Jewish tradition has faithfully preserved a full record, both oral and written, of the events of the Exodus. A rational thinker would require no additional proof; the traditional sources are ample for him, however, such proofs do exist.
The Ten Plagues in Egypt are documented in an Egyptian papyrus discovered near the Pyramids. Commonly called the "Ipuwer Papyrus" after its author, an Egyptian priest, it is a single surviving poem, called "The Admonitions of Ipuwer" or "The Dialogues of Ipuwer and the Lord of All". It is housed in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, which purchased it from Giovanni Anastasi, the Swedish consul to Egypt, in 1828.
The Papyrus includes seventeen columns of verse, and appears to be a copy of the original document. Parts of it are missing, and the language proved difficult to decipher. It was only about one hundred years ago that scholars managed to translate the document satisfactorily.
The events it describes are dramatic and devastating.
Let us imagine a conversation between a skeptic, who is not yet convinced of the authenticity of the Exodus, and a confirmed believer, who imbibed the story of the Ten Plagues, the Exodus from Egypt, and the Splitting of the Red Sea, together with his mother's milk. The believer has no doubts as to the authenticity of the events recorded in the Torah, and lives his life accordingly.
The skeptic turns to the believer with a question and a challenge:
Skeptic: You must admit, my friend, that it is very odd that there is no record of the amazing, supernatural events of the Ten Plagues, the exodus, or the Splitting of the Red sea in Egypt's historical literature. Is this not so?
Believer: I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I cannot agree. There is a detailed description of these events, recorded by an eye-witness, an Egyptian priest named Ipuwer. From my point of view, however, no proofs are required. Ipuwer's report neither adds to the Torah's description of the events, nor detracts from it.
There is no denying, however, that the text makes interesting reading.
Skeptic: You must be pleased that now you can find support for the Biblical account in an Egyptian historical document.
Believer: Again, I must disappoint you. The tradition of my fathers and forefathers is sufficient testimony to the veracity of the Torah for me to accept it as the absolute truth. It would be foolish to cast any doubts on a living, dynamic tradition which has preserved in great detail the names, dates, and locations of these events only because our enemy and adversary failed to record some of the events it reports.
Skeptic: But how do you explain the fact that the Egyptians kept no record of events in which they were so inextricably involved?
Believer: First of all, let me draw your attention to the Ipuwer papyrus, which clearly refers to the period of the Exodus. Secondly – and this is the main point – if it were the fact that we, today, had not discovered any Egyptian records of these events, that would not constitute any sort of proof that they did not take place. The failure of modern man to find collaboration in Egyptian records of events which were highly embarrassing to them could be explained in many, many ways.
Your question leads me to challenge you, in turn: If you would be willing to accept an Egyptian record of the plagues as valid historical proof that they took place, why do you contest the Biblical record as a satisfactory proof?
Any record found in Egyptian sources – such as the Ipuwer papyrus – will most likely be fragmented. There would be only one copy of it, and it would be torn and discolored by time.
Not so the Torah. Its text has been scrupulously preserved for over three thousand years with a precision which no nation has duplicated. One can find accurate replications of the entire text, completely legible, printed clearly by modern printing presses, with no fragmentation, in every corner of the globe; furthermore, the Torah is not written in a dead tongue with symbols that require the diligent work of teams of experts in order to be deciphered and understood; the Torah has always been written in a language which is easily and readily understood by hundreds of thousands of people, scattered all over the globe.
In short, why should you assume that the Torah is any less valid than ancient texts discovered buried in some remote cave or tomb, on a papyrus which is partially disintegrated and written in a script which has not been used for hundreds or even thousands of years?
Such a stance does not make sense.
In my opinion, you have an entirely different reason to question the validity of the Torah. Specifically, you hesitate to accept the Biblical account of the Exodus out of fear, and with good reason. The moment you recognize the Torah as a valid document, the implications for you and your life style would be far-reaching; they would make demands on you which you prefer to avoid.
Skeptic: What do you mean?
Believer: Just this: If the Exodus is a historical fact, and you accept the fact that ten supernatural plagues afflicted the Egyptians, just as the Torah describes them, you must admit as well that there is a Supreme Power who rules over the world, and directs its affairs. In other words, there is Divine Providence. Such a conclusion would affect your life in ways you feel you prefer to avoid.
Skeptic: What, for instance?
Believer: For example, if you presume the existence of a Supreme Power who intervenes in human affairs however it desires, you are faced with a dilemma: You must obey this Power, or suffer the consequences. Thus you are no longer a free agent to do whatever you like, whenever and wherever you fancy.
A Supreme Power demands a life of morality and decency that is not always so convenient or pleasurable. There are Do's and Don'ts; if you fail to comply with the rules, you run the risk of unpleasant consequences, such as the Egyptians encountered in the form of the Ten Plagues. In the short term, from your point of view, life is easier without introducing the concept of a Supreme, Divine Power who is an arbiter and judge.
Skeptic: I don't agree! Even if the Exodus did take place the way the Bible describes it, that doesn't prove anything. There's a natural explanation for what took place at that period of time. You don't need miracles in order to explain the Ten Plagues.
There are reports of earthquakes at the time all over the world, not only in Egypt. There are also records of a massive celestial body, similar to a comet or a meteor that drew near to the earth and wrecked havoc on life processes on the globe. Only after it reached equilibrium and took up a fixed orbit around the sun as the planet Venus, did things settle down to normal again.
If so, what does that have to do with ethics and morals? We have a full explanation, within the framework of the laws of nature, for everything that took place. There's no need to attribute anything to Heavenly intervention or Divine Providence, as you call it.
Believer: Excuse me, but a religion based on truth has no need of miracles to prove that it is valid. There are such religions which are based solely on claims of miraculous phenomena, but Judaism is not one of them.
Judaism teaches that the world of nature, in all its complexity, profound wisdom, harmony, and intricate, interdependent structures, is the greatest miracle of all. Hundreds of years ago, the eminent Jewish scholar and physician, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, wrote:
"And it is already known that we are averse to any change in the laws of nature (which were) established at the time of the Creation."
Anyone whose faith is based on miracles is not to be believed. Just take a look at the order of Jewish prayer. We praise our Maker for the wonders of the world of Nature and its orderliness and conformity to laws, not for one-time miracles.
Skeptic: If so, why are you so persistent in claiming that the events of the Exodus were miraculous and supernatural? Why do you repeat again and again that G-d brought you out of Egypt "with an outstretched arm"? You are saying that He struck down the Egyptian tyrant and destroyed his land through a series of unnatural plagues, and thus paved the way for the Jewish People's release from bondage.
What's wrong with explaining it all as the result of a volcanic eruption? Or what of the theory that some heavenly body underwent a change of its orbit that caused a series of natural disasters here on earth?
A bunch of oppressed slaves took advantage of the upheaval and ruckus caused by natural disasters and fled from Egypt. I admit that this flight to freedom had a unifying effect on them, and they coalesced into a national unit which went on to make vast contributions to mankind. But who needs miracles to explain it all?
Believer: Let's stop and define our terms. In your eyes, the "natural phenomena" such as sunrise and sunset each day, are mechanical, natural events which take place without any intervention on the part of a Supreme Being, or Creator. In contrast, when we say something is "a miracle", we mean to say that G-d intervened in the "natural order of things" and changed the "Laws of Nature" by exerting a force which is beyond the realm of "Nature."
I'm afraid I cannot agree with your definitions. From the point of view of the believer, nature itself is a miracle, an indication of the active power and wisdom of G-d. If so, there is no essential distinction between nature and miracles. Both are acts of G-d.
Skeptic: Then why do you claim that what happened in Egypt was "miraculous" and "supernatural"? You are the one who claims that the Exodus involved happenings were outside the framework of what we call "nature."
Believer: Is this a volcano or a planet that wobbled off its orbit an explanation that you feel you can accept?
Let's say that, instead of the Ten Plagues afflicting Egypt, a huge ram's horn appeared in the sky and let forth an earsplitting blast that turned Egypt upside down. It was like a hurricane and an earthquake and a tsunami all in one. You would have a problem finding a "natural explanation" for such a phenomenon.
We know that G-d chose to make the plagues take place in such a manner that there remains a way to explain them away not as miracles, but as "natural disasters." Do you really understand them better that way? Was it not "unnatural" for this series of earthquakes to take place just there and then? And for the future planet of Venus to come so close to the earth's surface that it destroyed a whole country just then, and not a hundred years earlier or later?
Let's assume for a minute that the theory about Venus is correct. For thousands of years, Venus had no special effect on what happened here on earth. Then, suddenly, it veers from its orbit and wreaks havoc, as though it had just been sent on a bombing mission by its commanding officer. Then, once the Hebrew slaves are safely outside the borders of Egypt, it demurely returns to its orbit, and remains there until this day, undisturbed and disturbing, for three thousand years.
And just the year that Venus flies out of orbit, and a series of earthquakes rocks the globe, the Hebrew slaves manage to escape?
Skeptic: Then how would you define "miracle" and "nature"?
Believer: Everything is a miracle! Some phenomena are hidden miracles, while other events are overt miracles. What happened in Egypt was an overt miracle. It makes no different to me what explanation you give for the actual events that took place.
Skeptic: But if there is an explanation for a phenomenon, how can it be termed an overt miracle?
Believer: Because of its significance, and the effect that it has on man. Sometimes a person feels in his heart that a certain event took place specifically for him, despite the fact that, on the surface of things, it was an everyday occurrence. For instance, a person misses a bus that he takes every day because of a series of minor mishaps; a few hours later, he hears that there was a terrible, fatal accident from which he was saved because he missed his bus that morning. Surely this person will feel that "it was a personal miracle" that I couldn't find my keys and my briefcase this morning, and I had to take a later bus.
There, in Egypt, the events were even more dramatic. G-d sent the plagues on Egypt in order to heighten the people's awareness of His utter control of Nature. First, the Egyptians were beset by a series of sudden "natural disasters." Each time, the Hebrews knew in advance what would take place. The prophecy had told them that this would come about, and that in the end, they would be redeemed from their bondage.
Armed with this foreknowledge of what was about to happen, the Jewish People were equipped to view the events as part of an overall, deliberate Masterplan, not just as a chain of random events that happened to coincide with each other. For them, each "natural disaster" was another deliberately laid paving stone added to the path that was eventually to lead them out of Egypt.
For the Jews, the Plague of Blood was not only a natural disaster; in fact, it was of no interest to them whether it came about because of unseasonable weather conditions, or a sudden earthquake in a bordering nation. What did matter to them was that this was the first step forward of their Journey to Freedom, just as they had been promised.
For them, any outwardly "natural" causes were considered to be only a mask, a kind of glove that served to camouflage the Hand of G-d while He paved the way for their exodus from Egypt. Each time Egypt was struck, the Jewish people and their possessions were not affected. There was no doubt in their hearts that this was far from a natural disaster; no power of nature could have distinguished between a cow owned by a Jew and that of his Egyptian neighbor. No swarm of locusts selectively attacks produce of one nationality and meticulously avoids that of another.
The frogs that invaded Egyptian homes and plagued Pharaoh's court, but seemed not to realize that the Jews were there, were another proof; so were the lice that gave the scratching Egyptians no rest, but had no affect on the Hebrews. There were also the locusts that devoured only Egyptian produce, and left that of the former slaves untouched.
All these demonstrated that there was nothing "natural" about these afflictions. These were not blanket disasters; each was a message specifically addressed to the Egyptians. The Jewish People observed, rejoiced, and thanked G-d for His kindness. The lessons they learned about G-d's might, His justice, and His concern for the Jewish People, were passed on to the generations to come, down to our own times today.
Skeptic: But this papyrus you mentioned doesn't say anything about the Jews being spared the plagues. You say it talks about destruction and disaster, death and devastation. Why doesn't it report that the Jews were not affected by the plagues? True, it relates that the poor classes fled the country, but why is there no mention of their being spared all the suffering and loss?
Believer: How could the author of this papyrus been aware of what was happening among the Jews? It is quite possible that he had no contact with the Hebrews. This prophecy was given by G-d to Moses and the Jewish People. With a broken heart, Ipuwer reports the destruction of his land. How could he have known that the fate of the Jews was better?
Skeptic: If so, how do you know that the Jews were spared all the afflictions that the Plagues brought upon the Egyptians?
Believer: As I mentioned at the very beginning of our conversation, from the Oral tradition which has been handed down from one generation to the next; as you have seen many times in the past, the historical facts recorded in the Torah are detailed and very precise.
Skeptic: Excuse me, but all that you have said is not accepted by historians and men of science.
Believer: Such people are merely seeking an excuse not to accept the facts; as we discussed already, the corollary of accepting the Biblical account of the Exodus as valid would be to acknowledge the existence of Divine Providence, hashgachah pratis. Such an acknowledgement brings with it a moral responsibility which many people prefer to avoid. As a result, the secular world is prejudiced against my views even before they have heard them out. With their vested interest in finding a way to disprove them, they are not capable of examining them objectively.
Believer: I am sorry to tell you that this is the situation. The basic premise of historical research precludes the existence of Divine Providence. According to historians, Heaven does not intervene in human affairs, and there is no such phenomenon as a miracle. Natural and historical events can be examined only insofar as one attempts to determine what natural causes brought them about. Nothing more. The scientist asks "What happened? How much? When? How?" But he never attempts to ask "Why?"
The assumption that the Torah is not valid remains just that: an assumption, which has yet to be proven. It arises from the psychological need to escape ethical reliance upon a Divine Creator. Therefore, this opinion can accurately be labeled a prejudice which molds the opinions of all those who subscribe to it and influences their professional judgment as historians.
Did you never sense that this system of thought which was spoonfed to you in your youth is perverted? For the sake of this warped concept, historians have been willing to assign new significance to historical events, so that they will support their theory. In some cases, they have even re-written history itself in order to "prove" their point.
It is reminiscent of the attempts in recent decades to deny the Holocaust, or, in some cases, to minimize the scope of its horrors. Even so prestigious a university as France's Sorbonne hopped on the bandwagon and published research supporting the claims of deniers.
Let me ask you something: Will all the research under the sun, with extensive footnotes, quotations, sources cited, photographs, documentation, and whatever, change our outlook on the Holocaust one scintilla? Will we be less aware, will we mourn our losses any less, will we be comforted, by the reams and reams of proofs these deniers pour out each year? Will they ever manage to prove to us, even a hundred years from now, that Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, the gas chambers and the crematoria, the heaps of ownerless shoes, children's clothing, eyeglasses, even human hair – all these were merely the product of our imagination?
Certainly not, because our knowledge of all these is, unfortunately, not from reading about them, but from living them, experiencing them first-hand, or hearing of them from those who lived through them.
Skeptic: Let's assume that the facts themselves are correct; it appears to be so. But as to the extreme significance you attach to them – I just can't swallow it. I'm not prepared to accept concepts that are so far removed from the world that is familiar to me.
Believer: You are imprisoned by the concepts popular during the 19th century, when the academic world was entranced by the "scientific method" and threw all else to the winds. Science and reason were all man needed, they preached. By applying his intellect skillfully enough, man might solve any and every challenge life presented to him. What man's senses could not perceive, measure, and manipulate, did not exist. This included any concept of a deity or Supreme Power. Religion had been good for the weak and feeble-minded in the past, but now, man's intellect had been liberated and no longer needed such crutches. In short, science usurped the place of religious authority. "Man's intellect, once liberated, will conquer all." Or so they preached in those days.
Today, we have become somewhat more modest in our opinion of man's capabilities. We have seen one theorem after another proven erroneous, or lacking, and cast aside. Even the most brilliant of today's scientists will no longer claim that, with enough effort, man can understand all of nature's secrets, probe into and explain all natural phenomena.
Our generation has sobered somewhat from our predecessors' intoxicated euphoria with science. New discoveries demonstrated that former "laws" were mistaken or incomplete. Today, we realize that, despite the tremendous progress man has made, we are still only beginning to scratch the surface of what there is to learn about our universe. Modern scientists no longer boast that soon there will no longer be any realm of the unknown for future students to explore. We know that we will never reach the bottom.
What is life? How did matter first come into existence? Today we acknowledge that science will never supply all the answers. Professors no longer preach "absolute truths." They present new theories knowing in advance that they will sooner or later be replaced by improved explanations and laws of science.
Today's scientist proposes that the sun will rise tomorrow in the east, not because this is a "law of nature", but because a long history of observations has established that this is how the sun usually behaves. Consequently, it is rational to assume that it will continue to do so tomorrow, as well.
Let me mention one more point, in conclusion. The coming holiday, Passover, is called Pesach in Hebrew, for it is then that we offer the Pesach sacrifice. In the Scriptures, we find that Pesach is given additional names: Chag Ha'aviv, the Festival of the Spring, and Chag Hamatzos, the Festival of Matzah (unleavened bread).
At first glance, it would seem more appropriate to refer to this holiday by its secondary names, the Festival of Matzah, or the Festival of Spring.
Why call it the Festival of Pesach, which recalls the pesach offering? It has been nearly two thousand years since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, so that we no longer bring our Pesach offering there.
Why, then, do we persist in calling this holiday "Pesach" rather than, say, the Festival of Spring?
I'll tell you why: Because of the connotation of the word Pesach: "passing over, or skipping over." On the eve of the fifteenth of Nissan, the first night of Pesach, the Almighty "passed over" the homes of the Jews, when He slayed the firstborn of the gentiles and their livestock.
Ever since then, the Jewish People have marked this evening with a joyous outpouring of gratitude to their Creator "passed over" their homes and redeemed them from bondage.
We express our gratitude not only for the Exodus from Egypt, but also for all that followed. Who does not know that the Jew suffered not only under Pharaoh, but under countless other tyrants who followed his lead.
There have always been explanations why this monarch was such a bitter anti-Semite, and why so-and-so was so cruel to the Jews who settled in his territory; people put forth theories as to why the name Israel did not fade into the annals of history together with the ancient Greeks, Romans, and others.
None of the explanations scholars put forth answers the question fully.
The eventual exile of the Jewish People from their homeland is predicted dozens of times in the Torah. That very exile from our homeland is one of the stages of the Script which the Author of History prepared for our people long before we even entered the Land of Israel and took possession of it. So, too, were we predestined to be scattered among the nations, yet retain our national identity, a phenomenon unique throughout the history of the nations.
Ultimately, we will arrive at the end of the script, at the joyous ingathering and redemption, the Return to Zion. As the Torah promises us: "If your dispersal shall be at the end of the heavens, (even) from there, G-d, your L-rd will gather you back…" (Deuteronomy 30:4).
This is the historical message of Pesach. Whatever transpired throughout the long history of the Jewish People, there was always someone who tried to explain how it came about by analyzing cause and effect.
But the Jew knew better; the sum total of his history of exile and redemption was above and beyond the rules that govern other nations. Everything points to the search for meaning, for significance. Even those historians who deny the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt are at a loss to explain why this ancient nation is still here, alive, vital, and very much involved in the shaping of the events of today's world.
They formulate their theories, they propose axioms, exceptions, and analyses, but in the final estimation, they all know that there is an element in Jewish history above and beyond what man's limited intellect can perceive.
As one historian declared when he found himself at a loss for a rational explanation: The Jewish People remain alive by virtue of "G-d's ancient decree that they not perish."
Skeptic: I thought we were discussing an Egyptian papyrus; why do you bring up the exiles and the Diaspora of later years?
Believer: I purposely wanted to present to you the historical parallel of the miracle of the Exodus. In Egypt, a fierce battle was waged in the realm of nature; later, in the Diaspora, the miracle was in the realm of history. In Egypt, despite all the "natural explanations" man contrived to come up with, one supernatural phenomenon remained inexplicable: the distinction between the Egyptian and the Children of Israel during the plagues. Each plague was announced in advance; so, too, in the exile, the Jewish People and the fact that they remained a united national block, even when homeless, is a phenomenon for which there is no "natural" explanation.
Plagues as Described in the Torah
Plague as Described by 'The Admonitions of Ipuwer' Leiden 344
…all the waters of the river were turned to blood. (Exodus 7:20-21)
...there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt - and the river stank. (ibid.)
Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere. (2:5)
The river is blood. (2:10)
And all the Egyptians dug around the river for water to drink; for they could not drink of the water of the river. (ibid. 24)
And the people are repulsed from tasting; people are thirsty for water. These are our waters, our happiness!! What shall we do? All is ruin! (3:10-13)
...the hand of the L-rd is upon your cattle which is in the field... and there shall be a very grievous sickness. (ibid. 9:3)
All the beasts –their hearts weep, cattle moan... (5-5)
..and the fire ran along the ground... there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous. (ibid. 23-24)
Indeed, it was so - gates, columns and walls are consumed by the fire. (2:10)
and the locust swarm rose up... and it consumed all the herb of the land and all the fruits of the trees that the hail had left over... (ibid. 10:14-15)
Indeed, it was so; all that could be seen just yesterday was destroyed. The soil remains wasted like after the cutting of the flax. (5:12)
And there was no greenery left on the trees or in the herbs of the fields in all the land of Egypt. (10:15)
there are no fruits and no herbs to be found. (6:1)
And it came to pass, that at midnight the L-rd smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive that was in the prison. And Pharaoh arose that night and all his servants and all Egypt and there was a great wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house in which someone did not die. (12:29-30)
There is moaning throughout the land; all the land is in mourning. (3:14)