Exodus of Israel

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This article describes the major epochal event in the history of Israel. For the book of the Bible by this name, see Exodus.
Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt by David Roberts (1830).
The Exodus (Greek ex out of, outward and hodos a road or a way) is the abrupt embarkation of the people of Israel from Egypt. It is one of the key epochal events in the history of the nation of Israel.

The Biblical Narrative

The Book of Exodus is the best source we have, and the only complete source, for this event. (The reasons for this will be discussed below.) The following is a summary of that narrative.


Centuries earlier, Jacob had led his vast extended family into Egypt, eventually settling in the province of Goshen. The number of years is either 215 years ("short Sojourn)" or 430 years ("long Sojourn"). Jacob had done this at the invitation of his son Joseph, whom he had thought dead but who, as it happened, had risen from being a common prisoner to senior prison trustee and eventually viceroy of Egypt. The story of Joseph, and especially his viceroyship and the circumstances under which he entered into it, is told here.

The Pharaoh who welcomed Joseph was likely Sesostris I[1], the second ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty,[2][3][4] Soon, however, two other Pharaohs, who were considerably harder of heart, succeeded to the throne: Sesostris III and his immediate successor Amenemhet III.[5] These two (or perhaps the latter of the two) set in motion a chain of events that led to the founding of one nation and a near-total disaster for the other.

The Mass Puericide

Sesostris III probably began the oppression after observing the phenomenal growth rate of the Hebrew population. Tellingly, the Bible says that the Pharaoh was worried that the Israelites might ally themselves to Egypt's enemies in war.[6] (This would be entirely consistent with the Exodus taking place toward the end of the Twelfth or Thirteenth Dynasty and the beginning of the Hyksos period.)

The Bible further names two cities that the Israelites built for the Egyptians: Pithom and Ramesses.[7] Some have speculated from these names that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was a Ramesside king, usually Ramesses II. But the notion that the city of Ramesses is actually named for a king named Ramesses is without even secular historical warrant.

In any event, so the Bible says, the Israelites multiplied more than ever.[8] That's when Sesostris (or Amenemhet) raised the stakes. He ordered the two senior Hebrew midwives to make sure to kill all newborn boys, but to let newborn girls live.[9] This is the first recorded instance of a governmental policy to use abortion or infanticide to accomplish genocide.

The midwives did not openly defy Pharaoh's order. They simply didn't carry it out as he asked. They excused their behavior by saying that Hebrew women were often far advanced in parturition before the midwives even arrived to assist them. Pharaoh's response was as drastic as it was draconian: he ordered his soldiers to throw every boy-child into the Nile River.

The Birth of Moses

Moses was born at about this time, the son of Amram and Jochebed. Amram, a Levite and the son of Kohath, one of Levi's three named descendants in the preceding generation, already had two children by Jochebed: a daugher, Miriam, and a son, Aaron. Moses' birth presented an immediate problem: how to conceal him from the king's soldiers?

Jochebed solved the problem in a unique manner: she built a basket for the baby, coated the basket with pitch, placed Moses into it, and set it floating down the Nile. In this, Moses' journey recalled the voyage of Noah's Ark.

Eventually, Moses' little ark drifted into the waters outside the royal residence of the Pharaoh's daughter. She herself was infertile, and saw Moses as a substitute for the child she could never have. She gave the child the name Moses, which literally means drawn out in Egyptian and Hebrew.[10]

The name of this daughter of Pharaoh was probably Sobekneferu.[5] In this connection, one must remember that female members of the royal family were always described in terms of their relationship to Pharaoh, e.g. "Pharaon's Wife" or "Pharaoh's Sister" or, as in this case, "Pharaoh's Daughter."[11]

Moses in Exile

Sobekneferu (if it was she) had intended raising Moses as a prince of Egypt. Some authorities have suggested that Moses appears in the Twelfth Dynasty king lists as Amenemhet IV.[5]

But Moses identified not with the royal family but instead with his own people. Soon an incident occurred that required Moses to make a choice: he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew. Moses looked this way and that, and then killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.

News like that travels fast. Two days later, Moses caught two Hebrews fighting and tried to settle the quarrel. The man at fault challenged Moses, saying,

Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? Exodus 2:14 (KJV)

Moses fled immediately. His exile had begun. He was forty years old at the time, according to the testimony, centuries later, of Stephen before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.[12]

Moses Finds a Wife

Moses eventually came to the country of the Midianites. There he fought against some shepherds who were harassing a number of women who were trying to water their own sheep.[13] This won him the attention and favor of Jethro, the father of these women. Eventually, Moses married the eldest of Jethro's daughters, Zipporah. Here the Book of Exodus records that he sired one son, Gershom.

The Bible makes no attempt to identify these shepherds. Nor does Flavius Josephus.[14]. The historical warrant for the popular supposition that these shepherds were Amalekites is therefore lacking. However, the Amalekites were known to be shepherds--and, more to the point, the Hyksos, which some identify with the Amalekites, were known as the "Shepherd Kings."[5][15] If these shepherds with whom Moses clashed were Amalekites, then this could have been the first hostile encounter that an Egyptian-trained man had with the race that conquered all of Egypt shortly after the Exodus and held it until the reign of King Saul.

God Recruits Moses

Nearly forty more years passed, during which the original Pharaoh (presumably Amenemhet III) died and another Pharaoh (presumably Neferhotep I[5][16]) reigned in his stead. Now God called to Moses, speaking from out of a bush that burned without being consumed. God made multiple signs to Moses to convince him to deliver a message to Pharaoh, and then to lead the Israelites out of Egypt when the time came. Because Moses pleaded that he was not a good speaker, God declared that his brother Aaron would assist him.

Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three, when the two men went before Pharaoh.[17]

The First Message

Moses and Aaron initially came in peace to Pharaoh, and asked his leave to lead the Israelites into the desert for a three-day period. Pharaoh indignantly refused, and then issued an order that the Israelites would have to gather their own straw to make bricks, and still make the same quota of bricks. This caused the Israelites to look on Moses with extreme disfavor. This was probably the lowest point ever in Moses' life.

But this was all part of God's plan--for God intended to demonstrate His Power in a manner that no one then alive would forget.

The Ten Plagues

Main Article: Egyptian plagues

Because Pharaoh would not accede to a polite request, Moses began issuing a series of threats of supernatural disaster, none of which Pharaoh heeded. Each of these disasters, called plagues, was a direct strike at part of the Egyptian religious system and everything Egyptians held sacred.

The Evacuation and Despoliation

The death of the first-born of man and beast among the Egyptians, including Pharaoh's own son, finally broke Pharaoh's will. He gave his assent for the Israelites to leave, and even encouraged his people to bribe the Israelites to leave with whatever jewels or precious metals the Israelites cared to carry with them. This was the "despoliation" of the Egyptians.

The Bible says that the "sojourn" of the children of Israel lasted 430 years.[18] When those 430 years began is a difficult question, with some saying that it began with the entry of Jacob into Egypt, and others saying that it actually began with Abraham's entry into Canaan.

The Red Sea Crossing

Main Article: Red Sea crossing

But after Pharaoh let the Israelites leave, he changed his mind. Now he set after them, with his entire army, and determined to overtake them and wipe them out. But what actually happened is that Pharaoh was wiped out, along with his entire army.[19]

Traditionally, this occurred at the northermnost tip of the Gulf of Suez, the western arm of the Red Sea--though some have since suggested that the crossing actually occurred at the Gulf of Aqaba to the east.[20][21]

No archaeologist has ever found the mortal remains of Neferhotep I. Furthermore, Neferhotep did not have a son to succeed him, but rather a brother, Sobekhotep IV. Shortly after Sobekhotep IV came to the throne, the Hyksos came in force, and occupied Egypt virtually without resistance.[15]

Biblical foreshadowing

From the narrative recorded in Genesis 15:13-18 it appears that the plan of the Exodus may have been revealed to Abraham four generations before Moses.In Genesis 15:13 the narrative records that Abraham's descendants will be a stranger in a land that is not their own. The descendants of Abraham will serve the strangers in that land, and these strangers whom Abraham's descendants serve will "afflict them" for 400 years[22]. In Genesis 15:14 ,the narrative records that God will judge the nation holding the descendants of Abraham in affliction, "your seed will leave that nation with material wealth"[23].Genesis 15:15 records that Abraham will die at an old age, and be buried with his father; but after the 4th generation[24] the things previously hinted at would occur. In Genesis 15:17 the narrative records that the sun went down, but that Abraham saw a smoking furnace and a burning lamp,picturing the "burning bush" of Moses, or the "burning cloud" which lead the Israelites in the Exodus[25][26][27]. Finally, Genesis 15:18 records that the borders of the land that the descendants of Abraham will immigrate to after the period of affliction. The land borders are recorded as everything from the Nile river to the Euphrates[28]. It should be noted that this verse has been a hotbed, as anti-semitic and anti-Israel bigots note this as a claim to an Israeli push for living space in the Middle East[29].

Physical evidence of the Exodus

Egyptian history is of little to no help in substantiating the Exodus, much less dating it. The reason is that, to an Egyptian, history was not an objective inquiry into past events, but rather was a medium of propaganda. The willful destruction or defacement by succeeding Pharaohs of the monuments, stelae, and other records of his predecessors is a common theme in Egyptology.

In 2003, amateur diver Peter Elmer discovered coral-encrusted chariot wheels and other chariot parts submerged in the Gulf of Aqaba, the eastern offshoot of the great body of water called the Red Sea today.[20] This is not, however, conclusive. The Biblical narrative indicates that the Israelites made their crossing far too soon for them to have successfully crossed the entire Sinai desert and peninsula to reach the Gulf of Aqaba. More likely, the Israelites crossed the Gulf of Suez--and the destruction of Neferhotep's army was so complete that not a single artifact was left. The Bible does, of course, say that not a single man was left of that army.

The revised chronology of David Down and John Ashton[1] strongly suggests that the beginning of the Intermediate Period is the best time for the Exodus. By this scheme, the Hyksos overran Egypt when conditions could not have been more favorable to invaders: a country first devastated by multiple meterological, agricultural, and epidemiological disasters is suddenly deprived of its leader and its entire army in a single battle.

Chronological Placement of the Exodus

James Ussher, in The Annals of the World, placed the Exodus at 1491 BC. His primary assumptions consisted of:

  1. Accepting 562 BC as the death of Nebuchadnezzar II.
  2. A direct reckoning of the dates-of-accession of the Kings of the Divided Kingdoms Northern and Southern.
  3. The Bible's explicit statement that Solomon broke ground on the Temple of Jerusalem exactly 479 years after the Exodus.[30]

Today Ussher's original date is sharply contested. The three contenders for the date of the Exodus are:

  1. 1491 BC (Ussher)
  2. 1445-1446 BC ("The Early Date")
  3. 1290 BC ("The Late Date")

Virtually all of the arguments for the Late Date rest solely on arguments from conventional Egyptian chronology, however. The Early Date is much better supported from Scripture, which specifically requires four hundred eighty years between the Exodus and the groundbreaking of the Temple built by Solomon.[30] Several archaeologists have looked for battle-damage and other evidence for the Early Date in and around Jericho, Ai, and Hazor, and have found it.[31]

The date preferred by Edwin R. Thiele (labeled "Early Date" above) is only forty-five years later than Ussher's. Thiele's sole warrant for favoring his date over Ussher's is his attempt to reconcile the king lists of the Divided Kingdoms Northern and Southern with the chronology of the Assyrians. (For a detailed discussion, and a synoptic table showing the differing results for those king lists, see here.) Thiele, like Ussher, relies on the Temple groundbreaking interval described above to assign his date for the Exodus.

The Pharaoh of the Oppression, as stated above, was likely Sesostris III, a Twelfth Dynasty king. James Ussher initially supposed that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was not Ramesses II, but another Ramesses whom he mistakenly assumed ruled directly before Ramesses II and for the same number of years. Future scholars accepted Seti I and Ramesses II as the Pharaohs of the Oppression and Exodus, respectively, for decades. Recently, some scholars tried to make a case for other pairings of the Pharaohs of the Oppression and Exodus in the Eighteenth Dynasty rather than the Nineteenth. These included:

  1. Thutmose III and Amenhotep II
  2. Thutmose I and Thutmose III. These scholars also identified Pharaoh's daughter as Hatshepsut, the first woman ever to rule as Pharaoh in her own right.

Still other scholars have attempted to identify Moses with Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaton, the "heretical Pharaoh" who tried to install a crude form of monotheism in his empire. However, a more likely scenario is that the actual Akhenaton took inspiration from Moses, though his understanding of Moses' religion was thoroughly mistaken.

The Exodus in Popular Culture

The Exodus has been the subject of many motion picture and television projects over the last fifty years. Most of these projects contain extra-Biblical interpolations for which no Scriptural warrant and very little archaological warrant exists. For example, Scripture clearly says that when Moses killed the Egyptian taskmaster, he did so in secret and did not want that fact known--because he was not prepared to face the consequences. (Not every deed of a recognized hero and leader of the Hebrew people was a good or wise deed.) The various motion-picture projects that have treated this story have shown Moses behaving negligently or even recklessly in the killing of the Egyptian, and left out entirely the context in which Moses found out that his deed was no longer secret.

More to the point, most of these projects have assumed that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was either Ramesses II or his son Merenptah. This supposition is based either on Late Date chronology or on Manetho's initial mistake in assuming that all Dynasties of Egypt ran consecutively.

Related References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Tas Walker, Steve Cardno and Jonathan Sarfati. "Timing is Everything: A Talk with Field Archaeologist David Down." Creation 27(3):30-35, June 2005.
  2. Author unknown. "Entry for Sesostris I." Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007. Retrieved June 23, 2007 from Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
  3. Kinnaer, Jacques. "Entry on Sesostris I." The Ancient Egypt Site, 2007. Retrieved June 23, 2007.
  4. Kjellen, Tore. "Entry for Sesostris I." Encyclopedia of the Orient online, 2007. Retrieved June 23, 2007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Jaroncyk, Ron. "Egyptian History and the Biblical Record: A Perfect Match?" Creation Ministries International, January 23, 2007. Retrieved June 25, 2007.
  6. Exodus 1:7-10
  7. Exodus 1:11
  8. Exodus 1:12-14
  9. Exodus 1:16
  10. Exodus 2:1-10
  11. Tyldesley, Joyce A. Hatchepsut: the Female Pharaoh. New York: Penguin Books, 1998 (ISBN 0140244646).
  12. Acts 7:23
  13. Exodus 2:17
  14. Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews, William Whiston, trans. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, p. 70. ISBN 0913573868
  15. 15.0 15.1 Authors unknown. "The Hyksos." SpecialtyInterests.com. Retrieved June 28, 2007.
  16. Authors unknown."Entry for Neferhotep I." Digital Egypt for Universities. London, England: University College, 2000. Retrieved June 28, 2007.
  17. Exodus 7:7
  18. Exodus 12:40-41
  19. Exodus 14
  20. 20.0 20.1 Kovacs, Joe. "Pharaoh's chariots found in Red Sea?" WorldNetDaily.com, June 21, 2003. Retrieved July 8, 2007.
  21. Petrovich, Michael, dir. "Crossing of the Red Sea." Center for Natural Studies, n.d. Retrieved July 8, 2007.
  22. Genesis 15:13
  23. Genesis 15:14
  24. Genesis 15:16
  25. Genesis15:17
  26. Exodus 33:7-11
  27. http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/oldtesta/ot02.pdf
  28. Genesis 15:18
  29. http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/oldtesta/ot02.pdf
  30. 30.0 30.1 verses-1 6
  31. Lorenzini, D. Massimiliano. "Evidence for the Early Date of the Exodus." 2002. Retrieved July 8, 2007.

See Also