Introduction to the Book of Exodus
The Book of Exodus begins the history of Israel as a nation. At the end of the Book of Genesis the family of Jacob move down from the land of Canaan to Egypt. A large family with a total of seventy people came (Gen 46:27). During the years between Genesis and Exodus, this large family multiplied until their numbers became a threat to the rulers of Egypt (Ex 1:7-10). According to the census taken in the book of Numbers, there were 603,550 adult males belonging to the twelve tribes of Israel (Num 1:46). Including women and children, we can estimate that the total population of Israelites was between two and three million.
The book has two main parts. The first is the account of the actual exodus from Egypt, including the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea and the journey to Mt Sinai. The second contains the making of the covenant and giving of the law on Sinai, and the rebellion of the golden calf while Moses was up the mountain receiving the instructions for the tabernacle. The climax of the book is right at the end when the people construct the tabernacle and it is filled with the glory of God (40:34), so God can literally dwell in the midst of his people.
Where did the Israelites live while in Egypt?
When Egypt is viewed from space it is very clear that most of the land is desert, apart from a narrow strip of fertile land adjacent to the River Nile, and around the delta of the Nile where it divides into many smaller channels as it flows into the Mediterranean Sea.
According to the Book of Genesis, "Joseph settled his father and his brothers, and granted them a holding in the land of Egypt … in the land of Rameses" (Gen 47:11). In the Book of Exodus, "They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh" (Ex 1:11). The land of Rameses is likely to be a later name for an earlier settlement, where the Israelites settled and lived during their time in Egypt.
An Austrian team of archaeologists led by Manfred Bietak excavated a site called Tell el-Dab’a, which was originally the Hyksos capital of Avaris. By 1446 BC, city was called Perunefer, which means “happy journey”, probably because it was the start of overland route to Canaan, the Horus Road, or the "Way of the Philistines" (Ex 13:17). It was renamed Rameses in 13th cent BC, by Rameses II. It was an important commercial and military centre, as well as being a seaport, with access to sea by Pelusiac branch of Nile, which is the delta channel furthest to the east.
The majority of the houses that have been excavated are homes with two rooms measuring 6m by 8m. There was one larger four-room house measuring 10m by 12m. This had two side rooms, and a back room around a central courtyard, the same plan as iron-age houses in Israel. The date of the houses is estimated to be during the 19th century BC, the time of Jacob and Joseph, so it is suggested that the larger house may have belonged to Joseph.
To the South-west was the cemetery, which had mud-brick tombs with Asiatic contents, including pottery. One tomb was much larger, and unlike any other tomb in Egypt, and probably belonged to an important asiatic official. It had a burial chamber reached through a chapel and passage, where fragments of a statue were found. It is possible that this was the tomb of Joseph. There was no body in the burial chamber, which would match with Joseph's instructions that they take his body back to Israel (Gen 50:25, Ex 13:19).
The statue was one and half times life-size, and was of a seated official. The face had been defaced. The features were quite different from typical Egyptian statues, with a yellow skin colour, a mushroom-shaped hairstyle, and a multicoloured coat. He was holding a throwstick, which would indicate that the person was not an Egyptian.
The Palace of Pharoah
Also found in Tell el-Dab'a, adjacent to the Pelusiac branch of the nile was a complex of buildings built with mud bricks, including two major palaces, workshops, military areas, storage and religious cultic facilities. The walls of the palace were three meters thick, suggesting they supported a huge structure.
If this was the palace of Pharaoh, it would have been the location where “The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river” (Ex 2:5), and where Moses would have been brought up after being adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). Later, it was where Moses met the Pharoah during the plagues, “Go to Pharaoh … as he is going out to the water, stand by the river bank to meet him … Moses struck the water and it was turned to blood" (Ex 7:15, 20).
In the palace, a limestone bath with a drain was found, together with a vessel to contain water. This was where people with official business would wash before entering the presence of Pharaoh. After being released from prison Joseph would be washed (Gen 41:14), and later Moses and Aaron would have to wash before entering presence of Pharaoh (eg Ex 5:1).
Identifying the Pharaoh
The word 'Pharaoh' was the title of the Egyptian ruler, so does not identify a particular person. There are two pharaohs to be identified in the book:
1. The Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites (Ex 1).
This was the ruler who did not know Joseph (Ex 1:8) and forced the Israelites into slave labour to build supply cities (1:11). He commanded that the baby Israelite boys were thrown into the river, but it was his daughter who adopted Moses (Ex 2:5-10). He evidently ruled a long time, “After a long time the king of Egypt died” (Ex 2:23).
2. The Pharaoh of the Exodus
This was the ruler who refused to let the Israelites go, and hardened his heart. His eldest son died in the final plague (Ex 12:29). It is likely that he was drowned in the Red Sea (Ex 14:23). In the Psalms, it says, "The Lord … overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea" (Ps 136:15).
Working out the date of Exodus
Egyptian history is divided up according to the number of the dynasty of the Pharaoh's, from the first dynasty to the 31st dynasty, each dynasty containing a number of rulers from the same family line.
There are many debates and contentions over the date of the Exodus,with a number of different suggestions.
Many scholars claim that the exodus from Egypt is merely a legend. Instead of a dramatically large movement of people at one time, the Israelites gradually moved back to Israel from Egypt in smaller numbers. This removes the need to attempt to date the Exodus.
Late Date during the 19th dynasty in the 1200's BC.
This gives a shorter time span between the entry into the Promised Land and the time of the monarchy under David. There is not much doubt over the date of David's reign and the establishment of the monarchy of around 1000 BC. A late date exodus would compress the chronology of the period of the judges to about 200 years. It is quite likely that there could be two or more judges ruling over different tribes at the same time, as each judge only ruled over a few tribes, rather than the whole nation.
A late date for the Exodus would suggest that the family of Jacob came to Egypt in 1700’s BC. This was during the period when Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos, who were a Semitic people who would perhaps welcome the Israelites as fellow Semites. It would also explain why the Pharaoh did not know about Joseph (1:8). The cities of Pithon and Rameses (Ex 1:11) built by Israelites. Rameses II belonged to the 19th dynasty and ruled 1290-1224 BC, and the city was named after him. Merneptah’s Stele contains the first mention of Israel in history outside the Bible, and records a successful Egyptian battle against Israel in 1220 BC.
For a late date Exodus, the Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites would be Rameses II. He is known to have been a powerful ruler. Merneptah (1224 - 1214) would then be the Pharaoh of the Exodus.
Early Date during the 18th dynasty in the 1400's BC.
The early date gives a longer time span for the period of the judges, which would match the dating noted in the Old Testament. "In the 480th year after the Israelites came out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel …" (1 Kg 6:1). Solomon became king around 970 BC, so the Exodus happened around 1446 BC. A similar chronology is described in the Book of Judges, when referring to the time of Jephthah, "Israel lived in Heshbon … Aroer …, and all the towns that are along the Arnon, three hundred years …" (Judges 11:26).
Evidence for a early date would be found in the Tel-el-Armarna tablets. These were from the time of Akhenatan (1350-1330) and his father Amenhotep III in the 18th dynasty. In these, Canaanite vassals of Egypt write asking for help against the Hittites and marauders called “Habiru”, from the hill country. It is suggested that the Habiru are referring to the Hebrews entering the Promised Land.
The early date oppressor would be Thutmose III (1490-1437), and the Pharaoh of the Exodus would be Amenhotep II (1450-1417).
It has been suggested that there were actually two Amenhotep II's. The first ruled from 1450 to 1446, who died by drowing in the Red Sea, and whose son died in the final plague. The second ruled from 1446 to 1417 replacing his brother as pharaoh. The first Amenhotep II was famous for his personal strength, athletic abilities, bravado, skill as horseman, archer, runner and rower. He was boastful and arrogant. It has been suggested that his death was covered up by his officials, as the great god-king could not die pursuing runaway slaves. He was replaced as pharaoh by his brother, who took the same name.
Inscriptions describing the second Amenhotep II are not boastful or bragging, suggesting that he had quite a different character.
A pharaoh called Amenhotep II led a number of campaigns into Asia. One was in the second year (before the Exodus) when 800 captives were brought back. There was another campaign in the seventh year (after the Exodus), but both campaigns were referred to as the first campaign. This could suggest that the campaign in the second year was led by the first Amenhotep II, and the one in the seventh year by the second Amenhotep. Another campaign in the ninth year, brought back 89,600 captives, perhaps to replace slave workforce lost when the Israelite slaves left Egypt. His tomb has been found in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.
Around this time, the city of Perunefer was suddenly abandoned , as a result of the plagues and the Exodus of the Israelites.
Another suggestion was that the daughter of pharaoh who rescued Moses was Hatshepsut (born 1533 BC). She married her half-brother Thutmose II, but had no sons. After Thutmose II, she reigned as co-regent for her infant step-son Thutmose III. She took the name and title as king, setting up obelisks and making offerings to the gods. She is portrayed as king, with a royal beard. She as the only woman who could have had the title “Pharaoh’s daughter” during this period. She was described as a "A strong-willed woman who would not let anyone or anything stand in her way”. If she wanted to adopt an Israelite baby, no one would have been able to prevent her. She died in 1483, perhaps by murder. Later, images portraying her were obliterated, perhaps because she had brought up Moses, who had caused such a disaster to come to Egypt.
Revised Egyptian Chronology
Some recent scholars have claimed that the whole chronology of Egyptian history should be revised. One of these is David Rohl, who claims that the Third Intermediate Period (TIP), from the 21st to the 25th dynasties, which he calls 'The Centuries of Darkness', does not exist, so should be removed from Egyptian history. This shortens the period of Egyptian history by between 300 and 500 years. He would give an early date for the Exodus in the 1400's BC, but in the 12th dynasty, rather than the 18th dynasty.
The revised chronology oppressor would be the rather grumpy looking Sesostris III in the 12th dynasty, and the pharaoh of the exodus would be Amenemhet III, who ruled for 46 years. No body was found in his tomb, perhaps because he drowned in the Red Sea pursuing the Israelites. His daughter was Sobekneferu, one of the very few female pharaohs, the final leader of the 12th dynasty, who may have been the daughter of pharaoh who found baby Moses in the river.
Red Sea or Sea of Reeds?
The Hebrew for the Red Sea is 'Yam Suph', which is often translated 'Sea of Reeds', implying that the Red Sea crossing was through a smaller, shallower piece of water or marshland, rather than the open sea. It is often suggested that the reeds are describing fresh water plants and that the Israelites crossed one of the smaller lakes north of the Gulf of Suez.
Yam Suph describes the Red Sea in the following places: "The LORD changed the wind into a very strong west wind, which lifted the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea (Yam Suph)" (Ex 10:19). "So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea (Yam Suph)" (Ex 13:18). "I will set your bounds from the Red Sea (Yam Suph) to the sea of the Philistines and from the wilderness to the Euphrates" (Ex 23:31).
After the rebellion in the wilderness, God commanded, "Now since the Amalekites and Canaanites live in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by way to the Red Sea (Yam Suph)" (Num 14:25, also Deut 1:37-40). "From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea (Yam Suph) to go around the land of Edom" (Num 21:4, also Deut 1:46 - 2:1).
"King Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion-geber, which is near Eloth on the shore of the Red Sea (Yam Suph) in the land of Edom" (1 Kg 9:26). Eloth is near the modern town of Eliat at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba, the right hand fork of the Red Sea. With the help of the Phoenicians, Solomon built a fleet of ships to trade to the east, including to the east coast of Africa, and to India and beyond.
Interestingly the same word (suph) is used in the book of Jonah to describe sea vegetation, "The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds (suph) were wrapped around my head" (Jonah 2:5).
The concept of a sea of reeds was also significant to the Egyptians. One of the tasks of the pharaoh was to be the one who leads his people through the waterways of the Sea of Reeds into the afterlife along a pathway opened by the gods. In the Exodus account, pharaoh failed to lead his people through the sea of reeds, while Yahweh opened the way for the Israelites through the sea of reeds.
The Plagues of Egypt
A number of times in the Old Testament, it is stated that the plagues of Egypt, and in many ways the whole Exodus event, was a demonstration of the power and authority of God, showing his power to judge and overcome all the gods of Egypt. “The LORD executed judgements even against their gods” (Num 33:4). Before the Passover he declares, “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgement: I am the Lord” (Ex 12:12). He also states that, “… and that you may tell your children and grand-children how I made fools of the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them - so that you may know that I am the LORD.” (Ex 10:12). Jethro declares: “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians” (Ex 18:11).
The Egyptians worshipped a multitude of different gods, including gods of the River Nile, gods of frogs, falcons, bulls. The Pharaoh was seen as the personification of these gods, and his son was seen as the next manifestation of the gods.
The plagues demonstrated that true sustenance only came from Yahweh, and not from these pagan Egyptian gods. This was a lesson both for the Egyptians, who had to learn that the God of Moses was more powerful than any of their gods, including their pharaoh, as well as being a lesson to the Israelites, who will have to learn how to trust in the One True God as they leave Egypt to travel through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
The Serpent Confrontation (Ex 7:8-13)
One of the most important gods was Wadjet or Edjo, the serpent mother and protector of the delta. She was symbolised by the coiled cobra or urae, with hood enraged ready to strike, which was the symbol of Lower Egypt. Each pharaoh claimed his crown from her at his coronation. Statues of pharaohs are always portrayed with a snake on their forehead, representing their power over lower Egypt. Egyptian magicians claimed their power came from this serpent god. Their magical rods also had the head of a cobra with enraged hood.
In the first sign performed by Moses (Ex 7:8-13), he threw down his rod and it became a snake, which then ate the snakes that the magicians made from their staffs. It was this snake rod that Moses then used to strike the water to turn it into blood (7:15-18). The sign was a demonstration before Pharaoh that the God of Moses was more powerful than the snake god of the pharaoh and his magicians.
Moses and Aaron threw down the actual emblem of pharaoh before him. The snake on his forehead was the symbol of his deity and majesty, so to throw down a snake before him was to insult that symbol. Pharaoh's cobra had no power against Yahweh and it gave Pharaoh no protection against Yahweh.
First Plague: Nile turned to blood (Ex 7:15-25)
Hapi was the god of the River Nile, the life-blood of Egypt, and “giver of life to all men”. Through the waters of the Nile, he was the bringer of fertility, and the nourisher of gods and man. He was portrayed as a big fat man covered in blue or green mud from the river, with water plants on his head, and carrying offerings of plants and flowers. The regular annual flooding of the Nile, known as “the arrival of Hapi”, brought great fertility to the soil from the sediment desposited by the flood waters. Turning the Nile to blood killed the fish, which were an important part of the Egyptian diet, so people could no longer eat or drink from the river. The river and its god could no longer supply food and water for the people.
Another god of the Nile was Anknet or Anukhet, who was the personification of the Nile, the protector of fresh water, and the nourisher of the fields. She had a crown of ostrich feathers, and carryed a sceptre and an ankh.
Hat-mehyt, the fish goddess portrayed as a woman with a fish above her head was the provider of a regular supply of fish from Nile.
Second plague: Frogs (Ex 8:1-6)
Hekhet, or Hegt was frog goddess, having a human body with the head of a frog. She assisted as a midwife at births, and blew breath of life into human bodies. She ontrolled the multiplication of frogs and frog-eating crocodiles, but during the plague could not control the population of frogs.
Fifth plague: On cattle and horses (Ex 9:1-7)
Apis or Haap was the bull god, believed to be the embodiment of Ptah and Re, the most sacred god. The bull was the symbol of fertility and life, and the symbol of Pharaoh. He carried the sun represented as a disk on his head.
It was the calf god who was represented by the golden calf made by Aaron while Moses was up the mountain (Ex 32:4). After the division of the kingdom, Jeroboam of the northern kingdom of Israel made two golden calves, and set them up in sanctuaries in Bethel and Dan (1 Kg 12:28-30). Both Aaron and Jeroboam claimed that these were the gods that had brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
Hathor was the cow goddess, who had a woman’s head with cow’s ears, or female figure with cow’s head. She was the personification of the sky, goddess of festivity and love, protectress of women and of the king.
Sixth Plague: Boils and sores (Ex 9:8-12)
Sekhmet was the goddess of plagues, who had the head of a lion. She was both the bringer and healer of pestilence. Priests of Sekhmet were the doctors and vets in ancient Egypt, but could not heal the boils and sores of the plague.
Seventh plague: Hail and fire (Ex 9:13-35)
Nut was the sky goddess, a woman whose body arches across the heavens. She was blue and covered with stars, supported by her father, Shu . She ate stars in the morning, and gave birth to the stars in the evening. She also gave birth to Ra (sun god) in morning. She was believed to protect land from destructions coming down from the heavens, but could not protect Egypt from the hail and fire of the seventh plague.
Shu or Su was the god of light and air, who separated the earth from the sky and brought the wind, and supported the sky goddess Nut. He wore a headband with a feather.
Ninth plague: Thick darkness (Ex 10:21-29)
Re or Ra, (later became Amon-Re) was the sun god, the king of all the gods. He travelled across sky each day in a boat. He symbolised life, vitality and rebirth. He was a falcon headed man carrying ankh and sceptre, and crowned with the sun disk.
Aten or Aton the sun disk, with arm-like rays to give life to all. This god was proclaimed to be the sole deity by Akhenaton (14th cent BC).
Kheper (Scarab) was the dung beetle which pushed the sun across the sky, just as a dung beetle pushed balls of dung along the ground. He symbolised creation and family happiness. Model dung bettles called Scarabs were often placed in mummies.
Tenth plague: Death of firstborn (including firstborn of Pharaoh) (ch 11-12)
Osiris or Asar was the ruler of the dead, including the previous Pharaohs, and the chief judge at the gateway to the afterlife. Osiris was killed by his evil brother Set, and his death was avenged by Horus.
Horus or Hor was the sky god and god of the living. He was the personal symbol of pharaohs, giving courage and protection. Horus represents the living pharaoh, and Osisis represents the dead pharaoh. The son of the living Pharaoh was the next manifestion of Horus. This would explain why the final plague broke the Egyptians when the first-born of the pharaoh died.
Pharaoh's Hard Heart
One of the difficult questions often asked during the study of the Book of Exodus is the problem of God hardening the heart of Pharaoh, which is one of the main themes in the conflict between Yahweh and Pharaoh in the first part of the Book of Exodus, used to explain Pharaoh's refusal to obey Yahweh's command to release Israel.
One of the three Hebrew words used to describe the state of Pharaoh's heart is to be heavy. Knowledge of the Egyptian understanding of the heart is essential to comprehend this issue. According to Egyptian sacred texts, the heart was the essence of a person, being the inner spiritual centre of the person and the most important part of a human being. It therefore played a critical part in the belief about the afterlife.
In the Egyptian Book of the Dead we see the importance of the heart in determining the outcome of judgement after death. When a person dies, Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead, calls for the heart of the dead person to be weighed against the feather of truth and righteousness. If the heart is heavier than the feather then the person is judged to be a sinner, and is cast to be devoured by the crocodile-headed goddess Amemit. If the heart is lighter than the feather, then the person receives the reward of eternal life, and enters into paradise.
Basically the Egyptians believed in a form of righteousness by works. Anyone whose heart was heavy-laden with bad deeds will be devoured, while anyone whose heart is filled with integrity, truth and good deeds will be taken to enjoy heavenly bliss.
By saying that Yahweh was making Pharaoh's heart heavy, the Book of Exodus is saying that Yahweh is acting as the judge of Pharaoh. Yahweh was weighing the heart of Pharaoh, and publicly declaring him to be judged as imperfect and therefore deserving condemnation. Their perfect god-king was not of pure and untainted character, as popular belief would claim.
There is a photograph of a judgement scene in the Book of the Dead in the British Museum Egyptian Gallery page.
Other pages connected with the Book of Exodus
There are several other pages on this site which contain information useful for the study of the Book of Exodus.
Names of God
How to Understand the Old Testament Law