The Exodus Story as Jewish Mnemohistory
Legend Versus History
A baby boy is born. Owing to a threat to his life, his parents must hide him. Providentially, the baby is rescued and grows to adulthood, when he will perform great deeds and lead his people to glory.
This more-or-less is the story of Moses; however, it is also the story of many other significant and legendary figures from around the world, including Sargon of Akkad, Oedipus of Thebes, Cyrus of Persia, and Jesus of Nazareth. While the Moses story may be unique in having its hero go from the riches of the Egyptian court to the rags of an itinerant shepherd, the characteristics it shares with other stories is just one indication that the narrative is grounded more in the realm of legend than in that of history.
The Lack of Historical Details in Exodus
The details in the book of Exodus offer very little historical information that may be corroborated by non-biblical sources, whether archaeological or textual. Starting with the names of the tribes/sons of Israel and continuing with the names of Moses and his family, no one is known from any contemporaneous sources, although Israel as an ethnic group or tribe in Canaan is mentioned in at least one Egyptian source that dates to just before 1200 B.C.E.
Nor is the information about the Egyptians themselves in the story of much help. Both the names of the princess who adopts Moses and of her father, the pharaoh or king of Egypt, are missing, although the midrashic literature, the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, and Hollywood all try to fill in the blanks.
The only seemingly hard and fast information to be culled from the biblical account relates to the names of the store-cities that the Israelites supposedly built in Egypt, namely Pithom and Raamses. However, neither location would in reality have been a store-city. The former name seems to be derived from the Egyptian for “temple of Atum,” of which there were many. The latter name is most likely a reference to the Egyptian New Kingdom capital city of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries B.C.E., which was located in the eastern Delta region, close to where the Bible locates the Israelites. Nonetheless, their exact location is debated, and it is unclear if their mention in Exodus 1:11b is best understood as reflecting the time of the events it narrates or the time of the narrator.
The same point can be made about the supposed route of the exodus, which raises innumerable problems of interpretation, not to mention the enormous number of Israelites who are supposed to have left Egypt, a population presumably greater than that of Egypt as a whole at the time and one that left no trace in the archaeological record.
How Does a Religion of History Function When Its Foundational Narratives Are Not Historical?
It is a truism that Judaism is a religion rooted in history, specifically in the encounter between the Jewish people and their God. Indeed, much of Jewish ritual and tradition revolves around remembering the past and drawing lessons from it for the future. The Jewish God is both creator and historical actor. If Genesis introduces us to the former, it is Exodus that establishes our relationship with the latter. The former role establishes God as creator, judge, and ruler of the universe. But it is the latter that undergirds the Jewish people’s relationship with God, whose action in freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is a justification for the Jewish people’s obligation to enter into a covenant, a formal agreement, with God and to follow God’s commandments.
This obligation, rooted in the memory of God’s saving act, is what motivates the ritual of the Passover Seder and serves as the major justification for the fulfillment of many mitzvoth. And yet, as argued above, the majority of modern believe that the Book of Exodus does not reflect historical reality.
Accepting these stories as memory rather than history would seem to be even more problematic for Exodus than for Genesis. Isn’t Judaism established on the foundation of their historicity? What happens when the historical foundation of Judaism is called into question?
This conundrum has concerned committed Jews during the modern period. And yet, a very commonsensical and surprisingly postmodern solution to the problem was already offered over a century ago by the renowned Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha-‘Am (Asher Ginzberg 1856-1927).
Ahad Ha-Am’s Approach
Criticizing the efforts of – at that time mainly non-Jewish – historians who were searching for the “real” Moses of history, Ahad Ha-‘Am wrote that the only Moses who matters is the Moses of memory as he and the rest of the Jewish people remember him. Whatever historians would or would not discover is immaterial to the image of Moses that the Jewish people has carried with them during the past three thousand years. For it is the Moses of Jewish memory, rather than any Moses reconstructed by the modern historian, who has acted in history to inspire humanity. In Ahad Ha-‘Am’s own words:
I care not whether this man Moses really existed; whether his life and his activity really corresponded to our traditional account of him; whether he was really the savior of Israel and gave his people the Law in the form in which it is preserved among us; and so forth. I have one short and simple answer for all these conundrums. This Moses, I say, this man of old time, whose existence and character you are trying to elucidate, matters to nobody but scholars like you. We have another Moses of our own, whose image has been enshrined in the hearts of the Jewish people for generations, and whose influence on our national life has never ceased from ancient times till the present day. The existence of this Moses, as a historical fact, depends in no way on your investigations. For even if you succeeded in demonstrating he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses – the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.
Mnemohistory – The Study of Cultural Memory
Ahad Ha-‘Am’s intuition about what is important for Jewish faith and identity anticipates the core findings of cultural memory studies, a field pioneered by the French philosopher and sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945). According to Halbwachs, a people’s cultural identity and values are not primarily driven by history (i.e. the study of what happened in the past) as much as they are by the people’s conception of the past, their collective memory. Basing himself on these theories, Egyptologist Jan Assmann has posited that it is possible to write a history of collective memory, a subfield of history that he terms “mnemohistory.” Mnemohistory looks not at reconstructing the facts of what actually transpired, but seeks to recreate a record of how the original event – or person – is remembered by posterity.
A seminal example of such an attempt to construct a history of memory was undertaken by Assmann himself, who wrote about Moses as a figure of memory. In Assmann’s reconstruction, Moses serves as the vessel for the transmission to western civilization of the repressed memory of the religious reforms of the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten in the early fourteenth century B.C.E. For Assmann, “Moses is a figure of memory not of history.”
Zakhor – The Torah Focuses on Memory not History
Bringing cultural memory studies into Jewish studies, the late Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) has written eloquently about the centrality of memory in Jewish thought in his classic study Zakhor. Yerushalmi demonstrates that Judaism’s interest in history is mostly limited to the foundational narratives of the Torah. To explain this, he suggests that it isn’t history that is really of interest, but narratives that are paradigmatic and function as the justification for Jewish belief and practice. He writes, “That biblical historiography is not ‘factual’ in the modern sense is too self-evident to require extensive comment.” In other words, the foundational narratives of Judaism are more story than history in the modern sense.
Thus, central to Judaism is not history per se, but historical memory as encapsulated in the command zakhor “remember!”—the memory of the event rather than what may have actually transpired on the historical stage.
A Religion of Memory
Although people often say that Judaism is a religion of history, it is more accurately a religion of memory. The stories of the Torah are not factual descriptions of our past as much as they are a record of how we think about our past and how we think about ourselves and our relationship with God. Again, quoting Ahad Ha-‘Am:
And so when I read the Haggadah on the eve of Passover, and the spirit of Moses the son of Amram, that supremest of heroes, who stands like a pillar of light on the threshold of our history, hovers before me and lifts me out of this netherworld, I am quite oblivious of all the doubts and questions propounded by non-Jewish critics.
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January 5, 2015
May 26, 2023
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Prof. Carl S. Ehrlich (Ph.D. Harvard ’91) is University Professor of History and Humanities and former Director of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. Among his more recent publications are the (co-)edited collections From an Antique Land: An Introduction to Ancient Near Eastern Literature (2009), Purity, Holiness, and Identity in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Memory of Susan Haber (2013), and Israel and the Diaspora: Jewish Connectivity in a Changing World (2022).
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