Thursday, May 3, 2012

Did the Exodus really happen? Does it matter?

Some time ago, Rabbi David Wolpe created quite a stir by telling his congregation that the story of the Exodus, as told in the Book of Exodus, may not have happened.

Congregants, and observers, were scandalized. Academics and many Rabbis were somewhat bemused. This wasn't, for them, shocking news. It wasn't news, at all.

As I've said from time to time, maybe with a touch too much snark, do you expect me to be surprised that there are serious historical inaccuracies in a book which opens with a story about a talking snake and a magic apple?

Snark aside, it's old news to those who pay attention to such things that archeologists all but dismiss the possibility that there was an Exodus or, at least, one which looks at all like the Biblical account. As Wolpe talks about in a recent article, there is none of the physical evidence that you'd expect from 2 million people wandering around a desert for 40 years. But, that's an "argument from silence" - a lack of evidence that is not the same as counter-evidence (even if, as in this case, it's an extraordinary, nearly inexplicable lack of evidence). 

Of course, there's more than just that lack of evidence to support this claim:

However, the archeological conclusions are not based primarily on the absence of Sinai evidence. Rather, they are based upon the study of settlement patterns in Israel itself. Surveys of ancient settlements--pottery remains and so forth--make it clear that there simply was no great influx of people around the time of the Exodus (given variously as between 1500-1200 BCE).

But, where Wolpe's article get most interesting for me is when he explains why it's important for us to talk about this. We aren't, it should be obvious, trying to debunk or destroy Judaism. Quite to opposite:

Truth should not frighten one whose faith is firm. As the Israeli Orthodox rabbi and scholar Mordecai Breuer writes: "Unable to withstand the contradiction (between faith and modern biblical scholarship) most men of faith consciously avoid biblical scholarship in order to safeguard their traditional belief." Those who hold that people should never explore such questions have very circumscribed notions of why God gave us brains. The Talmud ringingly declares: "God's seal is truth" (Shabbat 55a).

As Wolpe points out earlier, "600,000 Jewish men escaped from Egypt" it a fact claim. It's either true or false. But, my wanting it to be true, even my needing it to be true don't make it true. So, a rational person should be willing to ask whether it's true, at all. If my faith is so shaky that some inconvenient facts can destroy it, then it must not have been a very strong faith.

Faith is a terrible word, in fact, for what I have, because in America (the West?), faith is usually taken to mean belief in something for which there is no proof. I hate that definition. Because, I am bound and determined to only believe things that actually are true. And, when something can't be proven true, I am skeptical of it. When something can be disproven, I don't think it's true. That shouldn't be a very controversial or unusual statement, but in the religious world, it often is.

There are those who still believe that blind belief in the inerrant accuracy of our ancient text is the very definition of piety (look at the comments to Wolpe's article, if you want an example). There is literal faith, and there is atheism. Everything in between is a lie - usually seen as a weakness of will to either believe, or to confess a lack of belief.


Religion, God, belief - all of it - can be about much more than the assertion of a specific set of historical facts. Again, I think they have to be - if my faith is centered on facts, then disproving those facts destroys my faith. It's a dangerous place to be - just ask Galileo and others like him who were punished for presenting facts which threatened to upset the theological apple-cart. A faith which is grounded in the understanding that these texts were our ancestors' way of capturing and encoding larger truths, but that they were not a way of recording factual history? That's, to me, a much stronger faith.

And, it's a faith which, I believe, is unassailably true. Which, I have to admit, I kinda like.

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