The Historical Exodus
One of the great contributions to critical scholarship was made jointly by my teacher Frank Cross (z”l) and my senior colleague David Noel Freedman (z”l). In 1948, they established on several different grounds that certain songs were of very high antiquity. These included the Song of Miriam and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. Freedman called them the two oldest texts in the Tanakh.
Freedman added that this had implications for the historicity of the exodus. Many scholars and archaeologists say the exodus never happened. 90 percent of their argument is based on the lack of artifacts in Egypt or Sinai and on finding few items of Egyptian material culture in early Israelite sites, which we would have expected if the Israelites had lived in Egypt for centuries. But that isn’t evidence against the historicity of the exodus. At most, it is evidence (more correctly: an absence of evidence) against the tremendous number of participants that the Torah pictures.
I had included the idea of a non-millions exodus in my Who Wrote the Bible? back in 1987, and I raised the idea there, just as a possibility, that the smaller exodus group was just the Levites. That possibility looks substantially more tangible today than it did in 1987.
The Song of the Sea does not Mention the Name Israel
The trail of evidence starts with the Song of Miriam (or Song of the Sea). It never speaks of the whole nation of Israel. The word Israel does not occur in it. This oldest source we have just refers to a people, an ‘am (vv. 13, 16 [2x]), leaving Egypt. And God does not lead this ‘am, to the whole land. He leads them to His sacred abode, He plants them in His legacy’s mountain, at His miqedash, where His throne’s platform is (v. 17). (That last phrase, “His throne’s platform,” occurs only in the Song and in reference to the Temple. It is in King Solomon’s Temple dedication in 1 Kings 8:13). These phrases make sense if we’re reading about Levites, who became the Temple priests. They do not apply to all of Israel.
No Levites in the Song of Deborah
The Song of Deborah, meanwhile, lists all ten tribes of Israel (Judah and Simeon were a separate community at this time and not part of Israel) but doesn’t mention Levi. Why? Either (1) because the Levites were not there yet. They were in Egypt (or on the road). Or (2) they were not a tribe of Israel, they were a priestly group.
One might respond that the second explanation is enough; it still doesn’t connect the Levites with Egypt or an exodus. But, then, some Levites have Egyptian names: Hophni, Hur, Merari, Mushi, two named Phinehas, and of course Moses. We in North America, called “a land of immigrants,” especially get the significance of names and what they reveal about people’s backgrounds. Levites have the connection with Egypt, evidenced by their Egyptian names. The other tribes don’t. So Deborah, set in Israel, doesn’t mention the Levites; and the Song of Miriam, set in Egypt, doesn’t mention all of Israel. It just mentions a group who leave Egypt and end up at the miqedash.
Evidence from Source Criticism
Now let me add what we have learned from source criticism to this matter of the Levites. What was the first, best-known piece of evidence that suggested the existence of multiple sources in the Torah? Answer: God’s name. People sometimes refer to this as a problem of “the names of God.” But that’s not correct. It isn’t that God has different names in different sources. It’s that sources give different pictures of when God’s name, YHWH, was revealed.
As I discussed in past work, the sources known as E, P, and D are traced to Levite priestly authors. In the Levite sources E and P, God is called Elohim (a generic, not a name) or El consistently until He reveals that His name is YHWH to Moses (in Exodus 3 [E] and 6 [P]), and after that He is referred to by this name as well as by Elohim. But in the source called J, people know the divine name from the beginning. It is first used by Eve (or more probably Lamech, since the use by Eve in the Masoretic Text appears as theou, reading Hebrew ’elohim, in the Septuagint). Then, the narrator in the J source never once refers to the deity as Elohim. Persons in the story use the term; but the narrator does not.
Just how carefully is this distinction in the revelation of God’s name developed? In 2,000 occurrences of El, Elohim, and YHWH in the Torah there are just three exceptions.
The Significance of God Revealing the Name YHWH in the Levitical Sources
The significance of this source distinction concerning the doctrine that God’s name was not revealed until Moses remains un-refuted and under-appreciated. It was a first clue that led us on a trail of working out who wrote the Bible. If it had just done that and nothing more, dayenu. But the reason I raise it here is to go further and ask: what might be the reason for this: Why did two writers in the Torah develop an idea that God did not reveal His name until the time of Moses and the exodus? Why formulate such a thing?
As pointed out above, the two sources that develop this idea, E and P, are both texts that were written by Levites. In the hypothesis that we’re testing, that it was the Levites who came from Egypt and brought the worship of the God YHWH with them, we can understand why Levite authors would want to tell this: a story to establish that YHWH was the God of old, the God of Israel’s ancestors, and not a new and different deity. Arriving in a place that had long worshipped El as chief God, the Levites and the resident Israelites didn’t need to decide that they would now worship two chief deities, and they didn’t need to fight over choosing one and rejecting the other.
What E and P reflect is a decision to say rather that El and YHWH were one and the same God. Meanwhile, J, the indigenous, non-Levite source, doesn’t bother with the story. It just treats YHWH as God’s name from time immemorial, and its narrator, when writing in his or her own voice, never once uses the word Elohim.
There is more. It is in fact only the Levite sources — E, P, and also D — that tell the entire story of the plagues and exodus from Egypt. J, the non-Levite source, doesn’t tell it. If you read J, it jumps from Moses’ saying “Let my people go” in Exodus 5:1f. to the people's already having departed Egypt in Exodus 13:21. Who knows what story, if any, came in between.
It is likewise the Levite sources that concentrate on the Tabernacle. E mentions it a little; P treats it a lot. There is more about the Tabernacle than about anything else in the Torah. But the non-Levite source J never mentions it at all. Professor Michael Homan showed that the Tabernacle has architectural parallels with the battle tent of Pharaoh Rameses II. Professor Scott Noegel showed parallels between the Levite priests’ description of the Ark and Egyptian barks. Only texts written by Levites give the requirement to practice circumcision — which was a known practice in Egypt. So Egyptian cultural influences are present, but only among the Levites!
Fair Treatment of the Alien: From the Levites’ Experience in Egypt
Over and over, the Levite sources E, P, and D command that one must not mistreat an alien. Why? “Because we were aliens in Egypt.” The first occurrence of the word “torah” in the Torah is: “There shall be one torah for the citizen and for the alien who resides among you” (Exodus 12:49). In the three Levite sources, the command to treat aliens fairly comes up 52 times! And how many times in the non-Levite source, J? None. William Propp’s commentary on Exodus makes a strong case on the etymology of the very word “Levi” that its most probable meaning is an “attached person” in the sense of resident alien.
The scenario is that the Levites were in Egypt, and it was the Levites who worshipped the God YHWH. The Song of Miriam names God nine times, and in all nine it is YHWH. And this name has been found in Egypt in two inscriptions from the 14th and 13th centuries. These Levites brought their story and their God to Israel.
So on one hand this archaeological and critical model challenges traditional beliefs, and on the other it challenges those critics who argue that the exodus isn’t historical. As for their arguments, as the Song itself says, “You blew with your wind. They sank like lead.”
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
January 25, 2015
September 21, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman is the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and is the Katzin Professor (Emeritus) of Jewish Civilization of the University of California, San Diego. He earned his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Harvard, and is the author of Who Wrote the Bible?, The Disappearance of God, The Hidden Book in the Bible, Commentary on the Torah, The Bible with Sources Revealed, The Bible Now, and The Exile and Biblical Narrative.
Essays on Related Topics: