1. Introduction to the Text
2. The Sojourn in Egypt
3. Dating the Exodus
4. The Birth of Moses
5. The Flight to Midian
6. The Burning Bush
7. Moses Returns to Egypt
8. The Ten Plagues of Egypt
9. The First Passover
10. The Exodus in Egyptian History
11. The Exodus in Scripture
12. Geography of the Exodus
The book of Exodus is a narrative of the sacred history of Israel from the sojourn in Egypt to the completion of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The interpretation of the text is difficult in places, due to the use of ancient idiomatic expressions, and the vast cultural divide that separates the early Hebrews from later commentators. Apart from the occasional gloss inserted by later editors, the book is a coherent, continuous narrative, and supposed repetitions identified by form critics actually follow an internal logic. Unlike the book of Genesis, which clearly used multiple source documents, a single source suffices to account for most of Exodus.
According to the earliest traditions, the author of Exodus was Moses himself, writing during the latter stages of Israel's life in the desert. In fact, the book gives many indications of personal knowledge of Egyptian culture that would be hard to reconcile with a much later date of composition. Moreover, the substance of much of what is related could only have come from Moses, who alone would have had knowledge of his personal narrative and the divine revelations proclaimed to the Israelites under his authority. Nonetheless, the book of Exodus as we have it may differ significantly from the original text. Like the rest of the Pentateuch, Exodus underwent several transcriptions as the Hebrew form of writing changed over the centuries. At the same time, the Hebrew language itself changed in its idioms and in the names of places, so these were sometimes updated in the sacred texts during transcription. Lastly, scribes would occasionally insert glosses to clarify or elaborate obscure passages, sometimes by referencing other parts of the Torah. These modifications may have been made in the late pre-monarchical period.
When Jerusalem was destroyed in 587/586 BC, many Torah scrolls were undoubtedly lost, so the Pentateuch had to be re-composed by the prophet Ezra, presumably by a comparison of surviving scrolls. Here was an opportunity for emendation and reordering of materials, which may account for some discontinuity in parts of the Pentateuch, as well as differences between Jewish and Samaritan versions. In the third or second century BC, the Septuagint translation into Greek was made by Alexandrian Jews. This is an important manuscript tradition, due to its antiquity, but it must be remembered that translation to another language is a highly interpretive process, especially between two languages as dissimilar as Greek and Hebrew. The Septuagint is useful insofar as it helps us infer the state of the Hebrew text 200 years before Christ, and it also tells us how Jews then interpreted certain passages, judging from their choice of translation.
The Ezraite edition would undergo another upheaval after the second destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This calamity was unforeseen by most Jews, so many of the best Torah manuscripts were lost. From those that remained, a uniform edition was established in the second century. This Masoretic text, as it is called, was scrupulously followed by all later Jewish scribes, so that even obvious scribal errors were meticulously reproduced. Although the Masoretic manuscripts have the advantage of being remarkably consistent, the lack of variation prevents us from reconstructing the original text.
Modern text criticism must rely on comparisons among the Septuagint, Masoretic, and Samaritan manuscript traditions. Early Vulgate manuscripts are also helpful insofar as they represent the state of the Greek and Hebrew at that time, and they provide insight into how the texts were interpreted at that time. For his translation of the Pentateuch, St. Jerome studied under a rabbi to learn the meanings of Hebrew terms and expressions. He then corrected the existing Old Latin (Vetus Latina) edition against the Hebrew, creating the Vulgate version. Old Latin manuscripts, which are derived from the Septuagint, are still extant, but they have so many variants and inconsistencies that they are practically useless for reconstructing the original text. Indeed, it was precisely this chaotic state of the Latin version that gave occasion for St. Jerome to be commissioned to write the Vulgate edition.
Since the Vulgate is the oldest translation of the Masoretic text, we will follow it (both in Latin and in the Douay-Rheims English translation) except when it is necessary to look more closely at a Hebrew term or expression. In places where the Hebrew meaning is obscure, we may compare with the Septuagint, which is also useful for identifying scribal glosses. Our primary concern, however, is with the substance of the book, not resolving minor textual variations. As such, we will focus more on the structure and significance of the narrative and laws in Exodus, having recourse to archaeology, history, and religious studies. In this way, we may provide context for much of what is puzzling to the modern reader, and get a better sense of the meaning of the events and laws of Exodus.
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Haec sunt nomina filiorum Israhel qui ingressi sunt Aegyptum cum Iacob; singuli cum domibus suis introierunt. (1:1)
These are the names of the children of Israel that went into Egypt with Jacob; they went in every man with his household. (1:1)
. . .
Erant igitur omnes animae eorum qui egressi sunt de femore Iacob septuaginta; Ioseph autem in Aegypto erat. (1:5)
And all the souls that came out of Jacob's thigh, were seventy; but Joseph was in Egypt. (1:5)
The Vulgate, following the Masoretic text, says seventy descendants of Jacob entered in Egypt. This is a rounded figure that includes Joseph, who was already in Egypt, and his sons. If we refer back to Genesis 46, we find that seventy-two male descendants of Jacob are listed, including Joseph and eight of his heirs. The Septuagint also counts Jacob's daughter Dinah and Joseph's wife Aseneth, and double counts the firstborn Reuben, yielding its alternate figure of seventy-five. The seventy or seventy-five include grandsons who born later in Egypt, after the migration, yet perhaps within the lifetimes of the sons of Jacob. From this family of seventy, an entire nation would spring forth, in fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In my commentary on Genesis, I showed that Jacob's entry into Egypt could not be dated much later than 1710 B.C. From this time onward, Semitic tribes migrated into Egypt, and some of these, known as the "Hyksos" or shepherd-kings, established themselves as rulers of Egypt in 1660 B.C., 215 years after the call of Abraham. I tentatively identified Joseph as a vizier in the Thirteenth Dynasty, whose capital was in Memphis. The Semitic Hyksos seized Memphis and established their capital Avaris in the eastern delta, by the land of Goshen where the Israelites dwelt.
We do not know how the end of native Egyptian rule immediately affected the Israelites. At some point, however, the kings of Egypt viewed the Israelites with hostility. From archaeology, we know that later Hyksos kings such as Apophis adopted Egyptian names and worshipped Egyptian gods, even to the exclusion of foreign gods. Thus the Hyksos rulers had become inculturated and viewed themselves as Egyptian, much as the Hanoverian monarchs of Britain saw themselves as English rather than German.
Surrexit interea rex novus super Aegyptum, qui ignorabat Ioseph, et ait ad populum suum, "Ecce, populus filiorum Israhel multus et fortior nobis."(1:8-9)
In the meantime there arose a new king over Egypt, that knew not Joseph, and he said to his people, "Behold, the people of the children of Israel are numerous and stronger than we." (1:8-9)
After some unspecified period of time, a new king arose who knew nothing of Joseph and what he had done for Egypt. He saw in the Israelites a foreign people who stood aloof from the rest of Egypt, while growing in number and strength. The observation that they are "stronger than we" probably refers to individual strength, not collective strength, as the Israelites were toughened by hard labor. The Hebrews were not necessarily chattel slaves, but they were certainly a lower social class forced to toil, building the store cities of Pithom and Raamses. (1:11)
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Attempts to date the exodus should not rely on the identification of Pithom and Raamses, for there are several plausible sites for each of these cities, spanning the late Middle Kingdom through the Nineteenth Dynasty. Some have claimed that Pithom was another name for Heliopolis, since Heliopolis was a “house of Atum,” or Pi-Atum (Per-Atum). However, the Septuagint lists Pithom, Rameses, and "On, which is Heliopolis," as three distinct cities that the Israelites built up. (1:11) Other theories on the identity of Pithom share the assumption that this name is a Hebrew transliteration of Pi-Atum. This assumption, though speculative, is not unreasonable, as the middle consonant of the Hebrew is a taw, which may be pronounced either as t or th.
Raamses is usually identified with Pi-Rameses, the residence built by Ramses II (ruled 1290-1224 B.C.) in the Nineteenth Dynasty (1306-1186 B.C.). This identification falters because Pi-Rameses was neither a "store city" nor a "fortress" (as the Septuagint translates 1:11), and it was never called simply "Rameses." There is no reason why the Hebrew would drop the syllable "Pi" for one city but not the other. Mention of the name "Rameses" does not necessarily date the exodus in the Nineteenth Dynasty, for the Ramesside pharaohs took their names from a northeastern delta region that was already called Rameses. This region overlapped with Biblical Goshen, and contained the site of the Hyksos capital of Avaris. Thus Rameses could be a later name for Avaris (or some other Hyksos city), inserted by an Israelite scribe who updated the place name to contemporary usage.
There are two main schools of thought regarding the approximate date of the exodus. Among secular scholars, the dominant opinion is that the Israelites left Egypt in the thirteenth century, and the Pharaoh of the Oppression was probably Ramses II (1290-1224). This theory rests on several premises: (1) "Pithom and Raamses" were Heliopolis and Pi-Rameses, built under Ramses II; (2) the Merneptah stela (1220 B.C.) is the earliest Egyptian mention of Israel; (3) there is a complete absence of evidence of an earlier exodus; and (4) the cities of Palestine were mostly vassals of Egypt before the thirteenth century. We will set aside weak and non-specific evidence, such as Ramses’ reputation as a great builder and his use of slave labor, which was common to many pharaohs.
The evidence in favor of a "late date" for the exodus is ambiguous at best. I have already commented on the difficulty of identifying the store cities Pithom and Raamses. The Merneptah stela is indeed the earliest known Egyptian mention of Israel, but the absence of earlier evidence is not probative, since neither do we have any such mentions from Egypt in later centuries when Israel is certainly known to have existed. The stela's inscrition identifies Israel as a people rather than a territory, but this does not prove that the Israelites were not yet in Palestine. In fact, the Book of Judges depicts the Israelites as having rather temporary and tentative control of Palestinian cities for centuries after the exodus. Lastly, Egypt’s occupation of Palestine did not involve much presence beyond the coast. Inland cities were run by Canaanite vassals; it is these who fought the invading (and repeatedly re-invading) Israelites. The Amarna letters of the Eighteenth Dynasty may be evidence of such conflict.
The evidence of a thirteenth-century exodus, archaeological or historical, is so scant that many secular scholars have questioned whether the exodus occurred at all. It may be that they are looking at the wrong place in time. An earlier exodus date is favored by biblical literalists and a few mainstream scholars who have found the problems of a late dating intractable, yet are not willing to disregard the entire early history of Israel as legend.
Most advocates of an "early date" for the exodus choose the fifteenth century B.C, following an indication in the Book of Kings that construction of the Temple began 480 years after the exodus. (1 Kgs 6:1) This would date the exodus in the 1440s, during the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. Such a dating creates problems that are perhaps bigger than those facing a "late date." First and foremost, the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs ruled from Thebes, yet the Book of Exodus gives many details that are practically impossible to reconcile with the fact of a pharaoh living far from the Nile delta. Further, the mid-fifteenth century was a time of great prosperity for Egypt, uninterrupted by any calamities or upheavals as related in Exodus. Recognizing these and other problems, a small minority of scholars, most notably David Rohl, have sought to radically alter Egyptian chronology in order to fit the facts to the theory of a fifteenth-century exodus. I examined this new chronology in detail, and found, unsurprisingly in retrospect, that it created problems and contradictions in secular chronology greater than those it hoped to solve in biblical chronology. While the general sentiment of an earlier exodus is not misguided, the rigid insistence by some scholars on a literal interpretation of a verse in the Book of Kings has resulted in some grotesquely Procrustean theories.
I propose a solution to the above-mentioned problems by dating the exodus around the time of the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt in 1550 B.C. This dating firmly restores the exodus to the realm of history, as the Hyksos expulsion was a well-known, well-documented event that the Egyptian historian Manetho (third century B.C.) equated with the Jewish exodus. It is also consistent with a more sophisticated understanding of biblical chronology. If one adds all the time periods in the Book of Judges, a total of approximately 592 years appears to have elapsed from the exodus to the founding of the Temple. This is the figure the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100) used in his chronology. If we subtract from 592 the approximately 111 years that Palestine was occupied by another power, according to Judges, then we are left with 480 years. Thus the figure from 1 Kings 1:6 only counts years of Israelite independence between the exodus and the building of the Temple, and is consistent with a sixteenth-century exodus.
For the purposes of this commentary, I will use a sixteenth-century dating of the exodus as a working hypothesis, and examine how the known facts of secular history square with the details of the Biblical narrative. If we allow our conceptualization of the exodus to be informed by the textual and archaeological data rather than popular artistic representations, we may find that sacred and profane history can be harmonized without offense to faith or reason.
Our operating assumption of a sixteenth-century exodus places us near the end of the chaotic Second Intermediate Period (1786-1552 BC), when native Egyptian dynasties existed side by side with the Semitic Hyksos kingdom of the delta region. Since the events of Exodus take place near the delta, we will restrict our study to Lower Egypt. In this northernmost part of Egypt, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Dynasties existed side by side.
By conventional chronology, the Fourteenth Dynasty lasted from 1786 to 1603, but it may have extended further, since Manetho includes seventy-six kings in this dynasty. Its capital, Xois, was an island city in the central Delta, according to Strabo. The eastern delta, and perhaps most of Lower Egypt, was dominated by the Fifteenth Dynasty of Semitic kings, probably Amorites from Canaan. The first of these, Salitis, rebuilt Avaris, and may have been the king “who knew not Joseph,” unless this was a later king. These foreign rulers adopted Egyptian court customs and throne names, reflecting a process of cultural assimilation that strengthened their legitimacy. Like many ancient rulers of foreign lands, their rank-and-file support came from the conquered people. While they ruled, they were regarded as fully Egyptian, but after their expulsion in 1550 they would be remembered as despised foreigners.
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Having provided a plausible historical context in which to embed the Biblical narrative, we now return to the narrative itself. Hoping to check the growing Hebrew population, the king of Egypt summoned two midwives, Sephora and Phua, who attended to the Hebrews, and gave the following grisly instruction:
"Quando obsetricabitis Hebraeas, et partus tempus advenerit, si masculus fuerit, interficite; illum si femina reservate." (1:16)
"When you shall do the office of midwives to the Hebrew women, and the time of delivery is come, if it be a male, kill it; but if a female, save it." (1:16)
Professional midwifery was common in ancient Egypt, as attested by the Eber papyrus (1900-1550 BC) describing obstetric techniques. The practice was so widespread among Egyptians that Egyptian women did not know how to deliver their own infants, according to the midwives in Exodus. (1:19) The fact that the king addresses only two midwives suggests that he is only addressing the problem of Hebrews in the royal household. His fear of males in particular suggests he is afraid that Hebrew men may rise to power, which is a more plausible concern when there are already Semites in government.
As midwives enjoyed a position of closeness and trust with the people they served, these two were naturally reluctant to do harm. Apparently, the king intended that they should deliberately botch the delivery, as it was not feasible for these women to kill an infant in plain sight of the Hebrews. After a few months, the king would learn that the Hebrews were still delivering males. Since the midwives had never been asked to commit open infanticide after birth, their claim that the Hebrews had delivered their own babies (1:19) was an adequate defense.
God rewarded the midwives for protecting the Hebrew infants. They deceived the king only to save the lives of others, so this sin, if it is a sin at all, is readily pardoned. God gave them households of their own, fittingly rewarding them with the fruitfulness they gave to others. As for the Hebrews, they continued to multiply and grow strong, suggesting a lapse of time before a more direct extermination campaign is attempted.
Praecepit autem Pharao omni populo suo, dicens: "Quicquid masculini sexus natum fuerit, in flumen proicite; quicquid feminei reservate." (1:22)
Pharaoh therefore charged all his people, saying: "Whatsoever shall be born of the male sex, ye shall cast into the river: whatsoever of the female, ye shall save alive." (1:22)
Here, as through most of the Book of Exodus, the king of Egypt is referred to as Pharaoh. The common people would not be concerned with the monarch's elaborate royal names, but know him simply as "king." The term "pharaoh" was not used until the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty, but this does not compel us to date the exodus later, since it is probable that later scribes would have updated the term from whatever archaism preceded it. Indeed, even modern historians, for all their rigor, generally refer to all kings of Egypt as pharaohs.
The pharaoh in question charged all his people to kill all the male Hebrew infants. A pharaoh of the Fifteenth Dynasty could only exercise real sovereignty over part of Lower Egypt, though he may have pompously claimed rule over all of Egypt. Since the Hebrews had all settled in the eastern delta region, they were all subject to his authority.
Egressus est post haec vir de domo Levi; accepta uxore stirpis suae. Quae concepit et peperit filium; et videns eum elegantem, abscondit tribus mensibus. (2:1-2)
After this there went a man of the house of Levi; and took a wife of his own kindred. And she conceived, and bore a son: and seeing him a goodly child, hid him three months. (2:1-2)
Both parents of Moses were of the house of Levi, the tribe that would later be singled out for divine service. When their infant was aged three months, the mother finally relinquished the infant to the river, in the wild hope it may be taken for adoption. Her precaution of lining the reed basket with pitch shows that she did not desire to drown the infant. In a culture dependent on the river for transport, this was an intuitive method of dealing with orphaned children, equivalent to the modern custom of leaving a child on a doorstep.
In another river-based culture many centuries earlier, Sargon of Akkad (ruled 2371-2316 B.C.) related that he was set adrift in a basket of reeds and pitch by his mother the high priestess, and was recovered by a water-drawer who raised him. The similarity with the Moses narrative ends with the means of transport, for Moses’ mother abandoned her child not out of shame, but to secure his safety, and he would be received not by a commoner, but by the daughter of the Pharaoh. At any rate, it is unlikely the Akkadian story was known to the Egyptians.
The basket of reeds carrying the Hebrew infant was sealed with chemar (slime, tar) and zepheth (pitch), which is bitumen (asphalt) in its solid and liquid forms. This type of construction was common in Mesopotamia, but in Egypt boats were ordinarily made of papyrus. A Hebrew slave would not have had access to costly papyrus, nor would a full-size boat serve the purpose of covert disposal of an infant. Reeds were common in the eastern Nile delta, while bitumen or wood resin could be used for pitch and tar. Bitumen had been used as a fixative in Syria and Palestine since the early Bronze Age, so Hebrews would know of this technique. In Egypt, bitumen was not used in construction until the Ptolemaic period, but it was used in mummification as early as 1100 BC. It was long thought that all ancient Egyptian bitumen came from the Dead Sea in Palestine, but recent archaeology has identified indigenous sources at Abu Durba and Gebel Zeit near the Gulf of Suez. The Egyptians also could heat wood resins to make pitch and tar; ancient narratives generally speak of pitch and tar without regard for whether they are derived from bitumen or resin. Both resin and bitumen existed in Egypt since predynastic times, though their early uses remain unclear. At any rate, there is no compelling reason to regard the mention of pitch and slime in the Mosaic narrative as an anachronism.
The daughter of the Pharaoh happened to be bathing in the river, when she discovered the reed basket. She instructed one of her maids to retrieve it, and, discovering a baby who was clearly Hebrew in race, she nonetheless felt compassion for the child and decided to adopt it. The infant’s sister then asked Pharaoh’s daughter if she should seek a Hebrew woman to nurse the babe. This seeming impertinence might best be explained if Moses’ sister was in fact one of the maidservants, which would also account for how she was able to coordinate with her mother the abandoning and discovery of the child. Regardless of whether she was the maidservant of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ sister cunningly arranged for the true mother of the child to act as nursemaid, strengthening our impression that this was planned in advance. Such rustic schemes of living by one’s wits are common among downtrodden people, and we saw earlier examples in the narratives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
Pharaoh’s daughter named the child Moses, “for I have drawn him from the water.” The name Mose means “son of” in Egyptian, and is usually preceded by the name of some god (e.g, Thutmose means “son of Tut”). It is possible that Moses later discarded the first half of his name as he rejected the gods of Egypt. The name Moses is similar to the Hebrew term “to draw out,” and it may also involve Egyptian wordplay. The Egyptian term for water is swh, so Moses could be a truncated form of Moseswh, “son of water,” omitting the final vocalization.
When the infant no longer needed nursing, he was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter as her own child. Apparently, the Pharaoh’s wrath had relented by then, as she could raise a Hebrew in the royal court. The killing of the Hebrew infants had to have been a temporary measure, since its purpose was to limit the Hebrew population and reduce the likelihood of insurrection, not to exterminate the slave labor force. The measure must have been largely effective, as the Biblical narrative does not say at this point that the Hebrew race continued to grow in strength, but rather that Moses “saw their affliction.” (2:11)
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At first Moses dealt with the oppression of his people as a common revolutionary might. He covertly killed an Egyptian who was beating a fellow Hebrew, but was surprised to find that news of his act had spread among the Hebrews.
Et egressus die altero, conspexit duos Hebraeos rixantes; dixitque ei qui faciebat iniuriam: “Quare percutis proximum tuum?” Qui respondit: “Quis constituit te principem et iudicem super nos? Num occidere me tu dicis sicut occidisti Aegyptium?” Timuit Moses et ait: “Quomodo palam factum est verbum istud?” (2:13-14)
And going out the next day, he saw two Hebrews quarrelling: and he said to him that did the wrong: "Why strikest thou thy neighbour?" He answered: "Who hath appointed thee prince and judge over us? Wilt thou kill me, as thou didst yesterday kill the Egyptian?" Moses feared, and said: "How is this come to be known?" (2:13-14)
In his zeal for justice, Moses presumed to make himself the prince and judge of the Hebrews. Instead of inspiring gratitude among the Hebrews by killing the Egyptian, he became an object of fear and distrust. The man who presumed to administer his own justice to the Egyptian would likely do the same to the Hebrew, so they reasoned. The Hebrews did not hate Egyptian tyranny so much that they would submit to the arbitrary rule of one of their brethren. Violent revolution, however well intentioned, is not a path to legitimate rule. We may also see in the reaction of the Hebrews a certain contempt for those in favored positions. As a privileged member of the royal household, Moses would have been subject to the same antipathy that domestic slaves (“house Negros”) received from those who toiled in the fields on nineteenth-century plantations.
Moses’ life of privilege would end when Pharaoh learned of his crime and sought to kill him. Intriguingly, the Pharaoh had long tolerated having a Hebrew as an adoptive grandson, though he had also ordered the slaying of Hebrew infants years earlier. It is possible that he did not know that Moses was a Hebrew, but this is unlikely, as the fact was known to Pharaoh’s daughter, who did not fear to raise him as her son. This seeming contradiction in behavior can be reconciled if we consider that the Pharaoh was not motivated by racial animus, but by a desire to keep the slave population manageable. Indeed, the race of the Pharaoh was likely a mixture of Semitic and Egyptian extraction, so the Hebrews would not have seemed so foreign to him. Only when Moses appeared to incite revolt did Pharaoh take action against him. The Pharaoh of the Oppression was more of a social pragmatist than a racist zealot.
Moses fled to the land of Midian ("Madian" in the Greek). Midian is identified in Genesis as a son of Abraham through his concubine Keturah, so the Midianites shared a common ancestry with the Israelites. By the time of Moses, some of them had migrated to the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula, where he now fled.
Again, Moses found himself intervening on behalf of the victimized, as the daughters of the priest Raguel were harassed by shepherds. Once they had drawn water from the well, they were driven away by the shepherds, presumably so these could use the water they had drawn. As water was a precious commodity in this region, such conflicts were by no means frivolous. Apparently this harassment was frequent, as Raguel was surprised that his daughters came home sooner than usual. This time, Moses did not merely fight the oppressor, but he participated in the labor of those he would help, watering their sheep. He did not impose himself on the Midianites, but rather Raguel sought him out to join his household.
Moses took Raguel’s daughter Sepphora as his wife. She bore him Gershom, whose descendants would be priests in the tribe of Dan. (Judges 18:30) Some Latin and Greek manuscripts insert at this point (2:22) the birth of Eliezer, who is otherwise not mentioned until Exodus 18:4. The current text does not make clear whether Eliezer was born during the flight to Midian or at a later time, though the use of the plural "sons" in verse 4:20 indicates the former. The name Eliezer ("God is help"), offered in gratitude for deliverance from Pharaoh, would be appropriate in either context. In fact, both sons must have been born during Moses' exile, for Moses would leave his family in Midian, only to be reunited after the exodus.
Post multum temporis mortuus est rex Aegypti; et ingemescentes filii Israhel, propter opera vociferati sunt, ascenditque clamor eorum ad Deum ab operibus. (2:23)
Now after a long time the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel groaning, cried out because of the works: and their cry went up unto God from the works. (2:23)
Years later, the king of Egypt died, yet the children of Israel still groaned under their labors. It is these very labors that called God to action. "Remembering" His covenant, which is to say renewing it, God “knew” his people, recognizing them as his children. (2:24-25) He would renew the covenant through Moses, who at this time was settled in Midian and had no intention of returning to Egypt.
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Moses would encounter God when he drove his father-in-law's flock to Mount Horeb. His father-in-law is identified as "priest of Midian" and is henceforth referred to as Jethro, which means "excellence" and may be a title rather that a personal name. Mount Horeb is called the “mountain of God” because of the revelations to Moses here, unless there was some prior tradition to this effect. The omission of this expression in the Septuagint suggests that there was no prior tradition. All the likely candidates for the biblical mount are in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula, so we may infer that this was the region where Raguel or Jethro dwelt, as one does not drive sheep over long distances.
Apparuitque ei Dominus in flamma ignis de medio rubi, et videbat quod rubus arderet, et non conbureretur. (3:2)
And the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he saw that the bush was on fire, and was not burnt. (3:2)
The Vulgate uses Dominus ("Lord") in place of the Holy Name YHVH, following the Hebrew custom of pronouncing Adonai ("Lord") wherever the Name is written. The ancient rabbis explained that YHVH refers to God as He really is, in his personal yet transcendent essence, while Elohim refers to God when He is made known as the lord of nature. The use of the Holy Name here tells us that Moses was granted a personal revelation of the divine essence.
The Lord appeared as a bush that is aflame yet is not consumed. This wondrous sight seized the attention of Moses, who went forth to see why the bush was not burnt. God issued a voice from the bush, calling Moses by name. The shepherd responded, but did not understand until the Lord revealed Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Immediately Moses hid his face, not daring to look at the bush, for fear of gazing upon God. Indeed, God told him to come no further, as if to say that no man should know why the bush is not consumed. In other words, no man can comprehend the divine essence.
God had heard his people’s cry, and promised to deliver them from Egypt, “into a good and spacious land, into a land that flows with milk and honey, to the places of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, Pherezite, the Hivite, and Jebusite.” (3:8) This is the principal reason for Moses’ mission: it is not to impose a burden upon the Hebrews, but rather to deliver them from oppression.
Moses was appointed by God to deliver the Hebrews from Egypt. To give a sign that God was with him, Moses was instructed: “When you bring my people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain.” (3:12) This sign was to occur only after the exodus, so Moses asked what he should say to his people before then. What is the name of the God of their fathers? It was important for Moses to know in whose name he acted, for that would be his credential. Mindful of his past experience, he no longer presumed to lead the Israelites by his own authority.
Dixit Deus ad Mosen, “Ego sum qui sum.” Ait, “Sic dices filiis Israhel, ‘Qui est misit me ad vos.’” (3:14)
God said to Moses: "I AM WHO AM." He said: "Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: 'HE WHO IS, hath sent me to you.'" (3:14)
“I am who am,” God tells Moses. This Name matches the image of the burning bush, that fuels itself yet is not consumed. Similarly, God is the self-sufficient Being, whose existence is not derived from some contingency, but He simply is Himself. God is not “being” in general, but a definite Being. He does not say, “I am being,” but “I am who am,” so His Being has reference to Himself.
This Holy Name is expressed elsewhere as the Tetragrammaton, YHVH, which when vocalized, sounds similar to the Hebrew, “I am I AM,” hyh hyh. It is unclear if the Tetragrammaton was used prior to the revelation to Moses. Its use in Genesis is not probative, since authorship of that book dates no earlier than Moses. If it were common to address the God of Abraham by a definite Name, Moses’ question would be inexplicable. All subsequent Jewish tradition regarded the Tetragrammaton as equivalent to the Name revealed to Moses, even if it was believed that earlier patriarchs knew this Name.
The Name (Ha'Shem) is never pronounced by orthodox Jews, for its mere utterance makes the speaker blasphemously assert that he is God. There is more to this taboo than that, for even the derivative names of God, such as Adonai, are pronounced only with circumspection, with the understanding that what is holy should not be spoken casually. There is also an ancient Semitic tradition of identifying a person with the name, the name being more than a mere label. Thus the one who speaks the Name of God presumes to invoke God. All of these rationales may be summarized as a strong sense that there should be a sharp division between the sacred and the profane.
God instructed Moses to announce to the Israelites that God would deliver them from oppression. Then Moses and the elders would ask Pharaoh for permission to journey three days into the wilderness to offer sacrifice to God. Knowing that Pharaoh would deny even this modest request, God promised to smite the Egyptians with wondrous deeds until they relented. In this way, the Israelites' ability to offer sacrifice to God in the desert would truly be a sign that God had been with them.
The Israelites would not depart from Egypt empty-handed, but their women would ask for articles of gold and silver and clothing from their (female) neighbors, thus despoiling the Egyptians. (3:22) In antiquity, women were the means by which the Hebrews frequently interacted with other ethnicities, even as the men stood aloof from foreigners. The women would be able to claim fine goods to clothe their children, in observance of a Middle Eastern custom of giving gifts to those released from servitude, and also to those making a sacred pilgrimage. The Egyptians were rich in gold, silver, and linens, so they could afford such fine gifts. In this way the Israelites would claim their due wages for their labors.
Respondens Moses ait: “Non credent mihi, neque audient vocem meam, sed dicent, ‘Non apparuit tibi Dominus’?” (4:1)
Moses answered, and said: They will not believe me, nor hear my voice, but they will say: The Lord hath not appeared to thee. (4:1)
Although God promised miracles that would confirm Moses’ mission after the fact, Moses was understandably concerned that people would not believe him without a prior sign that he is sent by God. In reply, God told Moses to cast his rod to the ground, upon which the rod became a serpent. When Moses grabbed the serpent’s tail, it became a rod again. As a second sign, God had Moses put his hand into the bosom of his robe. When it was drawn out, it became white as snow, “leprous” as the Vulgate has it, following the Hebrew. When Moses put his hand in and out a second time, it again became ordinary flesh. If the Israelites should not listen to Moses even after the first two signs, God offered a third: river water poured upon the dry land would turn to blood.
These signs are unlike anything that God had done previously for man. They are overtly magical miracles of transformation, such as would serve the express purpose of satisfying the skeptical that divine power is at work. In Genesis, God helped the patriarchs through His Providence, and revealed Himself in humanoid angelic form. Now God reveals something of His True Essence to Moses in the burning bush and in the Holy Name. He works overtly supernatural miracles in plain view of the senses. These strong signs are needed to convince the Israelites that Moses is from God. The Lord does only enough to achieve His end, confirming Moses’ mission, yet refraining from speaking directly to the Israelites. Until now, the Israelites have known little about the God of Abraham, but a fuller revelation is on the way.
Even with these signs as a guarantee, Moses was reluctant to embark on the mission, for he was “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” quoting the Hebrew literally. (4:10) This may refer to a lack of eloquence or a physical speech impediment. In either case, speech did not come easily to Moses, so he seemed most inapt to be God’s spokesman. Yet God reminded Moses that He does not reckon things as men do, for He gives speech and sight to whomever He wills, and He can give words even to Moses. Still, Moses asked for another to be chosen.
Moses’ rejection of his divine mission “angered” God, but not in the sense of provoking retribution. On the contrary, God strengthened Moses in his weakness by providentially bringing his brother Aaron out to meet him and serve as his spokesman. Moses bid leave of his father-in-law to return to Egypt.
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God foretold that Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go, even in the face of all the miracles Moses would present. The Scripture will repeatedly say that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, not in denial of free will, but in testimony of how Providence can bring good even out of evil. God claims Israel as His firstborn son:
“Dixi tibi, ‘Dimitte filium meum, ut serviat mihi,’ et noluisti dimittere eum. Ecce ego interficiam filium tuum primogenitum. (4:23)
I have said to thee: Let my son go, that he may serve me, and thou wouldst not let him go: behold I will kill thy son, thy firstborn. (4:23)
Since Pharaoh would not allow God’s firstborn to serve Him, Pharaoh will be denied his firstborn. This will occur only after successive plagues and repeated warnings.
Yet Moses is by no means exempt from the standard to which Pharaoh is held. By neglecting to circumcise his son, Moses failed to entrust his firstborn to divine service. At an inn along the way to Egypt, “the Lord met him, and sought to kill him.” (4:24) Short of a direct revelation, the only way Moses might have surmised God's intention would be if he had fallen deathly ill. His wife Sepphora circumcised their son and touched the foreskin to her husband’s feet, after which the danger of death passed. Declaring Moses to be her “spouse of blood,” she wished him to share credit for her virtuous act. Circumcision is necessary as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. Moses especially should not neglect to perform this rite, since it is in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant that God would work wonders to bring Israel out of Egypt.
Meanwhile, God inspired Aaron to go into the desert to meet with Moses on the mountain. Evidently, Moses had not traveled far before he was stricken with his nearly fatal condition. The brothers returned to Egypt, and spoke to the Hebrews, showing the signs God had revealed so that they would believe. The people indeed believed that God had visited them, and they fell down in adoration.
Moses and Aaron then turned to the Pharaoh, requesting that the Hebrews be permitted a three-day pilgrimage into the wilderness in order to offer sacrifice to God. As the people who long ago sought Moses’ death were now all dead, it is unlikely that the Pharaoh knew him as anything but just another Hebrew petitioner (hence his bewildered response in verse 5:4). Not recognizing the Hebrew God, Pharaoh denied the petition, on the grounds that he could not afford to give three days’ rest to so many people. Instead, he corrected this apparent laziness by increasing the Israelites’ labors, making them gather their own straw to make bricks.
Two aspects of the Biblical narrative are in stark contrast to most popular depictions. First, Aaron plays a prominent role, doing much of the speaking and even working miracles, as we shall see. Second, Moses and Aaron do not ask Pharaoh to release the Israelites from bondage, but only to allow them to worship their God on a brief pilgrimage. “Let my people go” is not a request to permanently leave Egypt, but a petition for freedom of worship. The exodus becomes necessary because it is impossible for the Hebrews to worship God properly in Egypt. This becomes increasingly clear as the narrative of the plagues continues.
The Hebrews blamed Moses and Aaron for causing their labors to increase, so Moses turned to God for guidance in his mission. God gave a new message for the Israelites, promising to deliver them from Pharaoh, who will indeed cast them out. (6:1) God had appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, the Almighty, but He did not reveal the Name YHVH. Only now is this greater revelation made, as now God will fulfill the promise to Abraham, redeeming Israel from bondage and taking them to the promised land. In doing so, God will take Israel as His people. It is this union of Israel with YHVH as the firstborn son of the father which is the entire purpose of bringing the Hebrews into the land of Canaan. This land was promised to Abraham because of his faith, and the believing Hebrews are granted this land in order to be children of God in worship. They will know God not merely as the mighty ruler of the cosmos, but as the One who redeemed them from bondage and took them as His sons.
Unfortunately, the Hebrews were too anguished in their toil to give heed to Moses proclaiming these promises. Moses again questioned his ability to carry out the mission. At this point, the narrative inserts a justification of Moses and Aaron by giving their genealogical credentials. (6:13-30) This text is almost certainly a later insertion, though not necessarily by a different author. Indeed, this genealogical information would have had to come from Moses or Aaron at some point. The preservation of these lineages in Egypt suggests that the Hebrews were not chattel slaves, but could retain their cultural traditions and keep their families together. The antiquity of the source is indicated by the fact that Amram is shown to have married his aunt (either his father’s sister or his uncle’s wife), contrary to later prohibitions against such unions. Moses and Aaron are fruits of that marriage in the house of Levi. The sons of Reuben and Simeon are also mentioned, since they are the older brothers of Levi, and convention requires that they precede Levi.
The three generations between Levi and Moses are assigned ages of 137, 133, and 137, to divide into thirds the 400 years spent in Egypt and Canaan. Chronological or biological exactitude are not intended here, but this is just a rough way of indicating that these generations spanned the period from the Call of Abraham to the Exodus. We have estimated these events to have historical dates of 1875 BC and 1550 BC respectively. The birth of Jacob was around 1800 BC and the birth of Levi was around 1770-1760 BC. This would mean a span of 215 years from the birth of Levi to the Exodus. As Moses was certainly at least middle-aged by this time, he could not have been born later than 1590 BC. That leaves 175 years from the birth of Levi to the birth of Moses, still far too long for a mere three generations. Clearly, there must be lacunae between Levi and Amram.
Just as Moses feared that he was too ineloquent to speak before the Hebrews, so now he has failed to convince Pharaoh. God again allowed Aaron to speak for Moses, this time before Pharaoh. Moses will be as a god to Pharaoh, with Aaron as his prophet. (7:1)
A narrative interjection mentions that Moses and Aaron were aged eighty and eighty-three, respectively, when they spoke before Pharaoh. This follows a convention in ancient biographies, making the first major event of one’s adult life take place at age forty. In this scheme, Moses fled to Midian when he was forty, returned to Egypt when he was eighty, and died at the age of 120. As forty is just a “round” number in Hebrew reckoning, these ages need not be taken literally. The impetuous man who slew the Egyptian may have been as young as twenty, yet it is certain that many years passed before it was safe for him to return. Moses must have been at least in his forties by the time of the exodus, if not older. Aaron was his older brother, not necessarily by three years, as the numbers “three” and “seven” were often used as approximations. It is clear that a later author inserted these temporal placeholders, as it is hardly likely that Moses himself should need to approximate his own age.
Moses and Aaron now performed signs before Pharaoh to convince him of their divine mission. It was actually Aaron who physically performed the signs with Moses’ rod, contrary to most artistic depictions. This cumbersome device of having Moses instruct his brother to perform each task would be needlessly awkward if this were a creative narrative, so we may take this as evidence that the account is historical.
Aaron first performed the sign of turning the rod into a serpent, as was done before the Hebrews. Now, however, the Egyptian magicians, with their secret arts, apparently replicate the feat with rods of their own. Whether they did this by preternatural means or by some ingenious sleight-of-hand is unclear, as the narrative is told from the perspective of an observer. Their serpents must have been considerably smaller, and easily hidden, as they were swallowed by Aaron’s serpent. Nonetheless, their replication of the feat persuaded Pharaoh that Moses and Aaron were mere magicians, not prophets of God. A similar attitude prevails among modern skeptics, who purport to debunk miracles by showing how they could be replicated by cunning or craft. Like the Pharaoh, they are hard of heart, eager to disbelieve. The swallowing of the other serpents symbolizes how God’s wonders are by no means equal to the works of man, though they may be similar in appearance.
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The remaining signs are commonly known as the "ten plagues," though the narrative makes no distinction between these and the preceding sign. Moses and Aaron again met Pharaoh on the river. Aaron struck the water with his rod, and the river "turned into blood," as did all the streams and ponds, killing the fish and making the water undrinkable. (7:20-21) Interestingly, the Scripture also says, “the Egyptians shall loathe to drink of the water of the river,” (7:18) implying that the water was still truly water, only corrupted. The Egyptians were able to dig for water beside the river, for only the river and adjoining bodies were contaminated. Possible contaminants include red insects of the Nile and red clay, which comes down in abundance from the Upper Nile during the river’s rising. Less likely is red algae, which has not been observed in the region. If any of these contaminants were made supernaturally abundant, the phenomenon might resemble blood. Thus this first plague would be a pestilence known to Egypt, but by divine power it happens swiftly and to a severe degree. The works of God have the same form as the works of nature, since those of nature are also His.
The second plague sounds strange to modern ears, but frogs were a common pestilence in ancient Egypt. Driven from the river by the putrefaction resulting from the first plague, they swarmed over Egypt seven days later in the same supernatural abundance. Again, the Egyptian conjurers were able to simulate this feat on a small scale through their secret art, but Pharaoh nonetheless asked Moses to spare Egypt from the frogs, and in exchange he would let the Hebrews go into the desert to worship. The next day Moses prayed to God to end the plague, and the frogs began to die en masse, contaminating the land with their bodies.
Given this respite, Pharaoh again grew proud and refused to let the Hebrews depart. Each plague provided a material basis for the next, as the dead fish brought frogs, and frogs dying on land provided a feeding ground for lice. This plague infested man and beast, and the Egyptian magicians could not replicate this feat. This failure suggests that they had been practicing trickery, not genuine sorcery, for it should be as easy to conjure lice as to conjure frogs or serpents. By contrast, to perform a sleight-of-hand trick, it is necessary to have the “conjured” animal secretly in hand. This is possible with serpents and frogs, but not with lice. Though the magicians were forced to admit that no human trickery could account for this plague, Pharaoh was unmoved. As the proofs became more convincing, so Pharaoh’s stubbornness increased. This hardening of his heart was providential, as it would eventually occasion the deliverance of the Hebrews.
With all the pestilence that had plagued Egypt so far, it is hardly surprising that the next plague should be of flies (dog-flies according to the Septuagint), attracted to the contamination and putrefaction caused by previous plagues. Here God shows that He holds Israel apart from Egypt, sparing the land of Goshen from the flies. It is only after this plague and its sign of division that Pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go to worship their God.
Again Moses prayed for the plague to be ended, and it was done, but Pharaoh reneged on his promise. The next plague was upon the Egyptians’ livestock, and again there is a distinction between Egypt and Israel. As the plague of flies distinguished the lands of Egyptians and Hebrews, so this plague distinguished their livestock possessions. The Egyptians suffered great losses of their livestock, though the expression “all their cattle” should not be taken literally, as their surviving livestock is mentioned in later plagues. The distinction is emphasized sharply on the other side, for “not one” of the Hebrews’ animals was affected. This sparing of Israel did not soften Pharaoh, but made him more firmly resolved not to grant their wish.
The next plague, a plague of boils, affected both man and beast. Even the magicians were helpless against this affliction. Still Pharaoh would not relent.
God spoke through Moses, again warning Pharaoh in advance of the next plague. Now He will inflict death upon the Egyptians, sparing Pharaoh so that he may be a witness to God’s power. The Egyptians are warned to bring in their livestock and slaves from the fields, for an unprecedented hailstorm will fall upon Egypt. Thunder and hail and “fire” – possibly lightning – fell upon the land, except Goshen, which was spared from the hail.
Some scholars maintain that the “fire” accompanying the hailstorm describes the effects of a massive volcanic explosion. The only large enough eruption in the region was on the island of Santorini (Thera), precisely carbon-dated to 1627-1600 BC, well before our timeframe for the Exodus, which is early compared to other hypotheses. Thus this explanation is highly dubious, and it is more likely that the “fire” simply refers to lightning and its effects, which commonly accompany hailstorms.
At long last, Pharaoh, astonishingly, admitted that he had sinned and his people had been wicked, and agreed to let the Hebrews permanently leave Egypt. The hailstorm then ended, and only the spring crops were destroyed, while the winter crops were spared. Yet Pharaoh again reversed himself, and so he was warned of a coming plague of locusts. This time, the king’s servants interceded, exasperated with the misfortunes that had befallen Egypt, and persuaded Pharaoh to agree to the original demand of Moses and Aaron to go worship God in the desert.
Moses then explained that the Hebrews were to bring their women, children, and livestock out to the desert, in order to properly observe this solemnity. Pharaoh was naturally suspicious, and insisted that only the men be allowed to go. We note again that the Hebrews had a somewhat higher status than mere chattel slaves, as they owned their own livestock, unlike the Egyptian slaves who were left out in the hailstorm with the animals.
Pharaoh’s partial refusal resulted in the plague of locusts being unleashed. Even in ordinary circumstances these creatures can be a menace, forming an unending black sea of winged insects, ravaging everything in sight. Before modern times, they were even more numerous, and the locust swarm in Exodus was the greatest of all. All the vegetation spared by the hailstorm was now destroyed by locusts. Pharaoh again repented, and the locusts were carried by a wind to the Red Sea.
As Pharaoh’s heart hardened yet again, God sent a darkness “so thick that it may be felt” upon Egypt. (10:21) This darkness lasted for three days. This palpable darkness might be attributable to a volcanic explosion, as the Santorini eruption left a pall of ash over the Eastern Mediterranean for an extended period, but this was well before even the earliest timeframe for the Exodus. The darkness may instead have come in the form of a severe dust storm, as can occur in the open desert, but only for brief periods. More important than the mechanics of the darkness is its meaning, as Egypt was cast into blindness, while God’s light shone on Israel alone, making the contrast between nations as clear as day.
Pharaoh again agreed to let the Hebrews go and worship, and even to bring their children, but their flocks must stay behind. Moses explained that they must bring all their flocks, for they knew not which of these animals they would be called upon to sacrifice. Again, suspecting that the Hebrews intended to desert Egypt, Pharaoh refused to let them go. He forbade Moses and Aaron to see him again, under penalty of death.
The Lord revealed to Moses that there would be one more plague upon Egypt, after which Pharaoh would not only let the Hebrews go, but he would thrust them out. As foretold previously, the Hebrews asked the Egyptians for articles of silver, gold, and linen. The favor they had won from the Egyptians now enabled them to despoil their oppressors and claim their rightful wages.
The last plague was the most terrible, for it inflicted death upon the Egyptians themselves. To show that this was not an indiscriminate slaughter, God claimed only the lives of the firstborn, as a sign that He has been denied His firstborn, Israel. As a matter of justice, God can reclaim the life He has given to His creatures. There is no equality or commensurability between God and creature. Whereas it is unjust for one man to take the life of another who has committed no crime, our lives ultimately belong to God, and when He takes the spirit from the flesh He is only reclaiming His own breath, His image and likeness. Similarly, from all brute beasts that are animated by His Will, God reclaims what is His. As a reminder that our firstborn children, no less than our livestock and inanimate possessions, are ours only by the grace of God, these things are withdrawn from the Egyptians. This is a harsh lesson, to be sure, but it is applied to a hardened people who have imposed heavy burdens on the people of Israel.
The plague afflicting the firstborn is described as the worst sorrow to befall Egypt. (11:6) Israel, by contrast, was completely spared, as a final mark of distinction. The magnitude of the calamity that befell Egypt argues against placing the Exodus in the era of Ramses II or even Thutmose III in the fifteenth century, for both of these periods are known to have been prosperous. The Second Intermediate Period, by contrast, brought chaos and calamity to Egypt. It is the time period that likely gave as the Admonitions of Ipuwer, a poetic lamentation extant in a Nineteenth Dynasty manuscript (13th century B.C.). Whether it describes historical reality or is merely a poetic fiction, this document attests to a despairing social climate, in sharp contrast with the confident Egypt of the New Kingdom. The author uses some verbal images similar to those in Exodus, “The river is blood, yet men drink of it.” Ipuwer attributes the plagues and barrenness that have befallen Egypt to the immorality of its people, for which the cure is a return to their ancient religious practices. Most significant, perhaps, is his complaint that the Egyptians have been displaced by foreigners, as this would be a fit for the Hyksos period, which we have supposed to be the time of the exodus.
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The tenth plague was also the occasion for the establishment of Passover. This feast is a sign of the mark of distinction God has placed upon Israel, and of their deliverance from Egypt. Verses 12:1-20 give a detailed account of the Passover ceremony as it is to be observed, while verses 21-24 give brief instructions by Moses to the Israelites on how to mark their doors that night. Verses 34 and 39 relate the practice of using unleavened bread, which is commemorated in the feast of unleavened bread.
The month during which Israel left Egypt would become the first month of their calendar. On the tenth day of that month, they were to take an unblemished lamb that is one year old and keep it for the Paschal feast. There should be a lamb for each household, or as many people as can consume the entire lamb. On the evening of the fourteenth day, the lambs are all to be sacrificed. The blood of this lamb should mark their door posts, as a sign that they have faithfully offered sacrifice. They shall eat only what is roasted on the fire, for they are only partaking of the holocaust and not dining for their enjoyment. The entire lamb must be consumed, as it is all offered in sacrifice. They will eat in haste, knowing that they might have to leave at a moment’s notice. The blood on the door posts will be a sign to pass over their houses that night and spare them from the tenth plague. In future years, the ceremony shall be kept in memorial of their deliverance.
For the seven days following the Pasch, the Israelites are forbidden to eat any leavened bread, lest their souls should perish out of Israel. This strong injunction suggests that the feast of unleavened bread is a defining characteristic of the people of Israel. Just as circumcision marks those under the covenant of Abraham, so the keeping of this feast marks membership among those who were to be delivered from Egypt. Trusting that God will soon deliver them from Egypt, they prepare for the journey by making only unleavened bread. To do otherwise would be a sign of disbelief that they are to be delivered.
Moses instructed the people to sacrifice the Pasch, and to use hyssop to sprinkle their doors with blood. The use of the plant hyssop to sprinkle sacrificial blood is mentioned in the traditional Latin Mass: “Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.” Translated, this reads: “Thou shalt sprinkle me, Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed. Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow.” In the New Covenant, the Paschal Sacrifice delivers us from sin, as God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. While the sprinkling of the doors of the Hebrews delivered them from the final plague, our sprinkling with holy water marks us as the people to receive deliverance from final damnation, gained by the blood of the Paschal Lamb on Good Friday.
The final plague came to pass, and all Egypt was in mourning, as every household lost at least one child. The Israelites, by contrast, who had offered sacrifice through the Pasch, were spared. In gratitude for this mercy, Israel continues to observe this feast. Finally, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and agreed to let the Israelites take all their people and possessions into the desert to worship God. He even asked for their blessing. The Egyptian populace urged the Hebrews to leave, for fear of dying from further plagues.
The Hebrews gathered their possessions and quickly departed, urged on by the Egyptians, who gave them lavish gifts, as was the custom for those released from servitude and for those making a pilgrimage. Some translations erroneously state that the Egyptians "lent" to the Israelites, but the Vulgate correctly uses the verb commodare, "to oblige," to convey the sense of the Hebrew sha'al. (12:36) Similarly, the Israelites do not "borrow," but "ask" (postulare, 3:23) or "beg" (petere, 3:35). The Egyptians were eager to appease whatever gods had brought plagues upon them, so they compensated the Israelites well. The Israelites, though they had been long preparing for departure, found themselves suddenly urged to leave, so they did not have time to bake their bread to rising, nor to prepare any meat. The feast of unleavened bread described in Verses 15-20 commemorates what was at first an ad hoc necessity. The feast of Passover in verses 1-14, by contrast, appears to have been practiced even in the year of the exodus.
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The exodus of the Jews from Egypt is mentioned in Egyptian sources, but in a confused fashion. Our primary source is the Egyptian priest Manetho (third century B.C.), who translated some of his nation’s sacred history into Greek. Unfortunately, Manetho’s work has only been preserved in excerpts in other historical writings. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (first century A.D.) transcribed some of these passages in Against Apion, a defense of the historical antiquity of the Jews. Josephus maintained that only some of Manetho’s history is accurate, while other portions are clearly anti-Jewish diatribes that contradict earlier Egyptian history. As Manetho wrote more than a thousand years after the events described, we should not take his account as definitive; indeed, modern archaeology has proven numerous errors in Manetho’s chronologies and king lists. Still, on the whole he has proven to be reasonably accurate, so any testimony he gives regarding the exodus of the Jews is evidence for its basic historicity (even if he is incorrect in its specifics), especially since he is hostile to Israel.
Manetho’s account is confused due to his failure to adequately distinguish between the Hebrews and the Hyksos, or Semitic “shepherd-kings” of Egypt. The Hyksos were likely Semitic Amorites from Canaan, who at first peacefully migrated to Egypt, as did the Hebrews during the famine related in Genesis. It is not clear how they took control of the delta; Manetho describes it thus according to Josephus:
There was a king of ours whose name was Tutimaios. Under him it came to pass, I know not how, that God was averse to us, and there came, after a surprising manner, men of ignoble birth out of the eastern parts, and had boldness enough to make an expedition into our country, and with ease subdued it by force, yet without our hazarding a battle with them.
The king Tutimaios may have been the Thirteenth Dynasty (1786-1633) king Djedneferre Dudimose I. Strangely, this account claims that the Semites were able to subdue Egypt by force, yet without meeting any military resistance. It is possible that the depiction of the Semites as military invaders is revisionist. In fact, there is archaeological evidence that the Hyksos kings were well integrated with Egyptian culture, and regarded themselves as Egyptian. Nonetheless, according to Manetho, the Hyksos reign began barbarously:
So when they had gotten those that governed us under their power, they afterwards burnt down our cities, and demolished the temples of the gods, and used all the inhabitants after a most barbarous manner; nay, some they slew, and led their children and their wives into slavery. At length they made one of themselves king, whose name was Salatis; he also lived at Memphis, and made both the upper and lower regions pay tribute, and left garrisons in places that were the most proper for them.
The Hyksos, perhaps after a period of peaceful immigration and social integration, at some point rose to power through violence. They enslaved many native Egyptians, and established complete control of Egypt. In fact, the first Hyksos king Salatis does not seem to have regarded an Egyptian uprising as his greatest threat, according to Manetho:
He chiefly aimed to secure the eastern parts, as foreseeing that the Assyrians, who had then the greatest power, would be desirous of that kingdom, and invade them; and as he found in the Saite [Sethroite] Nome, a city very proper for this purpose, and which lay upon the Bubastic channel, but with regard to a certain theologic notion was called Avaris, this he rebuilt, and made very strong by the walls he built about it, and by a most numerous garrison of two hundred and forty thousand armed men whom he put into it to keep it.
The mention of Assyrians here is almost certainly a historical error, as the kingdom of Asshur was not a major power until the fourteenth century B.C. More likely, Salitis’ decision to fortify the northeast delta was interpreted by later commentators as a defense against enemies from that region, which in later centuries would indeed have been the Assyrians, but in Salitis’ time, they more probably would have been the Hittites or the Babylonians. In any case, the Hyksos king was most concerned with an attack from the northeast, so he rebuilt the city of Avaris, turning it into a great capital. This is the same place where the Hebrews had lived since the time of Joseph. Now they lived in close proximity to the kings of Egypt, and would be conscripted into their service.
According to Manetho, Salitis and his successors ruled Egypt for 511 years, but modern scholarship has shown that it is much more likely that the Hyksos reigned for less than two centuries. Manetho’s much larger figure could be attributable to a failure to account for co-regencies and contemporaneous regional dynasties. Egyptian records of the chaotic Second Intermediate Period (1786-1552) are understandably incomplete, and Manetho is only able to name six kings from this period. We are concerned mainly with the end of this period, which we believe to coincide with the time of the exodus.
Manetho says that “the kings of Thebes and the other parts of Egypt made an insurrection against the shepherds, and that there a terrible and long war was made between them.” Finally, “under a king, whose name was Alisphragmuthosis, the shepherds were subdued by him, and were indeed driven out of other parts of Egypt, but were shut up in a place that contained ten thousand acres; this place was named Avaris.” This Alisphragmuthosis was almost certainly King Ahmose (ruled 1552-1527), founder of Egypt’s New Kingdom. Archaeology has recovered a contemporary account of his campaign, which we may compare with Manetho’s story.
According to Manetho, Alisphragmuthosis (Ahmose) drove the Hyksos out of all of Egypt save the fortified region surrounding Avaris. He sent his son Thummosis (possibly his son-in-law, the future Pharaoh Thutmose I) to lay siege to this final holdout.
…the shepherds built a wall round all this place, which was a large and a strong wall, and this in order to keep all their possessions and their prey within a place of strength, but Thummosis the son of Alisphragmuthosis made an attempt to take them by force and by siege, with four hundred and eighty thousand men to lie round about them, but, upon his despair of taking the place by that siege, they came to a composition with them, that they should leave Egypt, and go, without any harm to be done to them, whithersoever they would; and, after this composition was made, they went away with their whole families and effects, not fewer in number than two hundred and forty thousand, and took their journey from Egypt, through the wilderness, for Syria; but as they were in fear of the Assyrians, who had then the dominion over Asia, they built a city in that country which is now called Judea, large enough to contain this great number of men, and called it Jerusalem.
Although this account has some obvious similarities with the Jewish exodus, it appears to confuse the Hyksos with the Hebrews. According to Manetho, the Hyksos agreed to leave Egypt by mutual consent with the Egyptians. They took their families and possessions with them in a mass exodus of at least 240,000 people. They must indeed have been numerous to resist a force of 480,000, though we must remember that the ancients had an elastic definition of "thousand." The Hyksos would have gone to Syria, had it not been for the “Assyrians,” or more likely, the Hittites, who had by then conquered Babylon (1595 BC). Instead, they settled in Judea, and built the great city of Jerusalem. As these people settled in Judea only as a secondary option, they almost certainly were not the Hebrews, yet the similarities are too great to be ignored. How should we account for them?
On our assumption that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was a Hyksos king, the Hebrews must have left Egypt prior to the campaign of Ahmose against the Hyksos. Native Egyptians by that time had long ruled Upper Egypt from Thebes, but the territory of the Hyksos had expanded to Middle Egypt as far as Cusae, forty kilometers south of Hermopolis Magna, according the stelas left by the Theban king Wadjkheperre Kamose. The stelas of Kamose attest to a naval campaign against the Hyksos, going no farther north than the Nome of Cynopolis, well south of the delta, eighty kilometers south of the entrance to the Fayum. The expulsion of the Hyksos would be completed by his brother and successor, Nebpehtyre Ahmose.
The defeat of the Hyksos by King Ahmose is described in a biography of one of the king’s officers, also named Ahmose, son of Abana. According to this source, King Ahmose attacked Avaris by ship and took the city. The full description is brief: “Then Avaris was despoiled; I brought plunder from there: one man and three women — total, four heads. His Majesty gave them to me to be slaves.” This early account says nothing about the negotiated evacuation of the Hyksos described by Manetho, but the account is so cursory that we cannot be certain that Avaris was plundered as the result of a successful assault rather than an evacuation. At some later point in time, King Ahmose laid siege to Sharuhen (possibly in southwest Palestine) for three years, and took that city as well. The inhabitants of Sharuhen, obliquely characterized as “nomads of Asia,” were probably ethnically similar to the Hyksos, but not necessarily the same people. Other archaeological evidence is inconclusive as to whether King Ahmose took Avaris by force or diplomacy. There is pictorial evidence in Abydos that he waged war against the Hyksos, and excavation at Avaris has revealed an early Eighteenth Dynasty platform resembling Ahmose’s ‘Southern Palace’ at Deir el-Ballas. It abuts a Hyksos fortification wall. This may prove that Ahmose occupied Avaris, but not necessarily by force.
Naturally, we are inclined to give greater weight to the soldier Ahmose’s relatively contemporary account than to Manetho, who translated much later documents. Still, Ahmose’s account does not explicitly contradict Manetho’s, as it offers no details as to how the occupation of Avaris was achieved. Its mention of plunder is not probative, as the entire account is dominated with boasts of the soldier’s personal war booty, which consisted predominantly of captive men and women. Soldiers may be awarded booty regardless of the means by which a city is occupied. Those who believe King Ahmose truly did take Avaris by force may explain Manetho’s account as a typical New Kingdom exaggeration of Hyksos malignancy. In this view, the later Egyptians had painted the Hyksos as so evil and powerful that it was inconceivable that they could have been overcome by force. However, this would be a strange sort of propaganda, diminishing Ahmose’s accomplishment and magnifying Egypt’s enemy, and it would be utterly at odds with the well-known boastfulness of the Egyptians. It is more likely, therefore, that the expulsion of the Hyksos was negotiated, though the Asiatics’ willingness to assent to this unfavorable treaty suggests they were in a seriously compromised military situation.
As we have said, the Hyksos were most likely Amorites from Canaan. They resettled in Jerusalem en masse after evacuating Egypt. This is the event in recorded Egyptian history that most resembles the Jewish exodus, so we should consider the possibility that the Jews were among this mass migration. However, the Israelites did not inhabit Jerusalem until the time of David, so the exodus described by Manetho would have consisted of Amorites and Jebusites.
Manetho tells another story that he links to the Jews, taking place in the time of King Amenophis, who may have been one of the several New Kingdom pharaohs named Amenhotep. This King Amenophis seeks the advice of a wise prophet also named Amenophis, son of Papis. Manetho says (as paraphrased by Josephus):
This king was desirous to become a spectator of the gods, as had Orus, one of his predecessors in that kingdom, desired the same before him; he also communicated that his desire to his namesake Amenophis, who was the son of Papis, and one that seemed to partake of a divine nature, both as to wisdom and the knowledge of futurities…
…this namesake of his told him that he might see the gods, if he would clear the whole country of the lepers and of the other impure people; the king was pleased with this injunction, and got together all that had any defect in their bodies out of Egypt; and their number was eighty thousand; whom he sent to those quarries which are on the east side of the Nile, that they might work in them, and might be separated from the rest of the Egyptians
Commenting on this passage, Josephus mocks the strange theology that would enable a man to see the gods if only he would purge his country of lepers. Further, he notes, this goal could not possibly be achieved by keeping the lepers working in Egyptian quarries. Such oddities and inconsistencies cast doubt on the historicity of the narrative, which certainly contains fabulous elements. Manetho has likely adopted an Egyptian legend as propaganda against the Jews. The story continues:
…there were some of the learned priests that were polluted with the leprosy; but still this Amenophis, the wise man and the prophet, was afraid that the gods would be angry at him and at the king, if there should appear to have been violence offered them; who also added this further, [out of his sagacity about futurities,] that certain people would come to the assistance of these polluted wretches, and would conquer Egypt, and keep it in their possession thirteen years; that, however, he durst not tell the king of these things, but that he left a writing behind him about all those matters, and then slew himself, which made the king disconsolate.
Oddly, the prophet Amenophis son of Papis feared to harm the leprous priests, due to religious scruples. The prophet foresaw that certain people would come to the aid of these leprous priests and conquer Egypt, but he did not dare tell the king of this. Now things become stranger yet, as Josephus quotes Manetho verbatim:
After those that were sent to work in the quarries had continued in that miserable state for a long while, the king was desired that he would set apart the city Avaris, which was then left desolate of the shepherds, for their habitation and protection; which desire he granted them. Now this city, according to the ancient theology, was Typho's city. But when these men were gotten into it, and found the place fit for a revolt, they appointed themselves a ruler out of the priests of Heliopolis, whose name was Osarsiph, and they took their oaths that they would be obedient to him in all things. He then, in the first place, made this law for them, That they should neither worship the Egyptian gods, nor should abstain from any one of those sacred animals which they have in the highest esteem, but kill and destroy them all; that they should join themselves to nobody but to those that were of this confederacy.
When he had made such laws as these, and many more such as were mainly opposite to the customs of the Egyptians, he gave order that they should use the multitude of the hands they had in building walls about their City, and make themselves ready for a war with king Amenophis, while he did himself take into his friendship the other priests, and those that were polluted with them, and sent ambassadors to those shepherds who had been driven out of the land by Tefilmosis to the city called Jerusalem; whereby he informed them of his own affairs, and of the state of those others that had been treated after such an ignominious manner, and desired that they would come with one consent to his assistance in this war against Egypt. He also promised that he would, in the first place, bring them back to their ancient city and country Avaris, and provide a plentiful maintenance for their multitude; that he would protect them and fight for them as occasion should require, and would easily reduce the country under their dominion. These shepherds were all very glad of this message, and came away with alacrity all together, being in number two hundred thousand men; and in a little time they came to Avaris.
Supposedly, the king arranged for these polluted people to inhabit the abandoned city of Avaris, which implies that this took place not long after the expulsion of the Hyksos. Left to their own devices, the lepers built walls around the city and summoned their Semitic brethren in Jerusalem. From Jerusalem came a vast army to Avaris, intending to retake Egypt.
And now Amenophis the king of Egypt, upon his being informed of their invasion, was in great confusion, as calling to mind what Amenophis, the son of Papis, had foretold him; and, in the first place, he assembled the multitude of the Egyptians, and took counsel with their leaders, and sent for their sacred animals to him, especially for those that were principally worshipped in their temples, and gave a particular charge to the priests distinctly, that they should hide the images of their gods with the utmost care he also sent his son Sethos, who was also named Ramesses, from his father Rhampses, being but five years old, to a friend of his. He then passed on with the rest of the Egyptians, being three hundred thousand of the most warlike of them, against the enemy, who met them.
The story becomes even more bizarre, as the Pharaoh summons a large army to fight the invaders, but upon meeting them, he turns and flees to Ethiopia.
Yet did he not join battle with them; but thinking that would be to fight against the gods, he returned back and came to Memphis, where he took Apis and the other sacred animals which he had sent for to him, and presently marched into Ethiopia, together with his whole army and multitude of Egyptians; for the king of Ethiopia was under an obligation to him, on which account he received him, and took care of all the multitude that was with him, while the country supplied all that was necessary for the food of the men. He also allotted cities and villages for this exile, that was to be from its beginning during those fatally determined thirteen years. Moreover, he pitched a camp for his Ethiopian army, as a guard to king Amenophis, upon the borders of Egypt. And this was the state of things in Ethiopia.
While the Pharaoh was in exile in Ethiopia for thirteen years, the leprous Egyptians and their allies from Jerusalem inflicted widespread destruction through Egypt.
But for the people of Jerusalem, when they came down together with the polluted Egyptians, they treated the men in such a barbarous manner, that those who saw how they subdued the forementioned country, and the horrid wickedness they were guilty of, thought it a most dreadful thing; for they did not only set the cities and villages on fire but were not satisfied till they had been guilty of sacrilege, and destroyed the images of the gods, and used them in roasting those sacred animals that used to be worshipped, and forced the priests and prophets to be the executioners and murderers of those animals, and then ejected them naked out of the country. It was also reported that the priest, who ordained their polity and their laws, was by birth of Heliopolis, and his name Osarsiph, from Osiris, who was the god of Heliopolis; but that when he was gone over to these people, his name was changed, and he was called Moses.
Here we come to the heart of the story, which slanders the Jews and identifies them as polluted Egyptians who wrought cruel destruction upon Egypt, while inviting her ancient enemies the Hyksos back into the country. Moses is depicted as the chief provocateur, a renegade priest of Osiris who perversely imposed religious laws that were the negation of all the Egyptians held as holy. We can see in this depiction a caricature of the Jewish rejection of pagan practices.
When thirteen years had passed, King Amenophis apparently overcame his scruples about waging war against the leprous priests and their Semitic protectors.
After this, Amenophis returned back from Ethiopia with a great army, as did his son Ahampses with another army also, and that both of them joined battle with the shepherds and the polluted people, and beat them, and slew a great many of them, and pursued them to the bounds of Syria.
As a final absurdity, the Pharaoh Amenophis is said not only to have vanquished the invaders, but he pursued them all the way to Syria with his army! Setting aside the logistic impossibility of an exploitation maneuver across such a vast stretch of land, the point of the narrative is to emphasize that the Jews were chased out of Egypt in defeat.
Variants of Manetho’s tale were propagated by Greek and Egyptian writers in the Hellenistic period. Characterizing the Jews as bringing disease and misfortune is a hallmark of anti-Semitic myth, though we may still wonder if some residue of real history lurks beneath the slander.
Most of the basic facts of this “Amenophis” narrative are demonstrably false. There certainly was no re-invasion of Egypt by the Hyksos during the New Kingdom. Consequently, there could not have been any counter-campaign driving them back. The early Eighteenth Dynasty was a period of stabilization, with none of the massive destruction described in the narrative. The Jews are certainly not ethnically Egyptians, as a matter of genetic fact, so their depiction as lepers from among the Egyptians is inaccurate. Much less was there any time during the New Kingdom when Jews held power over the Egyptians, so that they could force priests to kill sacred animals.
Notwithstanding these gross inaccuracies, the Amenophis legend may have some basis in fact, as its clumsy rationalizations are evidently glossing over some embarrassing episode in Egyptian history. We may identify several aspects of the legend that are corroborated by the Book of Exodus and archaeology. (1) The Jews are associated with plague and disease, which abate only when they leave Egypt. (2) The Jews are set to heavy labor in Avaris, a fortified city where they co-exist with the Hyksos. (3) They leave Egypt around the same time that the Hyksos are driven out. (4) The military campaigns attributed to Amenophis are a mixture of those actually performed by Kamose, Ahmose, and Amunhotep I. Kamose first campaigned against the Hyksos; Ahmose drove them out; Amunhotep went into Ethiopia. (5) Moses indeed imposed new laws for the Jews, exhorting them to reject Egyptian religion. He may never have been an Egyptian priest, but his former position in the royal household could have caused him to be viewed as a traitor. His departure from Egypt would have been seen as a victory for the Egyptians.
During the Hyksos period, Semites and Egyptians were not utterly segregated, but coexisted in the eastern delta. Thus the native Egyptians who lived in Avaris and its environs had a collective memory of what transpired prior to the expulsion of the Hyksos. If, as we have hypothesized, the exodus of the Jews occurred toward the end of the Hyksos period, the biblical plagues would have been remembered by ethnic Egyptians, and these plagues would have been associated with the Jews. After the expulsion of the Hyksos and the subsequent vilification of their legacy, these plagues may have been attributed to the Hyksos and the Jews indiscriminately, and their departure from Egypt remembered as a single event. Such confusion may be seen even in the older, more sober account of the expulsion of the Hyksos recorded by Manetho, which speaks of a mutual treaty unattested in original accounts. This evacuation by mutual consent more closely resembles the Jewish exodus than Ahmose’s conquest. In these Egyptian accounts, we see elements of Exodus garbled with propaganda against the Hyksos and the Jews. While these accounts are of limited historical value, they do provide independent witness to elements of the Exodus narrative, reinforcing our chronology.
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In the Scriptural account of the exodus, 600,000 Israelite men and their households are said to have left Egypt on foot, with all of their livestock. (12:37-38) The term we translate as "thousand," elem, originally referred to a division or contingent of men, with no fixed value. If there was an average of 150 men to a division, 600 elemi would be about 80,000 men. Many ancient narratives seem to give inflated numbers because we are overly literal in our interpretation. A Roman "century" originally referred to a group of men led by a centurion, before it came to have a fixed value of 100. Similarly, Manetho gives seemingly fantastic figures, with an exodus of 240,000 Semites, and an army of 480,000 Egyptians. Again, these "thousands" should not be interpreted too rigidly.
The Egyptians evidently compelled the Israelites to leave, as they were not permitted time to bake their bread to rising. It is implied that the Israelites would have baked leavened bread given the chance, so the use of unleavened bread on this occasion was apparently accidental. In future years, the feast of unleavened bread would commemorate God's swift deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt.
The Masoretic text says that Israel was in Egypt for 430 years, but the Septuagint says this is the period of time they were in Egypt and Canaan. (12:40) Following the Septuagint version, the Israelites were in Egypt only about 215 years, which is consistent with archaeological estimates of the duration of the Hyksos period. In the commentary on Genesis, we similarly found that the Septuagint chronology was more consistent with the archaeological record.
On the same night as the Passover, past midnight, “the army of the Lord” marched out of captivity, from Rameses to Succoth. Verses 12:43-50 declare that only the circumcised shall celebrate the Pasch. As there were people of mixed ancestry traveling with the Israelites (12:48), these could partake of the Pasch only if they were circumcised. In other words, God's special protection is granted to those who keep His covenant, of which circumcision is a sign.
The following day (or by Hebrew reckoning, which starts at evening, the same day) the Israelites marched out of Egypt altogether. Another summary of future commemorative practices follows. Particular emphasis is laid on the sacrifice of the firstborn:
“Nam cum induratus esset Pharao, et nollet nos dimittere, occidit Dominus omne primogenitum in terra Aegypti, a primogenito hominis usque ad primogenitum iumentorum; idcirco immolo Domino omne quod aperit vulvam masculini sexus, et omnia primogenita filiorum meorum redimo.” (13:15)
“For when Pharao was hardened, and would not let us go, the Lord slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beasts: therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the womb of the male sex, and all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.” (13:15)
Since the firstborn of the Israelites were spared by God from the tenth plague, they exist only by virtue of His favor. For this reason, they are all to be consecrated to God. Firstborn livestock are to be sacrificed, and firstborn sons are to be “redeemed,” meaning a sacrifice is to be offered in their stead. This would eventually develop into the Jewish custom of presenting firstborn sons at the Temple, to consecrate them to divine service. This offering of sacrifice is not a servile superstition, but on the contrary, an act of gratitude and fealty to God for their deliverance from bondage.
Igitur cum emisisset Pharao populum, non eos duxit Dominus per viam terrae Philisthim, quae vicina est; reputans ne forte paeniteret eum, si vidisset adversum se bella consurgere, et reverteretur in Aegyptum. (13:17)
And when Pharao had sent out the people, the Lord led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, which is near; thinking lest perhaps they would repent, if they should see wars arise against them, and would return into Egypt. (13:17)
The Israelites did not travel “by way of the land of the Philistines,” that is, along the Mediterranean coast, which would have been the more direct route to Canaan. That route was also the path commonly chosen by Egyptian and Hittite armies for campaigns into Palestine, making it too dangerous for a weakly armed caravan of families and livestock. The Israelites would lose heart attempting to take the Canaanite coast, and might be tempted to return to Egypt. Rather than send them directly into conflict with the fierce peoples of Canaan, God would lead the Israelites into the desert, following the southern coast of the Sinai peninsula. Eventually, they would enter Palestine by crossing the Jordan from the east, so they could carve out a territory for themselves in the hills, rather than attack the heavily fortified coastal cities.
Due to these practical considerations, the Israelites went from Succoth to Etham, due north of the northern extremity of the Red Sea. Here they could have crossed out of Egypt into the wilderness, but instead God had the Israelites turn away to the south, emerging on the west bank of the Red Sea, at Pi-Hahiroth. God Himself led Israel in the form of a pillar of smoke by day, and of fire by night. These manifestations may have been one and the same object, perhaps a great fire burning in the distance, perceived by its smoke during the day, but more clearly by its flame at night. In antiquity, armies were led by a pillar of smoke and fire so they could know in which direction to march. The Israelites marched where God Himself led, which was now to the west bank of the Red Sea. The purpose of this detour was to deliver the Israelites permanently from any Egyptian threat, as God would work his greatest wonder at the Red Sea.
The Hyksos had introduced the use of chariots in the Egyptian army, enabling the Pharaoh to deploy a force that could rapidly gain ground on the Israelites. Repenting of his decision to let them go freely, he saw their delay in the desert as an opportunity to kill them or return them to slavery. His entire cavalry was sent after the Israelites, though it is unclear if Pharaoh himself was personally present. This would not be the entire army of Egypt, as infantry would not be able to cover the distance at the same speed.
Still, the Israelites faced a formidable enemy, and they lamented to Moses that they would have been better off remaining slaves in Egypt. Moses promised in reply that God will work great wonders, and indeed, will fight in the place of the Israelites. Despite having being delivered from various plagues, the Israelites could not see how they could be saved from the Egyptian cavalry.
God did not “fight” in a human fashion. Instead, He instructed Moses to hold out his rod, so the sea will be divided, and the Israelites may pass through it safely. Judging from the geographical references, which we will later examine in more detail, the Israelites crossed the Red Sea near the northern end of the present-day Gulf of Suez. A veritable miracle was needed to part this sea, and indeed the Scripture describes walls of water on either side, held in place by a “mighty wind,” which may refer simply to an unseen force.
As the Israelites crossed the narrow sea on dry land, the pillar of smoke was at their rear, maintaining its dark form though it was night, so the Egyptians could not see well enough to engage in battle. Still, the Egyptians pursued from a distance, and even dared to traverse the sea on dry land. At the hour of the early morning watch, God again manifested Himself as both fire and cloud, wreaking havoc on the Egyptian chariots. Terrified by the God who fought for Israel, the Egyptians naturally turned and fled to their shore. However, before they could do so, the waters returned to normal and they were all drowned. Thus Israel was safe from Egypt, and did not need to fear any pursuit.
The parting of the Red Sea, witnessed by all of Israel, would be a definitive sign for them and a basis of the faith to be passed to their descendants. The Egyptians, on the other hand, would have no surviving witnesses of the event. From their perspective, an army was sent after the Israelites, yet did not return. The natural inference would be that the army was defeated or lost in the wilderness. In either case, they had failed their king and would have been considered unworthy of mention. Thus we should not be surprised that Egyptian lore mentions plagues and an expulsion of the Jews, but not any parting of the Red Sea. The disaster at the Red Sea would have had other implications, however, as the Hyksos had lost all their cavalry. This loss, combined with the devastation caused by the plagues, would have made them vulnerable to conquest by the Theban kings. It would not be surprising, then, if the expulsion of the Hyksos shortly followed the departure of the Jews, and that the two events would be merged in later Egyptian lore. The Hyksos would depart by the “way of the land of the Philistines,” and be pursued unto Sharuhen by King Ahmose. Nonetheless, they would establish the city of Jerusalem before the Israelites entered Palestine.
The fifteenth chapter of Exodus records a canticle commemorating the deliverance of Israel from Egypt at the Red Sea. News of the Egyptian army’s failure spread to those who “lived among the Philistines,” as well as to the Edomites and Moabites. The people who lived in Philistia at this time were not the ancestors of the Philistines in the time of Judges, so the use of this term identifies geography, not ethnicity. The Pentateuch certainly underwent several transliterations, during which place names may have been updated. Alternatively, parts of the canticle may have been composed in the time of Judges.
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The route that the Israelites took out of Egypt is difficult to determine from the obscure geographical indicators given in the Bible. However, with modern knowledge of the geography and history of ancient Egypt, combined with an understanding of the Hebrew terms used in Exodus, we can fairly deduce this path. In the process, we shall refute some of the peculiar theories regarding the crossing of the Red Sea that have arisen in modern times.
First, let us consider an overview of the land itself, both as it exists today and as it was in historical antiquity. East of the Egyptian delta, the modern Suez canal links the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Suez across an isthmus that is seventy-two miles (116 kilometers) wide. East of the isthmus is the Sinai peninsula, the desert wilderness where the Israelites sought to worship God. The southern part of the peninsula is flanked by the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba on the west and east, respectively. These gulfs are part of the Red Sea, and in antiquity they were referred to indiscriminately as the Red Sea.
The Suez canal traverses several salt water lakes on the isthmus that help link the two seas. Going from north to south, these are: Lake Manzala, the Ballah Lakes (the largest of which is Lake Ballah), Lake Timsah, and the Great and Small Bitter Lakes (actually two merged lakes). Just north of Lake Timsah, near the center of the isthmus, is a fifty-foot high plateau called El-Gisr. South of the Bitter Lakes is another natural land barrier about thirty feet high. Without a manmade canal, there is no way the sea could have flowed into the Bitter Lakes in geologically recent history. It was only in remote prehistory that the Red Sea once overflowed into this basin, creating the Bitter Lakes in the first place. The two seas have not been connected in geologically recent history, as shown by their completely dissimilar marine fauna.
On geological evidence alone, we must reject any theory of the exodus that requires the Red Sea to have been connected to the Bitter Lakes. Surprisingly, many modern Biblical commentaries include this supposition, though it has been disproved for more than a century. The hypothesis that the Israelites actually crossed a strait or marsh connecting the lakes to the Red Sea is doubtless intended to make possible a quasi-naturalistic explanation of the parting of the sea, but this is achieved only by contradicting known physical facts. Not only did the Red Sea certainly not extend to the Bitter Lakes, but in fact there is no evidence that it ever extended further north in historical antiquity than it does today. Herodotus, who visited Egypt, said the width of the isthmus was exactly 1000 stadia, or 115 miles, somewhat wider than today. Strabo cited a similar distance 400 years later, as did Pliny. Finally, Ptolemy plotted the latitude and longitude of each end of the isthmus, enabling us to calculate that it was slightly wider in his day than in ours, though not quite 1000 stadia. If the northern extreme of the Red Sea has changed at all in the last 2500 years, it has actually been slowly advancing, not receding.
Though the natural geography of the isthmus was basically the same in historical antiquity as it is today, we must also account for man-made structures, such as canals and fortifications. The Egyptians certainly had dug some major canals on the isthmus at various points in time. Greatest of these was the canal which ran east from the Nile delta, through the Wadi Tumilat, before connecting to Lake Tisrah and heading south through the Bitter Lakes and into the Gulf of Suez. According to Egyptian lore, this canal, or at least some part of it, was first built by the Twelfth Dynasty Pharaoh Sesotris (probably Sesotris III, 1878-1843 BC). It repeatedly fell into disrepair, being rebuilt at various points in time by Ramses II (13th century BC), Darius the Persian (500 BC), Ptolemy II (250 BC), and the Roman emperor Trajan (100 AD). As the canal was dug by hand, it probably was not more than a few feet deep and not very wide. There are some physical indications that another branch of the ancient canal extended to the Mediterranean toward Pelusium, meeting the main canal near Lake Tisrah.
The Egyptians protected their lands and waterways with a great wall that stretched from Pelusium on the Mediterranean to the tip of the Gulf of Suez. A papyrus from the Eighteenth Dynasty, written in the form of a prophecy, claims that Amunemhet I (1991-1962 BC), founder of the Twelfth Dynasty built the "Wall of the Ruler" so that Asiatics could not come to Egypt and "beg for water in the customary manner, in order to let their beasts drink." ("Prophecy of Neferti," Papyrus Leningrad 1116B). Certainly by the time of Sesotris III there were many fortifications along the eastern border. They apparently were maintained even by some of the Hyksos kings, as Manetho claims that Salatis sought especially to secure the eastern border of Egypt. These fortifications included mud-brick dual walls five to six meters high, terraces, trenches, and numerous guard towers.
Three major highways led out of Egypt to the east: the "way of the land of the Philistines," the "way of Shur," and the "way of the wilderness of the Red Sea." (In Hebrew, derekh means a definite road or track, not merely a direction.) The way of the land of the Philistines followed the Mediterranean coast to Palestine, leaving Egypt near Pelusium. The way of Shur was the road to Assyria through Beersheba in southern Palestine. It left Egypt between Lake Ballah and Lake Tisrah, near the northern end of the latter, as it passed through the great wall. The name "Shur" means "Wall" in Hebrew, so this road is that which passed through the wall. Some modern scholars, not cognizant of the Egyptian fortifications, have speculated that the "wall" was a range of hills or mountains in the Sinai, but these are all too far south of the road, traces of which have been discovered, to account for its name. The way of Shur was a caravan route by which Semitic peoples travelled to Egypt, including Abraham and Jacob, and the troublesome nomads who begged for water from the Egyptians.
The way of the wilderness of the Red Sea, the southernmost of the three highways, left Egypt from the tip of the Gulf of Suez and went east to the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba. This road is still used today for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim man must make at least once in his lifetime. Pilgrims may set up campgrounds near Suez, just as the Israelites did before leaving Egypt. Just northwest of the city of Suez is a pass that has various Arabic names which mean "tower," "watchtower," or "outlook," suggesting that one once stood here.
With these basic geographic facts laid down, we may now interpret the Exodus narrative more exactly. We will also find that several of the place names given are better understood as common nouns in Hebrew. The first of these is Succoth, which means "booths" or "tents" in Hebrew. This refers to a common campground used by nomads and pilgrims moving in or out of Egypt. It would naturally have been near the easternmost body of fresh water, which was the Wadi Tumilat, a natural depression that was irrigated by a canal in antiquity. This was also the easternmost part of the region of Goshen or Rameses, in which the Israelites lived. The morning after the Passover, the Israelites traveled from various parts of Goshen to this well-known campground for those about to travel into the desert. There is nothing in the Biblical narrative that indicates how many days it took for the Israelites to gather here.
The Israelites at first were led along the way of the wilderness, the southernmost highway. Departing from Succoth, they proceeded to Etham at the edge of the desert. This would mean Etham was near modern-day Suez. Some interpreters consider that it was further north, near the way of Shur. In either case, the Israelites were at a point where they could have easily passed through the wall, having Pharaoh's permission, to enter the wilderness. Yet, at this point God told Moses to have the Israelites "turn back" (as shub translates literally). They turned away from the wall and headed back into Egypt. News of this reversal would have reached Pharaoh from the border guards. Not unreasonably, he would interpret this to mean that the Israelites had lost heart at the prospect of leaving the safety of Egypt, and now were wandering within its borders. Naturally, the Pharaoh would try to use this opportunity to compel the Israelites to return to slavery.
Since Etham was at the edge of the wilderness, it was certainly near Egypt's great wall, and indeed "Etham" may be a Hebraized name for a fort at that wall. The Egyptian word for "fort" or "fortress" is khetam, similar to etham. It is by no means implausible that the initial gutteral kh of the Egyptian word should be dropped; such in fact is the case in the Coptic terms thom and tom, which mean "closure" or "walling." The Septuagint transliterates the Hebrew as othom, which is similar to the Arabic othom meaning "citadel" or "fortification." The Hebrew tau can represent t or th from a foreign term, and we in fact find many instances of elision between the two sounds among Middle Eastern languages. Following this interpretation, we find that the Israelites followed the highway of the desert until they reached the Egyptian fort (khetam) at the wall, and there they turned back.
Some scholars hold that the name Etham is derived from Atum, the creator god of Egyptian religion. However, we do not know of any city in that region named after Atum; the nearest would be Pi-Atum ("house of Atum"), which was closer to the delta than to the Suez, and in any event was already identified in Exodus by a distinct name, Pithom. Another possibility is that it means "isle of Atum," yet there has never been any island in the Suez isthmus during human history, nor did the Red Sea encroach further north in antiquity than it does today. The philological advantages of the Atum interpretation are minimal, especially when set against the lack of substantiation for a site in that region actually being named after Atum.
If Etham most probably means "fort," then we should not be surprised that the next site in Exodus, Migdol, means "tower." Migdol is a common Hebrew noun for "tower" or "great tower," used, for example, in reference to the Tower of Babel. Egyptian records indicate that there were many forts and towers along the eastern frontier, so we are able to specify which fort (Etham) and tower (Migdol) the Israelites encountered only by considering other indications. First, we know that the Israelites started out along the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. This would have led them near the site of modern-day Suez, which is where they encountered the fort from which they turned away. God instructed Moses to turn and encamp facing Pi-Hahiroth, which was between the tower (Migdol) and the sea. This tower must have been south of Suez, on the west coast of the Red Sea.
The Israelites encamped between the sea than the watchtower, so they were not blocked from the sea by the Egyptians. The Red Sea in that region does not have sandy beaches, but instead has plains of vegetation along its coast. The tower would have been situated just beyond that area. Pi-Hahiroth may mean "house of the mouth of gorges," referring to an opening in the mountains that leads into the northwest of the Gulf of Suez. The prefix "Pi-" indicates this was a definite locality. The Bible specifies the location of Pi-Hahiroth, as it is directly across from Baal-zephon on the other side of the Red Sea. Clearly, Baal-zephon was a Canaanite town, as its name refers to the Canaanite god Baal and Mount Zephon (north of Ugarit in Syria), on which he was believed to reside. As the entire purpose of the Egyptian fortifications was to keep Semitic peoples out, it is evident that Baal-Zephon had to have been on the east side of the Red Sea.
This informed interpretation gives a simple and cogent route for the Israelite exodus. There is no need for convoluted meanderings or ill-founded speculation about major changes in the geography of the Red Sea. The Israelites gathered at a campground (Succoth) in the eastern extreme of Goshen, and traveled east along the well-worn highway of the wilderness of the Red Sea, which would have been the shortest path to Sinai, where they intended to worship. Once they reached the fortress (Ethom) at the frontier, however, they turned back into Egypt, and headed south to the west bank of the Red Sea. There they encamped, between a tower which guarded the mountain passes and the sea. Directly opposite them, on the east side of the sea, was the Canaanite town Baal-zephon.
As a final point, we should show that the Biblical Yam Suf or "sea of reeds" does in fact refer to the Red Sea, and not to some other body of water or marsh. While it is understandable that some should disbelieve in the miraculous crossing of the sea, this does not excuse the weak scholarship that would deny the obvious meaning of a term in order to construct an alternate crossing scenario. Whether one believes in the crossing or not, it is unequivocal that Yam Suf in Hebrew always means the Red Sea. Suf can mean "reeds" such as those that grow in a river, but it can also refer to sea vegetation, as in the Book of Jonah (2:5). The Egyptian equivalent, sufi, also refers indiscriminately to river reeds and seaweed. The Red Sea has been called the "sea of reeds" from antiquity because its coast is full of marine vegetation, and being a tropical sea, its bottom is rich in coral, which Strabo characterized as "trees" growing at the bottom of the sea. Indeed, Red Sea coral "trees" can exceed twenty-five feet in diameter. At low tide, the coast appears like a lush garden. Compared with the Mediterranean, the tropical Red Sea is absolutely saturated with vegetation.
This accounts for the origin of the name, so now we can turn to actual uses of the expression Yam Suf in Exodus and other books of the Bible. In Exodus 10:19, we are told a "sea wind" blew the locusts into the Yam Suf. Since a Mediterranean sea wind can only come from the west or northwest, its obvious direction would be toward the Red Sea. Elsewhere in Exodus and other Old Testament books, the meaning of Yam Suf as the Red Sea is more obvious, as it refers to its eastern branch in the Gulf of Aqaba. Thus God tells Moses that the promised land will extend from the "sea of the Philistines" (the Mediterranean) to the Yam Suf, which must be the eastern extreme, the Gulf of Aqaba. (Exodus 23:31) Other references can be found in Numbers 14:25-33; 33:6-8; Deuteronomy 1:40; 2:1; Judges 11:16; 1 Kings 9:26. The textual evidence is so overwhelming, that those who argue the Yam Suf was a lake or marsh are forced to claim the expression is a later gloss. Yet we have shown that the term Yam Suf is entirely consistent with other geographical indicators, most notably, the "way of the wilderness of the Red Sea," which stretched between both branches of the sea, so that all the wilderness south of it was considered as surrounded by that sea.
With this enhanced knowledge of the Red Sea, we can better understand how the events in Exodus appeared. The Israelites camped by the sea, amid lush marine vegetation, and there they remained, until the Egyptian chariots approached the mountain pass that led into the area. At this point, God's "mighty wind" parted the sea, exposing the coral "trees" and weeds and seagrass. The Israelites marched into this seabed, and now we can understand why the Egyptians did not fear to follow after them. Under normal circumstances, at low tide especially, there would be a vast expanse of marine vegetation before them. At night, with nothing more than torches to light the way, the Egyptians would not be able to distinguish the newly exposed seabed from the coastal plains of seagrass. Seeing the Israelites retreat toward the sea, the Egyptians would think they could surround them and rout them. Instead the Israelites retreated further and further, and as the Egyptians closed the distance slowly, being hampered by broken wheels and other obstacles for their horses in the exposed seabed, they must have realized at some point that the sea had receded far more than usual. Then it was too late, for the sea closed in on them, while the Israelites were permitted to complete the crossing.
Everything about the tenor of the narrative, including the drowning of the Egyptian army and the emphasis that this was a great "wonder," even in light of the ten plagues, makes clear that the Red Sea at the point of crossing was a large body of water. The Israelites did not leave Egypt as exiles, but as victors, thanks to the God who literally fought in their stead. Upon crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites learned to trust not in the security that worldly powers like Egypt could provide, but in the Lord of all. (cf Psalms 20:7) Leaving Egypt meant more than a change in location, but also to leave behind the psychological dependence of a slave on his master. No longer would Israel turn to foreign powers for security and prosperity, but instead they would turn to their God.
Continue to Part II
© 2008 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org