The Exodus, the escape of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, is the central event of the Hebrew Bible. More space is devoted to the generation of Moses than to any other period in Israel's history, and the event itself became a model for subsequent experiences of liberation in biblical, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. The Exodus is ancient Israel's national epic, retold throughout its history, with each new narration reflecting the context in which it was rendered. The Exodus entails not only the actual events in Egypt but all those encompassed within the period from Moses to Joshua, from the actual escape from Egypt to the conquest of the land of Canaan, including the wilderness wanderings. This epic is not preserved in the Pentateuch as such; within its boundaries the promise of land made to Abraham remains unfulfilled. But the structure of Pentateuchal narrative presumes it, and indeed the conclusion of the story is found in the book of Joshua, the beginning of the Deuteronomic history that has apparently displaced an earlier ending to Israel's original epic. The full story is also found in summary form in other passages (Exod. 15; Deut. 26.5–9; Josh. 24; Pss. 78; 80; 105; 114; cf. Ezek 20.6), some of which are quite old.

Historical Context.

The Bible itself is virtually devoid of concrete detail that would enable the Exodus to be dated securely. It names none of the Pharaohs with whom Joseph, the “sons of Israel,” and Moses and Aaron are reported to have dealt. Egyptian records are also silent about the events described in the later chapters of the book of Genesis and the first half of the book of Exodus; they make no mention of Joseph, Moses, the Hebrews, the plagues, or a catastrophic defeat of Pharaoh and his army. The first mention of Israel in a source other than the Bible is in an inscription written to commemorate the victory of the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah at the end of the thirteenth century BCE; there Israel is associated with places in Canaan rather than in Egypt. Because of this lack of direct correlation between biblical and nonbiblical sources, scholars have to resort to indirect evidence in assigning a date to the Exodus. Two principal views have been proposed. The first associates the flight of the Hebrews with the expulsion of the Hyksos kings from Egypt at the end of the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1550 BCE). First proposed by Josephus (Against Apion 1.103), this date approximates the figure of 480 years from the Exodus to the dedication of the Temple by Solomon (1 Kings 6.1; cf. Judg. 11.26) and, with some variations, is held by a minority of modern scholars. Biblical chronology itself is, however, not consistent, and most scholars date the event to the mid‐thirteenth century BCE, during the reign of Ramesses II, because of a convergence of probabilities, including the identification of the store cities of Pithom and Rameses (Exod. 1.11) with recently excavated sites in the Egyptian delta and the larger context of the history of Egypt and of the Levant.

The Narratives.

The account of the Exodus in the Pentateuch is multilayered, being composed of various traditions, some very ancient, such as the “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15, and the bulk a prose narrative combining the Pentateuchal sources J, E, and P, to be dated from the tenth to perhaps as late as the sixth century BCE. The existence of these traditions enables us to observe a virtually continuous process of revision; thus, for example, the place names vary, apparently reflecting those current when a particular tradition was set down.

Embellishment, heightening, and exaggeration can also be observed. The simplest account of the event at the Sea of Reeds (see Red Sea) is found in Exodus 14.24–25. This passage may be understood in its simplest terms as a summary of how a group of Hebrew slaves escaping on foot was pursued by Egyptian guards, who were forced to give up the chase when their chariots became mired in the swampy region east of the Nile delta (see Map 2). This account is ultimately transformed into a miraculous intervention of Yahweh at the sea, when through the agency of Moses he makes a path through the sea, with walls of water on both sides (Exod. 14.21–23). Still later, in the Septuagint, the Hebrew phrase meaning “sea of reeds” is translated as “Red Sea,” further enhancing the miracle. Likewise, the number of those escaping, according to Exodus 1.15 a small group whose obstetrical needs could be handled by only two midwives, becomes six hundred thousand men, as well as women and children (Exod. 12.37), an impossible population of several million.

Another tendency is to mythologize. The escape of the Hebrews at the sea is recast as a historical enactment of an ancient cosmogonic myth of a battle between the storm god and the sea, found also in biblical texts having to do with creation (Job 26.12–13; Jer. 31.35; Pss. 74.12–17; 89.9–12; 93; 104; see Israel, Religion of). This mythology is explicitly applied to the Exodus in Psalm 114, where the adversaries of the deity are the personified Sea and Jordan River, who flee at God's approach at the head of Israel (cf. Judg. 5.4–5; Ps. 68.7–8; Hab. 3.3–15); Sea and Jordan are clearly related to Prince Sea and Judge River, the parallel titles of the adversary of the Canaanite storm god Baal in Ugaritic mythology (note the echoes of this motif in the New Testament, in such passages as Mark 4.35–41 par.; Rev. 21.1). The adversaries of the God of Israel, however, are not cosmic but historical—the Egyptian Pharaoh and his army, and sea and river are not primeval forces but geographical realities.

The same historicizing tendency is apparent in the treatment of the Passover, originally two separate springtime feasts from different socioeconomic contexts now given historical etiology associated with the Exodus. The “festival of unleavened bread” was originally an agrarian pilgrimage feast in which the first spring harvest of barley was offered to a deity without being contaminated with older leaven. In the Exodus narrative, the unleavened bread is explained by the need for haste as the Hebrews left Egypt (Exod. 12.34, 39; Deut. 16.3; cf. Isa. 52.12). Similarly, the slaughter of the firstborn lamb, originally an offering by pastoralists to the deity thought responsible for their flocks' increase, is linked to the protective mark of the lamb's blood on the doorposts of the Hebrews, which spared them from the last plague.

In a similar way, other laws and institutions that developed later in Israel's history were legitimated by placing their origins in the formative period of the Exodus; the formative period thus became normative. This is one way of understanding the large amount of legal and ritual material found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy: set in a narrative context, these laws and religious practices are thereby linked with the central event of the Exodus and with Moses, the mediator of the divinely ordained instructions.

In view of these multiple tendencies, it is impossible to determine with any certainty what may actually have occurred to Hebrews in Egypt, probably during the thirteenth century. Literary analysis of the narratives suggests that what may in fact have been several movements out of Egypt by Semitic peoples have been collapsed into one. But whatever happened, this event was also formative in the sense that ancient Israel saw its origins here. A group of runaway slaves acquired an identity that, against all odds, they have maintained to today. It is understandable, then, that the event would be magnified in song and story, in part to praise the God thought responsible for it. It is also understandable why the Exodus became a dominant theme of later writers, who saw in the events of their times a kind of reenactment of the original Exodus.

Allusions to the Exodus.

Hebrew Bible.

Much of biblical narrative can be seen as shaped by or alluding to the Exodus both by anticipation and in retrospect. Thus, the division of the waters and the appearance of dry land at creation (Gen. 1.6–10) foreshadows the division of the Reed Sea (Exod. 14.21; both passages are P); the allusion to the P account of creation in Exodus 14 is an interpretation of the Exodus itself as a new creation. Likewise, the brief story of Abram (Abraham) and Sarai (Sarah) in Egypt (Gen. 12.10–20) is a proleptic summary of the longer narrative of Israel in Egypt that will be told later in the Pentateuch: the two ancestors go down to Egypt as aliens because of a famine (Gen 12.10; cf. 47.4); subsequently Yahweh afflicts Pharaoh and his house with great plagues (12.17; Exod. 11.1) so that the Egyptian ruler lets them go (12.19; Exod. 12.32).

The linking of Exodus and Conquest in biblical poetry (Exod. 15; Ps. 114) is elaborately developed in Joshua 3–4. The Deuteronomic narrative of the crossing of the Jordan River parallels that at the Reed Sea, as the conclusion to the narrative explicitly states (Josh. 4.23).

Biblical literature as a whole is permeated by allusions to the Exodus. The prophet Elijah is described as returning in the darkest moment of his life to the mountain of God, called Horeb in Deuteronomic style, where the theophany experienced by Moses is repeated, but with a difference: Yahweh is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, all manifestations of his presence in Exodus (19.18; 24.17; cf. Deut. 4.12; etc.), but in the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19.12). The prophet Hosea sees hope for Israel's restoration in a return to the wilderness (Hos. 2.14–15), the scene of Israel's honeymoon with its God (see Jer. 2.2). Scholars have also seen echoes of the Exodus in such texts as Jonah and Psalm 23.

The most sustained set of references to the Exodus in the prophets is found in the collection of oracles attributed to Second Isaiah. Writing in the context of the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BCE, this anonymous prophet foresaw a return of Israel to its land, describing it as a new Exodus (43.2, 19–21; 52.4–5). Yahweh, who had shown his power in the defeat of the primeval sea and at the Sea of Reeds, would act again to bring his people in joy through a wilderness to Zion (51.9–11; 40.3; 41.17–20; 44.3).

Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Essene community at Qumran in its sectarian writings continued the interpretive tradition of applying the experience of the Exodus to itself. These self‐styled “covenanters” saw themselves as the new Israel, living in camps in the wilderness at the very edge of the promised land, preparing for the ultimate triumph of God after a war of forty years, reliving both Israel's original formative experience and that of the Babylonian exile, in fulfillment of the “new covenant” of Jeremiah 31.31.

New Testament.

The appropriation of the Exodus as the model for prior and subsequent events in Israel's history was continued in the New Testament. The life of Jesus is frequently understood in the Gospels as a reenactment of Israel's experience. Luke 9.31 describes Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection as an “exodus” (NRSV: “departure”), the subject of his conversation with Moses and Elijah, both associated with the original Exodus of Israel (see above). Among the quotations from the Old Testament in the gospel of Matthew in which the evangelist explicitly describes Jesus as fulfilling, one identifies Jesus as the new Israel, come out of Egypt just as the old Israel had (Matt. 2.15; cf. Hos. 11.1; Exod. 4.22). There are many other allusions to events and figures of Israel's Exodus throughout Matthew's gospel. Jesus is represented as another Moses, rescued at an early age from persecutors (2.21; cf. Exod. 4.19). He gives his teaching in five major discourses like the five books of Moses (the Torah), of which the first is a proclamation of the new law for the new Israel, the Sermon on the Mount, just as Moses had proclaimed the original law at Mount Sinai. Like Israel in the wilderness, Jesus' followers are fed miraculously in a deserted place (Matt. 14.13; 15.33; par.; cf. Exod. 16.4; John 6.31–32). The gospel of John carries this typology further by identifying Jesus with the Passover lamb (1.29; 19.36, quoting Exod. 12.46), an equation made earlier by Paul (1 Cor. 5.7) and later considerably amplified in the book of Revelation (5.6; etc.). Paul also identifies Christ with the rock from which water miraculously flowed in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10.4; cf. Exod. 17.1–7; Num. 20.2–13).

Postbiblical traditions.

It is not surprising that a similar correspondence was made between the experience of ancient Israel and the life of the Christian. Baptism is understood as a personal exodus from slavery to sin to a new life of holiness made possible by passage through water; in the Roman liturgy the second reading of the ritual for blessing the baptismal water during the Easter vigil is Exodus 14.24–15.3. Thus, Christians, like Moses (Exod. 34.29–35), behold the “glory of the Lord” unveiled (2 Cor. 3.16–18). Likewise, at death, a traditional prayer asks that God save the soul of the dying person as he once saved Moses from Pharaoh. The Christian Eucharist is directly descended from the Passover service, because the Last Supper of Jesus was itself a Passover meal; the bread (often unleavened; see Leaven) and the wine of the Passover assume a specifically Christian symbolism, but the older Exodus themes are still present (1 Cor. 10.16–18; 11.23–25; see Lord's Supper).

In Islam, the Qurʾān and subsequent traditions echo the biblical account of the Exodus in their description of the Hejira, the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina.

The self‐identification with the ancient community of Hebrews has continued into modern times. Various groups experiencing oppression have identified themselves with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Throughout the centuries of persecution and attempts at extermination, Jews have seen in the original Exodus a reason for hope: the God who had saved their ancestors would also save them. In the Diaspora, since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the longing for a return to the land of Israel has been expressed by the words “Next year in Jerusalem!” at the end of the Passover meal. Exodus symbolism was also adopted by the Zionist movement, especially in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, and continues to be used by Jews seeking to emigrate from oppressive situations.

In the ideology of the Puritans immigrating to the “New World,” the Exodus also served as a model and a divine guarantee: once again a divinely chosen group had escaped from oppression across a body of water to a new Canaan, a “providence plantation”; note the many biblical place names used in New England and throughout the United States. This conviction has continued to shape the American self‐image, notably in the notion of “manifest destiny”: the view that the Americans of the United States are a chosen people is commonplace in American political discourse. Ironically, in the early nineteenth century, after the founding of Liberia, American blacks used the same imagery in their spirituals; the “river” to be crossed was the Atlantic Ocean, but in the opposite direction from the Pilgrims, and Africa became the goal of their journey, the “greener pastures on the other side.”

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Exodus has been paradigmatic for liberation theology, a radical Christian movement of Latin American origin whose goals are political and social reform. Liberation theology has been criticized for its appropriation of the Exodus as sanction for views and actions espoused for other, quite legitimate, reasons. The appeal to biblical authority is highly selective and raises complicated questions: how, for example, can a God who rescues the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage be reconciled with one who immediately thereafter gives explicit commands in which the institution of slavery is not just presumed but condoned? Still, there is no denying the power of the Exodus story as a model for hope and even action to counter oppression. (see Politics and the Bible.)

Michael D. Coogan