The recent celebration of Passover reminded me, as it does every year, that the central myth of Judaism is built upon a purposeful and stubborn misreading of history. The origin of Jewish reverence for liberty lies elsewhere than in the holy fiction of the book of Exodus.
For millennia we have been taught that the Jews of antiquity were slaves in Egypt. The story goes that they were liberated by Moses, humanity’s first great freedom-fighter.
The redeemer Moses, in league with the Almighty and assisted by a host of supernatural
interventions, led the Israelites across the Sinai into the Promised Land, but never made it himself.
This narrative pulses at the heart of Jewish faith, ritual and culture. In reality, however, it cannot withstand reasoned challenge.
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The absence of archeological evidence does not alone annul the ancient story. The job of demolishing the myth also belongs to an alternative legend related to Jewish emancipation.
The great advantage of the heretical alternative is that it answers to both history and intellectual integrity. It tells us that the Israelites are most likely descendants of a tribe called the Habiru.
Who were the Habiru? In biblical times they were slaves who became fugitives. They established
their own community in ancient Palestine and based their culture on a primal motivation: the desire to live as free people.
Most of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Jewish history can be traced back to that moral and political origination. Considerable evidence supports the idea that the fabrications of Exodus
were inspired by the actual experiences of the Habiru. The evidence is available in Robert Wolfe’s book, From Habiru to Hebrews.
In contrast to the fables in the Torah, Wolfe’s research reveals where the Jews actually came from and by what means they developed their views on how to live a civilized life.
Through all the centuries of the Jewish journey, theological authorities have ignored the role of the Habiru.
Of course they have! Recognizing the Habiru’s pivotal contribution to the shaping of Jewish
destiny would discredit the tale of Moses receiving divine tablets — it would undermine the whole enterprise of theism.
So it was essential for the supporters of the idea of a Supreme Being to shove the Habiru off the stage of memory.
Try to imagine the course of history if “religion” had been built on the down-to-earth initiatives of the very first Jews, the Habiru, rather than on deference to an unseen authority in the sky. The Habirus’ rebellion against slavery foretold the glories of social and political progress that would be achieved only many centuries later.
It is tantalizing to think of the world they might have set in motion if their insistence on equality had taken root in ancient times, and if their hunger for individual liberty and mutual respect among peoples had precluded the appetite for God.
Rituals of disciplined behaviour based on such precepts could have formed a proper religion
for the human race, and many of the self-inflicted wounds that have scarred our civilization
would likely have been avoided.
Michael Carin is a Montreal writer. His most recent book is the novel Churchill At Munich.