Monday, 21 August 2017

The Exodus in Our Time, Pt. II

If there is one thing I've learned during my years in the academy, it's the importance of the questions that we ask. The old saw--"Have you stopped beating your wife?"--makes this point clearly. The question, as formulated, permits as answers only "Yes," "No," or "Maybe." If the person queried says "Yes," then she or he has confessed to spousal abuse. If the person queried says "No," then she or he has confessed to spousal abuse. If the person queried says "Maybe," then she or he has confessed to spousal abuse. The form of the question excludes the answer "I have never beat my wife," and thus the person queried can only defend his or her self from charges of spousal abuse by refusing to answer the question as formulated. Likewise, when we turn to the stories about Moses and the exodus and ask "Are these stories true?", the form of the question permits only "Yes," "No," or "Maybe." Faced with such a question, we find ourselves in a historiographical hell of our own creation, as it leads to such fruitless questions as "How much must we judge as 'True' before we can judge the whole as true?" and "How much can be false before we judge the whole thing as false?" The fundamentalist and the counter-fundamentalist agree in saying "All must true or none is true," which has the necessary corollary "If anything is false all is false." But this of course is nonsense. If I utter ten propositions nine of which are true, these are not suddenly falsified because the tenth is false. The answer that converts "Maybe" into "In part" is an advance, as it allows us to say "This story is in part true," yet it still suffers from the same antecedent cognitional limitation that the afflicts the question. Put otherwise, we are dealing with a question mal posée.

We can see readily why this is the case when we recognize Lonergan's distinction between intelligence and reason. Intelligence seeks to understand. Towards that end, it asks questions that cannot be answered by "Yes," "No," or "Maybe." With regard to Moses and the exodus, it might ask questions such as Why do Moses and the exodus loom so large in the Israelite tradition?, and Why do we find such ready resonances between the Joseph and Moses cycles on the one hand and on the other material from the ancient Near East of the second millennium BCE? We might break these down into further questions. Why is Moses presented in this way? Why is he given this name, this origin? Why is he assigned the role of liberator? of seminal law-giver? What is the relationship, if any, between the accounts and realities of the exodus and that of the Hyksos? between that of Moses and Akhenaten? Etc? Once one advances a hypothesis on the matter, which is to say a comprehensive answer to these questions, then, and only then, can one ask whether it is true. This is the work of reason, which being concerned with rendering judgment does ask the "Yes" or "No" question, not regarding the truth of our sources but rather the truth of our hypotheses. Put otherwise, the origin of the question mal posée--"Are these stories true?"--is the failure to distinguish data, which intelligence works to understand, from hypothesis, which reason works to judge.

The failure to distinguish data from hypothesis is grounded in the antecedent myth that knowing is like looking, that objectivity is seeing what is there to be seen and not seeing what is not to be seen. And this myth seems to be the ultimate basis for most skepticism regarding the existence of Moses or the occurrence of the exodus (as well, I'd argue, for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth). Someone working from this myth might reason as follows: we have virtually nothing contemporary to the event, nothing that we can look at and say "Aha! This comes from the exodus! Now we know that it happened," and thus we must conclude that it did not. This of course is the etiology of a certain contemporary bias towards archaeological data, a frequent hobgoblin in this discussion (without artifacts of Moses and the exodus, we are told, we cannot say that Moses or the exodus happened): if knowing is like looking then surely that which I can behold with my own eyes is better known than that which I cannot, and indeed, if pressed strongly enough, absent such material to behold we must either reserve judgment or judge in the negative. But knowing is not like looking. It is inferential, and proceeds by asking the sort of questions enumerated above, most basically those about the relationship between the Moses and exodus accounts on the one hand and the broader Israelite tradition and ancient Near Eastern material on the other.

I am firmly persuaded that the evidence is such that we are significantly more justified in concluding that there was a Moses, that quite simply this conclusion provides better grounds for answering the above questions than does the negative judgment that they do not. The nature of the evidence is such that we are probably limited in what we can say about him. While it probably over-states the evidence to suggest that he was of Egyptian rather than southern Canaanite (and perhaps specifically Hebrew or Israelite) extraction, his name and the narrative regarding his upbringing would tend to point towards some degree of "Egyptianization." He seems to have at some point been instrumental in leading a sizable group of (predominantly but perhaps not exclusively) southern Canaanite slaves from bondage in the eastern Nile delta region, and these actions secured for him a place of privilege in the Israelite and later Jewish and Christian traditions. It is precisely that place of privilege that most compels me to judge it probable that he existed and played a foundational role in Israelite history. When we see such waves rippling in the water we look for the stone that caused them, and I have yet to see a better stone proposed for these particular ripples than Moses himself.

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