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

Jesus Could Not Have Atoned for Our Sins

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By: William J Jackson

Jesus Could Not Have Atoned for Our Sins.

Easter blots out Passover in our culture. It’s sad because YHVH said to remember His Passover from generation to generation (Exodus 12:14, 17, 24, 13:9-10, 2 Kings 23:21). However, in Christianity Easter is very important because the Christian messiah is credited for removing the sins of his followers( 1 Peter 1:18, 1 Corinthians 6:20, Romans 6:18, 8:2 ). In short, Jesus, has taken the place of the Israelites sacrificial lamb. Ironically, the lamb in Exodus 12 was slaughtered for it’s blood to put on the doorframe so the angel of death would “Passover” (Pesach) the homes of believers. Call it a mark of faith. It seems, this lamb, has been tangled up with the lamb sacrificed for atonement. This sacrificial lamb would be talked about a year after the Passover and some 450 miles away (1) in the book of Leviticus chapter 4. The piece that makes Jesus important is the atoning for the sins of those who believe in him. What does the Tanakh (Old Testament) say about somebody paying your sins?

The Tanakh is pretty clear that everyone shall die of there own sins (Deuteronomy 24:16, Jeremiah 31:28-29, 2 Chronicles 25:4, 2 Kings 14:5-6), meaning no one can take that responsibility from us. The first time we see someone trying to interceded with their own life for somebody else’s sins is Moses. This happened right after the golden calf incident (Exodus 32:1-20). Moses went to YHVH to exchange his life for the Israelites who sinned (Exodus 32:31-32). YHVH was quick to turn him down by saying “…I will punish them for their sin” (Exodus 32:34). So not even Moses can blot out somebody else’s sin.

You see, us dealing with our sins is part of the growing process. Lets go back to the beginning when Adonai accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. If you remember, Cain became pretty angry (Genesis 4:4-5). So, Adonai counseled Cain on his attitude problem (Genesis 4:6). Adonai didn’t tell Cain that he would take his sin from him, He didn’t even tell Cain just to surrender his anger. Adonai told Cain to master over his sin (Genesis 4:7). Part of dealing with our sin is growing and maturing, so hopeful through our true repentance (teshuvah, 2), we move on. HaShem’s word tells us that the righteous man will fail again and again; but through YHVH’s word, he will prevail (Proverbs 24:16, Psalm 34:20, 37:24, Job 5:19). Life is a learning curve, we don’t just change we evolve. It’s not about handing over our responsibilities, it’s about battling and succeeding over sin.

Ezekiel 18 goes into pain staking detail explaining how each person is accountable for their own walk, and how we cannot assume anyone’s punishment or how they cannot assume ours. Life is not about the finish line, it’s about the journey. And we certainly cannot hand over the challenge of sin to a deity (Matthew 6:13, John 17:15, 1 John 3:8, Galatians 1:4). We, instead, look towards YHVH and His word for reassurance. As Rabbi Stuart Federow has said “The Bible is clear, and it is consistent: one person cannot die for the sins of another. In other words, the sins committed by one person cannot be wiped out by the punishment given to another” (3).

References:

(1) Google Maps, Cairo, Cairo Governorate, Egypt to Jabal Mousa

(2) TESHUVAH (Repentance) Handout, Biblical Heritage Center

(3) Rabbi Stuart Federow, Jews believe that one person’s death
cannot atone for the sins of another, What Jews believe

Where do I stand? Pertaining to God’s Civil Laws – Part 1, Intentional Crimes

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Center for Tanakh Based Studies
By: William J Jackson

We all know about G-d’s Ten Commandments brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:3-14).  Some people argue their application in today’s time but those of us that walk the straight and narrow can readily admit that all 10 will never be outdated.  The next question is “what about the detailed civil laws covered right after the 10 Commandments?” (Exodus 21:12-23:19).  They appear to be the bylaws of a primitive society consisting of farmers and shepherds.  Most of us write them off as ancient rulings that governed a former Israel.  But HaShem’s laws are timeless.  If we study these ordinances we will have a better understanding of the spirit of G-d’s laws and G-d Himself.

Many of these laws appear to fall into three categories:

1. Intentional Crimes (Part 1)
2. Crimes Committed through Neglect  (Part 2)
3. Unintentional Crimes (Part 3)

1. Intentional.

A. Who gets the death Sentence:

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At least nine of these laws are punishable by death  (Exodus 21:12, 14, 15-17, 23, 29-30, 22:1, 17-19).  They cover a large spectrum ranging from intentional killing to cursing your parents.  Regardless of the lists diversity they all have one thing in common – they all are intentional.

1. Premeditated murder (Exodus 21:12 & 14)

2. Cursing your parent (Exodus 21:15)

3. Attack your parent (Exodus 21:17)

4. Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)

5. Killing a pregnant woman and/or her child in a fight (Exodus 21:23)

6. Ox kills somebody after you have been told to control it (Exodus 21:29-30) The ox’s owner would be put to death but he could pay a fine.

7. A sorceress will be put to death. (Exodus 22:17)

8. You will be destroyed for sacrificing to other gods. (Exodus 22:19)

9. You will be put to death for sleeping with animals (Exodus 22:18)

B. But why death?

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Granted capitol punishment serves as a great deterrent; but there was another motive.  If we look in Exodus 22:17 it states “You shall not allow a sorceress to live.” This is restated in Leviticus 19:31 and Deuteronomy 18:10-11 where in these passages the purpose is stated.  It is to remove the negative influence from the community. For example; we don’t want ourselves or our loved ones to live in a world where calculating killers are released back into society, do we?

C. This is HaShem’s standard not ours.

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Another point of order is that many of us feel that some of these offenses do not warrant the death sentence.  That’s because we are using our standard, a human standard or humanism (1). These laws actually reveal to us G-d’s standard and what He views as extreme behavior.
With some of these intentional crimes if the perpetrator is not brought to justice HaShem will intervene.  We see this with Exodus 21:15, 17.  Here, if one strikes or curses their parents they will be put to death. What if a parent wouldn’t actually turn their children into the authorities knowing that it will result in a death sentence, doesn’t Hashem  intervene here by the adding of the fifth of the Ten Commandments “Honor thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12), and as we see in the same verse “…in order that your days be lengthened.”

D. So what about thieves?

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There are four of the ordinances that deal with theft (Exodus 21:37, 22:2-3, 6).  Theft is obviously an intentional crime; but thieves are not sentenced to death.  They are to pay back in a worth beyond what they stole.  This probably resulted in their indentured servitude (slavery).  It’s possible HaShem felt this group of people were more capable of being rehabilitated as opposed to those sentence to death.  There is however one exception.  If a thief breaks into your home at night you can kill him (Exodus 22:1).  But this is not a court sentencing of death, I feel this has more to do with the self preservation of the innocent verses the punishment of the guilty.

E. For those of us that have commited any of the above mentioned crimes:

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Some of us have committed these intentional crimes, whether practicing the wrong religion or slandering a parent etc. etc. Granted, most of us don’t live in a country that these consequences lead to being put to death (2); but how do we make ourselves accountable to HaShem.  It’s easy, He has provided the answer in His word.  Lets refer to Ezekiel 18:31-32 here it states “Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions; whereby you have transgressed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, and why should you die, O house of Israel! For I do not desire the death of him who dies, says the Lord God: so turn away and live!”.  If this is not convincing enough please refer to Isaiah 1;18, 43:25, Micah 7:18-19, Psalm 50:23, 51:1.

To be continued:

Stoning of Stephen 3

Neglect Crimes (Part 2)

Unintentional Crimes (Part 3)

References

(1) Definition humanism, Merriam-Webster, Incorporated (2015)

(2) Complete Jewish Bible Exodus 21:17 Rashi’s Commentary