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Departure of the Israelites (David Roberts, 1829)

The Exodus is the founding myth of the Israelites.[1][a] Spread over the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it tells the story 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]

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 by the 13th century BCE from the indigenous Canaanite culture.[5][6] Most scholars nevertheless believe that the story has some historical basis, even if this little resembles the story told in the Bible.[7][8] 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),[9] although the traditions behind it are older and can be found in the writings of the 8th-century BCE prophets.[10][11]




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 five books of the bible (also called the Pentateuch or Torah). It begins with the Israelites in slavery. Their prophet Moses leads them out of Egypt and through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, where Yahweh reveals himself to his people and establishes the Mosaic covenant: they are to keep his torah (i.e. law, instruction), and in return he will give them the land of Canaan. The Israelites accept the covenant and receive their laws, and, with Yahweh now present in their midst, journey on from Sinai, towards the promised land, but when The Twelve Spies report that the land is filled with cannibalistic 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, reviewing their travels and giving them further laws. The Exodus ends with the death of Moses on Mount Nebo and his burial by Yahweh, while the Israelites prepare for the conquest of the land.[12]

Covenant and lawEdit

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).[13] The laws are set out in a number of codes:[14]


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

Scholars broadly agree that the publication of the first five books of the Bible took place in the mid-Persian period (the 5th century BCE),[b] 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.[21] The first trace of the traditions behind it appears 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.[10] (Micah 6:45 contains a reference to the exodus, which many scholars take to be an addition by a later editor.)[c] 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.[23] The story may, therefore, have originated a few centuries earlier, perhaps 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.[24] The story was most likely further altered and expanded under the influence of the return from the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE.[23]

Many theories have been advanced to explain the composition of the first five books of the Bible, but two have been especially influential.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29]

Cultural significanceEdit

A Seder table setting, commemorating the Passover and Exodus

The Exodus is remembered 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".[30] 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).[30] A third Jewish festival, Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, commemorates how the Israelites lived in booths following the exodus from their previous homes in Egypt.[30] 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.[30] The fringes worn at the corners of traditional Jewish prayer shawls are 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).[31]

The Exodus has reverberated through world history. 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.[32][33][34]


The overwhelming consensus among scholars is that the Exodus story is best understood as a myth and does not accurately describe historical events.[35] It is specifically the founding myth of the Jewish people, explaining their origins and providing an ideological foundation for their culture and institutions.[1] 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.[36] 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.[37] The Bible also fails to mention the names of any of the Pharaohs involved in the Exodus narrative.[38] 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 Egyptian text mentions a large-scale exodus of slaves like that described in the Bible.[39] 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.[40] Archaeology has revealed no signs of an Israelite presence on the Sinai Peninsula, and most of the peninsula seems to have been sparsely inhabited.[41] Instead, modern archaeology suggests continuity between Canaanite and Israelite settlement, indicating a primarily Canaanite origin for Israel.[42][43] 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.[44]

While scholars reject the biblical account of the Exodus, a majority still believes that the story has some historical basis,[7][8] 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 in the Exodus narrative,[45] and the names Moses, Aaron and Phinehas, which seem to have an Egyptian origin.[46] The expulsion of the Hyskos by the Seventeenth Dynasty of Egypt is frequently discussed as a potential historical parallel.[47][48] Avraham Faust and William Dever argue that a group of Egyptian origin, whom Dever cautiously identifies as "the house of Joseph",[49] 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.[50][51] It is also possible that oppressive Egyptian rule of Canaan during the late second millenium BCE may have aided the adoption of the story of a small group of Egyptian refugees by the native Canaanites among the Israelites.[47] Most proposals for a historical Exodus of any sort place it in the sixteenth, fifteenth, or thirteenth centuries BCE.[41] 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 show more skepticism towards ascribing any historicity 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 first millenium 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]

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ Details point to a 1st millennium BCE date for the composition of the narrative: 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,[15] and those place-names on the Exodus route that have been identified – Goshen, Pithom, Succoth, Ramesses and Kadesh Barnea – point to the geography of the 1st millennium BCE rather than the 2nd.[16] Similarly, 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 the New Kingdom empire and Egypt faced no enemies in that direction, but does make sense in a 1st millennium BCE context, when Egypt was considerably weaker and faced invasion first from the Achaemenid Empire and later from the Seleucid Empire.[17] The mention of the dromedary in Exodus 9:3 also suggests a later date – the widespread domestication of the camel as a herd animal is thought not to have taken place before the late 2nd millennium BCE, after the Israelites had already emerged in Canaan.[18] Even the chronology of the Exodus narrative is symbolic rather than actual: for example, its culminating event, the erection of the Tabernacle as Yahweh's dwelling-place among his people, occurs in the year 2666 Anno Mundi (Year of the World, meaning 2666 years after God creates the world), and two-thirds of the way through a four thousand year era that culminates in or around the re-dedication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE.[19][20]
  3. ^ 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 [22], 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.



  1. ^ a b c d e Sparks 2010, p. 73.
  2. ^ Redmount 2001, p. 59.
  3. ^ a b Bandstra 2008, p. 28-29.
  4. ^ Berlin, Adele; Brettler, Marc Zvi (2004). The Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195297515.
  5. ^ Meyers 2005, pp. 6–7.
  6. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 81.
  7. ^ a b Faust 2015, p. 476.
  8. ^ a b Redmount 2001, p. 87.
  9. ^ Romer 2008, p. 2.
  10. ^ a b Lemche 1985, p. 327.
  11. ^ Redmount 2001, p. 63.
  12. ^ Redmount 2001, p. 59–60.
  13. ^ McKenzie 2000, p. 4–5.
  14. ^ Bandstra 2008, p. 146.
  15. ^ Pratico & DiVito 1993, pp. 1–32.
  16. ^ Van Seters 1997a, pp. 255ff.
  17. ^ Soggin 1998, pp. 128–29.
  18. ^ Finkelstein & Silberman 2002, p. 334.
  19. ^ Hayes & Miller 1986, p. 59.
  20. ^ Davies 1998, p. 180.
  21. ^ Romer 2008, p. 2 and fn.3.
  22. ^ Lemche 1985, p. 315.
  23. ^ a b Na'aman 2011, p. 40.
  24. ^ Russell 2009, p. 1.
  25. ^ Ska 2006, pp. 217.
  26. ^ Ska 2006, pp. 218.
  27. ^ Eskenazi 2009, p. 86.
  28. ^ Ska 2006, pp. 226–227.
  29. ^ Ska 2006, p. 225.
  30. ^ a b c d Tigay 2004, p. 106.
  31. ^ Sarason 2015, p. 53.
  32. ^ Tigay 2004, p. 107.
  33. ^ Assmann 2018, p. 335.
  34. ^ Coomber 2012, p. 123.
  35. ^ Collins 2005, p. 46.
  36. ^ Grabbe 2014, pp. 63-64.
  37. ^ Dever 2003, pp. 15-17.
  38. ^ Grabbe 2014, p. 69.
  39. ^ Barmash 2015b, pp. 2-3.
  40. ^ Dever 2003, pp. 18-19.
  41. ^ a b Redmount 2001, p. 77.
  42. ^ Barmash 2015b, p. 4.
  43. ^ Shaw 2002, p. 313.
  44. ^ Grabbe 2014, pp. 65-67.
  45. ^ Meyers 2005, pp. 8-10.
  46. ^ Redmount 2001, p. 65.
  47. ^ a b Faust 2015, p. 477.
  48. ^ Redmount 2001, p. 78.
  49. ^ Dever 2003, p. 231.
  50. ^ Faust 2015, pp. 476–477.
  51. ^ Dever 2003, pp. 229–231.
  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.


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Verbrugghe, Gerald P.; Wickersham, John Moore (2001). Berossos and Manetho, Introduced and Translated: Native Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-08687-1.
Whitelam, Keith W. (2006). "General problems of studying the text of the bible...". In Rogerson, John William; Lieu, Judith (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199254255.

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