Could there be any more important story in the whole Old Testament than the Israelite exodus from Egypt? In it, God rescues his people through his miraculous power; the people are give faith and God establishes a covenant with them; he fulfills his promise from long ago, showing his immense fidelity. All throughout the Old Testament, in almost every book, we hear the biblical writer saying, “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt.” It is the foundational event that gives meaning to everything else that happens.
And yet… there are many who wonder whether it ever even happened.
As is the case with all ancient stories, our modern world is concerned with one thing, and one thing only: the facts. Who, what, where, when, and why? No embellishment. No commentary. No opinion. What actually happened? It is a mindset that is particularly helpful in crime solving, but ill-suited for theological reflection.
In this week’s Catholicism In Focus, I suggest that there are two extreme approaches to reading Scripture that we want to avoid: the strictly literalist, that takes every word at face value and does not consider science, history, or reason, and the strictly mythological, that focuses solely on the meaning of the story with no regard for historical evidence. Both of these approaches are prominent in our world, and both of them are seriously flawed.
Instead, what we must do is recognize that what makes the Bible the Word of God is not that it is a dictation of God from heaven, word-for-word how it happened, but rather a theological reflection on lived experiences people had of God. The focus is absolutely on the “truth” of the events, but without any “facts”—without an actual event to reflect on—there can be no truth.
Looking to legitimize the Jewish claim to Israel Ben Gurion, an atheist, sent a team of archeologists to the Sinai to find evidence of the Exodus, or what he called ‘the Title Deed’. They came up with nothing.
In The Jewish Wars Tacitus recounts a popularly held belief in the Classical world regarding the origins of the Jews. They originally came from an idyllic (Edenic?) place in Crete on the slopes of Mt. Ida (from which the word Jew is derived), where they were votaries of Saturn. They were driven from Crete into the Libyan desert when the Olympians overthrew the Titans and then made their way to Egypt. When Egypt became overpopulated, they emigrated to Judea.
It strikes me that there’s a similarity between Saturn, the Titan who ate his children, and jealous Yaweh, who would have Abraham murder his