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April 8, 2012 10:23 AM   Subscribe

While Passover is an ancient and rich tradition, the story it celebrates didn't actually ever happen. The people who eventually became the Jews were almost certainly never in Egypt in any significant numbers, were never slaves there, and never made a long journey out of Egypt across the Sinai.
posted by dmd (120 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite

 
My Haggadah uses this text:

Tonight we remember the struggles of our people throughout history. Archeologists, historians, and religious scholars all tell us that the story of Exodus is best seen as metaphor and not history — we were never literally slaves in Egypt, and when we talk of our oppression by the Egyptians, we should be careful to remember that no such oppression ever took place. But ancient and modern times are filled with real histories, from the Inquisition and diaspora of 15th century Europe to the Russian pogroms that drove some of our recent ancestors to this country. Most of all, through the personal histories of family and friends, our own lives are still touched by the events of the Holocaust — a time in which three times as many Jews were murdered as were alive in the time of Exodus. While here today we are free to celebrate the Passover in whatever way tradition and personal preference dictate, people in other parts of the world may not be so fortunate. While we sing, others still weep; while we recline like kings, others are still in bondage. So while the story of Passover is not a literal retelling of past events, it cautions us to remember that what happened before can happen again.

Remember that what we do here tonight is metaphor, and keep in mind how you would feel if some other culture had a tradition of telling a story, presented as truth, about how they, as a culture, were oppressed by the Jews, and let this night be a lesson in the dangers of that kind of story.
posted by dmd at 10:24 AM on April 8, 2012 [96 favorites]


Remember that what we do here tonight is metaphor

good approach to pretty much every ritual observed by humans, which diminishes nothing. In fact, it deepens everything.
posted by philip-random at 10:26 AM on April 8, 2012 [53 favorites]


Without necessarily disagreeing with any of the statements made in the first two sentences...this post feels a little trollish (and the paragraph portion sounds completely fabricated). I'd love to be wrong though. We could all use a little more humility and realism with our inherited cultural mythologies.
posted by trackofalljades at 10:32 AM on April 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Bob Marley was well aware of the facts, but just couldn't get "thought-provoking and moving, but metaphor not history" to scan in a catchy way.
posted by Abiezer at 10:34 AM on April 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


What Haggadah is that from, dmd?
posted by rmd1023 at 10:37 AM on April 8, 2012


Next you'll be telling me that Hindu festivals don't actually mark real events like the slayings of demons, the births of gods, or the creation of the universe.
posted by hippybear at 10:37 AM on April 8, 2012 [19 favorites]


Further, how immoral is it for modern Jews to continue to perpetuate this myth at the expense of Egyptian dignity? For thousands of years, the Jews have blamed the Egyptians for enslaving their ancestors when that never actually happened. Continuing to celebrate Passover without acknowledging the truth of history only perpetuates the shame.

Forgive my ignorance, but... does anyone actually do this? I mean blame modern Egyptians for something that happened (or may have happened) thousands of years ago under a regime that has almost no cultural, political, linguistic, religious, or any other ties to the current one?
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:37 AM on April 8, 2012 [18 favorites]


rmd1023: "My" as in "the one my family has been editing and rewriting for ages".
posted by dmd at 10:39 AM on April 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


orgive my ignorance, but... does anyone actually do this? I mean blame modern Egyptians for something that happened (or may have happened) thousands of years ago under a regime that has almost no cultural, political, linguistic, religious, or any other ties to the current one?
posted by GenjiandProust


I dunno, but people still blame the Jews for killing Jesus.
posted by Keith Talent at 10:40 AM on April 8, 2012 [32 favorites]


Yeah? Well... well, don't let Charlton Heston hear about this, is all I can say.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:41 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mean blame modern Egyptians for something that happened (or may have happened) thousands of years ago under a regime that has almost no cultural, political, linguistic, religious, or any other ties to the current one?

If, as a kid, you had to eat dried paste for a week you'd understand.
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:46 AM on April 8, 2012 [13 favorites]


I somehow doubt that the Passover story has much of an impact on current Egypt-Israel relations (which had been, until last spring, quite good; I don't know what changes there have been since then).

On the one hand, I think it's important that this story is known to be more metaphor than literal reality (I remember that I thought that it was at least semi-truth -- the slave part, maybe, if not the plague part -- unlike other stories which I thought were all myth, and I don't think I am the only person who thought the Passover story was truer than other ones), but on the other hand it's not like this is the only religious story that turns out not to be true.

And reading the articles, it suggests that there were Israelites in Canaan all along, and then some Israelite slaves joined them and that story got distorted, so it isn't exactly "didn't ever happen", and is about as close to the story as I could have expected.

I really love that part of your Haggadah, dmd.
posted by jeather at 10:50 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Isn't this a bit like posting a "Jesus didn't actually exist, you fools!" on Easter?
posted by Justinian at 10:52 AM on April 8, 2012 [14 favorites]


Isn't this a bit like posting a "Jesus didn't actually exist, you fools!" on Easter?

No, silly, this is TOTALLY DIFFERENT.

This is more like saying that on the day after Easter.
posted by trackofalljades at 10:56 AM on April 8, 2012 [27 favorites]


Isn't this a bit like posting a "Jesus didn't actually exist, you fools!" on Easter?

I think Christians are a lot more insecure and freak out a lot more about that kind of thing.

I don't think there are too many jews on metafilter invested in whether or not we built the pyramids.
posted by andoatnp at 10:57 AM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is an interesting part of this story that I did not see mentioned in the OP - which is while there is certainly not much historical or archaeological evidence for the story of Exodus, we do think there is a very good chance that there was some kind of migration (of whatever kind) out of Egypt into the land of Caanan/Israel/Palestine.

The reason we can say that is that is Moses, a deeply revealing name that is not only not a Jewish name but actually an Ancient Egyptian one. For the hero of the Exodus and the man presented as writing the Pentateuch to be a non-Israelite by choice is something that no subsequent Israelite writer would have chosen by choice. So there is a fascinating story somewhere about an Egyptian with an ancient connection to the people who would become the Israelites, albeit not one that has yet been told.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 10:58 AM on April 8, 2012 [16 favorites]


I don't think this is a troll. It's not even controversial that the Exodus never happened at this point.
posted by empath at 10:59 AM on April 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


If it were true, wouldn't the Jews be best friends with the Muslims for kicking out the Pharaohs?

hey, this is no place for REAL historical accuracy
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:00 AM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


TEACH THE CONTROVERSY
posted by wittgenstein at 11:03 AM on April 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


And while we're on the subject of being sacrilegious about jewish holidays, I made a post a couple of years ago during Chanukkah about the made up parts of the holidays, "The True Story of Chanukkah" that was very well received.
posted by andoatnp at 11:04 AM on April 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


"If it were true, wouldn't the Jews be best friends with the Muslims for kicking out the Pharaohs?"

Nope that was the pagan Romans.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:07 AM on April 8, 2012


Isn't this a bit like posting a "Jesus didn't actually exist, you fools!" on Easter?

Not exactly. Judaism hasn't generally been about exact literal truths from the Torah, though there is growth in that (unfortunately).

But again: there were Jews who were enslaved in Egypt and came to Canaan (probably), there just weren't millions of them (okay) and they probably didn't spend 40 years in the desert (big shock).
posted by jeather at 11:08 AM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Egypt was also Christian for three hundred years before Islam arrived
posted by Blasdelb at 11:08 AM on April 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Man, reading that link to the Pentateuch is fascinating.
posted by Xoebe at 11:09 AM on April 8, 2012


I never actually thought about this before and assumed it was historically accurate. Mildly interesting to find out it's "not" if nothing else from a viewpoint of "hey self, how come you didn't know that or even wonder".
posted by Iteki at 11:11 AM on April 8, 2012 [19 favorites]


For the hero of the Exodus and the man presented as writing the Pentateuch to be a non-Israelite by choice is something that no subsequent Israelite writer would have chosen by choice.

Also important is the fact that Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, was a priest. I was taught growing up that this was an overt reference to the fact that the Pentateuch was heavily based on contemporary religious practice.
posted by allen.spaulding at 11:16 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


andoatnp: I'm in awe of your post, and wish I had had the time and energy to do this that much justice!

EVERYONE GO LOOK AT ANDOATNP'S POST. THAT IS WHAT AN FPP SHOULD BE.
posted by dmd at 11:19 AM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


So year after year I asked those four questions, and year after year I got answers that were flat-out wrong? That's...pretty consistent with the rest of my childhood, actually.
posted by PlusDistance at 11:21 AM on April 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


That's ok. I'm listening to Metallica right now, and I don't care. Creeping Death is a fuckin' killer tune.
posted by symbioid at 11:24 AM on April 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's pretty well accepted that the ancient Jews did not slave away at the pyramids, and that the history of the Bible is distorted, usually through a lens that magnifies the world importance of the Jewish people and nation. (And is especially unreliable the further back in time--i.e. the chances of there never being a Moses are much higher than the chances there never was a David or Saul).

Still, I think there MAY be historical kernels of truth. As others have pointed out, even the name Moses seems genuine, and the "manna" the Israelites ate during their wanderings are real plants in the area. I think most archaeologists now say the Jewish religion was a developed from within the Canaanite culture of the time, not from without it (patriarchs arrive from Ur, detour in Egypt, return and conquer). I've read the suggestion that Canaan at the time was a vassal state of Egypt, and its people resented Egypt a great deal, so they were especially receptive to a religion identified with achieving freedom from Egypt (there does also appear to be a genuine Egyptian royal declaration from the time, celebrating victory in battle, that "the seed of Israel is scattered".)

One thing I find fascinating is that Arabs and Jews have both accepted that the Islamic nations were offshoots of Abraham through Ishmael. After all, Mohammad lived 1,000 years after Abraham. And yet the Koran, as the New Testament, presents itself as a continuation/completion of the Old Testament, complete with stories of David, Solomon, et al. To me such continuity over time seems unlikely. Similarly, I can imagine a smaller group of Hebrews (perhaps some of whom had experiences in Egypt?) having their story adopted by the wider population of Canaanites.
posted by Schmucko at 11:32 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory: "The reason we can say that is that is Moses, a deeply revealing name that is not only not a Jewish name but actually an Ancient Egyptian one. For the hero of the Exodus and the man presented as writing the Pentateuch to be a non-Israelite by choice is something that no subsequent Israelite writer would have chosen by choice. So there is a fascinating story somewhere about an Egyptian with an ancient connection to the people who would become the Israelites, albeit not one that has yet been told."

You mean the theory of Akhenaten?
posted by symbioid at 11:35 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't this a bit like posting a "Jesus didn't actually exist, you fools!" on Easter?

You mean necessary and praiseworthy? Yes.
posted by DU at 11:37 AM on April 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Isn't this a bit like posting a "Jesus didn't actually exist, you fools!" on Easter?

Oh the irony.

posted by Brian B. at 11:38 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


We discussed this with my in-laws last night. They do very much see the Exodus story as history and not merely metaphorical.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 11:40 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


After all, Mohammad lived 1,000 years after Abraham.

Well, assuming Abraham existed, it was more like 2 or 3 thousand years.
posted by empath at 11:45 AM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Duh, thanks empath, that's what I meant--2 thousand. Even one would be shocking for its claim of continuity though.
posted by Schmucko at 11:46 AM on April 8, 2012


There is ongoing scholarly discussion about the historicity of the Exodus. What is beyond doubt is that hyper-skeptical trolls will continue to imitate the ultra-religious by claiming to have absolute certainty about difficult historical questions.
posted by No Robots at 11:50 AM on April 8, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm an atheist and not prone to treating the bible as history, but the sources cited fail to disprove the presence of jewish slaves in ancient Egypt or their exodus. It's very weak to turn up a few tombs of pyramid builders who weren't Jewish slaves, and take that to mean that no Jewish slaves were ever in Egypt.
posted by w0mbat at 11:53 AM on April 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


It wonders me if a higher percentage of Christians believe the literal Exodus account than Jews? I don't recall being taught the event great detail, as it's a sideline for Christians, and maybe there's a lot less critical thought given to it by the general believer?
posted by Jehan at 11:57 AM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm always grateful, and slightly relieved, whenever religious texts and tenets can be appreciated for their metaphorical context, rather than somehow twisted in an attempt to express some literal truth.
posted by spoobnooble II: electric bugaboo at 12:00 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is ongoing scholarly discussion about the historicity of the Exodus.

There is ongoing scholarly discussion about the historicity of the Bible, the Exodus part was early dismissed.
posted by Brian B. at 12:02 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The difference between literal and figurative language is in whether or not the given meanings of words and phrases have already been agreed upon. Converting figurative into literal might be as simple as adding the word "like" in the right places. Sometimes you don't even need that much; the use of the verb "see" to mean "understand" was intuitive enough, to enough people, that it would be sort of thick-headed to suggest it's still a strictly figurative meaning. You can look it up in the dictionary.

Establishing whether or not the Exodus story is figurative, then, is a red herring. Supposing it isn't, that might not imply anything about what it's about, because sometimes the story in question includes texts like dmd's. Supposing it is, well, maybe it wasn't within the borders of what is now considered Egypt. Now what?

Far more important, I think, is to understand what it's taken to mean by the people who say they believe in it. If you don't know that, then you don't know what they believe in. If they don't know that, then they don't know what they believe in.
posted by LogicalDash at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The "didn't actually" link seems to be a giant, slightly blurred goatse (?!)
posted by O Blitiri at 12:15 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, but everyone knows The Chosen People had a tartan.
posted by clvrmnky at 12:31 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bob Marley was well aware of the facts, but just couldn't get "thought-provoking and moving, but metaphor not history" to scan in a catchy way.

In the case of the Greatest Mis-heard Lyric Ever, I used to work with an El Salvadoran fellow, who with his limited understanding of English assumed Marley to be saying "Mexicans -- Groovy bunch'a people."

Apropos of nothing, of course.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:33 PM on April 8, 2012 [15 favorites]


Moses was adopted as a baby, wasn't he? By Egyptians? Of course he had an Egyptian name!

Yes, but everyone knows The Chosen People had a tartan.

Oddly enough, the legendary origin of the Scots also features an exodus from Egypt.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:42 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Exodus trivia: for the headcount in Exodus and Numbers to be accurate, something on the order of 1 out of every 20 people on Earth was Jewish and camping the desert.
posted by justkevin at 12:49 PM on April 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


This haggadah is pretty good.
posted by dmd at 12:51 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Blame the Egyptians? not at all. The service is a reminder that a people that were slaves found freedom...Am Indians remember their past. Black people remember the days of slavery.
An do on. You don't do the blame game so much as emphasize remembering your past.

If you ignore where you came from and your past then you live simply alone in the present with history to connect to.
Do you celebrate 4th of July? why? of course: so you can drink lots of beers.
posted by Postroad at 12:54 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Blame the Egyptians? not at all.

Eh, I was going by the article; I can't say I have heard anyone do this.

Do you celebrate 4th of July? why? of course: so you can drink lots of beers.

As is often the case, Kate Beaton (a Canadian) said it best
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:03 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Worth noting that David Wolpe (the rabbi in the Q&A linked in the post) caused a huge uproar in Conservative and Orthodox circles back in 2001 when he declared that the haggadah was metaphor and not history. The Reform movement had believed and promoted the idea that the Torah (and Haggadah) were metaphoric stories and not literal documents for decades prior. But a prominent Conservative Rabbi doing so was something new. And in those circles his position -- that position -- is still considered controversial. And yes, still debated.

So it's not as cut and dried amongst religious Jews as one would think. Nor do the sentiments expressed by dmd's family's haggadah speak for all Jews. But they're interesting to discuss, nonetheless.
posted by zarq at 1:25 PM on April 8, 2012 [5 favorites]




I don't think there are too many jews on metafilter invested in whether or not we built the pyramids.

From a civil engineering standpoint I am maybe a little invested, tbh.
posted by elizardbits at 1:59 PM on April 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Well that settles it. I'm sure this will help reduce all kinds of violence in the name of religion.
posted by odinsdream at 2:16 PM on April 8, 2012


I dunno, but people still blame the Jews for killing Jesus.

Yeah, and that makes them idiots.

"Isn't this a bit like posting a "Jesus didn't actually exist, you fools!" on Easter?"

You mean necessary and praiseworthy?


....Well bless your heart.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:23 PM on April 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


This won't help the Egyptians recover their "lost" gold.
Citing the Torah, Dr. Hilmi is demanding, presumably on Egypt's behalf, the return of "gold, jewelry, cooking utensils, silver ornaments, clothing and more," not to mention interest thereon, taken by the ancestors of today's Jews "in the middle of the night" -- a "clear theft of a host country's resources and treasure, something that fits the morals and character of the Jews."
(2003)
But yeah, if it could be conclusively proved that the Exodus story was fabricated, it would be interesting to understand why that particular story was composed.
Nope that was the pagan Romans.
Macedonian Greeks, really.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:29 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


clvrmnky: "Yes, but everyone knows The Chosen People had a tartan."

We're still waiting for that mefi plaid.
posted by symbioid at 2:37 PM on April 8, 2012


Even if the story is 100% true, jews still wouldn't have been working on the pyramids before the exodus. People usually say that the whole thing went down under the reign or Ramses II or thereabouts and the pyramids were built loooong before then. The pyramids probably weren't built by slaves anyway.

So no more pyramid talk, you'll make the pharohs sad.
posted by Winnemac at 2:43 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


But yeah, if it could be conclusively proved that the Exodus story was fabricated, it would be interesting to understand why that particular story was composed.

It was written while they were in captivity in Babylon.
posted by empath at 2:45 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Remember that what we do here tonight is metaphor

good approach to pretty much every ritual observed by humans, which diminishes nothing. In fact, it deepens everything.

A pleasant thought, philip-random. "Every ritual" is a bit over-reaching however, as some of those rituals are horrific and inherently hate-filled.

As for "trolling" the Passover observers... since when is discussing the facts of history trolling? Is it trolling to mention that Columbus didn't actually discover a route to India on Columbus Day?

You can worship whatever turnip or scented breeze strikes your fancy, but don't expect me to speak in hushed tones and pretend it's real to me.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:08 PM on April 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Wait, you mean religions are based on made up stories? Hold the presses...
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:23 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


andoatnp: “I think Christians are a lot more insecure and freak out a lot more about that kind of thing.”

I think that's largely because Christianity and Judaism are fundamentally different in this respect. Judaism keeps the esoteric and the exoteric distinct; there is the story and the meaning, the thing it's meant to indicate. Christianity focuses more on the locus of symbol and reality – or, in other words, the moment when the Divine becomes mortal, when the infinite comes down into the finite – but because of that it tends to mix the esoteric and the exoteric, the inner and the outer. This leads to all kinds of difficult and sometimes unfortunate ambiguities like "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me" – an apparently emphatic exclusionary statement which hides an esoteric meaning behind the fact that Christ himself is a symbol. Because Christianity is about the Eternal and Absolute coming down into the finite and limited and inhabiting within them, there has to be at its core a kind of absolute statement about a finite thing.

IAmBroom: “You can worship whatever turnip or scented breeze strikes your fancy, but don't expect me to speak in hushed tones and pretend it's real to me.”

You can worship whatever turnip or scented breeze strikes your fancy, and if it behooves you I'll speak in hushed tones if only out of a reverence for the degree to which I believe you take part in the sacred.
posted by koeselitz at 4:24 PM on April 8, 2012 [23 favorites]


Had Hitler succeeded we'd had lost all traces of German Judaica. Already politically motivated scholars are trying to downplay the extent of the Holocaust and this event is still in the memories of living people.
posted by humanfont at 4:25 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


You know what else never happened?

Almost all of the stories told in the bible.
posted by spitbull at 4:34 PM on April 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


As for "trolling" the Passover observers... since when is discussing the facts of history trolling? Is it trolling to mention that Columbus didn't actually discover a route to India on Columbus Day?

You can worship whatever turnip or scented breeze strikes your fancy, but don't expect me to speak in hushed tones and pretend it's real to me.


It's trolling when it is done right around the time people are celebrating their holiday. It is an attempt to harsh someone's buzz, which is never cool.
posted by gjc at 4:37 PM on April 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Sanctuary from these feverish smiles
Left with a mark on the door...
posted by juiceCake at 5:08 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's trolling when it is done right around the time people are celebrating their holiday. It is an attempt to harsh someone's buzz, which is never cool.

I wish it had been posted a few days earlier, because it would have been an excellent addition to our seder. I don't think it's trolling, honestly.
posted by jeather at 5:34 PM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Bible actually doesn't say anything about pyramids. It says that they "built for Pharaoh store cities, both Pitom and Ramses". This cannot possibly refer to the Pyramids, which are almost completely solid inside. And the pyramids were made of stone, whereas the Bible says that the Jews were required to construct mud bricks. So the articles that are based on refuting the claim about the pyramids are, ironically, defeating a straw man.

Incidentally, there are other Egyptian (or presumably Egyptian) words in the Bible. The most obvious instances are when Joseph is given the title "avrech" (Genesis 41:43) and Pharaoh renames him "Tzaphnath-Paaneah". I've seen some speculation about the meaning of these words but I'm not sure whether it's generally considered settled.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:43 PM on April 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


This isn't trolling at all. Judaism allows for these kinds of discussions, even encourages them (at least the Judaism I grew up with, and I went to a conservative synagogue).
posted by Wordwoman at 5:53 PM on April 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


FORMER CATHOLIC, SURVIVOR OF 12 YEARS OF CATHOLIC SCHOOL and i can tell you that Exodus may be treated by Jews as a metaphors but to Catholics, it's actually taught as biblical HISTORY. and it's one of the reasons why many people dont see a problem with today's Israel contesting Sinai borders with Egypt.

that the Bible is even used to rationalize a Jewish state in the eyes of many xians, is one thing. to use it as historical evidence of where borders start and end, it's totally bananas but that's the awful truth.
posted by liza at 5:57 PM on April 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


since when is discussing the facts of history trolling?

We discussed, at length, whether we thought this post was at some level trolling or not. dmd has never given us any reason to think he might be doing anything but offering a sincerely nerdy aspect to the holiday that he found interesting. While the inclusion of his personal haggadah made us raise an eyebrow, it wasn't enough to delete the post. That said, the timing is ungreat and if this were some random unknown user, this post may very well have been axed as stunty given the content and the timing. That said, we all felt more or less as Wordwoman commented: Judaism is all about these sorts of slightly needling conversations at times, but that doesn't mean everyone else enjoys or agrees with that approach. People should feel free to continue this discussion in MeTa if they need to, but just wanted to give a heads up on what we were thinking.
posted by jessamyn at 6:22 PM on April 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


I was at a couple of Seders, the past couple of nights. There were lots of people there who were very well educated (multiple PhD's) and pretty interested in their Jewish heritage- people who had been going to the Seder for 30 to 70 years. I mentioned to them that, to the best of my knowledge, the basic story of the exodus is untrue. They were all really surprised, and in fact initially figured I must be wrong. They assumed a lot of the details were fuzzy, but that there was some basic historical truth to this.

This is terribly anecdotal, and maybe the group I saw was not typical. But to me, it's pretty interesting to see that many smart, curious, genuinely informed people go to the Seder every year, assuming it is an observation of something factually true, when in fact it is not.

To me, it matters a fair bit in terms of the meaning of the ceremony. Not to say that there's no value at all to it if the truths of it are metaphorical. But if we have a ritual of getting together every year to make sure we never forget a particular story, it matters whether the story happened or not.
posted by ManInSuit at 6:31 PM on April 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


articles that are based on refuting the claim about the pyramids are, ironically, defeating a straw man.

I'm not sure that's true. To me, a straw man suggests that you are arguing against a claim that no one is actually making. Although the bible doesn't say that Israelite slaves built the pyramids, I think it's very much part of the myth in many peoples' minds. The hagadas we used this week had drawings of Jewish slaves building the pyramids.
posted by ManInSuit at 6:44 PM on April 8, 2012


Further, how immoral is it for modern Jews to continue to perpetuate this myth at the expense of Egyptian dignity? For thousands of years, the Jews have blamed the Egyptians for enslaving their ancestors when that never actually happened. Continuing to celebrate Passover without acknowledging the truth of history only perpetuates the shame.

Forgive my ignorance, but... does anyone actually do this? I mean blame modern Egyptians for something that happened (or may have happened) thousands of years ago under a regime that has almost no cultural, political, linguistic, religious, or any other ties to the current one?


I dunno. I am writing, here, as a Jew who has gone to Seders most of my 40+ years, and has some trouble with this. I don't think a lot of people come out of the Seder literally blaming the Egyptians. But, I mean, it seems also simplistic to think it doesn't matter at all.

What I asked by co-celebrants as passover was this: Say there was a group who got together every year, and had this lengthy ritual where they said "The Jews did this terrible, terrible thing to us. And then vengeance was brought on them and we prevailed. And we get together every year to recall the terrible terrible things the Jews did to us". Would you not feel at least a little but upset about that? What if they said "Oh, that was a long time ago. We don't think that it was YOU Jews who were responsible". Would that make it all better? Would it matter whether or not the story was true?

Of course, as others have pointed out in this thread, people DID tell stories like that about the Jews. And some still do. To the degree to which it happens or happened, though, we generally do not react by saying "ah, what a nice metaphor". We generally revile these stories and the practice of telling them.

To me, as a Jew, it seems somewhat problematic that every year my family and I get together to recall how a certain nation once did terrible things to our ancestors, especially given that that nation is a nation that still actually exists, and that in recent memory has had a pretty challenging time co-existing with the Jewish homeland. The fact the the story turns out to be untrue, to my mind, makes this worse.

This is in no way to say there's nothing at all good about the Seder. But there's sure a lot that's problematic, and to my mind, the fact that the story is untrue is a component of what makes it problematic.
posted by ManInSuit at 6:58 PM on April 8, 2012 [14 favorites]


" ORMER CATHOLIC, SURVIVOR OF 12 YEARS OF CATHOLIC SCHOOL and i can tell you that Exodus may be treated by Jews as a metaphors but to Catholics, it's actually taught as biblical HISTORY"

Perhaps at your schools, but that's not "official" Catholic teaching, that's not a particularly orthodox interpretation of Exodus, and when I learned it, from Catholics, I got several competing historical theories and their archaeological and textual evidence, including a then-popular Marxist interpretation focusing particularly heavily on peasant uprisings in coastal cities in what is today Israel.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:50 PM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's very interesting, you still have to eat the bitter herbs. Next year we'll have two extra seats, one for Elijah and one for you.

And scene....
posted by humanfont at 7:57 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Would you not feel at least a little but upset about that? What if they said "Oh, that was a long time ago. We don't think that it was YOU Jews who were responsible". Would that make it all better? Would it matter whether or not the story was true?

The reason Christians need to lay off the "Jews killed Jesus" thing is that it is an active and present cause of antisemitism and persecution of Jews. Furthermore, saying "Oh, you're not like those Jews" is an attack on Jewish identification with their historic and cultural ancestors. In contrast, Egyptians are not persecuted by Jews; they have not historically been persecuted by Jews; and in fact both Egyptian Christians and Moslems actually share (something close to) the Biblical narrative, in which Pharaoh and his people are punished for enslaving the Jews.

Furthermore, the idea that descendents of victims (if you accept the historicity of the Biblical narrative) need to be silent about their ancestors' experiences is pernicious. Do you suggest that Jews not talk about the Holocaust, or African Americans not talk about slavery, or Armenians not talk about the Armenian Genocide? These memories are part of their cultural identity; they have become part of the framework with which they understand themselves. It's probably a good thing if this sort of dialogue upsets people who identify with the persecutors: they need to deal with why they identify with an antisemitic or racist or otherwise-bigoted culture, and abandon the elements that are problematic.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:01 PM on April 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


Do you suggest that Jews not talk about the Holocaust, or African Americans not talk about slavery, or Armenians not talk about the Armenian Genocide?

Those are things that happened.

What the OP is suggesting (and, as near as I can tell, does not seem to be seriously in dispute in this thread, at least thus far) is that the enslavement of the Jews by the Egyptians did not happen.

Surely this is an important difference.

It seems to be I said that telling an untrue story about an evil perpetrated by another group is problematic. Based on this, you asked whether I suggest that people not talk about atrocities that happened.

To be clear: No. I do in any way mean to suggest that. (And I am a little surprised by the thought that I might have meant to).
posted by ManInSuit at 8:34 PM on April 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


Good to know that I'm not doing things the way the OP wants.

Obviously we Jews need to apologize more for not remembering the persecution over a couple millennia correctly. I mean, if it's linked on the Huffington Post, it's gotta be the truth.
posted by Argyle at 8:45 PM on April 8, 2012


Obviously we Jews need to apologize more for not remembering the persecution over a couple millennia correctly.

It's an integral piece of mainstream Christian dogma and stupid fundamentalist politics.
posted by Brian B. at 9:18 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Meta.
posted by andoatnp at 9:26 PM on April 8, 2012


What the OP is suggesting (and, as near as I can tell, does not seem to be seriously in dispute in this thread, at least thus far) is that the enslavement of the Jews by the Egyptians did not happen.

The Egyptian Empire at one point ruled everything up to what is now Syria so there were certainly some Jews who were enslaved by Egyptians. There's no archeological evidence for a great big Biblical exodus, but so what? There's no archeological evidence for a whole lot of things which we more-or-less take for granted. Call it a metaphor if you like.

Did anyone read the RationalistWiki link where it says "You'd think that Egypt would have kept records of all those people living there wouldn't you?" What a comical thing to say. O, how I roared. We don't even know the names of all the Pharaohs, and many of the ones we do know are attested by single inscriptions or documents, e.g. It's like the people who say (in all sincerity) that there's no Roman census mentioning Jesus, therefore he didn't exist.

Obviously the vast bulk of Egyptians don't mind the Biblical or Koranic description of Pharaoh, whether it's true or not. It's not even as if there were more than a few handfuls of Jews left in Egypt. I can't see that your worry over some hypothetical non-believer's offense at a private domestic ritual should be treated seriously. This is just concern-trolling.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:29 PM on April 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


In contrast, Egyptians are not persecuted by Jews; they have not historically been persecuted by Jews

Well... Not for the 3000-years-ago slavery thing, no. There's some other stuff, though; more recent stuff. Turf stuff.

But, yeah.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:16 PM on April 8, 2012


but don't expect me to speak in hushed tones and pretend it's real to me.

But that's half the fun!
posted by Apocryphon at 11:03 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this post. This precise issue was on my mind this Passover, as I led two seders this year...it's been helpful and thought-provoking to read the conversations here. (How did you all get inside my brain? I've been having these same thoughts, ideas, and "but-on-the-other-hand"s)

One issue I'm still struggling with is how/whether to raise the question of historical accuracy, at my family seder, where such questions have never been discussed. I want to be respectful of the sensibilities and traditions of everyone at the table. It's the first year I've taken over leading the seder, and this probably wasn't the right time. I'm hoping at some point in the future I can sneak this in as a discussion topic in a way that doesn't leave people feeling like the younger generation just pulled the rug out from under them.

Now I go read the meta...
posted by quinoa at 11:11 PM on April 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


A few years ago we went to our friends' Seder, which they generally spend with their extended family and a few close friends. The Haggadah they use is, like many, hand-crafted by a few generations of aunts and uncles, and quite progressive, with that lovely 70s flair familiar to me from a number of families whose Haggadah's were last revised a generation ago, during the first blossoming of the photocopier. The Exodus story is fairly explicitly a metaphor, and quite explicitly linked to slavery, racism, and oppression throughout the world. So it didn't even occur to them that there might be a slight issue with another friend they invited, a young, smart, Egyptian-American. This story lacks a punchline -- she was both too secure and too understanding to take any offense, but I don't think she had quite known to expect some of the details, any more than we would have about her Coptic practices. Anyway, no harm done ... but those who were aware of her heritage moved a bit more quickly through the plagues and related bits, explicitly metaphorical though they may have been. She had so much poise I don't even know if she was particularly uncomfortable, but I know a number of others at the young end of the table were. When we asked her about it afterwards she didn't say too much, except yeah, that was a lot of plagues.
posted by chortly at 11:36 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well I was watching a documentary yesterday from PBS and it explained quite clearly that there were Jews in what is now Tunisia so until the contrary can be proven why argue over nothing during the season of blessing?

And also it wasn't the Jews who crucified Christ it was the Romans. The crosses were used as a symbol of power and were put up around city entrances.
posted by Meatafoecure at 11:40 PM on April 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Discussing this with one of my best friends today (who is taking his comps in a couple of weeks for his PhD in Biblical Literature), I adored his take on the matter. Basically, he said, "It's the Mayflower. Even if some version of Exodus actually happened, the number of Jews descended from those former slaves would be vanishingly small, but a very vocal minority allowed the story to take on the part of being the history of an entire culture."

He also made the point (which might be more controversial, but is still humorous to me, and it comes from a guy with no particular agenda who is extremely well-informed about such things) that the Torah is basically the narrative of ancient Jewish history as told by the most extreme right-wing, xenophobic, war-mongering parties of the time. Like if current American history were primarily understood in the future through the lens of Breitbart.

With this knowledge, it's clear why modern Judaism places so much emphasis in "the meaning" rather than the stories themselves, and why the wisdom naturally evolves more easily than in most other major religions.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:31 AM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Obviously we Jews need to apologize more for not remembering the persecution over a couple millennia correctly.

Eh, the seven Canaanite nations should be so lucky!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:50 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Don't spoil the Easter Bunny's birthday!
posted by telstar at 3:36 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Paste tastes good.
posted by flabdablet at 4:30 AM on April 9, 2012


Further, how immoral is it for modern Jews to continue to perpetuate this myth at the expense of Egyptian dignity? For thousands of years, the Jews have blamed the Egyptians for enslaving their ancestors when that never actually happened. Continuing to celebrate Passover without acknowledging the truth of history only perpetuates the shame.

Not sure about this, but the celebration of the horrific murder of 100's (1000's?) of innocent babies along with the harm to families livelihoods from the killing of their farm animals is a bit obscene.

Sure you can say it is a metaphor and it never happened. You then have the issue of declaring any embarrassing parts of the bible or torah a metaphor. You still have to question if celebrating such a truly evil act (even if only a metaphor) is a good thing.
posted by 2manyusernames at 5:06 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


South Park has gotten into the argument on the other side (in a responsible way, of course). Cartman learns about passover (1:33-- nothing really offensive-- if you want that you have to watch the whole episode.)
posted by notmtwain at 6:07 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The references the OP cites seem to adopt the minimalist position: there was no Exodus, and the narrative was probably composed during the Persian period around 500 BCE. I don't think this position makes sense, largely because it fails to explain why the Jewish scriptures are so obsessed with Egypt.

In the first book of the Bible Abraham gets two foreshadowings of the Exodus narrative, in chapters 12 and 15 of Genesis. Then his son Isaac (whose half-brother Ishmael actually has an Egyptian mother) gets a special order not to visit Egypt in Genesis 26 - otherwise he would, you know, because that's what people in Canaan are expected to do. Then chapters 37-50 are taken up with the whole episode of Joseph going down to Egypt and Pharaoh's dreams, not forgetting to explain Egyptian land ownership and embalming techniques because this is so fascinating. In the minimalist position we have to suppose that this was written by people under Persian rule, five hundred years after Egypt withdrew from Canaan.

Why? Why would anyone possibly do this? Why preserve Egyptian words, or the names of their deities, or bother remembering that Egypt used to actually be two distinct countries? Why have everybody trotting down to Egypt when there's a famine unless their ancestors used to actually do this? Why compare the green and pleasant cities of the plain to "the Garden of the Lord, which is Egypt" instead of something in Persia or Babylon? Why inject an explanation of Why Egyptian Priests Get To Own Land if it's not something your audience will wonder about? If the point of the story is to seek status, then why mention that Egyptians refuse to eat together with Hebrews? And why, in fact, mention that your ancestors were slaves?

In subsequent books of the Bible this obsession with living in Egypt becomes an obsession with leaving Egypt. There is hardly a book of the Bible which doesn't have at least one mention of it. You get poetic descriptions of it, and warnings and abjurations and all sorts of invocations. And all of this is for a fictitious event set in a country as distant from them in time as you are distant from Christopher Columbus' Spain. In the meantime they were totally ignoring a country which ruled them and with which they were in daily commerce. The formative event, clearly, was a fictitious one set nearly a thousand years earlier in which their enslaved ancestors furtively borrowed their owners' household goods and then escaped without returning them.

Yes, I know there is no archeological evidence for the Exodus. As I said earlier, there is no archeological evidence for all sorts of things we accept without a blink - kings, tribes, entire nations are known to us only because of a chance mention on some stele or papyrus, or in a book based on what somebody heard from a bloke down the pub. I'm looking at you, Herodotus. Despite the lack of archeological evidence I think it's clear that the documentary evidence preserves memories of a group of landless people in Egypt who were distinct from the general population, and whose status gradually decayed until it was terminated by an abrupt excursion. I choose to call this the Exodus and I'm not especially bothered by a lack of circumcised skeletons lining a path through the Sinai Peninsula.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:17 AM on April 9, 2012 [18 favorites]


Further, how immoral is it for modern Jews to continue to perpetuate this myth at the expense of Egyptian dignity? For thousands of years, the Jews have blamed the Egyptians for enslaving their ancestors when that never actually happened. Continuing to celebrate Passover without acknowledging the truth of history only perpetuates the shame.

The "Egyptians" of that time aren't really the same "Egyptians" of now. Arabs are the biggest group in Egypt today, and they didn't even get there until the 600's. Anyone holding a grudge has misdirected their anger in about a hundered different ways.
posted by spaltavian at 6:30 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


The "Egyptians" of that time aren't really the same "Egyptians" of now. Arabs are the biggest group in Egypt today, and they didn't even get there until the 600's. Anyone holding a grudge has misdirected their anger in about a hundered different ways.

Well, that is kind of my question. Does anyone actually do this, with the exception of the odd crazy uncle? To remove the whole "it's a myth" angle, a Jewish student of history might very well be reasonably angry at a range of actions taken by the Romans, actions that are pretty well documented historically. If that anger led the student to, say, develop a dislike of modern Italians (separate, of course, from any more recent transgressions), it would be -- well -- kind of obsessive. So is anyone going around saying that the modern state of Egypt bears some sort of guilt for the events of Exodus (historical or not) or is this more of a strawman? My impression based on the comments above is "no," Jewish commenters are able to tell the difference between Egypt in 2012 and Egypt of thousands of years ago (for one thing, the men have given up on the linen skirt and eye makeup look, more's the pity).
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:57 AM on April 9, 2012


As for saying that we are somehow laying the blame for the Passover story at the feet of modern-day Egyptians, Judaism doesn't equate the Pharaoh of the Haggadah with modern day Egyptians - in fact, as evidenced by the story of Joseph it doesn't even equate all of ancient Egyptians or even all Pharaohs with the Pharaoh of the Haggadah. He was seen as unique. Using that as a springboard for "how you would feel if some other culture had a tradition of telling a story, presented as truth, about how they, as a culture, were oppressed by the Jews? when this actually happens on a regular basis, is like blaming the victim - not only do you get to be blamed by numerous cultures for the ills of the world, you may not celebrate your religion or you can be held guilty of inciting that violence? A quick google search for "Jewish slavery never happened" puts you directly into reams of anti-Semitic diatribes about all the "lies" Jews foist on the world about their oppression and beliefs. I'm not trying to Godwin the thread, but this is a well-worn path and should be walked a lot more carefully.

But I am really dismayed at all the people in this thread who are taking absence of evidence as proof of evidence of absence. Based on wikipedia? On the huffington post? On dmd's self-written haggadah? Just for starters - here are two links to alternate documentation of slave revolts in Egypt in the Pharaohic period with link to what we know of the ancient Hebrews. The Anastasi V papyrus, which also correlates pretty closely with the timing of one of the oldest texts (if not the oldest) in Judaism, Miriam's call-and-response Song at the Sea. There's also the records of the Habiru/Apiru (a word that is remarkably similar to the word from which the Hebrew people got their name). I'm not saying that either should be taken as proof, but they certainly lay to rest the idea that it was impossible that some sort of exodus from slavery in Egypt took place.

Judaism is possibly unique in having slavery as a people as part of its origin story - in most cultures that kept slaves, this was seen as a lower social order that couldn't be escaped, and certainly not something to brag about. Most early cultures claim to be descended directly from gods. That Judaism not only insists on this embarrassing mark on their history but uses it as a springboard to spread basic truths about human dignity and how to treat one another is remarkable. Even if it is not a factual account, it is powerfully compelling. But, as others have noted here about other points of the story (especially Joe in Australia), for what possible reason would they make it up?
posted by Mchelly at 7:19 AM on April 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


> What the OP is suggesting (and, as near as I can tell, does not seem to be seriously in dispute in this thread, at least thus far) is that the enslavement of the Jews by the Egyptians did not happen.

The articles the OP linked to aren't insisting that no Jews were ever Egyptian slaves. The area that was later Israel was once under Egyptian control and slavery was practiced in the empire. So it's not unlikely that some of them were slaves, and some of them might have worked in Egypt proper. Some of them might have even worked in construction.

The comparison with the Mayflower story, which Americans commemorate in Thanksgiving, seems apt. The story about a group of slaves escaping from Egypt and settling in Canaan would have had lot of resonance for people living in small state in an area where Egypt was a regional superpower, and whose territory had once been under direct Egyptian control, with literal slavery serving as a metaphor for political and military domination.

The thing is Americans know that we're not all actually descended from the Pilgrims in the Thanksgiving story; they're kind of a stand in for all immigrants. (And, yeah, we know the story does whitewash what happened to the Indians later. We just like to remember it that way.) With the Exodus story we've only got a legendary account, with almost no contemporary documentation, so there's a lot of room for conjecture about what actually happened, what political motivations someone may have had for stitching together the narrative we have in exactly this way, and what kinds of editing may have happened later.
posted by nangar at 7:47 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


But, as others have noted here about other points of the story (especially Joe in Australia), for what possible reason would they make it up?

Because when the stories were written down, they were held in captivity by another power. I don't think that it's at all unlikely that a priesthood trying to hold their people together would tell a story of a previous time they were held in captivity and were rescued by one of their gods, which might have been based on a kernel of truth.

Aside from the fact that there's no real documentary evidence of an Egyptian exodus in Egypt, there's no evidence in Canaa that the Israelites were anything but Canaanites. Judaism is an evolution of the Canaanite religion, it's not something that was brought in from outside.
posted by empath at 7:50 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not especially bothered by a lack of circumcised skeletons lining a path through the Sinai Peninsula.

You would not believe the mental images this phrase has spawned.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:52 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's remarkable how few of the defenders of the accuracy of the accepted Passover tale have read ALL the links, made clear by the things they think are unaddressed by research.

This is a fantastic post. I'm glad it exists. It is absolutely not trolling. In fact, I now think people no longer understand what trolling is, if they ever knew in the first place.

I find it interesting what people will cling to out of stubborn commitment to what they've been taught matters. The personal revelations in this thread - the bulbs of "oh, a-ha!" and otherwise - are extremely educational and absorbing. The repeated support of the Bible as some sort of counter-fact to other evidence is particularly intriguing.

Love the alternate Haggadah text in the first comment, also. The way it embraces the culture, religion, world, and history all at once is very touching and faithful.
posted by batmonkey at 7:52 AM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


...memories of a group of landless people in Egypt who were distinct from the general population, and whose status gradually decayed until it was terminated by an abrupt excursion. I choose to call this the Exodus

Glad you're happy. But as the last (and relatively thoughtful) link in the post puts it, "certain cities and trade centers that grew and shrank over the centuries for various reasons" and then gradually declined to nothing is a pretty damn far cry from anything anyone else would call "The Exodus." I mean, at some point clinging to the designation becomes meaningless.
posted by mediareport at 8:26 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


But I am really dismayed at all the people in this thread who are taking absence of evidence as proof of evidence of absence. Based on wikipedia? On the huffington post? On dmd's self-written haggadah?

No, actually, based on the rest of the post, which you somehow keep managing to avoid discussing (perhaps because you haven't read the links yet?). Start with the 2nd paragraph of the Beliefnet article:

Some argue that there is no evidence to back my assertion. Endlessly reiterated is the mantra "absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence." In other words, the fact that we have never found a single shred of evidence in the Sinai does not mean the Israelites were not there.

This is nominally true. We have found Sinai evidence of other people who predated the Israelites, and while it is improbable that 600,000 men crossed the desert 2,500 years ago without leaving a shard of pottery or a Hebrew carving, it is not impossible. (Together with women and children, that makes a couple of million, who could actually fill the distance between Egypt and Israel by standing in line.) One rabbi quoted to me the mystical tradition that one tribe was deputized to clean up every trace, which at least shows the Jewish tradition's unease with Sinai's preternaturally clean slate.

However, the archeological conclusions are not based primarily on the absence of Sinai evidence. Rather, they are based upon the study of settlement patterns in Israel itself. Surveys of ancient settlements--pottery remains and so forth--make it clear that there simply was no great influx of people around the time of the Exodus (given variously as between 1500-1200 BCE). Therefore, not the wandering, but the arrival alerts us to the fact that the biblical Exodus is not a literal depiction. In Israel at that time, there was no sudden change in the kind or the volume of pottery being made. (If people suddenly arrived after hundreds of years in Egypt, their cups and dishes would look very different from native Canaanites'.) There was no population explosion. Most archeologists conclude that the Israelites lived largely in Canaan over generations, instead of leaving and then immigrating back to Canaan.

posted by mediareport at 8:35 AM on April 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


Anyone who has a serious interest in the historical question may want to take a look at Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition by James K. Hoffmeier:
Scholars of the Hebrew Bible have in the last decade begun to question the historical accuracy of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt, as described in the book of Exodus. The reason for the rejection of the exodus tradition is said to be the lack of historical and archaeological evidence in Egypt. Those advancing these claims, however, are not specialists in the study of Egyptian history, culture, and archaeology. In this pioneering book, James Hoffmeier examines the most current Egyptological evidence and argues that it supports the biblical record concerning Israel in Egypt.
posted by No Robots at 8:40 AM on April 9, 2012


And The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, published a few years later, on the opposing side.
posted by mediareport at 8:51 AM on April 9, 2012


It's easy to read, quite scholarly, and there's a whole chapter called "Did the Exodus Happen?" You can preview some of it at Google Books; it addresses Joe in Australia's questions of memory and writing directly.
posted by mediareport at 8:56 AM on April 9, 2012


I think the traditional Haggadah text points away from an understanding of the holiday as being about history. I mean, parts of the text like "had the Holy One Blessed Be He not taken us out of Egypt, then we, our children, and the children of our children would still be enslaved"--how would that make sense historically? --If slavery in Egypt was a historical event, it would have ended at some point, there's no way it would have lasted forever. And then a quote that is sort-of the flip side: "not just our ancestors did He redeem but us, too." It all points away from history, towards a conception of the holiday as being about process called redemption, which must happen in the now, and which you can participate in. Again, the idea of it being 'praiseworthy to expound more and more' about the Exodus from Egypt --how could this be possible if we were talking about history?--we don't have a way to gain access to new historical facts as we sit at the table--the only thing it's possible to gain access to are the things inside us.
posted by Paquda at 9:01 AM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyone who has a serious interest in the historical question may want to take a look at Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition by James K. Hoffmeier:
----
Biography of James Hoffmeier who is professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern Archaeology at Trinity International University (A divinity school)
posted by empath at 9:05 AM on April 9, 2012


> It's remarkable how few of the defenders of the accuracy of the accepted Passover tale have read ALL the links .... I find it interesting what people will cling to out of stubborn commitment to what they've been taught matters.

No one in the thread so far has been claiming the exodus story is factually accurate.

The repeated support of the Bible as some sort of counter-fact to other evidence is particularly intriguing.

Internal evidence from the story itself is relevant to discussing when the text might have been written, how the narrative was put together, what the authors motivations may have been, and what kinds of editing may have occurred. (Hebrew documents written in different time periods are written in different types of Hebrew, for instance, in the same way that Elizabethan English is different from contemporary modern English. And ancient Hebrew is almost a foreign language vis-à-vis modern Hebrew.) That's different from taking it as a "counter-fact to other evidence". Given that the story includes, among other thing, a series of fantastic plagues, a talking bush, the parting of sea, and magic food from the sky, it's fairly obvious that we're dealing with a legendary account that can't be regarded as factually reliable.
posted by nangar at 9:21 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Given that the story includes, among other thing, a series of fantastic plagues, a talking bush, the parting of sea, and magic food from the sky, it's fairly obvious that we're dealing with a legendary account that can't be regarded as factually reliable.

You would think so, but I think you'll find that there are a great many people who believe that if any part of it is literally true, all of it is.
posted by empath at 9:22 AM on April 9, 2012


Read the many positive reviews of Hoffmeier's book.

For more on the pro-historicity side, see this by Lawrence H. Schiffman, whose bio states that he is, "Ethel and Irvin A. Edelman Professor in Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, where he serves as Chair of the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. He is an internationally known scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls and recently co-edited the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Oxford, 2000)."

Also, The Bible Unearthed doesn't outright reject the whole of the Exodus story.
posted by No Robots at 9:24 AM on April 9, 2012


see this by Lawrence H. Schiffman

But they forget that several different accounts of the Exodus exist in the Bible, in books written at different periods, thus providing corroborative evidence for the basic scheme of events.

Anybody who can write this sentence with a straight face isn't really a trustworthy source.
posted by empath at 11:18 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


nangar:
No Robots actually does seem to believe it is factually accurate. Others seem to feel significant aspects are factual in some sense if not in every sense.

And, yes, that sort of situation regarding the Bible is precisely why I'm finding the reliance upon it in comments here (and even in some of the post's links) to be so intriguing. Exactly.
posted by batmonkey at 12:00 PM on April 9, 2012


Nowhere have I said anything about my own position. In my first post, I stated that this is a difficult question of history scholarship.This indicates that there is no simple-minded fideism on my part.
posted by No Robots at 12:12 PM on April 9, 2012


Despite the lack of archeological evidence I think it's clear that the documentary evidence preserves memories of a group of landless people in Egypt who were distinct from the general population, and whose status gradually decayed until it was terminated by an abrupt excursion. I choose to call this the Exodus and I'm not especially bothered by a lack of circumcised skeletons lining a path through the Sinai Peninsula.
posted by Joe in Australia


From this point of view I find it very intriguing that the Exodus is associated with all those plagues:
The plagues as they appear in the Bible are:[4]

1. Water, which turned to blood and killed all fish and other aquatic life (Exodus 7:14–25)
2. Frogs (Exodus 8:1–8:15)
3. Lice (Exodus 8:16–19)
4. Flies or [5] wild animals (Exodus 8:20–30)
5. Disease on livestock (Exodus 9:1–7)
6. Unhealable boils (Exodus 9:8–12)
7. Hail and thunder (Exodus 9:13–35)
8. Locusts (Exodus 10:1–20)
9. Darkness (Exodus 10:21–29)
10. Death of the first-born of all Egyptian humans and animals. To be saved, the Israelites had to place the blood of a lamb on their door. (Exodus 11, Exodus 12)
If 1, 2, 5, 7, and 8 happened together, there would be a catastrophic famine, and you might expect widespread disease in its wake.

And you might expect any ethnic groups lower in a hierarchy to be the worst affected, and to ultimately pull up stakes and leave, if they could, and to tell themselves they were escaping, not going somewhere else because no one would give them any food, and to make up stories about how their god did all those things to the Egyptians so they could escape.

The blood of the lamb thing then appears as a way of sacralizing a commitment to a new lifestyle as nomadic shepherds-- as opposed to the cattle which may have been more associated with their life in Egypt, making the episode of the Golden Calf a kind of nostalgia for easier times back in Egypt, as well as a return to the gods worshiped there.
posted by jamjam at 12:16 PM on April 9, 2012


2manyusernames,

Not sure about this, but the celebration of the horrific murder of 100's (1000's?) of innocent babies along with the harm to families livelihoods from the killing of their farm animals is a bit obscene.

The Haggadah (i.e. even the most traditional haggadah) explicitly does not celebrate the slaying of the first born, and includes a ritual for mourning those deaths and all the pain caused by the plagues.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:15 PM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


Salamandrous: "The Haggadah (i.e. even the most traditional haggadah) explicitly does not celebrate the slaying of the first born, and includes a ritual for mourning those deaths and all the pain caused by the plagues."

At least one Midrash (Avkir?) portrays G-d rebuking his angels from celebrating the deaths of the Egyptians in the Red Sea: 'the work of my hands are drowning in the sea. Do not sing songs in my presence.' (Paraphrased.)
posted by zarq at 2:32 PM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's remarkable how few of the defenders of the accuracy of the accepted Passover tale have read ALL the links, made clear by the things they think are unaddressed by research.

I read all the links. It took me a while because I had to go bang my head against my desk a few times, but I read them. Look, I love history and archaeology. The lack of archaeological evidence for an influx of foreigners to Canaan is a problem for the traditional narrative. But contrasted with that is the fact that the Bible is also evidence. Seriously. Even an Ultra-Minimalist Marxist Professor of Hating All Things Traditional will concede that the Bible is at least evidence of authors and an audience, and that the assumptions in the text tell us something about those authors and that audience.

If you read what the Bible actually says about the entry into Canaan (i.e., the Book of Joshua) it doesn't say that there was a big entrance. On the contrary; the chronology goes something like this: the Hebrews wander around in the desert until almost all of the original generation are dead. They skirt the Dead Sea and enter what is now Jordan. About 20% of them stay behind, but the rest cross the Jordan and conquer Jericho, then Ai, then a bunch of places, doing deals with local kings along the way. At the end of it there's a sort of roll call that says "Yay, we got all these places except here, and here, and this bit from here to here, and this foreign tribe shares the territory over here, and we weren't able to beat this place or that place." This is what the Bible itself says.

And then over the next century or so they are thoroughly subjugated by the Philistines, to the extent that they have to visit a Philistine blacksmith (bronze worker?) to get their tools sharpened. Then you get the rise of the King Saul; and his eventual successor, King David, is the one who finally conquers Jerusalem. Hundreds of years after the Exodus! This is all in the Book of Judges and Samuel I & II.

Now let's weigh the Biblical account against the archeological evidence. The sad fact (for archeologists) is that Israel is a place that has been built on and demolished and burnt through a million times. The climate is too wet to preserve papyrus or parchment, and the most historically interesting sites (Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, Shiloh) are precisely the ones that have been rebuilt the most and which are now the most politically sensitive. So the Canaanite settlements we can identify tend to be marginal places - the ones that people mostly didn't want to live in, and the ones which didn't change hands very often. And when they're excavated we don't find documents, even though we know we are dealing with a literate culture. There was an exciting find a few years ago - some student had scratched the ABC on a rock! And it had been preserved because it later got built into in a wall! This was a major find because we are starved for documents from this period.

So one the one hand you have a collection of documents that includes very non-miraculous, very pedestrian accounts of a slow entrance and patchy conquest of Canaan over hundreds of years. On the other hand you have a handful of decent sites that don't have much cultural evidence of any sort, but what they do have doesn't show radical changes. Are the documents contradicted by the archeology? No, they aren't. Most Minimalists confine themselves to saying that archeology doesn't confirm the Biblical account. But as I said earlier, the Bible is also evidence, and if you take absence-of-evidence to mean evidence-of-absence you have to explain why the different authors of these accounts were so sure that they had come out of Egypt and had been conquering the country for the past few hundred years.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:50 PM on April 9, 2012 [12 favorites]


I look back at the history with some romantic mystique. If there was someone behind the Moses myth, some history of slavery turned to nation-building behind Exodus, that's become significant because of the stories we've been telling. Not the other way around, that the stories would lose their significance if we saw how feeble the actual historical basis was, as for example, in Monty Python's version, if King Arthur couldn't even afford horses and his squire walked around hitting two coconuts together to make a trotting sound.

I'm pretty much as atheist as they come, but find Jewish history fascinating. Maybe there are some who DID accept everything in the Bible as literal history. Of course there weren't plagues with exactly the nature and order described in the Bible.

But I don't think the entire story was created out of whole cloth, or during the Babylonian exile. For example, the Samaritans, a group closely related to Jews, believe themselves descended from Israelites of the northern kingdom and use the same 5 books of Moses, with alterations. Their story may or may not be true.

Then there's the Cohen Modal Haplotype: genetically, a subset of Jews traditionally thought to be descended from the Temple priests (often with last name Cohen) carry the same Y chromosome, which according to Jewish folklore goes back to the first such priest, Moses' brother Aaron. The origin time for this particular Y chromosome version roughly matches the time of the Exodus. This is way too slippery to count as evidence that these people are modern descendants of the Biblical Aaron, but it's remarkable that over thousands of years this paternal line has been recorded.

One wonders what was kept in the Ark of the Covenant (besides Industrial Light and Magic that makes people's heads melt in Indiana Jones movies)--had the tablets of the 10 commandments been in there, that would have provided a physical link to the Exodus for Israelites.
posted by Schmucko at 6:49 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


the Bible is also evidence.

So is the Book of Mormon, the Jehovah Witness Bible, and Scientology. Religious texts are written all the time for various claims, and they succeed by shaping the day they were born. Then they evolve to become the belief itself, the words more real to us than the geology under our feet. This method works because we innocently absorb the literal truth as children. As adults, blatant mythical abstractions are then conceived as being derived from once factual reality, rather than something parallel or oblique to the truth. So Adam and Eve are easily condemned by the authors as real and fallible, rather than elevated as our modern human conversion from hunting and gathering. Noah had an ark that saved the animals, instead of a farm that owned them, saving ourselves. It even works on miracles. The parting of the Red Sea is magical and absurd, but the passage rings true, in abstract, because we accept that legends have a kernel of historical truth. We don't consider that it was a fantasy or satire. We assume that Jesus and Abraham must have existed as men, because that's just cutting our belief in euhemerism down to reality. And that's the power of literary revision. We need a human Abraham and the human Jesus more than we do a mythical one, because one made a human covenant with God, and the other failed to show up as a mythical messiah, but he could have been obscured if rewritten as a common man, whose significance was now to rise from the human dead to offer us personal salvation. This is how forged scripture is used after a string of failed prophecies or disappointments.
posted by Brian B. at 10:35 PM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


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