Believing the Exodus Story
Why is it that the most unbelievable of Jewish stories is that which is most believed in?
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women's Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Parashat Sh'mot sets the stage for the drama that plays out not only in the rest of the book of Exodus but around tables worldwide as Jewish families gather year in and year out for Passover seders. The Exodus and the experiences connected with it--the slavery of the Israelites, their liberation from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai, and the journey in the wilderness toward the Promised Land--are indelibly stamped on the Jewish collective memory and imagination. North American Jews relish, arguably more than any other holiday, the festival of Passover whose symbolic foods serve as props for retelling the tale of Israelite bondage that ceases with God's redemptive miracles. The story is fantastic in every sense of the term: fanciful, remarkable, unreal, and superb.
The biblical writers are at their best in these passages, crafting a gripping narrative inscribed with timeless ethical imperatives, such as "You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:20), and theological conundrums, like why does God repeatedly harden Pharaoh's heart-thereby preventing the necessary redemption without plagues befalling Egypt? This story has sustained generations of Jews, from esteemed commentators of yore to today's questioning sons and daughters with mouths full of matzah and maror. Jews of all stripes rally to the Exodus cry; even those with mere peripheral knowledge of things Jewish resonate to "Let my people go!"
Liberal Jews Love the Exodus
So why is it that the most unbelievable of Jewish stories is that which is most believed in? Why does the Exodus charm and beguile liberal Jews, even Reform Jews, who are products of a movement of leaders who early on dismissed what the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform calls "miraculous narratives" of the Bible as "reflecting the primitive ideas of its own age ..."?
Indeed, on one level, the popularity of the Exodus is baffling. One might imagine that its lack of historical veracity would knock it off its pedestal. After all, biblical scholars, whose stock in trade is comparative materials of contemporaneous ancient Near Eastern cultures and archeology, inform us that few of the book's details can be substantiated by cold, hard facts.
Take, for example, the matter of dating. Based on chronological indications in the text itself, the Hebrew Bible would have us believe that the Exodus took place in about 1446 B.C.E. One of the mathematical "proofs" for such a claim depends on the following information provided to the biblical reader in various places: Exodus 12:40 claims that the Israelite slavery in Egypt lasted 430 years (a figure that contradicts the prediction of an Egyptian sojourn of 400 years or four generations; Genesis 15:13,16).
I Kings 6:1 states that the Temple was constructed 480 years after the Exodus, during the fourth year of Solomon's forty-year reign (I Kings 11:42), which scholars date as 966 B.C.E. According to these calculations, the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt between 1876 and 1446 B.C.E. Moreover, if, as the text indicates, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land, the conquest of Canaan would have begun in approximately 1406 B.C.E.