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April 13, 2006

Religion and Historical Truth

New York Times columnist David Brooks uses "the Exodus story" today as an argument for a transformative idealism (in a debate with himself):

The Exodus story reminds us that human beings can transform themselves and their situations. It reminds us that people who embark on generational journeys are the realistic ones, because they are the ones who see all the possibilities the future contains.

Forget for a moment that the "idealistic" position, as presented by Brooks, involves undertaking the Iraq War. My question is why an event as historically unproven as the Israelite exodus from Egypt can be treated as fact, when any use of a similarly sketchy history, not backed by religious testament, in a newspaper like the Times would earn a barrage of critical letters. Or are we to think of the Exodus as a "story" -- as in fiction?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at April 13, 2006 4:58 PM


Religion always gets a pass and is held to a far lower standard of evidence, if any. I think it's because people are emotionally invested in their religion in a way they aren't invested in secular myths or myths concerning extinct religions. They can't bear to have anyone ask the obvious questions that might disprove the myth, perhaps because, for all their faith, they subconsciously fear that's exactly what will happen.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at April 13, 2006 7:21 PM

Why depend on history for the truth. All that is is a bunch of proven facts or nearly proven theories. Instead, let's all just assume that some invisible thing in the sky told Moses to get the heck out, so he did.

Posted by: JustinOther at April 13, 2006 9:11 PM

I agree, of course, that the exodus story along with the rest of the bible is nonsense, however in this case the New York Times columnist isn't entirely off his rocker. Even if untrue, a story can be used as an allegory to make a point. If I allude to the story of the three little pigs as a lesson that teaches us from childhood to prepare for the worst, would you hold the lack of arachaelogical evidence to the three little pigs story against me?


Posted by: Andrey at April 16, 2006 3:08 PM


Only if you presented it as a true story. What Christian church do you go to that teaches the Bible as just allegory. What does being filled with the Holy Spirit mean allegorically?

Posted by: Jay Saul at April 16, 2006 10:35 PM


Only if you presented it as a true story. What Christian church do you go to that teaches the Bible as just allegory. What does being filled with the Holy Spirit mean allegorically?

Posted by: Jay Saul at April 16, 2006 10:37 PM

I was talking specifically about the Times article that Mitch referred to. The part Mitch quoted didn't seem infused with religious propaganda, but used the Exodus story as a tale of chance and perseverance. Of course I think that religious drivel should stay out of the news, and people's minds in general, but in this case I don't think it was any more harmful than my pigs example.


Posted by: Andrey at April 17, 2006 11:25 AM

I understand that you are saying it must be taken in context. But I think you are ignoring the larger context of the culture we are living in.
Brooks did not have to say the Exodus fictional story, really I don't believe he believes it is fiction; he is using it as a factual reminder of our capabilities.

Posted by: Jay Saul at April 17, 2006 11:39 AM

"Unproven" may indeed be the mot juste; "disproven" isn't. So meantime we do have one bit of evidence, the story itself, that something in fact happened -- though those real events that underlie that story are now alloyed with legend. But if we stipulate that the
story is only a story, as if it had been disproven, SO WHAT?
Jews are People of the Book, not People of Archaeology. The Book doesn't contain any journalism, and that is why we don't read it the same way we read the Times. It may not contain that much history as we now understand the term -- but we would do wrong to write off the Writ on that account. On Yom Kippur the book is Jonah; some are too ready to miss its point about returning from our wrongdoing because they can't get past the unlikely detail of the prophet surviving for days in a fish's belly. Even if the Exodus is only a story, it is our story.
Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer (d. 1760), known to posterity as the Baal Shem Tov, was the founder of Hasidism. They say that when catastrophe -- a pogrom, epidemic, etc. -- threatened the Jewish community, the Baal Shem Tov would go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire and say a certain prayer, and that was enough to avert the catastrophe. After the Baal Shem Tov died, when catastrophe threatened, his successor, the Maggid of Mezritch, would go to the same place in the forest and say, "Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I can say the prayer," and again that was enough to avert the catastrophe. After the Maggid of Mezritch died, when catastrophe threatened, his successor, Moshe Leib of Sasov, would go to the same place in the forest and say, "Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire or say the prayer, but I know the place and that must be enough," and again it was enough to avert the catastrophe. After Moshe Leib died, when Israel of Riszhyn needed help from Heaven, he would say to G-d, "I no longer know the place, nor how to light the fire, nor how to say the prayer, but I can tell the story, and that must be enough." And it was.
(I have retold the story after Martin Buber;
Rabbi Alan Lew retells it more as Elie Wiesel did.
Traditionally, the story illustrates yeridat ha-dorot, decline across generations. But a story can be enough, and that one would make that point even had there never been the prayer or fire or place, or even a calamity averted or a real Israel Ben Eliezer. And so even if Israel were never enslaved in Egypt and delivered, and all we had was the story, Dayyenu! It would have been enough.

Posted by: Dabodius at April 18, 2006 3:11 AM


Of course stories are enough if what you desire is social order and cultural continuity. Unfortunately those are the very things that make the Middle East a caldron of hate and mistrust. Old tribal stories in conflict. Whose story is THE truth?

As I read you, you say it doesn't matter if they are fictional stories as long as they convey truth. The light does not shine on the pages; the pages obscure the light.

Those old stories did not stop Israel from building pogroms for the Palestinians. True believers are the cruelest of humans.

Posted by: Jay Saul at April 18, 2006 12:26 PM

Look at this, James Cameron has figured it all out. God and Hollywood to the rescue.


Posted by: Jay Saul at August 7, 2006 11:13 AM

Thanks for resurrecting (bad word choice, sorry) this entry, JayS: it neatly threads the Atwood interview into the previous comments to this entry to dramatically demonstrate the function of narrative to serve a cultural/social and/or political/economic logic, no matter what 'actually happens' in a particular historical moment... this is truly what makes narratives so comforting to us, I think, and why it's so difficult to disentangle them from our consciousness (both individual as well as collective).

Posted by: JM at August 7, 2006 5:11 PM

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