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.

Abraham in Interfaith Dialogue

A few days ago I ran into an acquaintance with whom I had a brief conversation about interfaith dialogue. In the course of our conversation he used the term “Abrahamic religions.” At other times I have also heard the phrase “the Abrahamic faiths” referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Having been involved in interfaith conversations myself, these phrase trigger in me a number of thoughts. I do not know the origin of their usage but their meaning is clear enough as they points to Judaism, Christianity and Islam being sibling religions, as it were. In Judaism, Christianity and in Islam Abraham occupies a key position and so suggests a basic commonality between them.

This commonality is generally seen as something positive in as much as it holds the potential for interfaith respect at a minimum, and a feeling of religious brother-and sisterhood at best. It suggests the possibility if not a mandate for peaceful coexistence and cooperation in our common need to confront all kinds of dangers we humans face. Sadly enough, the opposite has been taking place as the three religions oppose, denigrate and fight each other.

Contrary to many folks’ expectations, the religions that claim common origins are precisely the ones that are in tension with each other. Islam, the youngest among the three, belittles and attacks both Christianity and Judaism in the Qur’an, its holy book, as religions who tampered with the original holy texts given to them by God Allah (Sura 3:81-56). There are Qur’anic texts that warn Muslims from having social relationships with practitioners of Judaism and Christianity… The New Testament, especially in its gospel of John, is stridently anti-Jewish… Judaism, in some of its holy scriptures ridicules other ancient Near Eastern religions as examples of gross superstitions. In the Hebrew Bible there is no criticism of either Christianity or of Islam for the simple reason that neither Christianity nor Islam existed prior to the 1st cent. CE, i.e., before Christianity and later Islam came into existence. However in the post-biblical Jewish rabbinical literature we do find statements slanderous of Jesus and Christianity.

In this connection it is worth observing that no animosity exists between Judaism and say Hinduism whose respective sacred texts hold nothing in common. The same is true for Christianity and its relationship say to Confucianism. No animosity there either. So also Islam, to my knowledge, has no quarrel with Buddhism, etc. O n the other hand within Islam itself we find deadly animosity between the Shia and the Sunni movements, both of which claim Islam as their religious legacy and fight each other in the name of Allah.

Let me then restate here that it is precisely religions that claim common origins that are the ones that are in conflict with each other because their interpretations of these common origins vary from each other. The newer interpretations often segue into formation of sects and into new religions that claim to be correctives to previous expressions, take on new names and announce to the world ultimate truths only they hold. These latest revelations from divinity become ultimate authority trying to eclipse precedent expressions of faith by means of missionary teaching or worse, violent conflict.

How does the personage of Abraham relate to all this?

In Judaism, which is not a monolithic religion, Abraham is often claimed as its founder. I would rather vote for Moses and the Exodus from Egypt as the founding experience of Judaism. There are Jews who see in Abraham the founder of monotheism. He is one of the three patriarchs (with Isaac and Jacob) or eponymous ancestors of the religion. He is the role model of the person who obediently carries out God’s instructions. His obedience goes so far as being willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac to God. He lives according to God’s laws by faith before the Torah is given to Moses on Mount Sinai. He is the first to practice circumcision. It is to him and his progeny that God promises possession of what is commonly called the Holy Land. Because of Abraham’s merits, God grants to the people Israel and to its later expression, the Jewish people, his covenant or special relationship with him and so also the promised land. There are other promises too numerous to mention here.

In Christianity, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is seen as the role model of human faith and obedience to God. In that sense he is the prefiguration par excellence of Jesus, the Christ. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is proleptic of God’s subsequent willingness to give His son Jesus as a sacrifice for the redemption of humankind. And Isaac, Judaism’s second patriarch who according to the biblical text is willing to be sacrificed, foreshadows Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross for the salvation of humanity. Thus, according to Christianity (cf. the apostle Paul’s writing), the Abraham story foreshadows its actualization in Jesus Christ. Actualization is, of course, of greater value than mere prophecy! Given this Christian valuation, Christianity and the Christian people supercede and displace Judaism and Jews from their special relationship to God. The covenant with the Jews is annulled and instead, established with the Christian Church, i.e., the Christian people.

In Islam, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is the believer par excellence who obeys God Allah. The term Islam means submission and Muslims are the people who in following Allah’s word in the holy book called the Qur’an (or recitation) submit to the divinity. In Muslim theology, Abraham, in Arabic Ibrahim, is the first who submits to Allah’s word and so, here also, is the role model for what it means to live in submission or surrender to God. Also, however,  Abraham, or rather Ibrahim, in Islam’s teaching is thus the first Muslim, having totally surrendered to Allah’s will. Whereas in Judaism it is Abraham’s son Isaac who was to be sacrificed, in Islam it is Abraham’s and Sarah’s older son Ishmael (in Arabic, Ismail) who was to die and so, by submitting to be sacrificed, Ishmael becomes the eponymous ancestor of Muslims. Ibrahim and Ishmael built the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in the city of Mecca. Jerusalem is the place from where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven after his Night Journey from Mecca and thus the Dome of the Rock, from where the prophet ascended and the nearby al-Aqsa mosque are the third holiest shrines for Muslims, the second holiest site being the al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet) in the city of Medina. Because it is Allah’s word in the Qur’an, transmitted to humanity by the prophet Muhammad, it is by virtue of these words being the latest divine revelation, that the Qur’an displaces both the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament. According to Muslim scholars, the Qur’an corrects both the Jewish and Christian Holy Scriptures where they had been tampered with and so restores the antecedent original revelations from God.

These three sets of religious affirmations, all three claiming to have issued from the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews, the trinitarian God of the New Testament and the Christians, and from Allah, the Qur’an’s God of Islam and the Muslims, respectively, do not agree with one another. In the minds of each of these religions’ literalist readers and practitioners, their God and their scripture calls for unquestioning acceptance and adherence. Figurative and/or metaphorical exegesis of holy book texts are not permitted. In that kind of religious fundamentalism it is “we” (believers) against “them” (unbelievers). Every reading and sermon of these divisive texts underlines and perpetuates separation and superiority, two disturbing and destructive attitudes.

Returning now to modern interfaith dialogue, it is my contention that problems of this kind, rather than to be swept under the rug, must be honestly confronted and discussed, before lasting improvement in interfaith relations can be achieved through inter-faith conversations. I do not believe that sitting around a campfire, holding hands and singing “kumbaya, my lord” will get us anywhere.

The regular reading in mosque, church, synagogue or at home of these divisive texts perpetuate misunderstanding and mutual alienation. Only the honest facing of the divisive texts, their learned study and discussion which involves historical context, perhaps even their elimination altogether or, at the least, critical annotation in Bibles, New Testaments and Qur’ans, will advance mutual respect and rapprochement. Perhaps I am asking for the impossible.

This said, I recommend the teaching of the great Rabbi Tarfon (1st to 2nd cent. CE), “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either,” (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:21).

Congratulations are due to those interfaith groups who are courageous and dedicated enough to undertake that difficult and risky task.