Did the story of the exodus really happen? Did the entire Israelite people suffer slavery in Egypt before arriving in the land of Canaan? Many historians question this. They point to the lack of solid archaeological evidence. More traditional scholars argue that the lack of evidence is an argument from silence. It is only natural that the Egyptian kings and scribes would fail to document the humiliating story of the Israelite rebellion and exodus. There is, however, a third alternative to the question of the exodus’ historicity. This alternative maintains that the exodus is grounded in real history, but that it does not reflect the entire story of Israel’s origins. In other words, certain groups of Israelites originated in Egypt, but other Israelites had different origins. These other groups had their own histories and told their own distinct narratives. With time, the exodus story became dominant in Israel. The story was presented not as the history of a particular part of Israel, but of the entire Israelite people as a whole. We all went into slavery in Egypt and we all went up to the land together. As this story became dominant, other stories of origin were pushed away so that a sense of national unity could be forged.
I cannot review, in this limited context, the various lines of evidence that support this approach. Instead, I would like to briefly examine just one text from the book of Chronicles that indeed appears to diverge from the “standard” conception according to which the nation of Israel developed in Egypt.
The book of Chronicles was written in the late Persian or early Hellenistic period. It draws upon earlier biblical books and narrates Israel’s history from the death of Saul until the edict of Cyrus, which allowed the Jews to return to the land. As a preface to the Chronicler’s historical narrative, he presents us with various genealogical lists. Among these are the genealogies of most of Jacob’s sons. And interspersed with these lists are several short anecdotes related to the figures mentioned.
The Death of Ephraim’s Sons in the Land
The passage in Chronicles that I would like to discuss recounts the family history of Joseph’s son, Ephraim.
And the sons of Ephraim; Shuthelah, and Bered his son, and Tahath his son, and Eladah his son, and Tahath his son, And Zabad his son, and Shuthelah his son, and Ezer, and Elead. Now the men of Gath, who were born in the land, (As is well known, the Philistines were known to have entered the land from Kaphtor (see Amos 9:7). The text emphasizes that the sons of Ephraim did not attack these first immigrants, but those of the next generation that were born in the land. Perhaps this serves to highlight the fact that those attacked were already established in the land and hence a formidable force to reckon with) killed them, for they (=the sons of Ephraim) came down to raid their cattle. Their father Ephraim mourned for them for many days, and his brothers came to comfort him. He (Ephraim) came unto his wife and she conceived and had a son. And he named him Beriah, because disaster (ברעה) had befallen his house. His daughter was Sheera. She (The Septuagint reads: His daughter was Sheera; and he was among them that were left, and he built Beit Horon the upper and the lower. And the sons of Ozan were Sheera…” Apparently, this version attributes the building of Beit Horon to Ephraim’s newborn son, Beriah, not his daughter, Sheera. built Lower and Upper Beit Horon and Uzzen-Sheera. (I Chron. 7:20—24)
The passage begins with a list of Ephraim’s offspring. This is then followed by the family story. According to this story, Ephraim’s sons “come down” to raid the cattle of the men of Gath and are killed in the process. Ephraim’s brethren, Manasseh and the others, come, presumably from the nearby vicinity, to comfort him. The tribe of Ephraim is thus on the verge of extinction, as Ephraim’s daughters will marry out of the tribe. Thankful, however, after his period of mourning, Ephraim comes to his wife and she gives birth to a new son. Where is all this assumed to be taking place? The context virtually mandates that this is happening in the land of Israel. This is indicated, first of all, by the fact that the sons of Ephraim “came down” to Gath. The fact that they came down to Gath, which is on the coastal plane, probably indicates that they were coming from the hill country of Ephraim. If they were coming from Egypt, we would expect the text to state that they “came up” to Gath. We may also wonder whether it would at all be feasible for people to come from Egypt to Gath in order to steal cattle.
Furthermore, Ephraim’s daughter, Sheera is said to have built Upper and Lower Beit Horon. Beit Horon is one of the Levite cities within the territory of הר אפרים in Joshua 21:20-22 (cf. also Josh. 16:3, 5). The entire family is thus living and building new settlements in the land.
Ephraim in Egypt in the Torah Narrative
This, however, flatly contradicts what we are told in the Torah. According to the Torah narrative, Ephraim and his brothers were born in Egypt (Gen. 46:20; 48:5) and the same goes for Ephraim’s sons. In Genesis 50:22—23 we read:
22 Joseph stayed in Egypt, along with all his father’s family. He lived a hundred and ten years 23 and saw the third generation of Ephraim’s children. Also the children of Makir son of Manasseh were placed at birth on Joseph’s knees.
From this text we learn that Joseph, who lived in Egypt with his brothers and children until the age of one hundred and ten, witnessed the birth of his great grandchildren, the grandchildren of Ephraim and Manasseh. If so, Ephraim’s children were born and living in Egypt, not Israel. What is more, it must be assumed that Ephraim and Manasseh and their children died in Egypt as did Joseph.
How are we to explain this contradiction between Chronicles and the Torah concerning the location and early development of the clans of Ephraim and Menasseh? Apparently, the story in Chronicles reflects an early tradition. Even though the book of Chronicles is very late, and its historical value is often suspect, scholars have come to realize that it often incorporates very old and authentic memories. In our case Chronicles seems to preserve an alternative conception according to which the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh grew and expanded from within the land and did not ever live in Egypt!
They were, rather, autochthonous, natives of the land. The story in Chronicles appears to reflect an early stage of tradition which is tribal and pre-national. In other words, in early “family” traditions of this sort, each clan or tribe by and large conquered its own territory for itself. The cohesion between the tribes was much looser than in later times. It was thus only natural to have a story of Ephraim’s independent fortunes in the land. Only later in Israel’s history was the nation depicted as thoroughly unified from the start and entering the land from the outside, from Egypt. This is why the end of the book of Genesis had to place Ephraim and Menasseh in the land of Egypt. This reflects a later re-writing of history in favor of a unified, national narrative.
The question that must be addressed is how to understand the late author/editor of the book of Chronicles. The Chronicler hardly sought to undermine the exodus story. On the contrary, he made reference to it on various occasions! Why, then, did he incorporate the story of Ephraim, which essentially contradicts the united exodus story? Perhaps we may suggest that in the time of the Chronicler the national exodus story was well established. The story of Ephraim no longer posed a serious threat to the overarching national narrative. He thus chose to live with the tension rather than erase the family history.
Perhaps we can find a lesson in this. We are all part of a single people. At the same time, however, we are made up of distinct families, nationalities, languages and cultures. The way to unity, Chronicles teaches us, is not to erase our unique and individual family narratives in favor of a single, unified narrative. That approach reflects a lack of confidence in our strength. Our diverse traditions and approaches to our national identity must not be silenced if favor of uniformity. On the contrary, our unity is strengthened when our diversity is highlighted. This, perhaps, is the message of Passover. We come together to recall the national narrative. But each family unit does it at its own family table and it its own distinctive way.
Dr. David Frankel is a senior lecturer in Bible at the Schechter Institute. He is the author of The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel.
 וּבְנֵ֥י אֶפְרַ֖יִם שׁוּתָ֑לַח וּבֶ֤רֶד בְּנוֹ֙… וַהֲרָג֗וּם אַנְשֵׁי־גַת֙ הַנּוֹלָדִ֣ים בָּאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֣י יָרְד֔וּ לָקַ֖חַת אֶת־ מִקְנֵיהֶֽם: וַיִּתְאַבֵּ֛ל אֶפְרַ֥יִם אֲבִיהֶ֖ם יָמִ֣ים רַבִּ֑ים וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ אֶחָ֖יו לְנַחֲמֽוֹ: וַיָּבֹא֙ אֶל־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַיִּקְרָ֤א אֶת־שְׁמוֹ֙ בְּרִיעָ֔ה כִּ֥י בְרָעָ֖ה הָיְתָ֥ה בְּבֵיתֽוֹ: וּבִתּ֣וֹ שֶׁאֱרָ֔ה וַתִּ֧בֶן אֶת־בֵּית־חוֹר֛וֹן הַתַּחְתּ֖וֹן וְאֶת־הָעֶלְי֑וֹן וְאֵ֖ת אֻזֵּ֥ן שֶׁאֱרָֽה:
 וַיֵּ֤שֶׁב יוֹסֵף֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם ה֖וּא וּבֵ֣ית אָבִ֑יו וַיְחִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף מֵאָ֥ה וָעֶ֖שֶׂר שָׁנִֽים: וַיַּ֤רְא יוֹסֵף֙ לְאֶפְרַ֔יִם בְּנֵ֖י שִׁלֵּשִׁ֑ים גַּ֗ם בְּנֵ֤י מָכִיר֙ בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁ֔ה יֻלְּד֖וּ עַל־בִּרְכֵּ֥י יוֹסֵֽף:
David Frankel has served as a senior Bible lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies since 1992. He earned his PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include “The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School: and “The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel.” From 1991 to 1996, Rabbi Dr. Frankel was rabbi of Congregation Shevet Achim in Gilo, Jerusalem.