Having read Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters, I am both appreciative and disappointed. I appreciate his argument that the exodus event does not depend on huge numbers of people leaving Egypt. His theory that it was just the Levites is provocative, although I can’t say that I am totally convinced.
Also his discussions about the origin of ethical monotheism do meet the expectation of grappling with why the exodus matters.
He does not spend much space on how it happened. So that promise in the subtitle sets up an expectation that I should have known couldn’t be fulfilled.
None of us knows just how it happened. We have the biblical accounts. But, as Friedman shows, those accounts are layered and include several different kinds of literature composed at various times.
He takes the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 as the earliest account. However, it is poetry and it is hard to convert it to history. It speaks of an event at the sea, a trek toward Canaan, and an arrival at a mountain sanctuary. That a sanctuary was a destination, he takes to mean that the people were priests: the Levites. They set up a worship center at a mountain and somehow then converted and taught the tribes of Israel a religion that merged their previous worship of EL with worship of YHWH.
An unanswered question for me is why a very early poem in Genesis 49:5 ff. does not mention any priestly function for the Levites. It almost seems that they became a priestly tribe at some later point. But Friedman does not see any time when they were not priests.
For the exodus itself, Friedman mainly tells us who was involved more than how it happened.
Priests from Egypt, who became known as Levites, exited Egypt. That is his key contention. We don’t know whether they got their unique theology from Egypt, Midian, or Moses as an independent theological genius.
But there were Egyptian connections. This is his most solid point. I have already mentioned that several of the oldest Levite names seem Egyptian. Besides that, Friedman makes two other interesting connections.
One is that the Levitical writings describe the Ark of the Covenant in a way that points to Egyptian sacred boats. You can find a detailed article about this by Scott B. Noegel here.
Another point draws on the battle tent of Ramses II. Egyptian drawings and a description in the poem of Pentaur about the Battle of Kadesh give us the dimensions and style of this tent. It closely resembled the Israelite Tabernacle as described by the P document. One of Friedman’s former students, Michael M Homan has written about this. See here.
So the Levites conceived some of their cultic objects on Egyptian models. Therefore, it makes sense that they came from Egypt.
Friedman mentions the theory that there were several exodus-like events in the Bronze Age. He says that one of the few things most scholars agree on is that there were Semitic people or Western Asiatics living in Egypt for several centuries. There were occasions when some of these people left Egypt. How many of the Canaanite and ancient Jordanian people had this kind of Egyptian background we do not know. It is possible that many of them could say that their ancestors had come out of Egypt.
But he speaks of the exodus as a specific event that occurred in connection with Moses and which initiated the religion of YHWH in Israel.
Without blaming Friedman for this, I want to point out that many of us with historical interests may come off as missing the point. When we consider whether the Torah faith originated in Midian, Egypt or the brilliance of Moses; we need to remember that from a religious point of view, it originated in a revelation from God. Of course, this revelation came within a human context. However, the religious point about the exodus is that God acted and spoke.