Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Why the Exodus Matters

No institution in Torah is more central than the Sabbath, with its twin themes of commemorating the creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt — the two pillars of Judaism, without which there can be no Judaism, and which the Hebrew Bible enshrines as narratives in Genesis and Exodus respectively. This blog spends a lot of time — fittingly, I think — trying to understand the historicity of the creation. But what about the exodus? 

In fact I’m working on a project that relates to that subject. Just as you don’t have to be a literalist about creation, you may not have to be either about the exodus. Yet just as with the creation there must be some historical reality being alluded to if theism is to be taken seriously, the same must be true of the exodus. If the Jews were not miraculously freed from slavery in Egypt and then led to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, that would radically undercut the credibility of Jewish or Christian faith. 
Yet why does it really matter? I mean, it’s obvious why the creation matters theologically and personally. If God didn’t participate in that process, then we are not his creations and he becomes superfluous, not to mention being presumed nonexistent to begin with. Why it matters that God redeemed Israel from Egypt is suggested by the order of Jewish prayer.


The central prayer of formalized Jewish spiritual life is the Amidah. Its benedictions encapsulate the whole of Jewish faith. The Amidah is preceded by introductory benedictions, that last one of which describes the events of the exodus and concludes, “Blessed are you, Lord, who redeemed Israel.” 
But the benediction in the Amidah on the theme of redemption concludes with a subtle grammatical distinction, a change in tense: “Blessed are you, Lord, who redeems Israel.” In the past tense, God redeemed us “from the slave house.” In the present tense, God offers to redeems us now from whatever form of slavery it is that afflicts us — whether oppression by other people or by the chains of habits in thought or behavior by which we oppress ourselves, anything. 
Waiting, hoping for God’s redemption is a subject worthy of urgent prayer. Without the redemption that took place three thousand plus years ago, what hope do we have of being redeemed ourselves in our own personal lives today? If God did not redeem Israel in the past, what reason could there be for hoping he will do so now? The exodus from Egypt gives us that hope. Which is why a historically authentic exodus is no less vital to faith than, however understood, a historically authentic creation. 
Or am I wrong?
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posted January 19, 2010 at 5:19 pm

David: If God did not redeem Israel in the past, what reason could there be for hoping he will do so now? The exodus from Egypt gives us that hope. Which is why a historically authentic exodus is no less vital to faith than, however understood, a historically authentic creation.
At the risk of stunning you excessively, David, I’d actually agree with you here, adding (as a Christian) a “historically authentic Resurrection”. Of course, the kicker is in semantics: what do you mean by “historically authentic”?
E.g. with the Exodus: Does “historically authentic” imply that the exact narrative of the Torah is correct in every detail? That Moses was put adrift in an ark of bulrushes (despite this being a common mythical trope)? That the Israelites were two-thirds of the entire population of Egypt? That millions of them spent forty years in traveling about the Near East while leaving no mention of such a colossal troop in any other contemporary records? That every piece of dialogue attributed to Moses, Aaron, and others is exactly, verbatim accurate despite centuries of oral transmission? You get the picture.
I believe that the Exodus does have a historical core, and I am prepared to go beyond the minimalists and regard Moses as historical. Beyond that, as to detail, I think there’s a lot we don’t know and may never know.
Likewise, as a Christian I believe in the literal and physical Resurrection of Christ, with the attendant phenomenon of the empty tomb, but since it is made clear that the Resurrection body is a spiritual one (continuous with but different from the pre-Crucifixion body), I am not committed to any particular beliefs about the exact details. It’s possible that a time-traveling scientist would not be able to do EKG’s on the Resurrected Christ; I doubt the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin; and the various sequences in the Gospels as to who saw Jesus first, etc. probably can’t be harmonized. The core event is real, but we have no way of sorting out all the details.
Finally, it’s the same way with Creation. Since time as well as space was created by God, no methods internal to the cosmos can demonstrate Creation; it’s no less authentic for all that. Likewise, a God who works through secondary causes that mysteriously but fully manifest His will is as authentic a Creator as one who needs to come in and jimmy the cosmos at times.

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posted January 19, 2010 at 7:02 pm

“despite this being a common mythical trope”
Was this a trope before or after Moses’ time? It matters.
“I am prepared to go beyond the minimalists and regard Moses as historical.”
I think Jesus would raise an eyebrow to you and ask, prepared? Why don’t you say “as a Christian I am prepared to believe in the literal and physical Resurrection of Christ”?

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posted January 19, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Mark2, if you check out this article, it discusses parallels between the birth stories of Sargon of Assyria and Moses. They believe the Moses story is historically accurate, but they admit that the dating is vexed and they do reference historians that believe that both stories are borrowed. The point is, I don’t have a problem with believing the Moses birth story, but if it could be shown unlikely or false, I don’t have a problem with that, either. It is very much a tangential issue. As to other factors such as the number of Israelites the Bible says were in the Exodus, there is simply not a shred of archeological or extra-Biblical literary evidence for it. Period.
You know, parsing semantics for those of us who often blog too fast is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, and about as useful, isn’t it? How about this: “I believebelieve in the literal and physical Resurrection of Christ”. Better?
Strictly speaking, I view John 3:16 and the Nicene Creed as an adequate summation of my faith. So as long as Christ really lived, taught, healed, was crucified, died, and buried, and rose again to save us from our sins and that we might have everlasting life, it’s fine by me if the entire Old Testament is totally symbolic, except for the Christological prophecies. That’s not what I actually do believe about the Old Testament–I think that in broad outline (and from about Samuel on, good detail) it is accurate. I merely put forth what my parameters are in order to put my cards on the table (unlike some around here).

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posted January 20, 2010 at 8:10 am

Hmm–somehow that didn’t post right. It should be, “I believe that Moses was historical and I believe in the literal and physical Resurrection of Christ.
Also it occurs to me that I should perhaps clarify the last paragraph. I did not in any way intend to derogate the Old Testament or Judaism. While there is no doubt some mythology mixed in and some books are certainly not intended to be history (e.g. Jonah and Job), the Old Testament, by and large, is fairly historically accurate, in my view. Archeology has confirmed many things previously thought improbable (although some things it has not, and some it has disconfirmed). I would also point out that there are parts of the New Testament (e.g. the Infancy narratives) that may or may not be historically accurate. If these passages were definitively shown to be not historically accurate in the literal sense, I’d be OK with that, too.
My main point was to put forth the parameters as to what I consider essential, from a literal perspective, and what I don’t. Just because something may not be literally true, though (such as the story of Noah’s Ark or the book of Job) doesn’t mean it isn’t important, even essential, for its spiritual and religious teachings. Just wanted to clear that up.

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