The Exodus in Art


The three artworks portrayed here, the miniature from the Golden Haggadah,1 the etching of Marc Chagall,2 and the image from the Rylands Haggadah3 all depict the nation's exodus from Egypt, as described in Shemot 12-14. Each artist envisions the scene slightly differently, portraying the setting, characters and what accompanies them in unique ways. The varying depictions reflect different stances on certain aspects of the original story, including the timing of the Exodus and whether the nation left armed for battle.

Contrasting Images

Golden Haggadah

This miniature is set in Egypt itself, as the nation just begins to depart. They leave the country with arms lifted heavenwards, a literal read of the Biblical phrase "וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יֹצְאִים בְּיָד רָמָה". Each Israelite holds a ball of white, presumably their unleavened dough. In the upper right corner of the image a crowned Paroh points his hand forward, urging the nation to leave.


Chagall's drawing features a mass of Israelites following an ecstatic Moshe. Some of the figures in the foreground carry bundles on their shoulders, while those in the back are armed with spears. In the middle a group of men carry a coffin, in line with the text that states that Moshe took the bones of Yosef. In the upper left corner of the image, an angel of God emerges from a big cloud amidst a grey sky. The cloud serves to block some figures that stand behind it, likely the pursuing Egyptians.

Rylands Haggadah

This miniature, like that of the Golden Haggadah, portrays the Israelites as they are just leaving the homes of Egypt. Many of the men carry spears or swords. Two hold sacks over their shoulders, while another grasps a goblet4 and a third carries a bowl on his head. Moshe and Aharon lead the people, while the Egyptians look out from their windows, pointing at the exiting Israelites.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

When Did the Exodus Occur?

From neither of the two Haggadot can one tell what time of day the Israelites left Egypt, though the bright colors of both give the illusion of daytime. Chagall, in contrast, sets the scene when it is still dark outside. When did the Exodus really occur – at night or during the day? The verses are ambiguous. On one hand, Shemot 12:41 states, "וַיְהִי בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יָצְאוּ כָּל צִבְאוֹת ה' מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם" suggesting that the nation left during the day. The very next verse, though, says, "לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה' לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם"‎5 implying that the Exodus occurred at night. This contradiction is resolved in various ways. According to some exegetes, the nation started leaving at night, but continued during the day,6 while others posit that different groups left at different times.7 For other explanations and elaboration, see Exodus: Day or Night?


While both Chagall's picture and the Rylands Haggadah include armed men amongst those leaving Egypt, the Golden Haggadah does not. Did the nation exit prepared for war, replete with swords and and spears? This depends on how one reads the verse "וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם". It might refer to weapons,8 as the caption above the armed men of the Rylands Haggadah suggests, but it could also simply imply being provisioned with food or booty.9 Alternatively, the Midrash asserts that "חֲמֻשִׁים" relates to the word five, and that really only one in five Israelites left Egypt.10

"מִשְׁאֲרֹתָם צְרֻרֹת בְּשִׂמְלֹתָם עַל שִׁכְמָם"

In both Chagall's drawing and in the Rylands Haggadah, some of the figures carry sacks or bundles on their backs. In contrast, in the Golden Haggadah, the Israelites hold their unbaked dough in their hands. The Ryland's Haggadah also features a figure carrying a bowl. Did the nation actually hold their matzot in their hands, pack it, or carry it in bowls? Shemot 12:34 says, "וַיִּשָּׂא הָעָם אֶת בְּצֵקוֹ טֶרֶם יֶחְמָץ מִשְׁאֲרֹתָם צְרֻרֹת בְּשִׂמְלֹתָם עַל שִׁכְמָם". The meaning of the term "מִשְׁאֲרֹתָם" is unclear. Some suggest that it refers to the bowls in which the dough was left to rise,11 while others posit that it refers to the leftover matzot eaten on the previous night.12

Pillar of Cloud

Of the three artists, only Chagall includes the pillar of cloud which accompanied the nation on their journey. He marks on it the name of God, yet depicts an angel-like figure at its top. His depiction preserves an ambiguity in the text. From Shemot 13:21 it seems that Hashem's presence resided in the pillar and He Himself led the nation: "וַה' הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן לַנְחֹתָם הַדֶּרֶךְ". Shemot 14:19, though, associates the cloud with an angel rather than God.13

Though the verse says that the cloud would guide the Children of Israel, Chagall places it to the side and back of the nation. He might be depicting the later point in the narrative in which the cloud moved behind the Israelites to protect them from the pursuing Egyptians. Alternatively, this might reflect the opinion14 that at nighttime, when the pillar of fire guided the nation, the cloud moved behind them to stand guard.