Separating biblical mythology from biblical history

Quite a provocative assertion on Passover, the festival recalling Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, but also a fact long acknowledged by many biblical scholars and historians.

April 24, 2019 22:37
Separating biblical mythology from biblical history

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US President Donald Trump; Psychology Prof. Shaul Kimhi of Tel Hai College notes Netanyahu’s ‘ability to mobilize his supporters,’ a trait he says that also characterizes Trump. (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)


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Eighteen years ago this week, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles stunned many in his congregation. “The truth is,” he announced, “virtually every modern archaeologist 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” (Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2001).

Quite a provocative assertion on Passover, the festival recalling Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, but also a fact long acknowledged by many biblical scholars and historians.

No extrabiblical evidence verifies the Bible’s account of the Exodus. If a small band of refugees fled Egypt (some scholars suggest it was the tribe of Levites to which Moses is linked), the much greater mass of would-be Israelites was already living in Canaan, a population that had perhaps liberated the land as a suzerainty of the Pharaoh.

Add to the dearth of archaeological proof for much of early biblical narrative the linguistic evidence of different authorial strands, the text’s internal contradictions, the inclusion of Persian loanwords that could have come into use only in the sixth century BCE, and the improbable tales of Creation, the Parting of the Red Sea, and God’s verbal communication with biblical figures, and the truth becomes apparent to most modern readers that the Bible is more a product of history than history itself.

WHY DO I recall Wolpe’s sermon? Not to excite another Passover controversy, but because the too common acceptance of mythology as history reverberates with dangerous political overtones. To be specific, the sacred myth of Israel as the land promised the Jews by God continues to impede progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

It is hardly the only obstacle, of course. But in both Israel and America, religious fundamentalists wield enough political clout to influence the policies of even the most secular leaders. As the Israel Policy Forum’s Robert K. Lifton noted in 2018, “Israel’s religious nationalists... powerful members of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s governing coalition are using settlement expansion as part of a strategy ultimately to incorporate the West Bank – what they call Judea and Samaria – into a biblically inspired ‘Greater Israel’” (Huffington Post, January 1, 2018).

Now the prime minister has promised to annex those settlements. And just a few weeks ago, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a member of the Evangelical Christian community on whose support President Donald Trump relies, suggested that the efforts of the administration to secure Israel as a Jewish state were a fulfillment of biblical destiny. “I am confident that the Lord is at work here,” he said (Edward Wong, The New York Times, March 30, 2019).

According to a Pew study, 84% of Orthodox Jews and 82% of white Evangelical Christians accept the doctrine of a Promised Land – which comes as no surprise given their generally fundamentalist readings of Scripture and, in the case of Evangelical Christians, Israel’s role in the rapture. But remarkably, a significant portion of the rest of the religious community believes it, too: 44% of Americans and 40% of American Jews.

We must not fall victim to our own propaganda. The biblical pledge of a Promised Land should be understood in its historic and political contexts. The Bible’s authors, writing in the first millennium BCE, sought not only to root Israel’s claim to the land in an unassailable divine guarantee, but also to inculcate in the Israelite people a spiritual identity apart from the nations around them. Through the Bible’s laws, ethics and narratives, a former conglomeration of tribes came, over time, to adopt as its own sacred mythology the belief in a God who set them apart, promised them a land and redeemed them from oppression; a God to whom they therefore owed allegiance and exclusive devotion.

Make no mistake. I do not dispute the presence of Israelites in Canaan as far back as 3,000 years ago. Nor do I question the power of the Exodus narrative to inspire a commitment to freedom and justice, the centrality of Torah to Jewish life and ethics, or the Jewish people’s need for a homeland. With antisemitism surging around the globe, the necessity of one nation where Jews are safe is existential.

But intellectual honesty demands we separate myth from fact, polemics from history. Especially now. Following Israel’s elections and anticipating the unveiling of the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace plan, the world’s attention will turn once again to the question of whether Israelis and Palestinians can at last untangle the Gordian knot which has bound them together in repeated cycles of violence and desperation.

FOR ISRAEL, there are many reasons to proceed with caution. In the south, Hamas has made clear its aspirations to wipe Israel from the map. In the east, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has distinguished himself as more an inciter of violence than a partner in dialogue. In the north, Iran’s proxy army Hezbollah has armed itself to the teeth.

But even with the risks implicit in negotiation, Israel must return to the table. Israel cannot sustain itself as a Jewish democracy without an agreement on two states for two peoples. Demography is not on the side of a Jewish majority, and who among us would welcome a Jewish apartheid state? And even if population trends did not suggest such dire consequences to inaction, why would Israel seek to rule the Palestinians, to go on with the status quo?

One people cannot deny the existence of another living on the land in order to lay claim to it as its own. Mutual acceptance of this underlies any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis cannot ignore the Palestinians living beside them; the Palestinians cannot expect Israelis to leave their homes under a right of return. Each people must acknowledge the presence of the other and its right to live in peace, security and dignity. There is no alternative.

The writer is the senior rabbi of New York’s Congregation Emanu-El.

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