Which Jews Came Out of Egypt? And When Did God Get Out of Our Heads?

March 29 2018

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. . . .

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Ancient Egypt, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Prophecy, Religion & Holidays


Syria’s Druze Uprising, and What It Means for the Region

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the Druze for the most part remained loyal to the regime—which has generally depended on the support of religious minorities such as the Druze and thus afforded them a modicum of protection. But in the past several weeks that has changed, with sustained anti-government protests in the Druze-dominated southwestern province of Suwayda. Ehud Yaari evaluates the implications of this shift:

The disillusionment of the Druze with Bashar al-Assad, their suspicion of militias backed by Iran and Hizballah on the outskirts of their region, and growing economic hardships are fanning the flames of revolt. In Syrian Druze circles, there is now open discussion of “self-rule,” for example replacing government offices and services with local Druze alternative bodies.

Is there a politically acceptable way to assist the Druze and prevent the regime from the violent reoccupation of Jebel al-Druze, [as they call the area in which they live]? The answer is yes. It would require Jordan to open a short humanitarian corridor through the village of al-Anat, the southernmost point of the Druze community, less than three kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Setting up a corridor to the Druze would require a broad consensus among Western and Gulf Arab states, which have currently suspended the process of normalization with Assad. . . . The cost of such an operation would not be high compared to the humanitarian corridors currently operating in northern Syria. It could be developed in stages, and perhaps ultimately include, if necessary, providing the Druze with weapons to defend their territory. A quick reminder: during the Islamic State attack on Suwayda province in 2018, the Druze demonstrated an ability to assemble close to 50,000 militia men almost overnight.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: Druze, Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy