By Richard Elliot Friedman

Critical review to p.88


My critique of Friedman will follow his page order. It may be helpful to the reader to distinguish the categories of criticism. There are three:

A.     Failures of scholarship/reading – Friedman claims that passages have a certain content while in fact they do not.
B.     Failures of scholarship/interpretation – Friedman’s interpretation of passages violates the meaning of the language, or contradicts itself, or there is a more plausible alternative interpretation etc.
C.     Failures of logic – begging the question, creating a straw man, disregarding counter-evidence etc.

I will label my comments below A, B and C. I have restricted my comments to what can be shown briefly and without complex argument. The material upon which I do not comment here does not have my approval. Yoram Bogacz has kindly added comments. They will be labeled [Y. B.]

Pp.17-19: In describing objections to the traditional view that Moses wrote the Five Books, Friedman includes statements “that Moses was not likely to have said,” – e.g. the statement that Moses was the humblest of all men - and the fact that Moses is referred to in the third person. But these objections ignore the real traditional view that the author of the Five Books is G-d.  It is not Moses writing his own story, but G-d telling Moses story. Thus referring Moses in the third person is fully appropriate, and there is no failure of humility on Moses part in G-d’s writing that he was humble.   [C]

Pages 17-19: Friedman ignores – or is unaware of – the fact that it is standard practice in the Bible for the speaker to use the third person when referring to himself. For example, in Exodus 19,11, G-d is speaking to Moses and says, “… for on the third day HASHEM will descend…” In Joshua 1,9, G-d is speaking to Joshua and says, “…for HASHEM your G-d is with you…” Other examples are Exodus 24,1 and I Samuel 12,11. Given this standard practice, Friedman’s contention that “Moses was not likely to have said” has no validity. [Y. B.]

P. 19: There is a view in the tradition that Joshua wrote the last eight verses of the Torah – the account of Moses death. [NOT BECAUSE it is a future event – Moses as a prophet can refer to future events – but that AS HE WROTE THE WORDS, THEY WERE FALSE until he actually died.] Friedman quotes, and approves the objection of Carlstadt that “…the account of Moses’ death is written in the same style as texts that precede it. This makes it difficult to claim that Joshua or anyone else merely added a few lines to an otherwise Mosaic manuscript.” Again, this is irrelevant to the traditional view of divine authorship – who is to say that G-d will not complete His book in the same style, using a different scribe? [C]

But even if one assumes that the human writer of the end did so on his own, why would he not imitate the style of the whole? Indeed, Friedman himself (P. 84) uses the very same logic to explain similarities in style in the J and E documents. [C] 

P.20: Friedman cites the objection that the phrase “until this day” [for events that occurred in the time of Moses – D.G.] implies that the writer lived at a later time. On p. 21 he says the same for “There never arose another prophet in Israel like Moses….” But again, this ignores the traditional view that the author of the text is G-d Who gave it through Moses for all future generations. Thus it is quite acceptable for there to be passages relating to the time of the later reader. [C]

            In addition, there is internal evidence for the traditional view. Genesis 22:14 says “Abraham called the name of that site “Hashem Yireh,” as it will be said this day “On the mountain Hashem will be seen.” Now the verb is in the future tense: it will be said. To whom is the text speaking? Similarly, Exodus 10:14 says “[the plague of locusts] was very severe – before it there was no [plague of] locusts like it, and after it there will not be such [a plague].” Again, to whom is the text speaking? Rashi on the verse from Genesis says that it is addressing future readers, and this is the meaning of all the phrases “until this day” in the Bible. This is clearly an acceptable explanation of these verses. Unless the critic can find a clearly better explanation, we have verses that clearly address the future reader, and it is then perfectly acceptable to interpret “until this day” in similar fashion. [B]

Friedman cites the objection that the phrase “across the Jordan” to identify Moses location presupposes that the writer was inside the land of Israel, since that phrase refers to the east side of the Jordan. However, according to the text, Moses never entered the land of Israel. Therefore, Moses could not have written that phrase. But the phrase "across the Jordan" is in fact used to refer to the east side of the Jordan even when the speaker himself is on the east side. See Numbers 32:32: "We will cross over ... to the land of Canaan, and our possession of our inheritance [of the land] [will be] across the Jordan." The tribes of Gad and Reuven are agreeing to fight to conquer Canaan and then return to the east side to live. And they make this statement while still on the east side. Nevertheless, they call the east side, where they are standing, "across the Jordan". Moses statement should be understood in exactly the same way. [B]

Furthermore, if we consider the far-fetched psychological explanations that Friedman uses to identify the writers of the Bible, it is not hard to do the same here. Moses greatest unfulfilled wish was to enter the land of Israel. He identified with the land of Israel as his true home. So he pictured himself across the Jordan, on the wrong side, as it were. Of course, this has nothing to do with the truth _ that G-d dictated the words for His own reasons. I am only pointing out Friedman's failure to maintain his own standards of interpretation. [B]

P. 28: Friedman avers that “… there is hardly a biblical scholar in the world actively working on the problem who would claim that the Five Books of Moses were written by Moses – or by any one person.”  Strictly speaking, Friedman is right: no one will say that the Five Books were written by one person. In context, Friedman’s statement is designed to show that the only acceptable view is that of multiple human authorship. But this is a straw man: The traditionalist will also agree with Friedman’s statement, since he holds that it was authored by G-d. Of course, Friedman may intend to exclude the traditional view also. But then he is tendentiously defining who is “really” a biblical scholar to exclude those traditionalists who know the text as well anyone else. [C]

Pp. 62: Friedman assigns the story of the rape of Dinah is assigned to J, including the explanation of the possession of Shechem by conquest. According to Friedman, E contradicts this explanation by saying that the land was purchased. But neither passage has any divine name at all. So the identification of the authors is one the basis of the theory that there are two authors with their different points of view. But then this passage cannot be evidence for the theory, since it must be assumed that the theory is true in order to show that there were two authors. [C]

            Furthermore, the “contradiction” between the accounts of possession is not even on the surface: One text [Friedman’s E] says

Jacob came … to the city of Shechem … and camped in front of the city. And he bought the portion of the field where he pitched his tent from the children of Chamor….

This says nothing at all about the possession of the whole city. The continuation [Friedman’s J] gives the story of the conquest. If you imagine [with Friedman] that this material relates to a later period and fills in the historical background of the possession of the city of the city of Shechem, the two are clearly complementary. [B]

P. 63-4: Here is Friedman’s account of the sons of Jacob in the sources J and E. “The group of stories that invoke E are the stories of Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin. In short, the E group includes the names of all the tribes of Israel. The group of stories that invoke the name J are the stories of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah. The first three of the four names on this list are the names of tribes who lost their territory and merged into other tribes. The only name of a tribe with existing territory in the J narrative is Judah. The J story goes even further to justify the ascendancy of Judah….” But this ignores the many passages in which the children are identified as twelve – Gen. 35: 23ff., 45: 8ff., 49: 1ff. It also ignores 32: 6-7 where children from four mothers are mentioned. Also, the story of the brothers coming to Egypt [chapter 42] mentions twelve brother several times, and the only brothers named are Reuben, Simeon, Judah and Benjamin. Yet the name they use is E. And the blessing to Judah in chapter 49 – an essential motivation of the J source, according to Friedman – does not use J at all. Indeed, the whole context has J only once – in the blessing to Dan, who belongs to the story of E according to Friedman. [A]

P. 64: Friedman says that J justifies Judah as king by disqualifying his three older brothers – Reuben for having had relations with Jacob’s concubine. But the sentence describing this crime – Gen. 35: 22 – is the last verse in a passage – 35: 9-22 – in which the only name that occurs is E – three times. [A]

P.65: According to Friedman there are two stories of Joseph being saved from the brothers – for E it is Reuben who saves Joseph; for J it is Judah. But the text uses no divine names at all. So Friedman can only distinguish the authors by assuming his theory is true. But then the title of his section – “Evidence from the stories” – is wrong. The story cannot be evidence for the theory since we have to accept the theory in order to interpret the story in accordance with the theory. [C]

P.66: According to Friedman E portrays Joshua as Moses’ faithful assistant. In J Joshua plays no role. But Ex. Chapter 32 – the story of the golden calf – starts with E and then switches to J, and the verse mentioning Joshua, which occurs in the J section, has neither name. And Ex. 33:11 where Joshua is described as never parting from Moses has only J. The same for Numbers 11: 23-29 – Joshua is Moses second, and only J is mentioned. [A]

Pp. 70-71: According to Friedman the story of the golden calf is by E, and E emphasizes Moses as a hero much more than does J. But the story has twelve occurrences of J and only two of E. [A]

Pp. 71-73: According to Friedman the story of the golden calf is invented by priests living in the northern kingdom who have been rejected as priests by the northern king. The story is an implied critique of both north and south. But then how did it become the accepted orthodoxy? Why did not the northern priests succeed is quashing it? How did it spread to the south? Indeed, how did a brand new invented story by a small, rejected group, with clear, self-serving political motivation, get any attention at all? [C]

P. 72: According to Friedman Aaron is not criticized in the story of the golden calf since according to the tradition he was a high priest, and as such “…he cannot be pictured as suffering any hurt from G-d….” I suppose Friedman means this as an observation concerning the general religious mores of the times. But then we read in the recapitulation of the golden calf [Deut. 9: 20] “And G-d was outraged with Aaron to destroy him”. [A] 

There is at least implied criticism of Aharon even within the story of the Golden Calf. In Exodus 32,21 Moses asks Aharon “…that you brought a grievous sin upon it?” In verse 25, the Torah states “…for Aharon had exposed them to disgrace…”. In verse 35, “Then HASHEM struck…” [Y. B.]

Pp. 72-73: Friedman has this to say about the golden calf: “…They worshipped a golden calf….Why does Aaron say “A holiday to Yahweh tomorrow” when he is presenting the calf as a rival to Yahweh? Because the calf is not in fact a rival god. The calf…is only the throne platform or symbol of the deity, not a deity itself. Why is the calf treated [Friedman’s italics] as a god in this story? Presumably because the story is polemical….”

On the face of it this passage incoherent.

“…They worshipped a golden calf…  the calf is treated [Friedman’s italics] as a god in this story.”

That says that the story portrays the calf as a god.

Why does Aaron say “A holiday to Yahweh tomorrow” when he is presenting the calf as a rival to Yahweh? Because the calf is not in fact a rival god. The calf…is only the throne platform or symbol of the deity, not a deity itself.

That says that the story portrays the calf as a symbol, not as a god. There is no consistent interpretation of the story here. [B,C]

Friedman points out that the story says gods in the plural even though there is only one calf because Yerovom had two calves and the writer quoted his in order to discredit his religious practice. But this makes the story itself incoherent. What is the polemical effect of a story that is obviously incoherent to even the casual reader? [C].

How does Friedman explain Genesis 46,23 (The sons of Dan was Hushim) and Numbers 26,8 (The sons of Pallu was Eliav)? Besides, in referring to a god or powerful being, the T’nach often uses the plural. See for example Genesis 39,20 for the expression Adonei Yosef, where the reference is to one master, and Radak on Genesis 18,3. See also Psalms 149,2, where G-d is described as the Makers of Israel, in the plural. It is clearly not a polytheistic comment, but rather the expression of the fact that powerful agents are described in the plural. Thus, the statement Eyleh Elohecha Israel is not necessarily a reference to plural gods. [Y. B.]

Pp. 74-75: According to Friedman there is a difference between J and E concerning idol worship and manufacture. J forbids only molten statues. E prohibits both moten and gold-plated statues. Friedman’s explanation: Yerovom’s calves were molten while Solomon’s cherubs were gold-plated. Thus J condemns only Yerovom’s practice in the north – that fits J as a southern source. E condemns both – that fits E as a northern source criticizing both north and south. But the original cherubim of Moses were in fact solid gold – see Ex. 25:18 and 37:6 – and those passages are J. Furthermore, the text in I Kings 8:1-4 says explicitly that Solomon put the aron of Hashem – whose cover is the molten cherubim – in his temple. So there was a molten statue in the south – just what Friedman says J condemns. [A]

P. 75: According to Friedman, “E rather attributes much importance to the Tent of Meeting….but it is never mentioned in J.” [Friedman’s italics.] Now there must be some mistake here – there are many passages in which the only name is J in which the Tent of Meeting is mentioned, for example: Ex. 30: 16, 18; 40: 7, 30; and especially 33: 7 where it gets its name!  

P. 86: According to Friedman, J is sympathetic to women and E is not. But see Ge. 21:1-13 – the passage begins with J, but it is E who commands Abraham to obey Sarah, and the passage continues with E saving Hagar. And see 31:1-16 – when Jacob’s uncle and cousins turn against him, and G-d commands him to return home, Jacob invites his wives to a private conference in which he describes the facts and the women give their free consent [“All the G-d has told you to do, do!”]. This is exemplary consideration for his wives – and aside from one J at the beginning, the whole passage is E. [A]

Pp. 81-86: Now come the compromises. According to Friedman, after the burning bush E adopts the name J also. And it is true that the documents J and E do have similar styles, and overlapping content. The editor preserved both documents because the people were familiar with both. He did not merely put them side-by-side because that “would cast doubt on their authenticity,” so he used cut and paste to combine them.

            One standard problem with all of this is the inconsistencies in the character of the imagined editor. He preserved both documents because the people were familiar with them – but he cut and pasted them so that the result was very different from each. He cut and pasted to avoid doubts concerning authenticity, but he left in obvious contradictions and redundancies – precisely the material that leads the “critics” to doubt authenticity. 

            Another standard problem is to identify the editor. In chapter 13 Friedman votes for Ezra. But this creates an historical problem. In Ezra’s time most Jews were living in Babylon, there was a sizable community in Alexandria, there was the community in the land of Israel, and smaller communities elsewhere. None of these communities is supposed to have the five Books, since that text has not been invented yet. And different groups supported different texts [p. 225]. Now Ezra is creating a major revolution: replacing all the partial texts with a brand new text. There is no discussion of this event anywhere – no record of objections, those who accepted and those who rejected the text, no celebration of the new text, no myth of Ezra’s holiness etc. etc. I suggest that this silence of the historical record is enough by itself to reject Ezra – and anyone else living in a time to which these facts apply.

One final observation: Friedman remarks that in the world that produced the Bible “[p]robably the most important single thing was religion.” Yet the motivations that Friedman assigns to the writers of the various texts are political, economic, and personal. There is no pure religious motivation at all. I think that is very strange. Well, not so strange – I can easily understand why it appeals to Friedman and his colleagues. It casts religion in a thoroughly modern image, their own image. But it is surely very suspect as a reasonable reconstruction of the psychology of 2500 years ago, as Friedman’s own remark above attests.