A Jewish Rabbi Challenges Whether Ancient History Supports The Biblical Account Of The Exodus And Why Blacks In America Should Be Interested In The Controversy (Part 1)

A prominent Jewish Rabbi, David Wolpe, of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles has sparked an intense debate by outright stating that he does not believe that evidence supports the claim that Jews of 4,000 years ago served 400 years in slavery in Egypt. He is publicly challenging the dominant view in not just Judaism, but the mainstream of Christianity and Islam as well, that the Biblical narrative of slavery, written of the book of Exodus did not occur 4,000 years ago as it is written in the Bible. We recognize the explosive nature of his arguments, if proven true. If Rabbi Wolpe is correct it not only shakes the foundations of the world's three major religions but it also opens the door for the slave experience of Blacks in America to be reevaluated by the theologians, scholars, teachers and believers of the Torah, Gospels and Holy Qur'an.

We begin our look at this critical subject by running, unedited, the transcript of a recent program on National Public Radio that dealt with the subject and controversy. Emphasis in bold are ours.

SHOW: Weekend All Things Considered

DATE: June 17, 2001


The story of the Exodus, the biblical account of the flight of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, is a central pillar of the Jewish faith. But for more than a hundred years, archaeologists have searched for evidence of the great journey to the Promised Land and have come up empty-handed. NPR religion correspondent Duncan Moon reports that this research is causing a stir in the Jewish community.

DUNCAN MOON reporting:

For more than 2,000 years, the story of the Exodus has undergirded not just Judaism, but also Christianity and Islam. It has offered inspiration to such diverse struggles for freedom as the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the American anti-slave movement and, in the process, has become part of popular culture. In 1956, Cecil B. DeMille cast a young Charlton Heston as Moses in the epic film "The Ten Commandments."

(Soundbite of "The Ten Commandments")

Mr. CHARLTON HESTON: (As Moses) Lord, why do you not hear the cries of their children in the bondage of Egypt?

Unidentified Man: (As God) I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry by reason of their testimonies for I know their sorrows. Therefore, I will send thee, Moses, onto pharaoh, that thou whilst bring my people out of Egypt.

MOON: For Jews, the Exodus is bedrock to their faith. It is the history of their people and their relationship to God. So on Passover this year, Rabbi David Wolpe's sermon to his Temple Sinai congregation in Los Angeles hit them like a bombshell.

Rabbi DAVID WOLPE (Temple Sinai, Los Angeles):The truth is that virtually every modern archaeologist who has investigated this 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.

MOON: To use a biblical phrase, Rabbi Wolpe's announcement "reaped the whirlwind," or at least created one. While many in his congregation applauded his courage, others were troubled. At an evening Torah class several weeks later, he was challenged persistently.

(Soundbite of Torah class)

Unidentified Man: We are not only Jews through religion, we are falk(ph), we are a nation. Consequently, when you tamper with the historicity of our nation, you are really on very dangerous ground.

Unidentified Woman: That's right.

Unidentified Man: You are taking a big chance when you put to question...

Rabbi WOLPE: OK.

Unidentified Man: ...how historicity...

Rabbi WOLPE: I underst--I'll answer your question now.

Unidentified Man: ...our nation, our pride...

Rabbi WOLPE: I--OK. Shh. Let me...

Unidentified Man: ...our brotherhood.

Rabbi WOLPE: I understand.

MOON: Traditional Jews around the country responded with anger and disappointment, saying that denying that the Exodus was a factual event undercuts the roots of Judaism.

Rabbi SIMON JACOBSON (Meaningful Life Center): I would equate it with denying that the Holocaust happened for Jews.

MOON: Rabbi Simon Jacobson is the founder and director of the Meaningful Life Center.

Rabbi JACOBSON: It would be almost like asking African-Americans, `How important is it that you literally were enslaved several hundred years ago and then were freed?' It would be considered an insult that anyone should suggest that it never happened.

MOON: Rabbi Wolpe responds that whether the events actually happened or are metaphorical makes little difference. The Exodus, he says, is a spiritual journey, and the universal truths it teaches are what give it its power.

Rabbi WOLPE: From my point of view, literalism violates what the Bible is about. Did God literally rest on the seventh day? Of course not. You have to be able to read the Bible on a much deeper level than the level that believes that Noah actually took, you know, two of every single animal in the world on the ark, or that Adam and Eve actually dwelt in a place called Eden. The Bible is deeper and more complex than that, and expects us to be the same.

MOON: Archaeologists say they have known for nearly 10 years that the story of the Exodus was problematic. There is no Egyptian record that the Jews were enslaved. And while some say it's possible as many as a few hundred people might have crossed the Sinai Desert, it is impossible that several million people made the trek. But archaeologist William Dever of the University of Arizona says what really undercuts the biblical story of the Exodus is the lack of evidence to support what is called `the conquest theory,' that the Israelites took the land of Canaan by force.

Mr. WILLIAM DEVER (Archaeologist, University of Arizona): There just isn't any evidence of widespread destructions of Canaanite cities at the end of the Bronze Age around 1200. And it now appears that most of the early Israelite villages that we have, some 300 or so, are in the central hill country, which had been sparsely occupied before. And these new sites are not established on the ruins of old Canaanite towns, but are established on bedrock or virgin soil. So most mainstream scholars and all archaeologists today would regard these hill country settlers, or Israelites probably, as coming from somewhere within Canaan itself.

MOON: But Rabbi Jacobson says scientific proof is far from absolute; that just because archaeology cannot verify the Exodus doesn't mean it didn't happen. For example, he says, no one can prove God exists. That is an act of faith.

Rabbi JACOBSON: Is faith provable? I mean, that's a, really, entire discussion because if I were to say to you, for instance, `Listen to this piece of music. It'll really move you,' and you'll say to me, `Prove it.' There's a thing
called experiential proof. Faith falls into that category, whereas science is more of an objective type of observation of nature's laws trying to understand it. And it is like apples and oranges.

MOON: Still, Rabbi Jacobson says doubt is not a problem in Judaism; that it is part of the journey, part of a healthy process of finding the truth. And on this point at least, Rabbi Wolpe is in complete agreement. He says his motive
in raising the issue was to stir his congregation to a deeper understanding of the truth, to cross a wilderness that might help them build a faith that can endure regardless of whether the Exodus actually happened. Duncan Moon, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer: Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt's land. Tell the pharaoh to let my people go.

The debate sparked by Rabbi Wolpe is not new. In fact many inside and outside of the Jewish community have doubted whether Jews have fulfilled what is written to have occurred in Exodus. The subject in many ways is taboo, for a variety of reasons, but possibly the most striking aspect of the discussion is that even among those who openly doubt the correspondence between recorded history and scripture in reference to the Book of Exodus and 4,000 years ago, there exists a failure or unwillingness to consider the possibility that what was written of in Exodus was not written as a historical account of something that happened 4,000 years ago but rather, what is contained in the book of Exodus is prophecy – a prediction of future events that would be fulfilled at a time in the future.

One writer who operated freely from this inhibition was Max Dimont who, in his classic book, Jews God and History not only doubts the historical authenticity of the Book of Exodus but also raises the possibility that what is written in Exodus may have originally been written as a prophecy of a future event. He writes:

It was under the leadership of Joseph that the famine-stricken Hebrews emigrated from Canaan to Egypt. The Book of Genesis tells us the fascinating story of how Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. Here he became a favorite of Pharaoh, rose to viceroy, and with Pharaoh's permission invited his brothers and fellow Hebrews to settle there. Here they tended their flocks peaceably until a new Pharaoh arose in the land who was not so kindly disposed to them and enslaved them. Except for the Bible, no source we know of makes any specific mention of this Jewish sojourn and subsequent captivity in Egypt, but the busy spade of the archaeologist has turned up convincing corollary evidence that these events did take place.

From the ingathering of the Jews into Egypt by Joseph in the sixteenth century B.C. until the outgathering of the Jews from Egypt under Moses, in the twelfth century, there is a four-hundred-ear silence. The Bible compresses these fateful four centuries into a few sentences. This silence raises many perplexing questions. What portion of this period did the Jews in Egypt live in freedom and what portion in slavery? What religion did they practice? What language did they speak? Was there intermarriage? How did they maintain their Judaism as slaves? Who were their leaders until the advent of Moses? No one knows.

Not all the Jews left Canaan to go into Egypt with Joseph. Many remained behind, surviving the famine and keeping their covenant with Jehovah. This remnant of Jews, still known as Hebrews, remained free men, while their brothers were enslaved in Egypt. Is this enslavement of the Jews in Egypt the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Jehovah to Abraham four centuries earlier? For it was written in Genesis (15:13-14), " Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance." Or is this prophecy an interpolation by later authors, who write with hindsight of history of the great fusion to take place in Canaan when Moses leads the Israelites, as they are now called, out of Egypt into the land of Canaan, to reunite them with the remnants of Hebrews who had stayed behind?

Meanwhile the Jews - Hebrews or Israelites - are slaves in Egypt. What will happen to Abraham's grand illusion that his seed will inherit the earth? Was it all a delusion? Or was it a prophecy to be taken up by other men appointed by God and fulfilled at a later date?"

Why haven't the theologians, scholars, Rabbis, Priests, Reverends and Imams openly discussed the possibility that it is Blacks in America whose 400 plus year experience in America fulfills what is written of in the Book of Exodus?

Cedric Muhammad

Sunday, July 22, 2001