Israelite Exodus from Egypt Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Exodus marked the birth of Israel as a nation, and the covenant with Yahweh defined many of the stipulations of Israel’s relationship with God.

Summary of Event

The traditional fifteenth century date for the Israelites’ Exodus (or escape) from Egypt is calculated by adding the 480 years mentioned in 1 Kings 6:1 as the time that elapsed between the Israelite Exodus and Solomon’s building of the temple of Jerusalem c. 966 b.c.e. Israelite participation as slaves in the building of the Egyptian cities before the Exodus (see Exodus 1:11) suggests instead a date after 1302, when Seti I moved the Egyptian capital from Thebes to a site in the eastern Nile Delta near the Mediterranean Sea, eventually known as Pi-Ramesse (domain of Ramses). Many scholars of the Bible see Seti I as the pharaoh who began the Israelites’ oppression and whose death is mentioned in Exodus 2:23, and they consider his son Ramses II to be the pharaoh during whose reign the Exodus itself occurred. One archaeological discovery that seems to confirm that view is a stone monument erected c. 1220 by Ramses’ successor Merneptah. The monument lists the Israelites as a people he defeated while engaged in a military expedition to Canaan; Israel, then, existed as a nation to be defeated by this time. Seti I Ramses II Moses Aaron

Egyptian records available today do not record the successful escape of Israelites from slavery, though the Amarna letters (a group of letters from Canaanite cities to the capital of the Eighteenth Dynasty at Amarna) do mention rebels called “Habiru,” as do texts from as early as 2000 b.c.e. in Mesopotamia. Although the name Habiru is similar to “Hebrew” and may be etymologically related to it, there is no reason to suppose the rebels mentioned in the Amarna letters refer to Hebrews/Israelites. The Hebrew Bible, therefore, is the only source of information about the Exodus.

A depiction of the Egyptians chasing the Israelites into the sea.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The book of Exodus introduces the flight of the Hebrews with the narrative of the first Passover meal and the death of all first-born Egyptian sons and male animals. Prompted by this tragedy, the pharaoh granted permission for Moses and his brother Aaron to lead the Hebrews to the area of Mount Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula (formed by the two arms of the Red Sea known as the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba). Quickly changing his mind, however, the pharaoh dispatched charioteers to capture the Israelites. Their route is largely unknown, despite the tradition that Israel crossed the “Red Sea.” The modern Red Sea cannot be the body of water in question because it lies south of the Sinai Peninsula. Even the Gulf of Suez lies to the south of Pithom and Ramses and of the “land of Goshen” where Israel lived. The biblical text, therefore, seems to envision a more northerly location, yet one south of the main coastal highway to Canaan along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (see Exodus 13:17). Actually, the Hebrew phrase translated “Red Sea” is more accurately translated “marshy sea” or even “Reed Sea.” It may have been one of the small marshy lakes connected in modern times to form the Suez Canal.

The Egyptian army overtook the Israelites at the edge of this “sea.” The Bible narrates an event (see Exodus 14:21-29) in which a strong east wind drove the water away from the shore where the Israelites had stopped, thus allowing them to flee from the advancing chariots. The account offers two versions of what happened to the Egyptians. The first (Exodus 14:24-25) says that God caused the wheels of the Egyptian chariots to be stuck in the mud, forcing the Egyptians to abandon their vehicles. The second (Exodus 14:26-28) says that God, acting through Moses, caused the wind to cease blowing, with the result that the water returned, drowning the horses and soldiers (see also Exodus 15:1-5, 21).

The naming of God as the real actor in the Exodus and the two different (though not necessarily contradictory) explanations of what happened to the Egyptians show that the biblical account is theological narrative and not historiography in the modern sense. The point of the biblical narrative was that God, or Yahweh (Exodus 6:1-3), delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Elements of the narrative elaborate God’s role and make it difficult, if not impossible, to re-create an objective account. For ancient Israelites, however, the event marked their passage from bondage to the beginning of their life as a “nation,” as the Hebrew Bible used the term; that is, as a group of related people following their own God to claim their own land.

The route from the “Sea” to Mount Sinai (also called Mount Horeb) also is unknown, partly because the location of the mountain itself is debated. The traditional site, named Jebel Musa, is a rugged mountain near the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. A reference to the habitation there of Amalekites (see Exodus 17:8-16), a Canaanite people, suggests a site farther north. In addition, Deuteronomy 1:2 gives the distance of Mount Sinai from Kadesh-barnea, a city near the southern end of Canaan, also suggesting a northern site. Hence, some scholars identify Mount Halal, west of Kadesh-barnea, as Mount Sinai. Regardless, it was the place where Moses had encountered Yahweh for the first time while tending the sheep of his father-in-law and the place to which he was to lead the Israelites to offer sacrifices (see Exodus 3:1, 12).

There, Israel made a covenant with Yahweh. The term “covenant” designates a formal agreement between or among two or more parties, often including stipulations for one or more of the participants. The covenant between Israel and Yahweh at Sinai as reported in the Hebrew Bible extends from Exodus 20 (which records the Ten Commandments) to Numbers 10:10, and includes several smaller codes, a census list, and some narration.

The most famous part of the covenant is the Ten Commandments, possibly originally short commands and prohibitions. The first four deal with how humans should relate to God, the last six with how humans should relate to each other. The commandments set high religious and ethical standards for Israel, standards that became increasingly appealing to other ancients by Greco-Roman times. Other collections of laws set times for the three major harvest festivals of Israel (Exodus 23:14-17), made demands for spiritual and physical purity (Leviticus 17-26), regulated the treatment of other human beings and of personal property (Exodus 21-23), and even gave criteria for diagnosing leprosy (Leviticus 13-14). Laws that aided Israelites in retaining their collective identity in foreign countries (for example during the period of captivity in Babylon in the sixth century) were those requiring circumcision of Hebrew males on the eighth day after birth (Leviticus 12:3) and those setting forth dietary regulations (Exodus 34:26b) that eventually led to kosher rules.

Significance

The Exodus was the most important event in the Hebrew Bible. The Bible’s own understanding of the event was twofold. First, it was caused by God’s love for God’s people. Second, it was the beginning of God’s fulfillment of the divine promise to give a land to Abraham and his descendants (see Genesis 12:1-3). Israel’s continued possession of the land was conditional on its faithfulness to God in keeping the covenant (see Deuteronomy 8:19-20).

That covenant was the definitive covenant of the Hebrew Bible. One main point was the requirement for Israel to worship Yahweh exclusively. The worship of one god exclusively was the starting point of monotheism, for which the Hebrew Bible is justly famous. Monotheism may be defined as belief in and worship of one god, combined with the denial of the existence of all other gods. Monotheism as such emerges later than the Ten Commandments (see, for example, Isaiah 42:5-9; 44:6-8), but the commandments made the decisive step toward monotheism by limiting Israel’s worship to Yahweh alone.

Without doubt the Ten Commandments have influenced the idea of individual rights of humans, endowed by their creator. The commandments also contribute two other innovations. First, the prohibition against making images of God (Exodus 20:4) eventually meant that Jews, Christians, and Muslims would refrain from trying to depict God in two- and three-dimensional art forms and concentrate instead on verbal description and human obedience. Second, the command to observe the Sabbath contributed to the development in all three religions of the idea that humans should take time periodically for rest, worship, and the further nurturance of spirituality.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Assmann, Jan. Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Discusses the interrelationship between the religions of Moses and Akhenaton.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Childs, Brevard S. The Book of Exodus. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974. A full-length commentary devoted exclusively to the book of Exodus, with lengthy discussions of the Exodus and the laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrelson, Walter. The Ten Commandments and Human Rights. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Rev. ed. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997. A study of the meaning of the commandments in ancient Israel and modern America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sarna, Nahum M. Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1996. Compares the narrative of the Exodus with other ancient Middle Eastern religious texts, showing what is unique and what is archetypal about the biblical story. Also discusses current theories about the historicity of the narrative.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Moses; Ramses II. Exodus (Israelite)

Categories: History Content