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The ExodusBook review  by JOSEPH LEVEN
Did ancient Rome exist? What about Athens and the Greek states? Was there a Second Temple? What kind of questions are these? The answers are obvious, as the physical evidence still exists in abundance. Now how about the Exodus from Egypt? Where is the evidence of the ten plagues or the 40 years in the desert?


In his new book The Exodus, How It Happened and Why It Matters, Richard Elliott Friedman takes on this difficult question. Rather than writing off the Exodus as a series of folk myths, Friedman uses the latest archaeological research combined with his deep understanding of the biblical text to come up with some surprising conclusions.
Richard Elliott Friedman is Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia. He has been writing books about the Bible for 30 years and is well-known for his best-selling volume, Who Wrote the Bible? He has won numerous awards, has spoken widely around the world, and has had his books translated into many languages.
After a lifetime in the field of Bible studies, Friedman belongs to the group of Bible scholars who espouse the Documentary Hypothesis of the composition of the Old Testament. He subscribes to the view that the Bible was authored by at least four authors or editors or groups of authors or editors. They are referred to as the E source, the J source, the P source and the D source. In the J source Yahweh’s name (Yahweh is the English for the letters Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh in Hebrew) is known to humanity since creation. In the E source, Yahweh’s name is first revealed to Moses. The P source is a Priestly source, and the D source constitutes the book of Deuteronomy. E, P and D were written by Levites; J was not.
A book review is no place to get into the intricacies of Friedman’s arguments. Suffice to say that by parsing the biblical text and assigning the various pieces to one or another of the above authors, Friedman is able to come up with a novel hypothesis about the Exodus.
Essentially, Friedman contends that an exodus really did take place some 3,000 or more years ago. This exodus was not of the entire nation of Israel, but rather just of one group of people known as the Levites. He musters a whole range of proofs for this hypothesis. For example, there are a series of biblical names with Egyptian derivation, the best known of which is Moses. All the figures bearing those names are Levites.
Meanwhile, in the land of Canaan, the ten tribes of Israel and the two tribes of Judah, were already there. They were native to that place and never left. Friedman offers archaeological evidence dating Israel’s presence in Canaan to 1205 BCE at the latest. He does not speculate on when these tribes arrived there and where they came from. The Levites arrived from Egypt after an exodus and became joined to the existing twelve tribes. They did not have a territory of their own because the territory was already all taken. Instead they became the priests and priestly helpers of Israel.
In one of the many fascinating asides in The Exodus, Friedman recounts the latest in genetic evidence with regard to the Levites. All modern Jews identify themselves as Cohanim (priests), Leviim (Levites) or Israelites (everyone else). Current genetic research shows that whereas the Cohanim descend from a very small group of ancestors (the sons of Aaron), the Levites have very little in common genetically. This suggests to him that the Levites are descended from a large and diverse group that immigrated from Egypt.
Having dealt with the question of the Exodus, Friedman treats us to two more discussions in this book. One is the question of where did monotheism come from and how did it develop? The other is where did the notion come from to love the other as we love ourselves? Suffice it to say that these both have their origin in the Levites’ exodus from Egypt.
In his concluding paragraph, Friedman asks, “Why does anybody care that much whether the exodus happened or not?” He answers, “Because history matters. What happened matters... The exodus of a group of people from Egypt happened. It made a difference. It still makes a difference.”

The Exodus
How It Happened and Why It Matters
Richard Elliott Friedman
HarperCollins Books, New York, 2017 282 pages
(The Exodus is available at the Winnipeg Public Library.)