An Archaeological Perspective on Shavuot
The biblical story of matan torah is one of the most dramatic events described in the Bible and has been a fundamental and sustaining narrative throughout the history of Judaism. The depiction of the people of Israel at Mount Sinai and Moses receiving the Torah from God, along with all that happened in connection with this event, is without doubt a central part of the spiritual foundation of Judaism.
Nevertheless, as an archaeologist I must ask, as many colleagues of mine before me have asked: If I put aside for a moment the biblical, literary, description of this event, what can be seen from an archaeological point of view, in the form of “hard” archaeological evidence (that is, physical evidence such as pottery, architecture, inscriptions, etc.) that can shed light on this crucial collective experience and the surrounding events recorded in the Torah?
Plainly put: very little! There is little evidence of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt, the exodus from Egypt, and the wanderings in the desert in general, or of the events surrounding matan Torah in particular. The archaeological record from Egypt, Sinai, and adjacent regions does not provide any evidence of a large group of people (600,000 men according to the biblical text) leaving Egypt and moving through the desert, or of any of the related events recorded in the Bible.
Over the years, various scholars have attempted to deal with this issue. Some have said that the lack of evidence indicates that nothing of the sort happened and that the biblical stories of exodus, the sojourn in the wilderness, and matan Torah are mythical tales.
Others have attempted demonstrate that there is some evidence for these events, either by setting them in times or locations other than those usually assumed or by reinterpreting the archaeological and historical data. Some scholars have suggested connecting events depicted in the Bible, such as the ten plagues in Egypt, with specific environmental events known from the ancient world, such as the volcanic eruption on the island of Thera in modern day Greece. But these approaches have not been accepted by most mainstream scholars and in fact often create more problems in understanding these events than they resolve.
Various locations have been suggested for Mount Sinai over the years. From the early Byzantine period (ca. 5th-6th cent. CE), traditions developed locating Mount Sinai in southern Sinai, while later, other locations in Sinai, the Negev, and even Arabia have been suggested. But none of these locations has a plaque saying “Mount Sinai,” and none of these sites can accommodate the large number of Israelites the Bible claims were present at matan torah.
An alternative approach, taken by a number of scholars over the years in various ways, is to suggest that all these biblical traditions do in fact reflect, to varying extents, actual events that occurred in Egypt, Sinai, the Negev, and other regions. Various events throughout the ages may have provided the cultural, temporal, and spatial background for the formation of various components of this story, which were then combined into the larger biblical narrative.
But these events did not occur at one time in a monolithic and uniform manner. Rather, various events related to the exodus from Egypt, the sojourn in the wilderness, the entry into Canaan, and deeply moving experiences of religious significance occurred over a long period of time (from perhaps the 3rd millennium BCE until the late 1st millennium BCE), and these were all collated at a relatively late stage (perhaps at the time of the return to Zion in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, ca. 5th-4th cent. BCE)—written down and turned into the stories that we now read in the Bible.
But the question remains: What does this leave us, as believing Jews, of the crucial foundation stories of the exodus and matan torah? It is my belief that we must approach this question with two ideas in mind:
Religious belief and historical truth are not identical. These two perspectives at times overlap but at times are quite separate, and one perspective does not negate the other. For me, the outlines of the earliest story of my people, both those suggested by archaeology and those in the biblical text, are of central importance. Together they provide me with the general outlines of the formation and existence of an early Israelite/Jewish community and an understanding of its traditions, as well as evidence of a God who acted in history.
The Rabbis said: Dibra torah kilshon bnei adam (דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם), meaning that the Torah speaks in a language that can be understood by humankind (BT nedarim 3a). Thus, we can suggest that the story of the exodus and matan torah presented in the biblical text is an attempt to convey a complex set events in a manner that could be “digested” by the people of Israel over the ages— a manner that would enable them to use this story as a formative text throughout their history.
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May 8, 2013
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Prof. Aren Maeir is a professor at Bar Ilan University and director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project. He did his undergraduate and graduate studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and did a post-doc at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. Maeir has written more than a hundred scholarly and popular articles on archaeology and the Bible.
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