Rewriting the Exodus

Rewriting the Exodus

 

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Image credit: https://www.larrysharpe.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/exodus.jpg

“Ours is a tradition that insists that God has spoken – yet is open to a variety of possibilities of how God spoke and what, in fact, God said,“writes Daniel Gordis in Revelation, Biblical and Rabbinic Perspectives [1]. It is this tradition of explication and interpretation of the written Torah, compiled over many centuries” that is continued by Richard Elliott Friedman in Who Wrote the Bible? [2], a scholarly book that reads like a detective novel.  Now he has a new book out, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters [3], which promulgates a brand new theory.

The Sources and the Questions

In Who Wrote the Bible?, Friedman – building on the Deuteronomistic theory first advanced by Christian scholars in the 18th century, maintained that the Hebrew Bible was compiled by a general editor (called a Redactor) mainly from four entwined sources, defined as: J for the document that called the deity Yahweh; E for the document that referred to God as Elohim; P for the large legal section that also dealt with priestly matters, and D for the book of Deuteronomy. He lays out his basic issues very clearly, explaining in a detailed and methodical way how each of the sources contributed to a Torah composed of many genres and many documents. Historical interpretation, Friedman claims, is dependent on the point of view of the person or persons telling the story and raises many questions:

  • How did the social, geopolitical, and religious influences of the time affect the teller?
  • What did successive editors censor in and out, and from what perspective?
  • How have scrolls that were lost and some of them found been combined over time to form the Torah we have today?

This last question is an essential consideration in reading Friedman’s book because it is the final editor, the Redactor (what might be called the General Editor — Friedman thinks he was likely Ezra, probably aided by his scribe, Baruch), who, as he attempted to reconcile the different sources, shaped the text that we have today. It is this editor (R) who is really the “rabbi,” Friedman says, telling the biblical story that itself has been a page-turner for centuries.

 

A New Take on the Exodus

However, the piece de resistance of Friedman’s new book, The Exodus, is this: We have learned, in the decades since Who Wrote the Bible? was written, that the four biblical streams (J, E, P, and D) were enhanced by the interwoven, much smaller documents of at least 75 additional writers and editors, and sometimes the Redactor. Then, at the end of The Exodus, Friedman cites the specific biblical verses that make up each of the four streams. So by looking them up, we can actually read the story threads that make up each of the original streams separately. Exciting stuff!

The biblical text itself has long represented a giant puzzle that biblical investigators have been trying to solve through their different disciplines – historical, linguistic, literary, and architectural analyses – all vying to make each one preeminent. Each discipline has professed to have the most likely answers, and the validity of the Bible as an historical source rather than just literature has been disputed. But now that the disciplines have pooled their knowledge, their combined investigations support one another’s findings – and, in the process, also shed light on much of what we read in the biblical text.

It is a welcome departure from some earlier biblical critics (who, believing that Christianity had superseded Judaism) seemed almost to take pleasure in discrediting the Hebrew Bible’s account of the Jewish people’s encounter with God. Then, in more recent times, various, politicized “experts”(and some serious scholars who are influenced by their findings) have taken to calling the Hebrew Bible’s account a fairy tale. The Exodus didn’t happen, they say; it’s just a great story. Also, the Jewish people have neither a claim to the Holy Land nor to Jerusalem. (It’s usually illuminating to discover who is funding the research of these self-proclaimed authorities.)

 

The Exodus Happened!

In fact, one of the latter day misreadings of the Bible that Friedman’s new book, The Exodus, dispels is that it did not happen. The Exodus did indeed happen, he asserts, but a little differently than we had formerly thought. Historians have documented, he explains, that there were many groups of Western Asians in Egypt at the time of the famine, and among them were a people called the Habirus (Hebrews), probably descended from the seventy Jews (Levites, since Joseph’s family were Levites) who originally came to Egypt seeking food when Joseph was the Pharaoh’s right hand man. So these Jews, who unfortunately multiplied too quickly and consequently were enslaved in Egypt 400 years after Joseph was long gone, comprised a tribe that derived from a single biblical ancestor, Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. It was not nearly as large a group of oppressed Hebrews to leave Egypt as previously estimated; rather, the Jews involved in the Exodus comprised only one tribe  — the Levites – not twelve tribes. If this hypothesis is correct, then the hurried departure of Jews from Egypt fits in very well with current architectural, historical, linguistic, and literary analyses.

 

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

This theory (it is still only a theory) provides the missing piece that fits the puzzle, Friedman claims: If the Levites were the only Hebrew tribe to have traveled to Egypt (in North Africa) at a time of great famine – and later fled enslavement – where were the other 11 tribes? In Israel (Canaan), of course. Many historians of what used to be called the Near East [4] agree that the ancient Hebrews were a semi-nomadic, shepherding people that gradually settled in the land of Canaan as farmers, keeping separate from pagan tribes [5]. After the Exodus, the Levites rejoined their brethren in Israel.

In other words, Friedman is positing that eleven tribes of the ancient Israelites were indigenous to Israel centuries before the tribe of Levites fleeing from Egypt, and bringing with them the moral precepts of the Ten Commandments, arrived in Israel after the Exodus. The other 11 tribes had already divided the land, however. The latecomer Levites didn’t get any – just a few cities. But from this group came the priestly class and the establishment of a society that valued holiness, enacted laws to preserve it, looked after the widow and orphan, and welcomed the stranger.

 

[1] Daniel Gordis. “Revelation: Biblical and Rabbinic Perspectives.” Biblical Religion and Law, 1398.

[2] Richard Elliott Friedman. Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper Collins, 1987).

[3] ——————————. The Exodus. Kindle edition, 2017.

[4] Today we refer to Israel as being situated in the Middle East, which is a region, rather than referring to its location in Western Asia, which is a continent.

[5] It is rather the story of “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho” that never happened. In the revised version of Exodus, there is no conquest.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 201 7. All rights reserved.