The Exodus Revealed

Israel's Journey from Slavery to the Promised Land


By Nicholas Perrin

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What really happened during Israel’s journey from slavery to the promised land? Bible scholar Nicholas Perrin explains the true story of the Exodus while adding helpful background information from biblical history, archaeology, and more. You will . . .
  • Explore the unvarnished Bible story of the Exodus
  • Learn about ancient Egypt and Pharaoh
  • Come to know the man and the mission of Moses
  • Find out why the Ten Commandments were given
  • Discover God’s promise and plan for his people, then and now
  • Appreciate why every New Testament writer builds on the Exodus
  • See how the Exodus story relates to you, today

You will gain a much richer understanding of what God has done for you and why the Exodus is the pivotal event in the Old Testament.


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A friend of mine has a "Far Side" coffee mug on which is displayed a colorful cartoon depicting Moses and an apparently hesitant group of Israelites standing before a freshly parted Red Sea. The caption, conveying Moses' words to the people, reads: "What do you mean it's a bit icky?!" I love that mug. It brings out and throws into sharp relief an element of the human heart that we know all too well: small-minded ingratitude. No sooner do we recognize God for having done something extraordinary in our lives than we start harboring second thoughts and focus in on the details of what could be better about God's provision.

At the same time, the mug also raises an interesting historical question. When Moses parted the Red Sea on the night of the Exodus, assuming that the exposed mudflats were indeed "a bit icky," just how icky were they? Did the crossing Israelites sink ankle-deep in the mud bottom, or was there much less moisture than that, allowing them to walk along on virtually arid ground? And if you were there, would you have actually met members of the Israelite party who, frightened at the prospect of walking between the parted waters, had to be talked into it? And if so, what would they have said about the icky bottom? Nothing at all? Maybe, for all we know, some Israelites, perhaps small children, could not help but comment on the ick-factor of the Red Sea floor. We will never know. There is a lot that we will never know about the Exodus. But we can pay close attention to what we do know from the biblical text and employ along the way a historically responsible imagination.

Let me unpack that last phrase. First of all, by "historically responsible," I refer to that which is answerable to the constraints of history. Simply put: As readers of the Bible, we have to take its contents seriously as history. Now before you nod too quickly in agreement, let me explain exactly what I mean. Over the years, I have met countless Christians who agree with the authority of the Bible in principle and agree that its contents "really happened" but at the same time do not really take the story of the Bible seriously as history. Here's how I know. Because when they talk about things like the Ten Plagues or the parting of the Red Sea, I realize that they often have not allowed themselves to ask good questions of the text, questions such as, "When God sent plagues of various animals, was the choice of animal completely arbitrary?" or "Do the laws of hydrodynamics actually allow for the theoretical possibility of the sea parting?" Time and time again I am astonished when I meet people who, despite being extremely well educated, highly successful in their fields, and intellectually curious in regards to "real world" issues, fail to get beyond a second-grade level in terms of their understanding of biblical history. Regarding all things biblical, it is as if they are intellectually stuck in Miss Magillacutty's Sunday school class from thirty or forty years ago.

The truth is that Miss Magillacutty never encouraged you to ask, "Do the laws of hydrodynamics actually allow for the theoretical possibility of a sea parting?" Of course that wasn't her fault. She was just doing her job, spiritually nurturing you when you were still learning to tie your shoes. But perhaps you have picked up this book because you realize you need to go deeper. The Apostle Paul says, "When I was a child, I thought like a child and I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11). Perhaps you are reading this book because you want to get past childish ways of thinking in considering the Exodus. If this happens to be you, you should be commended. Whether you are casually interested or highly interested in the Exodus, I believe that undertaking learning projects like these are just part of what it means to love God with your mind. While this book certainly cannot answer all of the questions raised by the second book of the Bible, it will be, I hope, a good start.

Let me come back to the phrase, "historically responsible imagination" and focus on the last word of the phrase. Sometimes folks get nervous with the word imagination. They want (with echoes of Sergeant Joe Friday) "just the facts, Ma'am." They might say, "Don't muddy the waters by bringing imagination into it." I want to push back on this line of thinking; I want to engage people's imagination about the Exodus. The best way I know how to do this is to engage my own imagination a bit and then talk about it. Some say that this means taking liberties with the text. But the very nature of reading the Bible actually requires us to connect dots, and once we begin to connect the dots, we are using our imagination.

When I was first approached to write this book, I confess I was hesitant. I thought to myself, "My specialty has been in the New Testament and not so much in the Old Testament" (although I would also say, "Show me a New Testament scholar who doesn't know his or her way around the Old Testament, and I might as well show you a plumber who doesn't know his or her way around pipes"). I am well aware that a good number of scholars have logged far more hours than I in studying the Exodus. At the same time, I also realize that such scholarship has not done a lot to connect the dots on an imaginative level, at least not when it comes to this part of the Bible. Again, I'm not talking about wild, unbridled imagination. But sometimes thinking things through in a self-disciplined way can be helpful, asking: "What would it have been like if I were there?" Perhaps the scholarly and semi-scholarly genres tend to discourage such ruminations. As a rule, we academics don't like the thought of starting out to write a serious scholarly work only to find that we have blended genres by lapsing into an exercise in Ignatian spirituality. In this book, I am an unrepentant rule-breaker and genre blender. My hope is to bring the results of cutting-edge scholarship on the Exodus to bear on how we imagine it historically. When we do, I believe we end up with more interesting questions.

This should not deprive us of theological reflection but, rather, should help set the stage for it. And that, I think, is the final reason why I believe this book needed to be written: to offer a lay-accessible work that speaks to the theological significance of the Exodus. Again, since this book is primarily about history, I don't assume any faith persuasion on the part of its readers. At the same time, however, I suspect that a good number of this book's readers will be interested in occasionally connecting the dots from the Old Testament to the New Testament, and from Old Testament history to modern-day practice. For those who want to go beyond only occasionally connecting these dots, I would recommend the sequel to the present volume, Finding Jesus in the Exodus. In the meantime, in the present volume, we will largely have our feet anchored to the sands of Egypt and Sinai, with our theological Ray-Bans fixed firmly on the brim of our noses. No Torah-reading Jew of antiquity would have dreamed of reading about the Exodus without doing theology. Perhaps we could benefit by following suit.

Before entering into the subject matter, I wish to register several notes in regards to the biblical text and the history of this pivotal event. First, unless otherwise stated, all biblical translations from the Hebrew and Greek are my own. I have done this to provide a certain freshness to the study, although of course those who have little familiarity with the text will hardly know the difference! I have also done this so as to render the text in a slightly more colloquial way, at least compared to most major translations.

Second, while I am well aware that the proper dating of the Exodus is a much-debated topic (an "early Exodus" dating in fifteenth century B.C. versus a "late Exodus" dating in the thirteenth century B.C. versus "no Exodus"—a minimalist view within the academy that holds the Exodus to be holy fiction), for the purposes of the book I have very intentionally decided (1) to rule out the third option ahead of time and (2) to refuse to adjudicate between the first two options. This is partly because I believe that the debate between an "early Exodus" and a "late Exodus" would distract from my purposes; this is partly because I believe a strong case can be and has been made on both sides. We should, accordingly, also give due respect to both sides. While some advocates for an early Exodus have framed this as a battle between what the Good Book says and what craven archaeologists say (given the lack of material evidence for an early Exodus), this is simply an unfortunate and unfair construal. In truth, the issue is complex and will perhaps remain intractably so. Having no intention of making my own case either way, I will leave it to curious readers, interested in settling out on this question, to do their own homework with an open mind and a good dose of intellectual humility. Wherever you stand or don't stand on this issue, this book will still be for you.

The third note has to do with contemporary source-critical hypothesis. Without going into too much detail, I need to inform or remind my readers (as the case may be) that modern-day scholarship around the Exodus cannot be undertaken without entering into the very complicated question of documentary sources, what biblical scholars have called J-E-D-P. These letters correspond respectively to the so-called Yahwist source (J), the Elohist source (E), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly source (P). The bulk of the material in our purview belongs to the Priestly source (P). But because there are a number of methodological problems that immediately present themselves on a serious consideration of P and the other alleged sources (some of which have brought the entire paradigm to a virtual breaking point), I will bracket this entire discussion and instead strive to get to the history behind the texts. I am well aware that the issue of sources (who recorded this and when did they do so?) cannot entirely be separated from the issue of history (what actually happened?), but for the sake of simplicity, I will do just that. Again, students who wish to delve deeper into this subject are free to consult the appropriate secondary literature. That will not be our gig.

With these disclaimers in place, we are ready now to follow in Moses' footsteps. Be forewarned: his is a circuitous and winding route. If you think that the wilderness generation excelled in moving about hither and yon, the same is actually true of Moses even before he crossed the Red Sea. He got around—both in terms of geography and in terms of life. Highs and lows—he had them both. And of course, in life so do we. On some level, Moses' story is also our story.

But even more so, Moses' story is actually a story about God. This was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was the God whom Moses had met at the burning bush. This was also the God who would vanquish Egypt's idols and deliver Israel. For that reason, when we follow in Moses' footsteps, we are bound to meet God. Of course meeting God and encountering God are two separate matters. Pharaoh may have met God but he never (so far as we know) encountered God the way that, say, Moses clearly did. As you read this book about the Exodus, remember that God did not ultimately give the second book of the Bible so that we might merely meet him but so that we might encounter him—more exactly, be encountered by him. And we are encountered through Israel's first encounter. Thus, I hope in some sense, this book will help open not only the window of history but also the window of the heart touched by the one who revealed himself as I AM. More on that name and lots of other things in the pages ahead.


Last summer when I was spending time in Jerusalem, my oldest son and I visited the renowned Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem. Bringing my son was intentional on my part; one might say it was even a mission. My grandfather, Max Gutmann, was a German Jew whose larger family was wiped out in the Holocaust. And so, though I am a confessing Christian, a part of me identifies with the victims of the Holocaust, most of whom were, of course, Jewish. It is as if some of my roots are bound up in that event, and I want my children somehow to own that as well. I don't want them to forget. And I inwardly hope that one day they will bring their children and continue to remember, down through the generations.

We had been to this museum before. Yet every time I go, it might as well be the first time. The outrageous displays of Nazi memorabilia, the gruesome photos of human butchery, video after video of powerful interviews with Holocaust survivors—the experience never becomes old or commonplace. Nor, I suppose, should it. If it did, something would be terribly wrong. For me, remembering something like this is at once a painful process; yet, paradoxically, it is also a process that brings hope—the hope of a promise.

In my opinion, the most strategic decision in the museum design was made at the beginning of the tour. Here one finds no pictures of orphaned children or firing squads but instead images of ordinary European Jews as they went about their daily and ordinary lives before the Holocaust. They were singing, playing music, laughing—living life. Then, suddenly, very suddenly, as one progresses through the displays, the mood turns dark. In due course, we move from Hitler's rise to power to the infamous Night of the Broken Glass, to the establishment of the death camps, and on to the rest of the unspeakable atrocities. In one moment, life for the Jews seemed so simple and unencumbered. But then seemingly overnight, all that changed. We ask ourselves, "How on earth did this happen?"

How Did This Happen?

I suspect that this is much the same question the ancestors of many of these same Jews were asking some three and a half millennia ago. The sons of Israel were resident aliens in the eastern Delta region of Egypt where they had been for years. They had settled there in order to avoid famine and starvation in their native land of Canaan. When they first arrived, they were warmly welcomed due to their connection to Joseph, Egypt's hero from abroad. Then, almost precipitously, the reception cooled. And "cooled" turned into cold. Soon enough, the Israelites found themselves in a bad spot on every level. One might even have called it a crisis.

We tend to think of crises as situations that force some kind of decision or decisive outcome. But the situation in which the Israelites had found themselves was nothing like that. The Israelites probably had no identifiable turning point when they could look back and say, "Yes, that was the day that we lost favor in the eyes of the Egyptians!" Rather, the confederation of tribes had succumbed to a slow and steady deterioration of their social standing within Egyptian society—and then finally a state of slavery. As the various holocausts of the twentieth century remind us, people can go to bed one night feeling reasonably secure only to awaken the next day to find their prospects plummeting in a dizzying and perplexing free fall, all because they fell on the wrong side of an ethnic divide. Given the right public mood, the right ruler in place, and the right circumstances (or, rather, the wrong mood, place, and circumstances), even those who are accustomed to feel most secure within society may suddenly find their world caving in around them. This is how, more or less, it must have been with ancient Israel.

Perhaps, in the early years, the experience of the Jews residing in Egypt was similar to what has been a common experience of immigrant groups in the United States down the course of American history. The sons of Israel would have been easy enough to identify: what they wore, how they spoke, the customs they practiced, even the way they looked (assuming there were standard genetic features that set them apart from the Egyptians)—all this would have made it quite clear who "belonged here" and who was a resident alien. I imagine that when the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob walked down the road, the established Egyptian indigents recognized them right away; and a number of these, out of fear and prejudice, consciously or unconsciously decided to keep "the others" at a safe distance. When people meet other people who are conspicuously different from themselves, an all-too-common reaction is to match one's own ignorance with fear and hatred. A useful term here is xenophobia—a fear and dislike of foreigners. The ancient Egyptians were chronically xenophobic.

And in this case, it was a xenophobia exacerbated by a bitter and humiliating experience deeply ingrained on Egypt's national consciousness: the advent of the Hyksos in the nineteenth century B.C. The Hyksos were not so much an identifiable tribe as a conglomeration of non-Egyptians, though predominantly Canaanite. While earlier scholarship had theorized that the Hyksos had come to settle the Nile Delta region through violent means, more recent research seems to show that actually they had come to power gradually and, initially anyway, peaceably. It all began when Amenemhat III (ruled c. 1860–c. 1815 B.C.) undertook major building projects that opened up new markets for skilled and unskilled laborers. Over time, families from the Levant (the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean between modern-day Turkey and Egypt) began to trickle in looking for gainful employment. As immigrants often do, they found one another and settled down. By 1700 B.C., the political instability of the larger surrounding region left local tribal chieftains in a position to establish their own small kingdoms in the region. Among these was the Hyksos ruler King Nehesy who set up his capital at Avaris, a city in the heart of the eastern Nile Delta. Using Avaris as a base, the Hyksos expanded. By 1674 B.C., King Salitis (a Semite who would have been identified as a Hyksos) had become established in Memphis, the ancient capital city of Egypt just to the south of the Delta region. Twenty-five years later, the Hyksos, having recognized the weakness of the reigning Egyptian dynasties, would deal the Egyptians crushing defeats, wresting control of the northern part of Egypt (Lower Egypt).

Yet the Egyptian rulers of the south were not about to let this go unchecked forever. Seqenen-re II (also known as "the Brave") was determined to use his position at Thebes (three hundred miles to the south) as a launch pad for campaigns against the Hyksos. Although "the Brave" seemed to have fallen in battle to the Hyksos (his mummified skull shows multiple trauma to the head), his sons Kamose and Amose carried the cause forward. Kamose had managed to regain the important city of Memphis; later, his brother Amose would successfully rout the Hyksos from the land altogether, sending them packing back to their original homeland of Canaan—all around 1550 B.C. After almost two centuries, the Egyptians had finally rid the land of the Hyksos, but at great national cost.

So we can see why even a century later, the great Queen Hatshepsut (ruled 1480–1469 B.C.) would order chiseled into the gate frame at one of her temples an inscription that vividly recounted the ruin brought by the "visitors" from the Levant. From that point on, all the way down to the third century B.C. (according to Egyptian historian Manetho), the Hyksos were routinely credited as being the cruelest of peoples. Evidently the Egyptians who had lived through the so-called Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 B.C.) went on record that the Hyksos were guilty of ravaging Egypt's land and submitting its people to slavery and mass slaughter. Whether or not this report was true, as far the Egyptians were concerned, what the parents passed down to their children became the national perception, and perception was the reality. From that point on, no one would quickly forget the ruthless Semitic Hyksos who had abused Egyptian hospitality by pillaging half of Egypt.

Whether or not this two-hundred-year engagement with the foreigners occurred in the lead-up to Israel's enslavement or during it (this depends on our dating of the Exodus) does not dramatically affect my point. We need only a little historical imagination to think the Egyptians' thoughts after them. Here were the sons of Jacob, the Israelites of the eastern Delta, a Semitic people who had come to settle in the area—just like the Semitic Hyksos. Here, too, was a people whose history included stories of highly talented individuals (think Joseph) who occupied high positions of power in Egypt—just as the Hyksos had come to fill the leading administrative posts in Egypt, at least before they turned violent. And, finally, here were the Israelites noticeably multiplying (Exodus 1:7) with a population growth trajectory outstripping that of the native Egyptians. This is just where all the trouble began with the Hyksos, right under the Egyptians' noses. "Well," the Egyptians must have said to themselves, "we won't be fooled again. We'll show them!" Given the national memory and the political mood, any Egyptian ruler coming along and suggesting new policies serving to limit the Israelites' rights would only be pushing on an open door.

If these factors were not enough to arouse paranoia and indignation within the Egyptian ranks, we also have to reckon with the fact that the descendants of Israel had learned to keep to themselves and did not blend in easily or willingly with Egyptian society. In other words, if the Egyptians were averse to rubbing shoulders with the Israelites, the antipathy likely ran both ways—just how much antipathy is anyone's guess. Sociologists have long observed that members of a minority culture will naturally tend to stick together as a way of affirming and preserving their collective self-identity. If this is the way it worked for the disempowered minority of Israel, then we can only imagine that there was little possibility of Israelites being absorbed into the mainstream of Egyptian culture.

From Free to Enslaved

So much for the social background leading up to the Israelites' indenture. But how is it that the descendants of Israel went to bed one night as freedmen only to wake up the next morning to a day in which they would find themselves condemned to hard labor for no pay? According to Exodus 1, the decision came from the very top down. The new policy was to enslave the Israelites lest they "increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land" (Exodus 1:10). As a result, taskmasters were appointed, and the Israelites were forced into slave labor. According to Scripture, then, Pharaoh pressed the Israelites into service because of their proliferating population. This explanation is certainly consistent with the social and political background I have been describing. It all makes sense historically.


On Sale
Oct 7, 2014
Page Count
224 pages

Nicholas Perrin

About the Author

Dr. Nicholas Perrin is the Dean of the Wheaton Graduate School where he holds the Franklin S. Dymess Chair of Biblical Studies. He received his PhD. from Marquette University in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous scholarly articles and books. Dr. Perrin makes his home in Wheaton Illinois.

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