In 2001 on the first day of Passover, Rabbi David Wolpe told his congregation that the story of the Exodus could not be verified by archaeologists and most likely did not happen as Torah describes. This being the age of the internet and social media, news of the sermon spread through the larger Jewish community at the speed of light. Many people responded with anger, derision, and disappointment. Anger because they heard in Rabbi Wolpe’s words a challenge to the veracity of the foundational story of the Jewish People, the narrative that explains our origins as a nation and our purpose as a people, and which provides a paradigm for just about everything we do as Jews: it’s all focused on redemption. Derision because a rabbi suggested that Torah isn’t “true” (of course, this depends upon a very narrow understanding of what constitutes truth). Disappointment because the story of the Exodus is stimulating and inspiring and the thought that it is largely (or entirely?) fictional demotes it from “history” to “fairytale. Fairytales are far less inspiring than historical accounts and we Jews have long taken religious and ethical cues from our own history. Those who did not respond with anger, derision or disappointment nodded in recognition because Rabbi Wolpe said what academics have been saying for a long time. But hearing it in synagogue on chag—the religious track of life—rather than on a college campus or reading it in an academic book felt different.
Recently, Prof. Michael Satlow of Brown University published How the Bible Became Holy, in which he goes several steps further along the academic track. Satlow’s provocative book argues that the collection of writings that have come to be called “the Bible” were not widely disseminated and taught—or even widely known—during the biblical period, nor considered holy books with normative authority until rather late in the game: they were promoted by the Sadducees at the end of the Second Temple period. Prior to that, they sat in Temple and royal archives, the province of scribes who composed them and used them for training exercises (freely altering and amending them at will), or were considered oracles. Satlow points out, for example, that the Book of Chronicles reflects the Deuteronomistic history. He writes: “Chronicles portrays a Jewish society firmly entrenched in the land of Israel with a well-functioning cult. Chronicles does not even mention the story of Israel’s sojourn in and exodus from Egypt. Israel, according to the Chronicler, did not ‘settle’ the land of Canaan; it was always there.” No enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt? No plagues? No Exodus? No crossing the Reed Sea?
Some academics have argued that there is no evidence to prove the Exodus narrative is based on historical fact: There are no written records from ancient Egypt attesting to Hebrew or Israelite slaves (and certainly not to a man named Moses). There is no mention of any of the plagues, let along a series of them. There is no archaeological evidence of an Israelite settlement in Egypt, nor movement of even a fraction of the 600,000 souls Torah claims wandered for you decades through the wilderness of Sinai (and that number includes only military-age men; women and children would bring the tally closer to two million). The Torah account includes supernatural events (for example, the parting of the Reed Sea) which cannot be accepted as historical in any regard. There is no evidence at all of a conquest of the Land of Israel on the timeline of the Bible.
Others have decried that an absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Ancient Egyptian texts would have referred to “Asiatics,” not Hebrews or Israelites. Archaeological evidence of West-Semitic populations in the area called Goshen in the second millennium B.C.E. does exist. The biblical account includes details of ancient Egyptian culture from the time of the purported Exodus and long before the texts were written down. The Torah’s description of Israel’s journey reflects knowledge of the geography and conditions of the area Israel is said to have traversed. Migrants don’t leave archaeological evidence precisely because they move around rather than settle down. While the two million number is clearly hyperbolic, perhaps a much smaller group left Egypt (which is more in keeping with the Torah’s own description of the size of the Israelite encampment in the wilderness). Other ancient texts—particularly from the Roman period—are accepted as having historical value despite their use of wildly inflated numbers and supernatural claims.
Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, points out that among academic disciplines, Bible studies stands apart for the double standard that is applied to biblical texts alone, perhaps stemming from the fact that many students of Bible are also “believers in” the Bible. The fear that students of Bible will lean on their faith and justify their views with, “The Bible says it’s true!” or worse, “God said so!” and call this academic scholarship is alarming to many academics. Berman says that, “In the drive to keep fundamentalists at bay, some scholars have wound up throwing out the Bible with the bathwater, preemptively downgrading its credibility as a historical witness.” What is more, Berman claims, the power struggle we find within biblical studies today is, “an aspect of the larger culture war that rages between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. (and, with different expressions, in Israel). In that war, the place of religion in the public square is a major battleground, with skirmishes over hot-button issues ranging from abortion and gay marriage to public display of the Ten Commandments.” In this culture war, the Bible has been co-opted on one side to suppress evolutionary science, on on the other side, to claim that all of Ancient Israel is a fictional fabricatione.
The cultural Zionist, Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsburg, 1856–1927), long ago dismissed the challenge of scholars who denied the historicity of the Exodus account. He was unmoved by the attempt of scholars in his day to prove that Moses never existed. Focusing on the character (in both senses of the word) of Moses, he wrote in 1904:
I care not whether this man Moses really existed; whether his life and his activity really corresponded to our traditional account of him; whether he was really the savior of Israel and gave his people the Law in the form in which it is preserved; and so forth. I have one short and simple answer for all these conundrums. This Moses, I say, this man of old time, whose existence and character you are trying to elucidate, matters to nobody but scholars like you. We have another Moses of our own, whose image has been enshrined in the hearts of the Jewish people for generations and whose influence on our national life has never ceased from ancient times till the present day. The existence of this Moses, as a historical fact, depends in no way on your investigations. For even if you succeeded in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses—the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all he wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.
Ahad Ha’am said that we are asking the wrong question. Rather than ask, “Who is Moses?” we should ask, “What is the meaning of Moses?” Moses is the figure of leadership that is loyal to God, loyal to his people, and a loyal advocate for justice and righteousness. The meaning of Moses’ life—whether the biblical account is historical, fictional, or a hybrid—remains a shining example of why the Jewish people exists and how we see our mission in the world.
Where does this leave us, who wish to find religious and moral meaning in the story of the Exodus? I cannot share Ahad Ha’am’s lack of curiosity at what legitimate academics can teach us about our history and the origin of our sacred texts; I do not worry that what they will reveal will make them any less holy. I believe that, in fact, they will challenge us to use our religious imaginations to dig deeper into our texts to inspire our religious lives. I believe we can learn to balance academic knowledge with our need to find spiritual direction and meaning by studying these texts. With a Moses and an Exodus that are very much alive in our imaginations, vivid in our religious memory, and inspirational in our souls, we will learn that there are different kinds of “truth” and that no one has a monopoly on either truth or wisdom. For after all, as Talmud (BT Shabbat 55a) teaches, “God’s seal is truth.”
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman