The Exodus

The Exodus is the founding myth of the Israelites. It tells of the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, the revelations at biblical Mount Sinai, and their wanderings in the wilderness up to the borders of Canaan. Its message is that the Israelites were delivered from slavery by Yahweh their god, and therefore belong to him by covenant.
The consensus of modern scholars is that the Bible does not give an accurate account of the origins of the Israelites, who appear instead to have formed as an entity in the central highlands of Canaan in the late second millennium BCE from the indigenous Canaanite culture. Most modern 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.
The story of the Exodus is spread over four of the biblical books of the Torah or Pentateuch, namely Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. There is a widespread agreement that the composition of the Torah took place in the Middle Persian Period, although some traditions behind it are older since allusions to the story are made by 8th-century BCE prophets such as Amos and Hosea.
The Biblical Exodus is central in Judaism, with it being recounted daily in Jewish prayers and celebrated in festivals such as Passover. The story has also resonated with non-Jewish groups, such as the early American settlers fleeing persecution in Europe, and African Americans striving for freedom and civil rights.

Biblical narrative

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. In the 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". The pharaoh becomes concerned by the number and strength of Israelites in Egypt and enslaves them, commanding them to build at two "supply" or "store cities" called Pithom and Rameses. 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 are also able to do this, though Moses' staff devours the others. The Pharaoh then refuses to let the Israelites go.

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 sons of Egypt, and the firstborn cattle, 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. 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, 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 and Yahweh sends a plague on the Israelites. The Israelites now accept the covenant, which is reestablished, 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. 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 and the Israelites remain for forty years. 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. 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 between God and the Israelites mediated by Moses at Sinai: Yahweh will protect the Israelites as his chosen people for all time, and the Israelites will keep Yahweh's laws and worship only him. 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 the Israelites "beside the covenant he made with them at Horeb". The laws are set out in a number of codes:
There are two main positions on the historicity of the Exodus in modern scholarship. The majority position is that the biblical Exodus narrative has some historical core, although the details have been clouded and obscured over time, and there is little of historical worth in the current biblical narrative. The other main position, often associated with the school of Biblical minimalism, 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. A third position, that the biblical narrative is essentially correct, is today held by "few, if any in mainstream scholarship, only on the more fundamentalist fringes."
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. 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. Lester Grabbe argues that "attempts to find naturalistic explanations miss the point: the aim of the narrative is to magnify the power of Yhwh and Moses." The Bible also fails to mention the names of any of the Pharaohs involved in the Exodus narrative. 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. The earliest surviving historical mention of the Israelites, the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, appears to place them in or around Canaan and gives no indication of any exodus. 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. 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." Instead, modern archaeology suggests continuity between Canaanite and Israelite settlement, indicating a primarily Canaanite origin for Israel. Some scholars such Jørgen Knudtzon, identifying the Hebrews with the Habiru, however in recent years this is been suggested to be a False cognate.
A majority of scholars nevertheless still believes that the Exodus has some historical basis, with Kenton Sparks referring to it as "mythologized history." Despite a lack of archaeological evidence, most scholars believe that a small group of Egyptian origin may have joined the early Israelites. William Dever cautiously identifies this group with "the house of Joseph". Most scholars who accept a historical core of the exodus date this possible exodus group to the thirteenth century BCE at the time of Ramses II, with some instead dating it to the twelfth century BCE at the time of Ramses III. 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, and the names Moses, Aaron and Phinehas, which seem to have an Egyptian origin. Joel S. Baden notes the presence of Semitic-speaking slaves in Egypt who sometimes escaped in small numbers. He writes that while " onetime mass exodus of all Israelites from Egypt cannot be maintained, a relatively steady trickle of Semitic slaves making their way through the Sinai to the northeast seems eminently reasonable." Scholarly estimates for home many people could have been involved in such an exodus range from a few hundred to a few thousand people. 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. The expulsion of the Hyksos, a Semitic group that had conquered much of Egypt, by the Seventeenth Dynasty of Egypt is also frequently discussed as a potential historical parallel or origin for the story. 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.
There is an increasing trend among scholars to see the biblical exodus traditions as the invention of the exilic and post-exilic Jewish community, with little to no historical basis. Lester Grabbe, for instance, argues that "here is no compelling reason that the exodus has to be rooted in history," 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. 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. Historian Graham Davies has criticized minimalist scholars for relying too heavily on archaeology, stating "a historian cannot simply ignore the textual evidence 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."

Development and final composition

The earliest traces of the traditions behind the exodus appear in the northern prophets Amos and Hosea, both active in the 8th century BCE in northern Israel, but their southern contemporaries Isaiah and Micah show no knowledge of an exodus. 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. 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.
Evidence from the Bible suggests that the Exodus from Egypt formed a "foundational mythology" or "state ideology" for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The northern psalms 80 and 81 state that God "brought a vine out of Egypt" and record ritual observances of Israel's deliverance from Egypt as well as a version of part of the Ten Commandments. The Books of Kings records the dedication of two golden calves in Bethel and Dan by the Israelite king Jeroboam I, who uses the words "Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt". Scholars relate Jeroboam's calves to the golden calf made by Aaron of Exodus 32. Both include a nearly identical dedication formula. This episode in Exodus is "widely regarded as a tendentious narrative against the Bethel calves". Egyptologist Jan Assmann suggests that event, which would have taken place around 931 BCE, may be partially historical due to its association with the historical pharaoh Sheshonq I. Stephen Russell dates this tradition to "the eighth century BCE or earlier," and argues that it preserves a genuine Exodus tradition from the Northern Kingdom, but in a Judahite recension. Russell and Frank Moore Cross argue that the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom may have believed that the calves at Bethel and Dan were made by Aaron. Russell suggests that the connection to Jeroboam may have been later, possibly coming from a Judahite redactor. Pauline Viviano, however, concludes that neither the references to Jeroboam's calves in Hosea nor the frequent prohibitions of idol worship in the seventh-century southern prophet Jeremiah show any knowledge of a tradition of a golden calf having been created in Sinai.
Some of the earliest evidence for Judahite traditions of the exodus is found in Psalm 78, which portrays the Exodus as beginning a history culminating in the building of the temple at Jerusalem. Pamela Barmash argues that the psalm is a polemic against the Northern Kingdom; as it fails to mention that kingdom's destruction in 722 BCE, she concludes that it must have been written before then. The psalm's version of the Exodus contains some important differences from what is found in the Pentateuch: there is no mention of Moses, there are only seven plagues in Egypt, and the manna is described as "food of the mighty" rather than as bread in the wilderness. Nadav Na'aman argues for other signs that the Exodus was a tradition in Judah before the destruction of the northern kingdom, including the Song of the Sea and Psalm 114, as well as the great political importance that the narrative came to assume there.
A Judahite cultic object associated with the exodus was the brazen serpent or nehushtan: according to 2 Kings 18:4, the brazen serpent had been made by Moses and was worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem until the time of king Hezekiah of Judah, who destroyed it as part of a religious reform, possibly around 727 BCE. In the Pentateuch, Moses creates the brazen serpent in Numbers 21:4-9. Meindert Dijkstra writes that while the historicity of the Mosaic origin of the Nehushtan is unlikely, its association with Moses appears genuine rather than the work of a later redactor. Mark Walter Bartusch notes that the nehushtan is not mentioned at any prior point in Kings, and suggests that the brazen serpent was brought to Jerusalem from the Northern Kingdom after its destruction in 722 BCE.
The revelation of God on Sinai appears to have originally been a tradition unrelated to the Exodus. Joel S. Baden notes that "he seams still show: in the narrative of Israel's rescue from Egypt there is little hint that they will be brought anywhere other than Canaan—yet they find themselves heading first, unexpectedly, and in no obvious geographical order, to an obscure mountain." In addition, there is widespread agreement that the revelation of the law in Deuteronomy was originally separate from the Exodus: the original version of Deuteronomy is generally dated to the 7th century BCE. The contents of the books of Leviticus and Numbers are late additions to the narrative by priestly sources.
Scholars broadly agree that the publication of the Torah took place in the mid-Persian period, 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. Many theories have been advanced to explain the composition of the first five books of the Bible, 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 demolished at an interdisciplinary symposium held in 2000, but the relationship between the Persian authorities and Jerusalem remains a crucial question. 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 organized around the Temple, which acted in effect as a bank for those who belonged to it. The books containing the Exodus story served as an "identity card" defining who belonged to this community, thus reinforcing Israel's unity through its new institutions.

Hellenistic Egyptian parallel narratives

Writers in Greek and Latin record several Egyptian tales of the expulsion of a group of foreigners that were connected to the Exodus in the Ptolemaic period. These tales often include elements of the Hyksos period and most are extremely anti-Jewish. The earliest non-biblical account is that of Hecataeus of Abdera, as preserved in the first century CE Jewish historian Josephus in his work Against Apion and in a variant version by the first-century BCE Greek historian Diodorus. Hecataeus tells how the Egyptians blamed a plague on foreigners and expelled them from the country, whereupon Moses, their leader, took them to Canaan. In this version, Moses is portrayed extremely positively. Manetho, as preserved in Josephus's Against Apion, 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 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. The identification of Osarseph with Moses in Manetho's account may be an interpolation or may come from Manetho. Other versions of the story are recorded by first-century BCE Egyptian grammarian Lysimachus of Alexandria, who sets the story in the time of Pharaoh Bakenranef, the first-century CE Egyptian historian Chaeremon of Alexandria, and the first-century BCE Gallo-Roman historian Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus. The first century CE Roman historian Tacitus includes a version of the story that claims that the Hebrews worshiped a donkey as their god in order to ridicule Egyptian religion, while the Roman biographer Plutarch claims that the Egyptian god Seth was expelled from Egypt and had two sons named Juda and Hierosolyma.
It is possible that the stories represent a polemical Egyptian response to the Exodus narrative. Egyptologist Jan Assmann proposes that the story comes from oral sources that "must predate the first possible acquaintance of an Egyptian writer with the Hebrew Bible." Assmann suggests that the story has no single origin but rather combines numerous historical experiences, notably the Amarna and Hyksos periods, into a folk memory. There is general agreement that the stories originally had nothing to do with the Jews. Erich S. Gruen suggests that it may have been the Jews themselves that inserted themselves into Manetho's narrative, in which various negative actions from the point of view of the Egyptians, such as desecrating temples, are interpreted positively.

Religious and cultural significance

In Judaism

Commemoration of the biblical Exodus is central to Judaism. The Exodus is invoked daily in Jewish prayers and celebrated each year at the feasts of Pesach and Shavuot, known respectively as "the time of our freedom" and "the time our Torah was given". The two are closely linked, with Pesach announcing that the freedom it introduces is only fully realised with the giving of the law. Passover celebrates the freedom of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt and the "passing over" of the angel of death during the. It also celebrates the settling of the Canaan by the Israelites. Passover involves a ritual meal called a Seder during which parts of the exodus narrative are retold. In the Hagaddah of the Seder it is written that every generation is obliged to remind and identify itself in terms of the Exodus. Thus the following words from the Pesaḥim are recited:
”In every generation a person is duty-bound to regard himself as if he personally has gone forth from Egypt”.

Because the Israelites fled Egypt in haste without time for bread to rise, the unleavened bread matzoh is eaten on Passover, and homes must be cleansed of any items containing leaven.
Shavuot celebrates the granting of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai; Jews are called to rededicate themselves to the covenant on this day. Some denominations follow Shavuot with The Three Weeks, during which the "the two most heinous sins committed by the Jews in their relationship to G-d" are mourned: the Golden Calf and the doubting of God's promise by the Twelve Spies. 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. It celebrates how God provided for the Israelites while they wandered in the desert without food or shelter. It is celebrated by building a sukkah, a temporary shelter also called a booth or tabernacle, in which the rituals of Sukkot are performed, recalling the impermanence of the Israelites homes during the desert wanderings.
The festivals now associated with the Exodus began as agricultural and seasonal feasts but became completely subsumed into the Exodus narrative of Israel's deliverance from oppression at the hands of God.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".

The Exodus in Jewish prayers and blessings

The Song of the Sea is a poem that appears in the Book of Exodus of the Hebrew Bible, at. It is followed in verses 20 and 21 by a much shorter song sung by Miriam and the other women. The Song of the Sea was reputedly sung by the Israelites after their crossing the Red Sea in safety, and celebrates the destruction of the Egyptian army during the crossing, and looks forward to the future conquest of Canaan. The poem is included in Jewish prayer books, and recited daily in the morning shacharit services.
There are various mentions of the Exodus in various important Jewish prayers, see Emet Veyatziv: Structure: "1 Emet Veyatziv is the first paragraph. The word emet is appended onto the Shema Yisrael, and veyatziv appears as the first word. 2 Al Harishonim is the second paragraph. It focuses on the truth of redemption. 3 Ezrat Avoteinu is the third paragraph, and is an elaboration on the Exodus from Egypt. 4 The blessing ends with the paragraph Mi Komokha, ending with the blessing Ga'al Yisrael ".
Jewish prayers and blessings often show the centrality of belief in the Exodus. For example in the Friday night Kiddush the one making the blessing loudly declares: "...Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments, and hoped for us, and with love and intent invested us with His sacred Sabbath, as a memorial to the deed of Creation. It is the first among the holy festivals, commemorating the exodus from Egypt. For You chose us, and sanctified us, out of all nations, and with love and intent You invested us with Your Holy Sabbath. Blessed are You, Adonai, Sanctifier of the Sabbath."

The Exodus in Rabbinical writings

See the following for in-depth descriptions, citations and discussions of the Exodus in classical Rabbinic literature studied and accepted by most Orthodox Jewish scholars:
Modern day Orthodox scholars and rabbis have in turn followed in the pathways of classical Rabbinic literature and have taught about how the Exodus applies in contemporary times, such as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson the last Rebbe of Chabad Hasidism:

Non-Jewish significance

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. South American Liberation theology also takes much inspiration from the Exodus.