Religions all employ myth for the purpose of communicating what can’t be communicated directly. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as one remembers that that is what is being done. (See the earlier post on this blog, Logos and Mythos, for an exploration of this subject.) The problem is that all too often, the authorities within the religious community don’t remember what is being done and come to regard the myths as literal truths. When that happens, the first casualty is rationality, but intellectual freedom and even the ability to achieve genuine spiritual enlightenment follow into the ranks of the slain or grievously injured in short order.
Myth is a fine tool for spiritual awakening, but the confusion of myth with fact is its bane.
I’m going to talk today about a perfect example of this problem. The myth in question is one of the origins of the Hebrew people, or of today’s Jews, which story is found in the Book of Exodus in the Bible. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all, if orthodox, believe the story in Exodus as literal description of what happened, with its main characters of Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Pharaoh, and its historical background consisting of over 400 years during which the entire Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt.
That bears repeating, this historical background idea: an entire ethnic group, consisting of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of individuals, were enslaved, men, women, and children, for over four centuries in a small (by modern standards) agricultural civilization on the Nile River. This is not a small, easily-overlooked historical event. This is vast. The only thing comparable to it from history we know to be real was the enslavement of Africans in the New World. That was not the enslavement of an entire ethnic group, but it was enslavement based on ethnicity, it occurred on a large scale, and it lasted for some 300 years — three-quarters as long as the enslavement of the Hebrews was supposed to have lasted. African slavery is massively attested in the records of the United States and other American nations, as well as those of slave traders elsewhere in the world. Its consequences, good and bad, have been enormous. It made immense fortunes of wealth. It transported large numbers of people to the New World who would otherwise probably not have come. It has enriched the culture of American nations while hideously scarring their political landscape. It resulted in at least one military conflict with dreadful casualties and destruction. What’s more, it has had an effect on the descendants of those enslaved almost too great to be stated. These people live in the Western Hemisphere today rather than in Africa, speak English or Spanish or French or Portuguese instead of an African language, and are culturally American rather than African, all because of their ancestors having been brought to the New World in chains.
That is the kind of effect we should expect from a historical event of that magnitude. And because we should expect that kind of effect, and because it isn’t there, I find it impossible to conclude anything but that the Hebrew people were never slaves in Egypt, and that the events of the Exodus therefore never took place.
In the first place, if it had happened we should find in the Egyptian records plenty of evidence for the existence of an ethnic community of slaves over four centuries. This would have been a remarkable occurrence, the more so since Egypt was not a major slave-owning nation until Alexandrian times. The great temples and monuments appear to have been built not by slaves but by free laborers. If there had been an enslaved ethnic community in Egypt for that length of time, something would have recorded regarding who owned all these slaves (Pharaoh, the priesthood, private individuals) and what they were used for. In all the archaeological evidence unearthed to date, however, there is not even a mention of an ethnic group thousands of individuals strong kept in the country in bondage for centuries.
In the second place, if the Israelites conquered Palestine fresh from four centuries of slavery in Egypt, we should see lasting effects of this lineage in the culture, politics, and language of ancient Israel as well. If the ancient Israelites had recreated and revived Hebrew to be their language, as the modern Israelis have done, there should be a tremendous linguistic influence from Egyptian on ancient Hebrew, just as today there are a great many words in modern Hebrew that come from Russian, German, English, Arabic, and other modern languages. But we find no such linguistic influence. Ancient Hebrew is linguistically related to other Semitic languages of the time, especially those of Caanan, Akkad, Babylon, and Phoenicia. It is not related in any significant way to Egyptian. As a written language, ancient Hebrew used an alphabet, while ancient Egyptian used ideograms and pictograms initially and evolved this system into a syllabary over time. The political and religious traditions and institutions of ancient Israel were radically different from those of Egypt as well. There were no traditions of divine absolute monarchy in ancient Israel. The authority of the monarchs was always limited and subject to challenge, the potential for revolt high. The ancient Israelis were religiously distinct from the Egyptians, too, not only in the obvious way that the Israelis were (supposedly) monotheists, but in other ways; the religion of ancient Israel lacked the concept of life after death that was so central to Egyptian religion, and the taboos and religious laws of Israel (as recorded in the Torah) reflect their roots in the customs of nomadic pastoral people rather than those of settled farmers such as lived in Egypt.
All of this is too much to overlook. There is only one reasonable conclusion: the enslavement of Hebrews in Egypt, and the events of the Exodus that liberated them, never happened. The Exodus is not history. It is myth. (An additional tidbit of evidence is found in the Golden Calf story. In this passage, Moses had disappeared up the mountain to obtain the Law from God, and the people were getting restless. Where was Moses? Had he abandoned them? Many of them decided that Moses and his God were a lost cause and turned to the worship of an alternate deity. But why was this alternate deity not Isis, Horus, Ra, Osiris, or another of the Egyptian pantheon that these supposed recently liberated slaves would have known all about and probably been used to worshiping on a daily basis back in Egypt? Why did they make up a god that nobody knew?)
Why was this myth, the story of the Exodus, written? Why was it told? Now that’s a good question, and I believe the answer arises from the period when it was told, which was around the time of the Babylonian captivity, after the kingdom of ancient Israel had been destroyed, and prior to its recreation under Persian rule. The Hebrew people were not in bondage as slaves at that time, but they were in forced resettlement, made to live in Babylonia against their will. They were experiencing a religious crisis. The religion of ancient Israel was not anything that properly deserved to be called Judaism. It was a tribal cult in which the Hebrew God, Adonai or JHVH, was one deity among many in the world, not a universal deity as the Jewish God is today. This God was easy for them to abandon, as the diatribes of the prophets in the Bible show that they frequently did. Moreover, this God was not something to be worshiped in spirit wherever one found oneself; rather, he had a location, and that location was Palestine, especially Jerusalem, more especially the Temple. How can we worship the God of our fathers in a foreign land? the captive Hebrews cried.
The Babylonian captivity saw not only the creation of the Torah, but an intellectual and spiritual flowering that gave birth in truth to the religion we know as Judaism. It was in Babylon, not in Palestine, that Judaism as we know it came to exist, and it was not the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (who, like Moses, may never have existed), but that of their descendants exposed at once to spiritual need and the high culture of Babylon. The story of the Exodus can be, and I believe should be, understood as a metaphor for the emergence of Judaism and the Jewish people from the bondage of ignorance in which the Hebrews had languished up to that time. It can also be understood as a myth of the individual soul’s journey from comfortable bondage to the Promised Land of enlightenment, through struggle against the tyranny of the world and through the desert of self doubt. In all of which meanings the Exodus, like much else in the Torah, is profound and powerful. But that value is lost to the extent one insists on taking it as statement of historical fact rather than mythic truth. As history, Exodus sucks. As fantasy storytelling, it is one of the best stories ever told, and one with great mythic significance.