Exodus / Numbers in the J source

The J Source is the encapsulation of the oral traditions of the tribe of Judah. Hence we can also call it, Judah’s Israelite history. It was written down around 1000 BC. Judah’s Israelite history’s account of the exodus from Egypt and the victories preceding the conquest of Canaan are found as fragments in Exodus and Numbers.

In the narrative sections that follow, the material taken directly from Judah’s Israelite history is shown in italics, and the commentary is in ordinary type.

Moses’ childhood

The exodus story begins with the birth of Moses. In this version, Aaron has no role in the story: the leading figure is Moses; his only noted successor is Caleb.

Pharaoh decreed that every newborn male child was to be thrown into the Nile (Exodus 1:22). Even if this decree only extended as far as Hebrew children, such a decree is likely to have been obnoxious to the Egyptian sense of right behaviour.

In the light of this evidence, the likely Pharaoh of that time, Ay (1323 BC – 1319 BC) can possibly be considered to have been of questionable character by Egyptian standards of behaviour. His successor,  Horemheb (1319 BC – 1292 BC), expunged his name from all monuments, pointing to Horemheb’s extreme dissatisfaction with his predecessor, and the desire to deny him any honours at all, and even to deny his place in history.

Ay had a troubled past. He had been associated with Akhenaten’s rather bizarre solar-deity experiment, and he had seized the throne when Horemheb had been Tutankhamen’s designated successor. While most scholars consider that these factors were the probable cause, the evidence in Judah’s Israelite history about the evil decree to “kill all sons” provides an additional explanatory factor for the abrupt end of Ay’s reign and Horemheb purging of Ay’s name from Egyptian history.

In Judah’s Israelite history (the only source for this story), Moses was adopted into Pharaoh’s family, through Pharaoh’s daughter. The dates we can assign to this episode point to the Pharaoh under whom Moses was rescued as being Horemheb. A change of Pharaoh also serves to explain why the Pharaoh of that time allowed his daughter to rescue one of the children slated for an early death.

Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household, but intervened to protect a fellow Hebrew, and unwisely killed an Egyptian. To save himself, he fled Egypt, and came to live in Midian with Reuel, a priest of Midian, marrying one of his daughters.

Moses leads them out

An angel appeared to Moses in a burning bush, whereupon Yahweh declared his purposes to Moses, namely that he was going to rescue his people from Egypt, and allow them to settle in Canaan, the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (No anachronism here – Canaanites on the coast; Hittites were in control of Hazor; Hivites were the former Hurrians rulers, now supplanted by the Amorites; Jebusites were the Amorite rulers of Jerusalem – only the Perizzites cannot be externally identified.)

Yahweh told Moses that Pharaoh would not let his people go, but that he would do wonders, and eventually Pharaoh would let the people go. Furthermore, Yahweh declared that the Israelite’s neighbours would give them silver and gold articles and clothes, so that they would not leave Egypt empty-handed. He also told Moses to return to Egypt, whereupon he returned with his wife and children.

Moses appeared before Pharaoh. He requested permission for the Israelites to worship their god in the wilderness. Pharaoh refused his request.

There is nothing more in Exodus from Judah’s Israelite history until the Israelites had already begun to leave Egypt. (Whatever was originally in the version has been dropped from the final edited version – which is unusual for the editor of the final text.)

When the Israelites left Egypt, Yahweh was before them in a column of cloud in the day, and in a column of fire at night.

When Pharaoh discovered that the people had fled, he chased after them, and the Israelites were very afraid. However, Moses told them not to be afraid, for Yahweh would fight for them.

So the column of cloud went from in front of the Israelite crowd and stood behind them, keeping the Israelites and the Egyptians apart from one another. Meanwhile, Yahweh drove back the sea with a strong east wind, and the sea was turned into dry land, whereupon the Israelites crossed the sea. When the Egyptians followed them, the sea began to flow back, and the Egyptian chariots were thrown into the sea. Then the Israelites looked back and saw the Egypt dead on the other side, and they rejoiced at the great victory that had been achieved, singing a song of great celebration.

After three days journey into the wilderness, the Israelites could not find water, since the water at the oasis was bitter. However, Yahweh showed Moses how to neutralize the bitterness of the water. After this Yahweh rained bread from the skies upon the people, which they ate until they came to the edge of Canaan.

Receiving Yahweh’s commands

Having arrived at Mount Sinai, Yahweh told the people to prepare themselves for a holy event. After three days, Mount Sinai was covered in smoke and fire, and the mountain trembled. Moses then went up the mountain, being up on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. There he carved two tablets of stone, the Ten Commandments.

(Judah’s Israelite history provides us with the first encapsulation of a set of Ten Commandments. This set was not the ethical set of Ten Commandments more familiar to us today; that version probably had its origins in the book of Deuteronomy. The set found in Judah’s Israelite history consists of commands designed to build allegiance to Yahweh and to support the associated new national cult.)

  1. You shall not bow to another god.
  2. You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.
  3. You shall observe the festival of Unleavened bread [remembering the events of the exodus].
  4. Every first-born is mine, and shall be redeemed [with a gift].
  5. Six days shall you work, and the seventh shall be a day of rest.
  6. You shall gather three times a year when every male shall appear before Yahweh.
  7. You shall not offer the blood of sacrifice on leavened bread.
  8. The sacrifice of the Festival of the Passover shall not remain until the morning.
  9. You shall bring the first fruits of the land to the house of Yahweh.
  10. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

Entering Canaan – 1st attempt

After this, Moses sought the help of Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite to guide the Israelites (even though it is said that they were still guided by the cloud). Together they journeyed from Mount Sinai to the Negev, just south of Canaan. Moses sent scouts into the land, and although they returned with glowing reports about the land, they also brought worrying accounts about the strength of the people of the land, and the difficulty of defeating them. Only Caleb (the later ruler of the tribe of Judah) was confident that they could take the land.

At this point the people contemplated rebelling against Moses rule, and even of returning to Egypt. Yahweh was angry with the people, but heeded Moses’ plea on their behalf, saving their lives. However, Yahweh declared that the people of military age would not be allowed to enter the land. Only Caleb would be permitted to do so.

Repenting of their attitude, the people declared that they would try to force their way into Canaan. Yet, when they tried to do this, they were defeated by the Canaanites and the Amalekites – the former being the allies (and clients) of the Egyptians.

(The way this story has been told in Judah’s Israelite history certainly reflected Caleb’s view of the situation: there is no indication that caution or fear ever influenced his behaviour. On the other hand, entering Canaan from this direction, while the Egyptian power prevailed in Canaan, could have given rise to reasonable fears. The later entry, some forty years later, was certainly better timed. It also did not bring the Israelites into direct confrontation with Egyptian strongholds in Canaan as would have been the case if they had entered via southern Canaan.)

Sometime in the intervening years, Moses had to deal with the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram, two leaders of the people from the tribe of Reuben (Jacob’s first-born son). These men were swallowed up into the earth for their defiance of Moses and Yahweh.

Entering Canaan – 2nd attempt

Some (indeterminate) time later, Moses sent a message from Kadesh Barnea (in the Negev, south of Canaan) to the king of Edom. The Edomites were considered to be family relatives of the Israelites, being the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother. The Edomites had settled south of the eastern side of Dead Sea. On current indications, it was land that was only useful for grazing animals, and not for cultivation. However, the king of Edom refused the Israelites access through their land, probably because the king of Edom was also a client king of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and was not willing to defy him.

After the Israelites set out from Kadesh Barnea, the Canaanite king of Arad in the Negev attacked them, probably responding to his responsibilities and instructions from the Egyptian Pharaoh to attack the Israelites as soon as they started to move. However, the Israelites defeated the king of Arad and destroyed his cities.

(The destruction of Arad and the king’s cities appears to have meant that the Egyptians now had no “military intelligence” on the movement of the Israelites. Certainly the Egyptians did not follow the Israelites in their subsequent movements up the east side of the Dead Sea. Therefore, it would also appear that the king of Edom did not advise the Egyptians of the Israelite overtures requesting free passage through their country.)

The Israelites (somehow) by-passed Edom and came to the territory of Moab, whose king did not resist the Israelites. (Here Judah’s Israelite history is able to draw on a written source, which the writer calls the Record of the Wars of Yahweh.) From Moab, the Israelites sent a message to Sihon, the Amorite king of Heshbon, a city to the north of the east side of the Dead Sea. Instead of allowing the Israelites to pass, Sihon attacked the Israelites, but was utterly defeated, with his whole territory passing to the Israelites.

However, while in Moab, some Israelites were joined to Moabite women, participated in their festivals and worshipped their gods. The offenders were executed.

At this time, the tribes of Reuben and Gad had grown very prosperous and had much livestock. So the leaders of these tribes asked Moses for permission to remain on the east side of the Dead Sea / Jordan. Moses granted them permission provided their men-of-war joined in the battle to take the rest of Canaan. When the section of the tribe of Manasseh, that part descended from Machir the son of Manasseh, took the more northern territory of Gilead from the Amorite ruler, they were granted the same rights and obligations.

Victory in Canaan

The time had come for the entry into Canaan proper, but that is another story, and it is found in Judges 1. That version leaves out Joshua altogether, for in Judah’s Israelite history only Caleb had been willing to go up into Canaan on the first attempt (not Joshua and Caleb as Ephraim’s Israelite history – the E source – recounts).


Judah’s Israelite history provides us with a reasonable outline of the events surrounding the exodus and the preparations for the final assault on Canaan. In substance there is little to contest, although it should be recognized that this account is not eye-witness testimony, but rather an encapsulation of oral traditions, handed down for many generations. It also has its own natural bias, and should be seen as reflecting Caleb’s story. It is not the whole story, but a very useful contribution to own knowledge of those times and events.