Our Blog
Compelling News and Articles of Interest specifically for the Christian Community

A Smaller Exodus?: An Excerpt from Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Exodus

The principal points that people generally bring up in doubting the exodus are mostly about numbers: We have found no remnant of the two million people in the Sinai region. We have found no widespread material culture of Egypt in early Israel: no Egyptian style pottery or architecture. We have found no records in Egypt of a huge mass of Israelite slaves or of a huge exodus.

True. But none of this is evidence about whether the exodus happened or not. It is evidence only of whether it was big or not. For heaven’s sake, did we need archaeological work to confirm that an exodus of two million people was, shall we say, problematic? It had already been calculated long ago that if the people were marching, say, eight across, then when the first ones got to Mount Sinai, half of the people were still in Egypt. And I think it was Bishop Colenso who calculated around 150 years ago the amount of, let us say delicately, residue that that many people would have deposited in the Sinai over a period of forty years, and he figured that the Sinai wilderness should be fertile! Did we really need archaeologists combing the Sinai and not finding anything to prove what we knew anyway? The absence of exodus and wilderness artifacts questions only whether there was a massive exodus.

Part of being a scholar-detective is learning what questions to ask. If there were two million people, how did they disappear? If the answer is: they could not just disappear, then the question is why and when would somebody make them up? If numbers figure so much in the argument, then the question is not just why would someone make up the exodus, but why would someone make it an exodus of two million persons?

Would it be a wild and crazy idea if we consider the possibility that the exodus happened but that it was not big?

***

One thing that came out at the San Diego conference and in published articles and books in our field was: we nearly all recognize that there were Western Asiatic people in Egypt. Call them: Asiatics, Semites, Canaanites, Levantine peoples. But, whatever we call them, these aliens were there, for hundreds of years. The literature on this is voluminous. They were everything from lower class and slaves (called variously Shasu, ‘Apiru, Habiru) to a dynasty of Pharaohs (the Hyksos, the Fifteenth Dynasty). And they were coming and going all along, just not in millions at a time. We could say: there were many “exoditos.” The idea that our exodus was one of these exodi is well within reason. The archaeologist Avi Faust put that line about the exodus not happening the way the Bible tells it into this context, writing:

While there is a consensus among scholars that the Exodus did not take place in the manner described in the Bible, surprisingly most scholars agree that the narrative has a historical core, and that some of the highland settlers came, one way or another, from Egypt.

Faust cites twenty of such scholars there.

Even Finkelstein and Silberman, who had done so much to raise doubts about a massive exodus, still wrote:

One thing is certain. The basic situation described in the Exodus saga—the phenomenon of immigrants coming down to Egypt from Canaan and settling in the eastern border regions of the delta—is abundantly verified in the archaeological finds and the historical texts.

Lee Levine, too, in the passage I quoted above, referred to the possible cultural background for

the Egyptian servitude (of at least some of the people who later became Israelites)

Wolpe followed the scholars on this as well:

The probability is, given the traditions, that there were some enslaved Israelites who left Egypt and joined up with their brethren in Canaan. This seems the likeliest scenario.

And James Hoffmeier, in his survey of responses from twenty-five Egyptologists from eleven countries, wrote:

Those who offered additional thoughts indicated that given the regularity of Asiatics, to use the Egyptian term, entering Egypt during the days of famine or drought in the Levant it was likely that the biblical Hebrews were one such group.

Verified immigrants from Canaan in Egypt, “the regularity of Asiatics entering Egypt,” “some of the settlers,” “at least some of the people,” “some enslaved Israelites,” “one such group.” Alright, then, maybe we are looking for one particular group among the many immigrants from and back to Asia. But who could this “one such group” have been? Back in 1987 in Who Wrote the Bible? I included the possibility that it was just the Levites. The Levites were the group who later became the priests of Israel and some of the main authors of the Bible. The Bible identifies them as the group that was connected with Moses and his family. The story says that both his mother and his father were Levites. What if it was just the Levites who made the flight from Egypt? I wrote there that this idea about the Levites was “in the realm of hypothesis, and we must be very cautious about it.” That was to convey the caution with which I always urge my readers to examine new hypotheses. But it has now been twenty-eight years (not a biblical number) that we have had to think, research, and consult with colleagues, and there is new evidence to take into account, and so I am vastly more confident of the situation now. My field has come a long way since 1987. It is very exciting. I hope that the evidence, when it is fully assembled here together with the other works that I cite, will tantalize many readers as it has tantalized me. I recall that Professor Baruch Halpern, now my colleague at the University of Georgia, wrote a book on The Emergence of Israel in Canaan in which he said:

Biblical scholarship is no more methodologically equipped to reconstruct the exodus than is America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration technologically equipped to send video probes to the Alpha Centauri system. The period of the judges, like Pluto or Uranus, presents a more realistic, if still elusive, target.

He thus explained why he chose to focus his work a little later, on the period of the judges (the 12th and 11th centuries bce), rather than to go as far back as the exodus. He wrote this in 1983. In 1986 the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Uranus. In 2015 the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto. And in 2013 the Hubble telescope sent back photographs of the Alpha Centauri system. I am sure that Halpern would be delighted with these developments. My point is how quickly the rate of new developments has accelerated in recent decades. All of us in this generation have seen it in hundreds of ways, in all areas of knowledge and research. That goes for the Bible and archaeology too. We have new tools, new findings, and new answers.

THE LEVITES AND THE EXODUS

Archaeological findings alone did not do it. What is it that we biblical scholars bring to enrich what we have found through archaeology? Answer: the text. What evidence can we derive from the text about who were the ones who made the exodus from Egypt? I mean real textual evidence, not just reading the Bible and taking its word for it that sticks became snakes and seas split. And how does this textual evidence connect with the archaeological evidence? And I mean real archaeological evidence—findings, artifacts, material culture, stuff—not just surveys that did not turn up anything. What evidence shows that the group who left Egypt over three thousand years ago were the Levites?

(1) What’s in a Name?

Only Levites have Egyptian names. Hophni, Hur, two men named Phinehas, Merari, Mushi, Pashhur, and, above all, Moses are Egyptian names. But all of these biblical persons are Levites, and not one person from any of the rest of Israel has an Egyptian name. We in North America, lands of immigrants, especially are aware of the significance of what names tell about a person’s background. Friedman: probably a Jewish American whose family came from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Shaughnessy: probably not a Jewish American from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Now there are exceptions in North American names. Not every Friedman is Jewish, and not every Shaughnessy is Irish. But we have no exceptions in biblical Israel. Moses, Phinehas and the rest of the eight persons with Egyptian names are all from the Levite/priestly group. And no one else, from all the names mentioned in the Bible from all of Israel’s tribes, has an Egyptian name.

Now we must ask if perhaps the Bible’s authors invented these Egyptian names precisely to help make the story of Egypt and the exodus look believable. But (a) this still begs the question of why all the named figures are Levites; no one invented a single Egyptian name for anybody else in the story. (b) The Egyptian names appear in texts from at least twenty different authors and editors, spread out over five hundred years. These authors and editors did not all work together to invent this. People say that the Bible is the only book ever successfully written by a committee, but we also note that this is probably because the committee never held a meeting. And we cannot attribute all the Egyptian names to an editor (usually referred to as a redactor) who threw them in when he assembled the text. We know this because no single person edited all of these texts. The Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy), the Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy to 2 Kings), the Psalms, the prophets, and the Chronicler’s history (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah) were all edited at different times by different people. (c) We can know for a fact that it cannot be that the authors deliberately gave characters Egyptian names in order to fool us. How? Because we can see where the authors themselves did not know that the names were Egyptian. This is apparent in one of the most famous stories in the Bible: the baby in the basket.

It is the story of Moses’ birth. The Pharaoh has decreed the death of the slaves’ newborn males. A Levite woman places her baby son in an ark of bulrushes sealed with bitumen.

And she put the boy in it and put it in the reeds by
the bank of the Nile. And his sister stood still at a distance
to know what would be done to him. And the
Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe at the Nile,
and her girls were going alongside the Nile, and she
saw the ark among the reeds and sent her maid, and
she took it. And she opened it and saw him, the child:
and here was a boy crying, and she had compassion
on him, and she said, “This is one of the Hebrews’
children.”

And his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go
and call a nursing woman from the Hebrews for you,
and she’ll nurse the child for you?”

And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.”

And the girl went and called the child’s mother.
And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child
and nurse him for me, and I’ll give your pay.” And
the woman took the boy and nursed him. And the
boy grew older, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s
daughter,
and he became her son. And she called his
name Moses, and she said, “Because I drew him from
the water.”

Now that is very logical. She called his name Moses—Hebrew mosheh—because she drew—Hebrew root mashah—him from the water. I have always told my students that the translation of his name in English should be Drew. So it would be that she says, “I’ll call his name Drew, because I drew him from the water.” Puns do not usually translate. But this is a really good exception.

But the point is that the author of this story is treating the name Moses as Hebrew. The author is manifestly not trying to give his hero an Egyptian name. He rather gives the princess a flair for language. She knows Hebrew exquisitely enough to make Hebrew etymologies when naming a boy. The author either did not know that the name was Egyptian, not Hebrew; or he deliberately was hiding the fact that it was Egyptian, not Hebrew. Either way, we cannot read this story and think that the authors were falsely making up Egyptian names. The Egyptian names are real, native to the text, and they belong only to Levites.

(2) Our Earliest Evidence: The Song of the Sea and the Song of Deborah

Which did humans compose first: poetry or prose? I think that most people would be surprised, maybe even incredulous, to learn that we wrote poetry and songs for thousands of years before we wrote any long works of prose (at least any that have survived). That may possibly be because poetry and songs are easier to remember, and this mattered in an age when writing was more difficult and literacy was perhaps less common (though not as uncommon as people sometimes claim). I think I can sing all the words of the Beatles’ songbook and maybe a thousand other songs from memory, but I could never learn to recite The Brothers Karamazov, which is probably about as long, from memory. Poems, and especially songs, are easier to retain.

And that goes for the Bible as well. Two of the many eminent students whom Albright produced at Johns Hopkins University were Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman. Cross became the Hancock Professor of Hebrew at Harvard. Freedman had chairs at both the University of Michigan and the University of California and became the General Editor of the Anchor Bible, the most successful series of commentaries on the Bible (over three million volumes sold). Cross produced over a hundred Ph.D. students. Freedman produced (wrote or edited) over three hundred books. Now when Frank and Noel were still students at Hopkins, Albright put them together to write two joint Ph.D. dissertations instead of one each. Both dissertations became classics, but one is particularly relevant for our present probe. It was titled Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry. Cross and Freedman argued (this was back in the 1940’s) that the oldest parts of the Bible were a group of songs. They based this early dating on spelling (orthography), contents, setting, language, and new knowledge from inscriptions that had been discovered (epigraphy). Meanwhile, as they were writing in 1947-1948, a goat made the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century, the Dead Sea scrolls. Evidence from the scrolls further convinced Cross and Freedman of their conclusions. I have been listening to challenges to those conclusions since my very first session at my first international conference thirty-five years ago, but Cross and Freedman and others have defended their work, and I think that it has held up. David Noel Freedman wrote in 1997:

I am as firmly convinced today as I was forty-five years ago that early poems really are early. While it is true that many, perhaps most, serious scholars date this poetry across the whole spectrum of Israelite history, from premonarchic to postexilic, I believe that the whole corpus belongs to the earliest period of Israel’s national existence, and that the poems were composed between the twelfth and tenth-ninth centuries BCE I have encountered neither compelling evidence nor convincing argument to the contrary, or to make me think otherwise.

I do not mean to re-do the entire history of this scholarship here. But its relevance to our present questions will be visible and will show that their work on the early poetry and the work on the evidence for the exodus are mutually supporting. Two of the group of old songs are the Song of the Sea (also known as the Song of Miriam) and the Song of Deborah. Noel identified them as the two oldest things in the Bible. They were composed close to the time of the events that they portray. They are written in an early form of Hebrew, and other datable texts use them as sources. Though I mean to make another point, I also cannot help but note that the two earliest texts in the Bible are both associated with women, Miriam and Deborah. Even in our age of interest in matters of gender, this fact continues to go insufficiently appreciated.

What do the songs say? The first, the Song of Miriam, or Song of the Sea, is the earliest reaction we have by an ancient writer to the culmination of the exodus story: the Red Sea calamity. If Cross and Freedman and their successors are right, people sang it within maybe a hundred years, maybe a year, of the event. (Or the alleged event. We have not yet determined whether it was historical.) Here is my translation, as literal as possible while still trying to capture the poetry.

Let me sing to Yahweh, for He triumphed!
Horse and its rider He cast in the sea.
My strength and song are Yah,
and He became a salvation for me.

This is my God, and I’ll praise Him,
my father’s God, and I’ll hail Him.
Yahweh is a warrior.
Yahweh is His name.

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He plunged in the sea
and the choice of his troops drowned in the Red Sea.
The deeps covered them.
They sank in the depths like a stone.

Your right hand, Yahweh, awesome in power,
your right hand, Yahweh, crushed the foe.
And in your triumph’s greatness you threw down
your adversaries.
You let go your fury: it consumed them like straw.
And by wind from your nostrils water was massed,
surf piled up like a heap,
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.

The enemy said, “I’ll pursue!
I’ll catch up!
I’ll divide spoil!
My soul will be sated!
I’ll unsheathe my sword!
My hand will deprive them!”

You blew with your wind. Sea covered them.
They sank like lead in the awesome water.

Who is like you among the gods, Yahweh!
Who is like you:
awesome in holiness!
fearsome with splendors!
making miracles!

You reached your right hand: earth swallowed them.
You led, in your kindness, the people you saved;
you ushered, in your strength, to your holy abode.

Peoples heard—they shuddered.
Shaking seized Philistia’s residents.
Then Edom’s chiefs were terrified.
Moab’s chieftains: trembling seized them.
All Canaan’s residents melted.
Terror and fear came over them.
At the power of your arm they hushed like a stone.
’Til your people passed, Yahweh,
’til the people you created passed.

You’ll bring them, and you’ll plant them in your
legacy’s mountain,
your throne’s platform, that you made, Yahweh;
a sanctuary, Lord, that your hands built.

Yahweh will reign forever and ever!

The first thing to notice is that the text never gives any numbers. Our original source for the event never even hints at whether the group who made it to the Red Sea was large or small. It also never says that they passed through walls of water. What happened to the people is not clear. What is clear, though, is that some catastrophe at the sea happened to the Egyptian force that was pursuing them.

But the more surprising thing to notice is that the word Israel does not occur in the Song of the Sea. The text never speaks of the whole nation of Israel. It just refers to a people, (in Hebrew, an ‘am) leaving Egypt. David Noel Freedman wrote: “the group that was the object of divine intervention, who were rescued from the pursuing chariots, is known only as the people of Yahweh. Although they have been redeemed by him, even created by him, they are not called Israel . . .” And God does not lead this ‘am to the entire land. It says that

He leads them to His “holy abode,”
He plants them in His “legacy’s mountain,”
at the Lord’s “sanctuary” (Hebrew miqedash),
where His “throne’s platform” is.

That last phrase occurs only here in the Song of the Sea and in reference to the Temple. The term miqedash (“sanctuary, temple, holy place”) likewise commonly refers to a Temple or the Tabernacle in the Hebrew Bible (52 times). This arrival only at the Temple, not at the whole land, makes sense if we are reading about Levites, who became the Temple priests. It does not apply to all of Israel. In the past, scholars have proposed a variety of possible locations to which these words refer. They have identified the holy abode, mountain, sanctuary, and throne platform as Mount Sinai, Gilgal, possibly Shiloh, or Canaan. The first three are all possible as sanctuaries. The last (Canaan) really does not correspond well to the words of the song, which uses those four different terms or phrases that imply a sanctuary. So if a group left Egypt in an exodus, they were a people, an ‘am, who ended up in some priestly status, in service of the God named Yahweh, in a location belonging to Yahweh.

Now what does the Song of Deborah have to do with this? It has no reference to the exodus. It appears in the book of Judges, which is set back in Israel. Composed in the 12th or 11th century BCE, it celebrates the battle in which the tribes of Israel united and triumphed over the Canaanite army led by the powerful king of Hazor and his general Jabin. This was likely the battle that first established Israelite hegemony as a country. It hails Deborah, who musters the tribes with her commander Barak. The Song lists the ten tribes of Israel whom Deborah summoned to battle. It calls each tribe by name. But one is missing. It does not mention Levi. Why? Either (a) the Levites were not there yet. They were in Egypt (or on the road). Or (b) the Levites were not a tribe of Israel going into battle; they were a priestly group, dispersed among the tribes. Actually the answer involves both. But first let us appreciate this most basic fact about our two earliest sources: The Song of Deborah, set in Israel, does not mention the Levites; and the Song of Miriam, set in Egypt, does not mention Israel. It was David Noel Freedman who especially emphasized this crucial fact.

And just to add another ancient piece to that ancient evidence, David Noel Freedman pointed to another of the songs that he and Cross had identified as the oldest texts in the Bible: the Blessing of Moses, found in Deuteronomy 33. It contains oracles about many of the tribes of Israel and Judah, and it includes Levi among them. But, Freedman, emphasized about the oracle of Levi:

This is the only tribal oracle with an explicit and necessary association with the wilderness wanderings. If the oracle may be trusted as authentic and ancient, then we have here the transference of tribal status to a group which participated in the Exodus and Wanderings, without, however, a comparable territorial allocation.

This fits with the other evidence we have tallied here. The Levites came to be accepted and counted as one of the tribes of Israel. But, unlike the rest of the tribes in the song, they are the only ones who are connected in any way with the journey from Egypt to Israel. Their role in that journey is explicit. No other Israelite group has any role at all. Thus in all of our earliest sources, only the Levites have any connection with the exodus.

(3) Who Wrote the Exodus Story?

Examining those poetic texts, our oldest sources, produced some useful information. That information is intriguing as pieces of the puzzle. If we examine the old prose sources embedded in the Bible, we can learn a good deal more. Figuring out how the Bible came to be composed—who wrote the parts, who put the parts together—has been a central question of Bible scholarship for the last two centuries. It has yielded phenomenal information about the Bible’s sources. When we put that information together with our archaeological information, that is when the puzzle starts to come together into a picture. Our mistake until now, as I have been stressing, is that we have looked almost solely at archaeology. We left out our biggest source, the Bible itself, because that was the thing that we were testing. We were trying to see if its stories were reliable as history or not. But our research on the Bible for over two hundred years has been much more sophisticated than merely reading stories and rating them as true or false. We have used the stories and poetry and laws as source material to study in order to see what history we can recover behind them. That is comparable to what we do in archaeology, studying sites and artifacts to see what history we can recover behind them. The methods are sometimes the same, sometimes different. But the goal and the end results are the same: to see what these two kinds of evidence can reveal. And best of all: to see what we can bring to light when we combine the two. Some years ago, at a united meeting of archaeologists and Bible scholars, I proposed as a thought experiment: what if we had had the archaeological work first, and then someone discovered the Bible? What would be our reaction? Front page New York Times! Headline news! Blogs going crazy with discussion of all kinds. From archaeology we would have had two inscriptions that referred to a king of the House of David, but we would have had no idea to whom or what that referred. But now, in this newly discovered Bible, we would have long, detailed accounts of King David and his descendants on the throne of Judah in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. From archaeology we would have had an inscribed stele from the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib claiming that he besieged a King Hezekiah the Judean in Jerusalem his royal city. And now, in this new book, we would have the Judean report of the same event from their perspective inside the city in the Bible’s books of 2 Kings and Isaiah. These texts would confirm much of what the Sennacherib stele claimed, and they would challenge parts of it.

What would be the reaction to this find? Some would say that this newly discovered book was a forgery. But it would in fact be the greatest literary, archaeological, historical, religious discovery of all time. To the religious it would be a revelation. To the secular it would be the stuff dissertations are made of. To Reader’s Digest it would cry out for an abridgement.

Just as we see and hear excitement over a new archaeological find that sheds light on the Bible, we would get excitement over this new long text that sheds light on our excavated artifacts. In fact, this latter excitement would be greater. This book would put flesh on the archaeological bones. Most of all, this book would give us connections, continuity, chronology. In other words: it would help to give us history.

We have been collecting evidence of the actual history that we can derive from the Bible, rather than just accepting or rejecting its stories, for about two centuries. Why would we not use two hundred years of research and learning on the exodus question? We needed to reach a point in both this textual research and archaeological research where we could be able to put the two together meaningfully. We are now at that point.

The best-known, most compelling explanation of all of our textual evidence is called the documentary hypothesis. A lot of people will tell you that this hypothesis about who wrote the Bible has a smaller consensus than it used to. That is true. Others will tell you that it has been disproved. That is false. The part about consensus, I must admit, reflects a rather strange breeze blowing through the field of Bible scholarship in recent years. The situation is not that the documentary hypothesis does not have a clear consensus of Bible scholars. It is that no hypothesis has a clear consensus of Bible scholars. The documentary hypothesis is just what it says: the Hebrew Bible is made up of documents, of source texts that editors (redactors) put together in several stages. That is the central idea, and nearly all scholars known to me outside of orthodox or fundamentalist communities are persuaded by that idea. (And even the orthodox and fundamentalist communities are beginning to come to terms with it just in the last few years.) The point about consensus is that we are now getting a profusion of variations of this central idea. There are supplementary hypotheses, meaning that authors wrote some of the documents and then other authors wrote more pieces around those documents as supplements. There are hypotheses of many very small documents that were expanded and connected to each other. There are hypotheses that date the documents later and later in Israel’s history. Some hypotheses propose a different order in which the source documents were written. There are hypotheses that deny that one or another of the documents ever existed. In all of these variations, the scholar remains critical: not automatically accepting or rejecting the Bible’s reports, but rather identifying the Bible’s sources and their history to see what
trustworthy information they can yield.

There is a classic story, some 2,000 years old, of a teacher (Hillel) who is challenged to teach the entire biblical instruction while someone stands on one foot. He answers:

What is bad to you, don’t do to someone else. Now go and learn.

Brilliant (though a lot of people leave out that second sentence when they quote this story). So, in the name of brevity, I shall make this summary of the hypothesis by that one-foot standard of timing:

First: The Bible’s first five books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We call them the Pentateuch, the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses.

Second: They are composed of four main documents. There are also some smaller ones.

Third: Brilliant editors (usually called redactors) used these documents as sources, which they combined in stages exquisitely to form the five-book work.

We can read each of these sources individually. If you wish to do so, there are now several books and online treatments. I have translated them and printed them in distinct colors and fonts so you can read them either individually or in any combination you choose. There are other works that distinguish the sources in various graphic ways. And the text is available online in the original Hebrew with the sources in distinct colors. I have provided an example of how this works here in a story from Exodus in Appendix A. I gave another example, the story of Noah and the Flood from Genesis, in Who Wrote the Bible? Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have now been able to read the individual sources. The reaction of amazement at how smoothly and consistently each source reads when separated from the others is common. It would be as if we could find four originally separate works, by four different authors, that someone combined to make The Brothers Karamazov, and each work flowed as a whole continuous story with hardly a gap, each had its own very specific language and names of persons, and each had parallel stories in the other texts.

We name the sources by letters:

J: It is called that because Yahweh’s name in it (spelled Jahwe in early German studies) is known by humans from the very beginning of the story at creation.

E: It is called that because Yahweh’s name in it is not known until the time of Moses. Before that Yahweh is called El or is just called generically “God,” which in Hebrew is Elohim. Hence the E.

P: It is a Priestly source.

D: It is exclusively in the book of Deuteronomy. It takes up almost the entire book.

One more point turns out to be huge for our exodus investigation. The last three sources (E, P, and D) were written by Levites. J was not. This need not be controversial. The priesthood of ancient Israel came from the Levite group, and the concerns of Levite priests are all over those three sources. They contain long bodies of religious rules and laws. The other source, J, does not. Their stories have polemic between the various Levite priestly groups, reflecting their ancient competitions. The J stories do not develop this. The three Levite sources have more text on the period starting with Moses and the establishment of the Levite priesthood. The J text has more on the period before this, the period of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The J text reflects more familiarity and interest in the royal court than in the priesthood. It is so non-priestly that I raised the possibility that it could have been written by a woman, as opposed to the three Levite sources, which come from a priesthood that did not include women.

To be helpful, there is a chart showing what each of the main sources contains in Appendix B. The intriguing story of how we discovered the existence of the sources and separated them from one another is told in Who Wrote the Bible? and now in many other books. For now, I just wanted to give enough of a basic picture so that any reader will be able to understand what follows: we shall see how this basic model in biblical scholarship joins the other evidence about the Levites and the Exodus.

God’s Name

Probably the single most famous clue of the hypothesis is the point about God’s name. People who challenge the hypothesis often refer to this as a problem of “the names of God.” They think it means that God has one name in one of the sources and a different name in another source. But that is not correct. The distinction is not that God has different names in different sources. God’s name is Yahweh in all the sources. The distinction rather is that the sources give different pictures of when God revealed His name, Yahweh, to humans. In the Levite source E and in another Levite source P, they call God Elohim, which, as I said above, is not a name. It is just a generic word for a god. Or they call God El, which may be both a name and also a generic word for a god. They use El or Elohim consistently until God reveals to Moses that His name is Yahweh. After that He is referred to by this name as well as by Elohim. But in J, people know the name Yahweh from the beginning. It is already used by the first woman, Eve. In the J source, the story’s narrator never once refers to the deity as Elohim. Persons in the story use the term; but the narrator does not. The narrator always says Yahweh, without a single exception.

People made the mistake of thinking that it was a matter of different names in different sources because the original work was done by a French physician, Jean Astruc, who worked only through the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and people still usually work through Genesis first. It is only in the second book of the Bible, Exodus, that we find out what the name thing has been all about: it is about when God first reveals to Moses that His name is Yahweh. In the Levite source E, God reveals it to Moses at a bush on the Mountain of God, where they first meet. Moses says that when he tells the people that their fathers’ God sent him they will ask, “What is His name?” They do not know it. The E text has not given the name up to this point. God answers:

Yahweh, your fathers’ God, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is how I am to be remembered for generation after generation. (Exodus 3:15)

And in the Levite Priestly source P, God reveals the name to Moses in Egypt. God says:

I am Yahweh. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shadday. And I was not known to them by my name, Yahweh. (Exodus 6:3)

It has been 260 years since Astruc, the text could hardly be more explicit, and at least some of us have read the Bible as far as Exodus, so we should regard this matter of the divine name as settled now.

Just how carefully, consistently, is this distinction in the revelation of God’s name developed? The words El, Elohim, and Yahweh occur 2,000 times in the Torah, and there are just three exceptions out of the 2,000. Three out of 2,000 is amazing in a text that was copied by hand for its first two thousand years. There are differences in the Greek version, the Septuagint, which is no surprise since a translator from Hebrew to Greek can easily slip and substitute kurios (LORD) or theos (God) in Greek for the Hebrew Yahweh or Elohim and vice versa. But now we also have the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are Hebrew texts. They are a thousand years older than the oldest Hebrew texts we had until that goat found the Scrolls in 1947. In the Dead Sea Scrolls the picture is the same as in those existing Hebrew texts, known as the Masoretic Text. The scrolls and the Masoretic Text are equally consistent with regard to the deity’s name. Only two verses have Elohim in the Dead Sea Scrolls where it is Yahweh in the Masoretic Text, and, as it happens, those are verses that do not contradict the hypothesis in any case.

The significance of this source distinction concerning the doctrine that God’s name was not revealed until Moses remains un-refuted and, I want to emphasize, under-appreciated. It was a first clue that led us on a trail of working out who wrote the Bible. If it had done just that and nothing more, that would have been a tremendous contribution. But the reason I reviewed it here is to go further now. The question now is: what might be the reason for this?

El Is Yahweh

What is the shoe behind this story? What made it necessary for two of the Bible’s greatest writers to develop an idea that God did not reveal His name until the time of Moses and the exodus? Following the other evidence that it may have been just the Levites who made the exodus from Egypt, this makes sense. The ‘am who left Egypt are connected to the worship of the God Yahweh. In our oldest source, the Song of the Sea, their God is mentioned nine times, and in all nine the name is Yahweh. Where did they get the worship of Yahweh? We do not know. (We shall look at possibilities in Chapter 4.) But we do know that back in Israel the people worshipped the God called El. The very name Israel is Hebrew yisra-’el. That has been taken to mean everything from “El Persists” to “Struggles with El.” The first part, “yisra,” is uncertain. But there is no doubt of the second part: El. The Israelites and the Canaanites worshipped the chief god El. So when the Levites arrive with their God Yahweh, and they meet up with the resident Israelites with their God El, what do they do?

I quoted the distinguished archaeologist William Dever above, where he wrote that there is “overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel.” Israel was indigenous. They did not come from Egypt or anywhere else. They were just there as far back as we can trace them. Dever meant this as evidence against the exodus. But, as I have been saying, it is evidence only against an exodus of all of Israel. The Israelite tribes had “largely indigenous origins.” Most of them were in Israel all along. That fits fine with the evidence that just the Levites came from Egypt. Then the Levites united with those Israelite tribes. Why? Either because (1) they felt kinship with each other, or (2) these Levites had originally come from Israel (probably called Canaan at that point) themselves, so their uniting was actually a re-uniting with their old brethren, or (3) those Israelite tribes had defeated the Canaanites (as the Song of Deborah reports), so the Levites naturally allied with them as the new strong force in the land. Maybe it was a mixture of all three. We do not doubt that this union of Levites and the Israelite tribes took place, though, because the Levites have been counted among the people of Israel from biblical times until the present day.

But what about the God of this united confederation? Were they going to worship El or Yahweh? Israel had choices. They could have chosen to worship only El. They could have chosen to worship only Yahweh. They could have chosen to worship both. They could have said that El is Yahweh’s father, or his son. But they chose none of these. They said: El is Yahweh. He was always Yahweh, but the Israelites in the land had not known this name because He did not reveal it until the time that these Levites were to come from Egypt to Israel. He revealed it to His greatest prophet, their leader, Moses. The Levites’ sources E and P retained this story as a crucial development in the people’s history. But the author of the J source, living in this same period, long after the acceptance of Yahweh as the proper name of God, and who was not a Levite priest, could not have cared less about when it started, and so he or she just told the story without including that transition. And that would explain how we came to have the crucial name of God distinction that helped us to separate the Bible’s sources to this day. That story is important itself, but it reflects something vastly more important. Yahweh and El are one. Scott Noegel of the University of Washington wrote:

The Late Bronze Age . . . was a formative and flexible period in the history of Israelite religion as it also saw the gradual fusion of the Canaanite god El with Yahweh.

Frank Cross wrote of how biblical Israel made no distinction between El and Yahweh:

’El is rarely if ever used in the Bible as the proper name of a non-Israelite Canaanite deity in the full consciousness of a distinction between ’El and Yahweh, god of Israel. This is a most extraordinary datum.

And Professor Mark Smith of Princeton University explained this datum thus:

At an early point, Israelite tradition identified El with Yahweh or presupposed this equation. It is for this reason that the Hebrew Bible so rarely distinguishes between
El and Yahweh.

We shall definitely return to this fusion of El and Yahweh because its implications are potentially tremendous. For now, our concern is that it is one more piece that fits with the picture of the Levite exodus from Egypt and subsequent union with Israel.

The premium of this body of evidence from the sources behind the Bible is that it explains so much. It harmonizes with the other evidence about the Levites and the exodus. It provides the reason for the accounts of the revelation of God’s name in the Bible. That was, as I said at the beginning, the first and most famous clue in the investigation into who wrote the Bible, but the reason behind this clue always eluded us. Now we have a reason, and it connects the hypothesis about the Bible’s authors to a real-life historical course of events in ancient Israel, a course of events that other evidence supports. In the early days of modern Bible scholarship people would attribute a passage in the Bible to one source or another, to J or E or P, because it used a particular word or told a story a particular way. But now, as we uncover logical connections between the source texts and the historical events that produced each of them, this tapestry of connections in turn gives the hypothesis more strength, more appeal, than ever. In scientific terms, it is a more elegant theory. In everyday terms: it is more likely that the theory is correct. This is not circular reasoning. It is convergence of evidence in mutual support. I said that there is currently a plethora of models competing for consensus. No other model known to me coincides so consistently with what we know of history and archaeology. Indeed, we commonly find books, lectures, and courses that introduce the subject with a discussion of “the names of
God” without even raising the question of why this prominent thing exists. And the trail of archaeology and history continues through all the evidence below.

(4) The Tabernacle and the Battle Tent of Rameses

What about the claims that we have found no widespread material culture of Egypt in early Israel? Those claims, like the ones about not finding two million people, are true only if we are still thinking of all of Israel making the exodus from Egypt. The whole country of Israel does not have such cultural connections back to Egypt. But the Levites, and only the Levites, do have the cultural connections. We have already seen that they have Egyptian names. And there is much more. The Levite priests’ description of their Tabernacle, the sacred Tent of Meeting, is long and detailed. It obviously was extremely important to them. There is in fact more about the Tabernacle than about anything else in the Five Books of Moses. Now, my former student, Professor Michael Homan of Xavier University of Louisiana, in a wonderful combination of Bible and archaeology, showed that the Tabernacle has architectural parallels with the battle tent of Pharaoh Rameses II. Its size, shape, proportions, surrounding courtyard, golden winged accoutrements, Eastern orientation, and arrangement of outer and inner rooms are a match. My own calculations of the Tabernacle’s construction differ in some ways from Homan’s, but still I acknowledge enough of a match that the connection is visible. The Levite sources of the Torah mention the Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting, over two hundred times. And how many times does the non-Levite source J refer to it? Zero.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *