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?
- Rabbi Grossman: Kernels of History Add Flavor to Exodus Story
- Rabbi Waxman: The History Trap
- Rabbi Stern: History Without Moses
- Rabbi Waxman: The Truth of the Exodus
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