The End and the Beginning

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Exodus 20:2 NASB

Brought you out – Israel Finkelstein makes some challenging points in the book, The Quest for the Historical Israel. He notes that archeology is not in the business of exegesis. Exegesis is the process of uncovering the meaning of the text, not the historical and/or physical confirmation or disconfirmation of the text. But exegesis is too often inwardly focused, that is, it is concerned with the theological importance of the text. It overlooks the needs, ideology and goals of the authors and the audience. When it attempts to find universal application for the “words” of God, exegesis often forgets that every author is selective. Fundamental assumptions about divine initiator of the text shape the approach to the text. Because the theology teaches us that God cannot lie, we assume that any sacred text claiming God as its author must be true according to our definition of truth. The veracity of the message is incorporated into the examination simply because the exegete claims the text is divine revelation. But does the text itself require this presupposition? Is it not possible that the text was written to serve other purposes?

Consider this statement in Exodus. Is it a theological text or a declaration of national identity? If you say, “Well, it’s both,” then where does your emphasis lie? Can you view this text as essential to the formation of the nation of Israel without demanding that it also be historically accurate? A few of Finkelstein’s remarks raise serious questions about the assumptions behind our idea of a divinely inspired Scripture.

“Every man who leaves a perceptible mark on that life, though he may be a purely imaginary figure, is a real historical force; his existence is a historical truth,”[1]

Robin Hood is a perfect example in Western culture. Was there really a Robin Hood?   Finkelstein’s comment makes us realize that even if there were no such person, his historical presence still shaped the ethos of the West, and even if such a person existed but was nothing like the legends, his historical presence is still a powerful factor in the development of our culture. Finkelstein notes:

Biblical history and archeology are two different disciplines. The Bible is not an historical record in the modern sense, but a sacred text that was written by authors who had strong theological and ideological convictions. Its “historical parts” are wrapped in themes such as the relationship between the God of Israel and the People of Israel, the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty, and the centralization of the cult in the Jerusalem Temple. Other topics that would have been of great interest to the modern historian are not dealt with at all. Moreover, since much of the text was set in writing at a relatively late date in the history of Israel—in the seventh through the fifth centuries B.C.E.—it does not provide us with a direct, real-time testimony of many of the events of ancient Israel. Besides, even those ancient texts that recount events from a real-time perspective, such as the Assyrian records of the ninth through seventh centuries B.C.E., are not free of ideological inclinations. Therefore, one cannot judge the biblical text according to modern criteria for historical precision. In fact, every historical description is bound to be influenced by the realities of the time of its compilation. It is enough to remember how many contradictory interpretations we give to events that happen today in order to demonstrate how difficult it is to accept an ancient text as providing a full, reliable record of events.[2]

What I am trying to say is that faith and historical research should not be juxtaposed, harmonized, or compromised. When we sit to read the Hagadah at Passover, we do not deal with the question of whether or not archeology supports the story of the exodus. Rather, we praise the beauty of the story and its national and universal values. Liberation from slavery as a concept is at stake, not the location of Pithom. In fact, attempts to rationalize stories like this, as many scholars have tried to do in order to “save” the Bible’s historicity, are not only sheer folly, but in themselves an act of infidelity. According to the Bible, the God of Israel stood behind Moses and there is no need to presume that actual occurrence of a high or low tide in that or that lake in order to make His acts faith-worthy.[3]

“The biblical history was written in order to serve an ideological platform, and as such, it must have been written in a way that would sound reliable to the reader and/or listener.”[4]

“The truth and greatness in the biblical story lies in the realities, needs, motivations, difficulties, frustrations, hopes and prayers of the people of Judah and Jerusalem in late-monarchic and early post-exilic times. It lies in the fact that in a short, stormy period of time, and out of a small, relatively isolated nation with a poor material culture, erupted an extraordinary creativity that produced the founding document of western civilization.”[5]

We might compare this final statement with the eruption of Western science on those tiny Greek islands in the Ionian Sea in the fifth century B.C.E. Something amazing happened. Why it happened we may never know. But this much cannot be denied: it reshaped the entire Western world. So did the God-event of Israel.

Is that enough for you or does it also have to be “true”?

Topical Index: truth, archeology, history, exegesis, Exodus 20:2, brought you out

[1] Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel, p. 189.

[2] Ibid., p. 183.

[3] Ibid., p. 187.

[4] Ibid., p. 185.

[5] Ibid., p. 188.