Some argue that there is no evidence to back my assertion. Endlessly reiterated is the mantra "absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence." In other words, the fact that we have never found a single shred of evidence in the Sinai does not mean the Israelites were not there.
This is nominally true. We have found Sinai evidence of other people who predated the Israelites, and while it is improbable that 600,000 men crossed the desert 2,500 years ago without leaving a shard of pottery or a Hebrew carving, it is not impossible. (Together with women and children, that makes a couple of million, who could actually fill the distance between Egypt and Israel by standing in line.) One rabbi quoted to me the mystical tradition that one tribe was deputized to clean up every trace, which at least shows the Jewish tradition's unease with Sinai's preternaturally clean slate.
However, the archeological conclusions are not based primarily on the absence of Sinai evidence. Rather, they are based upon the study of settlement patterns in Israel itself. Surveys of ancient settlements--pottery remains and so forth--make it clear that there simply was no great influx of people around the time of the Exodus (given variously as between 1500-1200 BCE). Therefore, not the wandering, but the arrival alerts us to the fact that the biblical Exodus is not a literal depiction. In Israel at that time, there was no sudden change in the kind or the volume of pottery being made. (If people suddenly arrived after hundreds of years in Egypt, their cups and dishes would look very different from native Canaanites'.) There was no population explosion. Most archeologists conclude that the Israelites lived largely in Canaan over generations, instead of leaving and then immigrating back to Canaan.
The probability is, given the traditions, that there were some enslaved Israelites who left Egypt and joined up with their brethren in Canaan. This seems the likeliest scenario, a beautiful one that accords with the deeper currents of biblical tradition. The Exodus was a very small-scale event with a large, world-changing trail of consequences.
Some people are surprised, even upset, by these views. Yet they are not new; such views have been a staple of scholarship, even appearing in popular magazines, for many years. Not piety but timidity keeps many rabbis from expressing what they have long understood to be true. As a scholar who took me to task in print told me privately over lunch, "Of course what you say is true, but we should not say it publicly." In other words, tell the truth, but not when too many people will be listening.
There are three primary reasons this is important to talk about:
1. A tradition cannot make an historical claim and then refuse to have it evaluated by history. It is not an historical claim that God created us and cares for us. That a certain number of people walked across a particular desert at a particular time in the past, after being enslaved and liberated, is an historical claim, and one cannot then cry "unfair" when historians evaluate it.
For well over a century linguists, archeologists, historians and Bible scholars have been looking at the Bible in a new way. They understand how much of it is a product of history; how many stories were shared with other cultures whose languages and histories we have just come to understand. We can now appreciate how the vast canvas of the Bible shows different levels of Hebrew language, as would be expected of a work that developed over time. Most people are not aware that there are different manuscripts of the Bible, which show a "transmission history"--that is, constant recopying and variation. Our earliest complete manuscripts of the Bible are only 1000 years old. Even the Talmud (completed some fifteen hundred years ago) sometimes quotes verses differently from the verses as we have them.
That God's hand is in the Bible is a pillar of belief for many, myself included. That human hands are in there as well does not detract from its sanctity, but reminds us that God and human beings are partners in this world in ways that we did not, when we first learned our Bible lessons, even imagine.
3. Knowing the Exodus is not a literal historical accounting does not ultimately change our connection to each other or to God. Faith should not rest on splitting seas. At the Passover Seder we declare: "In each generation, each individual should see himself as if he (or she) went forth from Egypt." The message does not depend upon whether 3 or 3 million individuals left.
In a book explaining how orthodox scholarship views the Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Carmy writes that he was always troubled by the omission of the exodus from Egypt in the book of Chronicles. Why does the concluding book of the Hebrew Bible elide this central story? His answer is in a prophecy by Jeremiah (16:14-15) that one day the liberation from Babylonian captivity will be more important than the liberation from Egypt. History will give way to messianism. In the future the very story of the exodus is omitted, for it is not the specifics of history, but the theme of liberation and of God's providential care that is the theological center.
The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us. Standing at the Passover Seder, I see in my mind's eye the Israelites marching out of Egypt, the miracles at the sea, and the pillar of fire leading them through the fearful night. I feel an enormous gratitude to God. For although we cannot know exactly how God has saved our people, we have been saved. Despite unimaginable odds and opposition, the Jewish people have seen nation after nation buried under the debris of history while our nation lives. Here is where archeology, history, scholarship and scripture meet: Am Yisrael Chai, the nation of Israel remains alive.