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The Exodus story: fact or fiction?

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Dear LA Teacher,

Was the Exodus story in the Bible history or myth?

Curious Student

Dear Curious Student,

Passover, the Jewish celebration of the Exodus, begins Monday evening, April 14, 2014 with the first Seder. This is the time when Jews throughout the world remember the years their ancestors were slaves in Egypt and escaped under the leadership of Moses.

Carol Meyers, an archeologist and professor of religion at Duke University believes that the Passover celebrated today is a mnemohistory or memory history of the Jewish people. In a PBS article she said, “When a group of people experience things that are extremely important to their existence, they maintain collective memories of these events over generations.” (Think of Thanksgiving. Americans celebrate the Pilgrims’ first year of survival in Massachusetts, but few have ancestors that were on the Mayflower.)

Like any story, the events leading up to and after the Exodus were elaborated upon and ritualized. However, at their core is a bright truth.

During the Late Bronze Age (circa 1200 BCE) there were many people from Canaan and other eastern Mediterranean lands living in Egypt. Some were sold into slavery while others migrated there to escape extended droughts. This is documented in the Amarna letters discovered in Egypt in 1887.

In the early 1800s, “The Admonitions of an Egyptian” was found in Egypt. It seems that Ipuwer, an ancient Egyptian sage, wrote about plagues befalling Egypt during the time of the Exodus.

Did the multitudes actually leave Egypt as depicted in Cecil B Demille’s biblical cinematic account, “The Ten Commandments”? It’s highly unlikely that thousands of slaves escaped pharaoh’s grip. However, a small tribe of around a hundred or so could have escaped the country over a shroud of darkness. These Israelites, returning to their ancestral homeland in Canaan, attributed their success to their god, Yahweh—responsible for their miraculous escape.

To the Israelites, Yahweh represented freedom—the freedom of a people to keep the fruits of their labor. This is a powerful message that brings people together providing them with a unique identity. This identity of independence and freedom has been emblematic of the Jewish people.

This Monday night when they again celebrate the Passover, a holiday of freedom and independence, Jews around the world will continue this mnomhistoric cultural ritual that has helped keep them a nation for over 3000 years.

Happy Passover,
LA Teacher

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