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Holman Bible Dictionary
Historicity The only explicit account of the Exodus we have is the biblical account (Exodus 1-15 ). No extra-biblical witnesses directly speak of the sojourn of Israel's ancestors in the land of the Nile. However, Egyptian sources do confirm the general situation that we find in the end of Genesis and the beginning of the Book of Exodus. There are many reports in Egyptian sources of nomadic people called Habiru coming into Egypt from the east fleeing from famine. Extra-biblical evidence from Egypt indicates that Egypt used slave labor in building projects ( Exodus 1:11 ). At one time the land in Egypt was owned by many landholders; but after the reign of the Hyksos kings the Pharaoh owned most of the land, and the people were serfs of the king (Genesis 47:20 ). Old Testament scholars accept the essential historicity of the Exodus.
The Nature of the Event Some scholars see the Exodus as the miraculous deliverance of the people of God from the grip of Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea. Others see it as an escape across a sprawling wilderness and sweltering desert of a small mixed band of border slaves. Some argue that the military language in the account indicates that the event was a military skirmish. Such language may be the language of holy war. The people of Israel went up from the land of Egypt “equipped for battle” (Exodus 13:18 RSV), but God did not lead them by the way of the Philistines, which was the closest way but it was also the way of war. God thought that if Israel saw war she would repent and return to Egypt ( Exodus 13:17 ). God is called a “man of war” in Exodus 15:3 .
The Bible stresses that the Exodus was the work of God. God brought the plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7:1-5 ). The miracle at the sea was never treated merely as a natural event or as Israel's victory alone. In the earliest recorded response to the event Miriam sang, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21 RSV).
Elements of the wonderful and the ordinary contributed to the greatest Old Testament events. The natural and supernatural combined to produce God's deliverance. The Exodus was both miraculous and historical. An air of mystery surrounds this event as all miraculous events. We are not told when the Exodus occurred. We do not know precisely where it happened since the Hebrew term may have meant the Red Sea as we know it, one of its tributaries, or a “sea of reeds” whose location is unknown. We do not know who or how many may have been involved. The record makes it clear that God delivered Israel from bondage because of His covenant with the patriarchs and because He desired to redeem His people (Exodus 6:2-8 ).
The Date of the Exodus The Bible does not give an incontrovertible date for the Exodus. 1 Kings 6:1 says, “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month of Zif, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the Lord.” But this verse refers primarily to the beginning of the building of Solomon's Temple and only in a general way to the time of the Exodus. We do not know the precise dates of Solomon's reign. If we use 961 B.C. as the beginning of Solomon's reign, his fourth year would be 957 B.C. If we take the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1 literally, the Exodus would be dated in 1437 B.C. Exodus 1:11 says, however, that the Israelites in Egypt built the store cities of Pithom and Raamses for Pharaoh. Evidently the name Raamses was not used in Egypt before 1300 B.C. If one of the store cities was named for a king by that name, the Exodus could not have happened before 1300 B.C. Thus some scholars believe the Exodus must have taken place after 1300 B.C.
Another difficulty in dating these events is that although the term “pharaoh” is used over a hundred times in the first fifteen chapters of Exodus to refer to the king of Egypt, the title is always anonymous. No personal name of any individual pharaoh is used. The text does not indicate the identity of the pharaoh of the oppression nor the one of the Exodus. Old Testament scholars have generally agreed that the Exodus occurred either during the eighteenth (1570-1310 B.C.) or nineteenth (1310-1200 B.C.) dynasties.
It has been the opinion of most scholars since the rise of modern Egyptology that the Exodus likely occurred during the reign of Ramses II in the nineteenth dynasty about 1270 B.C., although many Bible students attempt to date it in the earlier eighteenth dynasty about 1447 B.C. Several variations of these dates have been suggested, ranging all the way back to 2000 B.C. None of these attempts to redate the Exodus has gained widespread acceptance. Perhaps the best estimate of the date for the Exodus remains about 1270 B.C., but this is far from a proven fact.
The Number Involved in the Exodus In our English Bibles Exodus 12:37 says, “And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot, that were men, besides children.” For a very long time and for various reasons some Bible scholars have asked: Should the number 600,000 be understood literally? It seems to be an excessively large number. Exodus 23:29-30 and Deuteronomy 7:22 suggest the number was so small that the people would be endangered by wild beasts. Many scholars believe the Hebrew word eleph, usually translated “thousand,” can also be translated “clan” or “fighting unit.” Perhaps this is the meaning in Exodus 12:17 . Assuming this, conservative scholars have estimated the number at between 6,000,72,000. We may not know the exact date, route, or number of people in the Exodus. But the significant thing is we know and believe that such an event happened and that we interpret it as a saving act of God.
The Exodus was the work of God. It was also a historical event involving a superpower nation and an oppressed people. God acted redemptively in power, freedom, and love. When the kingdom of God did not come, the later prophets began to look for a second Exodus. That expectation was fulfilled spiritually in Christ's redemptive act.
Ralph L. Smith
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Exodus'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/e/exodus.html. 1991.