Gregory Alan Thornbury has written a piece at Christianity Today entitled Why It Matters That the Exodus Really Happened. The abstract sums up the content of the article pretty well:
“No less than Western law, the civil rights movement, and Christianity itself rest on the historicity of the biblical event.”
It’s nothing we haven’t heard before.
But it’s a disappointing premise.
Because truth doesn’t care how you feel. Actual historical events don’t have to consult you about whether or not they “had to” have happened. They either A) happened, B) didn’t happen, or C) happened in a way somehow different than we imagine.
To quote my favourite biblical studies student:
“I keep learning again and again that truth does not care about what I want. It doesn’t care what makes me comfortable, or what I’ve always believed, or what I like. Truth is subversive.”
The answer to ‘Is this true?’ will often not coincide with the answer to ‘Do I like this?’ or ‘Is this coherent with what I believe?’–but it is a much more important question.
–3 Characteristics of Truth-Seeking, on Disputatious Interpretation
But people don’t want true things, I’m realizing.
Because we set up Premise A that makes us comfortable (or that we’ve always been told is true) and any re-thinking, re-hashing, or re-grouping is out of the question. We say things like,
“Evolution can’t be true, because then we would have to completely abandon our beliefs on sin nature and salvation.”
“Common ancestry can’t be a thing, because then what does it even mean to be created in God’s image?”
“Of course the Canaanite conquest happened. If we can’t trust one biblical account, we can’t trust any of them!”
The Exodus HAD to have happened, because (in Thornbury’s own words): “Did Jesus predicate his own sacrificial death on the cross upon an event that never occurred? If that is the case, the entire covenantal nature of the biblical narrative falls apart. Jesus of Nazareth cannot be ‘the new Moses’ if Moses never existed.”
My frustration is not about the topic. It’s not about Exodus, the conquest, the Exile, Jesus’ miracles, natural selection, common ancestor. It’s not about any of those things.
It’s about what we actually want. Do we actually want true things? Are we willing to start clawing in the dirt, from nothing, to try and find them? Or are we starting our quest for truth with unshakable assumptions from which no evidence can dissuade us? We can’t call ourselves lovers of truth, if that’s what we do. We can call ourselves many things, but not truth-seekers.
If you’re an archaeologist or a historian, it’s your job to care about what physical evidence has to say about the world. When we find diaries of deceased heroes and villains, we care what they have to tell us about a world we can never see with our own two eyes. We do our best to authenticate such findings, to see how much stock we should (or shouldn’t) put in them. We work hard to match up our beliefs of the present with the historical unfolding of the past. And if new information changes things, our opinions and assumptions have to change as well.
Truth exists. And truth doesn’t care what you want to be truth.
Again on Disputatious Interpretation, Holloway discusses the fall of Jericho, a story which, “for decades” has been found to be “not a record of an actual historical event” as evidenced by available archaeological data. Holloway tackles opposition to this concession to facts and data from an author, V. Philips Long, who claims that the conquest and fall of Jericho may have to be historical in a way matching the biblical narrative in order for Christians to place stock in the Bible’s trustworthiness. Holloway responds:
“The fall of Jericho had to happen because it makes us less sure of the Bible’s overall historicity if it didn’t? This is not a reason to say it happened! ‘If this story isn’t true, then it makes me question whether or not these other stories are true; therefore, it needs to be true.’ This is a non-sequitur if I’ve ever heard one. If the fall of Jericho didn’t happen, then it didn’t happen; if that causes us to doubt the historicity of the resurrection, then we will just have to deal with that. Dismissing the problem by affirming the historicity of all of the events in Scripture is not an actual solution” (Is My Faith in Trouble If the Fall of Jericho Didn’t Happen? (A Response to V. Philips Long), emphasis mine).
So, the Exodus.
Our best guesses, from a purely academic (archaeological, sociological, linguistic, etc) perspective are that of course something must have happened to kick-start the Hebrew nation. That some leader emerged and laws were created. The nation certainly formed, after all, and it must have formed somehow. And it must have formed in such a startling, meaningful way to influence every literate generation of Hebrews to speak about the Exodus in the way that they did.
But as of right now, the archaeological evidence before us suggests that the Exodus did not happen the way the Bible said it happened. We may of course find new data in the future, but we’ve found a lot already. And much of what’s been found contradicts strictly literal, historical interpretations of the book of Exodus (as is the case for much of Scripture).
So the massive Exodus of 6 million Jews slaving in Egypt, crossing the red sea, and wandering the desert for 40 years, either happened or it didn’t. And if it didn’t, there are of course a hundred possible other (different or similar) events, or combination of events, that could have happened instead.
The past doesn’t care your opinion whether it happened. It either happened or it didn’t.
And guess what? That means we have to have the humility, the willingness, to re-evaluate our assumptions. To re-learn how to read Scripture. To better educate ourselves on these sacred texts we claim to value so highly, but that we invest so little in, and toss around like so much ammunition.
If our best and most brilliant scientists tell us that our world is almost certainly millions of years old, what DOES that mean for the way we approach Scripture?
If our hardworking archaeologists and linguists assure us that the biblical timeline doesn’t always match the physical record of what happened in the Ancient Near East, how can that inform our beliefs?
If it turns out that literature, culture, and people groups in the Ancient Near East are different than we assumed, do we continue to try and squeeze them into our own image?
What happens to our faith, our assurance, if some things we thought were simple and easy turn out to be complicated and messy?
That’s up to you, isn’t it?