Jewish Journal

Let My People Know, Let My People Think

by Roger Price

April 17, 2014 | 3:44 pm

In recent years, in certain circles, it has become fashionable to assert that the Bible is fiction, or that at least key segments of it are fictional. The assertion emanates from two camps. In one of these camps are those who have been described as new or militant atheists. Looking to recent developments primarily in cosmology and archeology, folks like Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Samuel Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens have created more than a cottage industry in their efforts to debunk the Bible.

But scientist and skeptics are not alone in their contention that the Bible is fiction. In another other camp are scholars of the Bible, including notable rabbis. For instance, during Passover week a dozen years ago, Conservative Rabbi and prolific author David Wolpe set off a firestorm when he spoke to his Los Angeles congregation about the lack of hard evidence for the Exodus story. According to a writer for the Los Angeles Times, after reviewing revolutionary discoveries in then current archeology, Rabbi Wolpe told them: 

“The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.”

(A subsequent summary of Wolpe’s thinking may readily be found on the Internet in a piece he authored called Did the Exodus Really Happen? (“Did It?”).)

As reported at the time in the Jewish Journal and Jweekly.com , reactions to Rabbi Wolpe’s comments were strong and heated. Some attacked the substance of his comments, holding to the Biblical rendition as factually true, a pillar of the Jewish edifice, regardless of what some archeologists found (or did not find). (Dennis Prager did so this week here.) Some attacked the setting of his comments, suggesting that Passover was not the proper season for that particular lesson.

Two years ago, the distinguished professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College, also a prolific author, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman published a post on his blog, Life and a Little Liturgy, titled The Bible is Fiction.”  In that post, Rabbi Hoffman did not discuss directly either Wolpe or the Exodus, cosmology or archeology, but argued more broadly that the entire Hebrew Bible is fiction because its authors meant it not as science or history but “as presentation.”

In contrast to the reception Wolpe received, the comments to Hoffman’s piece were overwhelmingly favorable. Whether the difference in reception is due to Wolpe clearing the air or to Hoffman preaching to a different choir, or at least in a less visible manner, is unclear.

In any event, at this point, one might think that a great breakthrough has been achieved, that the scientists, skeptics and clergy were all on the same page, fictional though it may be. Not quite. While the conclusion that the Bible is fiction is proof determinative for Dawkins et al. that there is no God, for rabbis Wolpe and Hoffman, the fictional nature of the Bible literally does not matter.  Both retain their faith in God. Yet their conclusion that the historicity of the Bible does not matter seems at least counterintuitive, and overreaching as well.  Does not matter to whom? For what purpose?

To test the proposition that facts do not matter, let’s recall that Wolpe’s sermons were premised on two points: (1) the absence of any archeological evidence to support an exodus from Egypt or a military conquest in Canaan between 1500-1200 BCE and (2) the existence of hard evidence that indicates a native and emerging presence of Israelites in Canaan by the end of that period. Now consider what would happen if there were solid archeological evidence of a significant Biblical event. For instance, what if a container holding two stone tablets dated 3,300 years ago and inscribed with the Ten Commandments were found in an underground cavern near Jerusalem? What if the bones of a man from that period were found on Mt. Nebo, with his skull exuding an unusual, but certain, radiance and his DNA consistent with the Cohen Modal Haplotype?  Doubtless, these items would be seen not just as evidence of the existence of the Ark of the Covenant and the prophet Moses, but as tangible proof of the truth of the entire Hebrew Bible, including the God described in it. Why? Because facts matter.

Unless, however, the Wolpe/Hoffman proposition is asymmetrical, operating in one direction only, the argument rings less than persuasively. For some people, and not just Dawkins et al., the contention that the Bible is fiction, but it does not matter, must sound a bit like the old wizard of Oz imploring visitors not to look behind the curtain. Yet it mattered to Dorothy, and to Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion too, what was behind the curtain. It mattered, as it should have, whether there was a great wizard or just an old man caught in strange circumstances.

To be sure, it may not matter much if there was a real Abraham whose family traveled from Ur down the Fertile Crescent and into Canaan and Egypt. Nor may it matter that much if there were a real David who ruled over an expansive kingdom. But it should matter if there is a real Deity who made promises to a particular people about a particular land and who commanded these people to live their lives in a particular way or, conversely, that Deity and the words he reportedly spoke were pure fiction.

And, of course, for many people it does matter -- a great deal. Some Jews base their lives on the premise that the God portrayed in the Hebrew Bible is real. They plan their week, their lives on that premise, eating certain foods and avoiding others, wearing certain clothes and avoiding others, engaging in certain behaviors, including some forms of intimate conduct,  and not others, desiring to reside in a certain locale and not another.  They are willing to live or die based on their belief in the truth of what they read in the Bible.

Similarly, for some non-Jews the truth of the Bible matters a great deal as well.  Just try to build the third Temple (or even a condo) on a certain rock in Jerusalem and you will see how much it matters.

In contrast to Wolpe, Hoffman’s viewpoint is not overtly dependent on what some archeologist may or may not find. His is a more text driven analysis. That is, aside from whether the characters portrayed in it actually lived (Hoffman says some did and some didn’t), the Bible’s characterization as fiction follows because, among other things, “of the reason it was compiled . . .  and its presentational nature as a world unto itself with its own unique lessons to impart.” Says Hoffman:

“If you want to know such things as the point of existence, the meaning of life and the ways humankind has gone right and wrong, you cannot do a whole lot better than start with fiction: that fiction is the Bible.”

Rabbi Hoffman’s argument that the authors of the Bible only meant their stories as presentational may well be correct, although one can argue the point. The greater problem here is that we cannot know for sure the authors’ intentions in writing, compiling and editing the text because we do not know for sure who those authors were, nor do we have agreement on what their purpose was. For instance, University of California professor Richard Elliott Friedman has suggested that writers in the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel were both familiar with the Egyptian slavery motif, but that they wrote about an exodus from Egyptian slavery differently in order to suit their different needs and goals. (See Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (Harper, 2d Ed. 1997) at 66.) But other contributors to the text may have had dissimilar or additional motives. So, was the story of the Exodus crafted by Northern Israelites before the destruction of their kingdom in order to encourage certain clan distinctiveness? Was the text redrafted after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in order to unify a Judah swollen with northern immigrants?  Was it written during or immediately after the Exile by someone keenly aware of that trauma to urge a return to and rebuilding of the homeland? Was it written during the Persian Period as a lesson in survival outside of the homeland?

S. David Sperling, an HUC professor and rabbi, takes a different and rather novel tact. He agrees that the Exodus story, as written, is not historically accurate, but contends that there is an historical basis for an Exodus story. The focus, he argues, should not be on enslavement of pre-Israelites to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the slavery of the resident population to Egyptian control in Canaan. For Sperling, the Biblical Exodus is allegorical, but related to real events. (See Sperling, “Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?”, see also, Sperling, The Original Torah (NYU Press 1998) at  41-60.)

Some scholars believe that the effort to try to determine the authorship, and therefore the intent, of Biblical texts is, if not a fool’s errand, at least doomed to failure. According to Israeli philosopher and political  theorist  Yoram Hazony, none of the current scholarly proposals “have . . . brought us much closer to really knowing what the original sources were . . ., who wrote them, when, or why.” (See Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge 2012), at 36.)                                             

Rabbi Hoffman’s text based approach is, therefore, no more complete and helpful than Rabbi Wolpe’s fact based one. Moreover, Wolpe and Hoffman, like the lady in the play Hamlet created to catch the king, appear to protest too much. (See Shakespeare, Hamlet, at II, ii.) After all, if the historicity of characters does not matter, if the historicity of events does not matter, why do they take such pains to insist that they do not matter?

For one thing, both Wolpe and Hoffman are believers. They retain faith in a God of Israel. If certain facts do not support those beliefs, and those facts cannot be altered or erased, what does one do? If you are a person of intellectual integrity, as are both Wolpe and Hoffman, you do two things. First, you confront and acknowledge reality, i.e., the absence of a factual base for certain characters and events. Then you segregate that reality from a deemed higher core value. 

Wolpe, therefore, would separate historical claims from faith claims. For him, the claim that “a certain number of people walked across a particular desert at a particular time in the past, after being enslaved and liberated, is a historical claim” subject to evaluation and refutation. (See “Did it?”, above.)  But, as he has recently summarized, “(i)t is not an historical claim that God created us and cares for us.” Consequently, the outcome of the historical evaluation does not “change our connection to each other or to God.” As he puts it, “Faith should not rest on splitting seas.” 

Hoffman, too, believes that God is real (a reality that matters), but also that the demonstration of that reality is not like demonstrating other forms of reality. Consequently, he is comfortable, where others might not be, in using the term as “a label to express a reality that certain types of phenomenon seem to presuppose.” (See Hoffman, above, at 7/7.)

The assertions of Wolpe and Hoffman that the Bible is fiction are welcome, but lo dayenu –not sufficient. Rabbi Wolpe says that at his Seder, in his mind’s eye, he sees the “Israelites marching out of Egypt, the miracles at the sea, the pillar of fire leading them through the fearful night . . . .” And he feels “enormous gratitude toward to God” for saving the Jewish people. But if there were no Israelite slaves in Egypt, no march out of Egypt, no miracles at the sea and no pillar of fire, how can those of us, who lack Rabbi Wolpe’s imagination and empathy, respond? We can agree that slavery is bad and freedom to be cherished. And we can surely agree that the survival of the Jewish people is unprecedented, not easily explained and that they and their value and ethical systems are to be appreciated, preserved and perpetuated. But that still, for many, will not span the space from a false historical there to an inspirational, even just functional, theology here.

Twenty-six centuries ago, faced with the stark new reality of the destruction of Judah, the deportation of the royal family and the dispersion of the residents, Jeremiah recognized that the old covenants regarding a promised land, an eternal Davidic monarchy and a numerous people were breached. He proposed, therefore, a new covenant, one of the heart. (See Jer.  31:31-34.) So, too, Ezekiel, in response to the trauma of the Exile, revised the rules on the inter-generational duration of sin and Deutero-Isaiah proclaimed a new mission. (See Ezek. 18:20, Isa. 51:4.)

One century ago, as he watched a largely immigrant community break free from the bonds of the Old Country, Mordecai Kaplan recognized that it was not enough to break worn idols. He also made sure to create new structures, new organizations, new philosophies and new texts in their place. He understood that a new generation in transition needed new models with new language consistent with their journey in the New Country.

The challenge for Jewish leadership today comes not so much from physical migration away from familiar settings or old confinements and persecutions, but from mental migration in minds expanded by new discoveries in a variety of disciplines and conveyed through new modes and systems. It is in the Jewish mind, as well as in the Jewish heart, that the future of the Jewish People will be decided.

So, sure, it is important to let our people know of the historical flaws in our foundational texts. Two cheers for Wolpe and Hoffman leading the way. But we need more. Because facts matter, and not everyone reads with allegorical or metaphorical lights, we need texts and programs in our schools and in our services that recognize plainly and explicitly and then incorporate certain Truths, truths about history, cosmology, biology and literature, for starters. That should not require that old stories and songs be abandoned, but it should at least mean that we take care not to perpetuate as accurate that which we know is not accurate, that we differentiate between what we say for purposes of quotation and what we say for purposes of affirmation.   

We should not fear this task. I am told by an exceptionally reliable source that God loves stories. I assume even true ones.

Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

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Roger Price was born and raised on the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, long before Barack Obama decided to settle there. Originally schooled in a classic...

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