“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”
The central driving force of the Old Testament is the exodus story. The phrase yatsa erets Mitzrayim (“out of the land of Egypt”) is written 142 times, and it is from this memory that the first command of the Torah begins.
According to the Old Testament book of Exodus, the Hebrews lived in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years. But in light of that reading of the story, several odd things happen when they leave. First, you have to accept the fact that there is virtually no record of the Hebrews living in Egypt. That’s simply an archeological fact. Of course, I’ve heard Christians say that the pharaoh must have scrubbed any record of them in order to save his reputation, and I guess that’s a possibility. But there are plenty of things in the Egyptian record, so to speak, that memorialize bad things happening to Egypt. You can find plenty in the Egyptian record of lost battles and humiliating defeats. Further, no other nation records the Hebrews living in and escaping Egypt.
And let’s be clear about the scale we are talking about: The biblical account of the exodus describes a Hebrew community that was at a minimum one million people. That is a truly huge movement of people and stuff. In light of the fact that the number of Egyptians living at the time was also about one million, I simply don’t find it plausible that there would be no record of the Hebrews ever living in Egypt. And if, when you read the Old Testament books of the Torah, you expect simply a videotaped version of history, there’s another problem with the exodus story.
The Hebrew slaves whom Moses delivered through the Red Sea didn’t leave Egypt speaking Egyptian.
Four centuries is a long time to live in a new place and not pick up a language. If that doesn’t mean much to you, consider that the Hebrews were captives in Babylon for only about fifty years, and yet they left Babylon speaking Aramaic. Further, not only did they leave Babylon as Aramaic speakers, but the language turned out to be durable. In fact, more than five centuries after the exile in Babylon, Aramaic was the primary language that Jesus spoke.
Genesis and Exodus are a great history of the Israelites if you want to understand their understanding of Yahweh and their neighbors when they came back from Babylon (which is when and why those books were written). They are a terrible history if you expect a literal reading to reveal their actual origins.
So if the Hebrews didn’t come out of Egypt, where did they come from?
The best theory on this question begins with the striking similarities of Judaism to Canaanite religion that was practiced in the coastal plain of Israel around 1400 BCE to 1100 BCE. This was also an area that Egypt sought to control, though never with complete success. Over time, as some Canaanites moved away from the coast and further inland toward the then largely unoccupied mountainous center of Israel, they began to establish a distinct identity from the coastal-dwelling Canaanites and Philistines. They became Hebrews. Further, to the extent that Egypt also sought control of that coastal region from which they came, you could say there was an “exodus” of sorts—though it wouldn’t have been anything of the scale you read in Exodus.
This, by the way, is called the “Canaanite Origins Theory”. There are other theories, but this is the dominant theory and the one I find more persuasive than the others.