Exodus: A Sephardic Response

As a Sephardic Jew representing a heritage of tolerance, intellectual honesty and tradition, my perspective on the recent “Exodus controversy” — which is not rooted in anger, name-calling or popular “marketplace theologies” which have characterized certain responses in this city — is that of the classical Sephardic Bible commentators, whose method has been described as “the persistent demand for logic.”

My friend, colleague and neighbor Rabbi David Wolpe asks us to have the courage to ask hard questions regarding the Bible. Sephardic Bible commentators have always been courageous and unrelenting in their critical examination of the Biblical text. Long before 19th century Bible critics asked questions regarding the authorship of the Bible, Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides and Abarbanel raised these questions and were unafraid to deal with these issues.

Following my ancestors, I am open to examining the question Rabbi Wolpe raised, but in the field of biblical archaeology, questions and queries are not limited to one biblical episode of the Exodus.

For example, scholars bring into question the entire historical accuracy of the patriarchs and the matriarchs.

British Bible scholar Phillip Davies makes this point in his review of an October 1999 Biblical Archaeology conference in a March/April 2000 Biblical Archaeology Review article titled “The Search for History in the Bible.” “Not a single speaker at the conference defended the historicity of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis,” Davies writes.

What about the “supposed archaeological evidence” that correlated the patriarchal narratives and was once prevalent theory? Davies writes that it was not defended as a valid theory by any scholar present at the conference.

Which theory do we believe? Should we accept the conclusions of those who previously claimed that “we have discovered artifacts, therefore the stories are true,” or should we accept those who more recently declare, “What we thought we discovered is really nothing, therefore the stories are mythology.”

If you accept these latest arguments as the more authoritative, we must contemplate revisiting all of our traditions to find their historical accuracy. Archaeology even raises questions as to the very origins of the God of Israel. Israeli archaeologist Ephraim Stern writes in the May/June issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, “Archaeological evidence suggests that the monotheism of many Israelites was far from pure. For them, Yahweh — the name of the Israelite god — was not the only divinity, and some believed that Yahweh had a female consort.”

To Stern, God — Israel’s God — was one of many. Like most archaeologists, he believes that the “Israelite God” is nothing more than an invention of the biblical authors, adapted from Canaanite religion. Based on Canaanite tablets and inscriptions they have unearthed, most archaeologists agree that biblical religion is in fundamental harmony with that of the Canaanites, primarily manifested in the early worship of “El,” the head of the Canaanite pantheon.

In accepting these theories, we would have to confront a Judaism whose “God with a capitol G” is nothing more than an amalgamation of ancient deities created by the biblical authors.

The reality is this: If we are going to rewrite Jewish theology based on archaeological theories, we have lots more to consider than a Judaism devoid of only the Exodus story. It would be devoid of almost all the stories, especially the “story” of God himself.

What would Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides and Abarbanel have done with all of this material? In keeping with their intellectual honesty, they would have certainly been open to examining the state of research in the field of biblical archaeology. But their “persistent demand for logic” would have stopped them from coming to sweeping historical and theological conclusions based on the latest archaeological theory, which is what these are: theories.

They might have spent more time searching for spiritual answers instead of unearthing archaeological proof for our tradition. Perhaps we should do the same.