Judaism Unbound Episode 83: The Exodus - Richard Elliott Friedman


Richard Elliott Friedman, scholar of the Hebrew Bible and author of the best-selling work Who Wrote the Bible?, joins Dan and Lex to discuss his newest book, The Exodus. [1] He argues that the story of the Exodus outlined in the Torah represents a real historical event, experienced not by the whole Israelite nation writ large, but by a particular segment of it -- the Levites. 

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Image Credit: Qualcomm Institute, UC-San Diego

Image Credit: Qualcomm Institute, UC-San Diego

(0:01 - 17:33): To begin the episode, Friedman [2] summarizes the two-fold argument that he makes in The Exodus. [3] His first point is that the Exodus from Egypt described in the Torah was a real historical event (though the number of people involved were much smaller than described). His second is that the Levites were the ones who made that Exodus -- not the entirety of the Israelite nation. In his summary, he discusses linguistic, archaeological, [4] and genetic [5] forms of evidence that support his conclusions.

(17:34 - 33:34): Friedman explores the Bible's emphasis on welcoming the stranger (or "alien"), linking it to the Levites' experience of oppression in Egypt before leaving. He then pivots to the "why it matters" portion of the book's title, discussing how the example of the Exodus demonstrated the value of looking back at historical events and gleaning lessons from those past experiences. He also explains why it is of fundamental importance to him as a scholar to seek the truth, even in the face of those who strongly disagree.

(33:35 - 46:13): Often in scholarly conversations about the Exodus, the story of Joshua's conquest is discussed as well. Because the latter story is understood to be ahistorical by almost all scholars, some have interpreted that as a sign that the Exodus itself may not have happened as well. Friedman provides several counter-arguments to this line of thinking. [6] He goes on to lay out his approach to the question of how individuals today should relate to elements of the Bible that seem to them morally wrong. To close the episode, Friedman reflects on the role that God plays (and, for some, doesn't play) in contemporary Judaism, and how meaning can be found in stories one regards as fact or fiction, which he illustrates in contrasting the fictional story of the Garden of Eden with the historical events of the Exodus, both of which he finds personally meaningful.

[1] To hear more from Richard Elliott Friedman, listen to his previous two appearances on Judaism Unbound. Episode 27: Who Wrote the Bible? and Holidays Unbound Episode 3: Passover II - Did the Exodus Really Happen?

[2] Learn more about Friedman by visiting his website, which includes a full bio and a variety of other resources.

[3] Order a copy of The Exodus on Amazon by clicking here. Purchase the audiobook by clicking here.

[4] Some of the archaelogical evidence Friedman references includes scholarship by Scott Noegel, on ways in which Israelite material culture resemble Egyptian archaeological finds. Read an article by Noegel on this subject, entitled "The Egyptian Origin of the Ark of the Covenant," by clicking here.

[5] For the genetic study Friedman references, see "Multiple Origins of Ashkenazi Levites: Y Chromosome Evidence for Both Near Eastern and European Ancestries"

[6] In this conversation, Dan mentions the Merneptah Stele, a famous archaeological discovery from the 13th century BCE that mentions the name "Israel" (it is the earliest textual reference to the Israelites that has been discovered). Learn more about it by clicking here.