Passover and Biblical Myths: Jewish Perspective

Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC /

Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC /

In the spring issue of Reform Judaism magazine, it focused on the great jewish myths.  And much to my surprise and probably yours as well, was the myth of Passover – that we were not really slaves in Egypt?  Well there goes our founding story, what are we as a people, why do we even sit down and eat matzoh at the seder if the whole thing is a myth?

First question is, is it a myth?  Second question, does it matter?

Rabbi David Sperling, who teaches Tanach at HUC-JIR in NYC and taught me Bible back when I was a student, writes that the Torah devotes more than 4 books of the first 5, on the proposition that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for generations.  He points out that there is no archaeological evidence to support that they were there.  He suggests that a prolonged stay should have left Egytpian elements in the material culture, such as pottery shards.  His conclusion is that the tales of the servitude in Egypt, the wandering in the desert and the conquest of the promised land appear to be fictitious.

I would counter that we don’t have a lot of evidence of what happened back then.  We do have pyramids, built by slaves, though we don’t know for sure if they were Hebrew slaves.  We know that there is a group of nomadic people living in the region called Habiru or Apiru, who are in Sumerian, Egyptian, Hittie, Akkadian and Ugaritic sources.  These people could be the Hebrew based on our language, Hebrew.  In a list of goods bequeathed to several temples by Pharaoh Ramesses III (around 1160 BC) includes many serfs, Egyptian and foreign. The foreign serfs are described as “maryanu (soldiers), apiru, and people already settled in the temple estate”.  The laborers that Ramesses IV sent to the quarry of Wadi Hammamat in his third year included 5,000 soldiers, 2,000 men attached to the temples of Pharaoh as well as 800 Apiru.  One could argue that this is proof of a Hebrew people living in Egypt as serfs who would have wanted to leave for freedom.  Other non-Biblical account of the Exodus are in the writings of the Greek author Hecataeus of Abdera: the Egyptians blame a plague on foreigners and expel them from the country, whereupon Moses, their leader, takes them to Canaan, where he founds the city of Jerusalem.[47] Hecataeus wrote in the late 4th century BCE, but the passage is quite possibly an insertion made in the mid-1st century BCE.[48] there is also a famous account by the Egyptian historian Manetho (3rd century BCE), known from two quotations by the 1st century CE Jewish historian Josephus. In the first, Manetho describes the Hyksos, their lowly origins in Asia, their dominion over and expulsion from Egypt, and their subsequent foundation of the city of Jerusalem and its temple. Josephus (not Manetho) identifies the Hyksos with the Jews.[49] In the second story Manetho tells how 80,000 lepers and other “impure people,” led by a priest named Osarseph, join forces with the former Hyksos, now living in Jerusalem, to take over Egypt. They wreak havoc until eventually the pharaoh and his son chase them out to the borders of Syria, where Osarseph gives the lepers a law-code and changes his name to Moses.[50] Manetho differs from the other writers in describing his renegades as Egyptians rather than Jews, and in using a name other than Moses for their leader,[47] although the identification of Osarseph with Moses may be a later addition

Celebration of Passover

Celebration of Passover

I read a book called “Walking the Bible” by Bruce Feiler.  He walked the way from Egypt to Israel and noticed two interesting things.  There were chariot wheels in the sea where there Israelites are thought to have crossed.  Second the fish in the sea are called by the locals “moses fish”.  Of course this is all conjuncture.

So what do we actually have?  We have the Bible.  And its not just a few lines about the Israelites as slaves in Egypt and they leave for freedom.  The tale is incredibly vivid and detailed. A cruel ruler who subjects the people to abhorrent slavery, a leader who emerges from the desert after an encounter with God.  Back and forth dialogue between Pharoah and Moses, the 10 plagues and finally the decision to leave.  Then pages and pages, verses after verse, chapter after chapter of very specific details about the journey from place to place, what they did, what they saw, what they ate, how many people, how they camped, how they prayed, what they built, who they encountered, how many battles, laws and customs of peoplehood.  To me, this is quite a document of proof about a story.  Now are we to quibble about each detail.  Did the nile actually turn red with blood?  Did the sea part the second the Israelites arrived?  Did thunder and lightning crash down from the mountain as Moses went up to receive Torah?  These are details that form our history and our story.  I don’t know if they happened exactly that way, but this is the story that was passed on by my forefathers and foremothers, to their children and to their children and eventually passed on to me.  It was so important and detailed that it was told in exactly the same way for generations, and then it was written on scrolls that were carried and saved and passed along from year to year, century to century.  If it was such an unimportant story, how did it last from those days until today, yet other stories did not. Why do we have the dead sea scrolls that have the exact story and date to over 2000 years ago?  To me the Exodus did happen, and whether I can prove that frogs jumped around or magical manna falling from heaven is irrelevant.

Rabbi Sperling would say that while he feels the story was made up, it was done so for political purposes, to obscure the fact that the Israelites were native to Canaan.  Why would they want to be foreigners, wouldn’t that undercut their claim to the land of Israel?  Biblical historian Robert Carroll theorizes that it was to assert their distinctiveness.   Other peoples at the time believe in a fear of God, linking moral law to ritual law.  Having an origin in the desert, a “no man’s land” where God found us, was unique.  It fostered a religious, social and political solidarity.  It would give them religious and moral superiority.  As foreigners with no roots in either Egypt or Canaan, they could reject the practices of those nations and set their own course.  Rabbi Sperling concludes that the biblical writers invented the idea that we started in Egypt to maintain their distinctiveness from the Canaanites, and we were enslaved by Egypt taskmasters while in Canaan further setting out distinction in overcoming it.  I’m not convinced by these arguments.   I think if we were slaves to Egypts, its more likely we were slaves in Egypt. And if we are so distinct from the Canaanites, maybe its not because we made up a story about being unique, but we actually were and are unique – that is what makes us Israelites.

But where we can all agree is that the story is still important today and thus celebrating Passover is still vital to what it means to be Jewish.  As Rabbi David Wolpe writes, its not a historical claim that God created us, cares for us, took us from slavery and made a convenant with us.  Rather this is a religious claim.  We are not looking for historical accuracy when looking through the Bible, rather we are looking for the larger truths.  When we talk about our slavery in Egypt, the specifics are not as important as the lesson of cruelty that we suffered.  It reminds us to be humble and so we eat the bread of humility and affliction –the matzah.  It reminds us that if we were slaves, we know to never enslave others.  We were strangers in a strange land, so we should always remember to refrain from enslaving others and to welcome the stranger into our land and our home.  We should invite people to our Passover seder to celebrate the miracle of the Exodus.  We should fight for fair immigration laws for our country of Canada.  We should applaud Israel for taking in millions of refugees from around the world, including non-Jewish African refugees from Darfur and Eritrea over the past few years.

Seder Plate

Seder Plate

When we talk about the larger truths, the Exodus reminds us of love and gratitude towards God.  God brought plagues on our enemy, parted the sea, and led us with a pillar of fire through the fearful nights.  Let us be reminded of the immense comfort we can take in a God that cares for our communal and individual needs.  Whether we today experience those types of nature bending miracles, or whether we experience day to day miracles such as childbirth, overcoming illness, eating foods from the earth, seeing the absolute beauty of nature or feeling love between two humans – we ought to be grateful. We come together on Passover to read the haggadah, and sing praises to God and offer our thanks for miracles then and now.

We might not know every exact detail of how we were saved then, but we were saved and live to celebrate it today.  Despite unimaginable opposition, Am Yisrael Chai, our people lives.  We have endured through exile and expulsion, pogrom and gas chamber, anti-Semitism and bigotry – and we have overcome.  Rabbi Wolpe writes, “nation after nation has been buried under the debris of history while our nation lives”.  We have overcome and flourished and created.  We have built a modern democratic state of Israel in our ancient homeland. We have built vibrant strong communities in all parts of the globe.  We should be especially proud of the communities built right here in North America – with synagogues, community centres, schools, arts and drama centres, parades and carnivals, advocacy and social justice groups  – this is what we have made of ourselves.  Faith is seeing what we can create, with Gods help.  Faith doesn’t rest on the water level of the sea or the amount of boils on the skin or whether 600,000 trekked through the desert or just 600.  It rests on seeing ourselves as though we personally left Egypt in freedom, and what we have done with that freedom today.

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