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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

WHAT REALLY INSPIRED THE EXODUS TALE? A SUPPLEMENT TO YOUR HAGGADAH

Every year at this time I offer a supplement to Humanistic (and other) seders that re-tells the Passover story from a somewhat more historical point of view. I originally wrote it as an addendum to the traditional narrative and when I finally created my own Haggadah, I placed it after dinner when the endless prayers and praises are traditionally recited. While very short (much briefer than the familiar tale) it presents conclusions suggested by sound archeological discoveries, some important literary hints in the Hebrew Bible, and even a few geological and meteorological pieces of evidence. Recently, one of the suggestions I included (the Levite connection) became even more popular when famed biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman came out with his 2017 book, "The Exodus."


There's a reason that this year more than ever I recommend incorporating it into your seder. With the recent growth of antisemitism in certain quarters there's been an attack on the origins of the Hebrew / Jewish / Israelite people. What science has revealed is that our ancestors were unquestionably natives of the ancient Mideast, even if their origin story didn't take place in quite the same way as we once thought. 


Feel free to re-print and share this widely!

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A Modern Maggid (Telling)

Historical Supplement to the Passover Haggadah


The great scientist Carl Sagan wrote:


Just when we’ve finally understood something [that] scientists are talking about, they tell us it isn’t any longer true. And even if it is, there’s a slew of new things – things we never heard of, things difficult to believe, things with disquieting implications – that they claim to have discovered recently. Scientists can be perceived as toying with us….


Sagan was writing about physics, but he just as well might have been referring to historical archeology. Less than 100 years ago, most scholars still believed that the tale was true in many of its details. Then they started digging ... literally ... with shovels and pails. 


It eventually became clear that the story we had told ourselves for millennia did not take place. There had been no mass flight from Egypt, no conquest of the land of Israel, otherwise known as Canaan. The Israelites were natives of the land; they were Canaanites themselves! 


So how did the story come to be?


In the late second millennium B.C.E., Egypt dominated Canaan. The pharaohs demanded regular tribute from vassal kings who in turn exploited their own peasant populations.


According to some scholars, in the thirteenth century B.C.E. the region experienced significant upheavals and power shifts. Taking advantage of these changes, many peasants rebelled, throwing off the yoke of their vassal kings. Archeological remains reveal that some fled to and cleared Israel’s central highlands, where tribes and towns began to form. In a long, complicated and gradual process they became known as the Israelites. Did this contribute to inspiring our story? 


If so, the Exodus tale may have served as an allegory about liberation from Egypt’s ongoing domination and exploitation of Canaan’s populace. The narrative may also reflect other ancient regional instabilities. Famines and droughts provoked repeated migrations. The Torah’s stories about Abraham and Sara’s journey to Canaan and their grandchildren’s descent to Egypt may disclose memories of these population shifts. 


Other historians suggest an alternative possibility. They propose that the Exodus story was influenced by the experience of one tribe, the Levites, that may have come to Israel from Egypt. Many Levite names, including Moses and Aaron, are Egyptian in origin. The Levites were cultic experts and possessed no territory. Were they the outsiders who circulated the original Exodus tale? 


The details are buried in history, but history gives wings to legends and legends yield heroes like Moses. Over hundreds of years, our story emerged with its account of one great man, dedicated to justice and to the liberation of his people. He challenged Pharaoh and led the Israelites to freedom. For millennia he has inspired many others who have been downtrodden or enslaved to bring about their own deliverance. 


And that’s why we told it tonight!

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