Saturday, November 21, 2009

The exodus narrative denied

Modern critical scholarship has conclusively established that, as described in the Pentateuch, the exodus never happened. That is to say, there was never a mass migration of the Israelites from pharaonic Egypt to Palestine. In modern memory the narrative ranks as an exemplary tale of liberation from collective bondage. Yet Egyptian sources provide no documentary evidence of the Israelites ever having been in Egypt, and the logistics of such a purported mass migration through forbidding territory would have made such a journey out of the question.

The biblical exodus, then, is a myth. As such, though, it must be credited with offering moral support to modern liberation struggles, notably the American civil rights movement. Other instances come to mind. Although the narrative was not directly applied, it is not irrelevant to the escape of Bangladesh from its bondage to what used to be termed West Pakistan.

The book Exodus and Revolution (1986) is an extended meditation by Michael Walzer, a professor at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study. Walzer holds that Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have their precursors in the biblical narrative of exodus. Professedly uninterested in the critical approach to the scriptures, Walzer focuses on how the narrative of the exodus out of Egypt has functioned as a basis for social arguments. He writes, "I don't mean to disparage the sacred, only to explore the secular: my subject is not what God has done but what men and women have done, first with the biblical text itself and then in the world, with the text in their hands."

Walzer nonetheless seeks to show that covenant theology achieved its formation in the trajectory outlined by the Pentateuch: from Noah to Abraham to Moses and thence to the Israelites. He maintains that the revolution of his title corresponds to the narrative detailing a sequence of "oppression, liberation, social contract, political struggle, new society (danger of restoration)." This is why the exodus story has fostered our Western quest for social progress.
Walzer ends with a discussion of Zionism, where he finds that the two major variants, "Exodus Zionism" (politically left) and "messianic Zionism" (politically right), both appeal to scripture.

But why stop with Zionism? One might have thought that the hallowed exodus narrative would make observers sensitive to the dangers of any contemporary recapitulation in the Middle East itself. Not so. I have never heard any of the ubiquitous and vociferous defenders of Israel admit that the Israelis are acting unjustly, as the Egyptians reputedly did in biblical times. Israel is holding a whole nation, the Palestinians, in bondage.

If the bible has any liberatory force at all--an assertion about which I am increasingly skeptical--surely it must apply to the Palestinians. Yet it is not.



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