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David Frankel





Exodus: Not the Only Tradition About Israel’s Past





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David Frankel





Exodus: Not the Only Tradition About Israel’s Past








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Exodus: Not the Only Tradition About Israel’s Past

The Torah implores us to remember and teach the exodus, yet surprisingly, some biblical passages seem unaware of this event and describe an alternative tradition: God found Israel in the wilderness.


Exodus: Not the Only Tradition About Israel’s Past

Israel in the wilderness. DALL·E 2 

The Central Role of the Exodus

The exodus is undeniably the most important event in biblical memory. It is much more prominent, for example, than the giving of the Torah at Sinai.[1] It is prefigured in Abraham’s descent to Egypt (Gen. 12:10–20),[2] foretold to him in the Covenant Between the Parts (ברית בין הבתרים; Gen. 15:13–16), and continually highlighted in passages that retell God’s gracious acts on behalf of Israel (Deut. 26:5–9; Josh. 24; Pss. 78; 105; 106; 135; 136; Ezek. 20; Neh. 9).

God does not introduce Himself to Israel in the Decalogue as the creator of the world, but as the God of the exodus (Exod. 20:2), implying that God’s act of freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is what won him the right to demand Israel’s allegiance.[3] Indeed, according to Numbers 15:41, the very purpose of the exodus was that the Lord might become Israel’s God.[4] Thus, the entire relationship between God and Israel is founded upon the exodus event.

The centrality of the exodus theme is underscored by the fact that it is at times recounted with bold mythological imagery (Pss. 77:12–21; Isa. 51:10).

Not only does the exodus serve as the basis for Israel’s present relationship with God, but it also serves as prototype for God’s future acts of redemption (Isa. 11:15–16; 43:16–20; 48:20–21).[5] Without a doubt, no other event in Israel’s history plays as central a role in the biblical corpus. Yet, several biblical passages that seem unaware of the exodus event.

Biblical Passages That Don’t Seem To Know About the Exodus

Oracles against the Nations: The Omission of Punishing Egypt

One of the lesser-known genres within Prophetic literature is the “Oracles against the Nations.”[6] The most famous example of this genre is found at the beginning of the book of Amos, where the prophet pronounces doom on Israel’s various neighboring states for the crimes they have committed both against Israel in particular and other nations more generally. The fourth and final oracle of Balaam (Numbers 24:15–24), where he proclaims doom upon various nations, especially Moab, is another text that participates in this genre.[7]

Several texts within this genre focus on Egypt and pronounce God’s judgment and vengeance against it, mostly for her failure to serve as a reliable ally to Israel. Now it is striking to note, that not a single mention is made in all the prophetic oracles of divine vengeance against Egypt (Isa. 19; Jer. 46; Ezek. 29, 30, 31, 32) of the fact that the Israelites were once subjected there to harsh enslavement. Since the emphasis in these oracles is on the sinfulness of Egypt, this silence is most conspicuous. Nor do these oracles make any allusion to the great wonders that God wrought against the Egyptians.

Ezekiel: Punishing Egypt – A Second Time?

The oracles of Ezekiel against Egypt belong to the final days of Judah. The prophet pronounces Egypt’s doom for its pretensions of divinity and its proud attempt to stand against the Babylonians, God’s designated instrument of punishment. In Ezek. 30:19, God states, “I will carry out judgments against Egypt and they will know that I am the Lord.”[8] This verse uses language identical to that found in Exodus (7:4–5; 12:12; 14:18), yet it does not mention, as we might expect, that God already carried out judgments in Egypt in the past and made them know that he is the Lord.

Ezek. 32:7–8 announces that God will cover the heavenly lights over Egypt and envelope its people in darkness. Again, a statement such as “as I did when my people were enslaved in Egypt” is lacking.[9] Similarly, Joel, one of the twelve minor prophets of uncertain date, speaks of a terrible plague of locust that God will send against Judah for her sins. In light of the lengthy description of this plague and the great devastation that it brings to the land, it is striking that no allusion is made to the plague of locust in Egypt.

Note that at times, we do find that biblical narrative will refer back to the Egyptian plagues. Thus, in the story of the battle against the Philistines in the time of Eli, the Philistines see the ark brought out to the battlefield and say (1 Sam. 4:8): “Woe unto us. Who will save us from these great gods? These are the gods that struck Egypt with every blow in the desert.”[10]

After the Philistines capture the ark and suffer from death and devastation, their priests and soothsayers urge them to appease Israel’s God, saying (1 Sam. 6:6), “Why harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their heads? Did they not send them off so that they left when God made a mockery of them?” If the Philistines and their priests recall the plagues against Egypt, why don’t Israel’s prophets that actually speak of divine punishment of Egypt do the same?[11]

Psalm 44: The Story from Our Ancestors

Some relatively early texts of a national character fail to mention the exodus, such as Psalm 44 or 83:10–12. Psalm 44 consists of a supplication for divine aid for Israel in the wake of defeat. God is urged to repeat his great heroic acts of the past. The Psalm begins,

אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ בְּאָזְנֵ֬ינוּ שָׁמַ֗עְנוּ אֲבוֹתֵ֥ינוּ סִפְּרוּ לָ֑נוּ פֹּ֥עַל פָּעַ֥לְתָּ בִֽימֵיהֶ֗ם בִּ֣ימֵי קֶֽדֶם: אַתָּ֤ה׀ יָדְךָ֡ גּוֹיִ֣ם ה֭וֹרַשְׁתָּ וַתִּטָּעֵ֑ם תָּרַ֥ע לְ֝אֻמִּ֗ים וַֽתְּשַׁלְּחֵֽם
We have heard it with our ears, O God; our ancestors have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago. With your hand you drove out the nations and planted our ancestors; you crushed the peoples and drove them out.

In spite of the repeated biblical call upon parents to rehearse specifically the exodus story to their children (Exodus 13:8–9, 14–16; Deut. 6:20–23), the story that the Israelite ancestors of this psalm tell their children concerning God’s great acts relates to the conquest of the land alone. The fact that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and destroyed the entire Egyptian army with His mighty hand and outstretched arm is completely absent.

It is worth emphasizing that the story of the ancestors does not relate to the recent past but to “days long ago.” One hardly gets the impression from this psalm that there were even greater events that occurred in the era immediately preceding the conquest.

Psalm 83: The Paradigm of Salvation from the Period of the Judges

Psalm 83 is similar to Psalm 44. It reflects Israel’s fear of an alliance of various nations, including Assyria, against it. Verses 10–12 read,

עֲשֵֽׂה לָהֶ֥ם כְּמִדְיָ֑ן כְּֽסִֽיסְרָ֥א כְ֝יָבִ֗ין בְּנַ֣חַל קִישֽׁוֹן: נִשְׁמְד֥וּ בְֽעֵין דֹּ֑אר הָ֥יוּ דֹ֗מֶן לָאֲדָמָֽה: שִׁיתֵ֣מוֹ נְ֭דִיבֵמוֹ כְּעֹרֵ֣ב וְכִזְאֵ֑ב וּֽכְזֶ֥בַח וּ֝כְצַלְמֻנָּ֗ע כָּל־נְסִיכֵֽמוֹ
“Do to them as you did to Midian, as you did to Sisera and Jabin at the river Kishon, who perished at Endor and became like dung on the ground. Make their nobles like Oreb and Zeeb, all their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna, who said, “Let us take possession of the pasturelands of God.”

Again, this psalm does not proclaim: “Do to them as you did to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt and the Sea of Reeds.” We do not hear something akin to the words of Gideon to God: “Please Lord, if YHWH is with us why has all this befallen us; where are all the wonders that our ancestors told us, saying, YHWH brought us up from Egypt; for now he has abandoned us and delivered us into the hand of Midian” (Judges 6:13).

God’s paradigmatic acts of salvation in ancient times are rooted in our Psalm in the period of the Judges (cf. Judges 4–5, 8), not in the exodus. There is no hint of the idea expressed, for example, in Deuteronomy 4:

דברים ד:לב כִּ֣י שְׁאַל נָא֩ לְיָמִ֨ים רִֽאשֹׁנִ֜ים אֲשֶׁר הָי֣וּ לְפָנֶ֗יךָ לְמִן הַיּוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁר֩ בָּרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ אָדָם֙ עַל הָאָ֔רֶץ וּלְמִקְצֵ֥ה הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְעַד קְצֵ֣ה הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם הֲנִֽהְיָ֗ה כַּדָּבָ֤ר הַגָּדוֹל֙ הַזֶּ֔ה א֖וֹ הֲנִשְׁמַ֥ע כָּמֹֽהוּ… ד:לד א֣וֹ׀ הֲנִסָּ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֗ים לָ֠בוֹא לָקַ֨חַת ל֣וֹ גוֹי֘ מִקֶּ֣רֶב גּוֹי֒ בְּמַסֹּת֩ בְּאֹתֹ֨ת וּבְמוֹפְתִ֜ים וּבְמִלְחָמָ֗ה וּבְיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמוֹרָאִ֖ים גְּדֹלִ֑ים כְּ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם יְ־הֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֛ם בְּמִצְרַ֖יִם לְעֵינֶֽיךָ:
Deut 4:32 “Now search all of history, from the time God created people on the earth until now, and search from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything as great as this ever been seen or heard before?... 4:34 Has any other god dared to take a nation for himself out of another nation by means of trials, miraculous signs, wonders, war, a strong hand, a powerful arm, and terrifying acts?

Of course, in cases like this, one must be cautious about drawing far-reaching conclusions from silence. Lack of reference does not necessarily mean lack of knowledge. Still, at the very least, we may wonder if the exodus was acknowledged by our Psalmist and his audience as the central divine victory in Israelite history, as it is in Deuteronomy 4.

The Song of the Sea: No Thanks to God for the Exodus!

This is not the place for an extended discussion of the Song of the Sea, שירת הים (Exodus 15:1b–18), but it is striking that this song does not explicitly refer to the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, even though it does speak of the sinking of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds (v. 4).

Verse 9 states:

אָמַ֥ר אוֹיֵ֛ב אֶרְדֹּ֥ף אַשִּׂ֖יג אֲחַלֵּ֣ק שָׁלָ֑ל תִּמְלָאֵ֣מוֹ נַפְשִׁ֔י אָרִ֣יק חַרְבִּ֔י תּוֹרִישֵׁ֖מוֹ יָדִֽי:
“The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’”

To me, at least, this doesn’t sound like an attempt to reclaim a group of runaway slaves but rather to raid and plunder a vulnerable group of some kind.

The Song of Deborah never mentions the exodus, yet presents a similar picture of God’s use of waters to defeat the enemy (vv. 21–22). Perhaps Exodus 15:4 in the Song of the Sea is secondary. It is the only verse that mentions the chariots of Pharaoh and the Sea of Reeds. The other verses (1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) continually refer without specificity to “horse and rider,” “the enemy” and “the Sea,” and do not connect שירת הים in any way to the exodus tradition.

The Israelites, then, might be pictured as a group that God saved when attacked in the desert near the Sea. After saving them, God led them to the land. Perhaps there is an allusion to this concept in Jeremiah 31:2:

כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְ־הֹוָ֔ה מָצָ֥א חֵן֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר עַ֖ם שְׂרִ֣ידֵי חָ֑רֶב הָל֥וֹךְ לְהַרְגִּיע֖וֹ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Thus says the Lord, The people who survived the sword found favor in the wilderness, Israel, when I went to give him rest.

Didn’t the people find favor in Egypt?[12]

Psalms about the King: Suppressing the Exodus-Sinai Tradition?

Finally, many Psalms highlight the importance of the Davidic king and his dynasty and/or the role of Zion. None of these Psalms (2, 18, 45, 72, 89, 122, 125 and more) make reference to the exodus tradition. The Psalms that do refer to the exodus tradition are either of Northern origin (Psalm 80; 81)[13] or late (105–106, 135–136).[14]

Some scholars think that Judean circles exerted a concerted effort to displace or suppress the exodus-Sinai tradition. The covenant that was based on the exodus event emphasized conditionality. Without obedience to the covenantal stipulations, the covenantal promises would dissipate (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). Those Judeans who promoted the Davidic-Zion covenant sought to emphasize the unconditional status of the divine promises to the king (Cf. 2 Sam. 12—16). Thus, the exodus tradition had to be suppressed. Only in the Northern kingdom, where a strong dynastic ideology failed to take hold, could the exodus tradition flourish without disturbance.[15]

Furthermore, the Exodus-Sinai covenant emphasized the direct election of the people as a whole. The Judean concern to emphasize the unique status the Davidic king as God’s chosen ruler and Zion as God’s chosen abode may thus have led to a desire to suppress the exodus-Sinai tradition. Only through the agency of David and Zion, God’s directly chosen ones, can the people be seen as indirectly chosen (compare, e.g., Ps. 89:27–28 with Exodus 4:22; 19:5–6).[16] While explanations such as these are plausible, we should not exclude another possibility: the exodus tradition was not actively suppressed, it was virtually—or even completely—unknown in this Judean cultural milieu.

God Finds Israel in the Wilderness

But if Israel was not always thought of as coming from Egypt, where was she thought to have come from? Deut. 32:10, from the song of Ha’azinu, reads: “He found him in a wilderness region, in an empty howling waste.”[17] God is said to have “found” Israel in a state of utter helplessness in the wilderness, and He brought her from there into the fertile land, where he nursed her to strength until she grew fat and rebelled (vv. 10–15). The entire forty three verses of the song never mention the exodus! Israel’s origins are in the wilderness rather than Egypt.

According to the book of Deuteronomy as we have it, Ha’azinu was written as a warning of future events by Moses (Deut. 31:19–22, 30; 32:44). It hardly makes sense to assert that a song written by Moses, who had just led the Israelites out of Egypt, would be unaware of the exodus event. A closer examination of the song itself, however, without its current frame, shows no evidence that it was originally attributed to Moses. The song looks forward the salvation of Israel (vv. 34–36), and Israel’s sufferings at the hand of an ignoble enemy are presented as having already occurred (vv. 15–30).

The song, therefore, must have been written at some low point in Israel’s history in the land. It was not written from the perspective of Moses in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. The fact that it doesn’t mention the exodus goes hand in hand with the statement of verse 10, which focuses on the wilderness only. For this poem and the people who promoted it, Israel did not enter Canaan from the land of Egypt, but from the wilderness.

The Significance of the Wilderness Tradition

It seems likely that this tradition reflects a certain historical reality. If Israelites were recalling how God found them in the wilderness and took them into the land, then some Israelite groups probably really came from there. This is probably true of the Rachabites, who lived a nomadic lifestyle, shunning wine and agricultural work and living in tents (Jeremiah 35).[18] Undoubtedly, others who did not preserve the nomadic life style with such stringency still remembered their nomadic origins.

Why would people who worked in the fields and harvested crops invent baseless stories about their ancient origins in the desert? Why would they depict their forefathers as wandering shepherds rather than agriculturalists?[19] Presumably, various Israelites who preserved such memories about their origins would have imagined that Israel as a whole began as wilderness wanderers, and related this memory to other Israelites, who eventually came to share it, and eventually to connect it to their own traditions concerning an exodus from Egypt.

In other words, the motifs of the exodus and of the wandering in the wilderness were originally separate motifs or different groups, and these were secondarily combined as these different groups amalgamated to form Israel.[20]

The idea that Israel began her career as a desert people may well be alluded to in other passages as well,[21]

ירמיהו ב:ב זָכַ֤רְתִּי לָךְ֙ חֶ֣סֶד נְעוּרַ֔יִךְ אַהֲבַ֖ת כְּלוּלֹתָ֑יִךְ לֶכְתֵּ֤ךְ אַחֲרַי֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר בְּאֶ֖רֶץ לֹ֥א זְרוּעָֽה
Jer 2:2 I accounted to your favor, the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride— How you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.
תהלים סח:ח אֱֽלֹהִ֗ים בְּ֭צֵאתְךָ לִפְנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֑ךָ בְּצַעְדְּךָ֖ בִֽישִׁימ֣וֹן סֶֽלָה
Ps 68:8 O God, when You went at the head of Your army, when You marched through the desert, selah…

According to the wilderness tradition, the central act of divine grace that grounds the relationship between God and Israel has nothing to do with redemption from slavery. God, in this tradition, is not the redeemer from foreign subjugation and Israel is not the nation that is freed from human bondage for the direct and unique purpose of serving God (see Exodus 19:4–6; Leviticus 25:55). God is rather the provider of a fertile land for permanent settlement and Israel is a respectable, territorial people, quite like other respectable peoples.

Of course, Israel is expected to maintain loyalty to the sole God who provided her with her habitable land (cf. Deut. 32:15—18). But in this conception, Israel is not thought of as a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש, “a kingdom of priests and a sacred nation”, focused so squarely on divine service. Instead, they are a people like other peoples, owing fealty to the god that took care of them in the wilderness and brought them to Canaan.

The negative foil to Israel as a respectable, territorial nation is thus the wilderness, where one must wander about and live precariously. In this view, Egypt would serve as a poor foil for this conception of God’s founding grace, since Egypt was thought of as the epitome of fertility (see Gen. 13:10).

Universalizing the Exodus

The exodus from Egypt, in some form, may well have occurred. But if so, it was probably experienced by a limited group of Israelites. Certainly, it was originally remembered and retold by a limited group. This explains why the exodus is not mentioned in so many contexts where we might expect to find it, why various alternative traditions of Israel’s origins can still be identified in the Bible, and why the exodus can often be identified as a secondary development in several texts. Only as biblical writers sought more and more to create a single, all-Israel narrative, was the exodus depicted as an all-Israelite event. The tradition of the few became the tradition of all.


Was There a Historical Exodus?

Some historians claim that the exodus has no foundation in historical fact. Though I am not an historian, I find this difficult to accept. Even if the exodus is secondary in some contexts, it is original in many, and is reflected in some of Israel’s relatively early traditions (cf., e.g., Num. 24:8; Hos. 2:17; 12:10, 14; Amos 9:7; Psalm 80:9; 81:6, 11).

Several scholars suggest that the exodus tradition may have originated with the tribe of Levi,[22] and some evidence might point in that direction. First, we have several Levitic figures that bear Egyptian names and are associated with the exodus. The most famous, of course, is Moses, but this is true as well for Phineas and Hophni, the sons of Eli, priest of Shiloh.[23] Also, 1 Sam. 2:27—28 relates a tradition, not found in the Torah, according to which God chose Eli’s house to serve as priests for Israel when they were in Egypt.

This reconstruction may explain why the Levites were landless—the land was already settled by earlier “Israelites” when they arrived. This would also explain why the Song of Deborah, which lists the tribes of Israel (Judges 5:14—18), fails to mention the tribe of Levi; they, presumably, were in Egypt at the time.

Much of this reconstruction is plausible, but not certain. In any event, the principle that the exodus did not originally start as an all-Israel tradition but did originate in a smaller-scale experience of a limited group seems to me to be most reasonable.‍


March 17, 2015


Last Updated

April 3, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).