Questioning Exodus

While conducting a recent tour of Egypt and the Holy Land, Dr. Donald C. Jones stood outside the Great Pyramid in Giza and wondered what the children of Israel must have thought when Moses challenged the mighty arm of a kingdom so vast and powerful. According to the Old Testament Moses not only resisted Pharaoh, but participated in ten miraculous plagues that resulted in Israel's release from bondage.

A new debate raging between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism may make Jones's question irrelevant. Whether the Biblical Exodus ever happened was questioned recently in a speech by Rabbi David Wolpe in which he asserted that "many scholars have quietly concluded that the epic of Moses never happened, and even Jewish clerics are raising questions." Wolpe's speech was quoted on the front-page of the Los Angeles Times in a story called "Doubting the Story of Exodus."

A group of Orthodox leaders immediately took issue with Wolpe, running a half-page ad stating that it was, in their opinion, "inconceivable that matters of our enduring faith are so frivolously dismissed. Are we to rewrite the first of the Ten Commandments, which predicated all of God's expectations from man on a historical relationship with God stemming from the Exodus?"

Others point out that Wolpe's dismissal of the Exodus epic is not necessarily supported by Archaeology or history. His position is countered by Biblical Archaeology Review in a feature called How Reliable Is Exodus, and by Dead Sea Scrolls expert and NYU professor Lawrence Schiffman who found evidence to support the Hebrew account.

Agudath Israel of America's public affairs director Rabbi Avi Shafran also joined the rebuttal, pointing out that the Exodus "could not have been fabricated, suddenly 'made up' one day, as some scholars imagine, because it involved hundreds of thousands of people whose children solemnly entrusted with the account and sworn to entrust it in turn to their own children, and theirs to theirs, down to our own generation."

But such arguments concerning the historicity of Exodus may be overlooking a more important matter--what the Exodus narrative reveals about God.

To argue the fact of the Exodus is important to Jews and Christians not only because of the fundamentalist position regarding Biblical accuracy. What Christians and Jews discover in the Exodus is the power and grace of God. His power is illustrated in His judgment of the Egyptian deities, and His grace is revealed in His willingness to save all that turn to Him. Both the Hebrews and Egyptians were free to partake of God's grace during the Exodus, and the prophet Isaiah even foresaw a time when the Hebrew's persecutors would recognize God's power and be converted:

Isaiah 19:21
And the LORD shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the LORD in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the LORD, and perform it.

In The Gods Who Walk Among Us authors Thomas Horn and Donald Jones uncovered evidence indicating that Egypt's deities were at the center of the Exodus plagues. Each plague illustrated God's graceful attempt to turn people away from idolatry, and to save the lost.

Horn and Jones summarized their findings thus:

[For a more complete analysis of the Exodus plagues click on any plague title]


By turning the Nile River into blood, no less than nine separate deities were judged by the Hebrew God and found to be inferior and under His authority; the Nile River, Khnum, Sati, Hapi, Osiris, Hathor, Neith, Sobek, and Apepi. Through the first plague Yahweh confirmed that He alone is the supplier of every human need, and the true Judge of the after life and only Sovereign of destiny.


The Hebrew Creator-God must have appeared powerful compared to the stench of the creator-frog goddess, Heka, as her infants lay rotting in massive filthy heaps, covering nearly every square inch of Pharoah's Egyptian empire. Through the plague of the frogs, the mystical power of Heka was reduced to nothing more than a greasy pavement crushed to death beneath the feet of the sorrowful Egyptians.


Moses understood that when every micro-particle of dust began crawling on the Egyptians, the priesthood was ceremonially unclean, and thus immobilized. The masturbation mysteries of Karnak could not be performed. The portable gods could not walk and talk. The seasons could not bring forth their blessings. While such reasoning may seem simplistic, imitative magic, as performed by the Egyptian priesthood, was central to the Egyptian way of life and was considered of the highest importance.


Whereas flies were generally disliked by the Egyptians, they were nevertheless revered as the servants of Vatchit—the Egyptian "lord of the flies." In this context it's possible that the Hebrew God was administering a threefold judgement: First, of the Egyptians for their veneration of the fly-deity; second, of the sun god Ra—the Egyptian almighty creator; and third, of Vatchit himself, the Egyptian equivalent of Baalzebub (Beelzebub), the very ancient god who was, according to various eastern religions, the Evil god and "lord of the flies."


The plague of the deadly murrain was an especially effective grievance, as, in a single move, it repudiated the six most important aspects of the Egyptian Apis cult: 1) it devastated the protected livestock of the Egyptians including the vast herds of Pharaoh; 2) it illustrated God's unlimited power when, miraculously, none of the Hebrew cattle died; 3) it humiliated the Universal Architect god, Ptah, and exposed him as a helpless demon; 4) it destroyed the dominion of the sacred Apis and Mnevis bulls of Heliopolis; 5) it judged the goddess Hathor, and the god Osiris, and found them to be inferior; and 6) it nullified the generational blessings of Apis-Osiris (Serapis).


When the Hebrew God attacked the divine health of the Egyptians by placing a filthy, eruptive disease of boils upon the population, He accomplished what no other surrounding power had attempted to do: 1) He sent the respected Egyptian magicians fleeing powerless before Moses—unclean and unable to perform their priestly duties; 2) He illustrated the inferiority of the Egyptian high gods—Ptah and Osiris—and denounced them as helpless demons; 3) He judged the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet and demonstrated her impotence at regulating diseases; 4) He altered the ritual of "casting ashes" and made the ashes a cursing instead of a blessing; and 5) He mocked the temples of Imhotep and Serapis, and thereby notified the surrounding nations that neither crystals, nor psychic dreams, nor positive energies, nor yet coercions of men and their gods, can defy the incontestable will of Yahweh.


The goddess Nut was the Egyptian protectress of the sky and weather. She was depicted in Egyptian art as a woman arched over the earth, with the stars above her back and the earth (her brother Geb) beneath her belly. She was the consort of Osiris—the 'blesser' of crops and fertility—and was cherished as the caring mother "sky-goddess" by the agricultural people of the Fertile Crescent. When the Hebrew God sent a storm of hail and fire "such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation" (Ex. 9:24), He was repudiating the combined efforts of Nut, Geb, Amun-Ra, Osiris, and Pharaoh, to control the atmospheric conditions that befell the land of Egypt.


To avoid defoliation created by Edipoda locusts and other living things, the Egyptians prayed to Sobek—the crocodile-headed god of animals and insects. It was undouptedly against the demon- god Sobek—and his pestilence-protection rituals—that the Hebrew God initiated the relentless plague of the locusts. In so doing, Yahweh revealed that Sobek was unable to control the elements, or limit the activity of God's insect army. Sobek's companion—the high god Ra (of fire)—could not scorch the creatures. Ra's son Shu—the Egyptian god of sun and wind (air)—could not blow the consuming insects away. It was not until the Hebrew God commanded "a mighty strong west wind, which took the locusts, and cast them into the Red sea" (Ex. 10:19), that the grievous plague was ended.


The sun itself was considered "the Eye of Amun-Ra," and the light and warmth of the midday sun was perceived as the bath of his blessing. Amun-Ra was also called Khepri (the rising sun), and Atum (the setting sun), so that each position of the sun—rising, midday, and setting, was interpreted as a posture of Amun-Ra. The midday sun also supposedly arose above Egypt because the Pharaoh had been honored and inaugurated in the Temple of Amun-Ra. If the sun was ever darkened or eclipsed, it was an evil omen for the king. Egypt's priests carefully interpreted such 'signs,' and even offered life-saving maneuvers to the Pharaoh. But when three days of utter darkness paralyzed the Egyptians (Exodus 10:21-23)--the number three being understood by the Hebrews and the Egyptians as representing divine providence, the king's magicians were uncharacteristically silent. Like the three hours of darkness that accompanied the death of Christ (Luke 23:44), the sovereignty of the Highest was believed to be at work.


At least six deities were committed to the protection of Egypt's children. They included Heka, the mystical frog-goddess who oversaw the development of animals and children beginning at the embryonic stage; Isis, the advocate-mother of the children who kept her word; Min, the god of virility who conferred reproductive vigor upon men and who was ritually called upon to produce an heir to the pharaoh; Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, who protected the Pharaoh's son; Bes, the patron protector of mothers and their children; and the Pharaoh himself—Egypt's protector-incarnation of Amun-Ra and Horus. By initiating the death of the firstborn, Yahweh executed His final judgement "against all the gods of Egypt" (Ex. 12:12). Heka was proven powerless. Isis was defunct. Min was unable to energize the pharaoh's son. Horus was equally inept. The pharaoh was without a successor to watch over his tomb. Amun-Ra was without earthly representation. Egypt was without an heir. And the whole of the Egyptian pantheon, with its magic, myths, and rituals, crumbled at once beneath the feet of the Hebrew God.

Yes, the Exodus epic actually happened. It reveals the power and grace of God.

"It would be a mistake to overlook the fact that, taken individually, each plague of the Exodus stands alone as a specific judgment of a particular Egyptian god; while, viewed collectively, the plagues of the Exodus illustrate God's supremacy over, and his attitude towards, the corporate sphere of the gods of mythology." Dr. Donald C. Jones, professor of Biblical History

BAR Feature: How Reliable Is Exodus? (Intro)
BAR Feature: How Reliable Is Exodus?

By Thomas Horn