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The Exodus (from Greek ἔξοδος exodos, "going out") is the charter myth of Israel; its message is that the Israelites were delivered from slavery by Yahweh and therefore belong to him through the covenant. 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, and their wanderings in the wilderness up to the borders of Canaan.
No archeological evidence has been found to support the Book of Exodus and most archaeologists have abandoned the investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit". While significant portions of the story told in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were never intended to be historiographic, the overall intent was historical according to the understanding of the ancient writers: to demonstrate God's actions in history, to recall Israel's bondage and salvation, and to demonstrate the fulfillment of Israel's covenant.
The opinion of the overwhelming majority of modern biblical scholars is that the Pentateuch as we know it was shaped into its final form in the post-Exilic period, although the traditions behind the narrative are older and can be traced in the writings of the 8th century prophets. How far beyond that the tradition might stretch cannot be told: "Presumably an original Exodus story lies hidden somewhere inside all the later revisions and alterations, but centuries of transmission have long obscured its presence, and its substance, accuracy and date are now difficult to determine."
The Exodus has been 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 Pesach. In secular history the exodus has served as inspiration and model for many groups, from early Protestant settlers fleeing persecution in Europe to 19th and 20th century African-Americans striving for freedom and civil rights.
The opinion of the overwhelming majority of modern biblical scholars is that the Torah (the series of five books which make up Genesis plus the Exodus story) was shaped in the post-Exilic period. There are currently two important hypotheses explaining the background to this: the first is Persian Imperial authorisation, the idea that the post-Exilic community needed a legal basis on which to function within the Persian Imperial system; the second relates to the community of citizens organised 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. In either case, the Book of Exodus forms a "charter myth" for Israel: Israel was delivered from slavery by Yahweh and therefore belongs to him through the covenant.
The completion of the Torah and its elevation to the center of post-Exilic Judaism was as much or more about combining older texts as writing new ones – the final Pentateuch was based on earlier traditions. While the story in the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy is the best-known account of the Exodus, there are over 150 references throughout the Bible. The earliest mentions are in the prophets Amos (possibly) and Hosea (certainly), both active in 8th century BCE Israel; in contrast Proto-Isaiah and Micah, both active in Judah at much the same time, never do; it thus seems reasonable to conclude the Exodus tradition was important in the northern kingdom in the 8th century, but not in Judah.
In a recent work, Stephen C. Russell traces the 8th century prophetic tradition to three originally separate variants, in the northern kingdom of Israel, in Trans-Jordan, and in the southern kingdom of Judah. Russell proposes different hypothetical historical backgrounds to each tradition: 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 Trans-Jordanian 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; and for Judah, whose tradition is preserved in the Song of the Sea, he suggests the celebration of a military victory over Egypt, although it is impossible to suggest what this victory may have been.
Most histories of ancient Israel no longer consider information about the Exodus recoverable or even relevant to the story of Israel's emergence. Nevertheless, the discussion of the historicity of the exodus has a long history, and continues to attract attention.
The consensus among biblical scholars today is that there was never any exodus of the proportions described in the Bible. 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. The 600,000, plus wives, children, the elderly, and the "mixed multitude" of non-Israelites would have numbered some 2 million people, compared with an entire Egyptian population in 1250 BCE of around 3 to 3.5 million. Marching ten abreast, and without accounting for livestock, they would have formed a line 150 miles long. No evidence has been found that indicates Egypt ever suffered such a demographic and economic catastrophe or that the Sinai desert ever hosted (or could have hosted) these millions of people and their herds.
Some scholars have rationalised these numbers into smaller figures, for example reading the Hebrew as "600 families" rather than 600,000 men, but all such solutions raise more problems than they solve. The view of mainstream modern biblical scholarship is that the improbability of the Exodus story originates because it was written not as history, but to demonstrate God's purpose and deeds with his Chosen People, Israel. Some have suggested that the 603,550 people delivered from Egypt (according to Numbers 1:46) is not a number, but a gematria (a code in which numbers represent letters or words) for bnei yisra'el kol rosh, "the children of Israel, every individual;" while the number 600,000 symbolises the total destruction of the generation of Israel which left Egypt, none of whom lived to see the Promised Land.
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, and most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit". A number of theories have been put forward to account for the origins of the Israelites, and despite differing details they agree on Israel's Canaanite origins. The culture of the earliest Israelite settlements is Canaanite, their cult-objects are those of the Canaanite god El, the pottery remains in the local Canaanite tradition, and the alphabet used is early Canaanite, and 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.
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, 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. 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 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 Persians and later from Seleucid Syria. 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 did not take place before the late 2nd millennium, after the Israelites had already emerged in Canaan, and they did not become widespread in Egypt until c.200–100 BCE.
The chronology of the Exodus story likewise underlines its essentially religious rather than historical nature. The number seven, for example, was sacred to God in Judaism, and so the Israelites arrive at Sinai, where they will meet God, at the beginning of the seventh week after their departure from Egypt, while the erection of the Tabernacle, God's dwelling-place among his people, occurs in the year 2666 after God 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.
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, 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 Mt. 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.
1 Kings 6:1 states that the Exodus occurred 480 years before the construction of Solomon's Temple, which would imply an Exodus c.1446 BCE, during Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty. By the mid-20th century it had become apparent that the archaeological record made this date impossible: Egyptian records of that period do not mention the expulsion of any group that could be identified with over two million Hebrew slaves, nor any events which could be identified with the Biblical plagues, and digs in the 1930s had failed to find traces of the simultaneous destruction of Canaanite cities c.1400 BCE — in fact many of them, including Jericho, the first Canaanite city to fall to the Israelites according to the Book of Joshua, were uninhabited at the time.
The lack of evidence led William F. Albright, the leading biblical archaeologist of the period, to propose an alternative, "late" Exodus around 1250–1200 BCE. His argument was based on the many strands of evidence, including the archaeologically attested destruction at Beitel (Bethel) and some other cities at around that period, and the occurrence from the same period of distinctive house-types and a distinctive round-collared jar which, in his opinion, was to be identified with in-coming Israelites. Albright's theory enjoyed popularity around the middle of the 20th century, but has now been generally abandoned in scholarship: the collar-rimmed jars have been recognised as an indigenous form originating in lowland Canaanite cities centuries earlier; while some "Joshua" cities, including Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo and others, have destruction and transition layers around 1250–1145 BCE, others, including Jericho, have no destruction layers or were uninhabited during this period; and the Merneptah Stele indicates that a people called "Israel" were already known in Canaan by the reign of Merneptah (1213–1203 BCE).
The exodus from Egypt is the theme of the Jewish festival of Passover. The Hebrew name for this, Pesach, refers to God's instruction to the Israelites to prepare unleavened bread as they would be leaving in haste, and to mark their doors with the blood of slaughtered sheep so that the "Angel" or "the destroyer" tasked with killing the first-born of Egypt would "pass over" them. (Despite the Exodus story, scholars believe that the Passover festival originated not in the biblical story but as a magic ritual to turn away demons from the household by painting the door frame with the blood of a slaughtered sheep.)
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.
The earliest non-Biblical account of the Exodus is in the writings of the Greek author Hecataeus of Abdera: the Egyptians blame a plague on foreigners and expel them from the country, whereupon Moses, their leader, takes them to Canaan, where he founds the city of Jerusalem. Hecataeus wrote in the late 4th century BCE, but the passage is quite possibly an insertion made in the mid-1st century BCE.
The most famous is by the Egyptian historian Manetho (3rd century BCE), 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. Josephus (not Manetho) identifies the Hyksos with the Jews. 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. Manetho differs from the other writers in describing his renegades as Egyptians rather than Jews, and in using a name other than Moses for their leader, although the identification of Osarseph with Moses may be a later addition.
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