According to the Hebrew Bible, Jewish settlement in ancient Egypt first occurs when Joseph, a son of the patriarch Jacob and founder of one of the 12 tribes of Israel, moves his family there during a severe famine in their homeland of Canaan. For many years the Israelites live in harmony in the province of Goshen, but as their population grows the Egyptians begin to see them as a threat. After the death of Joseph and his brothers, the story goes, a particularly hostile pharaoh orders their enslavement and the systematic drowning of their firstborn sons in the Nile. One of these doomed infants is rescued by the pharaoh’s daughter, given the name Moses (meaning “one who is pulled out”) and adopted into the Egyptian royal family.
When he reaches adulthood, Moses becomes aware of his true identity and the Egyptians’ brutal treatment of his fellow Hebrews. He kills an Egyptian slave master and escapes to the Sinai Peninsula, where he lives as a humble shepherd for 40 years. One day, however, Moses receives a command from God to return to Egypt and free his kin from bondage. Along with his brother Aaron, Moses approaches the reigning pharaoh (who is unnamed in the biblical version of the story) several times, explaining that the Hebrew God has requested a three-day leave for his people so that they may celebrate a feast in the wilderness. When the pharaoh refuses, God unleashes 10 devastating plagues on the Egyptians, culminating in the slaying of every firstborn son by an avenging angel. The Israelites mark the doorframes of their homes with lamb’s blood so that the angel will recognize and “pass over” each Jewish household.
Terrified of further punishment, the Egyptians convince their ruler to release the Israelites, and Moses quickly leads them out of Egypt. The pharaoh changes his mind, however, and sends his soldiers to retrieve the former slaves. As the Egyptian army approaches the fleeing Jews at the edge of the Red Sea, a miracle occurs: God causes the sea to part, allowing Moses and his followers to cross safely, then closes the passage and drowns the Egyptians. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Jews—now numbering in the hundreds of thousands—then trek through the Sinai desert for 40 tumultuous years before finally reaching their ancestral home in Canaan, later known as the Land of Israel.