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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.



Bitter Lives

Israel in and out of Egypt

Carol A. Redmount

Exodus, a Greek word, means departure or going out. The Exodus is the Israelite departure from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, and the subsequent eventful journey through the Sinai wilderness. This Exodus is a defining, pivotal episode in the Bible, a cornerstone of Israelite faith and historical understanding. According to biblical traditions, through the Exodus events Israel first takes form as a nation. During the wilderness wanderings between Egypt and the Promised Land of Canaan, the major tenets of Israelite belief and ritual are handed down by God to Moses, whose name becomes synonymous ever after with religious law. Throughout the Bible and its long developmental history, the Exodus saga operates as the national epic of ancient Israel. Critical to Israel's understanding of itself and its relationship to God, the Exodus account constitutes Israel's confession of faith; and its unfailing invocation, sometimes in no more than capsule form (“the LORD who brought your ancestors up out of the land of Egypt”; “the law of Moses”), provides a perpetual affirmation of that faith. In the Exodus narrative, we find the core doctrine at the heart of one of the world's great religions.

The biblical Exodus account has been understood on a number of different levels. Literally, and apparently historically, the Exodus tells of the Israelites' slavery under a harsh Egyptian pharaoh, followed by their freedom flight from Egypt to Canaan, led by Moses. During this flight, God intensifies his special relationship with Israel and sets forth a comprehensive set of regulations and religious precepts for the community. Theologically, the Exodus embodies the themes of God acting through history, of divine promise and fulfillment, of eternal covenant, and of human suffering and redemption. Finally, paradigmatically, the Exodus is a powerful image of what Northrop Frye called “the definitive deliverance”; as the archetype for all subsequent redemption and liberation experiences, it has become a powerful symbol in Western political thought.

Two issues dominate contemporary scholarly discussion of the Exodus: the extent to which the narrative is historical in the usual sense of the word, and the placement of the various events in an ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern historical and geographical framework. Who was the pharaoh who did not know Joseph? What was the route of the Exodus? When did the Exodus occur? Are there any independent witnesses to the Exodus events? To answer such questions, it is first necessary to consider the character of the Exodus account itself, because its theological nature affected its recollection, literary formation, and interpretation, and because the ancient conception of history differed from our own. Only then can we evaluate historical issues as they relate to the biblical narrative, and place that narrative within a broader context.

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