Rabbi doubts truth of Exodus

Some say story of Moses is more legend than truth

Saturday, April 21, 2001
Los Angeles Times

It's one of the greatest stories ever told: A baby is found in a basket
adrift in the Egyptian Nile and is adopted into the Pharaoh's household. He
grows up as Moses, rediscovers his roots, and leads his enslaved Israelite
brethren to freedom after God sends down 10 plagues against Egypt and parts
the Red Sea to allow them to escape. They wander for 40 years in the
wilderness and, under the leadership of Joshua, conquer the land of Canaan to
enter their promised land.

For centuries, the biblical account of the Exodus has been revered as the
founding story of the Jewish people, sacred scripture for three world
religions and a universal symbol of freedom that has inspired liberation
movements around the globe.

But did the Exodus ever actually occur?

On Passover Sunday, Rabbi David Wolpe raised that provocative question before
2,200 faithful at Sinai Temple on the west side of Los Angeles. He minced no

"The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist 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," Wolpe told his congregants.

Wolpe's startling sermon may have seemed blasphemy to some. In fact, however,
the rabbi was merely telling his flock what scholars have known for more than
a decade. Slowly and often outside wide public purview, archeologists are
radically reshaping modern understandings of the Bible. It was time for his
people to know about it, Wolpe decided.

After a century of excavations trying to prove the ancient accounts true,
archeologists say there is no conclusive evidence that the Israelites were
ever in Egypt, were ever enslaved, ever wandered in the Sinai wilderness for
40 years or ever conquered the land of Canaan under Joshua's leadership. To
the contrary, the prevailing view is that most of Joshua's fabled military
campaigns never occurred -- archeologists have uncovered ash layers and other
signs of destruction at the relevant time at only one of the many
battlegrounds mentioned in the Bible.

Today, the prevailing theory is that Israel probably emerged peacefully out
of Canaan -- modern-day Lebanon, southern Syria, Jordan and the West Bank of
Israel -- whose people are portrayed in the Bible as wicked idolators. Under
this theory, the Canaanites who took on a new identity as Israelites were
perhaps joined or led by a small group of Semites from Egypt -- explaining a
possible source of the Exodus story, scholars say. As they expanded their
settlement, they may have begun to clash with neighbors over water rights and
the like, perhaps providing the historical nuggets for the conflicts recorded
in Joshua and Judges.

"Scholars have known these things for a long time, but we've broken the news
very gently," said William Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archeology and
anthropology at the University of Arizona and one of America's pre-eminent

The modern archeological consensus over the Exodus is just beginning to reach
the general public. In 1999, an Israeli archeologist, Ze'ev Herzog of Tel
Aviv University, set off a furor in Israel by writing in a popular magazine
that stories of the patriarchs were myths and that neither the Exodus nor
Joshua's conquests ever occurred. In the hottest controversy today, Herzog
also argued that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, described as grand
and glorious in the Bible, was at best a small tribal kingdom.

In a new book this year, "The Bible Unearthed," Israeli archeologist Israel
Finklestein of Tel Aviv University and archeological journalist Neil Asher
Silberman raised similar doubts and offered a new theory about the roots of
the Exodus story. The authors argue that the story was written during the
time of King Josia of Judah in the seventh century B.C. -- 600 years after
the Exodus supposedly occurred in 1250 B.C. -- as a political manifesto to
unite Israelites against the rival Egyptian empire as both states sought to
expand their territory. The young Israeli king's growing conflict with the
newly crowned Pharaoh Necho, the book argues, was metaphorically portrayed
through the momentous and probably mythical struggle between Moses and the

Dever argued that the Exodus story was produced for theological reasons: to
give an origin and history to a people and distinguish them from others by
claiming a divine destiny.

Some scholars, of course, still maintain that the Exodus story is basically
factual. Bryant Wood, director of The Associates for Biblical Research in
Maryland, argued that the evidence falls into place if the story is dated
back to 1450 B.C. He said that indications of destruction around that time at
Hazor, Jericho and a site he is excavating that he believes is the biblical
city of Ai support accounts of Joshua's conquests. He also cited the
documented presence of "Asiatic" slaves in Egypt who could have been
Israelites and said they wouldn't have left evidence of their wanderings
since they were nomads with no material culture. But Wood said he can't get
his research published in serious archeological journals.

"There's a definite anti-Bible bias," Wood said.

The revisionist view, however, is not necessarily publicly popular. Herzog,
Finklestein and others have been attacked for everything from faulty logic to
pro- Palestinian political agendas that undermine Israel's land claims. Dever
-- a former Protestant minister who converted to Judaism 12 years ago -- says
he gets "hissed and booed" when he speaks about the lack of evidence for the
Exodus, and regularly receives letters and calls offering prayers or telling
him he's headed for hell.

Many of Wolpe's congregants said the story of the Exodus has been personally
true for them even if the details are not factual: when they fled the Nazis
during World War II, for instance, or, more recently, the Islamic revolution
in Iran. Daniel Navid Rastein, a Los Angeles medical professional, said he
has always regarded the story as a metaphor for a greater truth: "We all have
our own Egypts -- we are prisoners of something, either alcohol, drugs,
cigarettes, overeating. We have to use (the story) as a way to free ourselves
from difficulty and make ourselves a better person."

Judaism has also been more open to non-literal interpretations of the text
than some Christian traditions.

"Among Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews, there is a much
greater willingness to see the Torah as an extended metaphor in which truth
comes through story and law," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los

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