Jewish scholars challenge famous biblical passages

Abraham, Moses, David and Exodus all said to lack physical evidence

March 17, 2002|By Michael Massing | Michael Massing,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - According to some scholars, Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses.

The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho.

And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the nation's 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called Etz Hayim (Tree of Life in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine document.

But even some Conservative rabbis feel uncomfortable with the depth of the doubting. "I think the basic historicity of the text is valid and verifiable," said Susan Grossman, the rabbi of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Md., and a co-editor of Etz Hayim. As for the mounting archaeological evidence suggesting the contrary, Grossman said: "There's no evidence that it didn't happen. Most of the `evidence' is evidence from silence."

"The real issue for me is the eternal truths that are in the text," she added. "How do we apply this hallowed text to the 21st century?" One way, she said, is to make it more relevant to women. Grossman is one of many women who worked on Etz Hayim, in an effort to temper the Bible's heavily patriarchal orientation and make the text more palatable to modern readers. For example, the passage in Genesis that describes how the aged Sarah laughed upon hearing God say that she would bear a son is traditionally interpreted as a laugh of incredulity. In its commentary, however, Etz Hayim suggests that her laughter "may not be a response to the far-fetched notion of pregnancy at an advanced age, but the laughter of delight at the prospect of two elderly people resuming marital intimacy."

`A childish version'

"When I grew up in Brooklyn, congregants were not sophisticated about anything," said Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and a co-editor of the new book. "Today, they are very sophisticated and well read about psychology, literature and history, but they are locked in a childish version of the Bible."

Etz Hayim, compiled by David Lieber of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, seeks to change that. It offers the standard Hebrew text, a parallel English translation (edited by Chaim Potok, best known as the author of The Chosen), a page-by-page exegesis, periodic commentaries on Jewish practice and, at the end, 41 essays by prominent rabbis and scholars on topics ranging from the Torah scroll and dietary laws to ecology and eschatology.

Origin of Genesis

These essays will no doubt surprise many congregants. For instance, an essay on "Ancient Near Eastern Mythology," by Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, states that on the basis of modern scholarship, it seems unlikely that the story of Genesis originated in Palestine. More likely, Wexler says, it arose in Mesopotamia, the influence of which is most apparent in the story of the Flood, which probably grew out of the periodic overflowing of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The story of Noah, Wexler adds, was probably borrowed from the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh.

Equally striking for many readers will be the essay "Biblical Archaeology," by Lee Levine, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "There is no reference in Egyptian sources to Israel's sojourn in that country," he writes, "and the evidence that does exist is negligible and indirect." The few indirect pieces of evidence, like the use of Egyptian names, he adds, "are far from adequate to corroborate the historicity of the biblical account."

Similarly ambiguous, Levine writes, is the evidence of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, the ancient name for the area including Israel. Excavations showing that Jericho was unwalled and uninhabited, he says, "clearly seem to contradict the violent and complete conquest portrayed in the Book of Joshua." What's more, he says, there is an "almost total absence of archaeological evidence" backing up the Bible's grand descriptions of the Jerusalem of David and Solomon.

`Litany of disillusion'

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