Exodus from Egypt in the E Source

The editor of the biblical book of Exodus drew his material from three sources, E, J and P, as defined in the Documentary Hypothesis, which is followed here. None of these sources provide a complete account, and the version in each source naturally reflects the concerns of the people at the time it was first written down. In addition, in the E Source, we also have embedded the contemporary version, which I call the Akkadian Source. The material drawn on the Biblical material is shown in italics; the commentary is in ordinary type.

While the E Source can be seen to have been based on the (very early) Akkadian Source (ca. 1200 BC), it was elaborated through oral traditions, and the demands of the prophetic message delivered by its author around the time of King Jeroboam of the (northern) kingdom of Israel (ca. 900 BC).

Israelite oppression

The E Source account of the exodus begins with two distinct accounts of the oppression of the people by the Egyptians. The first is the discussion of decision of the king of Egypt to load down the Israelites with burdens in building the storage cities for Pharaoh, in Pithom and Rameses. The second is the account of the Hebrew midwives’ circumvention of Pharaoh’s order to kill all the Hebrew male new-born children.

Israelite burdens

While it is likely that the Egyptians unreasonably burdened the Israelites, we have grounds to believe that this fragment from Exodus was not found in the Akkadian Source. For example, the expression used “commanders of work companies” is reminiscent of the work companies that King Solomon instituted in order to complete his building projects. It reflects the E Source writer’s strong criticism of Solomon. The reference to “Israelites” seems anachronistic as well – the Egyptians appear to have referred to the Israelites under the more generic term, “Hebrews,” which encompassed a general class of wandering warriors.

In addition, the timing of the episode appears to be wrong, since it is placed before Moses’ birth, which probably happened around the end of Pharaoh Ay’s reign, whereas the building of the city of Rameses is unlikely to have begun before the reign of Rameses I – 14 years later (or even later under Rameses II – 27 years later).

Murderous intent

The second account, referring to the Hebrew midwives being called upon to kill all the male children, has an authentic sound. In this Exodus fragment, the use of the identifier “Hebrew” is at least a pointer to its origin in the Akkadian Source.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.


After the midwives story, one would have expected that the E Source narrative would go on to discuss the birth of Moses, but it does not. It would appear that the final editor of Exodus (probably Ezra) considered the J Source story could not be improved upon, and was quite sufficient (which it is!).

The E Source resumes the story once Moses is already in Midian, already married, and shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, near Mount Horeb. Here God appears to him in a bush (probably burning, but that information is only carried in the J Source), and revealed himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He also revealed to Moses that he was aware of the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt, and revealed his plan to rescue the people. Moses was shocked that God wanted him to be the agent for the Israelite’s release.

At this time, God revealed his name, “I am who I am.” This came to be seen as an approximate etymology of the name, Yahweh, a name which was henceforth adopted in the narrative. Yahweh promised Moses that the Israelites would believe him.

(It is likely that Yahweh was the name used for God by at least some of the nomads of the desert region around Midian. It was this name that was henceforth adopted by the Israelites.)

After this, we appear to have an excursion into the oral traditions of the people, with Moses debating with God whether he (Moses) could or would do what he was being told to do.

In what looks like a “slightly out of place” piece of text, from the Akkadian Source, we read:

Moses took the staff of God into his hand, whereupon Yahweh told him that he would do many wonders before Pharaoh. He was told that he would say to Pharaoh, “This is what Yahweh says, Israel is my firstborn son. Let my son go, so that he may worship me. And if you refuse to let him go, I will kill your firstborn son.”

Following the oral traditions, E reports that Moses met Aaron, who was to be Moses’ spokesman before Pharaoh. Together they went before Pharaoh, and called upon him to allow the people to go into the wilderness and sacrifice to Yahweh. Instead of complying with the request, Pharaoh increased the burdens upon the people, and the Israelites themselves became unhappy with Moses and Aaron.

After this, for several chapters, we read about Moses and Aaron’s confrontations with Pharaoh, and of plagues of increasing intensity. It is quite unlikely that such details would have been preserved in an “annal-like” Akkadian Source for the exodus. It is more likely that these stories were carried into Canaan by Aaron’s son, Eleazor, and his grandson, Phineas, who were the successive high priests in Shiloh, in Israel (and elaborated over time).

There is little reason to doubt the historical kernel of God sending plagues on the Egyptians, if one can accept the miraculous escape of the Israelites from Egypt. However, the original details are now beyond recovery.

Once again from Akkadian Source, we read:

After Moses had worked these wonders, he commanded the people to get ready for their departure. He also told them to sprinkle their doorposts with the blood of a sheep.

This was so that Yahweh would not strike their firstborn, but he would preserve their children that very night.

(It appears from the narrative that, when the Egyptians learnt what the Israelites were doing, and fearing the worst, they were urgent in their appeals to the Israelites to leave immediately, offering them items of silver and gold and garments as well to encourage them on their way.)

From the oral traditions, E continues: there was great mourning in Egypt for the deaths of the children. Also in E’s encapsulated oral traditions, while Pharaoh urged the Israelites to leave, he quickly changed his mind.

(In the J Source, considered below, Yahweh promised Moses that the Israelites would be in good graces with the people when they left. Would this have been the case if all first-born children of the Egyptians had been struck down? We also have to take into account, in an identifiable Akkadian Source fragment in E, it is only the Pharaoh who is threatened with the death of his son.)

(It is noteworthy that, in J, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites as soon as he discovers that they had left. This seems a more likely scenario than Pharaoh changing his mind after just a few hours or even in a few days.)

E reports that 600,000 men of fighting age left Egypt, plus women and children, together with many sheep and oxen.

(The reference to 600,000 men-at-war was a misreading of the Akkadian Source by the E Source writer. The correct figure is closer to 6,000 men-at-war, which is still a substantial number.)

The exodus and the laws

The Israelites went by way of the wilderness of the Sea of Reeds (not taking the easier coastal road).

Pharaoh sent an army of six hundred chariots to stop the Israelites.

The Israelites feared for their lives and complained to Moses. However the angel of God, who was going ahead of the Israelites, came between them and the following Egyptian cavalry.

However, a fragment of E seems to have captured the moment quite well:

It happened that the chariots’ wheels became bogged in the Sea of Reeds

The implication is that the Egyptians could not pursue the Israelites.

Seeing Israel’s victory, Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a drum in her hand, with the women following her; and Miriam sang, “Sing to Yahweh for he is highly exalted; the horse and rider he has hurled into the sea.”

It was not long before the Israelites complained again, this time for the lack of water. At Yahweh’s command, Moses struck a rock and water come forth in order to meet the people’s needs.

After this, the Amalekites harassed the Israelites in Rephidim.

(Here Joshua first emerges in Exodus as Moses’ general. While this is possible, it does seem a little early.)

(Even in the time of Samuel (who lived more than 100 years earlier than the E Source writer), the Israelites considered the Amalekite attack on them as treasonous and unforgivable  – 1 Samuel 15. One can ask, were the Amalekites working as the agents of the Egyptians, who were now afraid to attack the Israelites openly? If so, the “plagues” had given the Israelites good cover for their escape, and encouraged the Egyptians to rely upon others to harass them.)

The contest with the Amalekites was remembered in the oral traditions in E as a fierce battle, which was only won with difficulty.

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, having heard of Moses’ exploits, came to meet Moses, bringing Moses’ wife and two sons with him. He met him at the Mountain of God.

(This can be explained as a pre-arranged rendezvous.)

Jethro advised Moses to appoint seventy elders to help him judge the people.

After this, Jethro returned to his own land.

Moses, inspired by the spirit of Yahweh, gave laws to the people, which they agreed to follow.

This brings the original Akkadian Source story of the exodus and the law-giving to an end.

However, in E, the story does not end there, but has Moses going up onto the Mountain of God, where he received stone tablets containing these instructions.

Moses going up on the mountain also served as an introduction to the E Source story of Aaron’s sin over the golden calves, being a prophetic rebuke to Jeroboam over his introduction of golden calves, put into an historical framework for rhetorical purposes.


Michael C. Astour, “Yahweh in Egyptian Topographic Lists,” Festschrift Elmar Edel, eds. M. Gorg & E. Pusch, (Bamberg, 1979).

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