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Impressions of “The Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters,” by Richard Elliot Friedman

Dr. Richard Friedman is a biblical scholar associated with the University of Georgia and formerly at the University of California – San Diego. I first heard of him when I heard Lex Fridman’s interview of Rabbi David Wolpe, where Wolpe mentioned the revisionist theory that the Exodus from Egypt was a historical event comprised entirely of Levites. The idea fascinated me, and within days I had read Richard Elliot Friedman’s The Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters.

First, history as outlined by Friedman’s theory: Ancient Egypt regularly hosted Semitic populations. While the numbers used in Exodus do not reflect a numerate culture and should not be taken literally, any number of departures of Semitic populations must have happened over the years. The “Hebrew” exodus from Egypt consisted of Levites, a tribe of warrior priests with some affinity for the tribes of Israel. Thus, when the Levites arrived in Canaan from Egypt and the Wilderness, they found Israel already there. The people we call Jews emerged from an intermixing between an “indigenous” Israelite population with the Egypt-derived “Levites.”

Richard Elliot Friedman’s argument is in two parts. He first defends the historicity of the Exodus. Next, he argues for his theory of a Levite-only Exodus. Arguing for a historical Exodus, Friedman points out::

  • Laws emphasizing good treatment of resident aliens are unknown elsewhere in the Ancient Near East but repeated 50 or so times in the Torah, often in conjunction with an explanation that “you” were an alien in Egypt )
  • another invention of the Hebrew Bible is prose history (which Robert Alter called “biblical narrative), appearing before Greek history but seemingly earlier (Greek histories were credited to specific historians, while Hebrew histories are still told by the anonymous narrator). Thus, Friedman argues the poems within the text are the oldest word-for-word elements in the Bible. Thus, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-21) and the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43) describe something that sure sounds like the Exodus, though without a census count.

Then, Friedman pivots to arguing this same evidence points to a Levite exodus, including

  1. Using source criticism, he argues that references to the Exodus occur entirely in “Levite” sources
  2. Those “Egyptian”-sounding names (Moses, Mary, Phineus, etc.) are all names of the tribe of Levi
  3. Those same poems do not mention Israel but a “people.” The one reference to “Israel” in them (“… according to the Sons of Israel”) in Moses’s Song appears as “Angels of God” in the Septuagint and “Sons of God” in the Dead Sea Scrolls). (The extra-biblical Book of Enoch witnesses supernatural nature of these “Sons.”)
  4. The “Song of Deborah” (Judges 5:2-31 mentions ten-or-so tribes, but not Levi (among others).

Friedman briefly references, but I think it would be a strong point, the theological compatibility of the Canaanite religion and early Judaism.

[Baal Said] Indeed, our Creator [God] is eternal
Indeed ageless is He who formed us
The Ba’al Cycle

An area he does not go into is the meaning of “Hebrew.” The Habiru were barbarians who just showed up around 1440 BC in what’s now Israel and attacked everyone simultaneously. There’s a surviving inscription from an Egyptian officer complaining the Haiburu don’t even know how to fight a war properly – they steal the Imperial horses but then slaughter them for good, as they don’t know how to ride. (King David explicitly orders some horses saved from slaughter in Samuel, as Israelite horse-riding came later than their neighbors). But also in Genesis, Eber/Heber is an ancestor of Israel, and there’s no record of his people leaving Egypt. So there’s this interesting linguistic confusion that somehow the Hebers are older than Israel but strongly associated with the low-tech, confused conquest/barbarization of Canaan.

The Evidence

To support his theory, Friedman brings up internal evidence from the Bible, “source criticism” of the supposed underlying texts beneath the Bible, and genetics. Of the three, the first is the most interesting.

Internal Evidence

Internal evidence concerns the names of the heroes of the Exodus, and the text of two ancient poems: the Song of the Sea and the Song of Deborah. The Song of the Sea, sung by Moses and his sister Mary in Exodus, leaves ambiguous the identity of the chosen people. Further, “Israel” is conspicuously included in the prose envelope for the Song, while not in the presumably original poem itself:

Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the LORD, and spoke, saying:

“I will sing to the LORD,
For He has triumphed gloriously!
The horse and its rider
He has thrown into the sea!

The LORD is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation;
He is my God, and I will praise Him;
My father’s God, and I will exalt Him.

The LORD is a man of war;
The LORD is His name.

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea;
His chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea.

The depths have covered them;
They sank to the bottom like a stone.

“Your right hand, O LORD, has become glorious in power;
Your right hand, O LORD, has dashed the enemy in pieces.

And in the greatness of Your excellence
You have overthrown those who rose against You;
You sent forth Your wrath;
It consumed them like stubble.

And with the blast of Your nostrils
The waters were gathered together;
The floods stood upright like a heap;
The depths congealed in the heart of the sea.

The enemy said, ‘I will pursue,
I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil;
My desire shall be satisfied on them.
I will draw my sword,
My hand shall destroy them.’

You blew with Your wind,
The sea covered them;
They sank like lead in the mighty waters.

“Who is like You, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like You, glorious in holiness,
Fearful in praises, doing wonders?

You stretched out Your right hand;
The earth swallowed them.

You in Your mercy have led forth
The people whom You have redeemed;
You have guided them in Your strength
To Your holy habitation.

“The people will hear and be afraid;
Sorrow will take hold of the inhabitants of Philistia.

Then the chiefs of Edom will be dismayed;
The mighty men of Moab,
Trembling will take hold of them;
All the inhabitants of Canaan will melt away.

Fear and dread will fall on them;
By the greatness of Your arm
They will be as still as a stone,
Till Your people pass over, O LORD,
Till the people pass over
Whom You have purchased.

You will bring them in and plant them
In the mountain of Your inheritance,
In the place, O LORD, which You have made
For Your own dwelling,
The sanctuary, O LORD, which Your hands have established.

“The LORD shall reign forever and ever.”

For the horses of Pharaoh went with his chariots and his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them. But the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea.
Exodus 15:119

Meanwhile, the Song of Deborah (traditionally thought to be written early into the settlement of Canaan, so perhaps a century later]) does reference Israel, but not the Levites. (Friedman’s writing makes it seem as if the Song names all the other tribes, though Judah, Simeon, and Manannesh are not mentioned either).

Odd.

The Names

Many (but not all agree that there are several Egyptian names among the Jews in Exodus. Friedman spends less time supporting the evidence of Egyptian names but claims that the Levite leadership (and only the Levite leadership) have Egyptian names. The proposed Egyptian derivation of names makes more sense than the claimed Hebrew derivation in many cases. Friedman finds support that while the Bible provides a Hebrew etymology, he feels the Egyptian meaning makes more sense. Consider this list of names and their Hebrew or Egyptian origins:

  • Moses = Egyptian “Son”, Hebrew = “Drew out”
  • Mary/Miriam = Egyptian “Beloved, Hebrew”Bitter”
  • Phinehas = Egyptian “Nubian”, Hebrew “Brass-mouth”
  • Hur = Egyptian “Horus”, Hebrew “Hole”

As the Biblical authors took pains to mention the Hebrew derivations but not the Egyptian derivations, it implies the “Authors” or “Redactors” did not add these Egyptian names to support the Egyptian origin of Levites.

The argument-from-poetry is fascinating to me. In his notes on Genesis, Robert Alter made a similar claim to Richard Friedman that poetry is easier to remember than prose and that the oldest word-for-word parts of the Bible are probably the poems within it. I had not considered the implication of this, that the prose histories we have in the Bible may be the oldest extant prose histories and were derived from poetic histories.

Source Criticism

This brings up the second leg of the argument and a much weaker one. Friedman spends a substantial amount of time outlining the well-known theory of source criticism. Source criticism is the idea the Five Books of Moses are derived from four ancient documents, called E, J, P, and D. These documents had “authors,” and then were edited (or collaged) together by “redactors.” Friedman also considers the poems in these books to be their own sources. Friedman labels three of the four major sources “*“Levitical” in that he believes they derive from the priestly class of the southern Kingdom of Judah, and marks the Elohist source non-Levitical, and considers it to derive from the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Friedman presents a more subtle defense of the “source” theory than I’ve heard before, arguing the most obvious difference is not the “name of God” (“God” or a variation Elohim in E, “The LORD” or a variation of the tetragrammaton in the others) but when the name The LORD was known: either primordially or first to Moses). Friedman appears to refer back several times to his previous works, The Bible with Sources Revealed and Who Wrote the Bible, so to fully appreciate his chain of reasoning may require having read those books first. But after reading The Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters, I’m unsure if the LORD revealing his name to Moses first, or to someone in Genesis first, should imply a Levitical or non-Levitical origin. I can tell a “just-so” story in defense of either in my head, but neither is convincing.

There’s also the question of whether source criticism is convincing. More specifically, the sort of mechanical interpretation assigns one verse to this source and another verse to another source. For instance, consider this passage from the fourth-fifth chapter of Genesis, which Friedman assigns to two separate sources:

“J” Source:

And Joseph was not able to restrain himself in front of everyone who was standing by him, and he called, “Take everyone out from my presence.” And not a man stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept out loud. And Egypt heard, and Pharoah’s house heard.

“E Source

And Joseph said to his brothers, “I’m Joseph. Is my father still alive? And his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified in front of him.
Genesis 45:3

“J” Source:

And Joseph said to his brothers, “Come over to me.” And they went over. And he said, “I’m Joseph, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt. And now, don’t be sad and let there be no anger in your eyes because you sold me here, because God sent me before you to preserve life. For it’s two years that the famine is in the land, and for five more years they’ll be no plowing and harvest. And God sent me ahead of you to provide a remnant for you in the earth and to keep you alive as a big, surviving community. And now, it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God, and he made me into a father to Pharaoh and a lord to all his house and a ruler in all the land of Egypt.”
Genesis 45:4-8

Robert Alter’s criticism of such a division, because verse 3 is repetitive, makes much more sense to me:

The purblindness to which a mechanical focus on source criticism can lead is nowhere more vividly illustrated than in the contention of some critics that this verse reflects a different source from the preceding verse because it is a “doublet” of it. What should be obvious is that this repeated speech is a brilliant realization of the dramatic moment. When Joseph first reveals himself to his brothers, they are, quite understandably, “dismayed,” And so he must speak again, first asking them to draw close. (The proposal of the Midrash Bereishit Rabba that he invites them to come close in order to show them that he is circumcised is of course fanciful, but the closing of physical space does reflect his sense that he must somehow bridge the enormous distance he has maintained between himself and them in his Egyptian persona)
Robert Alter, Footnote on Genesis 45, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary

One could respond that the “Redactor” who combined these used a collage of sources to bring out literary effects. Indeed, Alter claims essentially that. But then, how can anyone be sure what verses are word-for-word transactions from an earlier prose source, as opposed to a prose translation of an earlier poetic source?

All in all, I don’t find Friedman’s “mechanical” application of Source Criticism plausible, so it is hard to give much weight to the “source” evidence he provides

Genetic Evidence

Friedman also makes much of the generic interrelatedness of the Cohanim. Men with family names such as Cohen, Coen, and so on are closely related, but much more so than Levite tribe-members generally. Friedman concludes that the Levites were a disparate collection of aliens who left Egypt under a core leadership. But wouldn’t the opposite results also support the theory, that the Levites were a coherent trie under an internally diverse leadership? Thus the genetic, like the “source criticism,” evidence, was unconvincing.

Conclusion

Friedman presents a revisionist history of the Exodus in which the event happened but was composed almost entirely of Levites. The most interesting evidence he uses is based on a close reading of several poems. The farther Friedman goes into source criticism, the less convincing his argument becomes. When he gets to genetics, it is not clear how the evidence he uses supports his claims.

I’m left impressed at Friedman’s novel theory, but unconvinced by it.

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3 thoughts on “Impressions of “The Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters,” by Richard Elliot Friedman
  1. Friedman makes use of straw man arguments regarding the meaning of names. He picks a silly and obviously wrong Hebrew meaning to make Egyptian meaning more plausible.

    Moses – not the verb draw out but the noun from that verb, in other words an extract – the root is well attested with application to extraction of purified metal so the connotation is extract of purified metal
    Miriam – means a gift, “bitter” is a pun on the name
    Phineas – snake’s mouth / viper’s mouth (a viper has a distinctive glum expression and some babies may have a similar resting glum expression)
    Hur – means freeborn, opposite of a slave, not a hole (that would be Hor not Hur) and besides he wasn’t a Levite.

  2. @Rikayon, thanks for the excellent comment. I knew he was using evidence that was either weak or unexplained, such as his claim that the genetic evidence supports his position. Then, I was surprised that Friedman would make so much of the Levite absence in the Song of Deborah, and never mention Judah (!!!!!) and Manasseh were missing as well. Your comment adds more doubt to the work.

  3. You didn’t mention some of the strongest evidence Friedman cited, such as the Egyptian origins of the Tabernacle, what with its design being specifically based off of Ramses II’s battle tent/mobile battle compound he used during the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BCE), and the comparable religious use of arks/barks, which no ancient Near Eastern society used religiously besides the Egyptians and the Israelites. The fact that ritual male circumcision might have originated from Egypt is noteworthy too.

    One thing Friedman that didn’t talk about is the fact that the Song of the Sea also directly lifts its verbiage and motifs from the Kadesh Poem, which also of course dates to Ramses II’s reign. The Song of the Sea also mimics the Kadesh Poem’s structure in terms of the order of events it riffs on. No other parallels of this type exist in other ancient Near Eastern poems/sources. See https://aish.com/evidence-for-the-exodus/ for a breakdown of these parallels, and to see visuals regarding the ways in which the Tabernacle is architecturally based on Ramses II’s battle compound.

    Stylistically, the Ark of the Covenant also dates to the Late Bronze Age, and its functional purposes match the purposes that these Egyptian arks had: namely, to carry divine objects and serve as thrones upon which statues deities were placed and paraded around on. This pretty much is identical to the functions the Ark of the Covenant had in Israelite culture: it housed the tablets of the covenant and was viewed as being God’s throne (the Israelites consistently imagined God as being “enthroned between the cherubs,” as the biblical texts often said (2 Kings 19:15; Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 80:1; 1 Samuel 4:4 and 6:2; and more): https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/ark-of-the-covenant-in-egyptian-context/

    Friedman could have taken his arguments even further as all this stuff shows. Unfortunately he didn’t, but he may not have had enough time. Some of these discoveries are more recent compared to when he finished writing the book (2015 according to the beginning portions of the book, even though the book itself was published in 2017).

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