Wednesday, 25 Jan 2012

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

“It Ain’t Necessarily So”  
Parashat Bo

Many of our readers will recall a song from George and Ira Gershwin’s wonderful opera, “Porgy and Bess”, sung by a sceptical drug dealer named “Sportin’ Life”: “It ain’t necessarily so, It ain’t necessarily so, De things that yo’ liable to read in de Bible, It ain’t necessarily so.”

let’s apply it to our own parashah, which reaches a climax in its description of the last day and night of Egyptian enslavement before the Exodus. This includes the Tenth Plague: the killing of the first-born of every living creature in Egypt, except for the Israelites. First, Moses reports to Pharaoh that this will happen, then the Biblical narrative tells us that it did: “In the middle of the night, the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; ki ein bayit asher ein sham met, for there was no house where there was not someone dead” (12:29 – 30).  

That is what the Torah says. Did it really happen like that? Many of the earlier plagues can be explained naturalistically, and this is indeed what some of our more rationalistically oriented commentators have done. But here there is no escape from a supernatural interpretation. First, God himself is said to be the perpetrator, directly, without intermediate causes. And second, I know of now explanation that could account for a plague striking dead one person—the first-born—in each and every household. This is the kind of supernatural intervention and contravention of the laws of nature that requires a suspension of disbelief to accept.

Even assuming that God worked through natural phenomena, there are abundant and serious problems of an ethical nature:
Pharaoh is punished, although it says that God hardened his heart in order to be able to demonstrate God’s marvels in Egypt (11:9). Why not just him?    Why every household? Why the captive in prison?1  Why the cattle? And why the children? They were apparently killed in order to punish parents, to put greater pressure on Pharaoh. It seems to be the culmination of a policy that we may recognize from more recent times: you make the life of the civilian population so miserable, so intolerable, that they will rise up to force the government—in this case, the Pharaoh—to do whatever is necessary to make the nightmare stop. Did it actually happen like this? I have serious doubts about the historicity of this narrative. “It ain’t necessarily so”—at least I certainly hope not. For a God who can act this way is not the kind of God that most of was want to worship.

Let’s get beyond the Tenth Plague and the observance of the first seder, which took place not in freedom but in Egypt either during or immediately before the final plague. What about the historicity of the Exodus itself. Several years ago, David Wolpe, rabbi of a large conservative congregation in California, gave a Pesach sermon in which he said that there is no archaeological evidence that the Exodus ever took place. There is no reference anywhere in the abundant extant Egyptian literature to a massive enslavement of Hebrew immigrants, or to a catastrophic disaster for the Egyptian army led by Pharaoh; no pottery evidence of a large Israelite community passing through the Sinai wilderness; no evidence of a massive influx of Israelites into Canaan at the time associated with the Exodus and wilderness period. Needless to say, he generated a lot of controversy, with many negative responses.

I am not a biblical scholar, but for what its worth, here is my understanding of the historicity of the Exodus narratives for this week and next, and the history of the conquest of the Land of Canaan. First: the entire episode of plagues and Exodus that is so central to our self-understanding as a people was not at all a major event from the perspective of Egyptian history. In this respect it is analogous to the Nativity and the Crucifixion of Jesus: absolutely fundamental for Christian self-understanding, but minor, even trivial, events that went unrecorded by contemporary Roman historians and Jewish historians.

The Exodus account itself should be read with the translation “Sea of Reeds” (Yam Suf), rather than “Red Sea,” and the spectacular parting of the waters from Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments should be blotted out of our minds and imaginations. Something occurred that was perceived by the Israelites as a miracle—as those of us old enough to remember it perceived the victory of the Six Day War—but it was not a catastrophe in Egyptian history, and it almost certainly did not involve the Pharaoh. Perhaps a border garrison and its commander. The numbers given in our parasha—600,000 Israelite men not counting the children (12:37)—are wildly exaggerated; there is no way that a group like this could have moved cohesively through the Sinai desert, with our without a pillar of fire or a pillar of cloud.

A much smaller group of Israelites entered the Land of Canaan with a collective memory of an experience in Egypt. They were successful in some military campaigns, but not in conquering the entire land as suggested by the Book of Joshua. For generations they lived alongside the native Canaanite peoples, some of whom attached themselves to the Israelites, and took over in their own collective memories an Egyptian experience in which their own ancestors had never shared. In this respect, it is like so many of the immigrants to the United States who think of the First Thanksgiving of the Pilgrims as part of their history, though their ancestors were actually in a totally different place. This is a critical reading that I believe poses no real problems for our traditional Jewish self-understanding or observance.

Some Israeli and Scandinavian historians defend an even greater degree of historical scepticism. They maintain that there is no historical basis for any of the biblical accounts of Egyptian enslavement; the Israelites were never in Egypt and there was never an Exodus. Subsequent narratives about Joshua, Judges, even David and Solomon must be read purely as literature, not as evidence of history. It is only with the first confirmation in external sources of Biblical kings or events that we can accept the biblical narrative as historically true. But does such a view invalidate our observance of Pesach, as questioning the historicity of the Nativity narratives raises potential problems for Christian observance of Christmas?

We are not fundamentalists, taking every statement in Scripture as absolute God-given truth. We do not stow our minds and our consciences as we hang up our coats upon entering the synagogue and listening to the Torah being read. Like Jews in the past, we have the right to register our suspicions that something may never have occurred as it is presented in a biblical narrative, and even to express our dismay at the actions attributed by some biblical authors to God, such as the killing of all Egyptian first-born.  For many things we’re liable to read in the Bible: “It ain’t necessarily so.”

But this story, with all its problems, is our story. As Jews, we can accept the underlying message of the Exodus account—

•    that enslavement of other human beings leads eventually to one’s own destruction,
•    that liberation from bondage is the paradigmatic act of the divine force at work in history,
•    that the collective memory of our ancestors having been slaves must impel us with empathy for the oppressed in every age.

We can and should accept this message even if the details of the narrative are unconvincing or troubling. It is these details that “ain’t necessarily so”; the underlying truth of our story about enslavement, punishment, and freedom retains its power to motivate and inspire in every age.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
January 2012



1 Rashi: rejoiced at misfortune of Israel, might have believed their gods were punishing Egypt

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.