Exodus and Consciousness

A few years ago, the rabbi of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, Dr. Elliot Cosgrove, began a sermon with a sobering question: 

If every single Jewish studies professor, from every campus across North America, were to get on an airplane that took off, flew away, and never came back again, would Jewish life change at all? Our synagogues, our Hebrew schools, our Jewish summer camps, our UJAs, our relationship with Israel—if there were no Jewish studies departments on campus, would it have any effect on the Jewish community?

If one peruses titles of papers that professors of Jewish studies deliver at conferences and publish in journals, one finds little that would interest most committed American Jews—and even less that would engage the many more who enact their Jewish identity only a few times a year. Of course, the question could be rephrased more generally: How much of the not infrequently esoteric work of contemporary professors of the humanities matters to, well, humans? 

But things don’t have to be this way. Two recent books by senior scholars drawing on a lifetime of study and teaching provide an antidote to the sense that life and scholarship have nothing to do with each other. James Kugel retired in 2013 from Bar-Ilan University’s Bible department, where he taught for over two decades; earlier he served as the Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University. Richard Elliott Friedman spent the first three decades of his career building the Jewish studies program at the University of California, San Diego before moving on to the University of Georgia to become the Davis Professor of Jewish Studies there. The two share not only a set of renowned mentors at Harvard (where they both trained in the 1970s) but a longstanding commitment to serious biblical scholarship that addresses a general audience. If, before stepping into one of my classes, a first-year undergraduate or rabbinical student has read a single work of modern biblical scholarship, the odds are that it is Friedman’s 1987 blockbuster, Who Wrote the Bible? If it isn’t that, it’s likely to be Kugel’s 2007 How to Read the Bible. In these and other books, both Kugel and Friedman bring their own insights along with concise summaries of modern biblical criticism not only to academic colleagues but to interested lay readers. 

The subjects of their new books, which both appeared this past fall, reflect their different interests and approaches. Kugel examines the changing nature of perceptions of God and self in the Bible, while Friedman investigates the history behind the book of Exodus. However, it turns out that reconstructing the nature and evolution of biblical monotheism is crucial to both of these books.


Friedman poses a straightforward historical question: Did the exodus from Egypt really happen? He notes that many scholars regard scripture’s narrative concerning Moses, Pharaoh, and the Israelites as a fiction concocted by authors who lived in the first millennium B.C.E., long after the events were supposed to have happened. After all, no archaeological evidence of the presence of Israelite slaves in Egypt has ever been found, much less evidence of their sudden liberation one early spring night in the Late Bronze Age. This line of reasoning doesn’t impress Friedman. To be sure, some details of the exodus story cannot be historically accurate. For instance, the book of Numbers tells us that the liberated slaves included 603,550 adult males. If we extrapolate conservatively from this number, we would conclude that at least two million Israelites left Egypt, which would be a lot of missing slaves to go unnoticed by ancient Egyptian historians. But ancient historians did not use numbers the way we do, so getting bogged down over what were probably intended as typological figures is hardly necessary. (Furthermore, some parts of the Bible suggest that the number of escaped slaves was far smaller.) The absence of specific references to Israelite slaves in Egypt is hardly surprising, since Egyptian texts do not indicate the precise ethnicity of slaves. Israelites would simply have been considered “Asiatic,” and references to Asiatic slaves abound in the relevant time period. 

Illustration of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea
Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, from the Nuremberg Bible. (Biblia Sacra Germanaica, The Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images.)

But Friedman goes beyond doubting the doubters. He brings together several converging lines of evidence that point toward a smaller exodus in the latter part of the second millennium. He focuses especially on an odd pattern: Though the Bible tells us that all 12 tribes of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, every named character in the story comes from the tribe of Levi. Further, the Bible mentions Levites who have Egyptian names (for example, Moses, Phinehas, and Pashhur), but members of other tribes never bear them. It might be suggested that some characters were given Egyptian names to provide an authentic flavor to the narrative, but, if so, why isn’t the occasional man from Ephraim or woman from Manasseh given an Egyptian name? There is, in short, a disconnect between the way the Bible wants to portray the exodus and the data the Bible uses to do so, and this suggests that the data was not made up. A pure fiction would hold together better; historical reports based on real evidence tend to have rougher edges. 

Consequently, Friedman believes that there really was an exodus, but only of the Levites. In fact, he proposes, it is possible that the Levites were not originally part of the nation Israel; alternatively, they were separated from their Israelite brethren precisely by the fact of their sojourn in Egypt, a sojourn that the other tribes never experienced. Friedman notes that the oldest parts of the Bible depicting Israelites in the Land of Canaan, such as the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, don’t include Levites in their list of Israelite tribes. Conversely, another very old poem, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, talks about the exodus but doesn’t specify that Israelites left Egypt. That poem’s closing verses identify arrival at a temple (“the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands established”) as the ultimate goal of the exodus; thus, this poem reflects specifically priestly, Levitical concerns. All this leads Friedman to conclude that the Levites united—or perhaps reunited—with the Israelites only after they had left Egypt. When these Levites merged with the Israelites they brought memories of bondage in Egypt, liberation, and the creation of a covenant with the desert deity whom they credited as their savior. Those historical memories were eventually adopted by all the Israelites, and the Levites then came to serve as Israel’s priestly caste.

In support of this theory, Friedman notes similarities between the priestly Tabernacle described in the book of Exodus and second-millennium Egyptian ritual and military structures. He agrees with the scholarly consensus that the biblical story as we have it was composed in the first millennium, but he argues persuasively that this story contains historical memories that go back much further. 

Photo of Richard Elliott Friedman.
Richard Elliott Friedman. (Photo by Jade.)

To this Friedman adds what he sees as another clue. For close to two centuries, many biblical critics have upheld what is known as Documentary Hypothesis, the theory that the five books of the Torah combine four originally separate documents, which biblical scholars famously named J, E, P, and D. Three of these documents, in Friedman’s view, were composed by Levites: E, P, and D. The authentic second-millennium Egyptian elements of the story, Friedman claims, show up specifically and only in those three documents. Further, those three documents, unlike the non-Levitical J document, use the exodus experience as the underpinning of Israelite identity, law, and morality. For example, E, P, and D—but not J—repeatedly tell us to treat aliens with compassion, because we were once aliens in Egypt; all three of these sources—but not J—require Hebrew slaves to be freed after a term of service rather than forcing them to remain slaves forever. 

In short, at some point after the Levites escaped from Egypt and joined the Israelites who were already established in Canaan, what was originally a Levite story came to be remembered as a story about all Israelites. And, most crucially for Friedman, that ethnic merger was accompanied by a theological merger. The desert deity of the Levites, known by the Tetragrammaton, was identified with the high god of the Israelites, known as El. One might have imagined, in the polytheistic world of the ancient Near East, that the newly unified Israelite nation would simply have two main gods. After all, the Egyptians managed perfectly well with a divine menagerie. But the newly merged Israelites did not create a mythology that told the story of the relationship between two distinct gods; instead, they came to believe that these were merely two distinct names for one unique god. 

For Friedman, then, the most important result of the exodus and the consequent fusion of Levitical and Israelite identity was the creation of monotheism itself. And that fusion involved not only a theology but an ethics, for at the heart of Levitical religion was the view that aliens and even slaves had to be treated with compassion and dignity. “[T]he birth of monotheism,” Friedman writes, “was paralleled with the birth of love of neighbors, even alien neighbors. The exodus led both to monotheism and to the exceptional attitude toward others.” 

Thus, a significant part of Friedman’s project in this book is a defense of biblical religion. Not only is the Bible’s central historical narrative based on a real event, but the essence of its teaching is the opposite of what some cultured despisers of monotheism have claimed. Monotheism is not essentially exclusivist or intolerant, for the event that led to Israel’s acceptance of a single deity also demanded a compassionate attitude toward others. Friedman does not deny the presence of ethically problematic texts in the Bible, such as those calling for the wholesale slaughter of Amalekites. But he shows that those laws sit alongside others that call for humane treatment of other nations, and it is those verses that predominate and remain in force in the postbiblical era. 


Like Friedman, Kugel understands monotheism as a complex religious phenomenon that emerged gradually. In the early stages it often acknowledged the reality of lesser deities other nations could legitimately worship; its full theological implications took time to express themselves consistently. But Kugel’s main concern is not just historical but anthropological. He is interested in what the Bible’s ideas about God teach us about the Bible’s views of humanity. 

In some of the older sections of the Bible, God appears suddenly to human beings, who are sometimes surprised but never entirely flabbergasted to meet the deity. Indeed, Kugel points out that God’s appearance seems so commonplace that some characters initially fail to realize who is addressing them at all. They are in a sort of fog that prevents them from fully perceiving what is happening until there is a kind of click, and the fog clears. Even then, they are not always overwhelmed; they often speak with God as one would address a respected fellow human. 

In the world of these early stories involving Adam and Eve, Abraham, Hagar, Moses, and Gideon, God seems very much of this world, ready to slip easily into a person’s consciousness. Kugel argues that God’s sudden appearance in these stories suggests an understanding of the human self as semipermeable. God’s voice could enter a person’s head, as could a visual image of God standing in front of the person. Or perhaps God’s occasional appearances imply a different sense of the world, one in which multiple realities can coexist in the same space, though only one such reality is visible to us most of the time. In Eden, but also in the world of Abraham or Jacob or Gideon, divinity may be present often (always?), though fully manifest at few times and even then to only a few people. This view of the world is not unique to the Bible. Something similar shows up, for instance, in Homer and other polytheistic writings contemporaneous with or earlier than the Bible.

Kugel shows that this view of God, humanity, and world is slowly displaced by another one that thinks through the implications of a single deity who rules not only over His people Israel but the whole cosmos. While the God who speaks to Abraham in Genesis 18 appears to be human in size (it takes a while for Abraham to realize the man he is speaking with is God at all), Israelites began over time to assume that a cosmic deity must have been enormous (too big, as the last chapter of the book of Isaiah puts it, to be encompassed by the heavens, much less the earth). This God, Kugel writes, “no longer stepped across the curtain separating ordinary from extraordinary reality. Now He was not seen at all—at first because . . . visual sighting was held to be lethal, and later because it was difficult to conceive of. God’s voice was still heard, but He Himself was an increasingly immense being, filling the heavens; and then finally (moving ahead to postbiblical times), He was just axiomatically everywhere all at once.” This is the great shift of Kugel’s title: from a God who was, as the poet Friedrich Hölderlin put it, “Nearby . . . / and hard to hold” to one who is distant yet omniscient, and thus always accessible. 

Photo of James L. Kugel.
James L. Kugel. (Photo by Rick Taft.)

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 postbiblical 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 such as 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. 

By the end of the biblical period, God no longer spoke to prophets by stepping from behind the curtain separating our perceptual reality from another deeper one with which it shared space. He was no longer next door, ready to cross over into the semipermeable mind of a human messenger. Rather, He was ever-present through the words of scripture and ever-accessible through prayer. 

This shift to a more distant God moves us, surprisingly enough, in a democratic direction. For if God is accessible in a book rather than in a ritual that can be performed only by a descendant of Aaron or in the unique and irreproducible experience of a Moses or a Jeremiah, then anyone can seek God out, not only the priest or the prophet. If for Friedman biblical monotheism implies an ethics, for Kugel it implies an epistemology and a metaphysics. The great shift brought with it a new view of the human self. Humans were no longer inhabitants of a mysterious world of multiple overlapping realities; their bodies dwelled instead in a more straightforward world, even as their souls connected them to a distant realm. 

Before the great shift, humans were deeply embedded within family, clan, and nation, through which they achieved a kind of ongoing existence. After it, people could endure as individuals after death. Kugel hardly claims that there was no concept of the individual early on, nor does he allege that family, clan, and nation disappeared from Jewish thinking after the great shift. But he argues that ancient Jews placed increasing value on the individual as their monotheistic God grew in size, moved further away, and finally lost His corporeality altogether. These changes in how Israel understood God opened up a space for humanity. Consequently, the great shift Kugel describes encouraged a sense of inwardness that was far less prominent in early biblical texts. 

Yet, Kugel maintains, the idea that the soul has a special connection with the distant God also taught that “in the end, man is not the whole point, but that the inward turn ultimately leads outward, to a divine reality beyond oneself.” These developments continued long after the eras that Kugel describes in his book, becoming especially strong in our modern world, in which the sense of inwardness has become so intense that, paradoxically, it has ended up engulfing the turn toward what is outside the self: 

Our modern, sealed-off individualism has emerged in part thanks to the reconfiguring of what was once the semipermeable mind, and our complicated modern psyche has been purchased for a sky emptied of angels. . . . Many modern Westerners . . . adrift in today’s version of the self . . . cannot imagine trying to see beyond it in order to address an unknown You.

Thus, Kugel does not simply portray the great shift as progress. We paid a price for it, and Kugel seems wistful at times as he describes the earlier view more common in Genesis and Judges.

Kugel’s book, then, is not only about encountering God, and it is not only about biblical times. He is concerned with modern conceptions of the self as well as ancient ones. Thus, it is appropriate that he takes frequent detours through the cognitive sciences, anthropology, and philosophy, offering surprisingly lucid summaries of their varied discussions of human selfhood. In this, his book resembles Friedman’s, who is also adept at summarizing and employing the work of other scholars. Both authors also write with clarity and with wit. Friedman is fond of pop-culture references (one short paragraph manages to allude to Godfather I and III, along with the Eagles’ “Hotel California”), while Kugel tends to be drily elegant. But there are also revealing differences in the ways these two books bridge the gulf between the academy and a wider readership. 


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 base Israelite law and morality on the exodus. But Friedman can make this claim only because 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, 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

Friedman’s narrative of ancient Israel’s journey from polytheism through what he calls henotheism (exclusive worship of one god without denying the existence of others) finally to arrive at what he regards as true monotheism is clear and incredibly neat: All the verses, all the archaeological evidence, all the datings of the texts fit perfectly into the three-stage developmental pattern he lays out. But history doesn’t actually work that way. In the humanities, you know something is amiss if all the data supports your thesis. A mystery writer must account for every single piece of evidence; after all, she created them. But a historian who does so should be questioned closely. 

Happily, I can report that scholars familiar with the material Friedman works with know that some of these verses aren’t really from E, and that E might not have been a Levite anyway. Moreover, the relationships among polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism are far messier and the archaeological evidence far more ambiguous than Friedman reports. But for precisely these reasons, his conclusions are believable. Not all of his arguments are equally valid, and some are overstated, but his core historical theses are convincing. (In fact, there is a good deal of additional evidence for genuine historical memories from second-millennium Egypt in the exodus story collected by other scholars that he does not mention.)

Kugel, too, finds patterns within the history of Israel’s religion, but he portrays them as being far less tidy. When he describes the development of biblical and postbiblical ideas concerning God’s body, its proximity to us, the extent to which we can see it, and even whether there is one at all, he stresses that this evolution “is in no sense a straight-line progression.” 

The history of divine encounters as reported in the Bible is not one step forward and then the next, but includes lateral jumps, idiosyncratic depictions that become traditional for a time, followed by later imitations and slight modifications, then fresh starts and various subsequent resumptions and reiterations. 

Consequently, some texts after the great shift move to a model of a distant God who, being accessible through every human’s soul, is really quite nearby all the time. A famous lyric Friedman quotes in his book in a different connection does a good job of describing the relationship Kugel finds between radically new ideas and the notions they intend to replace: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Kugel’s model for the development of religious cultures may seem frustrating to some readers, since the monumental changes he so painstakingly describes bring us back to a place that is similar in important respects to the one we thought we had left. He presents the history of ideas as slippery, and he avoids nailing things down the way that Friedman does. It is remarkable how many of his chapters end with a question rather than a conclusion. 

Both Friedman and Kugel do a magnificent job of bringing important ideas from the academy to a broad readership. Friedman upends widely repeated but erroneous beliefs about the origin of the Israelites; Kugel gives readers a sense of history’s convoluted texture, its ironies, and thus its beauty. In an essay on the idea of history, Immanuel Kant famously wrote, “From such crooked wood as a humanity is made of, nothing entirely straight can be assembled,” a line that recalls Koheleth’s query, “Who can make straight what God made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). At their best, scholars of the humanities don’t try to straighten things out. They explain why it is that even though God made everything in its own apt time, we can never grasp the whole from beginning to end. And they show that there is a sweetness in our foggy understanding of history, a music whose counterpoint is at once exquisite and elusive. Such scholars don’t allow us to arrive at any one conclusion even after much deliberation. Rather, they help us to turn our subject and to turn it again, so that we begin to see everything in it.


  1. gershonhepner


    From crooked timbers Noah built an Ark,
    but man’s must be extended, first to soar,
    then to descend to plumb what’s deep and dark:
    detritus undiscovered on the ocean floor.

    The hedgehog cannot see beyond its nose
    and lives contented within crooked timbers;
    above tall trees the fox, more curious, knows
    vast vistas lie, concealed by darkest nimbus.

    If only we could fuse the genes of foxes
    with those of hedgehogs, we could reach the stars,
    and, archived, disembark from boxes,
    not deluged by the facts we now might parse.

    With a crooked timber mentality,
    whether we are foxes or hedgehogs,
    we won’t obsess about morality,
    accepting everybody, even dogs,

    Realizing, naturally, that we
    are made of made of such a timber, crooked
    enough to make sure that we cannot be
    the fox or hedgehog, as Berlin mistook it.

    [email protected]

  2. Justin Jaron Lewis

    Friedman's theory is typical of so many that present themselves as supporting the historical accuracy of the Bible. His version is _nothing_ like what the Torah says or what Jewish tradition has made of it. It is interesting and about as plausible as any other, but to the question, "Did the Exodus from Egypt really happen?" its answer is no, masquerading as yes.

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