April 19, 2001
Faith in Exodus
If the Exodus did not occur, there is no Judaism.
During Passover and on Good Friday the Los Angeles Times published a front-page article titled "Doubting the Story of Exodus." The timing was typical of the insensitivity often shown in mainstream media to religious Jews and Christians. It is unimaginable, for example, that any mainstream newspaper would ever print a front-page article on Martin Luther King's extramarital affairs on Martin Luther King Day.
According to the article, most archaeologists and even some Jewish clergy do not believe the biblical Exodus occurred. That most archaeologists conclude from the alleged lack of archaeological evidence that Jews were never slaves in Egypt and the exodus to Canaan never took place tells us something about these individuals, but nothing about the Bible or the Exodus.
What does it tell us? That most of these archaeologists have the same bias against traditional religious beliefs that most of their academic colleagues have. Ten years ago, Dr. Robert Jastrow, an agnostic and one of America's leading astrophysicists -- founder of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and now director of the Mount Wilson Observatory -- wrote about this in his book "God and the Astronomers." Jastrow described a disturbing reaction among his colleagues to the big-bang theory -- irritation and anger. Why, he asked, would scientists, who are supposed to pursue truth and not have an emotional investment in any evidence, be angered by the big-bang theory? The answer, he concluded, is very disturbing: many scientists do not want to acknowledge anything that may even suggest the existence of God. The big-bang theory, by positing a beginning to the universe, suggests a creator and therefore annoys many astronomers.
This anti-religious bias is hardly confined to astronomers. It pervades academia, home to nearly all archaeologists.
Take one of the archaeologists' major conclusions: Because they have found no evidence of Israelites in the Sinai desert, no Israelites made the trip from Egypt to Canaan. That conclusion strikes many of us as so unwarranted -- even arrogant -- as to demand explanation. According to the book of Exodus, the Israelites spent only 40 years in the desert over 3,000 years ago. What could possibly remain from a mere 40 years in a desert 3,000 years later?
And since when does the alleged lack of physical proof mean something never happened or doesn't exist? I have no doubt that many of the archaeologists who are so certain that the Jews never wandered out of Egypt are quite sure that there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe. But on what basis? Despite decades of highly sophisticated probing, we do not have a shred of evidence to support the belief that intelligent life exists anywhere else. They choose to believe it because logic suggests to them that intelligent life exists out there.
Well, logic suggests to many of us that Jews were slaves in Egypt and that there was an exodus. For thousands of years Jews have been retelling this story. It is possible that it is all a 3,000-year-old fairy tale, but do logic and common sense suggest this? Why would a people make up such an ignoble history? Why would a people fabricate a myth of its origins in which it is depicted so negatively?
There is no parallel in human history to the Hebrew Bible's negative depiction of the Jews' national origins. The Torah's depiction of the Jews' exodus from Egypt to Canaan portrays the Jews as ingrates, rebels and chronic complainers, undeserving of the freedom God and Moses brought them. Moreover, aside from Moses, the heroes of the story are nearly all non-Jews. It is the daughter of Pharaoh who saves and rears Moses (later Jewish tradition actually holds her to be his mother); it is a Midianite priest, Jethro, who tells Moses how to govern the Jewish people; and the two midwives who refuse the pharaoh's order to kill all male Jewish babies are almost certainly Egyptians. As for Moses himself, he is depicted as being raised an Egyptian.
That is one of the three reasons I am certain of the Jews' slavery and exodus. Any people that makes up a history for itself makes sure to depict itself as heroic and other peoples as villains. That the Torah's story does the very opposite is for me an unassailable argument on behalf of its honesty.
Second, I do not believe that a nation tells a story for 3,000 years that has no experiential basis. Moreover, the text has allusions to Egypt that only contemporaries could know. Even the name Moses is Egyptian (compare the pharaohs' names Thutmose, Ahmose and Ahmosis).
Third, I choose to believe the story despite the archaeologists' (subjective) claim of no evidence just as, despite the powerful arguments of history and of archaeologists of the past generation, some archaeologists -- and those who trust archaeologists more than the biblical narrative -- choose to believe the exodus never happened.
As for the argument of some Jews that they do not depend on the veracity of the Exodus for their faith, from a Jewish standpoint this is destructive nonsense. If the Exodus did not occur, there is no Judaism. Judaism stands on two pillars -- creation and exodus. Judaism no more survives the denial of the Exodus than it does the denial of the Creator. Creation and Exodus are coequal Jewish claims. A creator God who never intervened in human affairs is Aristotle's unmoved mover, not the God the Jews introduced to the world. Moreover, any Jews who believe the Exodus did not occur should have the intellectual honesty to stop observing Passover. They should spend the week studying the truths of archaeology -- that is their haggadah -- rather than what they regard as the fairy tales of the haggadah and Torah.
Fifty years ago, when anti-religious dogma was less suffocating, archaeologists showed time and again how archaeology confirmed essentials of the biblical narratives. Today, most archaeologists argue the opposite. In a couple of decades, they will probably change their minds again. I didn't rely on archaeologists for my faith when they confirmed it, and they have no effect on my faith when they deny it. They will continue to find meaning in their lives from excavating ancient ruins and deconstructing the Bible. And I will continue to find meaning in life telling my children, and hopefully one day my grandchildren, what Jews have told their children and grandchildren for 3,000 years. "We were slaves in the land of Egypt and with a mighty hand, God brought us out."