Jewish Journal

Books: The bible and history—facts or truth?

by Rabbi David Wolpe

Posted on Sep. 20, 2007 at 8:00 pm

"From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible," by Eric H. Cline (National Geographic, $26).

Consider with me the following curious intellectual position: Religions make spiritual claims, such as "God cares for me," and insist, quite rightly, that science cannot pronounce on that claim. But they also make historical claims, such as "Jericho was destroyed by Joshua" or "600,000 men, plus women and children, crossed the desert from Egypt to Canaan," and insist that historians and archeologists cannot evaluate those claims either. To make a historical claim, however, is to invite the scrutiny of history.

The position becomes more curious. When a historical discovery is made that validates a biblical claim, traditionalists are rightly jubilant. Yet when a discovery is made that contradicts the Bible, the reaction is too often angry or dismissive. This is inconsistent with a tradition that teaches "God's seal is truth," and we ought not be caught espousing such intellectual inconsistency that can too easily shade into intellectual dishonesty.

Across the world there are serious scholars who work on ancient biblical history. Serious means they read the cognate languages, are familiar with archeological finds and publications, read and comment on each other's work. Eric H. Cline is among their number and he has written a book, "From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible," which brings the interested reader up to date on the state of the field in some of the Bible's most intriguing mysteries.

Cline's book considers the location of the Garden of Eden; whether Noah's Ark exists; the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; the truth of the Exodus story; whether Joshua indeed fought at Jericho; the location of the Ark of the Covenant; and the fate of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

Cline lays out the biblical account and the history of each issue. For example, since 600,000 men would mean some 2.5 million people in total, forming a line 150 miles long if they marched 10 across, could that really have been the state of the Israelites for forty years? If not, could the word alef -- usually translated as "thousand" -- mean "family" or "clan," thereby making the numbers more manageable? And if so, can the other difficulties with the Exodus story -- the absence of evidence in the desert and the absence of settlement evidence in Israel itself -- be explained?

For each of these areas there is a tantalizing hint, but no certainty. Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia? Cline makes it quite clear that this is a fantasy -- an appealing one, but still a fantasy. Has anyone come close to discovering Noah's Ark? Once again, Cline sifts through the evidence, and proves that the pseudoscience, the DVD mavens and the credulous seekers are simply ignoring the contrary evidence. For those looking for answers, Cline does provide some, for example the fate of the 10 lost tribes. He contends, convincingly, that they were never really lost.

In reading such a book the primary question is what the reader makes of the Bible. There are roughly three possible positions. One assumes that everything in the Bible is literally true and therefore such a book serves no purpose. It does not matter what the evidence says or suggests; unless it reinforces the biblical account, it is of no interest. The second position is the other extreme, which sees the Bible as special pleading, unlikely to be true; this is the position of the minimalists, who concoct outlandish theories about the Bible having been written in the Persian period and suggesting that David and Solomon never existed. No scholar in Israel, and I am tempted to say no scholar, takes such claims seriously.

The third position is that the Bible contains a great deal of history but is not intended to be history the way we conceive of it. So the Exodus, for example, has a real historical memory behind it, but the telling of it was not constrained by literal adherence to the facts. For the intent of the Bible is a spiritual history, not a factual recounting. Thus the Bible is not factual; instead, it is true.

This third position, as some readers may know, was the position I sketched out in a sermon several years ago about the Exodus. It is the position I still hold and one that seems to me, as the years go by, more and more self-evidently true. That God speaks through the Bible, I do not doubt; but that it is a human story and therefore filled with rhetoric, imagery, exaggeration, hope, hyperbole and the imperfections of memory, I also do not doubt. Increasingly Jews are learning about this approach, which is both modern and traditional.

Cline's book is a dispassionate recounting of the central issues that preoccupy scholars and pseudoscholars of the biblical text.

Closing the book, one understands that some things can be proved or disproved and many must simply be taken on faith. There are, of course, questions that no historical investigation can ever prove. Archeology may one day tell us how Solomon's Temple was constructed and when Jericho was destroyed. What happened at Mount Sinai, however, is the summit of spiritual history. Here the investigation stops. Here we stand as Jews to declare that God is One and that we seek to do God's will in this beautiful but benighted world.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears monthly in The Journal.

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