The vision that most of us have of the Exodus is typified by a quote from General Sir Richard Gale’s Great Battles of Biblical History (1): “The long trek over the arid desert was a grim undertaking for a tired and undernourished people. Thousands of them, old and young, men and woman, with their children, their sick and their lame, with their goats and their donkeys, their cooking pots and rough black tents must have looked a sorry sight.”
The Exodus is arguably the most famous of all of the tales found in the Torah, and yet there is no real evidence that it actually ever took place. For decades now, most scholars have agreed that there is no evidence to suggest that the Exodus reflects a specific historical event. Rather, its origins stem from a mythical story orally repeated many times that has been constructed, written and rewritten over millennia to include multiple layers of traditions, experiences and memories from a host of different sources and periods. Many attempts at deriving evidence of the Exodus have been made by archaeologist but none has been found. One would have thought that with such a large group of people wandering the desert for 40 years something would have shown up to validate the Exodus.
Torah commands us each year at the Passover Seder to repeat the story of the Exodus to our children so that they will remember the time when we were slaves in Egypt and how God, through Moses, delivered us from slavery to become the nation of Israel. Yet, alongside the annual telling of the Exodus story likened to ‘universes in parallel’, we have numerous alternate versions of how the Exodus may have taken place.
Mythical / Traditional Tales
Theories have evolved by various scholars that the Exodus may have originated from much older traditional tales, for example King Sargon the Great of Mesopotamia, the illegitimate child of a priestess, laid in a basket made from reeds and sealed with tar, then cast into the river by his mother, to be rescued and adopted by Akki the King’s gardener, before being raised to the rank of Cup-Bearer to the king and finally becoming king himself. Note the striking similarities between the early beginnings of King Sargon and Moses.
A further story adapted from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was written by Manetho, a 3rd century BCE Egyptian priest. King Amenophis of Egypt wanted to see the Gods with his own eyes. He asked one of his sages how this might be achieved. The wise old man informed the king if he cleansed Egypt of lepers and all the impure people he would then be able to see the gods with his own eyes. The king was delighted and taking the sage’s advise he rounded up all the lepers and people with disabilities amounting to some 80,000 persons, including some priests, expelling them to hard labour in Egypt’s stone quarries. When the wise old man heard what the King had done, that he had not expelled the lepers from Egypt he feared the King’s actions would bring about a violent retaliation from the Gods and predicted that the lepers would join forces with the Hyksos and take control of Egypt for 13 years.
After many years of hard labour in the stone quarries the lepers petitioned the king asking for permission to move to the city of Avaris. Permission was granted and the lepers prepared to make war against the cruel Amenophis. They elected an Egyptian priest as their leader by the name of Osarseph who instructed them not to worship any Egyptian Gods and to completely oppose all Egyptian costumes and practices.
Osarseph united the army of lepers with 200,000 Hyksos soldiers, declares himself king and prepared for war against Amenophis. On hearing of the pending attack, Amenophis remembered the wise old mans predictions and hid away his five-year-old son together with sacred icons and animals. He then assembled an army of 300,000 Egyptian soldiers and began his march to defeat the armies of Osarseph and the Hyksos. Suddenly, afraid of angering the Gods Amenophis withdrew his troops and retreated to find refuge in Ethiopia.
Again, we have many striking similarities to the Exodus story.
“The Military History of Ancient Israel” by Richard A. Gabriel (2) proposes that the Exodus was an organised military departure of escaping Habiru mercenaries as apposed to the disorderly, under- provisioned, rag-tag departure of Hebrew slaves as described in the Torah. The Habiru people were identified by the Amarna tablets discovered at the el-Amarna site in the Upper Egypt region. The Habiru were a mainly Semitic group of people who were found in Egypt and the Levant during a 600 year period from 1800-1200 BCE which coincides with the times of both Abraham and Moses. The Habiru were seen by the ruling classes throughout the Levant as a lower class of people consisting of escaped slaves, servants, robbers, labourers, agriculturists and mercenaries. In their role as mercenaries they were often seen as bandits and freebooters, sometimes fighting against Egyptian and Babylonian armies and at other times fighting with them. The existence of mercenaries in the ancient world is well known. They were part of King David’s army and accepted as part of the Israelite nation.
The first chapter of Exodus (Exodus 1:13-14) describes how Pharaoh had set taskmaster over them with forced labour, and they built the garrison cities of Pithom and Raamses and how the taskmasters made their lives bitter with hard service in making mortar and bricks and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. Note however, it does not describe slaves and instead refers to them as avadim indicating “workmen” or “workers” or even “servants”. Secondly, why would Egypt require slave workers when according to Michael Rostovtzeff in his History of the Ancient World (3) the Egyptian religion and law forbade slavery. The peasant workers had legal rights under law. Industrial strikes were permitted by workers should their conditions of employment be undermined. Striking workers were allowed to take refuge inside the religious temples where the legal right of sanctuary prohibited employers and police from following. It is somewhat curious, then, that the Israelites should have remembered being slaves in a country that did not practice slavery on any scale.
Further evidence that construction workers were not slaves is supported by text that shows military doctors assigned to construction crews who cared for the workers health and treated their injuries. Considerable attention was paid to the workers diet to keep them fit and healthy. Further substantiation of food supplies are found in Exodus 16:3 “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, when we ate our fill of bread”. Again in Numbers 11:5 “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leaks, the onions, and the garlic”.
So if not slaves, who were the mixed multitude who fled Egypt? (4) Who were these people described in todays Parashah who were cordoned off between the Sea of Reeds on the one side and the threatening might of pharaoh’s army on the other? Were they simply unarmed slaves or were they a mixture of Hebrew and Habiru mercenaries? From looking at the Hebrew text we can find many indications that this was indeed a military led Exodus: “Six hundred thousand men on foot” (ragli hagevarim) implicating male foot soldiers, Exodus 12:37. “When the Israelites fled Egypt, a mixed multitude (erev rav) went up also with them” The term erev can be found in Jeremiah 25:20 again in 50:37 and also in Ezekiel 30:5, where the term erev is used to describe mercenaries slain by the sword.
And in todays Parashah, in Exodus 13:18, the text describes the Israelites at the time of the Exodus as “chamushim” a term that has strong military implications indicating: “in battle array, arrayed for battle by fives, armed.” Further validation for the use of “chamushim” in a military sense is made by Prof. William H. Propp, a quote from his book “Exodus” (5) states the following: “the majority rendering, ‘well girted, armed, equipped,’ fits all attestations well enough and has been adopted into modern Hebrew”.
My sermon has discussed the following topics:
- Ancient myths and tales that contain strong similarities to the Exodus story.
- Possible relationship of the Israelite nation to the Habiru.
- Biblical interpretations of the mixed multitude as described by the English translation in the book of Exodus.
In conclusion I will use the following quotations in an attempt to answer the Title question “Did The Exodus Happen”?
The first is from the opening lyrics of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” as spoken by Tevye the milkman: “Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything…how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl…This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask how did this tradition start. I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition”. The second is from a lecture given by Prof. William Propp at the UCSD Exodus Conference in 2013 where he was asked: “did the Exodus happen?’’ to which he responded: “I have a pet answer I use inspired by Bill Clinton: It depends on what you mean by Exodus and it depends on what you mean by happen”.
- Richard Gale 1968
- Richard A. Gabriel The Military History of Acient Israel Jan 2003 Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Michael Rostovtzeff 1926
- Bar, S. (2008). Who Were the “Mixed Multitude”? Hebrew Studies, 49, 27–39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27913875
- William Propp UCSD Exodus conference “Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination” May 31 — June 1, 2013