Exodus: History and myth, then and now

Tel Aviv University researchers shed light on the origin and symbolic meaning of the story of Passover

04 April 2017

Exodus, the story at the center of the Passover holiday, represents a transition from slavery to freedom, but is there historical truth to it? Very soon Jewish families around the world will gather to celebrate the Passover Seder, and read about the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt, their march through the wilderness and arrival in the Promised Land.


A story with a message of hope

According to the Biblical story, Jews resided in Egypt for centuries and were enslaved. God spoke to Moses and commanded him to demand that Pharaoh release the people of Israel. When Pharaoh refused, God punished Egypt with a series of plagues, and after the tenth one Pharaoh agreed to let the Jews leave Egypt. However, the Egyptians gave chase and the Jews survived only thanks to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea.


The Torah commands an annual celebration of Passover: "Observe the month of Aviv and celebrate the Passover of the Lord your God, because in the month of Aviv he brought you out of Egypt by night. 2 Sacrifice as the Passover to the Lord your God an animal from your flock or herd at the place the Lord will choose as a dwelling for his Name. 3 Do not eat it with bread made with yeast, but for seven days eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, because you left Egypt in haste—so that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt. 4 Let no yeast be found in your possession in all your land for seven days. Do not let any of the meat you sacrifice on the evening of the first day remain until morning." (Deuteronomy 16: 1-4)


This is the story many of us know from childhood, but is there any historical truth to it? Is it possible that a group of people wandered the desert for 40 years, and were they the forefathers of the Jewish faith? We talked to Prof. Israel Finkelstein, a senior researcher at the Department of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and one of the most prominent scholars in the field of biblical archeology today.


"The question of historical accuracy in the story of Exodus has occupied scholars since the beginning of modern research," says Prof. Finkelstein. "Most have searched for the historical and archaeological evidence in the Late Bronze Age, the 13th century BCE, partly because  the story mentions the city of Ramses, and because at the end of that century an Egyptian document referred to a group called ’Israel‘ in Canaan. However, there is no archaeological evidence of the story itself, in either Egypt or Sinai, and what has been perceived as historical evidence from Egyptian sources can be interpreted differently. Moreover, the Biblical story does not demonstrate awareness of the political situation in Canaan during the Late Bronze Age – a powerful Egyptian administration that could have handled an invasion of groups from the desert. Additionally, many of the details in the Biblical story fit better with a later period in the history of Egypt, around the 7-6th centuries BCE – roughly the time when the Biblical story as we know it today was put into writing.


“However, this was not a story invented by later authors, since references to the Exodus appear in Hosea and Amos' chapters of prophecy, which probably date to the 8th century BCE, suggesting that the tradition is ancient. In this sense, some scholars propose that the origin lies in an ancient historical event – the expulsion of Canaanites from the Nile Delta in the middle of the second millennium BCE. In any case the Exodus story is layered and represents more than one period.


“It seems that the story of the exodus was one of the founding texts of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and that it came to Judah after the destruction of Israel. It is possible that in the later days of Judah, a time of approaching confrontation with Egypt, the story expressed hope, showing a clash with mighty Egypt of the distant past, in which the Children of Israel prevailed. Later the story held a message of hope for those exiled in Babylon, that it was possible to overcome exile, cross a desert and return to the land of the forefathers. Above all, the story of Exodus has been an eternal metaphor for escaping slavery for freedom, in Jewish and other traditions."


Slavery and the yearning for redemption – then and now

We also met with Prof. Ron Margolin, of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and the MA Program in Religious Studies, and head of the Ofakim program, who talked about the meaning of the Exodus story in our lives today:


"Exodus is the foundational myth of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple, and in many ways its parallel in the Christian world – that differs from it significantly –is the myth of Christ's crucifixion," Prof. Margolin said. "The first reflects a belief in personal and national redemption and an optimistic future for one and all on the basis of commitment to upholding the laws of the Torah and their spirit. The second reflects a belief in personal salvation for the whole based on empathy with the suffering god-man.


“The importance of the story of Exodus is in its existential meaning for the individual and the people. Exodus is liberation from bondage for the Jews, but its purpose is also to shape the life of the individual as the Haggadah demands: ‘In each and every generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he went out of Egypt.’ This means that every person should see themselves, on Passover and all year round, as one who is redeemed, i.e., left Egypt. In the Bible, the requirement to ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt’ (Deuteronomy 5: 15) is the most common reasoning for the moral commandments. Those who were freed from slavery must remember the taste of it so they can have empathy for those who are in bondage now. ‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. […] Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God’ (Leviticus 25: 39-43). ‘Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt ’ (Exodus 22: 21).


“The Passover Haggadah was formulated after the destruction of the Second Temple as a substitute for the Passover sacrifice. In light of the subjugation to the Romans, the authors emphasized the hope for the people's redemption – what we now call national redemption.  The realization of that hope was the establishment of the State of Israel. But Judaism does not separate the redemption of the group from that of the individual, and there is no point in national redemption if individuals continue to act as slaves. Today, more than ever, it is important not to forget the educational role of the Seder.


“Along with giving thanks for the end of the national plight, it's important to note the existential and moral implications of the exodus story through the ages. Leaven (“chametz”) originates from the yeast that ferments and sours the dough, which was used as a metaphor for evil inclination as early as the days of the sages. Kabbalistic-Hassidic writings deepened this meaning. Destroying leaven became a symbolic expression of internal detachment from evil within the individual, from the soured heart. Eating matza during Passover expresses the longing for a new beginning that characterizes the spring. Slavery has, as I've said, two meanings – the national-political and the individual-moral. Slavery is slavery to habits, difficult traits, personal memories, impulses and excessive passions. The yearning for redemption is a yearning for the redemption of all, but this cannot be realized without the redemption of individuals from their personal enslavements."


Whether the story occurred in the distant past, or whether it's really a parable or myth, Tel Aviv University would like to wish everyone a happy Passover, and may we all be liberated from our personal, social, physical and psychological enslavements towards the spring of freedom and new beginnings.

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