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. . . .

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy