Biblical Scholar Speaks at BYU
May 1979

“Biblical Scholar Speaks at BYU,” Ensign, May 1979, 111–12

Biblical Scholar Speaks at BYU

“In different times and places, God has chosen different individuals and transmitted his word to them. There have been and there will be and there are true prophets throughout history,” affirmed David Noel Freedman, nationally known Biblical scholar speaking at the ninth annual Welch lecture series at Brigham Young University in March.

Dr. Freedman, professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Michigan, editor of the prestigious Anchor Bible series and of Biblical Archaeologist, spoke on Abraham, Moses, and his own religious beliefs.

Raised in the Jewish tradition, Dr. Freedman became a Christian, attended the Princeton Theological Seminary, and wrote on Ezekiel at Johns Hopkins University under W. F. Albright, the man who almost single-handedly proved it was “possible to be both a scholar and religious.”

Professor Freedman, who had previously visited BYU as part of a multidenominational symposium (see “A Respectful Meeting of the Minds,” Ensign, June 1978, pp. 70–75), presented three lectures—and with them a model methodology that combined Biblical internal evidence with archaeological external evidence to produce a more complete picture of the world of Abraham and Moses.

Relaxed and informal, he quipped, “It is with great trepidation that I face you. I’ve had far too much time to prepare.” He invited the audience to share an experience “on the frontiers of information,” keeping in mind “a theorem invented for a much more embarrassing occasion: Being wrong is often much more stimulating than being right.”

Any reconstruction of the past, he pointed out, is “at least partly theoretical and therefore almost certainly partly wrong. This shouldn’t be discouraging, but I want to warn you that I won’t be able to tell you ahead of time which is which.”

He focused in his first lecture on the time of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The date normally assigned to Abraham is about 1800 B.C., yet because so little is known about the world of the ancient patriarchs, “many believe the patriarchs have lost their historical standing.”

But in 1974 a team of Italian archaeologists reported excavating Ebla, a site in northwestern Syria that included possibly fifteen thousand clay tablets or fragments containing cuneiform writing dating to about the middle of the third millennium—2500 B.C. “The readings are ambiguous; the results are uncertain,” Dr. Freedman cautioned. “Ultimately, after a great deal of work, the questions can be answered, but until then, conclusions must be subject to a great deal of review, revision, and in some cases, retraction.”

The records seem to deal almost exclusively with Ebla’s commercial transactions, and among the names of the cities with which it traded appear the names of Sodom and Gomorrah. “This is the first reference ever, outside of the Bible, to these cities while they still existed,” he stressed. Like most Biblical cities, they were destroyed. Unlike most Biblical cities, they were destroyed “in a spectacular fashion and they were never rebuilt.” That they were “destroyed once and forever had great theological impact” as we can tell from the later prophets’ references.

How does the information that Ebla traded with these cities increase our knowledge of Abraham? No cities are known to have existed in the vicinity of the Dead Sea around 1800 B.C. that could have been Sodom and Gomorrah. However, there are rains of cities that were destroyed but not rebuilt dating back to the time of Ebla. Therefore, the 1800 B.C. date for Abraham may be too late. Should the patriarchal period actually be pushed back several hundred years to 2500–2200 B.C.? “To put it mildly,” said Professor Freedman, “the implications are revolutionary.”

For his second lecture, he turned to internal evidence in the song celebrating the drowning of Pharaoh’s forces which suggests that the exodus may have been dated too early and really took place several hundred years later. The Song of the Sea (see Ex. 15) “belongs to an ancient, well-known genre known as the victory ode.” Other examples appear in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, in Assyrian literature, and in Egyptian literature of the same period (Ramses II ordered a “victory” ode about 1286 B.C. even though he was actually defeated, “but if you’re the Pharaoh, you can insure that history is subject to editorial revision”). “Between Moses and Deborah,” observed Professor Freedman, “between the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan, we see the establishment of Israel as a nation.”

The Song of the Sea and Deborah’s song, however, differ from the Egyptian and Assyrian victory odes in attributing victory “not to the king but to the direct intervention of God himself.”

The exodus has been dated in various ways. Figuring back from the establishment of Solomon’s temple would provide a date of about 1440 B.C. Using the only known reference to Israel in Egyptian literature—the record of a punitive raid—would place it about 1230–1220 B.C. but would not allow for forty years wandering in the wilderness. Allowing for that forty years would date it about 1290 B.C.

However, the Song of the Sea itself contains an intriguing clue that these dates are all too early, suggests Dr. Freedman. Moses described four vassal nations of Egypt that were paralyzed by “fear and dread” at the fate of Egypt: Palestine (Philistia), Edom, Moab, and Canaan. “There is only one brief period in all of ancient history—the twelfth century B.C.—when all four of these nations existed at the same time,” he said. He briefly reviewed the archaeological evidence that limited the four-way coexistence and proposed a date for the crossing of the sea in the first quarter of the twelfth century about 1275 B.C.

In passing he noted that the wilderness wanderings took Israel to Mount Sinai, God’s “holy habitation.” The Hebrew word naveh, for “habitation,” implies a rural setting, a pastoral location for a flock, and “may possibly underlie the word Nauvoo which, I understand, is supposed to mean ‘more good.’”

Professor Freedman began the third lecture by commenting drolly, “This has been an inspiring and highly stimulating visit and if it weren’t for the lecturing, I would have enjoyed it thoroughly,” then moved into his serious topic: “Today I am not simply going to deal with matters of scholarly research but matters of belief and commitment.” Acknowledging the “gap between my commitment and my action,” he affirmed, “What I will say is what I truly believe about Biblical religion.”

The great question in Biblical religion is twofold, said Dr. Freedman: “How can people like us talk about God? and how can God reveal himself to people like us?” In the Bible, that revelation takes place, not only with words but with words arranged into stories that are “vehicles of the truth.”

He selected four stories to illustrate “the core of Biblical religion,” which is “a revelation of God to man,” and he recounted the story of Abraham seeking to alter God’s decision to destroy Sodom on the basis of justice and the story of Abraham’s great test when he was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. “The statement in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Lead us not into temptation’ could also be translated as ‘do not put us to the test.’ But this story tells us that the test is an integral part of God’s relationship with man,” he noted.

His second set of stories came from Moses’ experience: when Moses pleaded with God not to destroy Israel, caught in the act of worshipping the golden calf; and when God spoke with Moses “face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (see Ex. 33:11). “We cannot go beyond this level of revelation,” said Professor Freedman. “The God who revealed himself in a personal and distinct way is the core of Biblical religious truth. I believe in this tradition. Having been born to it, I try to live it and respond to it.”

It is rare for lectures to receive standing ovations, but this one did.

In an interview with the Ensign, Professor Freedman’s enthusiasm for the Old Testament shone unabated.

Ensign: What are the most important questions to ask about the Old Testament?

Dr. Freedman: You must always ask the historical questions—when, where, how, and why. There are the archaeological issues to examine and the relation of the Biblical world to the classical world. They can’t be separated. When the transition to the Iron Age occurred around 1200 B.C., a stable world order was disrupted and out of that head-on collision came our two great bodies of literature: the Bible and Homeric epics. It’s simply one of the unique moments of history.

Of course we can’t neglect the rise of the great prophets who conveyed the word of the Lord for their own day, but always with the echoes and overtones of the word of the past. After the fall of Jerusalem, things were never the same. Even though the Maccabees were victorious and successful, the lesson is that you can’t just repeat history. All is preparation for the coming of the Messiah and for a later new level of living during the Millennium.

Ensign: What are the advantages and the disadvantages of looking at the Bible from a traditional believer’s point of view?

Dr. Freedman: The great advantage, of course, is that the traditionalists take the Bible seriously, are interested in the archaelogy and languages, and really work at it. The disadvantage is that frequently their conclusions are established before their research begins.

Ensign: What advice would you have for people who perceive the Old Testament as inaccessible and difficult?

Dr. Freedman: Read it! And read about it! There’s a reasonable consensus about its message and meaning, and it’s a consensus that cuts across a lot of denominational lines. We’re rather proud in the Anchor series of the fact that if you don’t know whether a given editor is Catholic, Jew, or Protestant, you couldn’t tell by reading his translation.