Believing the Exodus Story

Why is it that the most unbelievable of Jewish stories is that which is most believed in?

Commentary on Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1 - 6:1

Parashat Shemot sets the stage for the drama that plays out not only in the rest of the book of Exodus but around tables worldwide as Jewish families gather year in and year out for Passover seders. The Exodus and the experiences connected with it — the slavery of the Israelites, their liberation from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai, and the journey in the wilderness toward the Promised Land — are indelibly stamped on the Jewish collective memory and imagination. North American Jews relish, arguably more than any other holiday, the festival of Passover whose symbolic foods serve as props for retelling the tale of Israelite bondage that ceases with God’s redemptive miracles. The story is fantastic in every sense of the term: fanciful, remarkable, unreal, and superb.

The biblical writers are at their best in these passages, crafting a gripping narrative inscribed with timeless ethical imperatives, such as “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20), and theological conundrums, like why does God repeatedly harden Pharaoh’s heart-thereby preventing the necessary redemption without plagues befalling Egypt? This story has sustained generations of Jews, from esteemed commentators of yore to today’s questioning sons and daughters with mouths full of matzah and maror. Jews of all stripes rally to the Exodus cry; even those with mere peripheral knowledge of things Jewish resonate to “Let my people go!”

Liberal Jews Love the Exodus

So why is it that the most unbelievable of Jewish stories is that which is most believed in? Why does the Exodus charm and beguile liberal Jews, even Reform Jews, who are products of a movement of leaders who early on dismissed what the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform calls “miraculous narratives” of the Bible as “reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age …”?

Indeed, on one level, the popularity of the Exodus is baffling. One might imagine that its lack of historical veracity would knock it off its pedestal. After all, biblical scholars, whose stock in trade is comparative materials of contemporaneous ancient Near Eastern cultures and archeology, inform us that few of the book’s details can be substantiated by cold, hard facts.

Take, for example, the matter of dating. Based on chronological indications in the text itself, the Hebrew Bible would have us believe that the Exodus took place in about 1446 B.C.E. One of the mathematical “proofs” for such a claim depends on the following information provided to the biblical reader in various places: Exodus 12:40 claims that the Israelite slavery in Egypt lasted 430 years (a figure that contradicts the prediction of an Egyptian sojourn of 400 years or four generations; Genesis 15:13,16).

I Kings 6:1 states that the Temple was constructed 480 years after the Exodus, during the fourth year of Solomon‘s 40-year reign (I Kings 11:42), which scholars date as 966 B.C.E. According to these calculations, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt between 1876 and 1446 B.C.E. Moreover, if, as the text indicates, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land, the conquest of Canaan would have begun in approximately 1406 B.C.E.

Evidence Not Adding Up

Besides the fact that the Torah texts do not agree with one another on the length of Israelite enslavement in Egypt, these numbers do not add up against the evidence of extra-biblical sources. In fact, the first clear historical proof of an Israelite presence in Canaan at all is the inscription on the so-called Israel Stele of the pharaoh Merneptah, dating to about 1207 B.C.E. In other words, the biblical claim of a 15th-century Exodus is off by 200 years when compared to the archeological evidence. Moreover, ancient records demonstrate that Egypt controlled Canaan in 1446, a fact that makes an escape from Egypt to Canaan at that time rather unlikely.

Another aspect of the story that troubles modern readers is the purported size of the Exodus. The biblical claim of 600,000 men (Exodus 12:37), which including their families would total nearly 2 million people, is hyperbolic at best. Plus, many of the sites appearing in the detailed itinerary of the Israelites’ route from Egypt to Canaan (see Numbers 33) cannot be verified.

Certainly, scholars like the preeminent Nahum Sarna have argued convincingly that corroborating evidence suggests a “plausible context” for the Exodus story. Many have confidently asserted that a group of people who later became Israel went down to Egypt from Canaan, settled there, and became oppressed as foreigners. At some point, it can be presumed, they were conscripted into labor and oppressed as foreigners. Some of them later escaped and professed to a transcendent experience with a divine being in the desert. Still later, they or their descendants entered Canaan, where, according to Sarna, they were joined by other peoples and became the biblical nation of Israel.

From my perspective as a professor of Jewish history and a Reform rabbi, dismissing the story because it conflicts with historical data misses the point. Holding the Torah to critical standards of historiography is unfair, because it is not intended to be a history book containing scholars’ attempts to re-create an impartial rendering of what occurred in the past. Instead, the Torah is a knitting together of narratives composed to cultivate a particular spiritual and moral point of view. So when God parts the Reed Sea, I can no more expect myself to nod in faithful assent like an open-mouthed child than when reading a book like Harry Potter.

As a non-literalist, non-fundamentalist, liberal, and committed Jew, I ascertain the message behind the medium. To me, the text asserts God’s ability to subvert nature as a means of demonstrating God’s vital interest in the welfare of the Israelites, which extends through time–indeed, I fervently hope, to our own time. To my students’ question, “But is it true?” I respond, “Yes!” and “No!” The Exodus’ visible and venerated place in the Jewish calendar assures that it will be believed in, year in and year out, to our rational consternation and spiritual delight.

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

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