The Exodus, by Richard Elliot Friedman (book review)

Over the last forty years, a consensus emerged amid biblical scholars that the Exodus is a myth with very little historicity and that virtually all of the Bible is a post-exilic composition. Publications that have challenged this position have largely been ignored and perceived as attempts from conservative scholars to push their religious agenda.

Richard Friedman needed balls to write The Exodus. He is one of few respected scholars to dare openly challenge his colleagues. He doesn’t pretend that the Exodus happened as described in the Bible, but he does argue that the Exodus happened and that without such an event, Judaism, as we know, would not even exist. As he makes his case, Friedman entertains us by poking holes at commonly accepted assumptions and conclusions with a sense of humor and irony that exhumes the confidence of a lifelong scholarship. I definitely enjoyed reading The Exodus and found Friedman refreshing.

Relying on scriptural, archaeological, and DNA-based evidence, Friedman’s arguments can be summed up as:

  • Moses was a Levite
  • The Levites were Egyptians – perhaps influenced by Akhenaten’s monotheism
  • The Levites are the only Israelites who experienced the Exodus
  • The Exodus took place under Ramses II
  • The Levites initially settled in Midian where they first worshiped Yahweh
  • The Levites later moved to Canaan where they united with the Israelites
  • The Levites became the 12th tribe and “fused” their god Yahweh with El
  • The Levites were put in charge of teaching and preserving the scriptures

Is Friedman making a compelling case for a historical Exodus? Absolutely! I found myself nodding in agreement with him at the turn of almost every page. But is the evidence conclusive? Not totally… I felt there remained too many dissonant bits and pieces that just don’t ring true. For instance:

  • Why did the Levite Egyptians got accepted so readily by the Israelites, and why would the later let the Levites exercise priesthood over them?
  • If Yahweh came out of Midian and was later merged with El, what compelled the Israelites to adopt Yahweh as their “new” and “exclusive” deity?
  • Friedman writes about the Divine Assembly and how Yahweh picked up Asherah but doesn’t explain how/why Baal worship got rejected.
  • Friedman sees the Exodus as the starting point of monotheism but doesn’t tackle the fundamental and pervasive question of the Covenant.

In The Covenant, I explore a possible relationship between Abraham’s descendants and the Hyksos. A recent report from archaeological digs at Tel Balata also suggests a Hyksos presence at Shechem (a Levite stronghold where Abraham also lived), which could strengthen the “Abraham-Egyptians-Levites-Israelites” connection.

I also argue in my book that Yahweh did not just merge with El on a sunny day (the expression is mine) but that it is a compounded deity combining the attributes of El, Asherah and Baal. I also explain that the adoption of such a compounded deity would have taken place under Egyptian influence.

We may differ in the details and supporting evidence, but we independently arrived at the very same conclusions: 1) there was a historical Exodus; 2) Yahweh is a by-product of Egyptian influence; and 3) Yahweh embodies older Israelite deities. To paraphrase Friedman (sorry, but I got tired of looking for the actual quote): “What are the chances that two independent researchers, using different approaches, come to the same conclusion?”

By rekindling the historicity of the Exodus, Friedman’s hypothesis will likely rejoice theists, but it will remain largely ignored by atheists. I am comforted by the fact that our respective arguments are incredibly compatible and supportive of each other. As such, those interested in furthering this investigation are invited to read my book. On the one hand, they will find additional support for a historical Exodus (as well as for a historical Abraham – Oh my!), but on the other hand, it will also bring them to realize that Yahweh most likely evolved from the deification of a mortal overlord (Oh no!)


Friedman, R. E. (2017). The Exodus. HarperCollins, New York.

 

The Exodus, by Richard Elliot Friedman (book review)
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