What Israel’s Enslavement Looked Like in Egypt

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By William Jackson

We have all heard someone or another refer to the Israelites in ancient Egypt as slaves.  As an American, I have a unique historical perspective of slavery.  In its simplest terms, slavery consists of a human being owned by another human.  The slave has no rights or property and is forced to do as their master desires. We read that the Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh, and for this reason God rescued them.  What clouds our understanding is the word “slave”.  Through our understanding, which is filtered with the lens of our own societies, we come to see slavery as something that is not accurately depicted in the Exodus narrative.  In order to get a more precise picture, we need to turn to the Torah and consider the Hebrew in which it was written.

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Yes, Egypt did have slavery and slaves, but they were not the Israelites.  We first see them in Genesis 47. Slavery became a practice during the famine, which Joseph interpreted from Pharaoh’s dream.  The people gave everything over the span of seven years, including money, property, land, and finally themselves (Genesis 47:13-19).  As a result, they became slaves to Pharaoh. The Hebrew word used here is “ebed”1, which does mean slave or servant (Genesis 47:19, 25).  “Ah”, you might think, “so the Israelites must have become slaves too”.  Actually, no – let’s look at verse 27:

“Isra’el lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. They acquired possessions in it and were productive, and their numbers multiplied greatly.”

So Israel escaped the poverty that enslaved most of Egypt.

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The Land of Goshen

Now about three centuries pass, and a new Pharaoh begins to see these Israelites as a threat (Exodus 1:8-10). As a solution to this problem, the Israelites had to partake in forced labor (Exodus 1:11).  The person in charge of these suppressed Israelites was a “taskmaster”, but about half of bibles translations refer to him as a “slave master” or “slave driver”. The Hebrew word used is “mas”, which stands for labor or task.  When bible translations use the term “slave”, it does imply that the Israelites were slaves. Later on in Exodus 2:23 we do see the Israelites referred to as slaves, but the Hebrew word used twice here is not “ebed” but “abodah”2. Abodah actually stands for labor or service, yet about 95% of all bibles use the word slaves or bondage.  Some might say this is merely an issue of semantics, but when our culture has such a unique understanding of slavery, we instinctively project that understanding onto any instance where the word is used.

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Slavery in the United States 1800s

As stated earlier, in our understanding of slavery, slaves do not have property or land.  The Egyptians that were made slaves in Genesis 47:19 fit this concept. Yet, the Torah tells us the Israelites had land (Exodus 8:18, 9:26) and property (Exodus 9:4, 6, 10:26) even during their time of enslavement.  A better term for the Hebrew enslavement would be a “forced labor group”. Jacob Isaacs, the authors of “Our People: A History of the Jewish People”, provides us with a better understanding of this time of forced labor:

“Pharaoh limited the personal freedom of the Hebrews, put heavy taxes on them, and recruited their men into forced labor battalions under the supervision of harsh taskmasters. Thus the children of Israel had to build cities, erect monuments, construct roads, work in the quarries, and hew stones or make bricks and tiles…”3

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The Building of the Temple

Surprisingly, the concept of a labor force would not remain unique to Israel. Over seven centuries later King Solomon established a labor force of Israelites (1 Kings 5:27-28) to build the Temple.  It was organized so that each man had one month on the labor force and two months at home. The same Hebrew word “mac”4 (pronounced mas) here is used to explain the labor force in Egypt. Consequently, about four decades after Solomon established this labor force, Israel became divided and these labor groups revolted (1 Kings 12:18), killing their taskmaster (or slave driver if you are so inclined).

DCF 1.0
DCF 1.0

Another reference lies in the work of famed Archeologist George E. Mendenhall who carried out extensive digs and dedicates his efforts toward supporting the Exodus account. He outlined a plausible scenario in which the rise of the Israelites was a peasant’s revolt5 not a slave insurrection or rebellion.

Conclusion:

The appeal of turning the Israelites into slaves lies partially in the idea that we know God freed the Israelites from Egypt (Exodus 6:6).  The mental picture here might be that of slaves being set free.  However, there are many types of freedoms. For example, when we look at the start of many countries (including our own) we see a people who fought for and gained the freedom to govern themselves.  Usually, these individuals are not slaves but an oppressed people.  Israel was certainly an oppressed people that God freed.  A good example of our own oppression would be our current beliefs in God. Many of us have been misled by other faiths, and although it could be said we have been “slaves” to them, we must admit we were not forced to participate in those religions.  Personally, I am eternally grateful that God freed me from those groups of people and their way of thinking.  Just remember, God will not tolerate those who oppress (Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 27:19, Malachi 3:5, Proverbs 22:16) and will rescue the oppressed (Psalm 9:10, 34:18-19, 46:2, 119:134, 146:7).

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Disclosure:

Under no circumstances does any of this information and interpretation minimize the suffering of the Israelites.  It is only meant to illuminate their conditions so we can appreciate a more accurate picture that began the book of Exodus.  The Israelites probably suffered horrific conditions that might have been worse than those of a slave.

References:

(1)        Blue Letter Bible, Lexicon H5650

(2)        Blue Letter Bible, Lexicon H5656

(3)        Israel’s Enslavement, Chabad.org, Our People by Jacob Isaacs, Kehot Publication Society  

(4)        Blue Letter Bible, Lexicon H4522

(5)        Michael Carasik, Were the Israelites Enslaved in Egypt? Jewish Ideas Daily, April 6, 2012

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