Were the Israelites ever slaves in Egypt?
To many, this will seem like an absurd question. The book of Exodus has a dozen chapters explaining that they were. Yet recent decades have found at least some biblical scholars casting doubts on the historicity of this story. The sociological approach pioneered by George Mendenhall outlined a plausible scenario that describes the rise of the Israelites in Canaan as a “peasant’s revolt.” According to this scenario, the Israelites were an amalgam of primarily indigenous, “lower” social groups which escaped the power of the Canaanite city-states and unified in the name of a new religion, “YHWHism.” (Interestingly, the book of Chronicles also seeks to portray the Israelites as indigenous and, despite covering biblical history from Adam to Cyrus, does not recount the exodus from Egypt.) The so-called “biblical minimalists” wish to deny that any of the biblical texts that describe what went on before the Hellenistic period are really historical. If the people who came from Babylonia to Judea in the Persian period had no connection with biblical Israel in the first place, as Thomas Thompson suggests, then it goes without saying that the tales of Egyptian slavery have nothing to do with historical reality. The mere fact that Exodus describes this period at length offers no proof of it to the skeptical mind.
But there is one aspect of the biblical account that should give even the most skeptical mind a reason to reconsider. There is the fact that “Moses” is an Egyptian name, of course, but that is not what I’m talking about. It might well have been selected by an author to provide local color to a concocted story set in Egypt. I’m referring to something a bit more subtle than this, yet more far-reaching, found not in Exodus but in the book of Genesis.
The literary function of Genesis, in the context of the Pentateuch as a whole, is to set up the situation at the beginning of Exodus, where the Israelites change from a family of 70 males (Gen 46:27, Exod 1:5) to a nation of slaves. That is, most of Genesis is devoted to making sense of the fact that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. In the context of God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 12 that the land of Canaan was to be his, there would seem to be no place for something that would interrupt that process. There are at least three different explanations in Genesis—one explicit and two implicit—for the Israelites’ period of enslavement. I suggest that the difficulty in explaining points to some kind of real occurrence that demanded explanation.
The first solution, and the only one that directly addresses the problem, is found in Genesis 15, the chapter that describes the “covenant between the pieces.” This strange chapter describes a ritual unlike any other in the Bible, in which Abram (as he is still called at this point) takes three three-year-old animals and two birds, cuts the animals in half and sets the halves (and apparently the two birds) opposite each other. He fights off the birds of prey that descend on the carcasses until sundown. Then, in a kind of hypnotic trance, he sees a flaming torch pass “between the pieces” and hears God’s voice proclaim:
You must know that your offspring will be alien, in a land not their own. They shall enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years. But I am going to judge the nation which they will serve; and afterwards they will go forth with great wealth. But you shall come to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a ripe old age. It will be the fourth generation that returns here, for the iniquity of the Amorites will not be complete until then. (Genesis 15:13-16)
This passage solves the problem of Israelite slavery in Egypt by, as it were, cutting the Gordian knot. God simply announces that, before the promise of the land is fulfilled, Abram’s descendants will be slaves in a foreign land. The justification for this unexpectedly harsh decree comes, in context, almost as an afterthought. The text acknowledges that the land which God has given to Abram is already inhabited by another group of people. They must be geographically or at least politically displaced in order for Abram’s descendants to inherit their land. Hinting at what will happen to the Israelites themselves later, the unspoken assumption of this passage is that “iniquity” justifies displacement.
But this explanation, straightforward as it is, leaves itself open to some uncomfortable questions, even for readers who are inclined to accept its basic premise:
(1) What is the nature of the Amorites’ wickedness? They certainly have not been given any commandments, and are under no obligation to God as the Israelites will be when they are commanded at Sinai.
(2) How exactly does one measure quantities of iniquity, and how will God determine when the “complete” amount that will justify displacement is reached?
(3) Sharpest of all, if Abram’s descendants really must be kept “off stage” for four centuries, while the Amorites do what they do, why exactly must they spend those 400 years as slaves? (The giving of an alternative time period, four generations, highlights the fact that even the length of the period of slavery is arbitrary.) What justifies this sentence, which it is hard to understand as being anything other than punishment—a punishment even more undeserved than the expulsion of the Amorites a few centuries early would be? This announcement of the slavery to come, then, straightforward as it is, gives the impression of being a post hoc explanation. That is, Israel’s period of slavery in Egypt happened and, difficult as it might be to do so, had to be explained.
This particular version of the explanation works, as it were, retroactively.
Although the text does not say so explicitly, it is the Israelites’ own subsequent experience of commandedness and then of exile or at least the threat of exile for disobedience that is reflected back on to the experience of the population which, according to the biblical model, was displaced to make way for Abraham’s descendants.
Meanwhile, the first of the implicit explanations for Israelite slavery has already begun, in Genesis 12. Despite the fact that Abram has just left his home in Mesopotamia to settle in a new country as instructed by God, he almost immediately (in literary terms) leaves for Egypt. As many generations of biblical scholars have recognized, what follows is a miniature version of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. Abram is driven down to Egypt by famine, as his descendants would later be, and, like them, is subject to arbitrary seizure by an unnamed Pharaoh. The Pharaoh and his whole household are struck by plagues as punishment, and finally Abram is “let go,” using the same verb that is the theme of the exodus story. There is nothing about this episode that explains why the Israelites were slaves; it is just something that “happened.” But it is the beginning of a literary theme that will make the Israelites’ ultimate slavery seem to the reader to follow naturally.
The very next chapter of Genesis continues the theme, and gives it a subtle twist. It turns out that Abram’s wife Sarai has a slave of her own, and this slave, Hagar, is (of all possible nationalities) Egyptian. Being childless, Sarai gives Hagar to Abram in hopes of getting a son. Once Hagar conceives, though, she begins to think less of her mistress.
Sarai, in turn, with Abram’s explicit permission (Gen 16:6), begins to treat Hagar harshly.
Hagar runs away but is met by an angel who instructs her to return and take her punishment, telling her she is pregnant with a son.
The fact that we are told of an Egyptian slave in Abram’s household immediately after the pronouncement that his own descendants will be slaves cannot be coincidence.
True, his own sojourn in Egypt makes “story sense” out of the fact that his wife has an Egyptian slave. But there is more to it than this. Just as Abram’s descent to Egypt is linked to the story of the exodus, Hagar’s story is linked with that of the “covenant between the pieces.” Both Abram and Hagar are promised a multitude of descendants—Hagar “too many to count” (l6:10), Abram as many as there are stars in the sky: “count them, if you can” (15:5). Yet the immediate prospect is one of suffering: the masters of Abram’s descendants will oppress them (‘innu ’otam, 15:13) while Hagar must return to Sarai’s harsh treatment (hit’anni, l6:9). The same root links this story of Hagar, the Egyptian slave of a Hebrew, to that of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Just as the angel tells Hagar that “YHWH has heard your suffering [‘onyek]” (16:1), so too, when the Israelites’ period of slavery is about to be over, YHWH has seen “my people’s suffering [‘oni ‘ammi]” (Exod 3:27; similarly Exod 4:31). No more than this is said, but the reader cannot help but wonder whether the suffering of Hagar the Egyptian slave at the hands of Sarai is somehow meant to justify the later suffering of Sarai’s descendants as slaves in Egypt.
There is another biblical story which, though it too does not present itself as an explanation for the Israelites’ enslavement, continues this theme by describing the enslavement of the entire Egyptian people by a Hebrew. This is what happens in the story of Joseph, after he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and realizes that after seven years of plenty famine will strike the land of Egypt. Installed as the grand vizier, Joseph accumulates a large enough store of grain to feed Egypt during the years of scarcity by collecting the grain of the seven years of plenty in government storehouses. But when the famine strikes, Joseph does not then simply dispense the grain that was collected for the emergency.
Instead, he sells it back to the people who grew it:
There was no food in all the land, for the famine was extremely severe. The land of Egypt and the land of Canaan were faint with hunger. Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and in Canaan for the grain rations which they were buying, and Joseph brought the money into the house of Pharaoh. When all the money in Egypt and Canaan was used up, all Egypt came to Joseph saying, “Give us food, or else we shall die on the spot, for there is no more money.” They brought their cattle to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food for the horses, the sheep, the cattle, and the asses. He provided them with food that year in exchange for all their cattle. That year went by, and the next year they came to him and told him, “We cannot deceive your lordship—the money is gone, and so have all the cattle, to your lordship. Nothing is left before your lordship but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your eyes, we and our land too? Buy us and our land for food, and we and our land will be slaves to Pharaoh. Just give seed so we can live and not die, and so the land may not be desolate.” Joseph bought all the agricultural land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for each of the Egyptians sold his field, because the famine was so harsh on them; and the whole land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he transferred them to the cities, from one end of Egypt to the other …. Joseph said to the people, “So I have acquired you today, and your land, for Pharaoh. Here is seed for you. Sow the land, and when the harvest comes, give one-fifth to Pharaoh and keep four-fifths for yourselves, for field seed, to eat, and for those in your houses and to feed your children.” They said, “You have given us life. We have found favor in your lordship’s eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” (Gen 47:13-21, 23-25)
So by the end of Joseph’s stewardship over Egypt’s response to famine, not only have the Egyptians, as a people, been enslaved, but they have been enslaved by Joseph. As the first of Jacob’s descendants to come to Egypt, he is the vanguard of the family that will eventually become Israel.
Since this story explicitly describes the enslavement of the Egyptians at Joseph’s hands, it seems reasonable to think of it as an implicit justification of the Egyptians’ subsequent enslavement of the Israelites. Just as in the Hagar story, this is not stated straightforwardly, but the inference is a natural one to draw: Joseph enslaves the Egyptians unfairly (in return for the grain which they themselves grew), so a kind of balance is achieved when the descendants of Joseph’s family are, in turn, unfairly enslaved by the Egyptians. Unlike God’s announcement of the future to Abram, which comes (as it were) out of the blue, Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians provides the subsequent enslavement of the Israelites with a certain atmosphere of historical inevitability. Abram’s descent to Egypt, the mistreatment of Hagar, and Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians all give the Egyptians’ subsequent enslavement of the Israelites a certain narrative logic. My claim is that this theme was included in Genesis at least partly to provide a story that does, after all, make sense out of the Israelites’ enslavement. Where the announcement to Abraham presented the period of slavery as a divine decree, albeit one that makes no moral sense, the enslavement of the Egyptians, though not directly presented as an explanation, does make moral sense of it.
The story of Joseph, though, does not merely provide a possible reason for the enslavement of the Israelites; it also serves as the plot mechanism which brings the Israelites to Egypt in the first place. Were it not for the famine and Joseph’s position of power, the sons of Jacob would have grown into a nation in Canaan, not in Egypt. Even Jacob himself, though ultimately returned to Canaan for burial, spends his last years as the patriarch of a family that is growing, and prospering, in Egypt. Is there anything more to this than an unfortunate happenstance, something that “seemed like a good idea at the time” but ultimately backfired? I think there is, because of the way the Joseph story is connected with the earlier story of Jacob, which provides the second implicit explanation of Israelite slavery in Egypt.
If the Egyptians’ enslavement of Joseph’s descendants serves (from a literary perspective) as “payback” for Joseph’s enslavement of them, it is obvious to most readers of the Jacob narrative that there is an element of “tit-for-tat” in this story as well. Just as Jacob stole Esau’s blessing from Isaac by disguising himself as his older brother, so Laban foists Leah on Jacob by disguising her as her younger sister, Rachel, on Jacob’s wedding night. One might think that, once Jacob has had his own trick played back upon him, balance is restored and the whole larger episode is closed. But this is not so. True, Jacob has been suckered into giving one sister primacy over another, just as he suckered his father into giving him primacy over his brother. But Laban, who arranged the deceit, was a distant relative—distant in all senses of the word. Jacob has not yet known the pain of being deceived, as Isaac was, by his own son. But he is about to.
The tale is familiar. Joseph’s older brothers, irritated at Jacob’s favoring him and incensed at his dreams in which they bow down to him, throw him in a pit while they decide whether or not to murder him. Meanwhile, a caravan takes him to Egypt. Finding him gone, the brothers kill a goat, dip Joseph’s famous coat in its blood, and ask Jacob whether or not he recognizes it. Since the coat is indisputably Joseph’s, Jacob assumes that the blood is Joseph’s also—forgetting how he himself had used goat skin to simulate Esau’s hairy hands. Now, at last, Jacob is deceived by his own sons; now, at last, he knows an anguish like that of his brother Esau, who wept at being deceitfully supplanted by him.
Unfortunately, the chain of moral causality is not broken at this point. Jacob may have received his payback, but the instruments of his punishment—his sons—now must pay for the cruel deceit they have worked upon their father, and for what they have done to their brother. For though Joseph is not dead, he is no longer free and living in Canaan. Instead, he is a slave in Egypt—the first of Jacob’s descendants to be one but, as we readers know, not the last.
Again, the rest of the story is so familiar that we tend to think of it as inevitable. Through God’s care of him, Joseph ultimately rises to a position of power in Egypt second only to that of the Pharaoh. This is truly providential, but not merely because Joseph is the one man with the wisdom to save enough grain during the years of plenty to supply food during the years of famine. For Joseph does not merely do this; he plots his revenge as well. He has been a slave in Egypt, so the Egyptians must enslave themselves before he will give them back the grain they themselves grew. He has been cruelly treated by his brothers, so when at last hunger draws them down to Egypt and into his power—where they fail to recognize him as a grown man in Egyptian garb—he toys cruelly with them, heedless of his father’s pain, until at last he reveals his identity to them and makes the last, fatal mistake and makes them an offer they cannot refuse: Move the entire clan down to Egypt so I can provide for you during the remaining five years of famine.
It seems natural enough for Joseph’s family to move to Egypt at this point in the story, yet we as readers know that this is the move that will make the Israelites’ ultimate fate as slaves fall into place. Joseph is so thrilled with the way the story has turned out that he actually sees the divine plan behind his brothers’ action, but misinterprets it: “Though you planned evil against me, God planned it for the good” (Gen 50:20). The brothers’ nefarious plot put Joseph on the scene so that he could interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams and save Egypt. Yet he too could not resist the lure of manipulating his kin by using a false identity, a trick that had started with Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac.
With the story of Joseph, then, two themes merge. One is the theme of deception that runs throughout the Jacob story, each deception leading, measure for measure, to a greater one, with worse consequences. The other is the theme of Egyptian enslavement, first symbolically with Abram, Sarai, and Hagar, later explicitly as a consequence of Joseph’s cruel policy of disaster management. The deception theme, unlike the enslavement theme, does not provide a moral logic for the subsequent enslavement of Jacob’s descendants. But it does make “story sense” out of it, giving it a kind of tragic inevitability. As readers, then, we are prepared either way for the enslavement of the Israelites in Exodus 1.
Of course, there is still another explanation for their enslavement, the demographic fear expressed in Exod 1:9 by the Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph”: “the Israelites are more numerous and mightier than we.” But just here, where the actual enslavement is described as taking place, it is treated so casually—in a verse or two—that the political, “current events” aspect of it seems unimportant. Instead, it looks as if the author of Exodus took enslavement as the inevitable consequence of the stories in Genesis—or rather as the necessary background for the story of the plagues and the deliverance that he knew must follow. What we are left with is a view of Genesis as a kind of historical novel desperately trying to explain how the Israelites were enslaved.
The archaeologists tell us that there is little reason to think the Israelites came from outside the land of Canaan. Chronicles says the same thing, and I believe them both. Yet Mendenhall’s belief that the Israelites must have had an original core-group who had escaped slavery in Egypt is still persuasive:
A group of slave-labor captives succeeded in escaping an intolerable situation in Egypt…. [Once in Canaan,] entire groups having a clan or “tribal” organization joined the newly-formed community, identified themselves with the oppressed in Egypt, received deliverance from bondage, and the original historic events with which all groups identified themselves took precedence over and eventually excluded the detailed historical traditions of particular groups who had joined later…. The symbolization of historical events was possible because each group which entered the covenant community could and did see the analogy between bondage and Exodus and their own experience.
(George Mendenhall, “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist 25 (1962): 73 ff.)
For if there was no Israelite slavery in Egypt at all … why does the Bible have so much trouble explaining it?
Those who would like to read more about literary approaches to the exodus story (outside of Genesis) will find more about them in my book The Bible’s Many Voices. You can look at some of it here.