Pesach: History, Myth and Meaning

Pesach, the Hebrew name for the Jewish holiday of Passover has come and gone and now offers me an opportunity to discuss its historicity, its mythological elements and its possible meanings for us moderns, as I understand it. It is in the Book of Exodus, the second book in the Hebrew Bible, that the story of Pesach (so called from here on) is told. For me, it is the Pesach story and the subsequent liberation and the Exodus (Latin for departure, in Hebrew yetziyat mitzrayim) from Egypt of the Jewish slaves that represents Judaism’s “root experience.” Given the fact that Christianity is Judaism’s religious offshoot and, as such, appropriated its antecedent Jewish history, Pesach is also Christianity’s foundation, witness the fact that the first part of every complete Christian Bible consists of the Hebrew or Jewish Bible containing the Book of Exodus. The Hebrew name of the book is shemot, meaning “names,” deriving its name from the first significant word in the first sentence of that book.

I have often been asked whether the Pesach story within the Exodus narrative is historical. Without going here into fine details, my response has been YES, albeit with a qualifying remark suggesting that as is the case with much religious literature, related events having an historical kernel, are often exaggerated and mythologized. Considering the time of origin of Exodus which in all probability is the middle of the 13th cent. BCE, this should not surprise us. The same kind of exaggerations are found in Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and other Middle Eastern religious stories. This said, we should not be surprised to find that the Jewish liberation story falls into the same literary milieu. This is not to suggest, however, that the Jewish story’s center, the liberation of the Jewish slaves, is not historical.

Remains, however, the question why what is described in the Bible as an incredible and therefore allegedly miraculous event is nowhere mentioned in Egyptian history of which we have plenty of documentation in terms of ancient monuments, wall, sarcophagi and papyrus inscriptions. One possible answer to this question might just be the ancient Middle Eastern rulers’ reluctance to make known to future generations their countries’ defeats, political mismanagements or miscalculations.

The fact is that Egyptian history nowhere mentions the Jewish slave’s departure from Egypt and thus their liberation from slavery. Given the number of slaves liberated, as indicated in the Book of Exodus having been six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exod. 12:37) suggests that the total number of Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt was somewhere around one million eight hundred thousand people, considering three persons per family. This is an enormous amount of slaves in view of the total population of Egypt at that time having been estimated at only three million people. It is highly unlikely that 3 million people were able to maintain a slave population of say 1.8 million!

This problem’s solution has been found to lie in a possible mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “thousands” – alaphim in this particular literary context. Without going into the technical linguistic details here, scholars suggest that the number of slaves leaving Egypt was closer to 5,000 than 1.8 million.

Egyptian records consisting of correspondence between border guards in the eastern Nile Delta where border fortifications have been excavated, call for reinforcements to stem the flight of Egyptian slaves toward the land of Canaan. Could some of these slaves have been the Hebrew slaves referred to in the biblical story? Probability points in that direction. Based on this correspondence, the numbers of fleeing slaves in the low thousands make much more sense than the hundreds of thousands the biblical narrative suggests.

At the light of the above it can be concluded that the kernel of the Pesach/Exodus story is historical.

There is no need to dwell in any length on all  the miraculous elements in the Exodus narrative. Leading up to the actual departure of the slaves, there are the Ten Plagues, culminating in the death of all the firstborns in Egypt while the Jewish slaves’ children are saved when God himself slays the Egyptian first borns (Exod. 12:29). The parting of the Reed Sea (proper name for the body of water called in the Bible the Red Sea) is another alleged miracle from above, saving the fleeing Israelite slaves from the pursuing Egyptians. Rivers of ink have been spilled trying to explain what happened and Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematographic depiction of the miracle is, while admirably done, not very persuasive.

Is Israel mentioned anywhere at all in Egyptian historical writings? The answer is YES. On a victory monument of pharaoh Marneptah (1213 – 1203 BCE) discovered in 1896 at Thebes, also called the “Israel stele,” the hieroglyphs in line 27 are translated as “Israel.” The name Israel on the stele is mentioned as one among other enemies of Egypt, now defeated. The literal translation of the line reads, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;” It is not clear just who this Israel was or where it was located. The text does not correspond to any such defeat mentioned in the Bible.

Let us now reflect upon the meaning of Pesach and Exodus.

In short, it is a celebration of freedom. Slavery of any kind has no legitimate place on earth. For religious people the mandate to freedom for every human being comes from God and the book of Exodus is the locus of this mandate for Jews and Christians.

As is the case with parables and legends both in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, careful reading of the texts brings out contradictions and elements that do not make sense. This kind of literature was written millenia ago and our criticisms are often anachronistic. Had we lived “then,” we probably would have believed just as those ancients believed. This said, I am suggesting that parables and legends first have to be understood within the cultural context of their own time and secondly only in terms of how we, in our time, understand them.

The Haggadah our family used this past Pesach (The Concise Family Seder by Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch) suggests that the essence of Passover is a message for the conscience and the heart of all humankind about “the deliverance of a people from degrading slavery, from cruel and inhuman tyranny… of the tyranny of poverty and the tyranny of privation,

of the tyranny of wealth and the tyranny of war,

of the tyranny of power and the tyranny of despair,

of the tyranny of disease and the tyranny of time,

of the tyranny of ignorance and the tyranny of [skin] color.”

And so, although it is the unnamed Pharaoh of old who is the tyrant of the Haggadah, it is not he alone of whom we speak at the Pesach seder. There are other tyrants and other tyrannies from which and from whom we need liberation.

To make myself clear, let me give you two widely disparate examples of what I mean by “liberation.” I had a cousin in Haifa, Israel, who had never learned to drive a car. He yearned to be independent from his mother or father having to “sacrifice” some of their time to take him around. Requesting that I intercede with his Mom on his behalf, I did just that only to have the experience of speaking to a wall. Aunt Steffi’s response to my words was, “I would not be able to sleep knowing that George is out in a car by night. I would not have a moment of peace knowing that he is exposed to danger on a highway. The answer is NO. I never will allow George to get a driver license.” You, the reader of these words, should know that my cousin George was only two years younger than I! As I see it, this was a mother’s selfish tyranny from which George needed to come free to become a mature adult..

One other example should explain what I mean by Pesach’s invitation (or is it a mandate?) for us to liberate ourselves from acquired intellectual imprisonment. By now it should be clear to any Jew in this our great country that our “Number One” leader is not only a racist, a misogynist, a white supremacist and also a malevolent cretin. And yet there are organized groups of Jews who support and follow him. In my quest for understanding this phenomenon, I fairly recently asked a Republican friend how he finds it possible to remain a Republican, given the fact that his party has sold out to the devil. His response was, “I vote Republican because the Jews in the south have always voted Republican.” I regretted hearing this because this kind of answer is not an answer from a responsible Jewish citizen, in my opinion.

The examples range from the ridiculous to the very serious. Pesach is a time for responsible reflection, preferably within the physical context of fellow Jews, on issues ranging from the private to the communal. It is also an opportunity to get to know each other as we share our lives’ complexities with friends in an effort to better understand and to grow toward responsibly lived Judaism and so also toward responsible country and world citizenship.

If this past Pesach helped you in such a direction , I am happy for you. If it did not, make sure next year’s celebration will.