Is the Bible History?

Image: a small section of the Merneptah Stele, translated: “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” Public domain.

The quick answer: no, and yes. The Creation stories are not history (and they are definitely not science.) They convey values: that all created beings are essentially good, that order is preferred to chaos, that human beings are responsible for the care of the world. They convey a religious world-view, not a scientific explanation of anything.

Some of the Bible, especially Genesis, is prehistory. None of the folks in Genesis were writing those stories down, as far as we know. The stories have survived because they were oral traditions. Oral traditions are tricky: at their best, it’s amazing what checks out, but at their worst they are like a game of “telephone” in which every detail is changed as the story travels. However, again, what the book gives us is an account of our people’s understanding of who they are, and of the vision of a particular (very dysfunctional) family.

Exodus is a puzzle. There is no corroborating account in the Egyptian archives, and no archaeological evidence of a vast multitude of people crossing the Sinai wilderness. We are not even sure which pharaoh is the Pharaoh of the story. At the same time, there are some tantalizing connections. One of the pharaohs thought to be a possibility for the Yul Brynner role is Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE), who celebrated his victory over some Libyan immigrants by commissioning the Merneptah Victory Stele and placing it in a temple in Thebes. The 7.5 foot stone slab has an inscription which provides the first mention of Israel outside the Bible:

The princes are prostrate saying: “Shalom!” Not one of the Nine Bows lifts his head: Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace, Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is laid waste, its seed is not, Khor is become a widow for Egypt. All who roamed have been subdued. By the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Banere-meramun, Son of Re, Merneptah, Content with Maat, Given life like Re every day.

This part of the inscription mentions places inside of Egypt, but also places in Canaan: Canaan, Ashkelon, and Gezer. Many (but not all) scholars agree that the Israel mentioned here is indeed connected to the Israel of the Bible. Of course, there’s the little problem that Israel’s “seed” [descendants] were hale and hearty – perhaps Merneptah was just engaging in some ancient Egyptian PR – or was he covering up a successful rebellion? We’ll never know.

Likewise, we have no corroborating evidence for the rest of the journey back to Canaan, but how likely is it that we would have much evidence? Egypt wasn’t writing about it, since it was an embarrassment to Egypt. No one else much cared. (“Escaping slaves? Big deal!”)The stories survived as oral history until the Jews wrote them down, probably during or immediately before the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BCE).

It’s only when we get to the period of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah that we get much outside evidence for the stories in the Bible, by now the stories in the Books of Kings, 930-586 BCE. For that era, we have a number of inscriptions and quite a bit of archaeological evidence, as the kings of Israel and Judea became involved in geopolitics, often against the advice of the prophets. As it is now, the Holy Land was at the fulcrum of world politics. The superpowers of Egypt in the south and Mesopotamia (Babylon and Assyria) in the east jockeyed for advantage, and little Israel and Judah were in the middle. As a result, we have inscriptions and depictions of kings, none of them very flattering but all very much there.

So in summary: No, the Bible isn’t a history book. It is more of a journal, an account a nation gives of itself. Many of the things in it actually happened, but whether an “objective viewer” would agree on exactly how things happened is another question. By the time we get into the later books, Kings and beyond, it is remarkable how much of it does bear out, which is why I also say: Yes, there’s history in there.

For me, the Bible’s worth does not depend on outside inscriptions, or its value as history. Its worth lies in the fact that for thousands of years and millions of people, this collection of books has been a source of inspiration, learning, and solace. Whether the Exodus included 600,000 refugees or 50, its message of freedom remains. Torah is divinely inspired, for me,  because in my struggles with its words, I encounter God.

 

 

Shabbat Shalom: Vayigash

Parashat Vayigash – (pronounced – vah-yee-GOSH) is a particular favorite of mine. While there are many famous aspects of this parashah, I’m going to focus on a relatively obscure bit that has always interested me.

Joseph predicted a famine and proposed a program for surviving it in Genesis 41:33-36, when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph’s plan sounded painless: appoint an administrator to gather grain during the years of plenty as a reserve against the years of famine.

Now, in Genesis 47, we see what this program actually required. Once there was no bread “in all the world” (v.13) people bought grain from Pharaoh, and as a result, all the gold and silver in Egypt came into the king’s palace. The next year people had no money, so they traded their livestock to Pharaoh for food. The following year, they traded their land. That year, Joseph ordered a massive resettlement of the population. Every Egyptian family had to leave their home and move to a new location.  Radak teaches that Joseph did this so they would understand that the new homes were a gift from Pharaoh. Rashbam, however, compares his policy to that of the evil Sennerachib in 2 Kings 18.

In the final year of famine, the Egyptians became bondsmen to Pharaoh in exchange for food and seed for the coming year. So by the end of the famine, Joseph had preserved the lives of the Egyptians but at a very high price: every commoner among them was a penniless slave living on land granted by Pharaoh, grateful to pay a heavy tax.

Harold Kushner points out in Etz Chayim that a generation later, the Egyptians would take revenge on Joseph by enslaving the Hebrews. Economic policy in the ancient world, as in ours, has both short term and long term consequences.

This d’var Torah appeared in a slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.

“These People Scare Me!”

"Immigrant Rights" by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.
“Immigrant Rights” by Michael Fleshman, some rights reserved.

“These people are too numerous!”

The Torah portion Balak opens with the worries of Balak, son of Zippor, the king of Moab. He’s frantic about the Hebrews – there are so many of them! So he sends a message to Balaam, a powerful magician, saying:

“There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me. 6 Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22: 5-6.

Does this sound familiar? Remember back at the beginning of Exodus, when the Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” said:

“Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.” – Exodus 1:9-10

One of the things I love about Torah is the deep insight into human nature. It is an ordinary human impulse, when we see strangers becoming “too numerous”  or “too mighty” to start worrying that they may be a threat to our well-being.

The genius of Torah is that in describing a normal reaction to something that happens from time to time (“Too many outsiders!”) it chooses to do so from the point of view of the strangers. The Israelites had to leave Egypt because the Egyptian Pharaoh had the normal sort of fears about strangers. Now the Moabite prince is worried about the same thing. We get a clear picture, reading this story, identifying with the Israelites, of what it is to be unwanted outsiders.

Interwoven with these stories we are given commandments:

Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 22:21

and again (many times, actually):

The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. – Exodus 19:34

It is good to recognize human nature; that’s reality. But Torah calls us to something higher than ordinary impulses. It calls us to holiness, which is an opposite of ordinary. The test of this comes when we try to live in the ordinary world. Not everyone plays by these rules!

Living a life of Torah means living a life of risk. Will those strangers take advantage of me? Will there be enough to get by? One of the ways to see the Talmud as a series of conversations about (among many other things) practical conversations about how we will live this out in the world. Lucky for us, we can access thousands of years of discussion on how to live the commandments in the world.

Fulfilling ritual commandments is challenging. Fulfilling these ethical commandments that challenge our very nature is the work of a lifetime.