Keeping Up with Richard Elliott Friedman

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by Tim Widowfield

Richard Elliott Friedman
Richard Elliott Friedman

Somebody on Facebook today posted a link to TheTorah.com that leads to an interesting article by Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman. It’s called “The Historical Exodus: The Evidence for the Levites Leaving Egypt and the Introduction of YHWH into Israel.” In it, Friedman argues that the Exodus really happened, but it was just a small group (the Levites) who did the “exodusing.”

It turns out he has a book on the way that will explain his argument in detail. No word yet on its release date, but here’s a tempting preview:

[David Noel] Freedman added that this had implications for the historicity of the exodus. Many scholars and archaeologists say the exodus never happened. 90 percent of their argument is based on the lack of artifacts in Egypt or Sinai and on finding few items of Egyptian material culture in early Israelite sites, which we would have expected if the Israelites had lived in Egypt for centuries. But that isn’t evidence against the historicity of the exodus. At most, it is evidence (more correctly: an absence of evidence) against the tremendous number of participants that the Torah pictures.

I had included the idea of a non-millions exodus in my Who Wrote the Bible? back in 1987, and I raised the idea there, just as a possibility, that the smaller exodus group was just the Levites. That possibility looks substantially more tangible today than it did in 1987.

If you’re interested in this subject, you can read an interview from spring 2014 over at ReformJuaism.org in which Friedman argues that “The Exodus Is Not Fiction.” He says:

There is no archaeological evidence against the historicity of an exodus if it was a smaller group who left Egypt. Indeed, significantly, the first biblical mention of the Exodus, the Song of Miriam, which is the oldest text in the Bible, never mentions how many people were involved in the Exodus, and it never speaks of the whole nation of Israel. It just refers to a people, an am, leaving Egypt.

It wasn’t until a much later source of the Exodus—the so-called priestly source, some 400 years later—that the number 603,550 males was added to the story.

I don’t see a title or a release date for the forthcoming book, so we’ll just have to keep an eye out for it.


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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16 thoughts on “Keeping Up with Richard Elliott Friedman”

  1. Ahmose & the Hyksos transposed, maybe with some Thutmose thrown in, and definitely some Echnaton for some theological closure. Pretty sure. The Exodus narrative we have today is the scaled-down version. The original one was big.

  2. Fan fiction. All of it. Once one concludes that the Exodus story is fiction, there is no way to recover its historicity. At best, you can rewrite the Exodus fiction, as Richard Elliott Friedman attempts to do.

  3. Desperately clinging on with nails screeching and breaking and splintering as they slide down the wall of no evidence for and
    scrabble hopelessly at the smoothness as they wish vainly for something, anything, that they can grab on to and keep the glimmer of hope alive.

    Sad really.
    Still there’s probably money in it.

    1. Well, I’m open to the possibility. However, I would like a bit more evidence than what REF is giving us here. I recall that at one time the statistical occurrence of names in the Torah was proffered as evidence for an early date of composition. That is, until others noticed that their occurrence also fit with later centuries.

      In other words, could the supposedly unusual cluster of Egyptian names among Levites be the result of confirmation bias and the careful selection of evidence?

  4. Perhaps it was the priests of Ahkenaten’s monotheism who were run out of Egypt on a rail. They convinced the Canaanites that they were the long-lost cousins and that the Canaanites could satisfy Yahweh by bringing the priests food everytime they did something on the list of things Yahweh didn’t like.

  5. If scholars cling tenaciously for an historical Jesus, why not an historical Moses and an historical Exodus?

    And of course, of all the HM/HE scenarios, Greg G’s is the most succinct and plausible.

      1. Not really. What you have is essentially a combining of religious ideas. You have a group of priests come in from Egypt who were monotheists, coming into a culture that was mildly polytheistic. So, you get these priests influencing the culture there, and seperationg odd into the Canaanites and the Israelites, which is more or less what archaeology shows, according to my limited grasp of it.

        1. There’s no archaeological confirmation of monotheistic Yahwism until the Hellenistic Era. All of the archaeological evidence prior to the Hellenistic Era shows polytheistic Yahwism and a complete lack of knowledge of the Torah.

          I suppose it could have taken a thousand years for that “combining of religious ideas” to finally take hold, but I think it is better to label the theory for what it is: another example of Biblical fan fiction.

  6. But the song of Miriam does not refer to anyone leaving Egypt. It just asks who is as great as Jahweh cos he overthrew the (Egyptian) chariot riders. Surely he has not confused it with “the song of moses and the children of Israel” ?

  7. Patterns of Evidence: Exodus has sought possible evidence for the Exodus. I am currently reading the book and it does seem that scholars and archaeologists are unwilling to give up an untenable date of 1250 BCE for the Exodus. When they give that date up because of its impossibility, then maybe they can begin looking for evidence in earlier layers. 1600s and 1500s in both Egypt and Israel reveal possible evidence for an exodus and conquest.

    Friedman is a professor at my university. His theory on the Levites leaving Egypt is a huge flop. His evidence is weak and underwhelming.

    1. What evidence is there for any Exodus in any period? I understood it was the absence of archaeological evidence for the earlier date for either an Exodus or a conquest of Canaan that was one of the reasons some scholars shifted to the later date.

      I will be posting soon, I hope, on the many Jewish and gentile versions of the Exodus from the ancient world.

    2. Actually, the evidence (textual, anthropological, archaeological, genetic, linguistic, and literary) is strong, compelling, and, I would say, overwhelming. I’m sorry to see that a student at my former institution expressed such strong opinions two years before the book with the evidence was published. I hope that all the good folks who took an interest and made comments here will look at the collection of evidence there and see for themselves. The book is The Exodus (HarperCollins: 2017).

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