The origin of the word ‘Exodus’

When a large group of people leave a place suddenly—the way the North Easterners left Bangalore last week-we use the word ‘exodus’. It’s a word with a more storied past thanmost—and not just in terms of Biblical associations, and a history well worth revisiting.


The word was originally ‘exodos’ in Greek. It comes from the two Greek words, exo, meaning ‘out’ and hodos meaning ‘way’. Exodos became ‘exodus’in Latin and was passed on to English.


Early Greek theatre also has a part called exodos. It was the last part of a tragic play when the final action took place and the deity intervened. The word gained popularity when the Jewish holy book Torah (also the Greek Old Testament in the Christian Bible) was translated into Greek from Hebrew and Aramaic around 300 BC, and named the Septuagint. The translators named the second book of the Torah ‘Exodos’, based on the main event in the book, which is the departure of the Israelites from Egypt.


According to the Book of Exodus, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and tormented.They prayed to their God to get them out of Egypt. It is then that God sent Moses to lead them. Ten deadly plagues affected Egypt, after which the pharaoh had to relent and let Moses take the people out of the country.


When the people reached the Red Sea, Moses held his staff over the waters and the sea divided into two walls of water, letting the people pass through it.The pharaoh’s soldiers had followed them with the intention of capturing them and taking them back to Egypt.


But after the Israelites had crossed the sea, the waters fell back, drowning the soldiers. The Israelites had got out of Egypt and were free from slavery. This story plays a central role in Judaism, and it is in memory of it that the Jews celebrate the festival of Passover. After entering the English language, for several centuries ‘Exodus’ was used as a proper noun to denote the book which popularised it.In the early 17th century however,it became a common noun.It then came to be used to denote people undertaking a journey to escape a hostile environment.


After World War II, many Jews in Germany and Austria were living in fear and in inhuman conditions. Many of them sneaked out and escaped to Palestine. In 1947, over 4,500 Jews boarded a ship to go to Palestine. This ship was called SS Exodus.


At that time, the British were responsible for the administration of Palestine and seized the ship, deporting the Jews back to Europe. SS Exodus was the largest ever ship of illegal Jewish immigrants, and brought international attention to the plight of Jewish refugees. The next year, in 1948, the state of Israel was created and thousands of Jews migrated from Europe to Israel.


The word, which is so intimately associated with Jewish history, has become such an integral part of the English language that we use it to describe people fleeing from natural or manmade calamities everywhere.


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