The History of Israel Informed By the Exodus Narative

Richard Elliott Friedman is perhaps best known as the author of Who Wrote the Bible, an exceptional book that served to explicate and popularize the Documentary Hypothesis.

I believe that his views warrant attention, so I was intrigued when I came across the following interview published in the Spring of 2014 …

The Exodus is Not Fiction

… and, no, no one is talking about 2 million or so nascent Israelites marching cautiously through the Sea of Reeds. Let me know what you think.

Can you give us a brief rundown, and maybe an opinion?

I could, but it’s a very short article.

I believe it likely that the ‘Hebrews’ and ‘Yahwists’ constituted a southern element of what later became the Israelite confederation coalescing in the highlands and that the Exodus narrative reflects this.

So the idea is that one of the twelve tribes, the Levites, did indeed migrate out of Egypt. That doesn’t prove that the Exodus as told in the bible isn’t largely fiction. As you say, that doesn’t show a couple million Jews crossed a sea God open up for them.

That’s what I got out of it. He says there is some evidence of people living in the Sinai, and they were Egyptian. He is countering the argument that there is no evidence of people leaving Egypt and living in the Sinai.

I’ve heard the idea before. It essentially argues that Israel was formed over a period of time as different groups migrated in. But after these groups had formed a single nation, they essentially adopted a group history which combined elements from their pasts - and one element in the common Israeli history was Moses leading people out of Egypt. All the Israelites adopted this story as part of their national origin even though many of them were not actually descended from individuals who had traveled with Moses.

We do the same thing. We talk about the pilgrims being part of “our” history even though the majority of us are not descended from anyone who had traveled on the Mayflower. And we adopt events like the American Revolution and the Civil War as part of our history even if our ancestors arrived in America after those events.

From what I gather, he’s saying the actual number that participated in the Exodus is much smaller than traditionally believed. He brings up the possibility that maybe no evidence has been found of their migration because it’s all been buried in the sand. How do you find evidence of a migration anyway? It’s not like there’s any permanent structures involved. Footprints are bound to have been wiped away by winds, unless they walked through mud that later solidified.

He bases his theory on the presence of Egyptian culture in Jewish way of life, such as the practice of circumcision. He said the Levites were Egyptian expatriates and bullied those customs into Jewish dogma. Wikipediadoesn’t say they came from Egypt. DNA testing indicates Central-East Europe-Indian subcontinent. Furthermore, Wiki’s page for Joshua doesn’t say he specifically led Levites out of Egypt.

I don’t know where he gets the idea that Levites were Egyptian. The Levites are more of a religious order than an actual race, but Jews keep everything in the family.

No it doesn’t, nor do I believe in an “Exodus as told in the bible.”

@Knowed Out: He also states that Levite names in the Old Testament are Egyptian names.

How large a group it was and how long they supposedly wandered in the desert would determine how much and what kind of evidence would be left behind. How many people is this author proposing left for this mini-“exodus”, and how long did the trip take?

The article isn’t specific. He’s saying the group that left Egypt were the Levites. Much of his evidence is interpretation of the Torah, he points out the conflicting information, and accepts some as evidence of the Exodus. In sum, he’s saying it might have happened in some way.

The Wikipedia entry on Levites ends its section on Y-chromosome studies by stating:


I suspect that he would admit to not knowing.

A better formulation might be that the Levites were a notable component of the the group that left Egypt.

Forgive me but what difference would it make if there was a kernal of truth in the Exodus story?

Which means we don’t even know what evidence to look for-how convenient. Well, discounting supernatural accounts of gods screwing up things and keeping people lost on purpose, we know that Cambyses II took an army across the Sinai Desert in about a year or less in 525 BC to conquer Eqypt.

We look for signs of a Southern influence in the Israelite narrative and archaeology.

I’m not sure how best to answer this. I appreciate history (and archaeology) for its own sake.

But is that the only way such an influence could have happened…or even the most likely way?

In other news, I’ve discovered that Santa Claus really exists. Of course the popular mythology built up around him is exaggerated, but there’s a kernel of truth. Santa Claus’s real name is Chet, he doesn’t have a beard or wear a red suit, he lives in Florida and works as an assistant manager at a car dealership, hates children and never gives presents.

So Santa Claus is now confirmed.