Going out of Egypt – yes or no?
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Going out of Egypt – yes or no?

So – the Exodus.

It’s one of our founding stories, the crucible in which the people of Israel took form. Right?

After Moses and Aaron showed Pharaoh, through signs and wonders, through the plagues, up until the devastation of the deaths of their first-borns, that God wanted them out of Egypt, the people left. In one night they celebrated Pesach, crossed the Red Sea, and began their 40-year journey through the wilderness toward the land God promised to them.

So is this a true story? What does “true” mean in this context? And for that matter, what does “story” mean?

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Dr. Mark A. Leuchter

Did it really happen?

No, it didn’t – except sort of yes, in a way it did, Dr. Mark A. Leuchter said. Dr. Leuchter, who will speak at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge on December 12, is an associate professor in the religion department of Temple University in Philadelphia, who combines anthropology and history in his work with texts.

“Within the Jewish tradition, we have two stories of origin,” he said. “One is about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the other is that we all came out of Egypt.” Both are vitally important, but the second one is even more crucial than the first, “because it is that second story that creates Israel as a nation. Our national sensibility comes from that story.”

It also “has meant different things to different writers at different times,” he continued. “So the canonical version” – that’s the slightly different retellings in Exodus – “might have been written considerably later than the versions you might find in various other songs and hymns.

“Most scholars think that the earliest stratum of the Exodus story – which is difficult to identify but most scholars agree on this – is an allegory about how the northern tribes broke away from the Davidic kingdom after Solomon died.”

Jeroboam, the first king of those tribes, “seems to have sponsored the rewriting of the national myth to justify the break.”

And that, of course, means that “if there was a historical exodus – and I’m not sure we can say truly that there was – the story went through many generations of storytellers before someone finally wrote it down.”

So wait. What does myth mean in this context? “It is an idea that is at the heart of our sense of identity,” Dr. Leuchter said. The Exodus is “our number-one myth.”

(And if we have any questions about how central the story is, we should note that director Ridley Scott’s huge movie, starring Christian Bale, is set to open on December 12. It seems that the Exodus is having its cultural moment right now.)

Myth does not mean “misperception,” he continued, although it frequently is used in that way. Here, it has to do with the way that a culture expresses its most deeply held beliefs; how it tells its stories. A myth need not be literally true to hold profound truth, and to tell the truth.

The Exodus story is an example of a cultural memory. “How do cultures remember broad, sweeping events?” Dr. Leuchter asked. “And how do they sustain them? They enshrine them in ritual, in liturgies, and in history-writing. You aren’t necessarily enshrining exactly what happened, but you are doing it in a way that keeps it meaningful.”

Therefore, of course, the story changes over time.

“At every seder, we say that every Jew is required to tell the story, saying, ‘When I came out of Egypt,'” he said. “Not ‘they’ but ‘I.’ I am 42 years old. My mother said I started to talk when I was about 1, so for more than 40 years I have been saying ‘When I came out of Egypt.’ I have never ever been to Egypt but I keep saying it.”

The point is that he is not lying when he says those words, even if it is not the literal truth. “The Exodus is mythic. The idea that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, and that Moses led them out – that is the basis of Jewish national identity.”

The story is so old and so deep that clearly it resonates with us. “But it is not necessarily history,” he said. “Our job, as explorers of history, is to say which parts might have been historical, and what led us to develop this particular truth.

“My talk is going to be about how there is no historical evidence for the Exodus, beyond what we read in the Hebrew Bible. There is not a shred of evidence that it happened.

“But on the other hand, there has to have been an exodus of some sort, or we wouldn’t have a tradition – no matter how mythical, no matter how symbolic – unless there was some sort of historical event behind it. The text, though, does not give us clear historical insight into that event.

“The argument is that something must have happened.” And yes, he said, the reason stories take deep root in a culture’s soul is because they hold truths. “But if we want to be historical and scientific and realistic, we must realize that it is well-nigh impossible that Moses led about 2 million people out of Egypt and over the Red Sea overnight.” That number, 2 million, comes from the 600,000 men between 20 and 60 who were reported to have left Egypt. They are likely to have been joined by a roughly equal number of women and by children and older men, and by the mixed multitude the text records. “That’s not feasible unless you believe in miracles and do not live in a rational world,” he said.

“Biblical texts have layers, like onions,” Dr. Leuchter continued. “If you are willing to unpeel them, you can see things in them. If you look at them as the inerrant word of God, you cannot do that.”

That does not mean that he does not know that many Jews and many Christians as well believe the Bible to be literally true. That is an approach he respects without sharing. He thinks it is possible to talk to members of the other group despite that wide divide.

“If you talk about it in a respectful way, if you don’t say, ‘You’re an idiot if you believe this,’ but say instead, ‘This is an important thing, let’s look at it from their perspective,” there can be conversation, he said.

Information
Who: Dr. Mark Leuchter

What: Will be scholar in residence for the Lillian Vitello study day; his topic is “How we know the exodus happened, and how we know it didn’t.”

Where: At Temple Avodat Shalom, 385 Howland Ave., River Edge

When: Dr. Leuchter will speak at 7:30, at an Oneg Shabbat after Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, and again at 9 at a bagel brunch on Shabbat morning before 10:30 services

For more information: Call (201) 489-2463, ext. 202.

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