Did Arabs Join Israelites In Leaving Egypt? – OpEd


Rabbi David J. Zucker  writes that when the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah states they were accompanied by an ʿerev rav (Exodus 12:38). This term has been interpreted in different ways throughout the two millennia of rabbinic interpretation of Torah, and modern academic scholars still debate its meaning.

When the Israelites left Egypt, Exodus 12:38 states: “An erev rav also went up with them.” The common understanding assumes that erev derives from the root meaning “to mix,” and refers to the nature of the group as being a mixture of tribes and peoples. The second word, rav, is an adjective meaning “great or many,” and thus the standard translation of the term erev rav is “a mixed multitude.”

Whether the erev rav was a mixed multitude or just one type or class of people, it is clear that they are non-Israelites. But why do they join the Israelites leaving Egypt?

One possibility is that they were a group of Egyptians and/or other ethnic groups who lived near  the Israelites and decided to leave with them. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki 1040–1105) interprets them as local Egyptians and other foreigners who align themselves with the Israelites for religious reasons: Erev rav—A mix of tribes or nationalities who had converted to Judaism.’

And the 10th/11th century midrash, Exodus Rabbah (18:10) envisions a split among the Egyptians between those who joined the Israelites and those who felt the wrath of God.

God said: Anyone who loves my son [Israel] should come and celebrate his redemption. The good Egyptians came and participated in the Paschal offering with the Israelites, and left with them, as it says (Exodus 12:28), “and an erev rav went up with them.” All those who did not want Israel to be redeemed suffered the fate of the firstborn. 

In contrast to this interpretation, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Joseph Hertz (1872–1946), in his classic commentary The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, writes a “mass of non-Israelite strangers, including slaves and prisoners of war, who took advantage of the Egyptians panic to escape from Egypt.

Another  possibility is that the term reflects not just a group of people that joined the Israelites at the time of the exodus, but people who had become attached to the Israelites already, through intermarriage. The Bible envisions Israelites living among Egyptians for a dozen decades or even many generations, it is not hard to imagine their marrying locals, Egyptians or other foreigners like Arabs. 

Rabbi Yishmael was a descendant on his mother’s side of the rev rav mix of non-Israelites. He was an important early sage who laid the foundation for the legal midrash on the Book of Exodus, the Mekhilta.  Why was he named after Prophet Abraham’s first born son Prophet Ishmael? 

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, usually called just Rabbi Yishmael, was born about 90 CE into a wealthy priestly family in the Upper Galilee, and was likely named after his father’s grandfather, the high priest Yishmael ben Elisha, who served in the Jerusalem Temple in the mid first century, although no High Priest named Elisha is historically known. Rabbi Ishmael’s traditional tomb is located in the Druze village of Sajur in the Upper Galilee.

In the Talmud, the high priest Yishmael ben Elisha, describes how he once entered into the Jerusalem Temple’s Holy of Holies, where God asked him for a blessing, and he replied by asking God to always treat Israel mercifully. But why would a mid first century high priest be named after Abraham’s first born son Ishmael? 

The Yerushalmi Talmud (Berakhot 2:4) tells the story of an Arab man who tells Jews that when his ox bellows it is a sign that the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed; when it bellows a second time, it will signal the birth of  the messiah, whose name will be Menachem and who will be born in the  vicinity of Bethlehem. Why is an Arab chosen by God to proclaim the birth of the Jewish messiah?

Because Rabbi Ismael taught that the Arabs would someday help the Israelites rebuild the wall around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  Rabbi Ishmael said: The Sons of Ishmael will do fifteen things at the end of days…. “They will rebuild the breaks in the wall of the beyt hamikdash (the Al Aqsa Mosque about 500 feet south of the bayt al maqdis) and build a building on the ruins of the heiykal  (the central sanctuary of the Holy Temple). Sons of Ishmael refers to the Arabs in the Book of Genesis and also to Islamic traditions that Muslims see themselves as the progeny of  Prophet Ishmael. Considering the 600 year gap between the era of Rabbi Ishmael and the Islamic era of Prophet Muhammad, I find this passage astonishing. 

Could the return and rebuilding of the third Temple in Jerusalem actually have been started by Caliph Umar ibn Khatab on the Temple Mount (in 638 CE) by building a sanctuary for Muslim Arabs known as Masjid Al Aqsa or the bayt al maqdis?. I find the idea that bnei Yishmael ie Arab Muslims were the ones who actually started the process  of rebuilding the third Jewish Temple fascinating.

The 13th century mystical commentary on the Torah, the Zohar (2.191a), argues that the term ‘mixed multitude’ cannot refer to a general mass of peoples who joined the Israelites; but instead refers to a specific group of Egyptian magicians who worked from midday to afternoon “which is called ‘the great evening’ (erev ravrava).” These magicians had a change of heart “once they saw the miracles and wonders that Moses performed in Egypt, they repented and joined Moses.”

And this is proven by the Qur’an’s description (20:85-98) of the Egyptian magician Al-Samiri who built the golden calf: 85. He [God} said, “We tested your people in your absence, and the Samarian misled them.” 86. So Moses returned to his people, angry and disappointed and said, “O my people, did your Lord not promise you a good promise? Was the time too long for you? Or did you want wrath from your Lord to descend upon you, so you broke your promise to me?”

87. They said, “We did not break our promise to you by our choice, but we were made to carry loads of the people’s ornaments, and we cast them in. That was what the Samarian suggested.”
88. So he [A[-Samiri] produced for them a calf—a mere body which [mooed and] lowed. And they said, “This is your god, and the god of Moses, but he has forgotten.”
89. Did they not see that it cannot return a word to them, and has no power to harm them or benefit them? 90. Aaron had said to them before, “O my people, you are being tested by this. And your Lord is the Merciful, so follow me, and obey my command.”
91. They said, “We will not give up our devotion to it, until Moses returns to us.”
92. He [Moses] said, “O Aaron, what prevented you, when you saw them going astray.
93. From following me? Did you disobey my command?”
94. He [Aaron] said, “Son of my mother, do not seize me by my beard or my head. I feared you would say, `You have caused division among the Children of Israel, and did not regard my word.'”
95. He [Moses] said, “What do you have to say, O Samarian?”
96. He [Samiri] said, “I saw what they did not see, so I grasped a handful from the Messenger’s traces, and I flung it away. Thus my soul prompted me.”
97. He [Moses] said, “Begone! Your lot in this life is to say, ‘No contact.’ And you have an appointment that you will not miss. Now look at your god that you remained devoted to—we will burn it up, and then blow it away into the sea, as powder.”
98. Surely your god is[should be] God, the One besides whom there is no other god. He comprehends everything in knowledge.

One of the wonderful benefits of studying both the Torah and the Qur’an together is the new knowledge and insights that can be gained. Thanks to the Qur’an, Jews can learn that when our ancestors fled from Egypt, they were joined by a mixed group that included Arab descendants of Prophet Ishmael, as well as Egyptian magicians led by the Samarian Al-Samiri.  

There are people who fear this learning from other sacred scriptures because they believe it leads to doubting your own revelation. They believe that religion is a zero sum game. I believe that the study of both the Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible brings new knowledge and insights for both Jews and Muslims because the two Sacred Scriptures come from the same one God. 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

2 thoughts on “Did Arabs Join Israelites In Leaving Egypt? – OpEd

  • November 5, 2023 at 9:57 pm

    Lovely discussion about an event that never happened in history

  • November 6, 2023 at 4:40 pm

    You have to understand, Rabbi Maller, that this is only a story. Israeli archaeologists have provided compelling evidence that it never took place. You become less credible if you portray it as a proven fact.


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