By: William Jackson
Many people, when thinking about the Exodus, hear that line in their head from the movie and song… “♪ let my people go ♪”. Truthfully, God did tell Moses to tell Pharaoh this, nine separate times (Exodus 5:1, 7:16, 26, 8:16, 17, 9:1, 13, 10:3, 10:4). Yet, people assume that Moses was asking Pharaoh to release the Israelites from captivity. Moses was just asking for the Israelites to “journey into the desert; so that we can sacrifice to Adonai our God” (Exodus 3:18, 5:3, 8:23). He also asked to do this over a three-day period. Begs the question, why three days? Certainly, sacrificing could have been done in just one day. In addition, we need to ask ourselves, what is the threat to Pharaoh here? All the Israelites wanted was an extended weekend? We can find these answers on the pages of Exodus, so let’s dig in.
Slave or Laborer:
For starters, our first misnomer is thinking that the Israelites were slaves. Believe it or not, the Torah only mentions one group of slaves in Egypt, and that was the Egyptians. Some bibles take liberties with the word slave, so instead of relying on them, let’s look at the actual Hebrew. If we look at Genesis 47:19 we see that Joseph helped, make slaves out of the Egyptians. Ironically, it was voluntary, since they were desperate to find a way to survive the famine. The word used here is “Ebed” which means slave or servant. This is the word used to describe Joseph in his relationship to Potiphar. The word used for the Israelite bondage is “Abad” which is forced labor. This is the word to describe Jacob’s relationship to Laban (Genesis 31:41) and even the condition King Solomon had the Israelites build the Temple (1 King 9:21). Now, just because it was forced labor verses slavery does not mean that the work was less torturous or demeaning. But, there is an important point that is missed here if we were to assume the Israelites were slaves. A slave owns nothing and is owned. The Israelites, conversely, had property, Goshen (Exodus 8:22). Likewise, they were expected to contribute the straw to make bricks (Exodus 5:7). A slave’s master would be responsible for contributing resources and one of those resources is his slave. Likewise, if you were property and escaped, your master had the right to retrieve you. On the other hand, if you were not property and left the jurisdiction of a tyrant, you were no longer controlled.
Three Days to the Border:
Pharaoh, who had a vested interest in keeping his conscripted labor, probably did not want to give them the opportunity to escape his control. So why not let them sacrifice for one day locally? Well, there was an issue with this as we see in Exodus 8:25 after the plague of the flies. Here, Pharaoh concedes and tells Moses his people can sacrifice, but they will do it in Egypt. Moses retorts that the Egyptians will stone the Israelites because the Egyptians detest sacrifice (Exodus 8:26). Therefore, Moses insists they will need three days to leave the land and sacrifice (Exodus 8:27). Thus, we know that it would take three days to get out of the region. If we look at a map from that period, Egypt territory was a lot more extended than it is now (1).
So why did the Egyptians detest sacrifices? Some historians might say the Egyptians worshiped animals, the truth is that they didn’t see animals as deities. More accurately, they saw some animals as symbols of their gods (2). Therefore, sacrificing an animal would have been the highest sign of disrespect to their gods. Thus, the Israelites would have to get out of stone’s range before sacrificing. This is why sacrificing the Passover Lamb while still in Egypt showed a lot of “Chutzpah”. It also showed their commitment to God and the journey.
So, letting the Israelite travel outside of the Egypt’s reign of control would be the equivalency of allowing an East German free access to West Germany during the cold war, or allowing somebody entree into city of refuge. Once that person could access safety, why would they return? Pharaoh knew this, maybe that is why he was so passionate in perusing the Israelites after they took off on their trek.
Granted Moses only beseeched for a three-day journey to Pharaoh on behalf of God. It should be noted that he never said to Pharaoh he would be returning his people to the brickyards. Sure, some might say that this was a loophole, but, in the end, it was Pharaoh who told them all to get out of Egypt (Exodus 12:31-33).
- “Map of The Egyptian Empire (Bible History Online).” Bible History Online. Accessed January 09, 2018.
- Jackson, William J. “The Passover Lamb, making a commitment.” Center for Tanakh Based Studies. January 26, 2017. Accessed January 09, 2018.