1 - How Israel Became Slaves

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In Genesis 15, Abram had an encounter with God, the result of which was a covenant promising him the land and offspring as numerous as the stars in heaven. There was also the promise that his descendants would be sojourners in a strange land where they would be afflicted for four hundred years. Neither the location nor the manner of affliction was specified at that point.

Since Abram’s wife Sarai was barren, she gave him her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar (‘the stranger’) as a surrogate womb. (Gen 16) When Hagar conceived, she behaved obnoxiously toward Sarai. Later, after Hagar had born a son, Ishmael; Sarah became pregnant herself. When Sarah had born her own son, Isaac, she convinced Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the family. (Gen 21) A number of rabbis speculate that that treatment of the Egyptian slave and her son is what fixed Egypt as the location for the Israel’s future exile and resultant slavery.

The next character in the chain of events leading to Israel’s slavery was Joseph. In a sense, he was expelled from the family much as had been done to Ishmael. (Gen 37) He was his father Jacob’s favorite and his brothers could not stand him. When presented with the opportunity, the brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery.

The opportunity that the brothers grasped was set up by Jacob. He sent Joseph all by himself to check on his brothers who were tending sheep some 60 miles away. This setup as well as the family history of expelling an unfavored son led Rabbi Fohrman[1] to speculate that Joseph might have thought that sending him out alone was Jacob’s way of getting rid of him. Scripture, of course, says that Jacob was devastated (Gen 37:34-35), but Joseph had no way of knowing that. In Egyptian slavery and isolated from his family, it would be normal for all sorts of fears to play on his mind.

Moving forward several years in Joseph’s life, God had blessed the work of his hands, given him the ability to interpret dreams, given him wisdom, and arranged for him to stand before Pharaoh in a time of impending crisis. As a result of that meeting Pharaoh elevated him to viceroy, gave him a new set of clothes, got him a wife and gave him a new name. (Gen 41:37-45) Put another way, Pharaoh gave Joseph a name, clothes to wear, a job, and a wife. These are all things that a father does for his son. Joseph’s Egyptian wife bore him two sons. Their names are further evidence that Joseph had gone native in Egypt. The first son’s name, Manasseh, means “cause to forget.” He was so named because, “God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.” (Gen 41:51) The second son’s name, Ephraim, means “fruitful.” He was so named because, “God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.” (Gen 41:52)

Reinforcing the idea that Joseph’s loyalties were entirely to Pharaoh is that fact that he never checked on Jacob or the rest of his family. While a slave and a prisoner he did not have the ability, but as the viceroy of Egypt it would have been a simple matter for him to have a servant make the relatively short trip from Egypt to Hebron. That being said, there is some rabbinic speculation that Joseph did give instructions to his people to alert him should ten or eleven Hebrews show up to purchase grain once the famine took hold. That idea makes practical sense. Joseph was managing famine relief for the entire nation. It is unlikely that he would routinely manage retail grain sales to whatever foreigners happened to show up.

Although Joseph would eventually be reconciled with his birth family, the years when Pharaoh was essentially his adoptive father strongly influenced his behavior as viceroy. In that position he was entirely loyal to Pharaoh and promoted his interests. That loyalty was especially manifest toward the end of the famine, the crisis which had led to Joseph’s elevation. During the seven years of plenty, Joseph had taxed the Egyptians twenty percent of their grain production and stored it in expectation of the famine. During the years of famine that followed, Joseph sold the stored grain back to those who had grown it in the first place. While that in itself is not remarkable, the people’s money ran out before the famine was over. Joseph then took their livestock and their land in payment for grain, finally reducing the Egyptian population to Pharaoh’s serfs. (Interestingly, the members of Pharaoh’s government were exempt and remained nourished, free and in possession of their own land at the end of the famine.) (Gen 47:13-26)

Scripture doesn’t say precisely what Israel’s status was during the famine. Joseph provided them with food (Gen 47:12) and they were fruitful and multiplied (Gen 47:27), but it is not clear what their status was otherwise. What is clear is that Joseph had changed the relationship between the Egyptians and their government. The government now owned all of the economic and human resources of the land. Either by the time of Joseph’s death or soon thereafter Israel was included in that government ownership. Because of Joseph’s status the relationship between Israel and Pharaoh was initially benign. That would change over the next several hundred years.

By the time of the Exodus the Israelites were still a separate and identifiable people. Which is to say that they had not assimilated and been absorbed into the Egyptian population. In addition to their practice of circumcision, the Israelites were herdsmen and meat eaters. Both Scripture and archaeology indicate that the Egyptians were primarily vegetarian. When Joseph reunited with his brothers Scripture says that the Egyptians ate separately because eating with Joseph or his brothers was an abomination to the Egyptians. (Gen 43:32) Also, when Joseph introduced his family to Pharaoh, he instructed them to say they were shepherds. That was to allow them to dwell separately because shepherds were an abomination to the Egyptians. (Gen 46:31-34) Finally, during the plagues Pharaoh offered to let Israel hold their worship ceremonies within Egypt. Moses’ replied, “It would not be right to do so, for the offerings we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God are an abomination to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us?” (Ex 8:26)

Israel’s fertility and prosperity was such that the then Egyptian Pharaoh regarded them as a security threat. For economic reasons he could not simply expel them, so he decided to reduce their population. His initial plan involved abusive labor. (Ex 1:11) The Hebrew term translated as taskmasters in this verse is שָׂרֵי מִסִּים. This is literally “commanders of tribute” or “commanders of serfs” or “commanders of forced labor.” In other words, they were tax collectors. Pharaoh’s plan to essentially tax the Hebrews into decline did not work and so quickly evolved into outright murder.

Israel’s status at the time of the Exodus is actually the second instance where hospitality morphed into slavery. The prior instance happened to Jacob with Laban. Jacob was received warmly by Laban when he fled from his brother, Esau. (Gen 29:13-14) In return for the hand of Laban’s daughters he agreed to tend Laban’s flocks for a total of fourteen years. At the end of twenty years when Jacob desired to return to his father’s home, he had to flee secretly. (Gen 31:17-21) When Laban discovered his absence, he pursued Jacob with intentions of forcing him to return. (Gen 31:22-23) Laban regarded Jacob and all that he had as being his own. (Gen 31:43) As Laban traveled in pursuit, God came to Laban in a dream and warned him, “Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.” In other words, God was saying that Laban’s relationship with Jacob was severed.  As with the Exodus, only God’s direct intervention was sufficient to release Jacob from bondage.

Just as with Jacob the exact point when Israel ceased to be honored guests and turned into slaves is not clear. What is clear is that God’s word to Abram in Gen 15 had come to fruition. His descendants were strangers in a foreign land and they were being afflicted.

What was God doing between the time Israel descended into Egypt and their bondage to the Egyptians? Scripture is mostly silent. The last recorded interaction between God and Israel is where God reassured Jacob that going to Egypt is the right thing to do. He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”(Gen 46:3-4) Later, when Pharaoh instructed the Hebrew midwives to kill male babies, their refusal to do so resulted in His blessings (Ex 1:15-21), but there is no recorded vision or revelation until the burning bush when He called Moses. (Ex 3,4)



[1] Rabbi David Fohrman, AlephBeta.org

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