Was Israel Taken out of Egypt, or Egypt out of Israel?

Why some scholars want to see the exodus as just a great story.

The Sinking of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, 1530, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Wikimedia.

Last Word
March 23 2015
About the author

Joshua Berman is professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University and the author most recently of Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith (Maggid).

I thank my fellow biblicists Richard Hess, Ronald Hendel, and Benjamin Sommer for sharing their insights into the question of the historicity of the exodus. As I mentioned in my essay, more and more people are interested in what professional Bible scholars have to say about this issue, and the editors of Mosaic have done a true service by offering something unavailable elsewhere on the Web: an extended discussion from different perspectives, pitched to general readers and educated non-specialists. Readers need to know that one cannot rely on a single scholar’s blog post or essay any more than on the advice of a single surgeon or financial analyst. There is simply no such thing as “what biblicists say” on a given topic, since biblicists construe the data in different ways.

In the case of my essay, one particular construal is that of Ronald Hendel, who dismisses the extended parallels I identified between the “Kadesh Poem”—inscribed in monuments to the 1274 BCE victory of the pharaoh Ramesses II over his Hittite rivals—and the account of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt and the encounter at the sea in chapters 14 and 15 of Exodus. In rebuttal, Hendel claims that most of the motifs cited in my essay, far from being distinctive to these two sources, as I argued, were instead “formulaic and widely distributed” in ancient Egyptian literature.

This is a strong claim, so let’s set the record straight. No Egyptian composition other than the Kadesh Poem speaks of how the pharaoh’s troops fell into disarray when surprised by an enemy chariot force. No other Egyptian composition speaks of the pharaoh pleading to his god and being told to proceed forward in battle against all odds. No other Egyptian composition has defeated enemy troops vocally acknowledging the superiority of the Egyptian divinity who has been working against them. No other Egyptian composition describes (let alone visually portraying in a bas relief, as in the case of the Ramesses monuments) the drowning of the enemy force in a body of water. No other Egyptian composition describes how the pharaoh’s own formerly dispirited troops return to the battlefield, survey the enemy corpses, and erupt in a spontaneous, extended hymn.

Aside from the Poem’s reference to the enemy being consumed “like chaff” by the fire of the pharaoh, which appears in one additional source (itself likely influenced by the Kadesh Poem), not a single one of the motifs listed above appears anywhere else in Egyptian literature. But all of them do appear in this one case, and all of them match the account in Exodus. Moreover, they appear in these two sources in essentially the same sequence—thus further amplifying, as Benjamin Sommer argues in his own response, the persuasive force of the parallels I identify. And when, to these distinctive motifs, you add the Poem’s more widely attested motifs that I also cited—like the return of the victorious forces to the palace and the grant of eternal rule—the Kadesh Poem and the Exodus account can be seen to exhibit almost exactly the same order.

In brief, following the tradition of the Passover seder, we may say that had the book of Exodus listed a perfectly shared sequence of only widely attested motifs, but not motifs specific as well to the Kadesh Poem, dayeinu: this would have been sufficient to suspect a dependent relationship between the two. And were the motifs distinctive to the two compositions but not in the same order, likewise dayeinu. How much stronger, then, is the case of literary dependence when so many of the motifs are distinctive to the two compositions and appear in the same order. One needn’t possess the conflicted psychology of an Orthodox rabbi —in Ronald Hendel’s deconstruction of my supposed motivation—to recognize the force of this conclusion. I invite Professor Hendel—or anyone else of his opinion—to show me where I’m wrong via the Comments section at the end of this piece.


But, Hendel persists, even if my larger claim is correct, how does that relate to the question of whether there was an exodus? After all, he writes, “that biblical literature sometimes draws on old Egyptian motifs—in the Joseph story, in Egyptian influences in the books of Psalms and Proverbs, and elsewhere—is a well-established fact.” Why should the exodus be seen as other than a great story like the story of the Garden of Eden, and similarly “laced with mythical motifs”?

The reason is this. If my larger claim is correct, it would, for one thing, suggest an Israelite presence in Egypt, as there is no evidence that the Kadesh Poem was known outside Egyptian limits and no indication that it had resonance at any later period within Egypt itself. But, for another and more significant thing, the appropriation of the Kadesh Poem into Israelite culture suggests an Israelite audience that would understand and appreciate the literary re-deployment of royal Egyptian propaganda against the pharaoh himself. Besides, why would Israelites perpetuate a fantastic tale of salvation and victory over the pharaoh if, in fact, nothing on the ground had transpired at all? That they embraced and preserved this defiant transvaluation of royal propaganda suggests that they experienced a collectively transformative event, one that dramatically elevated their lot at the expense of a mighty regent.

Hendel, however, offers an alternative account for the origins of the exodus story. Egyptian hegemony had extended over Canaan for centuries. The native inhabitants of this region were, essentially, servants of the pharaoh. For Hendel, then, insofar as there may have been a reality behind the exodus story, it is not that Israel was taken out of Egypt but just the opposite—that Egypt was taken out of Israel. In its ethnic self-fashioning, Israel-in-Canaan then cast its oppression at the hands of pharaoh as bondage-in-Egypt.

Unfortunately, Hendel’s academic studies in this vein reveal no Scriptural support for the claim that the ancestors of Israel had resided in Canaan all along—as contrasted with the hundreds of references to a sojourn in Egypt. Nor does he produce any inscription from Canaan during this period that identifies the ancestors of Israel with Canaanites living under Egyptian rule.

Richard Hess, in his own response to my essay, notes helpfully that several Egyptian names found in the book of Exodus are known to us only from Egyptian sources from the mid-second millennium BCE. By Hendel’s reckoning, we would thus need to posit that the later authors of the exodus myth, bent on achieving a remarkable degree of verisimilitude, went to the trouble of incorporating names that were period-appropriate. Yet, as Hendel himself documents, there is an avalanche of evidence that Canaanites were enslaved and brought to Egypt, or migrated to Egypt in times of famine. Is it not simpler to maintain that the Exodus record contains Egyptian names because, in fact, there were Israelites in Egypt?

By the same token, is it not also highly unlikely that Israel, or any other ancient culture for that matter, would conflate forced slavery in exile with colonial oppression in its own land? Across the Bible, starting with the expulsion from Eden until the expulsion from Jerusalem, exile looms as the ultimate punishment—of an altogether different magnitude from subjugation at the hands of an oppressor in one’s own land. Exile and exile alone means cultural annihilation, rupture of continuity with the past, and a bleak future as a landless minority stripped of every shred of autonomy. Many biblical narratives recount Israel’s sufferings within its own land at the hands of external powers; never is that oppression confused with the memory of exile.

Nor is this unique to antiquity. To consider a more contemporary illustration, African peoples and their cultures suffered for centuries under European colonialism. Did any of them ever refer to such subjugation as tantamount in its ultimate severity to exile and enslavement in the New World? I would think not.

Hendel is not the only scholar to advance the hypothesis that the reality behind the exodus is that Egypt was taken out of Israel and not, as the Bible has it, the other way around. Introduced in the early 1990s, the theory has been gaining adherents ever since—coincidentally with the meteoric rise of “postcolonial” studies to its current position as the dominant force in the humanities. Postcolonialist scholars examine the corrosive interactions between colonizer and colonized as represented in the cultural products of both entities. The key premise of postcolonial studies is that a unique dynamic is set in play when a power exerts its control over another land, exploiting the native populace and resources for its own ends; correlatively, when the colonizer is overthrown, it becomes possible to trace how the formerly colonized revitalize themselves and fashion a new, “postcolonial” self-image.

Is it too much to postulate that, in imagining a past in which Israelites in their native Canaan suffer under the oppression of “colonial” Egypt, scholars have transformed Israel’s seminal tale into something that can find a respectable place at the table of the most recent academic fashion?


“In every generation, each person is obliged to view himself as if he came out of Egypt.” Ronald Hendel cites this line from the Mishnah, later incorporated into the Haggadah, as a prooftext: the exodus was not a “punctual” event, he writes, but has been happening continually for thousands of years. Each generation, in this reading, is called upon to narrate its emergence out of the shadow of slavery and into free existence.

This is surely a beautiful sentiment, but just as surely a misreading of the rabbinic dictum. The text is unambiguous in its use of the past tense: “each person is obliged to view himself as if he came out of Egypt,” not as if he is coming out of Egypt. On Passover night, we do not celebrate our own contemporary processes of liberation. Rather, we are called upon to reflect on the meaning of, precisely, a punctual event, and a historical event at that.

More about: Biblical criticism, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Postcolonialism, Religion & Holidays