Believing the Exodus Story

Why is it that the most unbelievable of Jewish stories is that which is most believed in?

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Evidence Not Adding Up

Besides the fact that the Torah texts do not agree with one another on the length of Israelite enslavement in Egypt, these numbers do not add up against the evidence of extra-biblical sources. In fact, the first clear historical proof of an Israelite presence in Canaan at all is the inscription on the so-called Israel Stele of the pharaoh Merneptah, dating to about 1207 B.C.E. In other words, the biblical claim of a 15th-century Exodus is off by 200 years when compared to the archeological evidence. Moreover, ancient records demonstrate that Egypt controlled Canaan in 1446, a fact that makes an escape from Egypt to Canaan at that time rather unlikely.
the exodus
Another aspect of the story that troubles modern readers is the purported size of the Exodus. The biblical claim of 600,000 men (Exodus 12:37), which including their families would total nearly 2 million people, is hyperbolic at best. Plus, many of the sites appearing in the detailed itinerary of the Israelites' route from Egypt to Canaan (see Numbers 33) cannot be verified.

Certainly, scholars like the preeminent Nahum Sarna have argued convincingly that corroborating evidence suggests a "plausible context" for the Exodus story. Many have confidently asserted that a group of people who later became Israel went down to Egypt from Canaan, settled there, and became oppressed as foreigners. At some point, it can be presumed, they were conscripted into labor and oppressed as foreigners. Some of them later escaped and professed to a transcendent experience with a divine being in the desert. Still later, they or their descendants entered Canaan, where, according to Sarna, they were joined by other peoples and became the biblical nation of Israel.

From my perspective as a professor of Jewish history and a Reform rabbi, dismissing the story because it conflicts with historical data misses the point. Holding the Torah to critical standards of historiography is unfair, because it is not intended to be a history book containing scholars' attempts to re-create an impartial rendering of what occurred in the past. Instead, the Torah is a knitting together of narratives composed to cultivate a particular spiritual and moral point of view. So when God parts the Reed Sea, I can no more expect myself to nod in faithful assent like an open-mouthed child than when reading a book like Harry Potter.

As a non-literalist, non-fundamentalist, liberal, and committed Jew, I ascertain the message behind the medium. To me, the text asserts God's ability to subvert nature as a means of demonstrating God's vital interest in the welfare of the Israelites, which extends through time--indeed, I fervently hope, to our own time. To my students' question, "But is it true?" I respond, "Yes!" and "No!" The Exodus' visible and venerated place in the Jewish calendar assures that it will be believed in, year in and year out, to our rational consternation and spiritual delight.

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Rabbi Carole Balin

Rabbi Carole B. Balin is a Professor of Jewish History at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion.