Pessah (Passover) celebrates an event now some 3 thousand years in the past: the liberation of the Israelites from state-imposed slavery in Egypt. At Passover seders around the world tonight, Jews will retell the story in a choreographed setting — even if this year there are no children and grandchildren around the table to initiate the story-telling. With or without listeners, the story will be told of how the Israelites were enslaved to Pharaoh, and how God brought natural disasters and plagues down upon the Egyptians until they consented to release their foreign slaves.
But did any of this really happen?
For several decades, it has been the fashion to examine the details of Biblical texts in search of proof or counter-proofs to their historicity. The Exodus from Egypt has been a particularly juicy target of such investigations, forming as it does the foundation of so much of Jewish cultural identity.
Rabbi Zev Farber declared categorically that “given the data to which modern historians have access, it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass exodus from Egypt… as historical.”
Others, while conceding that the massive Exodus as described in the Torah probably never happened, suggest that the Biblical narrative nevertheless rests on a kernel of truth; only a core group of exiles from the tribe of Levi suffered enslavement in Egypt. As the educator caste, their experience later worked its way into the Israelite cultural mythos.
Reading between the lines
In the past few years, the tide of skepticism appears to be turning. In an exhaustive article for Mosaic, Joshua Berman sums up the evidence in support of an Israelite presence in Egypt during the reign of Rameses II. Numerous literary and historical details of the Biblical story, he writes, “do strikingly appear to reflect the realities of late-second-millennium Egypt—the period when the exodus would most likely have taken place.”
In particular, Berman notes that the the Exodus story borrows motifs and stylistic elements — and sometimes exact phrases — from a prominent piece of Pharaonic propaganda of the time: the glorification of the Pharoah’s victory over the Hittites in the Battle of Kadesh.
Berman argues that the extent of the similarities, coupled with the fact that the original Pharaonic text was widely known at the time, points to “a deliberate act of cultural appropriation.”
In a response to Berman, Richard Hess points out that the Biblical plagues each represent a victory over one or another of the Egyptian gods, and that the tenth plague — the death of the first-born — represents a symbolic defeat of Pharaoh himself as god-king and giver of life to his people.
Berman’s conclusion is that there is a core of historical truth beneath the literary embellishment of miracles and wonders. “That [the Israelites] embraced and preserved this defiant transvaluation of royal propaganda suggests that they experienced a collectively transformative event, one that dramatically elevated their lot at the expense of a mighty regent.”
Historicity or midrash
Does any of this matter? For some, the historical accuracy of the Bible is the underpinning of all of Jewish life. After all, the Covenant itself, in the form of the Ten Commandments, begins with the preamble: “I am the Lord your God, who bought you up out of Egypt.” If there was no Egyptian bondage, no miraculous escape to freedom, no subsequent experience at Sinai, then what’s left of Judaism?
Plenty! Judaism, as a culture, a religion, and a philosophy, is robust enough to withstand the decoupling from history—in fact, such decoupling occurs in every generation, and this is what gives Judaism its power and resilience. Judaism has already so radically reinterpreted its foundation myths and historic origins that they no longer have the meanings they did to our ancestors. This is not a bug; it’s a feature! This is how Judaism evolves as a living culture.
But more, the ability to retain significance and meaning for successive generations living in widely different circumstances is the mark of great art and great literature. It is also one of the hallmarks of an art form characteristic of the Jewish people from its inception: the art of midrash aggadah, or interpretive story-telling.
Miracles as musical notes
As moderns, we are trained to sift through the fantastic embellishments of ancient story-telling to look for the truth. This is precisely what Joshua Berman and his responders do in their masterful analysis. It’s what we do as academics, as archaeologists, and as Biblical philologists . But if we stop there, we risk missing a deeper layer of meaning.
The story-telling of the Bible is midrash agaddah at its most powerful. It is not satisfied with mere factual truth; it strives for meaning and purpose. To a people attuned to the theological significance of every event, for whom history was a dialogue with the divine the fantastical and miraculous embellishments were not mere window dressing. Rather, they served as musical notes pointing to one particular interpretation of a historical event. The details of miracles and wonders are there to help us find the tune, to see the significance of the event in the overall life of our people.
In the case of the Exodus, the conscious appropriation of the Pharaoh’s own propaganda was an act of political satire, and the particular details embellishing the story point to a “tune” which is at once joyous, triumphant… and scathingly insulting to the greatest ruler of the region.
The Egyptian experience, not as a historical fact, but as a deeply-felt cultural motif, penetrates and pervades all subsequent Jewish law. The commandment to “love the stranger” appears no fewer than 36 times in the Biblical text, and serves as the basis of derivation of countless later customs and laws. The relevance of the Exodus story goes beyond mere factual truth; its true significance lies in what we’ve built on it and how it has molded us as a people who, in every generation, have made it our own.