November 19, 2018

Author Follows the Trail of Evidence in Seeking the Truth Behind the Exodus Story

One of my life-changing experiences was reading Richard Elliott Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?” for the first time. It was Friedman’s work that inspired me to write my own books about the Bible, and it’s a book that I continue to recommend as the starting place for any reader who wants to find out about the flesh-and-blood human beings who held the quills with which the single most important book in Western civilization was first written down.

Since then, I have followed — and written admiringly about — Friedman’s other works of scholarship, including other favorites of mine, “The Disappearance of God” and “The Hidden Book in the Bible.” What sets Friedman apart is the fact that he is both a highly respected and influential Bible scholar — the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and the Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus at UC San Diego — and a gifted writer who addresses the most challenging ideas with perfect clarity and makes the ancient texts come fully alive.

Friedman’s latest book is “The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters” (HarperOne), an eye-opening study of perhaps the single most consequential event in the biblical narrative and one of the touchstones of both Jewish and Zionist aspiration. As Friedman himself describes the cutting edge of his book, “[Is] the exodus from Egypt a story — or history?”

Friedman acknowledges that the question itself is regarded as blasphemous by some Jews. He notes the heated response that Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple received when he raised the same question from the pulpit in 2001. And Friedman describes his book as “a work of detective nonfiction,” an effort to extract the historical truth from 40 years of academic enterprise, not only his own but also “studies of literature and history, archaeology, art, architecture, genetics, linguistics, cultural anthropology and, not to leave out the obvious, religion.”

Characteristically, Friedman rejects the platitudes that are sometimes offered in place of hard facts. “Some will say: It does not matter if it is historical or not. What matters is what it has meant, the exodus’ meaning to religion over the centuries,” he writes. “But nowadays I find myself saying: Whom are we kidding? We want to know if it happened, or if what people have been believing for millennia is an illusion, an invention.”

Ironically, the place to look for fresh evidence of the Exodus is a text where it has been hidden in plain sight. “Our mistake until now … is that we have looked almost solely at archaeology,” he explains. “We left out our biggest source, the Bible itself.”

As Friedman himself describes the cutting edge of his book, “[Is] the exodus from Egypt a story — or history?”

The conclusion that Friedman reaches in “The Exodus” is both sensational and profound. The Bible suggests that some 2 million Israelites fled Egypt during the Exodus, and yet archaeology has found no artifacts or records to confirm the account. “But none of this is evidence whether the exodus happened or not. It is evidence only of whether it was big or not,” Friedman writes. “Would it be a wild and crazy idea if we consider the possibility that the exodus happened but it was not big?”

Even more intriguing is Friedman’s contention that the participants in the Exodus may have consisted of only one of the 12 tribes of Israel, that is, the tribe of Levi. To support his argument, Friedman carefully and clearly explains what has been overlooked by scholars who look only for pottery shards and scraps of papyrus.  He points out that the Levites who are described in the Book of Exodus — including Moses himself — have Egyptian names. All of the biblical texts that describe the treatment of slaves, both during and after the sojourn in Egypt, come from Levite sources, and so do all references to Egyptian lore in the story of the Exodus. Perhaps, Friedman suggests, only the Levites were slaves in Egypt, only the Levites participated in the Exodus itself, and when they arrived in the Promised Land, the tribe of Judah and the other tribes of Israel “were already there.”

Friedman goes on to address some of the innovations in the theology of ancient Israel. “If the exodus was historical, that is not the end of the story,” he insists. “It is the start.”

He also wants to know, for example, the origin of the notion that “God is One.” Here, too, he suspects that the Levites may have acquired the idea of monotheism from the Midianites or the Egyptians and carried it into the Promised Land: “A small group joins a much larger group just around the time they become a nation,” he proposes. “They make a revolutionary consensus about having one major god, not two.” Only later did the authors and editors of the Bible turn the experiences of the Levites into the national history of Israel.

“These writers produced stories of the enslavement of all of Israel and their
liberation from Egypt,” Friedman writes. “They wrote that all of Israel, millions of people, made the journey to the promised land. They wrote that the name of
their God, Yahweh, was known to all of the Israelites by the time they arrived in that land.”

I am obliged to disclose that I was invited to provide a blurb for the book in advance of publication, but Friedman surely deserves a review in full. After all, each of his books allows us to penetrate the inner meanings of the Bible in fresh and revelatory ways, and “The Exodus” is the most unsettling of all. We come away from his latest book with answers to more than one question — not only “who wrote the Bible,” and not only “how the Exodus happened and why it matters,” but even the question of what we mean when we talk about being Jews.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of the Jewish Journal, is the author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.”