My great interest is in understanding the great stories of myth and scripture as symbolic allegories that teach us about our inner spiritual life. Various stories may (or may not) have been based on something that actually occurred, but the event has been taken by spiritual adepts and used to create a myth that teaches us how to awaken the soul. So, for instance, in the story about the Exodus, here’s what I think it’s about (I really should say part of what it’s about: stories like this can be delved into for levels upon levels of meaning):
The Hebrew word for Egypt, ‘Mitzraim’, means narrow, difficult straits. So the story is not literal: Egypt is not “a place over there.” Egypt is “a state of being in here”, that is, inside each one of us. In Scriptural language, to be ‘in Egypt’ indicates we are trapped psychologically in an inner state of limitation, bondage, and affliction. Thus, the children of Israel (who represent you and me and everyone) are in the dark depths of consciousness where shadows are mistaken for reality, where the soul is hypnotized by images and enslaved by illusions. This is what ‘Egypt’ means. The task that the story presents to us is to break the ‘spell’ (biblical Egypt was all about ‘magic’ – the manipulation of matter for purely material ends) and begin to see, borrowing Plato’s terminology, that what we take to be Reality is really nothing more substantial than ephemeral shadows of puppets on a cave wall.
So the story tells us that in the land of Egypt the Hebrew slaves were forced to build great cities for Pharaoh (Pharaoh represents our Ego, whereas Moses represents the higher, intuitive, spiritual part of the mind), always constrained by their violent and murderous taskmasters, so that their mind, heart and spirit remained dull and empty, and even the wish to escape was nearly forgotten. Like worker ants, they were allowed to exist merely in order to labor for Pharaoh. These great cities and buildings, much like our own, bespoke the narrow worship of the material world and the glorification of human vanity. This is exquisite imagery teaching us about our life trapped unconsciously in mitzraim!
After 400 years (in scriptural symbolism, multiples of four – forty days, forty years, 400 years – always means “a very long time”), “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” So after a long time in the sleep of slavery, the children of Israel, symbolizing you and me, were beginning to awaken, to remember, to have a wish. God had been silent for all these years because the Israelites did not ask for anything. If we don’t realize that we are slaves to illusion, we can’t be ‘freed’, We have to start waking up and want something different, we have to want to “go home, to Canaan” – i.e., to the state of Being of Abraham and Sarah, who communed directly with God (i.e., a state of spiritual Enlightenment). [BTW, this idea that we have to ‘wake up a little’ before we can get help to really ‘awaken’, is related to the idea in alchemy that you need a little gold in order to make gold]. It was necessary to God’s plan that this material realm be fully experienced, but at last a limit to suffering had been reached and the soul (“Israel”) enslaved in the body (“Egypt”) began to cry out for help. “God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – which was the Divine’s promise to the soul that after its experience of the material world it would be able to return ‘home’ to the realm of Divinity (which, imo, is why the Bible is not a ‘real estate contract between Israel and God’, and taking it literally is a huge mistake, as current events in the Middle East continue to make clear).
So finally, after this long, long time ‘asleep’ in the realm of shadows and enslavement to illusion, the soul ‘awakens’. The soul must now rise above the level of ‘Egypt’ and begin the journey ‘Home’ (all the great stories of myth and scripture are about this Quest). So, after much effort (e.g., all the plagues and all the rest of Moses’ work) the soul leaves this level of Being at last, and, in the symbolic story, the Israelites pass through the baptismal waters of the Red Sea, where all the “sins of the body”, i.e., all the dreck of the long material experience, are ritually cleansed. (Also, ‘water, in the Bible, represents ‘Higher Truth’, so the soul is beginning to experience Higher Truth.)
The Ego, however, does not like this at all! So Pharaoh tries over and over to prevent them from leaving: the Ego wants to retain its status and power! But Pharaoh and his followers cannot stop them and cannot ascend with them. They try, and they end up being destroyed. The Ego has to be destroyed as the soul awakens and begins to ascend. Fear at last fell upon them, and they cried, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt. [Of course! The higher power is on the side of the soul’s ascent.]” But it was too late. As soon as the last of the Israelites were on the far shore, Moses held out his arm and the parted waters crashed back together, and the waters now covered and destroyed the entire Egyptian army that had followed them into the sea, so that “not one of them remained.” This is because the Ego cannot bear Truth. It dwindles and dies (drowns) in Truth. Anyway, the ‘lower’ cannot penetrate the ‘higher’ by force.
Nobody really died. It’s an allegory. The story takes place inside the soul.
(PS. In one of those ‘other levels’ of meaning, a less-spiritual and more-social level, there is also a lesson about Love. When the Egyptians drowned, Miriam led the people in a song and dance of thanksgiving. According to a story in the Talmud, some of God’s angels began to sing His praises as well. But God thundered angrily, “You shall not sing while My other children are drowning!”)