Doubting the Story of Exodus
It’s one of the greatest stories ever told:
A baby is found in a basket adrift in the Egyptian Nile and is adopted into the pharaoh’s household. He grows up as Moses, rediscovers his roots and leads his enslaved Israelite brethren to freedom after God sends down 10 plagues against Egypt and parts the Red Sea to allow them to escape. They wander for 40 years in the wilderness and, under the leadership of Joshua, conquer the land of Canaan to enter their promised land.
For centuries, the biblical account of the Exodus has been revered as the founding story of the Jewish people, sacred scripture for three world religions and a universal symbol of freedom that has inspired liberation movements around the globe.
But did the Exodus ever actually occur?
On Passover last Sunday, Rabbi David Wolpe raised that provocative question before 2,200 faithful at Sinai Temple in Westwood. He minced no words.
“The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all,” Wolpe told his congregants.
Wolpe’s startling sermon may have seemed blasphemy to some. In fact, however, the rabbi was merely telling his flock what scholars have known for more than a decade. Slowly and often outside wide public purview, archeologists are radically reshaping modern understanding of the Bible. It was time for his people to know about it, Wolpe decided.
After a century of excavations trying to prove the ancient accounts true, archeologists say there is no conclusive evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt, were ever enslaved, ever wandered in the Sinai wilderness for 40 years or ever conquered the land of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. To the contrary, the prevailing view is that most of Joshua’s fabled military campaigns never occurred--archeologists have uncovered ash layers and other signs of destruction at the relevant time at only one of the many battlegrounds mentioned in the Bible.
Today, the prevailing theory is that Israel probably emerged peacefully out of Canaan--modern-day Lebanon, southern Syria, Jordan and the West Bank of Israel--whose people are portrayed in the Bible as wicked idolators. Under this theory, the Canaanites who took on a new identity as Israelites were perhaps joined or led by a small group of Semites from Egypt--explaining a possible source of the Exodus story, scholars say. As they expanded their settlement, they may have begun to clash with neighbors, perhaps providing the historical nuggets for the conflicts recorded in Joshua and Judges.
“Scholars have known these things for a long time, but we’ve broken the news very gently,” said William Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona and one of America’s preeminent archeologists.
Dever’s view is emblematic of a fundamental shift in archeology. Three decades ago as a Christian seminary student, he wrote a paper defending the Exodus and got an A, but “no one would do that today,” he says. The old emphasis on trying to prove the Bible--often in excavations by amateur archeologists funded by religious groups--has given way to more objective professionals aiming to piece together the reality of ancient lifestyles.
But the modern archeological consensus over the Exodus is just beginning to reach the public. In 1999, an Israeli archeologist, Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University, set off a furor in Israel by writing in a popular magazine that stories of the patriarchs were myths and that neither the Exodus nor Joshua’s conquests ever occurred. In the hottest controversy today, Herzog also argued that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, described as grand and glorious in the Bible, was at best a small tribal kingdom.
In a new book this year, “The Bible Unearthed,” Israeli archeologist Israel Finklestein of Tel Aviv University and archeological journalist Neil Asher Silberman raised similar doubts and offered a new theory about the roots of the Exodus story. The authors argue that the story was written during the time of King Josia of Judah in the 7th century BC--600 years after the Exodus supposedly occurred in 1250 BC--as a political manifesto to unite Israelites against the rival Egyptian empire as both states sought to expand their territory.
Dever argued that the Exodus story was produced for theological reasons: to give an origin and history to a people and distinguish them from others by claiming a divine destiny.
Some scholars, of course, still maintain that the Exodus story is basically factual.
Bryant Wood, director of the Associates for Biblical Research in Maryland, argued that the evidence falls into place if the story is dated back to 1450 BC. He said that indications of destruction around that time at Hazor, Jericho and a site he is excavating that he believes is the biblical city of Ai support accounts of Joshua’s conquests.
He also cited the documented presence of “Asiatic” slaves in Egypt who could have been Israelites, and said they would not have left evidence of their wanderings because they were nomads with no material culture. But Wood said he can’t get his research published in serious archeological journals.
“There’s a definite anti-Bible bias,” Wood said.
The revisionist view, however, is not necessarily publicly popular.
Herzog, Finklestein and others have been attacked for everything from faulty logic to pro-Palestinian political agendas that undermine Israel’s land claims. Dever, a former Protestant minister who converted to Judaism 12 years ago, says he gets “hissed and booed” when he speaks about the lack of evidence for the Exodus, and regularly receives letters and calls offering prayers or telling him he’s headed for hell.
At Sinai Temple, Sunday’s sermon--and a follow-up discussion at Monday’s service--provoked tremendous, and varied, response. Many praised Wolpe for his courage and vision. “It was the best sermon possible, because it is preparing the young generation to understand all the truth about religion,” said Eddia Mirharooni, a Beverly Hills fashion designer.
A few said they were hurt--”I didn’t want to hear this,” one woman said--or even a bit angry. Others said the sermon did nothing to shake their faith that the Exodus story is true.
“Science can always be proven wrong,” said Kalanit Benji, a UCLA undergraduate in psychobiology.
Added Aman Massi, a 60-year-old Los Angeles businessman: “For sure it was true, 100%. If it were not true, how could we follow it for 3,300 years?”
But most congregants, along with secular Jews and several rabbis interviewed, said that whether the Exodus is historically true or not is almost beside the point. The power of the sweeping epic lies in its profound and timeless message about freedom, they say.
The story of liberation from bondage into a promised land has inspired the haunting spirituals of African American slaves, the emancipation and civil rights movements, Latin America’s liberation theology, peasant revolts in Germany, nationalist struggles in South Africa, the American Revolution, even Leninist politics, according to Michael Walzer in the book “Exodus and Revolution.”
Many of Wolpe’s congregants said the story of the Exodus has been personally true for them even if the details are not factual: when they fled the Nazis during World War II, for instance, or, more recently, the Islamic revolution in Iran. Daniel Navid Rastein, an Encino medical professional, said he has always regarded the story as a metaphor for a greater truth: “We all have our own Egypts--we are prisoners of something, either alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, overeating. We have to use [the story] as a way to free ourselves from difficulty and make ourselves a better person.”
Wolpe, Sinai Temple’s senior rabbi, said he decided to deliver the sermon to lead his congregation into a deeper understanding of their faith. On Sunday, he told his flock that questioning the Jewish people’s founding story could be justified for one reason alone: to honor the ancient rabbinical declaration that “You do not serve God if you do not seek truth.”
“I think faith ought not rest on splitting seas,” Wolpe said in an interview. “For a Jew, it should rest on the wonder of God’s world, the marvel of the human soul and the miracle of this small people’s survival through the millennia.”
Next year, the rabbi plans to teach a course on the Bible that he says will “pull no punches” in presenting the latest scholarship questioning the text’s historical basis.
But he and others say that Judaism has also traditionally been more open to nonliteral interpretations of the text than, say, some conservative Christian traditions.
“Among Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews, there is a much greater willingness to see the Torah as an extended metaphor in which truth comes through story and law,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Among scholars, the case against the Exodus began crystallizing about 13 years ago. That’s when Finklestein, director of Tel Aviv University’s archeology institute, published the first English-language book detailing the results of intensive archeological surveys of what is believed to be the first Israelite settlements in the hilly regions of the West Bank.
The surveys, conducted during the 1970s and 1980s while Israel possessed what are now Palestinian territories, documented a lack of evidence for Joshua’s conquests in the 13th century BC and the indistinguishable nature of pottery, architecture, literary conventions and other cultural details between the Canaanites and the new settlers.
If there was no conquest, no evidence of a massive new settlement of an ethnically distinct people, scholars argue, then the case for a literal reading of Exodus all but collapses. The surveys’ final results were published three years ago.
The settlement research marked the turning point in archeological consensus on the issue, Dever said. It added to previous research that showed that Egypt’s voluminous ancient records contained not one mention of Israelites in the country, although one 1210 BC inscription did mention them in Canaan.
Kadesh Barnea in the east Sinai desert, where the Bible says the fleeing Israelites sojourned, was excavated twice in the 1950s and 1960s and produced no sign of settlement until three centuries after the Exodus was supposed to have occurred. The famous city of Jericho has been excavated several times and was found to have been abandoned during the 13th and 14th centuries BC.
Moreover, specialists in the Hebrew Bible say that the Exodus story is riddled with internal contradictions stemming from the fact that it was spliced together from two or three texts written at different times. One passage in Exodus, for instance, says that the bodies of the pharaoh’s charioteers were found on the shore, while the next verse says they sank to the bottom of the sea.
And some of the story’s features are mythic motifs found in other Near Eastern legends, said Ron Hendel, a professor of Hebrew Bible at UC Berkeley. Stories of babies found in baskets in the water by gods or royalty are common, he said, and half of the 10 plagues fall into a “formulaic genre of catastrophe” found in other Near Eastern texts.
Carol Meyers, a professor specializing in biblical studies and archeology at Duke University, said the ancients never intended their texts to be read literally. “People who try to find scientific explanations for the splitting of the Red Sea are missing the boat in understanding how ancient literature often mixed mythic ideas with historical recollections,” she said. “That wasn’t considered lying or deceit; it was a way to get ideas across.”
Virtually no scholar, for instance, accepts the biblical figure of 600,000 men fleeing Egypt, which would have meant there were a few million people, including women and children. The ancient desert at the time could not support so many nomads, scholars say, and the powerful Egyptian state kept tight security over the area, guarded by fortresses along the way.
Even Orthodox Jewish scholar Lawrence Schiffman said “you’d have to be a bit crazy” to accept that figure. He believes that the account in Joshua of a swift military campaign is less accurate than the Judges account of a gradual takeover of Canaan. But Schiffman, chairman of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, still maintains that a significant number of Israelite slaves fled Egypt for Canaan.
“I’m not arguing that archeology proves the Exodus,” he said. “I’m arguing that archeology allows you, in ambiguity, to reach whatever conclusion you want to.”
Wood argued that the 600,000 figure was mistranslated and the real number amounted to a more plausible 20,000. He also said the early Israelite settlements and their similarity to Canaanite culture could be explained as the result of pastoralists with no material culture moving into a settled farming life and absorbing their neighbors’ pottery styles and other cultural forms.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that the story is a brilliant mix of myth, cultural memories and kernels of historical truth. Perhaps, muses Hendel, a small group of Semites who escaped from Egypt became the “intellectual vanguard of a new nation that called itself Israel,” stressing social justice and freedom.
Whatever the facts of the story, those core values have endured and inspired the world for more than three millenniums--and that, many say, is the point.
“What are the Egypts I need to free myself from? How does the story inspire me in some way to work for the freedom of all?” asked Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. “These are the things that matter--not whether we built the pyramids.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.