Q&A with R. Prof. Joshua Berman

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Rabbi Professor Joshua Berman wrote the March essay for Mosaic Magazine about the historicity of the Exodus., Was There an Exodus?, and his follow-up Was Israel Taken out of Egypt, or Egypt out of Israel?. In his essays, Prof. Berman asserts that the Torah was familiar with royal Egyptian propaganda and in broad fashion appropriates motifs and terms from those inscriptions in its description of the defeat over Pharaoh. Prof. Berman was kind enough to put together this question and answer for us based on the responses he received from yeshiva students and rabbis. -ed.

If we accept that the Torah so closely draws from an idolatrous composition doesn’t that compromise our notion of the Torah’s lofty spirituality?

This, indeed, can be a threatening approach.  When we believe that the Torah is a realm, a world unto itself and unlike anything else ever written in any way, we provide ourselves with a reverent view of the Torah.  This is a Torah worth following.  To be shown evidence that parts of the Torah resemble all-too-human compositions from ancient times can be a shattering experience.

But it need not be.  Dibrah Torah ke-lashon bnei Adam—“the Torah communicates through the media of human conventions” means much more than describing God’s acts in human terms (e.g. “mighty hand and outstretched arm”).  That lashon bnei Adam, what I call here “human conventions” can refer to the discourse used in ancient times.  Elsewhere on this website I have laid out the positions of several rabbinic luminaries who thought in these terms.  And sometimes, precisely by understanding the Torah’s ancient context, we can see just how breathtaking its message is.  This is especially true of how ahead of its times the Torah was in terms of its political teachings, as I’ve laid out here.


Do you have to have a PhD in Egyptology in order to understand the Torah?  Can that be?

In the Guide to the Perplexed (3:49), the Rambam expresses sorrow that he didn’t know more about ancient practices, because that would have helped him better understand the Torah.  There certainly are many things that we can understand today because of our enhanced understanding of the ancient Near East.  To paraphrase a rabbinic saying about our Torah learning, we may also say that we are dwarfs who stand on the shoulders of scholarly giants, and we should be thankful for that opportunity.  If, indeed, there are 70 aspects to the Torah, this is one of them.  And for this one aspect of the Torah, outside knowledge provides unique insight.  But for the believing Jew, faithful to his tradition, no one aspect of Torah is more important or prior to any other.  I believe that a familiarity with the writings of Ramesses II can shed light of the portions of the Torah that describe the Exodus. But this in no way denigrates or diminishes our esteem for the wealth of classical understandings of these passages.  And, at the end of the day, even without these comparative insights with ancient writing, the believing Jew would come to the proper conclusion: God delivered Israel from Egypt, defeating the Pharaoh in the process.


You’re an orthodox scholar.  Don’t you have an agenda?  And if so, doesn’t that taint your scholarship?

Feminist scholars write from a feminist perspective.  Some disabled scholars write from the perspective of disability studies.  Other scholars produce work so that it will find favor in the eyes of their thesis advisor.  Others still write books and articles that defend their prior claims out of fear that otherwise their life’s work will be discredited.  There is no end to the motivations that drive scholars to produce the work they produce, and not all of them are conscious.  But ultimately, from a scholarly perspective, motivation and agendas are entirely irrelevant when determining the quality of academic work.  Articles are refereed blind, and with very good reason.  It simply does not matter who is making the argument or what his or her motivation is.  An academic argument has to rise or fall solely upon the rational and critical merits of the claims based upon the evidence.  And if a scholar ignores or hides evidence, may he or she get the rebuke they deserve from their academic peers.

When a scholar judges whether a text seems coherent or whether it seems full of fissures and fractures, the data only goes so far. At the end of the day, a scholar’s disposition on such questions rests largely on ideology and intellectual orientation.

I believe that personal orientation can enrich scholarship, but also hamper it.  I have read feminist readings of Tanakh that I have found to be brilliant, and others that I have found to be ideological over-reading.

Let’s focus on the case at hand, where I have identified strong correlation between an Egyptian text and a biblical one. Biblical tradition relates that Israel dwelled in Egypt for centuries.  This led me to examine a certain corpus of Egyptian literature. And now some scholars—even those who do not share my upbringing and orientation–are stating publicly that my findings are of significance.  I ask: if so, has my orientation here been a hindrance to good scholarship or a boon for it?


You argue that the Exodus happened in the 13th c. BCE.  But Sefer Melachim I (6:1) says that Shlomo started work on the Temple 480 years after the Exodus. If, as commonly accepted, Shlomo reigned from 960 BCE, the Exodus would have been in the 15th c. BCE.  Is the Navi mistaken?

Here, as in other cases I cited in my essay, we see how the Tanakh employs numbers in ways that for us are unintuitive. There is no way to construct a chronology of the period in the centuries prior to Davidic kingship on the basis of scriptural passages.  Indeed, it seems uncanny that so many Judges ruled for “40 years” or “80 years.” Throughout Tanakh, “40 years” functions as shorthand for a generation. Thus, when Divrei Hayamim I (5:30-36)  mentions Azariah , the high priest who served under Solomon twelve generations after Avishua ben Pinchas, this suggests that the Temple was built in the twelfth generation following the Exodus—or, as Sefer Melachim may be expressing it, multiplying 12 by 40, in the 480th year. (Interestingly, the Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture, known as the Septuagint, counts differently, stating that the construction commenced in the 440th year, or eleven generations after the exodus. Perhaps the translators counted until Azariah’s father, Yochanan, because he was alive when the Temple construction began).  It is not that the book of Kings is “wrong” in stating that 480 years had passed since the exodus. It is that we are wrong to read the text out of its literary context, blind to the ways in which numbers convey meaning rather than exact measures of, in this case, historical chronology.


The census figure of 603,550 squares perfectly with the tally by tribe. How could that be anything other than a literal number?

This is a sensitive issue, as much rides on it.  The Kuzari bases our trust in the revelation at Sinai upon the testimony of “600,000” people.  That number is commonly thought of as the basis for our definition of a reshut ha-rabim.

As I noted in the essay, there are a long list of passages that are really problematic if that figure is literal, which is what prompts the re-examination in the first place.  Interestingly, we have only one other place in the Torah where there is a census, which includes a total figure, and then a detail of how that figure is tallied: the list of the “70” descendants of Yaakov in Bereshit 46.  Although all 70 are listed by name, all commentators, rabbinic and modern, assume that that figure is symbolic, and that the actual number was significantly larger.

I can hazard a rough guess as to the significance of the census figures in Sefer Bamidbar.  Nearly all the tribes are approximately the same size in chapter 26 as they are in chapter 1, with the exception of stunning growth in Menashe and stunning loss in Shimon. The Torah seems unconcerned with accounting for these idiosyncrasies with recourse to events that caused these shifts.  I believe that it is not a coincidence that we have in Sefer Bamidbar positive stories about the tribe of Menashe and negative stories about the tribe of Shimon.  Due to those events, Menashe receive a “raise” in numbers, and Shimon a “penalty”.  The numbers are reflective of status. What is fascinating here is that the relative sizes of the tribes in the final census of chapter 26, neatly mirror their relative importance in the blessings of Yaakov to the brothers in Bereshit 49.  There, the two most celebrated tribes are Yehudah and Yosef.  The least “blessed” tribes are Reuven, Shimon and Levi, who come in for censure from Yaakov.  The other tribes receive brief blessings.  In Bamidbar 26, Yehudah and Yosef (i.e. Menashe + Ephraim) have much larger populations than any other shevet, both in excess of 75,000. At the bottom of the list, are Shimon (22,000) and Levi (20,000), with all the others bunched between 45,000-64,000.  The clincher is this: Reuven is twice the size of the smallest tribe (Levi).  The Torah emphasizes that Reuven’s size, the Korach rebellion notwithstanding, would have been 43,900.  That is, Reuven, as a censured first-born, receives the smallest double portion possible of blessing, at twice the size of Levi. You can see through this prism that the key is not to know how many fighting men Israel had. Numbers are manipulated in the census as a way of encoding status to the tribes in accordance with Yaakov’s blessings.

Understanding the census numbers this way should pose no difficulty for normative belief or practice.  The Kuzari refers to the mass-witness of the revelation at Sinai by Israel.  Naturally, like all before him, he assumes this to be a population of 600,000 men.  Yet, the real gist of his argument is that a huge assembly bore witness to this event.  His argument is no weaker if we assume that present was “only” a stadium-full of people.

Although the common perception is that the definition of a reshus ha-rabim was defined by the size of the population of Israel present in the desert – no authority at all holds this to be the case.  The gemara doesn’t even mention this figure and most rishonim define a reshus ha-rabim without reference to any number of people at all.  Tosfot and other Ashkenazic poskim did.  But their use of the numbers is itself instructive. Tosfot is the first to recognize (Eruvin 6a d”h keitsad) that there were not 600,000 people in the desert.  There were 600,000 men of fighting age. In their own way, Tosfot admit that we use the figure 600,000 to define a reshus ha-rabim, because that figure symbolically represents the people as a whole.  To be sure, Tosfot believed that there were indeed 600,000 men in the desert.  But their adoption of the figure towards symbolic ends suggests a way that pre-moderns related to numbers in literature, in a way greatly removed from our obsession with metrics, data and statistics.


If the Torah uses such a wide range of literary devices that are not literal, how can we know what is fact and what is symbol in the Torah’s presentation of history?

Whenever you want to tell of an historical event—the Holocaust, the victory of the Maccabees, or anything else—you want to be able to tell a factually true story.  But you also want to make sure that the proper lessons are learned from that event as well.  And oftentimes, you want to be able to accomplish both these goals in a succinct way, that doesn’t require multiple volumes in order to do justice to both aims. It turns out that when you are constricted by the need to tell of an event succinctly, you are forced to mediate between the truth of the facts and the truth of the message.

Let me give an example: Consider the dialogue between the spies and Rachav in Yehoshua 2.  She reports that the inhabitants of Jericho are fearful, and says, נפלה אימתכם עלינו, וגם נמגו כל הארץ מפניכם (2:9).  It is clear that she is invoking the words from Shirat Hayam, נמגו כל ישבי כנען, .  תפל עליהם אימתה ופחד  (Shemot 15:15-16).  But now consider this:  Rachav is a Canaanite.  Does she know Hebrew?  And is it really likely that she knew Shirat HaYam?  It is more likely that she and the spies conversed in some other early semitic language. And it is likely that she expressed the fear of the inhabitants of Jericho in simple language.  The author of Sefer Yehoshua expressed her words invoking the language of Shirat Hayam.  The spies may have audibly heard her declaration in simple words. But for them the words resonated with what they knew from the Shirah. Or, perhaps, readers of Yehsohua 2 are meant to understand that her declaration represents a fulfillment of what had been said at the Sea.  And so here the author of Sefer Yehoshua had a choice: he knew that you can have the truth of the facts (more authentic words, expressed in simple language), but then you would lose the truth of the message: that the fear of the inhabitants of Jericho represents a fulfillment of what was said at the Sea about the nations trembling.  The author of Sefer Yehoshua—and I would suggest that all of biblical narrative follows suit—knew that nothing matters more than the truth of the message, and thus the facts are sculpted with that in mind.

When we ask, “well, what was the historical reality, before the narrative sculpting of an event,” we do ourselves a disservice.  We search for the truth of the facts, but that truth, by definition will fail to deliver the truth of the message.


From a Chinukh perspective, is it wise to bring out into the open parallels between biblical texts and other ancient texts, when this could be spiritually threatening for some?

This is indeed sensitive material.  And we have a long standing tradition within our mesorah that difficult issues in halachah and hashkafa are best handled discreetly, often on an individual basis, each according to his need and understanding.  But at some point you come to what I would term a “tipping point.”  This is the point at which the sensitive issue has begun to “leak out” as it were, raising an issue for a growing minority of individuals within the community.  The cost of not addressing the issue publicly begins to outweigh the cost of confronting the issue in the open.  In this situation, the smart money says that bold leaders will emerge winners by taking the lead on the issue, and “owning it” as it were, controlling the communal agenda and helping offer guidance.  For a stunning example of this, we have much to learn from recent bold moves by the leaders of the Mormon Church concerning revelations about their movement’s founder.

For some time the academic claims against the historicity of the Exodus have been available online.  More recently however, these claims have been adopted by some Jews who live normative halakhic lifestyles.  Moreover we witness the growing phenomenon whereby such Jews, some with strong academic credentials actively seek to promulgate this view as compatible with traditional views of the subject.  This has fostered no small degree of doubt for many orthodox Jews, young and not so young.  We are well past the tipping point on this issue and hence the need to go public within the community with this material.

Educators often fear that were they to raise any connection between the Torah and the ancient Near East, that they would cause more harm than good.  My experience and that of many other educators suggests otherwise. I always smile when a student in a gap year program says to me, “Oh, I’m not bothered by biblical criticism; my rebbe talked to us about that in high school.” I’m certain that that “rebbe” did not raise the entire gamut of challenging issues that are out there. But young men and women that express that sentiment to me remind us all of something very important: when a young mind is first introduced to anything relating to the Torah and the ancient Near East by a beloved and trusted rebbe, it sends the message that we need not be afraid. 90% of the battle is already won on this front, and the chances that the student will experience a crisis of faith later on are greatly diminished.  We get into trouble precisely when our young men and women (actually, it’s my experience that overwhelmingly this is an issue for guys only) realize that they went through their entire day school career with the wool pulled over their eyes.  With courage and resources, we can make a huge difference by introducing, in small doses, some of these issues earlier on in their spiritual development.

About Joshua Berman

Joshua Berman is a professor of Tanakh at Bar-Ilan University. He learned at Yeshivat Har-Etzion and has semikhah from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Among his books are The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now (repr. Wipf & Stock, 2010) and Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford, 2008), a National Jewish Book Award Finalist in Scholarship.


  1. Thanks Rabbi Berman, and thanks Rabbi Student for including this great elaboration on the Mosaic piece and dialogue.

    A few notes/reactions:

    You might be interested to know that the NSF and most scientific journals (as well as economics journal) do not in fact use double-blind reviewing. You would think they would for the very reason you state (what the great sociologist of science Robert Merton called the norm of ‘universalism’). I think that the main rationale they use (which is foreign to me; I’m a social scientist and it’s almost all double-blind with us) is that the identity of the author is actually helpful in determining the credibility of the work. Anyway, this in no way negates your larger point, which is eloquently put.
    I think most people who are fans of the Kuzari idea will be less sanguine about the implications of your (interesting and compelling) analysis of the censuses in the midbar for the idea’s persuasive force. Basically, the question will be how we know (as you posit) it was a mass revelation when we now presume the hearers of the account to have regarded the numbers as figurative.
    In your Mosaic piece, you were silent on whether you agree with Sommer’s response to your piece. I grant you that he conceded a great deal to your analysis, and so no reason to be too argumentative. But surely you disagree with him on some points. An obvious one is his conjecture (with no supporting evidence; I wonder how he accounts for the events recounted in next week’s parsha…) for the idea that Moshe and Aharon never met. And there is obviously no room in his approach for the possibility that there were supernatural events during the Exodus, and that seems impossible to square with traditional thinking. I’m guessing you think that readers will not interpret your shtika k’hodaah, but maybe that’s taking too much of a risk on your part?

  2. How would changing the number of people who left Egypt from about 2 million to much less than that change your idea of Mesorah? It seems clear to me (please correct me if i am wrong) that all the Tanaim and Amoraim took that number to be literal. Say it was a few thousand people as you suggested, at what point did that number change to everyone thinking it was about 2 million?

    • I’m not sure that this is really an issue of “mesorah.” In whose name is this mesorah? is there any statement that there is a “mesorah” about this that dates back to Sinai? You are surely right, that chaza”l seem to have taken this literally, but I don’t see why that forecloses other explanations, especially ones that solve lots of difficulties, as I enumerate in my Mosaic piece.
      As I wrote there, it is my sense that the Torah–when read as a whole–did not mean to convey that 2 million people trekked across the desert. I wonder if Greek influence might have been the turning point at which figures began to be taken more literally, but that’s only a hunch. I don’t believe that there is an emunas chachamim issue at stake here.

  3. Thank you Rabbi Berman for the fascinating pieces both here and in Mosaic, and in taking on the tough issues publicly. For the 600000 number, how do you understand the pesukim in the beginning of Pekudei about the silver in the construction of the mishkan? It seems to work so well if the numbers are taken literally… thanks!

    • That’s a good question to which I only have a partial answer. The “70 nefesh” work very well in Bereshit 46, when you add up all the names and get to 70. So we see that the fact that the sum (the number 70) and the parts (the seventy names) add up, doesn’t negate the fact that there are symbolic aspects to the use of numbers in that chapter.

      • Symbolic and historical aren’t disjoint sets. Hashem could write a symbol into history as much as He could do so in the text. As we see with the “70 nefesh”.

        But it also means that finding symbolism in the 600k number doesn’t speak at all to the subject of whether that symbolism is historical or narrative.

        • How did two-three million people bring all the korabnot mandated by Sefer Vayikra (and see the six other equally difficult problems I raise in my Mosaic essay)?

          • Good question.

            A similarly good question: Why would symbolic numbers add up with a carry from the mei’os to the alafim.

            Since I’m not the one claiming to have answers, i don’t need to put up a competing theory. I am just the nudnik who thinks yours doesn’t work.

            • There is a mistaken assumption in your comment: and that is that we today have full access to the literary conventions of the time in which the Torah was given. Ralbag already noted that this was not the case (see link in my interview). Once we see that the 70 nefesh count also “doesn’t work”, the conclusion should be that there is a literary use of numbers that fluctuates between the literal and the figurative in ways that are not intuitive to us. I would only note that only modern readers (like you and me) seem to have a problem with this.

          • Rabbi Berman, you bring up good questions. What about the beginning of the story where it says the Israelites multiplied a lot (the Hebrew is obviously more powerful). Are a few thousand slaves such danger to Egypt when hypothetically they had other thousands of slaves from other nations?

            • It’s hard to say. Eretz Goshen, which is in the Nile Delta, is a region where the water table has risen, and there are virtually no written remains to give us a picture that could allow us to satisfactorily answer that question. What is very clear, though, is that at this time, Egypt was in stiff competition with the Hittite Empire in Turkey, over the allegainces of about a dozen smaller states that lie between the two. That’s why Pharaoh’s concern in 1:10 is that Israel will “join our enemies…and go up.”

  4. The phrased “diberah Torah belashon benei adam” is overused. Rabbi Yishma’el said those words to justify his position that derashah (as in his 13 rules) are based on the meanings of the phrases as a normal person would read them. In contrast to Rabbi Aqiva’s position, that derashos were based on the presence or absence of key words (akh, raq, es) or redundancies that are part of normal speech (aseir ta’aseir).

    The Rambam stretched this idea to include human idiom. He invokes it to have us look at “‘Yad’ Hashem” idiomatically (Hashem’s Power / Control) rather than looking at specific words (“Hashem’s Hand”).

    Taking “diberah Torah belashon benei adam” beyond the realm of idiomatic usage and normal human grammar into asserting that the Torah speaks in metaphor or exaggeration requires proof. As far as I know, this is not the historical meaning of the concept.

  5. Rabbi Berman should definitely contribute more to this site. Thank you for having him.

    In regards to the 600k men in the Exodus, David Foust has written his dissertation on this subject. He claims the hyperbolic numbers were well used in other ancient near east nations when describing an army. The point was to bolster the king. In Judaism the king is God, so the original readers of the text new exactly what the numbers meant. It is WE (meaning, post biblical era) that have muddled the meaning.

  6. I hope you don’t mind me playing a little devil’s advocate.

    If the Song of the Sea has similarities to the Battle of Kadesh, this would seem to raise some issues. The Song of the Sea only makes sense if it is written after the Temple was built. Afterall, why would a newly freed people think of a sanctuary on the mountain? Was that really the first thing they were concerned to even before any sort of revelation or covenant? If this is the case, it means the Israelites were well aware of Egyptian writings and used it, or as you say “appropriation” for their needs. This means there need not be any real Exodus or Song of the Sea, just a knowledge of Egyptian writings.

Leave a Reply