Rabbis and Christians on the Exodus

Rabbi David Wolpe shocked the Jewish world when he gave a Passover sermon that suggested that the Exodus as described in the Torah never took place. He has surveyed the available evidence from the Torah, the archeological record from the Sinai, and the archeological record from the Levant and concluded that the story of the Exodus is impossible. Rabbi Wolpe is not an atheist. In fact he has debated Sam Harris, a prominent atheist, yet he is convinced the Exodus is a fable.

Rabbi Wolpe is still a believing Jew who thinks that the story of Exodus has great power to inspire people today. However, he believes that power is in the metaphor of the story and does not require it to be literally true.

Yet some of Rabbi Wolpe's colleagues excoriated him in public, saying that he was simply wrong. Yet in private one of them told him, "Of course what you say is true, but we should not say it publicly."

Rabbi Wolpe believes that Jews should examine the Exodus account for three main reasons. The first, that historical claims must be evaluated historically, the second, that the truth should never be frightening to believers, and the third, that believers should still have the same relationship to God, even if the account is not true.

Rabbi Wolpe believes God inspired the Bible, but does not believe the Bible is literally true. Personally, I believe this is a muddled way of thinking. I believe it is much more realistic to imagine that the Bible was written by men and is no more and no less inspired than any other work of literature. I think however, that if Rabbi Wolpe said that, he'd be even more likely to lose his job than he is already. So one can easily understand his reticence.

Why is this important? Christians continue to believe things that literally can't be true. A majority of US Christians believe the Torah was written by Moses, a mythical figure. A majority of US Christians refuse to accept the scientific account of the origins of the universe and of life.

Certainly liberal Christians also doubt the literal truth of the Exodus. Christianity Today says:

The fact is that not one shred of direct archaeological evidence has been found for Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob or the 400-plus years the children of Israel sojourned in Egypt. The same is true for their miraculous exodus from slavery.

Even some biblical "maximalist" scholars, such as William Dever (a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary), do not believe the Exodus occurred. In his book, "Who Were the Israelites and Where Did They Come From?" he only gives credence to the idea that they arose within Palestine.

Dever says on page 1:

"Finally, many of the biblical stories are legend-like and abound with miraculous and fantastic elements that strain the credulity of almost any modern reader of almost any religious persuasion. All these factors have contributed to the rise of doubts about the Bible's trustworthiness."

Ultimately, the only thing you need to know to debunk the Bible is what the adherents of the religions based on it think of it. That more than does the job.


James F. McGrath said...

Both Wolpe and Dever appear in the documentary in the Mysteries of the Bible series, which leaves matters open somewhat. A better documentary is the one narrated by Avery Brooks, which brings in more cutting edge scholarship both from archaeology and even genetics as regards Israelite origins.

I don't think it is fair to call Dever a 'maximalist'. He seems perhaps best classified as a 'moderate' or 'mainstream'. He gives priority to archaeological evidence, but doesn't dismiss the usefulness of texts a priori.

Perhaps I'm biased. When he studied at CTS, it was still part of Butler University, where I teach...

Anyway, I know we've spoken about this before, but I hope we can agree to disagree on whether it makes sense to be a Christian or Jewish and yet accept when the relevant evidence demonstrates that our Scriptures are not factual, and work together to make the point we agree on, namely that the appropriate response to evidence that contradicts our presuppositions is to change our minds, not dismiss or ignore the evidence the way fundamentalists are prone to do.

admin said...

There are other elements of the Exodus story that smack of legend. Ancient people -- and even people today -- harbor numerological superstitions. For example, to ancient Middle Easterners, three and seven were "good" numbers (God is a Trinity; creation occurred over seven days), while 10 and 40 are "bad" numbers (during the flood, it rained for 40 day and nights). There were 10 plagues and the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years, and Moses received 10 commandments, I suppose because rules are bad, or because they were expositing bad behavior (and thought).

The 10 plagues don't make much sense if you think about them. God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh to release the Israelites. Pharaoh refuses, so God sends a number of plagues, and only on the 10th one -- killing the first born son of every Egyptian family -- does Pharaoh finally concede. If God is omniscient, why not just skip to the last plague? Well, then it wouldn't fit as nicely into Hebrew numerological superstition.

Unknown said...

"Rabbi Wolpe believes God inspired the Bible, but does not believe the Bible is literally true."

Wolpe is a wise man. Inspired does not mean literally true. Inspired means 1. to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence; 2. to produce or arouse (a feeling, thought, etc.); 3. to fill or affect with a specified feeling, thought, etc.

Wolpe understands what fundies don't. If a god exists, then why can't it inspire uplifting and ennobling mythology. Religion as drama affects the human mind by willful suspension of disbelief. Sitting on the edge of the seat, watching a great movie, most will not be saying "That's so fake." or "What good acting." or "Those are only stage props." No; instead they will absorb the story and animate the characters in their own minds. The viewer knows its only fiction, but for a little while the story comes alive for them in some small by significant way. Religion works in a similar fashion. Joseph Campbell's great book Hero With a Thousand Faces is a worthy read along these lines.

Evan said...

James, it's possible that Dever has moved from being a maximalist to a more moderate position now, but I think he certainly is not a minimalist and if you dichotomize he would be closer to the maximalists than he would be to Finkelstein. Perhaps I should clarify that with more than scare quotes.

The position that it makes sense to be a Christian or Jew if the scriptures are not factual is certainly open for argument, but unfortunately at the moment, the much bigger issue is to be sure that Christians and Jews know that the scriptures are not factual and then allow those arguments to happen in the context of the truth.

The simple fact is that most Christians today believe things that would embarrass a child if she believed it about anything other than religion. Therefore the joint project of atheists and liberal believers should be to change this state of affairs.

Once that project is complete, we can chat all day about whichever diety(ies) are the best to have, or whether it might be better not to have imaginary friends.

GordonBlood said...

The tired notion that the Exodus has been disproved because of archaeology of the Sinai is incredibly silly. Yes, if the Exodus was 2 million persons or so this would be problematic. But most schoalrs that I have read believe the problem is that it is a serious mistranslation of troops or clans, with the general view being that the accurate number would be more like 20,000 or so. Plenty of scholars still maintain that an Exodus of some sort still happened (for a bunch of reasons that are too numerous to mention) its just a matter of the numbers and logistics that most scholars dismiss. (Probably Colin Humphries has written the most on this issue of logistics and what not, while true he is a scientist and not a historian his views were generally well recieved)

James F. McGrath said...

I look forward to having that latter conversation, if we ever manage to accomplish the former! :)

I certainly would agree that Dever is no friend of the minimalists. I just think we need a spectrum in order to do justice to the different outlooks on archaeology, rather than a dichotomy between two camps. That's pretty much my position when it comes to religion, too...

GordonBlood said...

Perhaps I should note that Kenneth Kitchen (who, I am well aware, is a conservative scholar) wrote a book that was well respected by both moderates and conservatives. Im sure at least some of you are familiar with "On the Reliability of the Old Testament", but it covers the issue in a way that I felt was not overly pre-suppositional or inerrantist (many times he takes positions that more or less rule out inerrancy, such as what date we ought to believe such an Exodus happened. For me the simple question that has to be asked is why the Jews would a) invent such an embarrasing historical narrative and b) place that supposedly mythical narrative at the centre of Jewish understanding.

Evan said...

Gordon, the "tired" notion that Exodus has been disproven is the mainstream position of archeologists today. The most important facts are not in Egypt or the Sinai, but in the Levant. There we see the gradual growth of a Hebrew people in situ. There is no evidence of a conquest of the area, and certainly no sudden influx of a nomadic people all at once between the 15th and 12th centuries.

Therefore, the Exodus, in the main points of its narrative (the Israelites came en masse out of Egypt and conquered Canaan) is flatly false.

Now of course there were people who came to the Levant from Egypt. There were armies from Egypt and Mesopotamia that battled in Palestine and there were numerous cultural exchanges over that time period.

So anyone can sit back and say "Look, here! Someone actually did go from Egypt and settled in Israel, so therefore the Exodus is true." But that's weak tea and certainly nothing close to what is written about in the book of Exodus.

Even 20000 people wandering for 40 years in the Sinai would most definitely have left traces for archeologists to find now. In fact we have good evidence for much smaller groups transiting the silk road.

And of course, the believers in Exodus don't just believe in 20000 people. They believe in the burning bush. They believe in Moses striking the rock and water coming out. They believe mana fell from heaven. They believe that Korah, Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by the earth. They believe the sea parted and allowed the Israelites to walk on dry land, then destroyed the Egyptian army (God's battle of Cannae).

Deserts are great. They don't destroy much and so if you dig repeatedly in a desert looking for something at a given layer, and you find nothing, it's pretty compelling evidence that nothing big happened.

So yes, archeology disproves Exodus and does so quite convincingly. More importantly, this is not an atheist position. It's the position of educated people across the spectrum of belief.

James F. McGrath said...

I think it is important to define what we are talking about in this discussion somewhat more carefully. If one is trying to argue for Biblical inerrancy, then clearly the archaeological record flatly contradicts such a position. But then again, so does the Bible.

But there are a range of other positions that are compatible with the evidence, which underdetermines our conclusions. On the one hand, the combined evidence of (1) linguistic continuity (Hebrew is part of the Canaanite branch of the Semitic family of languages), (2) cultural continuity (pottery and other technology), and (3) genetic continuity (as per recent DNA research), the most likely scenario is that Israel's origins were at least for the most part from within the land formerly known as Canaan. This doesn't mean they weren't slaves of the Egyptians - the territory most certainly was an Egyptian holding, and it was at a low point in Egyptian power that Israel emerged.

But this doesn't exclude the possibility that a group from Egypt may have been involved - after all, the invention of a hero/leader with an Egyptian name, Moses, is somewhat unlikely. But it would have to be small, and/or in waves, since the various cities mentioned in Joshua were not destroyed in the course of a single generation.

Then again, there is the very real possibility that the story in Joshua reflects the realities of the age of Josiah more than any other historical period.

The biggest challenge to religious believers is for us to be willing to admit (1) that the Bible is at the very least not a straightforward historical account, "simply the facts", and (2) much of the time the only honest answer we can give as to "what really happened" is "we do not know for certain".

tom said...

For James McGrath:
"A better documentary is the one narrated by Avery Brooks..."

The only one I could find that was anywhere near the mark is "Jesus: The Complete Story", which I wouldn't have expected to address archaeological evidence for the exodus. Is there another one that you have in mind?

Thanks; always looking for additions for the Netflix cue. (BTW, DC could perhaps use a thread dedicated to documentary recommendations and discussion. Does it already have one?)

Evan said...

I just don't know if I'm ready to hear Captain Sisko start talking about Exodus.

I mean, he's the Emissary.

James F. McGrath said...

The documentary is in the Ancient Evidence series. It is actually about Jericho, for the most part, but also mentions the DNA, pottery and other evidence relevant to the Canaanite origins of the Israelites.

I think what I like about it is the fact that Capt. Sisko is narrating it...

DingoDave said...

GordonBlood wrote:
"The tired notion that the Exodus has been disproved because of archaeology of the Sinai is incredibly silly. Yes, if the Exodus was 2 million persons or so this would be problematic. But most schoalrs that I have read believe the problem is that it is a serious mistranslation of troops or clans, with the general view being that the accurate number would be more like 20,000 or so."

Nonsense. Archaeologists and satellite imagery can detect the faint traces of ancient caravan trade routes and way stations, as well as small-scale mining operations in the Sinai, yet you claim that they are unable to detect any evidence of a forty year long occupation of a group of of over 20000 people in the same vicinity? Get real Gordon.