In PBS’s fantastic documentary entitled The Mormons, a religion scholar was asked what he makes of the lack of evidence supporting basically anything in the Book of Mormon. He shrugged it off and pointed to the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt as an example of how Christians deal with the same problem (though so much evidence exists for so many other historical claims in the Old Testament and New). But evidence is gathering for the Exodus, and from Jewish scholar, here is a review of some of it (there is a documentary as well just released on the subject; I’ve not seen it however).
To this day, no pulpit talk by a contemporary American rabbi has generated greater attention or controversy than a sermon delivered by Rabbi David Wolpe on the morning of Passover 2001. “The truth,” Rabbi Wolpe informed his Los Angeles congregation, “is [that] the way the Bible describes the exodus [from Egypt] is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”
Beyond dropping a theological bombshell, the sermon ushered in a new era, one in which synagogue-attending Jews could increasingly expect to be confronted with the findings of academic study of the Bible. To Rabbi Wolpe, intellectual honesty mandated that, with respect to the exodus in particular, these findings be not only confronted but embraced, and it was the duty of spiritual leaders like himself to help the faithful assimilate them.
In the intervening years, thanks in no small part to the Internet and the ubiquity of social media, exposure to these findings has increased exponentially, much of it focused on one issue: the historicity, or especially the non-historicity, of the biblical exodus. In, for example, an inaugural essay for The Torah.com, a website devoted to “integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of academic biblical scholarship,” 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, [or] the wilderness experience . . . as historical.”
One might be tempted to ask: what’s the big deal? For some, indeed, there is none: to admit there never was an exodus is a matter of simple honesty, and need have little or any deleterious effect on one’s appreciation of Judaism. To the contrary: Bible stories, we are told, speak to us in symbolic terms; God’s voice is in the message of the exodus story, not in its supposed facts, and that message, once shorn of its mythological baggage, is only strengthened.
For others, however, excising the exodus from Judaism undercuts Judaism itself. After all, the biblical rationale for Israel’s obligation to God is premised not on His identity as Creator, or on His supreme moral authority, but on the fact that the Israelite slaves in Egypt cried out to Him from their bondage and He saved them. This is the sole driving force behind the opening line of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt, the house of bondage.”
On this latter view, were there no exodus, nearly all of Judaism’s sacred texts over the centuries would have perpetuated a great lie. In response to the question posed by the child at the seder meal, “How is this night different from all other nights?” a father would be obliged to reply, “Really, my child, there’s no difference.” And indeed, at many a contemporary seder table, a new figure has emerged: next to the son who knows not how to ask, sits the father who knows not how to answer.
In what follows I offer that father three helpings of scholarship to help him formulate an answer.
I. Was There an Exodus? A Review of the Arguments
The case against the historicity of the exodus is straightforward, and its essence can be stated in five words: a sustained lack of evidence. Nowhere in the written record of ancient Egypt is there any explicit mention of Hebrew or Israelite slaves, let alone a figure named Moses. There is no mention of the Nile waters turning into blood, or of any series of plagues matching those in the Bible, or of the defeat of any pharaoh on the scale suggested by the Torah’s narrative of the mass drowning of Egyptian forces at the sea. Furthermore, the Torah states that 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and sixty left Egypt; adding women, children, and the elderly, we arrive at a population in the vicinity of two million souls. There is no archaeological or other evidence of an ancient encampment that size anywhere in the Sinai desert. Nor is there any evidence of so great a subsequent influx into the land of Israel, at any time.
No competent scholar or archaeologist will deny these facts. Case closed, then? For those who would defend the plausibility of a historical exodus, what possible response can there be?
Let’s begin with the missing evidence of the Hebrews’ existence in Egyptian records. It is true enough that these records do not contain clear and unambiguous reference to “Hebrews” or “Israelites.” But that is hardly surprising. The Egyptians referred to all of their West-Semitic slaves simply as “Asiatics,” with no distinction among groups—just as slave-holders in the New World never identified their black slaves by their specific provenance in Africa.