One of the more interesting books I picked up at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting is a new one by Richard Elliott Friedman, a professor of Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at the University of Georgia. Friedman does the best job of anyone I know in explaining the documentary hypothesis, and his book Who Wrote the Bible? has been required reading for my Old Testament students for more than 10 years.

In Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters, Friedman picks up an idea he first suggested in Who Wrote the Bible? and expands it to considerable effect. That idea is that the Exodus really happened, but that it was limited to a small number of Levites who had lived in Egypt as resident aliens, but migrated to Canaan when they fell under Egyptian oppression. Once in Canaan, they met and integrated themselves into a society of people who already identified themselves as tribal entities of Israel and Judah, finding a niche as priests and teachers who were given control of cities in each tribal area.

In time, traditions of Israel’s history were adapted to identify the Levites as descendants of Levi, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, putative ancestors of the tribes. As priests and teachers, the Levites passed on their traditions of Passover and exodus, so that all Israel came to identify with them as former slaves in Egypt. Stories were adjusted to symbolically include all the tribes in the migration, accounting for the massive and unrealistic image of two million people (600,000 men plus women, children, and cattle, Exod. 12:37-38) traveling across the Sinai.

As in his defense and application of the Documentary Hypothesis in Who Wrote the Bible? Friedman – who admits to being a great fan of detective novels – approaches his work like a detective, though without the drama. He writes for popular readers as well as scholars, using straightforward English and occasional humor while limiting more technical citations to more than 30 pages of endnotes.

Friedman, speaking about his book at the Society for Biblical Literature meeting in Boston.

Though well-versed in archaeology and a veteran of multiple seasons in the field, Friedman’s primary focus has been on the Hebrew Bible. He decries a recent trend to ignore the text in favor of archaeology alone when sussing out clues to Israel’s history and formation.

Pertinent to his argument, Friedman identifies (with good reason) the Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist sources of the Pentateuch (E, P, and D) as having been written by Levitical priests, with the Yahwist (J) source and some earlier writings (mainly poetry) being the only source not written by Levites. Freidman also dates the various sources earlier than many current scholars, arguing that J, E, P, and most of D were substantially complete before the end of the eighth century BCE (70).

Friedman makes his case that the exodus consisted of Levites by elaborating 10 lines of evidence: (1) Among the Israelites, only Levites (eight of them) have Egyptian names; (2) the revelation of the name Yahweh is recorded only in sources written by Levites; (3) the extensive description of the tabernacle has close similarities to the Egyptian battle tent of Ramses II and is found in sources written by Levite priests; (4) the Ark of the Covenant, which was entrusted to the Levites, has parallels to ceremonial Egyptian barks that were carried in processions; (5) all examples of Egyptian lore in the biblical story are found in Levite sources; (6) all references to circumcision in legal contexts occur in Levitical sources; (7) all three sources that connect plagues to the exodus were written by Levites; (8) all texts dealing with slavery both in Egypt and afterward are from Levite sources; (9) every reference to aliens occurs in Levitical sources; and (10) all 52 references to the sanctuary as miqdash identify it as the temple or tabernacle, to which only Levites had access.

If the exodus was confined to a relatively small group of Levites, Friedman suggests, arguments about the date of the event, the lack of any mention of it in Egyptian sources, and the lack of archaeological evidence in the Sinai for a massive departure become moot.

Friedman’s belief that self-conscious Israelites were already in the land when the Levites arrived is based on a recitation of archaeological evidence including inscriptions, material culture, and references in documents from surrounding cultures, as well as evidence deduced from the development of the Hebrew language.

The Levites, who may have had roots in Midian, brought the monotheistic worship of Yahweh to the people of Israel, Friedman says, identifying the Israelite god El and Yahweh as one and the same. Many contemporary scholars believe true monotheism did not arise prior to the seventh and eighth century prophets, or even the exile, but Friedman contends it developed far earlier.

In this regard, Friedman argues from texts such as Psalm 82 that the Israelites came to believe that other gods once existed, but had all died. Nevertheless, for many years Yahweh was thought to have a consort, an asherah – a term Friedman believes should be understood generically rather than as a proper name. He sees an intermediate state between polytheism and henotheism as the Israelites worshiped both Yahweh and his wife, the Queen of Heaven, finding it difficult to finally give her up (see Jer. 44:16-18).

Along with monotheism, the Levites also brought an ethical sensibility with them, Friedman contends, with particular regard to loving one’s neighbor and treating immigrants well. Every reference to being kind to aliens (52 of them) derives from Levite sources, he notes, with all three of those sources offering the rationale “because you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:20, Lev. 19:33-34, Deut. 10:19, among others). The Levitical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18b) applies to all people, Friedman insists, not just fellow Israelites, as some contend. Israel’s task in the world came to be understood as involving both the worship of one God and the equal treatment of all people.

Friedman is no historical literalist. He freely acknowledges that many biblical stories, such as the “conquest,” were either exaggerated or wholly fictional and designed for tendentious purposes. His understanding of the exodus is sharply nuanced, but he firmly believes an exodus event happened, with consequences felt to this day.

Friedman’s case isn’t airtight, and readers may disagree with his conclusions on many points, but perhaps all can appreciate his call for all people to learn from the Levites’ stories and “take on the role of Abraham’s seed,” determined to “act in a way that will bring blessing to all the earth’s families” (215).

History matters, Friedman concludes, as does “[u]nderstanding how ideas got started and why people hang on to them … The exodus of a group of people from Egypt happened. It made a difference. It still makes a difference” (216).

 

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