Quotes from Rabbis & Scholars on the Exodus, Abraham

(updated 9/12/2013) The quotes below serve as auxiliary material to that already cited on my Israel’s Origins page, and I recently found them collected in a new-to-me blog. The original author cites these quotations with additional discussion, and I suggest checking it out (Thanks John Zande). The original post can be found here: Well, this is a little embarrassing, isn’t it? Meanwhile, the meaty collection of quotations:

“Defending a rabbi in the 21st century for saying the Exodus story isn’t factual is like defending him for saying the Earth isn’t flat. It’s neither new nor shocking to most of us that the Earth is round or that the Torah isn’t a history book dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.”

~ Rabbi Steven Leder of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“The rejection of the Bible as literally true is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis.”

~ Rabbi David Wolpe of the Conservative Sinai Temple

“Such startling propositions, the product of findings by archaeologists, have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis… but there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity until now. It is time for people to know about it.”

~ Rabbi David Wolpe

“It’s been decades since we’ve known… what’s the hold up?”

~ Israel Finkelstein, the chairman of the Archaeology Department at Tel Aviv University.

“The actual evidence concerning the Exodus resembles the evidence for the unicorn.”

~ Baruch Halpern, Professor of Jewish Studies of Pennsylvania State University

“The patriarchs’ acts are legendary stories, we did not sojourn in Egypt or make an exodus, we did not conquer the land. Those who take an interest have known these facts for years.”

~ Israeli archeologist, Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University

“Scholars have known these things for a long time, but we’ve broken the news very gently.”

~ Professor William Dever of the University of Arizona

“The fact is that not one shred of direct archaeological evidence has been found for Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob or the 400-plus years the children of Israel sojourned in Egypt. The same is true for their miraculous exodus from slavery.”

~  Christianity Today’s Kevin D. Miller

“Most people just don’t want to hear all this and are not comfortable with it… For scholars the matters are clear enough, and they know where there is, and is not, agreement, but they cannot compel the public to listen.”

~ Israel Finkelstein

Comments

  1. Matt, In your response to the compliment I gave you on the Epilogue page you asked for critique. Well, here it is. While I have not yet read as widely on this topic as you have, I suggest caution against overemphasizing the views expounded by the “revisionist” camp in regard to the origin of Israel. While I agree that it is exceedingly improbable that the torah presents an accurate history, there is a danger in swinging the pendulum to the other extreme and supposing that what we have is nothing but fiction. Between the Hyksos, the Shusa of Ywh, the Habiru\Apiru and the cultural milieu in ancient Egypt and the Levant, I am compelled to believe that there is a thread somewhere of real events and peoples upon which the many of the legends of the torah are woven. Though you concede that the problem may be a matter of scale, I get the impression at times that you are overstating the dearth of corroboration for the pre-history for Israel. Shadowy parallels can be found in extra-biblical data and, though it falls flat of confirming the biblical text, we should not ignore the trace of commonality that does exist.

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    • Travis, a very good comment:

      “I suggest caution against overemphasizing the views expounded by the “revisionist” camp in regard to the origin of Israel.”

      I know exactly what you mean here. I spent time mulling this point, and I developed a sort of algorithm for sifting the ranging views one encounters here. There are very strong statements that are made on all sides with this issue. As with the issue of evolution vs intelligent design, there could be at least two explanations for polarizing and extreme statements.

      1. Nobody has enough to go on, but they all have very strong opinions are all overreaching what we really know. Plenty of bluster, no hope of conclusion.
      2. One side really is right, has the data to prove it, and is tired of being undermined by a very vocal minority opposition that has nothing but dogmatic passion behind their assertions.

      Point 2 is precisely the case with evolutionary development. A small minority favors intelligent design, and ID has never made any viable predictions, as required by a good theory. Evolutionary theory has as much supporting data as anyone could wish, and it remains embattled for non-data reasons. There is enough information to make a conclusion, but one side simply will not concede it.

      To my ‘algorithm’… I located a constellation of three fixed stars in order to draw a reasonable conclusion on the Exodus. In this case, there are three expert opinions from a range of positions on the spectrum: Israel Finkelstein (left), William Dever (center or center-right), and K. A. Kitchen (minority right).

      I. Finkelstein: favors a low chronology, but one will note that he still allows that a smaller group may have migrated, yet insisting firmly that most of Israel developed indigenously. Note that Finkelstein’s broad area surveys were the last nail for the conquest models, as they demonstrated that there simply were never enough people in the region to account for a mass migration of 2 million Israelites.
      2. William Dever: a distinguished rival who disagrees with Finkelstein on a wide range of topics, including low chronology. Yet he agrees with Finkelstein’s assertions on the Exodus and does not counter Finkelstein’s survey data and population conclusions. He also leaves room for a smaller exodus, perhaps of a group include literate scholars that may have formed the later ruling class. He remains adamant that the biblical exodus and conquest model are simply and finally disconfirmed by the evidence, and he asserts that all mainstream scholars agree on this point.
      3. Kevin Kitchen: the hero archaeologist cited by nearly every anti-Finkelstein critique that I have found, and a holder of narrow-minority right-leaning views regarding biblical reliability. Biblical defenders positively adore Kitchen – so much so that I fear that they don’t actually listen to what he says. Kitchen seems to have searing criticism for nearly everyone, however, and it is difficult (for me) to actually locate anyone he is willing to agree with. Not an army of one, perhaps, but certainly a bombastic writer without a large army of colleagues to marshal. The amazing part, however, is that while criticizing Dever, Finkelstein, and everyone else, he nevertheless *will not disagree* with Finkelstein’s population conclusions, and in fact tries to coopt them as supports for an exodus that really did happen. The fine print? He imagines the exodus as having been 10,000 to 20,000 people… less than 1% of the biblical scale. He’s agreeing that 2 million people did not march out of Egypt nor take Canaan by conquest. If one steps back, he simply is not saying anything tangible that Dever or Finkelstein have not said. He’s arguing that the exodus did happen, but that it was a very modest micro-exodus.

      To summarize: Everyone allows for a small group to have migrated. No one is seriously questioning the population data from Finkelstein, no matter what they may think of the other “revisionist low chronology” issues. The very most that can be argued is for a sub-one-percent “micro exodus”. Nobody has a compelling argument that I can locate for the biblical exodus and conquest. This is the constellation that I observe, taken from scholars across the spectrum.

      The point of irreducible conclusion that I had to arrive at for myself funneled to a simple bottom line. The ancient writers of Israel were simply Tall Tale Tellers (TTTs). Whether a whole cloth fabrication or a 100X amplification of a seedling tale, the exodus as recounted in the bible is simply a fiction. It is either a fiction of invention or a fiction of amplification, and I don’t think in the end it terribly matters which one. Should we dig up Egyptian records of Israel’s presence in captivity tomorrow, or find traces of their journey, I would not have to alter my thesis. Israel would be majority indigenous Canaanites either way. Full Fiction. Historical Fiction. Fictionalized History. For the story to serve as Israel’s bona fides and proof of covenant, it really doesn’t matter. It needs to have happened, and to have happened as described, or else they simply remain TTTs.

      Finally, three similar analogies to underscore the situation with the Hebrew texts on the whole: the Creation, the Flood, and Babel. All three collapse on evidence. We can explain away the Eden narrative as allegorical or as a localized relationship with a special father of Israel from among existing people groups. Either way, it loses all original meaning. Humanity’s created purpose and the explanations of evil all hinge on the notion that the story is both true and with regard to the father of all mankind. Either it accounts for the fall of everyone, or it doesn’t. If the flood was merely a local catastrophe, with a land mass falling into the sea or a tsunami striking the ancient near eastern region, there is serious problem. Either the flood was a full biosphere reboot and a fresh start for humanity, or it wasn’t. Either we are all descended from Noah, or we are not. And with the much neglected Babel, we have the same situation. Anthropology simply doesn’t support the notion that language diversification occurred so recently or from such a location. Either Babel tells us where languages came from, or it does not.

      I maintain that exaggerations of scope are precisely what Israel cannot weather regarding their miraculous tales. The very first thing to be lost is the idea that they were miraculous, and that was their entire point.

      At any rate, that’s my algorithm and criterion. I don’t take the revisionists at their word on high/low chronology. (truthfully, I do not have a position there) I’ve just tried as well as I can to locate the irreducible points in the situation, and I think we do have them. Good hooks to hang one’s hat on. Or at least, it seems so to me. 🙂

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      • I agree with your conclusions, I was only cautioning against under-stating the potential historical correlations that do exist. One can’t help but see the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt and the attacks by the Habiru/Apiru on various Canaanite cities in the Armana letters and wonder whether the biblical accounts are in some sense drawing upon these. I gave up on literal readings of the Old Testament long ago and spent many years calling myself a Christian while holding a very forgiving view of the most ancient portions of the literature. Perhaps I am thus less susceptible to being shocked by the extent to which the stories were fabricated – a practice which does not surprise us at all when we see it in other ancient texts.

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        • I like very much a turn of phrase you used: that perhaps they were “drawing upon” those historical events. I tend to think along very similar lines. There was a great reserve of actual history in the ANE – the flood, Babel, enslavements, pilgrimages, etc. So much time passed between the history and our records that simply too much was able to happen. Because you’re right – we see exactly the same in other texts. As I’ve come to see it, the Hebrew texts are like the others – no worse, but also no better.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Quotes from Rabbis & Scholars on the Exodus, Abraham (jerichobrisance.com) […]

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  2. […] post is inspired by a link from Jericho Brisance, whose recent comment directed me to his page where various Rabbis confirm that the Exodus has been known to be non-historical for some […]

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