Last week James Carroll wrote a sensitive piece in the New Yorker (“The Radical Meaning of Pope Francis’s Visit to Juarez”) about the testy exchange between Pope Francis and Donald Trump regarding immigration. Midway through the brief article and on his way to making the point that the pope held the ethical high ground in the debate, Carroll takes an intriguing turn when he writes:
The [p]ope’s standing shoulder to shoulder with a beleaguered people recapitulates the very foundation of the Biblical faith, which began, after all, in a migrant crisis like ours.
He then plumbs the story of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt for parallels to the plight of modern immigrants miserably queued in places like Juárez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Carroll is an accomplished novelist and invoking the Exodus was a nice polemical touch, but it’s also scandalously false as history, and on multiple levels the parallels he proposes are flawed.
That’s quite an indictment against a well-meaning opinion piece calling for tolerance toward the downtrodden, and I regret how harsh it sounds, but the false associations Carroll makes have proven over history to be decidedly dangerous. Even so, I wouldn’t bring it up if it were merely dangerous—there’s plenty being said online every millisecond that’s dangerous, and it’s hard to argue that Carroll’s article itself is. I only bring it up because it’s fascinating that sharp-eyed editors at the New Yorker, still the gold standard in fact-checking and taut reasoning, and Carroll himself would read over his six-paragraph draft completely unaware that it’s fundamentally untrue. While it may seem nit-picky to deconstruct the entire affair, it points to a cognitive blind spot we in the West have toward the Bible.
To begin with, the foundation of biblical faith did not start with a “migrant crisis”—the Exodus—for the very simple reason that by all the mental standards we commonly employ, the Exodus simply didn’t happen. When you read this, it’s important to have a sense of what people who study these things and who aren’t married to biblical validation really think. In other words this is not just a case where it’s hard to find corroboration for the biblical story; it’s a case where the physical evidence and the texts outside the Bible argue convincingly that anything resembling the biblical Exodus could not possibly have happened.
This is where the cognitive difficulties in Western culture tend to begin: Could the Exodus have “kind of” happened? Maybe the migration was smaller than what was described in the Bible. Maybe it happened more gradually. Maybe there was an in-migration into ancient Canaan by people who thought they were Egyptians but weren’t. No, no, and no. Surely you can find someone on the Internet somewhere who thinks one of these can be argued, and that might soften the cognitive blow. And you can always abandon your critical faculties entirely and find a fundamentalist who views all evidence as a conspiracy. But if you treat this like all the other things you deal with day-to-day, you have to conclude that the Exodus was not an historical event. Even so, it’s difficult for most of us, even very secular types, to remove the story entirely from our worldview.
It doesn’t help that you see references to the-Exodus-as-history meme all over, and not just among the religious. I complained mildly when my childhood idol, the erudite popular historian Barbara Tuchman, made an uncritical reference to the Exodus in her classic Encountering Bible and Sword, and I noticed Michael Korda doing it as I was rereading his fine biography Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. In both cases the Exodus reference was fleeting and sly, a harmless-seeming bit of literary flair, but also in both cases the Exodus story was being called into a work of serious history, and apparently neither historian found it worth the mental effort to question whether it belonged there.
You can argue, of course, that Tuchman, Korda, and now Carroll were each merely using a myth they knew wasn’t true but was still instructive in some allegorical way. I would still quibble with them if they were doing that since it seems disingenuous and tantamount to saying, “I’m serious unless you think I’m joking, in which case of course I am joking.” Unfortunately, Carroll’s article doesn’t qualify even for that lower standard, because his Exodus-as-literature interpretation is also dead wrong. He proposes an astonishing statement:
The Bible tells a story of power, violence, and conquest, but—and this sets the Bible apart—it tells that story from the point of view of the victims of power, not the possessors of power.
There is much to debate about this, but even if it’s true of some interpretations of some portions of the Bible, it’s weird to apply this sentiment to the story of the Exodus, especially when considering that the Exodus is the preamble to the rest of the saga involving the conquest of Canaan which, by the way, also didn’t actually happen or even “kind of” happen. Taken together as literature, the two stories are straightforward foundation myths whose message is plain: the once-powerful Egyptian empire thought nothing of oppressing “our” mythical forefathers and God punished them for that. Now it’s proper to oppress the non-Hebrews in “our” midst, and in fact God demands that of us. The foundation of our biblical faith did not begin in a migrant crisis, as Carroll writes, but in an imagined story about a migrant crisis that was sharpened (most probably in Jerusalem in the era before the Babylonian conquest) into a cutting ideological worldview whose thrust is transparent even today. And though it claims to be a story of an oppressed people, it’s not being told from the standpoint of an actually oppressed people. It’s basically a story about “us” and how our instinct to be jerks toward people who aren’t like “us” is justified by events in the distant past.
Events, by the way, that actually happened unless they didn’t, in which case they’re allegorical.
Carroll brings his reasoning home by asserting that God stands with the dispossessed and that the powerful—meaning people like Donald Trump—inevitably expropriate the language of religion from the downtrodden to whom it is properly directed. Carroll makes this final point using gauzy language that is the literary equivalent of the carefully posed and artfully blurred photographs Hollywood used to produce for aging stars. But the unpleasant truth is that when it comes to the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, the final language of our biblical texts was not authored by or about the downtrodden but by the powerful segments of Judahite society who sought to consolidate and legitimize their power. Among knowledgeable textual critics of the Bible this is far from a controversial statement, and it is well known to all mainstream religious historians including an impressive line of modern Roman Catholic scholars.
When it comes to the topic of immigration itself, every moral bone in my body tells me that Pope Francis’s (and Carroll’s) deep sympathy for immigrants is correct and that Trump’s breezy antipathy is wrong. But Trump’s polemical stance is much more closely aligned with the ideology behind the stories of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan—with their crisp moral distinction between “us” and “them”—than the pope’s. There are other biblical stories Carroll should have selected, say the gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, which would have made his point much better, but then again there are other Bible stories Trump could choose to validate his own point of view, like Ezra’s command from God that the Israelites abandon their foreign wives and maintain their purity by living separate from the “peoples of the land.”
That almost any ideological assertion can be validated by scripture-shopping like this, or conversely that scripture is malleable in the hands of ideologues, is hardly a modern innovation. This is a process that has characterized scripture from the earliest days when it was written down and considered sacred, and scripture has always had an overwhelmingly ideological purpose that drew its power from the idea that it documented events that actually happened. Faith, when it merely means belief in the absence of evidence, is morally ambiguous, meaning it could just as easily be morally proper as morally improper. But whether one is the pope or the Donald or James Carroll, to act out of faith in spite of evidence is frankly unethical. Those who quote scripture need to be clear to themselves and to others whether their appeal is to history or to literature in making their points, and in either case come prepared to argue why the lesson applies as either history or myth.