The Exodus

How It Happened and Why It Matters

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Richard Elliott Friedman
  • New York, NY: 
    , September
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With the publication of his now-famous 1987 book, Who Wrote the Bible, Richard Friedman established himself as an accessible authority on biblical authorship and ancient Near Eastern history. The Exodus (subtitled How It Happened and Why It Matters) may function as a kind of sequel to Friedman’s first book—as much a survey of developments in recent decades’ biblical scholarship as a new account of the Exodus text’s historicity. While Friedman declines to weigh in on the historicity of biblical phenomena like divine plagues and smoldering shrubbery, his book revisits the question of what we might be able to know about the human events depicted in the text, and–in keeping with his subtitle–why it might matter.

Friedman’s conclusion, amidst a fair amount of throat-clearing, is relatively straightforward: contrary to the sweeping rejection of recent generations of biblical scholars, “the exodus” does indeed have a historical basis—but only if “the exodus” refers to a small movement of (what would become known as) Levites from Egypt to Canaan instead of the mass movement of some 600,000 newly liberated men and many more uncounted women, children, and livestock as described in the biblical account. For a dramatic and improbable mass flight from Egypt, there is little historical support. But for the journey of a small group of Levites from Egypt to Canaan—where they joined an existing Israelite settlement, the experience of which, Friedman argues, formed the basis for the much-embellished and expanded account of a mass Israelite journey out of Egypt—there is some evidence. 

Although Friedman frequently refers to archaeological and other material evidence for his contention, his argument is largely textual, borne of the same source criticism for which he first became famous. He finds significance, for instance, in the factthat only the text’s Levite characters (such as Hophni, Hur, Phinehas, Merari, Pashhur, and the rather-more-famous Moses) have Egyptian names as opposed to Hebrew ones, suggesting that these Egyptian-named figures alone originated in Egypt. Friedman also notes that while the very early biblical poem, the Song of the Sea of Exodus 15, praises God for having delivered people from peril, it makes no reference to having saved an entire people as distinct as the Israelites, nor does it mention the numbers of those saved. Friedman suggests this is a poetic account of somepeople who had some perilous experience at the sea: a far more limited experience of exodus, but a flight of sorts nonetheless.

Much of this research is not particularly new, and Friedman’s Exodus serves more as an aggregator of the evidence in favor of the Levite thesis than a presentation of new material. As such, for biblical scholars or historians of the ancient near east there will be little brand-new material. For the specialist audience, as well as other readers, the book is perhaps more interesting as a window into the development of a controversial biblical historical thesis, and the many voices, disputes, and discoveries that have made the argument plausible and compelling. Friedman’s penchant for folksy anecdotes of discovery may be grating to some readers, but they do serve to underscore the contingent nature of so many scholarly findings (and, by extension, non-findings). If this reader sometimes found the persistently conversational tone of the book a bit much, others will find it a welcome departure from the arid prose of much biblical history. 

Two other important factors in Friedman’s “limited exodus” thesis also form the basis of his answer to Why it Matters. Friedman argues that both the development of monotheism (the identification of YHWH, the Exodus God, with El, the Israelite God, thereby maintaining a one-god culture) and the repeated insistence on “welcoming the stranger” are specifically Levitical; the latter point, Friedman notes, makes strategic sense coming from a group of strangers who are attempting to join an existing Israelite community in Canaan. Thus he concludes that this narrative, even in its more limited historical form, “still informs us and has willed to us some of our most precious values. The event and the story are thousands of years old, but they can still enrich and preserve us in our precarious times” (23).

This, however, is chiefly a claim about why the text as it has come to us matters. The more pointed question of strict historicity and its stakes, which Friedman ultimately takes up only in general terms, is worthy of new consideration as a philosophical and ethical project. In liberal theological circles, it is de rigeur these days to assert that the historicity of biblical accounts–particularly ones with foundational political and theological import, like the Exodus–is not the point; the text’s “truth” lies in its ability to inspire, instruct, and aid in communal cohesion, not in its precise historicity. Friedman–quite rightly, in my view–is critical of this tendency, saying baldly, “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” (10-11). Though he does not critically consider the meanings and limitations of this thing we call “history,” I assume that most readers will know instinctively what he means. 

But, when Friedman writes that the narrative “has willed to us some of our most precious values,” (23) he might be more depressingly correct than intended. The Exodus is not merely a story of an oppressed people seeking liberation. It is a tale of divinely-led destruction of Egypt, after which the liberated Israelites, some forty years on, begin their violent conquest of the land given them by God. This biblical conquest has been cited as inspiration for colonial expansion over and over again. For better or worse, the Exodus is not a nice story, but a frequently violent and severe one, and that too is its political and ethical legacy to generations of readers–and colonizers. Of course, it is precisely the historicity of the conquest that is undermined by Friedman’s historical reconstruction, with only a small group of Levites entering the land instead of a horde of conquering Israelites. Yet, given the profound and enduring consequences of Exodus-invoked expansionism in the modern age, does it matter that there is little historical evidence to support this part of the text’s account? Friedman’s historical account of How it Happened is compelling. To the question of Why It Matters, we might yet ask: to whom?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Filler is Chair and Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Earlham College.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Elliott Friedman is one of the premier bible scholars in the country. He earned his doctorate at Harvard and was a visiting fellow at Oxford and Cambridge, a senior fellow of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, and a visiting professor at the University of Haifa.



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