A New View Of Israel’s Exodus – OpEd


Dr. Joseph Weinstein points out that the biblical exodus account describes a mass refugee movement in which thousands of oppressed Hebrews (or Israelites) fled Egypt following the downfall of an unnamed Egyptian Pharaoh. Trouble began when Pharaoh enslaves and abuses his Hebrew subjects, thereby incurring the wrath of their god. God sends Moses to strike Egypt with a host of natural disasters, including the plagues of hail, darkness, and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. The Israelites flee Egypt, but Pharaoh and the Egyptian army follow, only to be destroyed at the Reed Sea. 

The Israelites continue into the wilderness, where they find themselves critically short of food and water, surviving only with the help of God.  At Mount Sinai the God who got them out of Egypt makes a partnership agreement with the Israelites. A generation later, some of their descendants finally reach safety in the Land of Canaan.

Scholars interested in finding a historical basis for this narrative generally work backwards from the archaeological evidence in Canaan. Since mass settlement of the Judean highlands took place in the 12th century B.C.E., they assume that the exodus from Egypt must have taken place a generation or two earlier. 

Dr. Weinstein says that the most commonly suggested time is during the reign of the 19th Egyptian dynasty ruler Ramesses II (ca. 1279–1213 B.C.E.) or his son Merneptah (ca. 1213–1203) who had a stone marker engraved that mentions the Israelites among others who lived in Canaan. 

Recently the reigns of the 20th dynasty ruler Sethnakht (ca. 1198–1194 B.C.E.) or his son Ramesses III (ca. 1194–1184 B.C.E.) have also been suggested, but the Merneptah stone makes that unlikely. However, Egyptian sources report several natural disasters that afflicted Egypt just before the collapse of Hyksos rule, including abnormal weather conditions and an outbreak of disease. As in the Torah, they blame these disasters upon divine intervention by a deity of the West Semites. 

It is possible that these events, that occurred several generations earlier, were connected with the later Biblical Exodus. This view is supported by the Hearst Medical Papyrus, copied during the early 18th dynasty shortly after the Expulsion of the Hyksos, which contains an incantation against a “(Disease) of the Ꜥꜣmw (West Semites)” involving black skin lesions. 

It blames this disease upon pꜣ-nṯr-ḥry, an Egyptian rendering of the supreme West Semitic deity ˀEl ꜤElyon (God most High), mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (as a synonym title for the God of Israel).

 Several of the biblical plagues resemble one or another of these natural disasters. The two reports of dramatic storms attest to disturbed weather conditions that could underlie the biblical plagues of hail (Exodus 9:13–35) and darkness (Exodus 10:21–23),  and the winds that swept the locusts into the sea (Exodus 10:19) and blew back the waters of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14;21). The biblical reports of God speaking to Moses parallel the Egyptian interpretation of these storms as a divine theophany.

Likewise, the plagues of pestilence (Exodus 9:1–7) and boils (Exodus 9:10–12) closely resemble the “Disease of the Ꜥꜣmw” mentioned on the Hearst Medical Papyrus. The resemblance would be particularly good if the references are to tularemia or cutaneous anthrax, both of which spread readily from domestic livestock to humans. A connection to the biblical death of the firstborn is also possible, while other plagues might be explained as a logical consequence of the disturbed weather conditions and/or epidemics.

Dr. Weinstein points out that the Hyksos capital of Avaris figures prominently in the biblical account under its later name of “Rameses.” According to the biblical account, it was in the Land of Rameses that Jacob and his sons had settled (Genesis 67:11), at Rameses that the Israelites toiled in the construction of store-cities (Exodus 1:11), and from Rameses that they departed at the start of the exodus (Exodus 12:37, Numbers 33:3,5). 

Although the narratives of Moses’ birth (Exodus 2:1-11) and of his appearances before Pharaoh (Exodus 5-12) do not specify where those events occurred, the setting of these events at a royal capital (Exodus 1:15-2:10; 5-12) on a branch of the Nile (Exodus 1:22; 2:3-6; 7:14-8:12) with overland access to Sinai (Exodus 2:15; 4:18-28) matches the geographic situation at Rameses.

Although the occupants of the Delta were largely West Semitic, most of them were not Hyksos—and they certainly were not members of the 15th dynasty. That is, they were neither rulers nor conquerors, and are never referred to as Hyksos in contemporary Egyptian sources. Instead, they were farmers and herdsmen, shepherds and cowherds, weavers, dyers, and other artisans. These Hebrews or their ancestors had settled peacefully in the Delta during the latter portion of the Middle Kingdom and early part of the Second Intermediate Period. 

A few of these settlers appear to have been well off. According to the Quran, Karun/Korah was a member of the Israelites who had been blessed with great wealth. He flaunted his wealth and was proud of his position in society, but he refused to use his wealth for the benefit of others. Instead, he hoarded his riches, reveled in his own power and status, and eventually openly challenged Moses. Others served as artisans and skilled laborers on Egyptian estates. 

Still others may have arrived as indentured servants, or chattel slaves. In the world of the ancient Near East, the king viewed his subjects as his servants, and his subjects viewed themselves as servants of the king. Biblical Hebrew even uses the same word—ebed—for “slave,” “servant,” “vassal,” “subject” (of a king), and “minister” (of a king).

From the perspective of northern Egyptian residents, the 15th dynasty kings were their rulers, northern Egypt was Egypt, and their ruler was king of Egypt. The existence of another Egyptian kingdom, ruled by native Egyptians, 700 km to the south, would have been largely irrelevant. 

Thus, in Israel’s memory, they were subjects/slaves/vassals/servants to the King of Egypt, and the fact that this king was himself West Semitic and not native Egyptian was a fine distinction, lost in the mists of time.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *