Opinion |

Why It Doesn't Matter Whether the Exodus Happened

New research suggests that there is a core of historical truth beneath the literary embellishments of this biblical story – despite the lack of archaeological evidence. But that doesn't matter, either. Here’s why.

Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar
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A neo-gothic fresco depicting the Israelites in the desert, by Leopold Bruckner (1905 - 1906).
A neo-gothic fresco depicting the Israelites in the desert, by Leopold Bruckner (1905 - 1906).Credit: Dreamstime
Yael Shahar
Yael Shahar

For several decades, it has been the fashion to examine the details of Biblical texts in search of proof or counter-proof to their historicity. The Exodus from Egypt has been a particularly juicy target of such investigations, forming as it does the foundation of so much of Jewish cultural identity.

Rabbi Zev Farber declared categorically that “given the data to which modern historians have access, it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass exodus from Egypt as historical.”

Others, while conceding that the massive Exodus as described in the Torah probably never happened, posit that the Biblical narrative nevertheless rests on a kernel of truth, suggesting that only a core group of exiles from the tribe of Levi suffered enslavement in Egypt.

In the past few years, the tide of skepticism appears to be turning. In an exhaustive article for Mosaic, Joshua Berman argues that, while we shouldn’t expect archeological evidence of the Exodus, numerous literary and historical details of the Biblical story “do strikingly appear to reflect the realities of late-second-millennium Egypt—the period when the exodus would most likely have taken place.”

In particular, Berman notes that the Exodus story borrows motifs and stylistic elements — and sometimes exact phrases — from a prominent piece of Pharaonic propaganda of the time: the glorification of the Pharaoh’s victory over the Hittites in the Battle of Kadesh. These similarities, coupled with the fact that the original Pharaonic text was widely known at the time, points to “a deliberate act of cultural appropriation.”

In a response to Berman, Richard Hess points out yet another hint that the Biblical text was a direct response to Egyptian power: each of the Biblical plagues represent a victory over one or another of the Egyptian gods. The tenth plague — the death of the first-born — represents a symbolic defeat of Pharaoh Rameses II himself as god-king and giver of life to his people.

Berman’s conclusion is that there is a core of historical truth beneath the literary embellishment of miracles and wonders.

Does any of this matter? For some, the historical accuracy of the Bible is the underpinning of all of Jewish life. After all, the Covenant itself, in the form of the Ten Commandments, begins with the preamble: “I am the Lord your God, who bought you up out of Egypt.” If there was no Egyptian bondage, no miraculous escape to freedom, no subsequent experience at Sinai, then what’s left of Judaism?

Plenty! Judaism, as a culture, a religion and a philosophy, is robust enough to withstand the decoupling from history— in fact, such decoupling occurs in every generation, and this is what gives Judaism its power and resilience. Judaism has already so radically reinterpreted its foundation myths and historic origins that they no longer have the meanings they did to our ancestors. This is not a bug; it’s a feature! This is how Judaism evolves as a living culture.

But more, the ability to retain significance and meaning for successive generations living in widely different circumstances is the mark of great art and great literature. It is also one of the hallmarks of an art form characteristic of the Jewish people from its inception: the art of midrash aggadah, or interpretive story-telling.

As moderns, we are trained to sift through the fantastic embellishments of ancient story-telling to look for the truth. This is precisely what Joshua Berman and his responders do in their masterful analysis. It’s what we do as academics, as archaeologists, and as Biblical philologists . But if we stop there, we risk missing a deeper layer of meaning.

The story-telling of the Bible is midrash agaddah at its most powerful. It is not satisfied with mere factual truth; it strives for meaning and purpose. To a people attuned to the theological significance of every event, for whom history was a dialogue with the divine, the fantastical and miraculous embellishments were not mere window dressing. Rather, they served as musical notes telling us how to interpret the event, whether as triumph or tragedy. The details of miracles and wonders are there to help us find the tune, to see the significance of the event in the overall life of our people.

In the case of the Exodus, the conscious appropriation of the Pharaoh’s own propaganda was an act of political satire, and the particular details embellishing the story point to a “tune” which is at once joyous, triumphant and scathingly insulting to the greatest ruler of the region.

The Egyptian experience, not as a historical fact, but as a deeply-felt cultural motif, penetrates and pervades all subsequent Jewish law. “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – a key commandment to emerge from this story – appears no fewer than 36 times in the Biblical text, and serves as the basis of derivation of countless later customs and laws. The relevance of the Exodus story goes beyond mere factual truth; its true significance lies in what we've built on it and how it has molded us as a people who, in every generation, have made it our own.

After a career in security and intelligence, Yael Shahar now divides her time between researching trends in asymmetric conflict and learning Talmud. She is the author of “A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption,” recently published by Kasva Press, and a sought-after public speaker. Her writing on Jewish education and philosophy can be found at www.damaged-mirror.com.

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