Israel's departure from Egypt. Tradition had it that the twelve sons of Jacob and their families, a total of seventy persons (Gen. 46: 27) went down into Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan. They grew to a great multitude, to the alarm of the Egyptians, who enslaved them and forced them to build cities; but under the inspired leadership of Moses and Aaron (both are Egyptian names) the Israelites fled from their oppressors, tramped through the desert, and invaded Palestine. By this time there were said to be 600,000 men of military age—which would imply a vast company of more than two million refugees—which is unbelievable.
The historical facts are more complex and by no means certainly established, for there is little help from archaeological evidence. Perhaps the Hebrews originally entered Egypt in several phases, as would seem to be implied by the Genesis narrative itself in that the brothers go down later than Joseph. Some probably never went into Egypt at all. And possibly their departure, or exodus, was also phased over a period, though of the event in some form there can be little doubt; the recollection was deeply engraven in the nation's consciousness (Isa. 51: 9–11) and liturgies (Ps. 114) and was central to the prophecy of Hosea (Hos. 11: 1–5). Yet here is more a theological narrative designed to emphasize the power of Yahweh and his servant Moses and to affirm the identity of the nation of a later period than a reliable folk memory of events in the distant past. ‘Pharaoh’ is a generic figure without a personal name. But they provided a foundation for the annual liturgy of the Passover festival.
A possible historical reconstruction is that the first Hebrew contingent went into Egypt in the late 18th cent. BCE, followed by others in the 14th cent., and that some of them left at various times. Possibly the main body left after 430 years in Egypt (Exod. 12: 40). The tradition emphasizes the reluctance of Pharaoh to let his Israelite slaves depart, and it was only after the terrifying and miraculous plagues that consent was won. The most likely date for the final departure is early in the 13th cent. BCE, but it has to be borne in mind that the Pentateuch, which is our only source of information, was not compiled until the 10th to 6th cents., and details of the geography are unclear. The miracles are told to express the belief in the overruling providence of Israel's God Yahweh; and the covenant at Sinai was regarded as the moment when Israel received the Law. Of the wanderings in the wilderness, it is hard to trace a precise direction, and it is more of a geographical background vaguely remembered than an accurate account of the migration of pastoral groups. Few of the places in the biblical narrative can be definitely identified. First of all, it is improbable that the people ever crossed the tip of the Red Sea (the Gulf of Suez)—it is too far to the south. (And the Hebrew in any case means Sea of Reeds. The ‘Red Sea’ derives from the LXX translation.) It is suggested that the crossing was over shallow water to the east of Avarus near modern El‐Qantara on the Suez Canal. The Israelites were trapped between this water and the pursuing Egyptians, but a wind drove the waters back (Exod. 14: 21, 27), while the soldiers of Pharaoh were drowned when the waters of a tsunami suddenly engulfed the area; this is celebrated in the hymn of Exod. 15, and also (Exod. 11: 4–6) where the Lord is said to have slaughtered all the first‐born Egyptian babies with a ferocity later to be equalled by that of Herod at Bethlehem (Matt. 2.16). The setback was hardly very momentous for the Egyptians—the successful escape of a party of runaway slaves was not significant, and no Egyptian records of it exist. (There is, however, an Egyptian inscription from the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah at the end of the 13th cent. BCE which indicates that Israelites were settled in Canaan and no longer in Egypt.) The main group made for Mount Sinai where their God Yahweh, who had rescued them from Egypt, was to be worshipped, and where he revealed himself. After this renewal of Israel's hopes and the beginning of Israel's election as the people of Yahweh, they made for the oasis of Kadesh, 80 km. (50 miles) south of Beersheba. The tradition maintains that they then made a great detour round Transjordan which included the conquest of the Amorites of Heshbon. The invaders skirted the fortified territory of Edom and Moab, captured Jericho (Josh. 6), eventually subdued the whole of Palestine (Josh. 11: 16–23), and distributed it amongst the twelve tribes (Josh. 13–21).
The aim of the biblical narrative is to demonstrate the power of God to punish or to reward his people by defeats or victories in war. It was an attempt by a later generation to make sense of their present situation by giving an idealized account of their past. Historical reconstruction is therefore difficult. It could be that if some Hebrews never went into Egypt, these were joined with those who fled from Pharaoh, who is a generic figure without a personal name and so generated a revolt of the underclass against Canaanite overlords.