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Exodus Matters
Did the Exodus really happen,
and why does it matter if it did?

Peeling back layers of the grand myth of the Exodus Dr. Richard Elliott Friedman, the biblical scholar and Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, first notes a number of important facts. First, the Victory Stele of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramesses II, the Great, which is often called the “Israel Stele,” is the oldest record of an entity named “Israel.” The stele is dated at ca. 1205 BCE, near the end of the Bronze Age. In it Merneptah names the various peoples of Canaan he subdued in the process of reinstating Egyptian hegemony over the region. Among the many cities and peoples mentioned is the brief assertion, “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.” When it came to names ancient Egyptian writings preceded them with characters called “determinatives” that denoted whether the name following it was that of a person, a people, a city, a nation, etc. In the Merneptah Stele the determinative before the name “Israel” denotes a people, but not a kingdom. Thus, Israel already existed as a tribal group, one of many peoples in Canaan by ca. 1200 BCE, traditionally one of the likely time frames of the Exodus.

Friedman also notes that the numbers of Israelites listed in the biblical account of the Exodus are wildly exaggerated. According to Numbers 1:46 the numbers of males capable of bearing arms was 603,550, meaning that, with their wives and children, the Israelites would have numbered over two million people. Yet, this huge number of people—who would have overwhelmed the Egyptians in Egypt by sheer weight of numbers—left no trace of their passage through the Sinai Desert. Nor is there any evidence from either history or archaeology of the plagues that ravaged Egypt in the story of the Exodus or of the loss of an entire Egyptian army, including 600 chariots (Exodus 14:7).

However, Friedman notes that many of the Levites, and only the Levites, have Egyptian names. These include (p. 32) Hophni, Hur, Phinehas, Merari, Mushi, Pashur and, particularly, Moses. The name Moses is likely derived from a suffix in Egyptian names, mose (pronounced MO-seh), roughly meaning “child of,” as in Thutmose, “Child of Thoth” or its variant “messes,” as in Ramesses, “Child of Ra.” What deity’s name might have originally preceded the mose of Moses is impossible to say. It’s difficult to explain how so many of the Levites had Egyptian names without the Levites having some connection with Egypt, a connection not found in the other Israelite tribes. He further notes that, of the three basic documentary strands that make up the Exodus narrative, two, E and P, were likely written by Levites. Only the J narrative—which contains none of the plagues against Egypt—was written by a non-Levite. Also, Friedman points out other Egyptian connections to the Levites and the E and P versions of the plagues against Egypt, as well as the description of the Tabernacle in Exodus 25 (P source). The description of the Tabernacle parallels the Egyptian description of the Battle Tent of Rameses II (pp. 53, 54). Likewise, the description of the Ark of the Covenant closely resembles that of ceremonial barks carried in Egyptian religious processions (p. 54). The plagues against Egypt are, likewise, paralleled in Egyptian texts (p. 57). I might add that, except for the plague of hail and the death of the first-born, these plagues are exaggerations of Egyptian seasonal ills.

All of these Egyptian-Levite associations are strong arguments for an Egyptian origin of the Levites. However, I find his argument that the practice of circumcision came from the Egyptians less convincing. From Egyptian reliefs we can deduce that they practiced adolescent circumcision, whereas the Israelites instituted the practice of infant circumcision. More to the point, circumcision seems to have been practiced by all the West Semitic peoples. The Jewish scriptures (the Christian “Old Testament”) are filled with harsh condemnations of their neighbors, the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and, particularly, the Amalekites. However, one term of opprobrium, “the uncircumcised” is only used to describe two non-Semitic peoples, the Hivites (probably Hurrians) of Shechem (see Genesis 34) and the Philistines (see Judges 14:3 and 1 Samuel 18:25-27). Therefore, it seems doubtful that the Egyptians were the source of the practice of circumcision by the Israelites.

Perhaps Friedman’s weakest argument in the book is in regard to the influence of the Levites on the other tribes of the Israelite confederation. In his second chapter, titled “The Mystery of Egypt,” is a subsection titled “Don’t mess with the Levites,” in which he says (p. 72):

Nobody wants to part with land to give to these immigrants from Egypt.

Ah, but the Levites are not people to whom one says, “No.” The stories about them in five different sources connect them with violence: Levi is one of two brothers who massacre the men of Shechem in that circumcision story about Dinah that we considered earlier (Genesis 34).

Levi (along with Simeon) is cursed for his violence in Jacob’s deathbed statement…. The Levites massacre around three thousand Israelite people in the golden calf episode.

Friedman adds to these two incidents the story of the Levite Phinehas spearing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman for engaging in sexual activity in the Tabernacle. This last incident, however, as Friedman himself has noted in earlier works, is part of the “P” author’s attack on a rival priesthood. The P author, claiming ancestry from Aaron, indirectly attacked the rival priests, authors of the E document, who claimed ancestry from Moses, by attacking the Midianites, since Moses’ wife Zipporah was a Midianite.

I think it’s unlikely that the Levites bullied the other tribes into submission, particularly since they did not end up with a tribal territory of their own. Rather, the other tribes supported the Levites as priests and religious functionaries. The Israelite confederation seems to have been what is called an amphictyonic league, a defensive alliance often made up of 12 tribes or city-states, centered on a common religious shrine. The reason for having 12 members was that each tribe or city-state undertook the cost of maintaining the central shrine—in the case of Israel the shrine being the Ark of the Covenant, located at Shiloh (see 1 Samuel 4)—and supporting its religious functionaries for one month each year. According to the Bible, the tribes of Israel are, in alphabetical order: Asher, Benjamin, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Judah, Levi, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulon. This gives us 13 tribes; but, since Levi only held certain cities in the territories of other tribes, there are 12 tribal territories.

If the Levites were responsible for the institution of the worship of Yahweh, as Freidman argues, I suspect it was because they brought with them from Egypt some of the sophistication of Egyptian civilization. We might see a parallel to this in the influence of the Puritan heritage of New England on the rest of our country. Most educators in the eighteenth and nineteenth century came from New England, in large part due to the Puritans’ stress on literacy.1

Friedman’s basic premise in The Exodus is that the Levites, as part of a Semitic foreign labor force in Egypt, were increasingly ill treated and finally left. They picked up the worship of Yahweh in Midian, in the eastern Sinai, and brought it with them to Canaan. Once they became part of the Israelite confederation, they merged the worship of Yahweh with that of El, patriarch of the Canaanite pantheon. This Friedman sees as the beginnings of monotheism. Further, their experience of being ill-treated in Egypt served as the basis for the Israelite tradition of showing kindness to strangers and slaves, which Friedman views as unique in the ancient world. As to the southern origin of the worship of Yahweh, the author points out (pp. 122, 123) that the oldest inscription mentioning Yahweh (actually YHWH) is an Egyptian reference to the west Asiatic people, probably from Midian or Edom, living in Egypt, characterized as the “Shasu of YHWH.”

I feel that Friedman makes a good case for an exodus (at an unspecified period of history) of a small tribal group from Egypt—sans miracles, plagues or the destruction of the Egyptian army (i.e., no parted Red Sea collapsing upon Pharaoh’s army after Moses and his people narrowly pass in Cecil B. DeMille’s filmic version in The Ten Commandments)—and the likelihood that this tribal group brought with them into Canaan the worship of Yahweh, who was subsequently identified with El (whose name simply means “God”) the patriarch of the Canaanite pantheon.

I take issue, however, with his assertion that the Levites originated the virtue of kindness to strangers among the Israelites or that it was unique in the ancient world. I further disagree with his assertion that the merger of Yahweh with El following the Exodus was the source of monotheism. Let us consider first the treatment of strangers. In Chapter Six, titled “The Mystery of Judah” and subtitled, “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” Friedman states (p. 200):

And we saw one more thing: all three Levite sources of the Torah (known in critical Bible scholarship as E, P, and D) command fair treatment of aliens. Foreigners. Outsiders. Not members of the group. It is not a small point. In these Levite sources it comes up fifty-two times. And how often does the non-Levite source, J, mention it? None.

Friedman further asserts that this concern for strangers was unique in the ancient Near East and that it grew out of the Levite experience of being treated badly as strangers in Egypt. While he does not mention ancient Greece, we would have to assume some cultural continuity from the Near East to the Greeks. After all, it was the West Semitic peoples (specifically the Phoenicians) who gave the Greeks their alphabet. So, if the ancient Greeks had some concept of kindness to strangers being a major virtue, or, for that matter, if we find the ill-treatment of strangers presented as a vice in the J Document, this would amount to seriously disconfirming evidence regarding Friedman’s theory.

If the Greeks are to be considered, then the virtue of kindness to strangers was not unique to the Israelites. Enshrined among divinely ordained virtues among them was xenia, the virtue of showing kindness to strangers. This virtue is of cardinal importance in the narratives of the Trojan War and in the Odyssey. Paris, a Trojan prince, thus a foreigner, having been shown hospitality by Menelaus, in the spirit of xenia, makes off with his host’s wife, thereby precipitating the Trojan War. In the Iliad, Achilles shows kindness (xenia) to the Trojan king, Priam, his enemy; when Priam comes to him by night to beg for the body of his son, Hector. In the Odyssey, many of the antagonists of Odysseus are characterized by their violation of xenia. Cyclops Polyphemus and the Laestrygonians set upon Odysseus’s men, killing them and eating them when they should be showing the strangers hospitality and kindness. Circe, seeming to offer his men hospitality, instead turns them into swine. The suitors violate xenia in forcing themselves on Penelope. They also mistreat Odysseus, who is disguised as a beggar, when Penelope, practicing xenia, shows the unknown beggar hospitality. Princess Nausicaa of the Phaeacians likewise treats the naked castaway she has found on the beach with kindness, as do her parents. So, the concept of showing kindness to strangers, even foreigners, was not limited to the Israelites.

Even if Friedman were to exclude the Greeks from his consideration, another bit of disconfirming evidence comes from the Bible itself. In Genesis 18 and 19, material from the J Document, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah bring destruction on themselves when they set upon strangers. The crime of Sodom is not homosexuality (though homosexuality is roundly condemned in the Jewish scriptures). Rather, it is rape. The men of Sodom want to rape the angels in human form who are visiting Lot. That their crime is that of violent rape is made clear in the parallel story of the outrage at Gibeah in the Book of Judges, chapter 19. The wording of both stories is nearly identical, and it is Friedman’s own theory, as set forth in his book, The Hidden Book in the Bible, that the same author wrote both stories. In the story of the outrage at Gibeah, the Levite given hospitality by an old man in that town in the tribal territory of Benjamin, in order to avoid being raped by its men, gives his concubine to them, with the following result (Judges 19:25–28a):

But the men of the town would not hearken to him; so the man took his concubine and brought her forth unto them; and they knew her and abused her all the night until morning, and when day began to spring, they let her go. Then came the woman in the dawning of the day and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her lord was till it was light. And her lord rose up in the morning and opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way; and behold, the woman his concubine was fallen down at the door of the house and her hands were upon the threshold. And he said unto her, “Up, and let us be going.” But there was no answer.

As a result of this violent and brutal rape to the point of murder, the other tribes attack and nearly wipe out the tribe of Benjamin. So, according to the author of the J Document, abusing strangers brought destruction to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and resulted in the near annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin. J may not specifically command the people of Israel be kind to strangers; but the stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the outrage at Gibeah, certainly condemn the opposite of that behavior.

As to his argument that monotheism began with the fusion of Yahweh with El, Friedman acknowledges that there are strong arguments for the theory that the worship of Yahweh as a single, universal god began as a result of the Babylonian exile—which, by the way, only involved the inhabitants of Jerusalem—even citing (p. 152) a famous verse from Palm 137, which begins, “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept.” That verse, Ps. 137:4, reads, “How shall we sing a song to Yahweh2 in a foreign land?” It is a strong indicator that, up until the Exile, Yahweh was worshipped as a henotheistic deity, the god of a given people or land only, rather than as the god of all lands. Another verse, this one from 2 Kings, also supports this notion. Mesha, king of Moab has rebelled against Israel, with the result that the Israelites launch a devastating punitive expedition against him, finally besieging him in his capitol, provoking the following (2 Kings 3:27, bracketed material added):

Then he [Mesha] took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was a great wrath against Israel; and they departed from him and returned to their own land.

The great wrath against Israel would certainly not have come from Yahweh. Rather, it had to come from Chemosh, god of the Moabites. Thus, the Israelites fled from a land where Yahweh had no power. Friedman acknowledges as well that (p. 151) the first of the Ten Commandments reads (Exodus 20:2, 3):

I am Yahweh3, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.

The statement, “You shall have no other gods before me,” only makes sense if the other gods exist. However, Friedman counters that Psalm 18:32 which reads, “Who is a god outside of Yahweh, and who is a rock outside of our God?” can be dated to the tenth century BCE (p.156). Friedman also quotes (p. 157) similar verses from Deuteronomy, generally dated to the reign of king Josiah, hence prior to the Exile.

The Exodus (book cover)

If a notion existed that Yahweh, the god of Israel, was the only god, and a god who was not encumbered by a wife, it was probably held by a limited number of people, namely members of the priesthood, before the Exile. When the prophet Jeremiah, who lived at the time the Chaldeans deported the inhabitants of Jerusalem, condemns the refugees who have fled to Egypt for making offerings to the “Queen of Heaven,” either Anath or Asherah, or an amalgam of the two goddesses, the refugees answer him that they will continue making offerings to the Queen of Heaven, because when they ceased doing so they were beset by war and famine (Jeremiah 44:16–19). Friedman has demonstrated that some concept that Yahweh was the only god that did exist prior to the Exile. However, it would appear that it took the Exile to force the deported Jews in general to change their henotheistic deity into a universal, monotheistic God. Can the origins of monotheism be found in the fusion of Yahweh, the god the Levites brought with them from the south, with El, the Canaanite king of the gods? While this is possible, I feel that Friedman hasn’t proven it.

Regardless of how one views the main thesis of this book, one has to respect the objectivity and even-handedness of its author. The book, while being easy to read and written for the lay public, does not talk down to its intended audience; nor does it dumb-down the material. Certainly the different elements that went into making up the people who eventually became the Israelites were all important. It is likely that some elements that made up the people called Israel were not only native Semitic Canaanites but as well had non-Semitic, Hurrian cultural antecedents,4 and that at least one of the tribes (Dan) may have originally been related to the equally non-Semitic Philistines.5 It is, therefore, not a stretch to suppose that the fully West Semitic Levites might have Egyptian plus Midianite origins. Dr. Friedman’s exploration of this idea is well worth reading. END

About the Author

Tim Callahan is religion editor of Skeptic magazine. His books include Secret Origins of the Bible, and Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? both published by Millennium Press. He has also researched the environmental movement, and his article “Environmentalists Cause Malaria! (and other myths of the ‘Wise Use’ movement)” appeared in The Humanist.

  1. See Axtell, James. 1974. The School Upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  2. In most bibles this verse is rendered, “How can we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?” In the Masoretic Text (MT), the official body of the Jewish scriptures, the vowel points for the Hebrew word adonai, “lord” were inserted into the consonants Yodh (Y) Hey (H) Vav (V or W) Hey (H), indicating that the sacred personal name of God, YHWH or Yahweh, was not to be spoken aloud. Rather the word “lord” was to be substituted. In English translations of the MT, the Old Testament of Protestant bibles, the word LORD, all in capital letters, is used in place of YHWH or Yahweh.
  3. Again, in English translations this is rendered “the LORD, your God” (see note 2).
  4. See Cazellas, Henri. 1971. “The Hebrews” in Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East. 1991. Greenspan, Frederick E., editor, New York and London: New York University Press, p. 284.
  5. Yadin, Yagael. 1968. “And Dan, Why Did He Remain in Ships?” in Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East 1991 Greenspan, Frederick E., editor, New York and London: New York University Press, pp. 294–310.
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