Book Review: “The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters” by Richard Elliott Friedman


The Exodus - Richard Elliott Friedman

Publisher: HarperOne, 2017


Distinguished Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman calls his book about the Exodus a work of “detective nonfiction.” In it, he presents the many strands of evidence that can be brought to bear to solve a series of related mysteries, the solution of which will crack the case of the historical Exodus and reveal its important legacy. It is highly readable and forthright, oftentimes witty, and admirably accessible to the unitiated in the complex byways of archaeology and textual criticism in ancient languages.

The overarching aim is to examine the historical basis for the events described in the book of Exodus. Did multitudes of foreign-born slaves, led by Moses, leave Egypt to wander in the wilderness and ultimately constitute the nation of Israel? Friedman notes that “there is an anti-historical wind blowing lately.” The trend among many Biblical scholars is to disbelieve that we can ever truly reconstruct the past–a propensity to say we have only stories, only narratives laced with myths, and maybe only tall tales. But gaps in historical evidence do not mean that nothing happened. Friedman emphasizes that careful reading of the text, combined with recent archaeology, genetic data, and linguistic evidence, strongly support the position that something momentous indeed happened! It is not out of thin air that this flight-migration of people from Egypt to Israel marks the watershed event for the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, the picture that emerges of how it all happened appears to be crucial for two major breakthroughs in human culture: (a) the development of monotheism, and (b) the ethic of caring for strangers–loving one’s neighbor as oneself.  But now let’s back up and look at some of the mysteries Friedman tackles.  

The Mystery of Egypt

This is the pivotal mystery, the reason most readers will want to open this book. Were the people of Israel living in Egypt at one time as a subject group, and was there a mass exodus to Canaan? What is the evidence and what is the main controversy?  In the end, it boils down to a question of numbers–how many Israelites lived in Egypt, who were they, and when did they leave? Although archaeology has not provided artifacts indicating a presence of millions of Canaanites in Egypt, there is much greater agreement on the continual migration of Western Asiatic people into and out of Egypt, including settlement of some of those people in Egypt for centuries, many as slaves. Friedman has a particular knack of presenting a lot of evidence, portioned out into digestible bites, one after the other. I will not present his whole argument–something he does himself with such skill–only mention some of the intriguing evidence he serves up. For some decades, he has been proposing that it was only the Levites who lived in Egypt and left Egypt in the Exodus. Why? For one thing,

Only Levites have Egyptian names. Hophni, Hur, two men named Phinehas, Merari, Pashhur, and, above all, Moses are Egyptian names. But all of these biblical persons are Levites, and not one person from any of the rest of Israel has an Egyptian name. (p. 32)

Thus, the text itself provides a clue that artifacts in the ground haven’t yielded so far, namely, the presence of Egyptian names among members of one, and only one, highly important tribe, the Levites.

The text provides another clue in one of its earliest poems, known as the Song of the Sea (or the Song of Miriam; Exodus 15:1b-18). It sings the story of the climactic moment of the crossing of the Red Sea, extolling the power and holiness of Yahweh. It does not mention Israel, however. Rather it gives thanks for the safe exodus and deliverance of the people of Yahweh. As for the rest of the Torah, all the textual sources know Yahweh as the name of God and use it (in the form YHWH). (In textual criticism, these sources, or strands of narrative believed to be by different hands, are denoted by letters, as in the J  source, the P, or priestly, source, the E source, and D, the main source for Deuteronomy).*  But the sources differ in when the name of God became known. It turns out that the Levite sources E and P both stress that the name of God was only revealed as YHWH to Moses at the time of the events surrounding the Exodus. Before that he was known as simply El or Elohim, a generic term meaning God.

How did Israel arrive at the knowledge that Yahweh was God’s true name? Can the mystery of God’s names be another source of evidence for the Exodus? Friedman thinks so, and once again he argues persuasively from several angles. The result is a coherent scenario of the Levites, whose God was Yahweh, leaving Egypt en masse, spending time in the wilderness near Midian,** and then joining an already well established people living in Canaan–the tribes of the sons of Jacob, the Israelites, whose God was called El. The newly arrived Levites became an “attached group” and over time they became so closely associated that they were incorporated as a separate  tribe, another of the sons of Jacob. They were not assigned any land but instead had a crucial inherited function, the Levitical priesthood of the One God. Friedman writes passionately about all the difference this made to Israel’s unique contribution of monotheism to the world:

But what about the God of this united confederation? Were they going to worship El or Yahweh? Israel had choices. They could have chosen to worship only El. They could have chosen to worship only Yahweh. They could have chosen to worship both. They could have said that El is Yahweh’s father, or his son. But they chose none of these. They said: El is Yahweh. He was always Yahweh, but the Israelites in the land had not known this name because He did not reveal it until the time that these Levites were to come from Egypt to Israel. He revealed it to His greatest prophet, their leader, Moses. (p. 51)

Moses would speak to God and receive from God His commandments for all the people of Israel to live by and treasure. These include, of course, the tablet of the Ten Commandments received on Mount Sinai, but the whole Torah (the five books of Moses) contains the laws set down to guide God’s people. One of these is the great command to love your neighbor as yourself. In his essay, “The Logic of Love,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights the intimate connection between the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and the command to treat strangers with fairness and love, which is found a few verses later.

Indeed, Leviticus 19 teaches a third love also, in addition to that of God and our neighbour: “If a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33-34). It is easy to love your neighbour as yourself because throughout most of history, your neighbours were often like yourself, in culture, class nationality, and ethnicity. The challenge is to love the stranger, the one who is not like you. (Rabbi Sacks, Leviticus, p. 302)

Like Rabbi Sacks, Friedman concludes that the innovation of the more general moral principle —to love your neighbor as yourselfwhich is uniquely found in the Torah (unlike other Middle Eastern law codes of that time), depended crucially on the experience of at least some of the people of Israel being slaves at one time in Egypt. This gave them a unique perspective and access to empathy for the other, for aliens, and their need to be treated as one would like to be treated oneself, with fairness and kindness.  The evidence for this connection is abundant, mentioned 52 times in the Torah, not just in the book of Leviticus, but throughout Exodus and Deuteronomy as well. Friedman cites many occurrences of the phrase “because you were aliens in the land of Egypt” or “remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” This evidence for the origin of the moral principle in turn reinforces the argument for a real historical period of slavery in Egypt and a subsequent Exodus. Specifically it argues for the “Levite hypothesis” of the Exodus, since all 52 of those occurrences in the Torah are found only in the Levite textual sources (P, E, and D) and not in the non-Levite J source.

Whether or not David Elliott Friedman has interpreted the evidence perfectly in all its particulars, his book on The Exodus succeeded for me. I found it tremendously valuable as a meditation on the fruitful application of scholarly tools to Holy Scripture, and its results are enlivening. As Friedman concedes, the Bible’s own story of the Exodus is one of revelation, “a matter of faith, not to be proven by archaeology and scholarship,” but as we read it in faith, we can also be confident that it is much more than a mere story, however edifying, but a history of God’s working out of salvation and deliverance for his much beloved people.

About the Author

(from the book flap)

RICHARD ELLIOTT FRIEDMAN is one of the premier bible scholars in the country. He is the Ann & Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and the Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus of the University of California, San Diego. 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. He is the author of Commentary on the Torah, The Disappearance of God, The Hidden Book in the Bible, The Bible with Sources Revealed, The Bible Now, The Exile and Biblical Narrative, and the bestselling Who Wrote the Bible?


*Friedman maps out the Exodus story as told by the different sources in an Appendix, citing verse by verse the strings of included incidents. For more on the textual sources, see Friedman’s classic Who Wrote the Bible? (HarperOne, 1987) and The Bible with Sources Revealed (HarperOne, 2003).

**Chapter 4, “The Mystery of Midian,” takes up the question of whether Moses was born in the royal house of Egypt or in rural Midian, and whether the cult of Akhenaten might have had any influence the rise of monotheism. Here he takes up Freud’s book on Moses and Monotheism and points out the telling differences between the Akhenaten cult and the worship of Yahweh, which the Levites would bring with them to Israel.


“The Logic of Love” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in Covenant & Conversation–Leviticus: The Book of Holiness (pp. 301-306). New Milford, CT and Jerusalem: Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, 2015.

David Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? New York: HarperOne, 1987.

David Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View into the Five Books of Moses. New York: HarperOne, 2003.

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