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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thanksgiving: The American Exodus Story

Beginning in the 1990s, a series of books, sermons, and articles called into question the story of the Exodus as it appears in the Bible. For example, in 1998 S. David Sperling, a professor at Hebrew Union College in New York, wrote in his book, The Original Torah, that the Exodus did not happen. "The evidence," he concluded, was decisive. "The traditions of servitude in Egypt, the tales of wandering in the desert, and the stories of the conquest of the promised land appear to be fictitious." Similarly, in 2001, David Wolpe, a Conservative Rabbi, preached a Passover sermon that called into question the Exodus's historicity. He noted "that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all." Also in 2001, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, in their popular and controversial book, The Bible Unearthed, concluded that "one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt."

As others have pointed out, however, just because there is little to no evidence that supports the Exodus story as the Bible tells it, that doesn't mean that some sort of exodus didn't happen. In fact, in his recently published book, The Exodus: How It Happened and What It Means, Richard Elliott Friedman argues that a considerable amount of evidence exists which suggests that that an Exodus did occur, albeit on a much smaller scale than the Bible says it did. In particular, he contends that a small group of individuals, later known as the Levites, left Egypt, settled in Canaan, joined with the other Israelite tribes, and eventually became their priests. And along the way, their God, Yahweh, became Israel's God, and their story of how they fled Egypt and settled in Canaan, became Israel's story.

While this may strike some as odd, as I have noted in previous posts ("Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion"), it is similar to how the story of the first Thanksgiving became a story embraced by most Americans although few actually descend from the Pilgrims:
In many ways, Thanksgiving is... the American Exodus story. Just like the ancient Israelites, many of whom probably didn't descend from the families that had fled from Pharaoh's wrath but later affiliated with those who did, most Americans don't descend from the Pilgrims. However, just as the Exodus story became the story for all who chose to worship Yahweh, the Thanksgiving story has become the story for most Americans. On the 4th Thursday of every November, most of us sit down with family and friends and either implicitly and explicitly recall the Thanksgiving story.
And like the biblical story of the Exodus, the American Thanksgiving story contains a number of fictitious elements. Nevertheless, retelling it can help us, if only for awhile, transcend our differences as we recall a story of sharing, celebration, and the welcoming of strangers to our table. And given the current political climate, that strikes me as a good thing.

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