In his recent book, The Exodus: How It Happened and Why It Matters, Richard Elliott Friedman tackles the question of whether the biblical exodus really took place. He concludes that the narrative is no fiction but is based on a true story, except that only just the tribe of Levi, and not all the Israelites, had been slaves to Pharaoh; then, he argues, after the Israelites returned to the land, Levite religious traditions, some of Egyptian origin, mixed with indigenous ones to give birth to the Torah’s account. In another new book, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times, James Kugel explores how the biblical God went from being immanent to being transcendent and thereupon stopped talking to people. In his review of these two books, Benjamin Sommer writes:
Kugel’s central point is that this shift in the view of God entailed a shift in the conception of what it means to be a human. For precisely as God recedes into the highest heavens, to use a revealing early post-biblical phrase, Jews begin to speak of what we call the soul, a core piece of one’s self present in, yet distinct from, the body. This soul can endure after death precisely because it is not physical, and it can connect directly with the one God who is in no one place for the same reason. For Kugel, the soul that emerges from the great shift serves the same purpose as ancient Near Eastern temples like Solomon’s: it is a meeting place for heaven and earth. But now this meeting takes place inside a person. After this, prayer and the study of sacred texts, not just sacrifices that had to be offered at a temple, can allow for God and the self to connect. . . .
Friedman tells us early on that he is a fan of mystery novels, and, like a good detective, he draws what seem like unrelated bits of data into tight arguments in which every detail has its place. It was only the Levites who left Egypt, Friedman insists, and only Levitical sources that preserve authentic memories of second-millennium Egypt and that base Israelite law and morality on the exodus.
But Friedman can make this claim only because, [based on the documentary hypothesis, which asserts that the different sections of the Torah were derived from different sources, each known to scholars by a particular initial], he identifies a great deal of material as stemming from E that almost all other biblical critics credit to J. Further, Friedman tells us that Levites wrote E without pausing to note that few of his colleagues agree; some specialists attribute E to prophetic circles, while others acknowledge that we cannot know which scribes or storytellers were most responsible for the traditions that crystallized as E. Further, [contra Friedman], some scholars do detect occasional Egyptian names among non-Levitical Israelites, though all agree that they are much more common among Levites.
Similarly, for Friedman the fact that monotheism emerged from an event involving oppressed foreigners in Egypt resulted in monotheism’s distinctive emphasis on loving the stranger. Yet solicitude for strangers is hardly the exclusive domain of monotheists. It was one of the bedrock values of Greek polytheists, a key mark of truly civilized humans in Homer’s Odyssey. . . .