February 27, 2020

How to determine whether the Exodus really happened

The annual Exodus debate during Passover season and a recent discussion with a congregant highlight the divergent ways in which Jews and Mormons attempt to discover for themselves whether stories found in Scripture are meant to be taken literally. While Jews are generally more inclined to look to secular fields of study for confirmation of biblical stories (e.g., history, archaeology, textual analysis, linguistics), most Mormons believe that divine inspiration as a result of study and prayer is the only sure way to know spiritual things.

Years ago a rabbi approached me after hearing one of my presentations on behalf of the Israeli Consulate General. After discovering that I speak and read Hebrew, he offered to “prove” to me using the Hebrew-language Torah that Jesus was not in fact the Messiah. I readily agreed to meet with him, on one condition: I would offer a prayer before we began. Since we were going to discuss spiritual topics, we needed to invite God’s spirit to join our conversation. Although the rabbi promised to get in touch with me, I have not heard from him since.

While most Mormon converts come from Christian backgrounds and have few problems accepting the Bible as divinely inspired, many members struggle at one time or another with gaining a knowledge (“testimony”) that other LDS books of scripture are divine in origin as well. Not long ago a congregant came to me with doubts about whether the Book of Mormon was “true.” Fortunately, the book has a well-known promise to the sincere reader that if he asks God if it is divinely inspired, he will receive an affirmative answer by God’s spirit. Just as our missionaries do when they teach people who are interested in joining our church, I encouraged the congregant to put the promise to the test. We didn’t discuss archaeology, DNA, or history, which are ultimately incapable of proving or disproving Scripture. Our conversation revolved around going to the ultimate Source for truth in order to receive a definitive answer.

It is hard to find a principle on which Rabbinic Judaism and Mormonism disagree more than the one taught in the Talmudic story of the Oven of Aknai. For Mormons, man is ultimately incapable of interpreting Scripture definitively on his own. When an ordinary church member searches the scriptures in order to know God’s will for his own life, or a prophet searches them in order to know God’s will for all of humanity, the principle is the same: We must look to heaven for definitive spiritual answers. The principle articulated in the Oven of Aknai – that the Torah is here on earth so that man can interpret it without God's help – is the antithesis of the Mormon model.

To my way of thinking, the Aknai model is also out of sync with the classical Jewish model for receiving spiritual knowledge. During a Q&A session that I conducted with some Reform rabbinical students, they asked me about the concept of hevrutah (companion scripture study) in Mormonism. Although hevrutah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, they went on to add that this was the classical Jewish way to discover revealed truths. I responded that to the best of my (admittedly limited) knowledge, the classical Jewish model for receiving revealed truths involved prophets approaching God, receiving revelation, and then coming down from the mountaintop to share the Word with everyone else.

So what does this have to do with the story of Exodus? As a Mormon, I strongly agree with writers like Dennis Prager that it is important for us to know that the Exodus took place. For reasons outlined above, I believe that only God can tell us that the Exodus happened. Those who truly seek to acquire this knowledge will have to approach God through prayer, study and fasting. Mere mortals are incapable of establishing spiritual truths on their own, no matter how smart and talented they may be.

Happy Easter to all of my Christian readers.