Interpretations of How Israel Left Egypt

Posted by on Feb 9, 2020

There is a peculiar passage in the Exodus story regarding how Israel left Egypt. The Sages of old sought to find a meaningful interpretation of an obscured Hebrew word in the Book of Exodus in order to explain this passage. It is in Exo 13:18 that reads thus,

But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt. (Exo 13:18 JPS)

King James’ version of the Bible also renders the passage thus,

But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt. (Exo 13:18 KJV)

While JPS is very specific that Israel left Egypt armed, KJV translation implies that Elohim brought His people out of Egypt under control, as in to control and direct them with or as if by reins.

In other words, JPS states that the former slaves of Israel left Egypt completely equipped for battle, and KJV implies that God led the Israelites (who just put the blood of the Passover lambs on their doorposts) like cattle, because they did not want or did not know how to leave.

Neither of these translations is necessarily wrong, but neither of them reflects on a literal level what the Hebrew text actually says.

The Hebrew word in question (behind “armed” and “harnessed”) is חֲמֻשִׁים chamushim.

חֲמֻשִׁים chamushim (sing. חָמֻשׁ chamush) is generally understood to mean “in battle array, arrayed for battle, armed” signifying “equipped for battle”, as it is used with this meaning in Jos 1:14, Jos 4:12, in the fulfillment of Num 32:30, Num 32:32, and Deu 3:18, where a word (חֲלוּצִים chalutsim) with the literal meaning of “armed” is used, when Mosheh bade the Rubenites and the Gadites to go before their brothers in battle.

He bade them thus, because they were mighty in battle, and the enemies would fall before them, as the verse states regarding the Gadites, “He will tear off an arm [of his enemy in one blow, along] with the head” (Deu 33:20). Read more about the Gadites.

Therefore, from this usage of the word chamushim we derive that either Israel left Egypt “armed”, or “prepared for march”, as contrasted with fleeing in disorder like fugitives.

However, there is another, alternative, reading of the text as to how Israel left Egypt.

The word chamushim comes from the word חָמֵשׁ chamesh (alt. חֲמִשָּׁה chamashah), which means “five”.

In combination with עָשָׂר asar, ten, chamesh means “fifteen”, and in plural form: חֲמִשִּׁים chamishim, it means “fifty”. Notice the identical spelling of chamushim and chamishim in Hebrew and that they differ only in the vowel points (Hebrew is written only in consonant letters and the vowel points are assumed by the scribes).

Therefore, it will not be without reason to assume that חמשׁים (written without vowel points by Mosheh) could mean also “fifty”.     

Ordinal from chamesh is חֲמִישִׁי chamishi, “fifth” as in Gen 1:23 and Gen 30:17, or as in Gen 47:24, Lev 5:16, and Lev 6:5, “a fifth part”.

Moreover, in Lev 6:5, we find this word in a combination with the word רֹאשׁ rosh, head, first, principle, to mean “principle or first fifth”, “one fifth”.

All these Hebrew words come from the primitive root חָמַשׁ chamash, which literally means to grab something with the five fingers, hence, to grab a sword with a hand.

This literal meaning of chamash of the number five comes from the fingers of the hand.

Interestingly, it also means to take a fifth part, to tax a fifth or 20 percent, as seen in Gen 47:24, when Yoseph, on behalf of Pharaoh, taxed the Egyptians one fifth.

A derivative of chamash is חֹמֶשׁ chomesh, a fifth tax, a fifth part, and probably the fifth rib.

What is significance of the number five or fifty in the Exodus story that will help us understand how Israel left Egypt?

As said above, chamushim could mean “armed”, as one prepared for battle in the sense of grabbing weapons with his hand [of five fingers].

However, the Sages have come up with another interpretation of Exo 13:15. They say that according to the Jewish tradition, “one in five (chamesh) among the children of Israel left Egypt, and four-fifths died during the three days of darkness, because they did not want to leave Egypt”. This is how Rashi literally interpreted Exo 13:18 in his commentary.

Rabbi Joshua, however, interpreted our passage thus: “fivefold they came out of Egypt, for five times their number in converts were gathered into the people of Israel upon their departure from Egypt” (in Midrash Tanchuma).

On the other hand, we are hinted in Psa 105:37 that all tribes of Israel left Egypt intact,

And He brought them forth with silver and gold; and there was none that stumbled among His tribes. (Psa 105:37 JPS)

We should immediately state here that the psalm is not in variance with the above said interpretation of the Sages, because all His people [that were willing to put the blood of the Passover lambs on the doorposts] indeed left Egypt and none of them stumbled.

With that being said, we can come up with another interpretation of Exo 13:18 as to how Israel left Egypt,

So Elohim led the people around by way of the wilderness of Yam Suph. And the children of Israel went up in marching formation (lit. in “fives” or in “fifty”) from the land of Egypt. (Exo 13:18)

But, neither can this translation come close to the true meaning of חמשׁים.

For sure, it is unclear what the actual text literally conveys: whether Israel left Egypt armed for a battle, in an array of five or fifty, like in a marching order, or perhaps, per the Rabbinic tradition: only a fifth came out of Egypt.

But, neither did the Israelites leave Egypt armed for a battle, nor in marching formation.

Israel did not leave Egypt armed, because they did not get armed until the Egyptian army and the Pharaoh drowned in Yam Suph and the Israelites gathered their arms on the seashore. We conclude this from Exo 14:30.

Thus Yehovah saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. (Exo 14:30)

In addition, Josephus says in Antiquities of the Jews, Book 2:15:6, that the Israelites gathered the swords from the Egyptian who floated up and were washed up onto the shore.

On the next day Moses gathered together the weapons of the Egyptians, which were brought to the camp of the Hebrews by the current of the sea, and the force of the winds resisting it; and he conjectured that this also happened by Divine Providence, that so they might not be destitute of weapons. So when he had ordered the Hebrews to arm themselves with them, he led them to Mount Sinai, in order to offer sacrifice to God, and to render oblations for the salvation of the multitude, as he was charged to do beforehand.

And those were the same swords Israel used in the battle against the Amalekites in Exo 17:13.

So, Israel was armed after the drowning of the Egyptian army, but did they march in fives or in fifty out of Egypt?

No. Nor did they march in a military formation, because they did not have such until YHVH commanded Israel at Sinai as to how to build the camp and march in order in the desert.

Moreover, we confirm that Israel left Egypt in a disorderly manner (see Deu 25:17-18), because the Amalekites used it to attack the Israelites from behind, where the old and weak people were,

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt, how he met you on the way and attacked your back, all the feeble ones in your rear, when you were tired and weary. And he did not fear Elohim. (Deu 25:17-18)

Which of the three possible interpretations of how Israel left Egypt is the correct one?

And what is the purpose of the meaning of the number five or fifty in the Exodus in the first place, and why the finding of its meaning is so significant in our Torah study?

This is why.

Often we can have questions without answers. And sometimes it is good to have questions [without answers], because having a question means that we have an issue to solve, and an answer is always a matter of interpretation.

As we said, it is unclear what the text of Exo 13:18 says concerning how Israel left Egypt. Two things are clear, though. The Israelites left Egypt unarmed and in an unorganized manner; they were slaves and slaves do not march armed in a military formation.

It is the interpretation of the present author and of Time of Reckoning Ministry (TORM) that חמשׁים can be rendered as “fifty” and half of Israel left Egypt. The truth of the matter is that this interpretation of the resent author is no better than that of the Sages.

Yet, if we assume that one fifth of Israel left Egypt and the estimated number of Israelites was two and half, derived from the number of 600,000 males twenty years and older counted in the first census, then the total number of Israelites in Egypt would have been unrealistically high.

But, if fifty percent or half of the Israelites left Egypt, then the total number of Israelites in Egypt would have been only five million, which is far more realistic.

At any rate, one thing is for sure: Israel’s exodus from Egypt had something to do with the number five or fifty; whether only one fifth of Israel left Egypt or fifty percent of them, or whatever association חמשׁים has with the Exodus, the Sages are correct to say that not all Israel left Egypt and many stayed and became assimilated in the Egyptian pagan culture.

Many decided to stay in Egypt and even some of Israel who indeed left the slavery wanted to return back to it. This we studied in the articles “Israel’s whoring in Egypt“, “Will all Israel return?“, and “When will Israel return?“, which the reader is encouraged to read.

Sadly, to say, it took only seven days for YHVH to take Israel out Egypt, but forty years to take Egypt out of Israel.

But, concerning the four exiles of Israel and much more, we studied in the article “Did Israel reject the Messiah? Part I“.


May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.