After Abraham, the story continues with a focus on Isaac’s youngest son, Jacob. Jacob was also given the name Israel. This name means ‘he who strives with God’. This was because of a story in which Jacob wrestled all night with an angel of God.
Jacob had 12 sons. The second youngest was Joseph, who the Bible records as becoming second-in-command of Egypt. Eventually his wider family joins him in Egypt. Over time many Jews made their home in Egypt. (If you have ever seen Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamboat, you’ll know this story!) Some 400 years later the Israelites (the descendants of Israel/Jacob) were kept as slaves and forced to build cities. They thought they had been forgotten by God and they prayed for rescue. This is where Moses enters the story.
Moses was the child of slave parents but he was raised as an Egyptian prince. This was because his mother gave him up to save his life when he was a baby. It was not until Moses killed a cruel slave guard that he found out who he really was. After this he fled from Egypt into the deserts of the Sinai. Here he met God in a vision of flames from a burning bush that did not burn up. God told Moses to return to Egypt to rescue the Israelites.
Moses followed God’s instructions. He spoke to Pharaoh demanding “Let my people go.” After Pharaoh refused, there followed the 10 Plagues of Egypt (Nile turns to blood, frogs, lice, flies, sick animals, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and finally death of the firstborn.) It is only after the death of the Pharaoh’s son in the final plague that he agreed to let the Israelites go. During the last plague, the Israelites were protected from the death of the firstborn by painting lamb’s blood above their doors. This meant the angel of death ‘passed over’ their houses. From this we get the name of the festival of Passover in which Jews remember these events to this day.
The Israelites hurriedly left Egypt and headed towards the Sinai desert. However, Pharaoh changed his mind and chased them into the desert. Upon reaching the Red Sea, Moses parted the waters and the Israelites escaped to safety.
This escape is called the Exodus. In Jewish homes all over the world, the festival of Pesach (Passover) remembers these events. The symbolic foods of the Seder meal are used to retell the story.
The story then moves to the desert, where the Israelites wander for 40 years. During this time Moses is given the 10 Commandments by God on Mount Sinai. (You can read more of this story here.)
These have become the some of the most important moral rules in western society ever since. The 10 Commandments also form a central part of the covenant between God and the Israelites. God promises to protect the people and the Israelites promise to be faithful to God.
After 40 years, the Israelites entered what they call the Promised Land. This is an area called Canaan (now Israel and Palestine). They believed it was promised to them by God. Moses died just before they conquered this land under the leadership of Joshua (this name means ‘God who saves’). For Jews, these events are crucial as the claim to ownership of the land currently called Israel dates back to these events.
It is worth noting that so far there is very little historical evidence (either archaeological or textual) that adds support to the stories of the Exodus or the conquest of Canaan. However, there are numerous versions of the Ten Commandments found in other cultures from around this time. There are also versions of the Ten Commandments found in the Qur’an, in sura 6:151-152 and sura 17:22-37.