exodus[edit]

Attempts to date the Exodus to a specific century have been inconclusive.[37] 1 Kings 6:1 places the event 480 years before the construction of Solomon's Temple, implying an Exodus at c. 1446 BCE, but it is widely recognised that the number in 1 Kings merely represents twelve generations of forty years each.[38][39][40] 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).[41] 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.[42] The lack of evidence has led scholars to conclude that it is difficult or even impossible to link the exodus story to any specific point in history.[43]

Possible sources and parallels[edit]

Ipuwer Papyrus

The Hyksos[edit]

The Hyksos ruled over the Nile Delta in the 2nd millennium BCE until expelled by the Egyptians.[44] The Hyksos and the Israelites were both Canaanites and connected to the land of Canaan, and it is possible that a collective memory of these events may have formed the basis for the Israelite exodus tradition.[45][46]

Manetho and other Greek-period texts[edit]

The Greek author Hecataeus of Abdera (c. 320 BCE) wrote a history of Egypt in which he told how the Egyptians blamed a plague on foreigners and expelled them from the country, whereupon Moses, their leader, took them to Canaan.[47] The most famous Greek-era mention of an exodus-like event is by the Egyptian historian Manetho (3rd century BCE). Once serving as the chief priest at the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis,[48]he was well-known from two quotations by the 1st century CE Jewish historian Josephus. In the first, Manetho describes the Hyksos, their lowly origins in Asia, their dominion over and expulsion from Egypt, and their subsequent foundation of the city of Jerusalem and its temple. In the second volume of his History of Egypt, retold by Josephus,he defined the Hyksos as the "king shepherds" whose destructive purpose was driven by the desire to exterminate the "root and branch" of Egypt. Following war with Egypt, a treaty decreed these Shepards to exit Egypt. Josephus (not Manetho) identifies the Hyksos with the Jews.[49] In the second story 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.[50][51]


The "Ipuwer Papyrus" is thought to have been written in the Thirteenth dynasty of Egypt (18th century BCE), and certainly no earlier than the 12th Dynasty.[52][53] Written in the form of a dialogue, the sage Ipuwer accuses both the creator-god Ra and the king of having neglected their roles, as a result of which the social order is overturned and disasters fill the land.[54] Ipuwer has been put forward in popular literature as an Egyptian confirmation of the exodus account, most notably because of its statement that "the river is blood" and its frequent references to servants running away, but these arguments ignore the many points on which Ipuwer contradicts Exodus, such as the fact that Ipuwer's Asiatics are arriving in Egypt rather than leaving, and the likelihood that the "river is blood" phrase refers to the red sediment colouring the Nile during disastrous floods.[55] Scholars have identified this and similar works (Ipuwer being the most ambitious) as examples of a common Egyptian literary genre, with little or no basis in historical events.[56]

See also[edit]


  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." (Sparks (2010), p. 73
  2. ^ For a discussion of the various interpretations of the census data in Numbers, see Eryl Davies (1995), in the bibliography.
  3. ^ See Thompson, The Mythic Past (1999), pp. 73ff, for an overview of the place of the exodus in the biblical chronology.



  1. ^ a b Sparks 2010, p. 73.
  2. ^ Redmount 2001, p. 59.
  3. ^ a b Redmount 1998, p. 63.
  4. ^ Meyers 2005, pp. 5–6.
  5. ^ a b Enns 2012, p. 26.
  6. ^ a b Lemche 1985, p. 327.
  7. ^ Tigay 2004, p. 107.
  8. ^ Liphschitz 1998, p. 258.
  9. ^ Ska 2006, pp. 217, 227–28.
  10. ^ Carr & Conway 2010, p. 193.
  11. ^ Finkelstein & Silberman 2001, pp. 68–69.
  12. ^ a b Russell 2009, p. 1.
  13. ^ Tigay 2005, pp. 106–07.
  14. ^ Prosic 2004, p. 31.
  15. ^ Redmount 2001, p. 77.
  16. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 90.
  17. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, pp. 88–89.
  18. ^ Dever 2001, p. 99.
  19. ^ Miller 2009, p. 256.
  20. ^ a b Kantor 2005, p. 70.
  21. ^ Cline 2007, p. 74.
  22. ^ Butzer 1999, p. 297.
  23. ^ Dever 2003, p. 19.
  24. ^ Grisanti 2011, pp. 240–46.
  25. ^ Meyers 2005, p. 5.
  26. ^ Shaw 2002, p. 313.
  27. ^ a b Killebrew 2005, p. 176.
  28. ^ Practico 1985, pp. 1–32.
  29. ^ a b Van Seters 1997, pp. 255ff.
  30. ^ Soggin 1998, pp. 128–29.
  31. ^ Finkelstein & Silberman 2002, p. 334.
  32. ^ Faye 2002, p. 3.
  33. ^ Meyers 2005, p. 143.
  34. ^ Hayes & Miller 1986, p. 59.
  35. ^ Davies 1998, p. 180.
  36. ^ Hoffmeier 2005, pp. 115ff.
  37. ^ Killebrew 2005, p. 151.
  38. ^ Shea 2003, pp. 238–39.
  39. ^ Moore & Kelle 2005, p. 81.
  40. ^ Thompson 1999, p. 74.
  41. ^ Finkelstein & Silberman 2002, pp. 77–79, 82.
  42. ^ Killebrew 2005, pp. 175–77.
  43. ^ Killebrew 2005, p. 152.
  44. ^ Finkelstein & Silberman 2002, p. 69.
  45. ^ Oblath 2004, p. 21.
  46. ^ Droge 1996, p. 134.
  47. ^ Assmann 2009, p. 34.
  48. ^ Verbrugghe, Gerald P. (1996). Berossos and Manetho, Introduced and Translated. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. p. 96. ISBN 0472086871. 
  49. ^ Droge 1996, pp. 121–22.
  50. ^ Droge 1996, pp. 134–35.
  51. ^ Feldman 1998, p. 342.
  52. ^ Willems 2010, p. 83.
  53. ^ Grabbe 2014, p. 68.
  54. ^ Perdue 2008, p. 22.
  55. ^ Enmarch 2011, pp. 173–75.
  56. ^ Lichtheim 1975, pp. 134–35.


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