In the annual run-up to Passover, it has become common to write on the topic, “Did the Exodus really happen?” Much can be said about this topic; much more can be done with it.
The objective historical facts are extremely clear. No Egyptian historical text speaks of a mass exodus of Israelites. But the inscriptions of Pharaoh Seti I (and others) speak of groups of “Shasu,” nomadic herders from somewhere in the Middle East, who repeatedly vex Egyptian attempts to reassert control over the Sinai region in the thirteenth century.
The “Shasu” consisted of many different tribes. By late in the thirteenth century BCE, archaeological surveys and excavations show that groups of herders, Shasu or otherwise, entered what became the Land of Israel from the east, and settled in the Jordan Valley. Further excavations and surveys show that they eventually moved westward into the hill country north of Shechem. Their pottery assemblages and habits resemble those of the people we know 200 years later as the Israelites.
By the end of the thirteenth century, Pharaoh Merneptah launched a failed attempt to reassert Egyptian control over the Land of Israel, and boasts of his victories over a people he called “Israel.” By the middle of the twelfth century, we know from both archaeology and inscriptions that Egypt permanently lost control over the Land of Israel. The region was taken over by small nationstates, one of which is Israel. None of these facts is in dispute.
But facts, as the noted historian E. H. Carr pointed out, are like a bag. They lie flat. One needs a narrative, a dramatic and interesting way of stringing them together, to make them stand up. The objective observer might note, “Egypt’s power over the southern Levant waned as the Late Bronze Age came to a close, and new nation states arose in the region as the Iron Age began.” Even such a laconic presentation contains an inkling of a narrative: Egypt down, nation states up.
Ultimately, though, a different narrative has won out over this laconic and objective one. It is this narrative that distinguishes the Exodus story from any other historical event in the Late Bronze.
The story in the biblical book of Exodus chooses a different focus, and tells us why it is creating a different narrative. Firstly, it focuses solely on the Israelites, noting the existence of the other groups as “a mixed multitude” with their own herds (Exod. 12:38). Secondly, it focuses not only on the Israelites’ departure, but on the bizarre insistence that Pharaoh allow them to depart. Bizarre because the end of the story shows that they don’t need Pharaoh’s permission to leave.
This insistence is intended to lead to the plagues Egypt suffers when Pharaoh refuses to agree.
It is important to realize that the plagues are nowhere justified as punishment for Pharaoh. Rather they have a single objective, repeated over and over again like a refrain: “so that you will know that there is none like the Lord our God” (Exod.
8:6); “so that you will know that I am the Lord in the midst of the Land” (Exod. 8:18); “in order to show you My power” (Exod. 9:16).
God seeks not Pharaoh’s permission, but Pharaoh’s submission: “Until when will you refuse to abase yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship Me” (Exod. 10:3).
The potential exodus of the Israelites can only be narrated once God’s permanent supremacy over Pharaoh has been demonstrated.
Exodus knows that it is intentionally creating dramatic narrative.
In fascinating example of narrative awareness, God tells Moses that Pharaoh refuses to submit “so that you shall tell in the ears of your son and your son’s son what I wrought upon the Egypt, and My signs that I placed among them, so that you will know that I am the Lord” (Exod. 10:2). The dramatic story of the plagues has Pharaoh’s submission as its proximate goal, but its ultimate goal is to provide a dramatic (and educational) story to future generations of Jews. The goal of the narrative of Exodus is to create a future, eternally-perpetuating narrative.
Before the Israelites are allowed to leave Egypt, they must perform the Passover offering, whose goal is to provoke the children to ask, “What is this work that you are doing?”(Exod.
12:26). Just like the plagues were designed to create the narrative for future generations of story-telling (the Haggada), the Passover offering aimed at creating the setting in which the narrative would be told: in a family group, around a meal, the setting we re-create at the Seder.
The Passover offering (the setting) and the narrative of the plagues aim at three interrelated goals: teaching future generations of Israelites that God is supreme (Exod. 10:2); that He protected us; and that we “owe Him” allegiance (Exod. 12:27).
The events of the Exodus can be told (and have been told!) in so many ways. The Torah explicitly acknowledges that it is creating a narrative, and implicit in this is the possibility that the story can be told in so many other ways. It can be told as a story of an emerging nation state, as a story of a nation liberating itself, as a universal story of powerful and powerless. Because the Torah mandates that the story be told, and retold, over and over, by future generations, the choice of what narrative will win is ultimately in the hands of those future generations.
The future generations, in effect, are given a choice over what narrative to tell.
It is interesting, therefore, that the classic Jewish Haggada does not choose to base itself around the story in the Book of Exodus. Rather, it chooses to base itself around the four verses in the Book of Deuteronomy (26:5-10) which tell the story of how the people of Israel developed from landless wanderers to settled farmers, living in the Land of Israel. The turning point of the short, five-sentence story is divine intervention: “The Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong arm and an outstretched arm... and He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut. 26:8-9).
Relating to the land has been a challenge for the Jewish people, landless for two millennia, and is even more of a challenge now that an independent Jewish state governs that land. The land-centered focus of the biblical passage chosen as the basis for the Haggada is clear. The classic “Dayenu” song, which enumerates 15 benefits Jews received from God ends by thanking God for giving us the Land of Israel, and for building the Temple. This narrative climax express the classic Jewish view that sees God as giving the Land of Israel, conditionally, to the Jews, and sees that conditional gift as fundamental to Jews’ relationship with God. Can we relate to these passages as part of the Seder? Can we relate to the land as part of modern Jewish identity? The narrative of the Exodus is in the hands of its intended narrators: us, the Jewish parents of the “children and children’s children” referred to in Exodus 10:2. It’s up to us to tell the story.
The author is senior lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at an Bar-Ilan University.