From a question on Quora

I was kicking around on Quora today and saw this question. After writing my answer, I realized it would work well as a post here. I know it’s been a while, but here – have a post about belief.

How do believers believe in the Bible when it’s a proven fact that there was no exodus? How exactly do believers trust this as source if certain things aren’t exactly true?

I’m pretty sure you’re asking this from Christians, but I’m going to put in a different perspective: the Jewish one. (Also, “ask two Jews, get five answers” – my perspective is my own, and that of the people who taught me and are still my teachers in my own faith. Other Jews may see this issue differently.)

As a Jew, I have never been told that the Exodus was literal. In fact, the rabbi I studied under said specifically that the Exodus was not literal. Multiple times. But the story of the Exodus is a central part of the cultural heritage of being Jewish – and it underlies and informs our ethics and our morals:

  • Treat the stranger as you would your neighbor, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
  • Avoid greed. There is a verse about leaving the corners and gleanings (fallen harvest) for the poor, not hoarding it all for yourself.
  • Show kindness towards those less fortunate. Contribute to their welfare. This is normally summed up with the idea of “tzedakah,” which loosely (but not entirely accurately) translates to “charity.” (The difference is that in Judaism, tzedakah is not optional – it is an obligation.)

When I discuss the Torah with non-Jews, especially Christians, there’s a very basic barrier to understanding and clarity that I run into rather a lot, which is the assumption that the stories must be the literal, exact truth, and that “belief” means “believing those stories are literally, exactly true.” As in, there really was an actual, physical Ark that one man and his three sons built. There really were exactly two of every single kind of animal on it. There really was a flood that lasted 40 days. There really were Israelite slaves in Egypt. They really did wander in the desert for 40 years.

There weren’t, and they didn’t. These are the stories of our culture.

This barrier – this misunderstanding – is a big one, because the power of the story is the important thing, not whether or not the stories are literally true.

You see, the point of the Torah is not to say “these are the literal, true, exact stories of real people who did real things.” The point is to say “Here is a story about how we treat each other, and outsiders. What is the lesson in this story? How does Moses’ behavior, Aaron’s behavior, Abraham’s behavior, Joshua’s behavior, Rebecca’s behavior, Sarah’s behavior – how do these stories instruct us in being good Jews, good people, and good stewards of the land G-d has put into our hands?”

The celebration of the Exodus at Passover does not mean we literally believe we were slaves in a place called Egypt. It is a retelling of that part of our culture – the idea that we were less-than and reviled, which is a known part of Jewish history in many places and many times – that informs our own treatment of the stranger, the poor, the needy, and the destitute.

Many people will not understand this, and do not understand this, because of a naïve belief that the stories of the Torah (and frankly, the Christian bible as well) are literal truth, not cultural truth.

So the trust placed in those stories is about the cultural truths they carry, not the literal truths they don’t.


1 Comment

Filed under Jewish Practices, Judaism

One response to “From a question on Quora

  1. Anna L

    I agree. Some stories are true on the outside, and some like those in the Torah are true on the inside.


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