On April 13, 2001, the headline in the Los Angeles Times read, “Doubting the Story of the Exodus.” The accompanying article described a sermon that had been delivered by the rabbi of a prominent local congregation over the holiday of Passover. In it the rabbi had said, “The truth is that virtually every modern archaeologist who has investigated the story of the exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” It must have been a dramatic moment in the life of that congregation; however, as Rabbi David Wolpe himself acknowledged, his sermon contained nothing new. The theories he described in that sermon had been common knowledge among biblical scholars for more than thirty years. It is even possible that he had learned about them decades earlier as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Yet it was his sermon in early 2001 that captured worldwide attention. What the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig observed in the 1920s—that “What the sparrows chirp from the rooftops of intellectual Germany, still seems terrible heresy to us” (On Jewish Learn ing [New York: Schocken Books, 1955], 60)—remains true today, an ocean and nearly a century away.
Most of the archaeological discoveries that relate to the Bible took place in the last part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, yet few people outside the profession know their relevance. The names Hammurabi and Gilgamesh may ring a bell, but not many have any idea of their relevance to the Bible other than some vague sense that they prove or disprove what it says. The facts are actually more complicated than that. Moreover, there has been a veritable revolution, and possibly more than one, in biblical studies over the past generation. Scholarly debate is no longer limited to the reliability and authenticity of the Bible, but extends to the very existence and nature of Israel itself: Was there actually a nation of Israel in any meaningful sense during what is somewhat peculiarly called “the biblical period,” and if so, what experiences did it