Richard Elliott Friedman Quotes
“Gen 22:11–16a The story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is traced to E. It refers to the deity as Elohim in vv. 1,3,8, and 9. But, just as Abraham’s hand is raised with the knife to sacrifice Isaac, the text says that the angel of Yahweh stops him (v. 11). The verses in which Isaac is spared refer to the deity as Yahweh (vv. 11–14). These verses are followed by a report that the angel speaks a second time and says, “… because you did not withhold your son from me….” Thus the four verses which report that Isaac was not sacrificed involve both a contradiction and a change of the name of the deity. As extraordinary as it may seem, it has been suggested that in the original version of this story Isaac was actually sacrificed, and that the intervening four verses were added subsequently, when the notion of human sacrifice was rejected (perhaps by the person who combined J and E). Of course, the words “you did not withhold your son” might mean only that Abraham had been willing to sacrifice his son. But still it must be noted that the text concludes (v. 19), “And Abraham returned to his servants.” Isaac is not mentioned. Moreover, Isaac never again appears as a character in E. Interestingly, a later midrashic tradition developed this notion, that Isaac actually had been sacrificed. This tradition is discussed in S. Spiegel’s The Last Trial (New York: Schocken, 1969; Hebrew edition 1950).”
“... P doth protest to much. It would be one thing if P were merely silent about Midian. But P is hostile to Midian. Its author tells a story of a complete massacre of the Midianites. He wants no Midianites around. And he especially wants no Midianite women around. This author buried the Moses-Midian connection. We can know why he did this. Practically all critical scholars ascribe this Priestly work to the established priesthood at Jerusalem. For most of the biblical period, that priesthood traced its ancestry to Aaron, the first high priest. It was a priesthood of Levites, but not the same Levites who gave us the E text. Some, including me, ascribe the E text to Levites who traced their ancestry to Moses. These two Levite priestly houses, the Aaronids and the Mushites, were engaged in struggles for leadership and in polemic against each other. The E (Mushite) source took pains, as we have seen to connect Moses' Midianite family back to Abraham. That is understandable. E was justifying the Mushite Levites' line in Israel's history. And it is equally understandable why their opponents, the Aaronids, cast aspersions on any Midianite background. That put a cloud over any Levites, or any text, that claimed a Midianite genealogy. We all could easily think of parallel examples in politics and religion in history and today.”
“We all know that there are harsh passages toward others in the Bible as well: dispossess the Canaanites, destroy Jericho, etc. But, as I said earlier, the evidence on the ground indicates that most of that (the Conquest) never happened. Likewise in the case of the destruction of the Midianites, as I described in Chapter 4, this was a story in the Priestly (P) source written as a polemic against any connection between Moses and Midian. It is a polemical story in literature, not a history of anything that actually happened. At the time that the Priestly author wrote the instruction to kill the Midianites, there were not any Midianites in the region. The Midianite league had disappeared at least four hundred years earlier. As we saw in Chapter 2, it was an attested practice in that ancient world to claim to have wiped out one's enemies when no such massacre had actually occurred. King Merneptah of Egypt did it. King Mesha of Moab did it. And, so there is no misunderstanding, the purpose of bringing up those parallels is not to say that it was all right to do so. It is rather to recognize that, even in what are possibly the worst passages about warfare in the Bible, those stories do not correspond to any facts of history. They are the words of an author writing about imagined events of a period centuries before his own time. And, even then, they are laws of war only against specific peoples: Canaanites, Amalekites, and Midianites, none of whom exist anymore. So they do not apply to anyone on earth. The biblical laws concerning war in general, against all other nations, for all the usual political and economic reasons that nations go to war, such as wars of defense or territory, do not include the elements that we find shocking about those specific cases. ...
Now one can respond that even if these are just fictional stories they are still in the Bible, after all, and can therefore be regarded as approving of such devastating warfare. That is a fair point to raise. I would just add this caution: when people cherry-pick the most offensive passages in the Bible in order to show that it is bad, they have every right to point to those passages, but they should acknowledge that they are cherry-picking, and they should pay due recognition to the larger--vastly larger--ongoing attitude to aliens and foreigners. In far more laws and cases, the principle of treatment of aliens is positive.”
“We have seen a movement from many deities to two to one. Whether you take that movement to be fact, mythology, or theology, it is the story of how we got to where most (Western) religions are now. And, as I said, it even defines where atheism is at. Have you heard the old joke about the Jewish man who was left on a desert island for years? When a ship found him, they saw two large huts that he had built on a hill. They asked him what they were. He said, "That one's my synagogue." ... And they asked him what the other hut was. He said, "That's the synagogue I don't go to!" (You can change this to churches or any house of worship you like when you tell the joke.) So we hear people say, "Do you believe in God?" But we do not generally hear people say, "Do you believe in the gods?" The religion that atheists don't go to is monotheism--by default. Or, better: by history. ... I have read and heard it said many times that monotheism has done more harm than polytheism. The claim is that monotheism is exclusive--"If my belief is right, then everybody else's belief must be wrong"--so monotheists are more likely than polytheists or atheists to exclude, persecute, and purge others. We can admit there is some logic to that claim, but still the evidence of history goes both ways. Polytheists and atheist nations and empires have done their share of atrocities. I would not want to take a side in a depressing debate over which has done more horrible things. My task here has not been to argue that monotheism is higher or lower than other ideas. It has just been to track how it came about and to recognize that it succeeded. Monotheism won. One won.”
“Could it not be that Moses and/or the Levites just came to it on their own?! Scholars have a tendency to take any parallel between ancient Israel's culture and assume that Israel took it from the others. Why? I see no good reason at all. Did Moses get this religion from the Midianites? All right then, where did the Midianites get it? Did Moses get if from Akhenaten? All right then, where did Akhenaten get it? If Ahkenaten thought of it on his own, why could an Israelite not have done it on his (or her) own as well? Is it a far-out thought that sometimes more than one person thinks of an idea--without influencing each other, without knowing each other?
And we have another crucial consideration. The difference between Israel's monotheism and whatever preceded it is more than arithmetic. It is not just one god versus many. Biblical religion involves a different conception of what this one God is. In pagan religion, the gods and goddesses were identified with forces in nature: the sun, the sky, the sea, death, fertility, the storm wind. Even in Akhenaten's religion, whether it was fully monotheistic or not, Aten was identified closely with the sun. In Israelite religion, no force in nature can tell you more about God than any other.”
“The document that was associated with the divine name Yahweh/Jehovah was called J. The document that was identified as referring to the deity as God (in Hebrew, Elohim) was called E. The third document, by far the largest, included most of the legal sections and concentrated a great deal on matters having to do with priests, and so it was called P. And the source that was found only in the book of Deuteronomy was called D. The question was how to uncover the history of these four documents—not only who wrote them, but why four different versions of the story were written, what their relationship to each other was, whether any of the authors were aware of the existence of the others’ texts, when in history each was produced, how they were preserved and combined, and a host of other questions. The first step was to try to determine the relative order in which they were written. The idea was to try to see if each version reflected a particular stage in the development of religion in biblical Israel. This approach reflected the influence in nineteenth-century Germany of Hegelian notions of historical development of civilization. Two nineteenth-century figures stand out. They approached the problem in very different ways, but they arrived at complementary findings. One of them,”
“The documentary hypothesis once held (and maybe still holds) the agreement of the majority of scholars. But that is not what made it right. We do not determine truth by a majority vote. The hypothesis held us because its evidence was (and is) strong. None of the new alternatives has replaced it, not only because they have not won over a majority of the field, but because they remain insufficiently defended and because they have not dealt with the evidence that made the documentary hypothesis the standard for a century.
“understand better the world in which it was born and how inextricably connected it was to that world; to appreciate the wonder of how it came together; to appreciate that literary study and historical study of the Bible are not enemies, or even alternatives to one another. Rather, they enrich one another. Whether one is a Christian or a Jew or from another religion or no religion, whether one is religious or not, the more one knows of the Bible the more one stands in awe of it.”
“There are two different stories of the creation of the world. There are two stories of the covenant between God and the patriarch Abraham, two stories of the naming of Abraham’s son Isaac, two stories of Abraham’s claiming to a foreign king that his wife Sarah is his sister, two stories of Isaac’s son Jacob making a journey to Mesopotamia, two stories of a revelation to Jacob at Beth-El, two stories of God’s changing Jacob’s name to Israel, two stories of Moses’ getting water from a rock at a place called Meribah, and more.”
Richard Elliott Friedman
- Description: RICHARD ELLIOTT FRIEDMAN is one of the premier bible scholars in the country. He earned his doctorate at Harvard and was a visiting fellow at Oxford and Cambridge, a Senior Fellow of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Haifa. He is the Ann & Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and the Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus of the University of California, San Diego.
He is the author of Commentary on the Torah, The Disappearance of God, The Hidden Book in the Bible, The Bible with Sources Revealed, The Bible Now, The Exile and Biblical Narrative, the bestselling Who Wrote the Bible?, and his newest book, The Exodus.
He was an American Council of Learned Societies Fellow and was elected to membership in The Biblical Colloquium. His books have been translated into Hebrew, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Polish, Hungarian, Dutch, Portuguese, Czech, Turkish, Korean, and French.
He was a consultant for the Dreamworks film "The Prince of Egypt," for Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers, and for NBC, A&E, PBS, and Nova.