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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The Reasons Egypt Turned On Israel

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By William Jackson

https://www.facebook.com/CenterforTanakhBasedStudies

Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams on God’s behalf paid off like the lottery as he interpreted Pharaoh’s (Genesis 41:15-32).  The dream represented seven years of prosperity followed by seven years of famine. So Pharaoh came up with a strategy to weather this impending famine prophesied by Joseph interpretations (Genesis 41:33-37).  All Pharaoh needed now was a worthy man to implement his plan.  He was quick to claim “Can we find anyone else like him (Joseph)? The Spirit of God lives in him!” (Genesis 41:38).  Thus, Joseph was made Pharaoh’s second in charge. As predicted the famine hit and as planned Joseph was able to provide sorely needed resources to the desperate people of the region (Genesis 41:47-57).

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Now we turn to Genesis Chapters 42 to 46,  and through a string of dramatic and staged events, Joseph and his family become reunited.  The family then relocate to Egypt (Genesis 46:26). Interestingly enough, when this small band of Hebrews finally arrived in Egypt, they are treated with prominence.  They had a private meeting with “The Pharaoh”, and then they were given some of the choicest lands to live.  They were even given the position of watching over Egypt’s royal livestock (Genesis 47:1-10).  All these privileges obviously had to do with Joseph, who was probably viewed as a national hero for bringing Egypt through this crisis.

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So why in the next book of the Torah, Exodus, does it start out with the new Egyptian Pharaoh turning on the Israelites in verses 8 and 9.  I am sure some of this had to do with the measure of time.  Joseph’s time during the famine was about 1875 BCE whereas the new Egyptian ruler makes his statements against the Israelites in about 1600 BCE.  Equals period is about three centuries.  A lot can happen and be forgotten in the span of 275 years. Yehuda Shurpin, who rights for Chabad.org, says, “It is not surprising that they stirred the jealousy of the native Egyptians who felt outshone by the foreigners.”1 Yes, I do think that is some of it, but if we review chapter 47 of Genesis, we will find that the famine caused two polarized societies within Egypt; Capitalism and Socialism.

Socioeconomic:

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Let’s turn back to Genesis 47.  To quote the former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”, this could have applied to Egypt over 3,000 years ago. Yes, Pharaoh did capitalize on a crisis, the famine. We do not know if this was intentionally or unintentionally, but we do know the extended famine created a chain of events that lead to Egyptian Socialism:

And who did they give all this to? Pharaoh who was the Egyptian Government

Joseph then turned the people of Egypt into sharecroppers, (Genesis 47:23-24). A sharecropper2 is “a tenant farmer who pays as rent a share of the crop”.  Although this is an American post-Civil War term (1865+), conceptually we see it employed here in Egypt over three millenniums earlier.

Joseph gave them seed, and they grew the crops with the condition of giving 20% of the proceeds to Pharaoh (Genesis 47:23-24). It’s not a bad deal to keep 80% of your crop and get free seed but; remember their land still belonged to the Egyptian Government (Pharaoh).

I mentioned earlier that this marked the beginning of Egyptian socialism, but the term Socialism would be coined until 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  If we view the definition of “socialism” this would fit the template:

“Socialism: Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”

As we understand Socialism, the Egyptians because of the famine became wards (property) of the Egyptian Government (Pharaoh) and thus becoming Socialist, but what about the Israelites?  Let’s look at verse Genesis 47:27 “…They acquired possessions in it and were productive, and their numbers multiplied greatly.” So as we can see from here, it was quite the opposite, the Israelites flourished and gained property.

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Land of Goshen

So, why didn’t the Egyptians immediately get upset with this contrast between the Egyptian and Israelite citizens instead of waiting almost 300 years for an upheaval? Well in 1875 BCE as the Egyptian government was grabbing all this money, property, land and forcing servitude onto it’s people, the Egyptian responded with… “You have saved our lives! So if it pleases my lord, we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.” (Genesis 47:25). The Egyptian were more focused during the famine on physical survival and were happy just not to be starved to death.

Strategic Disposition

Goshen

So three centuries later, the new Pharaoh, that opposed to the Israelites, makes a profound but accurate point when talking about these Israelites “…in the event of war they might ally themselves with our enemies, fight against us and leave the land altogether.” (Exodus 1:10). So think about it, the Egyptians are forced into a socialistic society and just miles away you have capitalist Israelites living in freedom.  Also Goshen, where the Israelites lived, strategically covered the northern flank of the Egyptian Empire and bordered the Mediterranean Sea.  This was an excellent access point for any enemy invasion.

Conclusion:

To grab a modern day analogy let us look at Korea.  North Korea is communist (socialist), and South Korea is a democratic society (capitalist).  South Korea, over the last four decades, has demonstrated incredible economic growth, whereas North Korea faces chronic economic problems3. Both serve as access points to each other and understandably have a heavily guarded border, the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).  Imagine if we allowed North Korea to control all of Korea.  It would be devastating, and these people are from the same ethnic group. When we look at ancient Egypt, it is assumed that regardless of economic differences the Egyptians probably possessed a prejudice towards the Israelites.  Even if we advance the clock from the Exodus to Nazi Germany, it was Adolf Hitler who blamed the Jews for losing the First World War4.  Yes, garden-variety prejudice had something to do with Egypt oppressing the Israelites, but the major motivators were socioeconomics and military strategy.

Kahmunrah

Reference

  1. Yehuda Shurpin, Israel’s Enslavement, Beginning of Oppression, Chabad.org, November 3, 2014
  2. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, November 1, 1994
  3. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), South Korea vs. North Korea, Index Mundi
  4. Allan Hall, Adolf Hitler’s hatred of Jews ‘stemmed from First World War, The Telegraph, Berlin, Germany, 20 Dec 2009