Passover 2008/5768

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Jews all over the world are observing Passover tonight, celebrating the liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. Pope Benedit XVI’s historic visit to a New York synagogue yesterday lends a special resonance to this year’s observance of the holiday. Jimmy Carter’s meetings with the head of Hamas and his deputy this weekend highlight the contemporary threats to the Jewish people, on both ends of that particular phenomenon. The Jerusalem Post reports:

A senior Hamas official in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to represent the group publicly, described the meetings as “warm.”

Let’s hope they didn’t conclude the meeting with the traditional conclusion of the Passover seder: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

The New York Times’s Passover story this year is characteristically off-kilter, but it would be hard to top last year’s. John Hinderaker commented on it as follows:

This is one of those gratuitous news stories that are hard to understand outside the pervasive anti-religious bias of our dominant culture. This time it’s the New York Times, whose reporter apparently went to Egypt to see a new archaeological discovery, an ancient fort that is being excavated. But, hey, it’s Passover, so that prompted a question from the reporter:

On the eve of Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the story of Moses leading the Israelites through this wilderness out of slavery, Egypt’s chief archaeologist took a bus full of journalists into the North Sinai to showcase his agency’s latest discovery. ***

That prompted a reporter to ask about the Exodus, and if the new evidence was linked in any way to the story of Passover. The archaeological discoveries roughly coincided with the timing of the Israelites’ biblical flight from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land.

“Really, it’s a myth,” Dr. Hawass said of the story of the Exodus, as he stood at the foot of a wall built during what is called the New Kingdom. ***

“If they get upset, I don’t care,” Dr. Hawass said. “This is my career as an archaeologist. I should tell them the truth. If the people are upset, that is not my problem.”

The story of the Exodus is celebrated as the pivotal moment in the creation of the Jewish people. As the Bible tells it, Moses was born the son of a Jewish slave, who cast him into the Nile in a basket so the baby could escape being killed by the pharaoh. He was saved by the pharaoh’s daughter, raised in the royal court, discovered his Jewish roots and, with divine help, led the Jewish people to freedom. Moses is said to have ascended Mt. Sinai, where God appeared in a burning bush and Moses received the Ten Commandments.

But archaeologists who have worked here have never turned up evidence to support the account in the Bible, and there is only one archaeological find that even suggests the Jews were ever in Egypt. Books have been written on the topic, but the discussion has, for the most part, remained low-key as the empirically minded have tried not to incite the spiritually minded.

“Sometimes as archaeologists we have to say that never happened because there is no historical evidence,” Dr. Hawass said, as he led the journalists across a rutted field of stiff and rocky sand.

So, let’s get this straight: What, exactly, is a “myth”? That the Jews were ever in Egypt? Or that they ever left Egypt? Or that Moses parted the Red Sea (or one of the other bodies of water that have been suggested)?

Hard to say. It’s just another drive-by attack on religious belief, Jewish and Christian, the only occasion for which is apparently Passover (and, of course, Easter). What I really want to see is an article in the Times about the Prophet’s ascension to Heaven from Temple Mount. Is there any archaeological evidence for it? Somehow, I suspect not. Oh, I’ve seen the little hole in the rock that Muslims say was made by Mohammed’s foot at the critical moment, but I’ll bet if the Times hooked up with the appropriate experts, they could put a major dent in that theory. Somehow, though, I’m not holding my breath.

About the story they did write: it’s postured as a straightforward narrative of science versus faith, and we all know who wins that one. Now, I’m no expert in archaeology, but it doesn’t take two minutes of research to find that there are many other archaeologists who have reported finds supportive of the Biblical narrative. Here is just one example.

Biblical archaeology is a fantastically interesting subject, which–like so many others–I’ll have to retire before having time to explore. No doubt we have readers who know a lot more. But there is a painfully obvious gulf between the facile “science vs. faith” narrative that we get from slow-witted news sources like the New York Times, and the ever-astonishing ancient world that is being unearthed day by day.

Best wishes for a happy holiday to our Jewish readers.

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