The following exegetical essay was written in 2014 for a class I took on the Torah while studying at Marylhurst University.
The story of the Israelite slaves and their exodus from Egypt is one of the most well-known biblical stories, and it has served as an inspiration for other downtrodden groups looking for hope of escape from the bondage of oppression. It is from this iconic story of liberation that our investigation begins, and it tells us that when the Israelites departed Egypt on their legendary journey, they had others with them. On the cusp of their departure from Egypt, we are told in Exodus 12:37-42:
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.
The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations.
How can we better understand this text? How it has been understood throughout the ages by both Jews and Christians, and what, if anything, can we glean from looking for Ancient Near Eastern similarities? To begin, we must take a closer look at the text.
2. Close Reading of the Text
Reading the text closely, I came up with a list of questions, some of which I will attempt to answer below and others which are beyond the scope of this study. Some of these questions were: Where is Rameses? Where is Succoth? What is the distance between the two places? If we know how many men there were, how many women and children may there have been? Who were the mixed crowds that went up with the Israelites? Why did they go with them? What happened to them? What kinds of animals may have been in the flocks and herds? If the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years, how long were they slaves there? Why do the Israelites have the command to remember the event but the mixed crowd that went with them does not? Is it possible to extrapolate from the fact that there was a mixed crowd that went up out of Egypt with the Israelites the idea that all people—specifically all oppressed people—are God’s people?
3. Grammatical Criticism (Verb Analysis)
Below you will find a list of each of the English verbs found in our passage, accompanied by the subject, mood, tense, and voice, along with whether or not the verb is being used in a question (which it never does in this passage).
4. Word Study
We will now take a look at each Hebrew word in our passage and, when an entry exists in the lexicon, use that information to extrapolate the meaning of the word in our passage:
5. Historical and Literary Criticism / Analysis of Social World
Understanding the historical and literary construct of our passage requires us to attempt to find the original source of our text. Verses 37-39, according to Brevard S. Childs, is probably from the J source. Verses 40-42, according to Childs, is easily distinguished as having a priestly (P) source. This passage has long served as part of the foundation for the annual Jewish Pesach (Passover) festival.
It is important to note that the events in our passage happen in Egypt, before the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, but just as the multitudes are fleeing their Egyptian masters to ultimately seek refuge in the wilderness. The participants have just been witness to the ten plagues, we can assume they have just managed to hold onto the lives of their first born children by obeying Moses’ command to put the blood of a lamb above their doors, and now they are fleeing Egypt to participate in a slave revolt of truly biblical proportions.
The text tells us that “The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth” (Exod 12:37a). The commentary in Etz Hayim suggests a possible location for Rameses:
Raamses can be none other than the famous delta residence built by and named after Pharaoh Ramses II; its beauty and glory are extolled in poems still extant. The city was situated in “the region of Goshen,” a phrase that is synonymous with “the region of Rameses,” where the Israelites lived..
Later in the commentary, Etz Hayim says that Rameses “served as the assembly point for the departing Israelites” (388). Rabbinic tradition has it that “Rameses itself encompassed a large area, some eight leagues (24 miles) in diameter” (Culi 103). To find the possible location of Succoth, we again turn to Etz Hayim:
[Succoth] is apparently Egyptian Tjeku, mentioned on several monuments and in a hieroglyphic papyrus. It is said to have been a day’s journey from the royal palace at Rameses. Tjeku was the capital of the eight nome of Lower Egypt in the eastern part of the Delta. The region is known to have served as pastureland for Semitic tribes and was the usual Egyptian gateway to and from Asia.
The next area of interest in our passage is that concerning the עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב—these erev ravare the mixed crowds, also commonly translated as mixed multitudes, that left with the Israelites. As the text tells us, “A mixed crowd also went up with them…” (Exod. 12:38a). According to one Rabbinic source, these were converts:
Besides the native-born Israelites, a huge number of proselytes left Egypt with them. These were Egyptians and other gentiles, who had seen Israel’s glory in Egypt, and had converted to the Hebrew faith. There were 2,400,000 such converts among those who left Egypt.
According to this same tradition, “[a]t first Pharaoh did not want to allow the proselytes to leave. However, the Egyptians saw that the Israelites would not leave without them, and if there were any delay, the plague might kill them all” (Culi 105). One tradition even has it that these erev rav were “the great occultists of Egypt… who had initially laughed at Moses’ ‘magic tricks,’ but had become convinced of his greatness when they saw him do wonders that they could not duplicate. Seeing these wonders, they wanted to convert to the Hebrew religion”. By turning once again to Etz Hayim, we learn a bit more about the possible nature of these erev rav:
[A] varied group of forced laborers seem to have taken advantage of the confused situation and fled the country with the Israelites. Note that the Hebrew word translated as “mixed multitude” (eirev) is from the same root as the plague in 8:17, suggesting the rabbinic tradition that these people were a major source of troubles in the desert.
Ibn Ezra seems to agree with that sentiment, as he “identified them with the people referred to as ‘riffraff’ in Numbers 11:4”.
Our passage concludes with several verses discussing how the Israelites made unleavened bread, and concludes with the establishment of the Passover festival.
In digging more into this passage, one quickly cannot help but realize that each verse could easily consume tens of pages of analysis and commentary, and rich concepts like the understanding of the erev rav could easily fill an entire volume on its own. With that said, it is perhaps this group described in this passage which was found to be the most interesting, and which taught me the most about being careful with jumping to one’s own conclusions in interpreting a text.
As I mentioned in Section 2 above, I had initially been drawn to the idea that these erev rav were positive figures bringing diversity and tolerance into the exodus story. And while there is the idea within the Rabbinic tradition which has them as converts embracing the Hebrew faith, the idea that they were “riffraff”, sorcerers, or worse bringing trouble upon the Israelites in the desert is not a reassuring image.
7. Application: Movement of Jah People: A 7-Day Retreat on Exodus 12:37-42
Day 1: Oppression
Ultimately the story of the exodus from Egypt is a story of liberation from bondage and oppression. In what ways have you witnessed or experienced oppression in your life? What are some major things that you have felt chained to in the past? What are some major things you feel chained to right now?
Day 2: Binding your liberation up with that of others.
“The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children” (Exod 12:37).
The Israelites did not escape Egypt through individuals attempting to thumb their noses at Pharaoh and his rule, but by joining together en masse. We are told there were 600,000 men, not including women and children were part of this journey, putting some estimates of the total number in the 3 million range. Regardless of the actual number, what can this teach us about the role that others have in our own liberation? How can you join with others so that God can liberate us all together? The journey from Rameses to Succoth was not short, so when joining with others, are you prepared to stay the course with them?
Day 3: Bringing the outsider in with you
“A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds” (Exod 12:38).
In addition to the enormous crowd of Israelites traveling out of Egypt, there were many others that left with them. Commentators are mixed as to who these “mixed crowds” were, but we can be sure that it was part of God’s plan that they left with them. It is perhaps fitting that some commentators see them more positively, as fellow slaves in the land of Egypt, or as converts to the Hebrew religion; others see them as “rifraff” or even sorcerers bringing all kinds of trouble upon the Israelites. But whether they had a good influence, a bad influence, or some combination on the circumstances, their liberation from Egypt was also tied up with the liberation of the Israelites.
Can you think of people in your life that help bring you closer to God? Closer to freedom? What about people that seem to push you further away from God? And freedom? How can these people, in spite of their good or bad qualities, help you in your journey toward liberation? How can you help them in theirs?
Day 4: Making do with what you have
“They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves” (Exod 12:39).
The Israelites were used to making and eating soft leavened bread made with the luxury of time. As the frantic time of escape came, they did not have the time to bake the bread the way they normally did. Instead, they baked cakes of unleavened bread that could be quickly prepared to meet the needs of the people, even though they didn’t have the time to let the bread rise.
In what ways have you had to make do with what you have available to make ends meet? What comforts might you need to leave behind to move on to the next stage in your life? The Israelites could have stayed in Egypt and waited for their bread to rise; in a similar way, is holding on to your comforts getting in the way of your liberation?
Day 5: Perseverance
“The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt” (Exod 12:40-41).
The Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years. When they got there things weren’t so bad for them, but as time went on, things got worse and worse. When things started going bad, however, it was not the right time to leave for whatever reason. After 430 years in the land of Egypt, God intervened and set the Israelite captives free from Egyptian rule.
What things in your life seem overwhelming—like they have always been and will always be this way? How can we spot God calling us to tell us that the moment when our perseverance pays off and the time for our liberation has come? When the time is right, will you be willing to drop everything to follow God into the wilderness?
Day 6: Gratitude
“That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations” (Exod. 12:42).
To this day, every year Jews around the world celebrate their liberation from the Egyptians by the hand of God. When God acts in our lives, do we give thanks? Do we celebrate and tell and retell the stories of God’s actions in our lives? If not, why?
What are some things that God has done in your life that you are grateful for? What might you do to commemorate God’s actions in your life?
Day 7: Liberation
Let us return now to some of the questions that were asked on the first day. What were some major things that you have felt chained to in the past? What were some major things you feel chained to now? How did God act in your life to liberate you from those things you felt chained to in the past? What actions did you need to take in partnership with God to make this happen? How is God acting in your life now to liberate you from the things holding you back? What actions can you take to work with God to make that happen?
As you leave, take a moment to reflect on the journey that you have been on the last few days. Now take a moment to reflect on the journey that the Israelites took. Where do you find commonality? Differences? What parts of their journey can you take with you on your own journey to bring you closer to God and to the liberation God is calling us all toward?
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