Reviewing two recent books on the Hebrew Bible by distinguished Jewish academics, David Wolpe explores their implications for religious readers:
In The Exodus, Richard Elliott Friedman seeks to answer, once and for all: was there an Exodus from Egypt? In The Great Shift, James Kugel responds to the perennial Sunday-school question: why doesn’t God talk to us anymore?
Kugel draws on [the philosopher] Charles Taylor’s notion that the premodern self was “porous”—or as Kugel puts it, “semipermeable.” People did not experience themselves as fixed, bounded individuals, but as continuous with the natural world. . . . The heart of the book contains evidence from the biblical text that not only were human beings more permeable, the Deity was different too: far less abstract and distant than in later conceptions. God was periodically visible [and] local, choosing to be accessible to select individuals at times.
[For his part, Friedman] insists that the Exodus did indeed happen, just not quite the way the Bible describes. . . . Friedman agrees with [the current scholarly] consensus [that] most Israelites did originate in Israel. But not all of them. . . . The Exodus story, [he argues], is really the tale of how the people we call Levites left Egypt and joined up with the Israelites already in Canaan. . . .
Both books trace the gradual emergence of monotheism from a background of polytheism. . . . Each explains the gradual unfolding of a universal God who is parent to all, who provides a paradigm of liberation and demands not just devotion but ethical action. Both authors succeed in deploying modern scholarship to prove the validity, or at least plausibility, of ancient convictions.
In Moses’ final song to the people, he encourages them: “Remember the days of old/ Consider the years of ages past/ Ask your father, he will inform you,/ Your elders, they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). They still have a tale to tell, those elders. As Kugel and Friedman demonstrate, if we learn new ways to ask, even doubting moderns can trust