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The Biblical Exodus Story Is Fiction

Shortly after I started to question my belief in God, I remember talking to my rabbi about Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. My rabbi knew that I was starting to doubt the supernatural and ridiculous aspects of the story. He told me in confidence that while the basic story is historical fact, the supernatural elements might have been an exaggeration or might not have actually happened at all. He assured me, however, that even though there might not have been plagues of frogs and Moses might not have parted the Red Sea, the Jews were slaves in Egypt, and the important thing is that there was an Exodus and that this is the core of what Passover is about. Except, in reality, there wasn't actually an Exodus. I have since learned that the Jews were never slaves in Egypt and that the entire story of Exodus is fiction.

When I first heard that there was not a shred of evidence discovered in the Sinai Desert that a large number of Jews had wandered for 40 years, I thought that wasn't such a big deal. I mean, it's a desert, right? Sand storms probably just swallowed up all the evidence. The more I looked into the story, however, the more I realized that the lack of evidence was actually a pretty big problem. According to the book of Exodus, a lot of Jews were wandering this desert, and it seems extremely unlikely (bordering on impossible) for this many people to leave absolutely no trace, especially when traces have been found for smaller groups of people which predated the Exodus in that same desert.

Just like the lack of evidence is itself strong evidence against the war between the Nephites and the Lamanites in the Americas as told in the Book of Mormon, the same is true with the Exodus story in the Torah.

Still, I didn't think all that much about it until years later, when I stumbled upon the article called, "Did Jewish Slaves Build the Pyramids?" by Brian Dunning. This article really got me thinking about the Exodus story again. Dunning's article reinforced my skepticism about the Exodus story and fueled my feelings of betrayal. I was taught for most of my life that it was a historical fact that the Jews were slaves in Egypt. This "history" was part of my cultural identity as a Jew. Even when I gave up the ridiculous, superstitious beliefs associated with Judaism, I could still proudly feel connected to the Jewish culture, which was grounded in a deep history of liberation from slavery.

As it turns out, well-known Jewish commentator and author Rabbi David Wolpe has also known about the Exodus Myth. In his article, "Did the Exodus Really Happen?" he mentions that other rabbis wanted him to keep the fiction of the Exodus story on the down-low. The basic story of the Exodus from Egypt (extracting supernatural elements) was touted to me as one of the most historical aspects of the Bible, yet it never happened. This seriously puts into question the historicity of any and all of the Bible stories.

Further, how immoral is it for modern Jews to continue to perpetuate this myth at the expense of Egyptian dignity? For thousands of years, the Jews have blamed the Egyptians for enslaving their ancestors when that never actually happened. Continuing to celebrate Passover without acknowledging the truth of history only perpetuates the shame.

Growing up, I loved celebrating Passover. I loved the story of people fighting for their freedom and fighting against slavery. I don't think Jews need to stop celebrating Passover or stop talking about this story. However, they need to acknowledge that the celebration is based on a completely fictional story and that the Egyptians never enslaved the Jews. Rabbis should even make a formal apology to the Egyptian people for vilifying them.

As a Humanist, I think it is important to talk about the plight against slavery and the fight for freedom. But I think people should do it honestly instead of turning real people in history into villains. There are plenty of real villains in history already.

Perhaps the holiday of Passover could focus more on the plight of Jews who escape Germany during the Second World War. There are some very inspirational acts of bravery and heroism worth telling from that time, and they don't require made-up history or supernatural plagues to reinforce the message.

You don't have to believe in fictional stories to celebrate Jewish holidays. In fact, you don't even need to believe in any supernatural claims on insufficient evidence and still hold on to your Jewish identity. Many Jews have left the belief in God behind and have become secular Jews. For more information about what that means, check out the Society of Humanistic Judaism



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Did the Exodus Really Happen?

Knowing the Exodus is not a literal historical account does not ultimately change our connection to each other or to God.

BY: Rabbi David Wolpe



Read more: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Judaism/2004/12/Did-The-Exodus-Really-Happen.aspx?p=1#ixzz22XdkY3lW

Three years ago on Passover, I explained to my congregation that according to archeologists, there was no reliable evidence that the Exodus took place--and that it almost certainly did not take place the way the Bible recounts it. Finally, I emphasized: It didn't matter.

Some argue that there is no evidence to back my assertion. Endlessly reiterated is the mantra "absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence." In other words, the fact that we have never found a single shred of evidence in the Sinai does not mean the Israelites were not there.

This is nominally true. We have found Sinai evidence of other people who predated the Israelites, and while it is improbable that 600,000 men crossed the desert 2,500 years ago without leaving a shard of pottery or a Hebrew carving, it is not impossible. (Together with women and children, that makes a couple of million, who could actually fill the distance between Egypt and Israel by standing in line.) One rabbi quoted to me the mystical tradition that one tribe was deputized to clean up every trace, which at least shows the Jewish tradition's unease with Sinai's preternaturally clean slate.

However, the archeological conclusions are not based primarily on the absence of Sinai evidence. Rather, they are based upon the study of settlement patterns in Israel itself. Surveys of ancient settlements--pottery remains and so forth--make it clear that there simply was no great influx of people around the time of the Exodus (given variously as between 1500-1200 BCE). Therefore, not the wandering, but the arrival alerts us to the fact that the biblical Exodus is not a literal depiction. In Israel at that time, there was no sudden change in the kind or the volume of pottery being made. (If people suddenly arrived after hundreds of years in Egypt, their cups and dishes would look very different from native Canaanites'.) There was no population explosion. Most archeologists conclude that the Israelites lived largely in Canaan over generations, instead of leaving and then immigrating back to Canaan.




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Some people tendentiously seized on my words and used them to deny that today's Israelis have a right to their land. This is equivalent to saying, "I don't own my house because I have lived in it forever," rather than having moved from the next town. If the Israelites grew up among the ancient Canaanites, they have an unassailable historical claim. They have been there for longer than recorded history.

The probability is, given the traditions, that there were some enslaved Israelites who left Egypt and joined up with their brethren in Canaan. This seems the likeliest scenario, a beautiful one that accords with the deeper currents of biblical tradition. The Exodus was a very small-scale event with a large, world-changing trail of consequences.

Some people are surprised, even upset, by these views. Yet they are not new; such views have been a staple of scholarship, even appearing in popular magazines, for many years. Not piety but timidity keeps many rabbis from expressing what they have long understood to be true. As a scholar who took me to task in print told me privately over lunch, "Of course what you say is true, but we should not say it publicly." In other words, tell the truth, but not when too many people will be listening.

There are three primary reasons this is important to talk about:

1. A tradition cannot make an historical claim and then refuse to have it evaluated by history. It is not an historical claim that God created us and cares for us. That a certain number of people walked across a particular desert at a particular time in the past, after being enslaved and liberated, is an historical claim, and one cannot then cry "unfair" when historians evaluate it.

For well over a century linguists, archeologists, historians and Bible scholars have been looking at the Bible in a new way. They understand how much of it is a product of history; how many stories were shared with other cultures whose languages and histories we have just come to understand. We can now appreciate how the vast canvas of the Bible shows different levels of Hebrew language, as would be expected of a work that developed over time. Most people are not aware that there are different manuscripts of the Bible, which show a "transmission history"--that is, constant recopying and variation. Our earliest complete manuscripts of the Bible are only 1000 years old. Even the Talmud (completed some fifteen hundred years ago) sometimes quotes verses differently from the verses as we have them.

That God's hand is in the Bible is a pillar of belief for many, myself included. That human hands are in there as well does not detract from its sanctity, but reminds us that God and human beings are partners in this world in ways that we did not, when we first learned our Bible lessons, even imagine.




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2. Truth should not frighten one whose faith is firm. As the Israeli Orthodox rabbi and scholar Mordecai Breuer writes: "Unable to withstand the contradiction (between faith and modern biblical scholarship) most men of faith consciously avoid biblical scholarship in order to safeguard their traditional belief." Those who hold that people should never explore such questions have very circumscribed notions of why God gave us brains. The Talmud ringingly declares: "God's seal is truth" (Shabbat 55a).

3. Knowing the Exodus is not a literal historical accounting does not ultimately change our connection to each other or to God. Faith should not rest on splitting seas. At the Passover Seder we declare: "In each generation, each individual should see himself as if he (or she) went forth from Egypt." The message does not depend upon whether 3 or 3 million individuals left.

In a book explaining how orthodox scholarship views the Torah, Rabbi Shlomo Carmy writes that he was always troubled by the omission of the exodus from Egypt in the book of Chronicles. Why does the concluding book of the Hebrew Bible elide this central story? His answer is in a prophecy by Jeremiah (16:14-15) that one day the liberation from Babylonian captivity will be more important than the liberation from Egypt. History will give way to messianism. In the future the very story of the exodus is omitted, for it is not the specifics of history, but the theme of liberation and of God's providential care that is the theological center.

The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us. Standing at the Passover Seder, I see in my mind's eye the Israelites marching out of Egypt, the miracles at the sea, and the pillar of fire leading them through the fearful night. I feel an enormous gratitude to God. For although we cannot know exactly how God has saved our people, we have been saved. Despite unimaginable odds and opposition, the Jewish people have seen nation after nation buried under the debris of history while our nation lives. Here is where archeology, history, scholarship and scripture meet: Am Yisrael Chai, the nation of Israel remains alive.



Read more: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Judaism/2004/12/Did-The-Exodus-Really-Happen.aspx?p=3#ixzz22XeWEbMY



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Did Jewish Slaves Build the Pyramids?

It's a popular story, but all the documentary and historical evidence tells us that no Jews were in Egypt at the time of the pyramids.

Jews in EgyptPopular mythology tells us that Jewish slaves built the pyramids under the whips of the Pharaohs

(Photo credit:iStockPhoto.com/ElsvanderGun)

The stories we hear in Sunday school seem to form the basis for the popular belief that Jewish slaves were forced to build the pyramids in Egypt, but they were saved when they left Egypt in a mass Exodus. That's the story I was raised to believe, and it's what's been repeated innumerable times by Hollywood. In 1956, Charlton Heston as Moses went head to head with Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramesses II inThe Ten Commandments, having been placed into the Nile in a basket as a baby to escape death by Ramesses' edict that all newborn Hebrew sons be killed. More than 40 years later, DreamWorks told the same story in the animated Prince of Egypt, and the babies died again.

In 1977, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin visited Egypt's National Museum in Cairo and stated "We built the pyramids." Perhaps to the surprise of a lot of people, this sparked outrage throughout the Egyptian people, proud that they had built the pyramids. The belief that Jews built the pyramids may be prominent throughout Christian and Jewish populations, but it's certainly not the way anyone in Egypt remembers things.

Pop culture has a way of blurring pseudohistory and real history, and many people end up never hearing the real history at all; and are left with only the pseudohistory and no reason to doubt it. This is not only unfortunate, it's dangerous. In the words of Primo Levi inscribed front and center inside Berlin's Holocaust Museum, "It happened, therefore it can happen again." 20th century Jewish history is probably the most important, and hardest learned, lesson that humanity has ever had the misfortune to be dealt. Forgetting or distorting history is always wrong, and is never in anyone's best interest.

I've heard some Christians say the Bible is a literal historical document, thus Jewish slaves built the pyramids (the Bible actually doesn't mention pyramids at all, this came from Herodotus. See below. - BD); and I've heard some non-religious historians say there's no evidence that there were ever Jews in ancient Egypt. Both can't be true. To find the truth, we need to take a critical look at the archaeological and historical evidence for the history of Jews in Egypt. In order to do this responsibly, we first have to put aside any ideological motivations that would taint our efforts. We're not going to say such research is sacrilegious because it seeks to disprove the Bible or the Torah; we're not going to say such research is a moral imperative because religious accounts are deceptive; and we're not going to pretend that such research is racially motivated against either Jews or Egyptians. We simply want to know what really happened, because true history is vital.



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One of the first things you find out is that it's important to get our definitions right. Terms like Jew and Hebrew are thrown around a lot in these histories, and they're not the same thing. A Jew is someone who practices the Jewish religion. A Hebrew is someone who speaks the Hebrew language. An Israelite is a citizen of Israel. A Semite is a member of an ethnic group characterized by any of the Semitic languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Assyrian, and many smaller groups throughout Africa and the Middle East. You can be some or all of these things. An Israelite need not be a Jew, and a Jew need not be a Hebrew. Confusion over the use of these terms complicates research. Hebrews could be well integrated into a non-Jewish society, but modern reporting might refer to them as Jews, which can be significantly misleading.

Now, there are more than just a single question we're trying to answer here. Were the Jews slaves in ancient Egypt? Were the pyramids built by these slaves? Did the Exodus happen as is commonly believed?

The biggest and most obvious evidence — the pyramids themselves — are an easy starting point. Their age is well established. The bulk of the Giza Necropolis, consisting of such famous landmarks as the Great Pyramid of Cheops and the Sphinx, are among Egypt's oldest large pyramids and were completed around 2540 BCE. Most of Egypt's large pyramids were built over a 900 year period from about 2650 BCE to about 1750 BCE.

We also know quite a lot about the labor force that built the pyramids. The best estimates are that 10,000 men spent 30 years building the Great Pyramid. They lived in good housing at the foot of the pyramid, and when they died, they received honored burials in stone tombs near the pyramid in thanks for their contribution. This information is relatively new, as the first of these worker tombs was only discovered in 1990. They ate well and received the best medical care. And, also unlike slaves, they were well paid. The pyramid builders were recruited from poor communities and worked shifts of three months (including farmers who worked during the months when the Nile flooded their farms), distributing the pharaoh's wealth out to where it was needed most. Each day, 21 cattle and 23 sheep were slaughtered to feed the workers, enough for each man to eat meat at least weekly. Virtually every fact about the workers that archaeology has shown us rules out the use of slave labor on the pyramids.



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It wasn't until almost 2,000 years after the Great Pyramid received its capstone that the earliest known record shows evidence of Jews in Egypt, and they were neither Hebrews nor Israelites. They were a garrison of soldiers from the Persian Empire, stationed on Elephantine, an island in the Nile, beginning in about 650 BCE. They fought alongside the Pharaoh's soldiers in the Nubian campaign, and later became the principal trade portal between Egypt and Nubia. Their history is known from the Elephantine Papyri discovered in 1903, which are in Aramaic, not Hebrew; and their religious beliefs appear to have been a mixture of Judaism and pagan polytheism. Archival records recovered include proof that they observed Shabbat and Passover, and also records of interfaith marriages. In perhaps the strangest reversal from pop pseudohistory, the papyri include evidence that at least some of the Jewish settlers at Elephantine owned Egyptian slaves.

Other documentation also identifies the Elephantine garrison as the earliest immigration of Jews into Egypt. The Letter of Aristeas, written in Greece in the second century BCE, records that Jews had been sent into Egypt to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his campaign against the Nubians. Psammetichus I ruled Egypt from 664 to 610 BCE, which perfectly matches the archaeological dating of the Elephantine garrison in 650.

If Jews were not in Egypt at the time of the pyramids, what about Israelites or Hebrews? Israel itself did not exist until approximately 1100 BCE when various Semitic tribes joined in Canaan to form a single independent kingdom, at least 600 years after the completion of the last of Egypt's large pyramids. Thus it is not possible for any Israelites to have been in Egypt at the time, either slave or free; as there was not yet any such thing as an Israelite. It was about this same time in history that the earliest evidence of the Hebrew language appeared: The Gezer Calendar, inscribed in limestone, and discovered in 1908. And so the history of Israel is very closely tied to that of Hebrews, and for the past 3,000 years, they've been essentially one culture.

But if neither Jews nor Israelites nor Hebrews were in Egypt until so many centuries after the pyramids were built, how could such a gross historical error become so deeply ingrained in popular knowledge? The story of Jewish slaves building the pyramids originated with Herodotus of Greece in about 450 BCE. He's often called the "Father of History" as he was among the first historians to take the business seriously and thoroughly document his work. Herodotus reported in his Book II of The Histories that the pyramids were built in 30 years by 100,000 Jewish slaves [In point of fact, Herodotus only says 100,000 workers. He does not mention either Jews or slaves. So even this popular belief seems to be in error, and the origin of the idea of Jews building the pyramids remains a mystery - BD]. Unfortunately, in his time, the line between historical fact and historical fiction was a blurry one. The value of the study of history was not so much to preserve history, as it was to furnish material for great tales; and a result, Herodotus was also called the "Father of Lies" and other Greek historians of the period also grouped under the term "liars". Many of Herodotus' writings are considered to be fanciful by modern scholars. Coincidentally, the text of the Book of Exodus was finalized at just about exactly the same time as Herodotus wrote The Histories. Obviously, the same information about what had been going on in Egypt 2,000 years before was available to both authors.



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Which brings us to the final question: Was there a mass Exodus of Jewish slaves out of Egypt? There is no record of any such thing ever happening, and the simple reason is that there is no time in which it could have happened. No Egyptian record contains a single reference to anything in Exodus; and by the time there were enough Jews living in Egypt to constitute an Exodus, the time of the pyramids was long over. And Pharaoh Ramesses can be let off the hook as well: With apologies to Yul Brynner, no documentary or archaeological evidence links any of the Pharaohs bearing this name with plagues or Jewish slaves or edicts to kill babies. Indeed, the earliest, Ramesses I, wasn't even born until more than a thousand years after the Great Pyramid was completed. His grandson, the great Ramesses II, lived even later.

Some historians have attempted to rationalize the Exodus by drawing parallels to certain cities and trade centers that grew and shrank over the centuries for various reasons. Perhaps one of these economic shifts inspired the story of Exodus. Well, perhaps it did, but the nature of such a migration is, quite obviously, fundamentally different than that depicted in Exodus.

The pseudohistory of ancient Egypt is disrespectful to both Jews and Egyptians. It depicts the Jews as helpless slaves whose only contribution was sweat and broken backs, when in fact the earliest Jewish immigrants were respected allies to the Pharaoh and provided Egypt with a valuable service of both trade and defense. The pseudohistory also takes away from the Egyptians their due credit for construction of humanity's greatest architectural achievement, and portrays them as evil, bloodthirsty slavemasters. Pretty much every culture in the world at that period in history included slavery and conflict, and the Egyptians probably weren't any better or worse than most peoples.

Understanding history is essential to understanding ourselves. Although a story like Exodus is profoundly important to so many people throughout the world, the history it describes is false; and the faithful are best advised to seek value in it other than as a mere list of events. Doing so opens the door to a better comprehension of who we are as humans, and it's that shared history that will always unite us — no matter our race, color, or culture. It's just one little more service provided by good science.



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Brian Dunning
Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Awad, M. "Egypt tombs suggest pyramids not built by slaves." Reuters.Thomson Reuters, 11 Jan. 2010. Web. 2 Feb. 2010. <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6091E720100111>

Comay, J. The Diaspora Story: The Epic of the Jewish People Among the Nations.New York: Random House, 1983.

Kraeling, E. Brooklyn Museum Aramaic Papyri: New Documents of the Fifth Century B.C. From the Jewish Colony At Elephantine. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Lindenberger, J., Richards, K. Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994.

Omer, I. "Investigating the Origin of the Ancient Jewish Community at Elephantine: A Review." Ancient Sudan-Nubia. Ibrahim Omer, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2010. <http://www.ancientsudan.org/articles_jewish_elephantine.html>

Porten, B. Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony.Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Reference this article:
Dunning, Brian. "Did Jewish Slaves Build the Pyramids?" Skeptoid Podcast.Skeptoid Media, Inc., 2 Feb 2010. Web. 3 Aug 2012. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4191>



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