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Review of ‘The Exodus’ (2017) by Richard Elliott Friedman

By Nahum Gordon

The author, a Jewish-American professor, wrote the bestselling Who Wrote The Bible? which should have been entitled ‘Who Wrote The Torah?’ It remains popular after 33 years because it reads like an unputdownable thriller. It requires no prior knowledge and is totally accessible to the layman. That makes it very unusual among academic publications. 

Friedman is very fortunate to have studied, and discussed his ideas, with some of the greats in the field of Bible studies who were experts in Hebrew, philology, archaeology, history, anthropology, etc. I shall mention a few: G. Ernest Wright and Frank Moore Cross (Harvard), Louis Finkelstein (JTS), Mary Douglas (UCL), David Noel Freedman (University of California, San Diego), Moshe Greenberg and Moshe Weinfeld (Hebrew U).  

Before I discuss The Exodus, you need to be aware of Friedman’s stance on the authorship of the Torah. He is an indefatigable champion of the Documentary Hypothesis. This unproven theory, which has evolved over some 250 years, maintains that the Pentateuch was composed by at least five schools of scribes, priests and prophets – who are referred to by initials J, E, P, D and R. According to this theory, the Torah was not written by one person (Moses) at one point in history (c.1250 BCE) because there are too many inconsistencies, contradictions, changes in syntax and literary styles. Naturally, this has upset many Jews who cling to a literal understanding of the expression Torah min HaShamayim. But even the great medieval Biblical commentator, R. Abraham ibn Ezra (c.1090 – c.1165) felt compelled to highlight problematic passages which have become known as ‘the secret of the twelve’. Ibn Ezra inspired Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) who, with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), is regarded as one of the fathers of modern biblical criticism. These intellectual giants paved the way for Eichhorn, Graf, Wellhausen and now Friedman.  

In his latest book, which he describes as a ‘work of detective non-fiction’, Friedman wants to answer three questions: i) was the flight from Egypt fact or fiction? ii) how did monotheism emerge? and iii) who formulated the precept that we should love others as ourselves? 

In Chapter 2, Friedman believes that there was an historical Exodus but on a much smaller scale than two million people. (R. Gunther Plaut explains that it all depends on how you translate the Hebrew word elef). Only the men of Levi had Egyptian names. Three of the oldest texts in the Tenach reveal that only the Levites are connected to the Exodus. Only the Levite sources of the Torah mention: 

a) God revealing his name YHVH to Moses (El and its plural are Canaanite terms);  

b) the plagues; 

c) slavery; 

d) being kind to outsiders/strangers/aliens because we had been slaves in Egypt; and  

e) the Tabernacle or the Tent of Meeting;  

The Levite group left Egypt and merged with the other tribes of Israel, who were probably ex-Canaanites from the hill country of Samaria and Judea. 

In Chapter 5, Friedman refutes the claim of most Biblical scholars that monotheism originated with Second Isaiah in exile in Babylon after the First Temple had been destroyed. From a close reading of the oldest Biblical texts, Friedman demonstrates that the idea of one God started shortly after the Exodus and the battle over many gods was not won until some point after Jeremiah died.  

Finally, he ties everything up neatly in a bow by examining the Ten Commandments. God defines Himself as the God of the Exodus. He then insists on no other gods besides Him. And concludes by insisting that we do not covet what belongs to our neighbours. Ethical monotheism. 

I recommend this paperback for its lucidity and honesty. 

Nahum Gordon is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue

Posted on 7 April 2020