Moses: the Exodus from Egypt

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For an account of the earlier part of Moses' life see Moses: the Early Years.

In obedience to God's command Moses and his elder brother Aaron approached the ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, and sought his permission for the Israelites to travel three days' journey into the desert to sacrifice to Jehovah. But the Pharaoh, so far from granting this request, ordered his officials to make the Israelites work harder: previously the straw they needed to make bricks for the Egyptians had been supplied by the Egyptians, but now they were required to find it themselves. So Moses' first approach to the Pharaoh served only to make life harder for the Israelites (Exodus ch. 5). However, God spoke to Moses again, telling him to reassure the Israelites that he would keep his promise and lead them to the land of Canaan (ibid. ch. 6, vv. 1-13).

The second time Moses and Aaron approached the Pharaoh there was a contest between them and the Pharaoh's magicians. On Moses' instruction Aaron transformed the rod he was carrying into a serpent (ibid. ch. 7, vv. 10-13); he then used the rod to turn the water in the river Nile into blood (ibid. ch. 7, vv. 14-25), and after that to summon up a plague of frogs which covered the whole of Egypt (ibid. ch. 8, vv. 1-7) - 'miracles' which the Pharaoh's magicians were also able to perform. Nonetheless, the Pharaoh appeared to relent and said that if Moses brought the plague of frogs to an end, he would let the Israelites go. Moses did as the Pharoah asked, but once the plague was over, the Pharaoh changed his mind and refused to keep his side of the agreement (ibid. ch. 8, vv. 8-15).

After this, the Egyptians suffered a plague of lice (ibid. ch. 8, vv. 16-19) and then a plague of flies (ibid. ch. 8, vv. 20-24). The Pharaoh again appeared to relent: if Moses would take the flies away, the Israelites could sacrifice to Jehovah provided they did not go so far away as three days' journey into the desert. But again, once Moses had taken the flies away, the Pharaoh went back on his promise (ibid. ch. 8, vv. 25-32). Worse followed for the Egyptians: their cattle fell ill (ibid. ch. 9, vv. 1-7); their skin erupted in boils (ibid. ch. 9, vv. 8-12); hail storms accompanied by thunder and lightning destroyed everything that was not under cover (ibid. ch. 9, vv. 13-35); a plague of locusts devoured any vegetation which had survived the hail storms (ibid. ch. 10, vv. 1-20); and the country was shrouded in darkness for three days (ibid. ch. 10, vv. 21-23) . Under the influence of these catastrophic events, which afflicted only the Egyptians and not the Israelites, the Pharaoh again offered to let the Israelites go, on condition that they left all their animals behind - a condition which Moses found unacceptable (ibid. ch. 10, vv. 24-26).

Finally, Moses warned that the eldest child in every Egyptian family, including the Pharaoh's, would die, together with the firstborn of all the Egyptians' animals (ibid. ch.11, vv. 4-10); and in anticipation that the Israelites would be allowed to leave soon after this event, he instructed them to prepare for a feast to be celebrated on the night when the event would take place: they were to sacrifice a lamb, daub its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses, and roast and eat its flesh (ibid. ch. 12, vv. 1-28). (This is the origin of the Jewish feast of the Passover, so called because '<the Lord> passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians' (ibid. ch. 12, v. 27): the name of the feast in Hebrew is פֶּסַח (Pesach) from the root פסח (p-s-h), meaning: to pass over, exempt, or spare.)

The eldest child in every Egyptian family died in a single night, as Moses had foretold; and, persuaded by his own sufferings and those of his people, the Pharaoh at last let the Israelites and their animals leave Egypt (ibid. ch. 12, vv. 29-39). Guided by a pillar of smoke during the day and by a pillar of fire at night (ibid. ch. 13, vv. 20-22), they made their way to the shore of the Red Sea (ibid. ch. 14, vv. 1-4). In the meantime the Pharaoh had again changed his mind and set off after the Israelites with his army. The Israelites, thinking that they would be overcome and taken back to Egypt, complained about Moses' leadership, but Moses used the rod which God had given him to summon a strong east wind which held back the water and allowed him to lead the Israelites, across the Red Sea safely on dry land. But when the Egyptians tried to follow, the water flowed back and engulfed them, and they were all drowned (ibid. ch. 14, vv. 5-31).

However, although the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, it would be 40 years before they reached the promised land of Canaan.

For the next stage of Moses' life see Moses: the Ten Commandments.

Many works of art have been inspired by the events in this period of Moses's life. Well known paintings include The Tenth Plague of Egypt by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), One of the Seven Plagues of Egypt by John Martin (1789-1854), and Moses Crossing the Red Sea by Raphael (Raffaello Santi) (1483-1520). The Israelites' period of slavery in Egypt is the subject of the oratorio Israel in Egypt by G.F. Handel (1685-1759), while their crossing of the Red Sea is celebrated in the anthem In exitu Israel (When Israel came out of Egypt) by Samuel Wesley (1766-1837).

The phrase 'bricks without straw' is used to characterise any task which one has to carry out despite not having been given the necessary resources.