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Exodus

The name Exodus refers to the second book in the Torah (five books of Moses), also the second book in the Tanakh (Old Testament). This term also refers to the Bible's description of the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses.

The book of Exodus recounts the experience of the Hebrew people as they left (exodus) Egypt for the promised land of Canaan. Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19:20 -20:21.

Exodus is the name given in the Septuagint to the second book of the Pentateuch. It means "departure" or "outgoing." This name was adopted in the Latin translation, and thence passed into other languages. The Hebrews called it by the first words, according to their custom, Ve-eleh shemoth (i.e., "and these are the names").

It contains:

  1. An account of the increase and growth of the Israelites in Egypt (ch. 1)
  2. Preparations for their departure out of Egypt (2-12:36).
  3. Their journeyings from Egypt to Mt. Sinai (12:37-19:2).
  4. The giving of the law and the establishment of the institutions by which the organization of the people was completed, the theocracy, "a kingdom of priest and an holy nation" (19:3-ch. 40). (This section contains a single verse often cited as a proscription of witchcraft (22:18)).

The time comprised in this book, from the death of Joseph to the erection of the tabernacle in the wilderness, is about one hundred and forty-five years, on the supposition that the four hundred and thirty years (12:40) are to be computed from the time of the promises made to Abraham (Gal. 3:17).

Moses is traditionally considered the author of Exodus. Modern critical biblical scholarship[?] has shown that the book of Exodus has been redacted together from a number of earlier sources; see the entry on the Documentary hypothesis for more information.

Historical studies concerning the Exodus

According to the Biblical account, it appears that 600,000 adult men left Egypt, and travelled with Moses first to Mount Sinai; some 40 years later their descendants invaded the land of Canaan. According to many Jewish souces, the total number of Israelites including women and children numbered some three million. Throughout history this story was generally accepted as historially accurate; belief in the details of this story wasn't a religious belief for Jews and Christians as such; rather, it was believed that this was merely an independent historical fact that the Bible faithfully recorded.

Recent archaeological research has cast doubt on this story. Archaeologists have shown that the land of Canaan was never invaded by 3 million Israelites after the exodus from Egypt. At this time in history, the land only had a population of between 50,000 to 100,000 (at most), and there never was a massive population increase in this time period.

Archaeologists and historians have worked in the Middle East for many years to determine approximately how many people have lived in a given area at a given time. This is done by analyzing the evidence: buildings, trash, human waste product, skeletons, traces of ancients farms and fields, clothing, documents, and of course, historical records among those who they encountered.

For fundamentalist Jews and Christians, these findings present a problem, as they would invalidate a major claim in the Bible. However, non-fundamentalist factions of Judaism and Christianity find little problem with this issue.

For example, many rabbis in the Talmud stated that one should never interpret certain Torah verses literally. Later rabbis such as Maimonides taught that when scientific evidence contradicts a current understanding of the Bible, that means that we are obligated to reinterpret that verse in accord with science. For many traditional rabbis, such a position was not heresy. This view exists today within Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, and parts of modern Orthodox Judaism.

How, then, can this text in Exodus be understood in light of these findings?

Hebrew University professor Abraham Malamat points out that the Bible often refers to 600 and its multiples, as well as 1,000 and its multiples, typologically in order to convey the idea of a large military unit. "The issue of Exodus 12:37 is an interpretive one. The Hebrew word eleph can be translated "thousand," but it is also rendered in the Bible as "clans" and "military units." When I look at the question as an Egyptologist, I know that there are thought to have been 20,000 in the entire Egyptian army at the height of Egypt's empire. And at the battle of Ai in Joshua 7, there was a severe military setback when 36 troops were killed."

Therefore if one reads elephim as military units, the number of hebrew fighting men was between 5,000 and 6,000. This would give a total hebrew population of less than 20,000, something within the range of historical possibility.

Historical Sources

W. F. Albright From the Stone Age to Christianity (2nd ed.) Doubleday/Anchor

W. F. Albright Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (5th ed.) 1969, Doubleday/Anchor

Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing, entry on "Population", volume 13, column 866.

Y. Shiloh, "The Population of Iron Age Palestine in the Light of a Sample Analysis of Urban Plans, Areas and Population Density." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR), 1980, 239:25-35

Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel Nahum Sarna, Shocken Books, 1986 (first edition), 1996 (reprint edition with new forward). See chapter 5, "Six hundred thousand men on foot".

Those Amazing Biblical Numbers: Taking Stock of the Armies of Ancient Israel by William Sierichs, Jr. [This source is very polemical[?]; it is from a publication aimed at combatting Christian Fundamentalist/Evangelical biblical literalism. However, the analysis is fairly good, if a bit overdone.] http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1995/1/1num95

The Rise of Ancient Israel : Symposium at the Smithsonian Institution October 26, 1991 by Hershel Shanks, William G. Dever, Baruch Halpern and P. Kyle McCarter, Biblical Archaeological Society, 1992.


See also Exodus (album) for the 1977 album by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

See also Exodus (movie)[?] for the 1960 movie based on the novel by Leon Uris.



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