The Exodus is the founding myth of the Israelites.[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.
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. 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.
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. Most scholars nevertheless believe that the story has some historical basis, even if this little resembles the story told in the Bible. 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), although the traditions behind it are older and can be found in the writings of the 8th-century BCE prophets.
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). In first book of the Pentateuch, the Book of Genesis, the Israelites had come to live in Egypt in the Land of Goshen during a faminine 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 pharoah "who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). The pharoah becomes concerned by the number and strength of Israelites in Egypt and enslaves them, commanding them to build at two "supply cities" called Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1:11). 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 Pharaoh and ask him to let the Israelites go into the desert for a religious festival, but Pharaoh refuses and commands the Israelites to make bricks without straw and increases their workload. Moses and Aaron return to Pharaoh and this time ask him to free the Israelites. Pharaoh demands that Moses perform a miracle, and Aaron throws down Moses' staff, which turns into a snake; however, Pharaoh's magicians are also able to do this, though Moses' staff devours the others. 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 children of Egypt, 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 (Exodus 12:14). 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. 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 (i.e. law, instruction), 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 absense the Israelites sin against Yahweh by creating the idol of a golden calf, and as retaliation Yahweh has the Levites kill three thousand people (Exodus 32:28) and Yahweh sends a plague on the Israelites. The Israelites now accept the covenant, 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 (Numbers 13:31-33). 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. 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, 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 two Israelites and a Midianite woman (Numbers 25:7-9). 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 than 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 sommon 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.
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. 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). The laws are set out in a number of codes:
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. 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. (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. 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. The story was most likely further altered and expanded under the influence of the return from the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE.
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 organised 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 (i.e., to Israel), thus reinforcing Israel's unity through its new institutions.
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". 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). 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. 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. 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).
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.
The overwhelming consensus among scholars is that the Exodus story is best understood as a myth and does not accurately describe historical events. It is specifically the founding myth of the Jewish people, explaining their origins and providing an ideological foundation for their culture and institutions. 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. 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 (c. 1207 BCE), 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.
While all but the most conservative scholars reject the biblical account of the Exodus, a majority still believes that the story has some historical basis, with Kenton Sparks referring to it as "mythologized history." 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, and the names Moses, Aaron and Phinehas, which seem to have an Egyptian origin. The expulsion of the Hyskos by the Seventeenth Dynasty of Egypt is frequently discussed as a potential historical parallel. Avraham Faust and William Dever argue that a group of Egyptian origin, whom Dever cautiously identifies as "the house of Joseph", 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. 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. Most proposals for a historical Exodus of any sort place it in the sixteenth, fifteenth, or thirteenth centuries BCE. 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.
Some scholars, associated with the interpretative school of Biblical minimalism, show more skepticism towards ascribing any historicity to the Exodus, with some arguing that the myth has its origins in the exilic and post-exilic Jewish community and has little to no historical basis. Lester Grabbe, for instance, argues that "[t]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 millenium 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 (both biblical and non-biblical) 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 (or most of them, anyway)."
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.