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The Exodus (Greek word έξοδος, (Hebrew: יציאת מצרים, Modern Yetsi'at Mitzrayim Tiberian jəsʕijaθ misʕɾajim ; "the going out from Egypt") is the story of the departure of the Israelites from ancient Egypt described in the Hebrew Bible. Narrowly defined, the term refers only to the departure from Egypt described in the Book of Exodus; more widely, it takes in the subsequent wanderings in the wilderness described in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The term is derived from Exodus 14:8 - "וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, יֹצְאִים בְּיָד רָמָה" ("the children of Israel went out with a high hand") and Exodus 13:4 - "הַיּוֹם, אַתֶּם יֹצְאִים, בְּחֹדֶשׁ, הָאָבִיב" ("This day you go forth in the month Abib"). The term יציאת מצרים was translated into Greek as "Exodus (Greek for 'departure') from Egypt". The term continues to be used in the Passover Hagadah that was authored almost 2,000 years ago in the times of the Mishnah and is used in Jewish scholarship as in Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.[1][2][3][4]

Biblical scholars almost universally question the historical nature of the Exodus story.[5][6][7]


The Book of Exodus tells how Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness to Sinai. There 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 construction of the tabernacle and the laws of God. The book of Numbers tells the Israelites, led now by God, journey onwards from Sinai towards Canaan, but when their spies report that the land is filled with giants they refuse to go on. Yahweh then condemns them to wander in the desert until the generation that left Egypt passes away. The book of Deuteronomy tells how the Israelites arrive at the borders of Canaan, where Moses recalls their journeys and gives them new laws. His death (the last reported event of the Torah) concludes the 40 years of the exodus from Egypt.

There are many well-known incidents in the story of the Exodus, but some of the most famous include: the crossing of the Red Sea; the revelation at Sinai; the giving of the Tablets of Law; the incident of the golden calf; the gift of manna in the desert; the rock of Meribah; the treachery of the Amalekites; the incident at Baal-Peor; the story of Balaam and his talking donkey; and the story of the scouting of Canaan.

Cultural significance

The Exodus from Egypt is the theme of the Jewish holiday of Passover. On the night before leaving Egypt, the final plague inflicted by God on the Egyptians was the killing of the first-born. However, to save the Israelites, they were instructed to mark their doors with blood, so that the avenging angel would see it and know to "pass over" that house. On that night, the Israelites were instructed only to eat unleavened bread as they would be leaving in haste. This portion of the narrative is the etymological basis of the festival's name.

Route and logistics


The stations of the Exodus is a list of the places where the Israelites rested during the Exodus. A few of the cities at the start of the itinerary, such as Ra'amses, Pithom and Succoth, are reasonably well identified as archaeological sites on the eastern edge of the Nile delta, but from 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, or even the Gulf of Suez (SSE of Succoth) and the Gulf of Aqaba (S of Ezion-Geber). The biblical Mt. Sinai is probably the single most important locale in the story, but although it is frequently depicted as Jebel Musa in the south of the Sinai Peninsula, no evidence of the Exodus has been found there. Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites spend 38 years after turning back from Canaan, has been located with reasonable certainty, but its earliest occupation during the Ramesside era is centuries too late to fit the Exodus story.

The most obvious routes for travellers through the region were the royal roads, the "king's highways" that had been in use for centuries and would continue in use for centuries to come. The Bible specifically denies that the Israelites went by the Way of the Philistines, the northerly route along the Mediterranean coast. This leaves the Way of Shur and the Way of Seir as probable routes, the former having the advantage of heading toward Kadesh-Barnea. Finally there are the southern routes which depend on the identification of Jebel Musa with Sinai, but this association dates only from the 3rd century AD.


Exodus 12:37 refers to 600,000 adult Israelite men leaving Egypt with Moses, plus an unspecified but apparently large "mixed multitude" of non-Israelites;[8] Numbers 1:46 gives a more precise total of 603,550.[9]

If taken literally the total number involved, the 600,000 "fighting men" plus wives, children, the elderly, and the "mixed multitude," would have been two million or more,[10] equivalent to more than half of the entire Egyptian population of around 3-6 million.[11] The loss of such a huge proportion of the population would have caused havoc to the Egyptian economy, but no evidence of such effect has been found. Archaeological research has found no evidence that the Sinai desert ever hosted, or could have hosted, millions of people, nor of a massive population increase in Canaan, estimated to have had a population of between 50,000 and 100,000 at the time.[12] The logistics involved also present problems, with Eric Cline pointing out that 2.5 million people marching ten abreast would form a line 150 miles long, without accounting for livestock.[13]

Hebrew University professor Abraham Malamat has proposed that the Bible often refers to 600 and its multiples, as well as 1,000 and its multiples, typologically in order to convey the idea of a large military unit. "The issue of Exodus 12:37 is an interpretive one. The Hebrew word eleph can be translated 'thousand,' but it is also rendered in the Bible as 'clans' and 'military units.' There are thought to have been 20,000 men in the entire Egyptian army at the height of Egypt's empire. And at the battle of Ai in Joshua 7, there was a severe military setback when 36 troops were killed." Therefore, if one reads alaphim (plural of eleph) as military units, the number of Hebrew fighting men lay between 5,000 and 6,000. In theory, this would give a total Hebrew population of less than 20,000, something within the range of historical possibility.


Traditional exodus

The traditional bible chronology dates the Exodus to c.1447 BCE. The traditional early date is based on Edwin Thiele's chronology for the reigns of the Israelite and Judahite kings[14] in the context of 1 Kings 6:1, which dates the start of the construction of Solomon's Temple to the fourth year of King Solomon's reign, which it says was 480 years after the Exodus. The identification of the pharaoh who was reigning at this time depends on the specific Egyptian chronology that is being used for this time period. The possibilites include three or four pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, Thutmose II (c.1493-1479 BCE), Hatshepsut (1479-1458 BCE), Thutmose III (1479-1425 BCE), and Amenhotep II.[15]

Late exodus

In the mid-20th century the lack of evidence for the traditional early date led William F. Albright to propose an alternative, "late" Exodus around 1200-1250 BCE. His argument included: 1. Digs in the 1930s had failed to find traces of the simultaneous destruction of Canaanite cities c.1400 BCE as described in the Book of Joshua, and in fact Jericho, the first city to fall to the Israelites, was uninhabited at that time and for centuries after. 2. A mummy labeled as Thutmoses III was discovered in the Deir el-Bahri cache in the Valley of the Kings in 1881. Thutmose III's records do not mention the expulsion of any group that can be identified with over 2 million Hebrew slaves, nor any events which could be identified with the Biblical plagues. 3. Evidence of destruction had been found at Beitel (Bethel) and some other cities from around that period, and a distinctive round-collared jar was, in his opinion, to be identified with in-coming Israelites.

The theory enjoyed popularity around the middle of the 20th century, but has now been generally abandoned except by some conservative Christians, notably Kenneth Kitchen.[16] The arguments against the late date for the Exodus include: 1. The collar-rimmed jars have been recognised as an indigenous form originating in lowland Canaanite cities centuries earlier.[17] 2. While some "Joshua" cities, including Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo and others, have destruction and transition layers around 1250-1145 BCE, others have no destruction layers or were uninhabited during this period.[12] 3. The scholarly consensus is that Jericho, the first city to be destroyed according to the biblical story, was in fact destroyed ca. 1550 BCE and was not inhabited at the time of Albright's late date for the exodus.[18] 4. The Merneptah Stele indicates a people called "Israel" were already known in Canaan by the reign of Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE),[19]

Early exodus

A number of authors have advocated an "early" Exodus, prior to c.1440 BCE.

According to this view, the Israelites and the Hyksos are separate groups of people, and the first Exodus from Egypt occurred before the expulsion of the Hyksos. As a result, this interpretation of the exodus does not suffer from the difficulties that come from identifying the Israelites with the Hyksos rulers of Egypt. This book advocates the High Egyptian Chronology,[20][21] which dates the reign of Thutmose III to the time period from 1504 BCE to 1450 BCE rather than the time period from 1479 BCE to 1425 BCE that it occupies in the Conventional Egyptian chronology. Sivertsen also argues that the mummy from the Deir el-Bahri cache in the Valley of the Kings that was labeled as Thutmose III is actually the mummy of a different person.[22] As a result, it is possible that the second exodus occurred in 1450 BCE (which is close to the traditional early date of 1447 BCE) and it is also possible that the reign of Thutmose III ended at the time of this exodus.

David Rohl's 1995 A Test of Time attempts to reconcile Biblical and Egyptian history by shortening the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt by almost 300 years, making the 13th Dynasty pharaoh Djedneferre Dudimose (Dedumesu, Tutimaos, Tutimaios) the pharaoh of the Exodus.[23] Rohl's theory, however, has failed to find support among scholars in his field.[24]

There are numerous difficulties with views that equate the Israelites with the Hyksos.[25][26] There are obvious differences between Egyptian history in the period of the Hyksos and the story told in the Torah: the Hyksos were in Egypt for only a little over a century, against the 400 years described in the Bible, they left Egypt as defeated foreign rulers rather than as fleeing slaves, and the Pharaoh Ahmose pursued them across northern Sinai and into southern Canaan, where their arrival c.1500 BCE (if the Exodus story of 40 years of Wilderness wandering is followed - Ahmoses's own account implies a much shorter period, and he obviously was not lost in the Red Sea) would leave a 250-year gap before the first appearance of proto-Israelite artefacts in the archaeological record. Nor does the Bible story give any impression of the fact that Egypt had more than one Pharaoh at this time, the Hyksos 15th dynasty ruling in the Delta, the native Egyptian 17th dynasty in the Nile valley to the south, with the 16th dynasty as a line of petty kings on the margin.

An alternative "early" date links the Exodus with the eruption of the Aegean volcano of Thera in c.1600 BCE, on the grounds that it could provide a natural explanation of the Biblical "Plagues of Egypt" and some of the incidents of the Exodus, notably the crossing of the Red Sea.[27]

Critical Evaluation

Most archaeologists,[5] including Israel Finkelstein, Zahi Hawass,[28] Ze'ev Herzog and William G. Dever, regard the Exodus as non-historical, at best containing a small germ of truth. In his book, The Bible Unearthed, Finkelstein points to the appearance of settlements in the central hill country around 1200 BCE, recognized by most archaeologists as the earliest settlements of the Israelites.[6] Using evidence from earlier periods, he shows a cyclical pattern to these highland settlements, corresponding to the state of the surrounding cultures. Finkelstein suggests that the local Canaanites would adapt their way of living from an agricultural lifestyle to a nomadic one and vice versa. When Egyptian rule collapsed after the invasion of the Sea Peoples, the central hill country could no longer sustain a large nomadic population, so they went from nomadism to sedentism. Dever agrees with the Canaanite origin of the Israelites but allows for the possibility of a Semitic tribe coming from Egyptian servitude among the early hilltop settlers and that Moses or a Moses-like figure may have existed in Transjordan ca 1250-1200.[29]

Extra-Biblical sources


In his Antiquities of the Jews and Against Apion, Josephus recounts a distorted tale supposedly from Manetho, identifying the expulsion of the Jews both with the Hyksos, and with the expulsion of a group of Asiatic lepers, led by a renegade Egyptian priest called Osarseph. It appears this tale is a conflation of events of the Amarna period, of the earlier Hyksos expulsion, and events throughout the 19th Dynasty.

See also


  1. "Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah said: 'I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night-until Ben Zoma explained it'." Passover Hagadah translation, (
  2. אָמַר לָהֶם רִבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה, הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְּבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם Passover Hagadah according to Mishneh Torah (Hebrew original), (
  3. "It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon were reclining in B'nei Berak. They were discussing the exodus from Egypt." Passover Hagadah translation, (
  4. מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרִבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר וְרִבִּי יְהוֹשׁוּעַ וְרִבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה וְרִבִּי עֲקִיבָה וְרִבִּי טַרְפוֹן, שֶׁהָיוּ מְסֻבִּין בִּבְנֵי בְרָק; וְהָיוּ מְסַפְּרִין בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם Passover Hagadah according to Mishneh Torah (Hebrew original), (
  5. 5.0 5.1 Teresa Watanabe, "Doubting the Story of Exodus", Los Angeles Times April 13, 2001
  6. 6.0 6.1 Finkelstein, Israel and Nadav Naaman, eds. (1994). From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological and Historical Aspects of Early Israel. Israel Exploration Society. ISBN 1880317206. 
  7. Dever, William G. (2002). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-2126-X. 
  8. Exodus 12
  9. Numbers 1
  10. Mattis Kantor ("The Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia" Jason Aronson Inc., 1989, 1992) places the estimate at 2 million "[i]n normal demographic extensions...."
  11. Robert Feather, The Copper Scroll Decoded and [1], [2], and [3]).
  12. 12.0 12.1 Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman (2002). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. Free Press. ISBN 978-0684869131. 
  13. Cline, Eric H. (2007), From Eden to Exile: Unravelling Mysteries of the Bible, National Geographic Society, ISBN 978-1426200847 p.74
  14. Thiele, Edwin R (1983). The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. Zondervan. ISBN 9780825438257. 
  15. Howard, David M. Jr. and Michael A. Grisanti (editors) (2003). "The Date of the Exodus (by William H. Shea)". Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using the Old Testament Historical Texts. Kregel Publications. ISBN 9781844740161. 
  16. Kitchen, Kenneth A (2003). On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Eerdmans. pp. 309–10. ISBN 978-0802849601. 
  17. Mary Joan Winn Leith, "How a People Forms", review of "Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines and Early Israel" (2001), Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2006, pp.22-23
  18. Dever, William G (2003). Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?. Eerdmans. pp. 44–46. ISBN 0802844162. 
  19. Currie, Robert and Hyslop, Stephen G. The Letter and the Scroll: What Archaeology Tells Us About the Bible. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009.
  20. Johnson, J.H. and E.F. Wente, eds. (1976). "A Chronology of the New Kingdom (by E. F. Wente and C. C. Van Siclen III)". Studies in Honor of George R. Hughes. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. ISBN 978-0918986016. 
  21. Casperson, L.W., "The Lunar Dates of Thutmose III," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 45 (1986): 139-50.
  22. Wente, Edward F. "Who Was Among The Royal Mummies?" (This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 144, Winter 1995, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.) Available at [4]
  23. Rohl, David (1995). "Chapter 13". A Test of Time. Arrow. pp. 341–8. ISBN 0099416565. 
  24. Bennett, Chris. "Temporal Fugues", Journal of Ancient and Medieval Studies XIII (1996). Available at [5]
  25. "Debunking "The Exodus Decoded"". September 20, 2006. Retrieved 8 August 2009. 
  26. "The Exodus Decoded: An Extended Review". Tuesday 19 Dec 2006. Retrieved 8 August 2009. 
  27. Sivertsen, Barbara J (2009). The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of the Exodus. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691137704. 
  28. Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say, New York Times, April 3, 2007
  29. Dever, William G. (2002). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. ISBN 0-8028-2126-X. 

Further reading

  • Encyclopedia Judaica. S.v. "Population". ISBN 0-685-36253-1
  • Sivertsen, Barbara J. The Parting of the Sea: How Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plagues Shaped the Story of the Exodus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-691-13770-4
  • Yilgal Shiloh. "The Population of Iron Age Palestine in the Light of a Sample Analysis of Urban Plans, Areas and Population Density." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) 239, (1980): 25-35. ISSN 0003-097X
  • Nahum Sarna. "Six hundred thousand men on foot" in Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, New York: Schocken Books (1996): ch. 5. ISBN 0-8052-1063-6
  • Hershel Shanks, William G. Dever, Baruch Halpern and P. Kyle McCarter. The Rise of Ancient Israel: Symposium at the Smithsonian Institution October 26, 1991, Biblical Archaeological Society, 1992. ISBN 1-880317-05-2
  • Manfred Bietak. Avaris: The Capital of the Hyksos: Recent Excavations, London: British Museum Pubs. Ltd, 1995. ISBN 0-7141-0968-1. Here, Bietak discusses Thutmose III era finds in the vicinity of the later city of pi-Ramesses.
  • Thomas E. Levy and Mohammed Sajjar. "Edom & Copper", Biblical Archaeological Review (BAR), July/August, 2006: 24-35.
  • Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence, edited by Frerichs, Lesko & Dever, Indianapolis: Eisenbrauns, 1997. ISBN 1-57506-025-6 See esp. Malamat's essay there.
  • Theophile Meek, Hebrew Origins, Gloucester, MA.: Peter Smith Pub. Inc., 1960. ISBN 0-8446-2572-8
  • John J. Bimson. Redating the Exodus. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1981. ISBN 0-907459-04-8
  • Yohanan Aharoni. The Archaeology of the Land of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982. ISBN 0-664-21384-7. This book is notable for the large number of Ramesside cartouches and finds it cites throughout Israel.
  • Johannes C. de Moor. "Egypt, Ugarit and Exodus" in Ugarit, Religion and Culture, Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Ugarit, Religion and Culture, edited by N. Wyatt and W. G. E. Watson. Münster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag, 1996. ISBN 3-927120-37-5
  • Richard E. Friedman. Who Wrote the Bible?. HarperSanFrancisco, 1997. ISBN 0-06-063035-3. (an introduction for the layman to the view that there are in all probability multiple sources for the "Books of Moses")
  • Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed. New York: Free Press, 2001. ISBN 0-684-86912-8
  • Amnon Ben-Tor. "Hazor - A City State Between The Major Powers." Scandinavian J. of the OT (SJOT), vol. 16, issue 2, 2002: 308. ISSN 0901-832
  • Dever, William G. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?
  • John J. Bimson and David Livingston, "Redating the Exodus," Biblical Archaeology Review 13:05, Sep/Oct 1987.
  • Hoffmeier, James K. Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Noll, K. L. Canaan and Israel in Antiquity. Sheffield Academic Press, 2001. ISBN 1-84127-318-X. Case study of the biblical exodus can be found here.

External links