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Virtual Talmud

The Lack of Evidence Is Not Evidence

I agree with Rabbi Waxman that the power and relevance of the Exodus lies not in whether we can historically verify the details of its story but in the truths it contains. The most obvious are the nature of the experience of oppression and the power of hope in the face of it. These truths transcend the particularities of faith and ethnicity, which perhaps explains African American interest in the story.

There are other truths based on the particular nature of the Israelite religion of which we are the heirs: that there is one God who rules the world and is control of all of creation (note the plagues) and that this God not only cares deeply for the children of Israel but expresses that care through an involvement in human history.


This brings us back to the question of history, or more accurately historicity, the study of history, which is where I disagree with Rabbi Waxman.

“Minimalist” biblical archeologists like Israel Finkelstein argue that the lack of evidence of a mass Exodus of Semites from Egypt or a large group wandering the Sinai wilderness shows that the Exodus is a figment of a later author’s mind. However, other archeologists point out “circumstantial evidence”: Egyptian tomb paintings of Semitic slaves, documents that explain Egyptian clay-brick manufacturing just as it is presented in the Torah, and Egyptian military way stations along the straight route out of Egypt, which may have required a refugee band to head into the wilderness. Most compelling for me, the earliest evidence outside of the Bible of the Israelites in Israel comes from Pharoah Merneptah’s victory stele dated 1212 BCE, roughly 40 years after the Exodus (If we date it to approximately 1250 BCE during the reign of Ramses II 1290-1224 BCE). In addition, an Israelite style of housing that appears in 12th Century Israel (after the Exodus) has also recently been found in Egypt, perhaps reflecting the Biblical account that not all the Jews actually left Egypt.


Are all these facts evidence of the Exodus? No necessarily. But such archaeological material can lead us to question scholars who use the understandably limited evidence we have to argue that the Exodus could not or did not happen.

I am always struck by how much traction arguments against the historiocity of the Exodus story get. After all, the first rule of scholarship is that lack of evidence is not evidence. Perhaps what is attractive to such scholars is the thrill of proving an ancient religious text wrong. The argument goes like this: if the Bible is wrong about historical details, then it could be (or is) wrong about other things, like the commandments requiring our personal observance. This is the flip side of the argument Creationists make when they equate teaching Darwinian evolution with rejecting the Ten Commandments. Both sides miss the point: the Bible was not written as a historical text. When we read it as such we do the Bible–and ourselves–a great disservice.


The most important aspect of scripture is the eternal truths it contains. However, the Torah can, at the same time, contain the kernel of historical truths and hints of references to historical memory that our ancestors kept alive in the transmission of the scriptural text that we still read and celebrate today.

–Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman

Read the Full Debate: Does It Matter If the Exodus Happened?

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    posted March 27, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    I am a Christian and have seriously studied both the OT and NT for many years. And I find that the more I read and try to understand what is written, I find that, more and more, I am saying “I don’t know.” So whether or not it is literal truth, is less an issue with me than the spiritual truth that this marvelous and wonderful holy book is teaching me. Thank you for your views.

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    posted March 28, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    If Israel had no opposition, I would believe that the Exodus story was a fancy tale. As it is looking at reality, the stories in the Tanakh are the most accurate reports we have today. Cause and effect is a strong carrier of truth.

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    Grethel Jane Rickman

    posted March 28, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Really? Amazing what oral traditions can do, eh? Before the Torah and the Tanach were written down, they were passed through oral methods. Shalom

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    posted March 28, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    Grethel, why do you think we have a Talmud? because rabbi Judah Ha Nasi from the period around 70CE realized that Jerusalem was going to fall, that jewish life as they knew it was going to end, and the “oral law” had to be written down or it would get lost(if you don’t believe me, look to the Falashas, or the Kairaites). So he asked the then roman general or loacal Governor to be able to establish a small school somewhere else in the land, and there they wrote down the oral law, and it became the talmud.

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    Dorothy Anne Eddington

    posted March 28, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    I can’t believe this. I was so excited recently when I saw a special on the discovery channel. The title of the special was “The Exodus Decoded.” The presenter was James Cameron. They went to archaelogical sites, demonstrated the possible paths for the Israelites, and explained the parting of the Red Sea. They also followed the path of a group that decided to split off from Moses’ group and traveled by sea back to Greece where they had originated. He took the audience to a cemetery where carvings depicted the Red Sea incident and even applied coordinates found in scripture to locate the holy mountain. It is in a portion of Saudi Arabia that is under military protection but they did go back later to document it without the large production crew. I find it amazing that people are so quick to discount biblical accuracy with regard to the O.T and the miracles that God did for Israel. To me, the explanation of a volcanic eruption sending the fire from heaven depicted in the Sodom and Gommorha story, or an Earthquake and subsequent Tsunami explaining the parting of the Red Sea does not discount God’s role. It merely documents the physical reality that could have and did cause the miracle historically. Since God made the earth and He has perfect foreknowledge, it would make perfect sense that he arranged Israel’s escape from Pharoah at the time when these factors would come together. I get excited when science, archaelogists, physicists and historians actually document the Bible with their study. I don’t believe that it has to be documented for me to believe God over men but I do love to see it. How come people here haven’t mentioned those documentaries? the link is:

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    posted March 28, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    To me the proof of the exodus resides in the unalterable truth that all cohanim carry the special genetic markers proving that they are all descended from one man -Aaron! They proved the claims of Jewishness by the black Lemba in Africa by checking the men in the community and found that 10% of the men carrried the cohanim marker, exactly like the rest of the Jewish world. I can take the rest on faith, until they prove it to you doubting Thomas’.

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    posted April 16, 2007 at 12:46 am

    The story is literal.whether or not we have phyiscal proof, which I can see that there is some, it is written in Torah and you accept that by faith.Some call it blind faith. That’s ok. This is what pleases G-d. And as far as the parting of the Sea. It wasn’t a tsunami nor was it a volcano that destroyed sodom & gomorah. G-d destroyed it supernaturally thru the 2 angels that He had sent to take lot and his family out. The Sea “parted”, ie meaning that it was a body of water there already and G-d parted it supernaturally until the children of Israel were thru it and then He let the waters come together. The discovery channel has a habit of trying to explain “naturally” ie not with any thought that it was supernatural. The true Word is Torah. It says what it says. G-d did what He said He did. There is nothing written of any group that split from the main group except for the group of korah and his kin. They were put to death because of their rebellion. It’s like the debate of eating bread on passover. It’s all about obedience to the Word of G-d. He said that He would rather have obedience rather then sacrifice. To do kindness, love justice and to take care of the poor, orphans and widows.

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    posted December 29, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Dear Rabbi Grossman:
    I appreciate your style and convictions and I
    am sure all of Heaven does. That is why I will explain
    why a 58 year old black baptist woman became a Jew.
    On September 2006, I found spirit inside a Temple after
    passing a young black man and Lion. Inside the Temple
    was a young black woman sitting emanating compassion. I
    was extremely stressed until I read a year later that
    it was common knowledge a woman set in the Tabenacle
    in Heaven and that everyone sees a young man at the gate
    or path. Everyone, however does NOT see the Temple
    raise out of the River. The following year in 2007,on
    September 15,2007 at 12 Noon I fell asleep suddenly on
    a Saturday. I immediately realized I was at the Laver
    for burnt offerings because of the mountain and the
    pool of water below. To make it short I experienced
    Shimchat-bet-ha-Sho’ebhah. I am a teacher by profession,
    and I tried to tell people but they do not understand
    the experience. I know my spirit put on Sackcloth.
    I know it is 2 sets of spiritual clothing and fine linen.
    Please email with a comment.

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