November 22, 2012

My Thanksgiving thought...

I wrote earlier about how archeologist's views of ancient Israel and the Exodus have changed. It looks as if most "proto-Israelites" escaped "bondage in Egypt," but did it by escaping the oppressive Canaanite kingdoms (which were Egyptian vassal states) and founding a new civilization high up in the hills of Palestine, hills which had mostly been un-settled until then.

The Exodus narrative in the Bible is, I think, true, but as truth expressed in a story, not in a history. Probably there was a real exodus from Egypt, but not of 600,000 people. (If that many people, with herds and flocks, set out on the narrow trails of the region, they would I think literally stretch all the way across the Sinai Peninsula.)

So I'm thinking about the Pilgrims, and how we celebrate their story every year. The story is factual, but so are a hundred thousand other stories. Why this one? We keep repeating it because it embodies profound truths about America. About us.

Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock


Many religious and ethnic strains went into the genesis of our country. Probably the most important element in the mix are the English Puritans who Settled in New England. The Pilgrims were just a few hundred people, but they were the first group in that great migration. And they happened to tell their story in a clear and attractive way, in governor William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. Which includes that story f that first "Thanksgiving." The Pilgrim story has come to represent all of them. And it is truthfully so--that story will give you a very good picture of what the Settlers in New England were like.
So they lefte that goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.

Besides the English Puritans, we received perhaps half a million radical Protestants from continental Europe, displaced by the vast calamity that was the Thirty Years War. Anabaptists, Mennonites, including the Amish, Hussites, Palatines. The Pilgrims also were emblematic of them.

So, as a thought experiment, imagine that our early settlers were illiterate. Were an oral culture. And that the story of the Pilgrims was passed down orally for many generations among the Puritan settlers. It would not be surprising if the story grew to be the story of all of them. And it would still be truth!

I suspect that that's what happened with the Exodus story. Some Israelites literally escaped from Egypt, and met God on Sinai, and passed through many trials to the Promised Land. Their more numerous relatives in Palestine were also finding their way with heroic efforts to the Promised Land. But their story was less dramatic, and the more cinematic story came to be the story of all. But it was still truth.

WORD NOTE: When you see "ye" in older English writings, such as "but lift up their eyes to ye heavens" in the above quote, the word is in fact "the," and should be so pronounced. It is not pronounced "yee." Why so? English used to have a letter, called "Thorn," that made initial "th" sound. It looked like: Þ. When printing presses came to England from the continent, they had no letter Thorn, so "Y" was used in its place, and came to be the normal way to write. Posted by John Weidner at November 22, 2012 5:54 PM
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