Saturday, March 14, 2009


No, I'm not talking about Jewish SAT questions.

For the past few months, the Rabbi's been presenting us sections from his dissertation on the Exodus and how it happened. He contends that it was not nearly as described. Today's segment focused mainly on geography, and then on wordplay. One of his key points is that when people tell stories, the geography is accurate, even if the story isn't. We all know that Juneau is far to the southeast of Denali, and we'd never describe it any other way. If the Israelites were living in Goshen...then where is that?

One of the first things he talked about was how ancient geographers described locations. Apparently, they were pretty consistent in the words they used and spacial relationships. This makes it especially interesting to uncover the fact that the Hebrew and Aramaic texts say they crossed the Yam Suf. In all other Hebrew and Aramaic texts, Yam Suf refers to what is now called the Gulf of Aqaba, which is on the other side of the Sinai Peninsula from the Red Sea. The first time the text refers to the Red Sea is when it was translated by the Septuagint, and for some reason it has stuck, even though it's inaccurate. This implies that the Israelites weren't necessarily in the Nile Delta. If they weren't in the Nile Delta...then where were they?

The Rabbi made a list of places referred to in the Exodus story, the "itinerary" sites. He then went through the Biblical texts to see how they're described, paying special attention to things like "blank is near blank", and then cross-referencing the known locations and putting them on a map. All of them are east of Egypt, most are northeast of the Sinai Peninsula...not in Egypt. There are records of Egyptians in some of these areas, but not so much about Pharaoh in these places. It's interesting, especially for a geography nerd like me. There's a lot that makes sense about it, because it does pull from the historical record. If we know that Goshen is near Egypt, and Midian is in Saudi Arabia...then what can we extrapolate from that?

Next came the wordplay section of the evening. The Rabbi started with having us read Exodus 1, in which we learn that Pharaoh has decided that the Israelites are "too numerous", so something must be done and in all his wisdom, the best idea he can come up with is slavery. That doesn't work, so Pharaoh decides to be extremely illogical and kill all the boys at birth. The Pharaoh is outsmarted by a couple of midwives, there are still too many Israelites, and Pharaoh decrees that all toddler boys must be killed. In the Biblical text, the Hebrew words for "increase" and "people" appear seven times. That's a significant number, and tends to mean that those words are important in some way. If they're significant...then what are they trying to say?

In another story, the wise Judean King Solomon enslaves the Israelite people in order to build a temple and a palace. He is cruel and the people rebel, and they are unsuccessful. Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam takes over. He is even more cruel, and the people rebel, led by a man named Jereboam. Any guesses what Jereboam means in Hebrew? If you guessed "the people increase"...then you'd be right.

There are more parallels between the Jereboam story and the Moses story. They both fled a leader whose rule they found tyrannical. They both returned after the leader died, confronted the new leader, and brought their people out of slavery. Apparently, their stories align on 14 points, even though I don't remember them right now. This is also a significant number and suggests more than a coincidence. If the two stories are linked...then what does that mean?

The Rabbi suggests that the Moses story is an allegory. Fiction. His theory is that it was written by the Judeans as the Jereboam events were happening as a way of protesting. This is why there's no archaeological evidence of the Israelites in Egypt in the time that the slavery was supposed to have happened. This is why the itinerary sites aren't in Egypt, but are in Moab, Judah, the Negev, the Jordan River valley, and the body of water they crossed was outside of Egypt's defended borders. If the Exodus from Egypt never happened...then what does that mean for Judaism?

It's a very good question. Of course, what the Rabbi did with the story was simply a literary analysis. 
The Judeans could simply have noticed the parallels between Jereboam and the oral tradition of Moses and wrote the story in such a way as to point them out. 
Since we are dealing with a story that survived orally for hundreds of years before it was ever written down, it could simply be a case of people forgetting or omitting some itinerary sites. This wouldn't explain the lack of archaeological evidence, though.

I don't care if it's allegory or if Moses just existed somewhere slightly different than Egypt. It's still my favorite story in the Bible.

No comments: