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?