Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Pesach Story

Guest post

It will be Pesach in a few days. Millions of Jewish people, myself included, will be sitting around their tables with family and friends recounting the story of our ancestors' miraculous rescue from slavery in Egypt. What is it that we'll be discussing? Is it history, handed down to us as a faithful transmission of real events that happened to real people? Or is it mythology, grand, fantastic stories that happened long ago in a golden age? Stories meant to explain why the world is the way it is and to provide lessons that guide us in the best way to live our lives. And where does the holiday of Pesach come from? Has it been celebrated by all the generations since our ancestors left Egypt?

Navi tells us that Pesach has not been celebrated in an unbroken tradition passed from parent to child.

And the king commanded all the people, "Keep the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant." For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah; but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 23:21-23)

At the very least, Yoshiyahu was resurrecting a long-defunct holiday. More likely is that he, or the Dueteronmist Kohanim he supported, invented Pesach as an annual national holiday. The seminal event of Yoshiyahu's reign was the discovery of "the Book of the Law," thought to be Sefer Devarim and associated Dueteronomist works. It is in this sefer that Pesach, and many other laws, are defined. It guided Yoshiyahu's reforms in consolidating religious worship in the Beis HaMikdash in Yerushalayim under royal patronage and gave religious imprimatur to his ambitions to expand his kingdom. The Duteronomist works reflect the conditions in seventh-century Judah so closely that most scholars think that it was written at the time as part of Yoshiyahu's religious reforms and political ambitions. Its "discovery" during the renovation of the Beis HaMikdash was the first step in Yoshiyahu's plans.[1]

So Pesach hasn't been celebrated continuously since the events it memorializes, and it may have been a seventh-century BCE invention. But that still means that Jews have been celebrating Pesach for over two-and-a-half thousand years. What is it that we've been discussing at our sedarim for all of these centuries?

It almost certainly isn't the literal emancipation of two to three million Jewish slaves from bondage in Egypt. For one thing, the entire population of Egypt in the Late Bronze Age, when yetzias Mitzrayim took place, was three to three-and-a-half million people.[2] Two to three million people leaving Egypt would have left the country empty. There is no record, written or archaeological, of the demographic and economic devastation this would have caused.

There is also evidence that the number must have been much lower from the Torah itself.[3]  Hashem tells the Bnei Yisroel that he will drive out the inhabitants of Canaan slowly, because if the natives all left at once, "the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you."[4] Three million people would have been more than enough to fully populate the land. A few perakim later, the Torah describes Moshe as setting up a tent outside the camp, and everyone in the camp standing at the door to their tent and watching Moshe until he entered the tent.[5] A camp of three million people would have been enormous. All of the people couldn't possibly have watched Moshe walk to a tent some distance outside the camp. Nor would it have been practical for the people to go to the tent outside the camp to "inquire of the Lord," a distance that would have been several days' walk.

The story itself also provides clues that it isn't literal history. Details of the story of yetzias Mitzrayim have recognizable mythic motifs which would have resonated with the ancient Israelites who were its original audience. One of its central scenes, Krias Yam Suf, echoes these earlier myths. Marduk, a Mesopotamian god, split the sea serpent Tiamat in two to create the world of men, who live between her halves. Baal, a Canaanite god, battled with Yam, the god of seas and rivers, and tore him to pieces.

If our a ancestors didn't leave Egypt in a great mass, then what did happen? Is there any truth to the story at all?

There probably is some historical truth in it. Groups of slaves did escape from Egypt from time to time. And there are parts of the story that make sense in historical context, such as the decision to take the southern route rather than the more direct northern route. The northern trade route was protected by a string of Egyptian forts. So who were the group of escaped slaves that would become the Jewish people?

Archeologists have recovered hundreds of clay tablets that refer to a group called the "Habiru" or "Apiru." They were people on the fringes of society, bandits, fugitives,  and escaped slaves who lived in the Canaanite highlands at the edges of the settled Canaanite kingdoms.[6] The name of the group in Akkadian is similar to "Ivri." It may be that the Akkadian "Apiru" became  the Hebrew "Ivri."

With this in mind, we can reconstruct a probable historical Exodus. A group of slaves escaped from Egypt and spent some time at a desert oasis. From there, they joined the bands of Habiru in the Canaanite highlands. They brought with them their religion, a henotheistic faith with a jealous God Who commanded His followers to "Have no other gods before me," but didn't deny the existence of those other deities. They may have been influenced by the same currents in Egyptian society that led the pharaoh Akhenaton around the same time to briefly adopt the monotheistic worship of the sun-disc, Aten. In time the newcomers' religion was adopted by the rest of the Habiru, and the escaped slaves became the religious leaders. As latecomers, this new priestly class, who came to be known as Leviim, had no hereditary territory.[7]

The story of the slaves' escape from Egypt was adopted as a founding myth of the Habiru, even though most of them were not descended from that group. In the same way that the story of the Mayflower is one of the United States' founding myths, even though most Americans are not descended from the group that came over on the Mayflower. The highlands remained the Habiru's seat of power, even when their religion spread to the rest of Canaan. This was the center of the kingdom of Judah, from which the Jewish people got our name.

This is a story of real people. It is an epic that can speak to us across time, and in it can be seen the seeds of modern Enlightenment values. People who started as slaves, at the lowest rung of society, rose to regard themselves as the Chosen Nation and to spread their ideas around the world. Many of their laws were progressive for their time, stressing equality before the law (for free men, anyway). On Pesach we retell the myth of our origin as slaves and our redemption from bondage. We remind ourselves that we are descended from slaves, that society once considered our ancestors contemptible, and that those slaves, when given the opportunity, created a rich culture and mythos that has been one of the most influential in history.

Why was the historical story of leaving Egypt expressed as a myth? Why inflate the numbers and add other impossible elements? Were our ancestors trying to fool their audiences? Probably not. Myths were the genre that spoke to the original audience. It is an open question how literally ancient peoples took their myths. Did the ancient Mesopotamians really believe that the universe was literally made of a dismembered sea serpent? Did the Romans really believe that Remus and Romulus founded their city? Do Americans really believe that their country has its origins in the passengers on the Mayflower?

When the Babylonian priests entered the Holy of Holies in the great ziggurat during the New Year's festival to recite the Enumah Elish, they didn't believe that it was a literal account of creation, or that the gods had built the ziggurat, as their epic claimed. They knew that their ancestors had built the temple, and that it was maintained through their own mundane efforts. And they knew that no one knew what had happened during creation. The myth wasn't meant to convey history. It was meant to convey ideas. So too, the story of yetzias Mitzrayim is written as a myth, meant to convey ideas rather than history.[8]

Like the ancients, people today don't really believe in the literal truth of modern myths. Americans don't really believe that the United States had its origins in the passengers on the Mayflower. The myth expresses an ideal, not the historical reality. The ideal of religious freedom expressed in the Mayflower myth is historically inaccurate. The Pilgrims did leave England because the Church of England was intolerant of them, but that's not because the Church of England was generally intolerant. It was because the Puritans were so intolerant of other faiths and were exceedingly harsh towards religious infractions within their own congregations. Yet the myth of the Mayflower passengers coming to the New World in search of religious freedom informs Americans of their ideals.

The myth of yetzias Mitzrayim, while not historically accurate, informs the Jewish people of their ideals. Ideals of kindness towards even the least among us, for we were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. It sets its lessons in the mythic language of the Ancient Near East, yet it also tells us that we can be efficacious in realizing its ideals in the real world. It places common mythic elements like the splitting of the sea not it the age of the gods, as do the myths of Marduk and Baal, but in the age of men, the age in which we live.[9]

This post was inspired by a post a few days ago on another blog. That post discussed academic interpretations of yetzias mitzrayim that the author had seen on While the author expresses compassion for those who are "troubled" by an academic understanding of the Torah, he condemns interpretations informed by an understanding of Biblical scholarship and mythology as kefirah, and those who hold such views as apikorsim. He may be right, but being heretical and being true are not mutually exclusive. When the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for heresy, they were right that claiming the Earth orbits the Sun was heretical. And yet, it moves.

The author refused to allow any discussion of the views he condemned, as per his policy of protecting the innocent person with emunah peshutah who might stumble across it on his blog and be led astray. The reader is instead left with a one-sided impression of the rightness of the traditional view and the rishus of the academic /synthetic view of ancient Jewish history. The latter are bad because they are apikorsus, forbidden heretical ideas. Whether these ideas are true, whether they reflect reality, is irrelevant. They are apikorsus, and, it follows, one who accepts these ideas is an apikores and a rasha.

Of the four sons in the Hagaddah, I identify most with the Rasha, the questioner who doesn't take things for granted but, unlike the Hagaddah's interpretation of his question, is interested in the history and practices of his people, even if he doesn't take their theology for granted. I don't think we should have to believe in impossible things to have access to or benefit from the rich mythical and historical tradition all Jews are heirs to.

A story of a rag-tag group of slaves who escaped their bondage, eked out lives on the fringes of society, and rose to prominence as the creators of a mythos whose ideas are echoed by half the world's population and which have shaped the history of humanity is inspiring. More inspiring, to me, than a literal understanding of the Exodus myth, full of impossible things that I can't hope to emulate happening to people who have little agency. Myths communicate grand ideas, but history teaches us what real people have done, and inspires us to emulate them.

Other Pesach posts: What is Chometz?

[1] Finkelstein, I., & Silberman, N.A. (2001). The Bible Unearthed. New York, NY: The Free Press.
[2] Butzer, Karl W. (1999). "Demographics". In Bard, K. A., Shubert, S. Encyclopedia of the archaeology of ancient Egypt.
[3] Berman, J. (2015). Was There an Exodus? Mosaic.  Retrieved from
[4] Exodus 23:29
[5] Exodus 33:7-8
[6] Wolfe, R. (2011). From Habiru to Hebrews and Other Essays. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press. p. 2-3
[7] Wolfe, R. (2011). From Habiru to Hebrews and Other Essays. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press. p. 12
[8] Armstrong, K. (1994). A History of God. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 7, 9
[9] Armstrong, K. (1994). A History of God. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 19