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About the history behind the story of the Exodus and its meanings here and now

The exodus from Egypt is the story around which Passover is celebrated, and it also symbolizes for us an exit from slavery to freedom, but is there any historical truth in the story?

Moses crosses the Red Sea. Image:
Moses crosses the Red Sea. Image:

The exodus from Egypt is the story around which Passover is celebrated, and it also symbolizes for us an exit from slavery to freedom, but is there any historical truth in the story? Very soon, Jewish families all over the world will gather to celebrate Passover. On Seder night we will all read a text that deals with the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, their march in the desert and their arrival in the Promised Land. The term "coming out of slavery to freedom" drawn from the Passover holiday has become a common expression in the Hebrew language in various contexts.

A story with a message of hope

According to what is told in the Bible, the Israelites were in Egypt for hundreds of years, and became slaves employed in hard labor. God revealed himself to Moses at the altar and commanded him to demand from Pharaoh that he release the people of Israel. Since Pharaoh refused the request, God brought severe plagues on Pharaoh and his people, and after the tenth plague - the plague of firstborns - Pharaoh surrendered and let the Israelites leave Egypt. The Egyptians retaliated and persecuted the Israelites, who were saved with the help of the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. So that the Exodus from Egypt would be remembered for generations in the Jewish mind, the Torah commanded to celebrate Passover every year: "Keep the month of spring and make a Passover to Jehovah your God, for in the month of spring Jehovah God brought you out How are you from Egypt tonight? And you shall sacrifice the Passover to Jehovah your God, sheep and cattle, in the place that Jehovah will choose to place His name there. You shall not eat unleavened bread on it for seven days; you shall eat unleavened bread on it, for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste, so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt as For the days of your life. And there shall be no fear left for you in all your borders for seven days." (Book of Deuteronomy, chapter XNUMX, verses XNUMX-XNUMX).

These are the main points of the story, which we all know from childhood, but is there historical truth in the story of the Exodus? Is it possible that a group of people wandered in the desert for 40 years, and are these people the ancestors of the Jewish religion? We set out to speak with Prof. Israel Finkelstein, one of the senior leaders of the archeology department at Tel Aviv University and one of the most prominent researchers in the field of biblical archaeology.

The lack of archaeological evidence

"The question of identifying historical truth in the Exodus case has occupied scholars since the beginning of modern research," says Finkelstein. "Most researchers looked for the archaeological and historical evidence outside of the Bible in the Late Bronze Age, in the 13th century BC, among other things because the name of the city of Ramses is mentioned in the story, and because at the end of that century, an Egyptian document already mentions a group called "Israel" in Canaan. But there is no archaeological evidence for this affair, neither in Egypt nor in Sinai, and what is perceived as historical evidence from Egyptian sources can be interpreted in other ways. Moreover, the biblical story is not aware of the main characteristic of the situation in Canaan in the Late Bronze Age - a strong Egyptian rule that could deal with an invasion of groups from the desert. Furthermore, many of the details in the description are better suited to a later period in Egyptian history, in the 7th and 6th centuries BC - close to the time of the composition of the biblical story as it is presented to us today."

"However, this is not a story invented by later authors, because allusions to the exodus from Egypt appear in chapters of the prophecy of Hosea and Amos, which date, apparently, to the 8th century BC, which suggests that the tradition is ancient. In this regard, some believe that the origin of the "memory" can be found in an ancient historical event - the expulsion of Canaanites from the Nile Delta in the middle of the second millennium BC. In any case, the story of the Exodus is layered and represents more than one period."

The founding text of the (Northern) Kingdom of Israel

"It seems that the story of the Exodus from Egypt was one of the founding texts of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and that it came to Judah after the destruction of Israel. It is possible that at the end of Judah's days, in a period of approaching conflict with the Egypt of that time, he expressed a message of hope, when there had already been a conflict with the mighty Egypt in the distant past, and the Israelites had the upper hand. Later in the story there was a message of hope for the exiles in Babylon, because it is possible to escape from exile, cross the desert and return to the land of the ancestors. And above all, the story of the Exodus from Egypt was an eternal example of leaving slavery to freedom in Jewish culture and world culture."

Moses and the burning bush. Image:
Moses and the burning bush. Image:

About slavery and the longing for redemption in our lives - then and today

We also met with Prof. Ron Margolin, from the Department of Jewish Philosophy and the MA program. in religious sciences, and head of the Ofakim program, who talked about the meaning of the Exodus in our lives today: "The Exodus is the founding myth of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple, and to a large extent its counterpart, which is significantly different from it in the Christian world, is the myth of the crucifixion of Jesus. The first reflects a belief in national and personal redemption that promises an optimistic future for the whole and for the individual based on the commitment to fulfilling the laws of the Torah and their spirit. The second reflects a belief in personal redemption for the whole world through empathy with the suffering God-Man. The importance of the story of the Exodus is in the existential meanings it holds for the people and the individual. The exodus from Egypt is the departure from slavery to the freedom of the people of Israel, but its purpose is also to shape the life of the individual, as written in the Passover Haggadah: "In every generation a person must see himself as if he came out of Egypt." The meaning of this article is that everyone should see themselves on Pesach and every day of the year as someone who has been redeemed, that is, out of Egypt. In the Bible the imperative "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy XNUMX:XNUMX) is the most frequent justification for the moral commands of the Bible. Those who are freed from slavery must remember the taste of slavery in order to show empathy for those who suffer from it here and now. "And when your brother is born with you and is sold to you, you shall not serve him as a slave... for they are my slaves whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, they shall not be sold as a slave. You shall not go down in it with difficulty, and you shall be afraid of your God" (And read this, lat-mag). "And you will live in the land of Egypt." (Exodus, XNUMX, XNUMX)."

"The Passover Haggadah was designed after the destruction of the Second Temple as a replacement for the Passover sacrifice ceremony that took place during the time of the Temple. Against the background of servitude to the Roman Empire, the authors of the Haggadah emphasized the hope for the redemption of the people, known nowadays as national redemption. The realization of this hope came true with the establishment of the State of Israel. However, in the Jewish concept, the national and the individual redemption should not be separated, and there is no point in the redemption of the whole if the individual members of the nation continue to behave like slaves. Today more than ever it is important not to forget the educational role of the Seder night. Aside from the gratitude for the exit from the national strait, certainly compared to the terrible Jewish plight that preceded the establishment of the State of Israel, the existential and moral meanings given to the Exodus over the generations are of great importance. The leaven originates from the leaven in the dough that ferments and leavens it, and this was equated already in the days of the sages to the creator of evil. This meaning was strengthened in the Kabbalistic-Hasidic writings. The burning of the chametz has become a symbolic act that expresses an inner cleansing from the evil in a person, from the heart that has missed. Eating matza on Passover expresses the longing for a new beginning that characterizes the spring period. As mentioned, slavery has two meanings, national, political and personal, moral. This slavery is slavery to habits, to hard traits, to enslaving private memories, slavery to excessive impulses and passions. The longing for redemption is a longing for the redemption of the whole, but this will not be realized without the redemption of the individuals from their personal bondage."

Whether the story took place in the distant past or whether it is a parable or a myth, we wish everyone a happy Passover, and may we all be freed from social and personal, physical and psychological bondages, to spring, freedom and new beginnings.

  • The article was published on the Tel Aviv University website in preparation for Passover in 2016.

7 תגובות

  1. The description here does not show all angles. It is true that there is no unequivocal evidence such as Moses' ring.
    But there is indirect evidence and it is worth noting:
    A. Joseph ben Matityahu already mentions the Hyksos as conforming to the tradition of the Israelites in the exodus from Egypt.
    B. The Habiru were tribes that ruled in Egypt and were expelled from Egypt. Khabiru is a transgression.
    third. There is archeological evidence of a minister of Pharaoh with a Hebrew name.
    The following article deals with the subject:
    d. There is a likelihood of a true foundation behind the story. Pharaoh Akhenaten eliminated the Egyptian pantheon of gods and declared faith in one god: Amun. The idea of ​​Akhenaten as the pioneer of monotheism was advanced by Sigmund Freud in his book Moshe the Man and the Belief of the Unique. It is possible that the Hebrews are the remnants who were expelled from Egypt due to the suppression of the religious revolution.
    None of the explanations here have definite proof - this is because the time is too far away. What is a narrative in the Jewish people is not a historically important event in the Egyptian people.

  2. The lack of archaeological evidence??? There are exact proofs for the whole story and if you don't know them, you are really poor.

  3. And why is the name of Moshe not mentioned, from the exodus from Egypt, even once in the Haggadah? Gamaliel, Tarpon and Akiva were more important to be named in the Haggadah?

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