Were the Israelites enslaved in Egypt?
Recent decades have found at least some biblical scholars casting doubts on the historicity of this story.
Dead Sea Scrolls as viewed online Photo: Courtesy Israel Museum
Did the exodus really take place? To many, this will seem like an absurd
question. The book of Exodus has a dozen chapters explaining that it did. 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 in which the rise of the Israelites in
Canaan was a “peasant’s revolt.” The so-called “Minimalists” deny that any of
the biblical texts describing pre-Hellenist events are really historical. The
mere fact that Exodus describes this period at length offers no proof to the
A Los Angeles rabbi created a tremendous, well-publicized
furor when he followed this scholarly approach and told his congregation that
the exodus may not have happened at all.
But one aspect of the biblical
account should give even the most skeptical mind a reason to reconsider – not
the book of Exodus, but the book of Genesis. The literary function of Genesis is
to establish the necessary precondition for the exodus, by changing the
Israelites from a family in the land of Canaan (Gen 46:27, Exod 1:5) to a nation
of slaves in Egypt. And why were the Israelites enslaved in Egypt to begin with?
The Bible gives no fewer than four different reasons: First, the political,
essentially demographic reason – the ostensible immediate cause of the
Israelites’ enslavement, described briefly at the beginning of the book of
Exodus: “A new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Joseph. He said to his
people, ‘Look, this people of the sons of Israel is bigger and more numerous
than we are. We must have a plan to deal with them, lest they grow even more
numerous. If there should be a war, they might join our enemies and fight
against us and go up from the land.’ So they set taskmasters over them, to
afflict them with burdensome labor.” (Exod 1:8-11) Just like that, as potential
enemies or potential emigrants, all of Jacob’s descendants are
Next, the theological reason: The Israelites must be enslaved
as part of the divine plan. God’s promise to Abraham during the “covenant
between the parts” in Genesis 15, that the land of Canaan will be given to him
and his ancestors, contains a minor bit of bad news: “[The LORD] said to Abram,
‘You must know that your offspring will be strangers in a land that is not
theirs; [the inhabitants of that land] will enslave them and oppress them for
400 years.’” (Gen 15:13) God promises to free them at last “with great wealth”
(Gen 15:14) and bring them back at last to Canaan; the reason for the delay is
that the Amorites who currently dwell there have not yet committed sin enough to
deserve to lose their land (Gen 15:16).
Why Abraham’s innocent
descendants must be enslaved in the meantime is not explained. It is a
Third, the social justice reason: Joseph, as prime minister of
Egypt, collects the extra grain produced during the “seven years of plenty” (Gen
41:34) to serve as the emergency supply for the “seven years of famine” (Gen
41:36). But when the famine comes, instead of redistributing the grain, he sells
it to the Egyptian people.
Eventually, they have nothing left to exchange
for it but their own bodies: “Joseph said to the people, ‘I hereby acquire you
and your land this day for Pharaoh. Here is seed; sow your land. When the crop
is produced, give one-fifth to Pharaoh and keep four-fifths for yourselves, to
sow your fields and to feed yourselves, your wives, and your children.” They
replied, “You have given us life! We hope to continue to find favor in your eyes
– for we are Pharaoh’s slaves.” (Gen 47:23-25) Joseph has enslaved the Egyptians
unjustly, buying them with the crops they themselves grew. Implicitly, it is
only fair that, once he is gone, they will enslave his family in
Finally, the novelistic reason: The largest single chunk of the
book of Genesis is essentially a family saga, a two-generation battle of
Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing
intended for his brother Esau (Genesis 27), and the deceit and rivalry slowly
but inevitably snowball until the moment, decades later, when Joseph brings the
entire family down to Egypt, telling his brothers: “God sent me ahead of you to
make you a remnant on earth, to keep you alive with a ‘great escape’ [from the
famine]. Now, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He turned me into a
father to Pharaoh, lord over all his house, and governor of the whole land of
Egypt.” (Gen 45:7-8) Joseph is correct but clueless: The purpose of luring
Jacob’s family to Egypt is not to save them but to enslave them, propelling the
story of Jacob’s betrayal of his brother to its inevitable end. Call it Exodus:
As Rava b. Mehasia said in the name of Rav Hama b. Guria in
the name of Rav, “A man should never make a distinction between one of his sons
and the others. For on account of two extra shekels’ worth of silk that Jacob
gave Joseph, his brothers were so jealous of him that our ancestors ended up in
Egypt” (B. Shab. 10b).
Jewish tradition understands Exodus 12:2 as the
first of the commandments given to the Israelites: “This month shall be the
beginning of the months for you.” In a larger sense, the commandment implies a
great truth. Israelite history begins – somehow – at the moment when the freeing
of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt becomes inevitable. The Bible’s four
explanations of how the Israelites were enslaved represent a desperate attempt
to make sense out of a historical situation whose real origins were no longer
remembered except in legend.
At the moment of the Israelites’ actual
enslavement, the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” cites the first, political reason
– that they are “more numerous and mightier than we.” But this “current events”
explanation is treated so casually, in a verse or two, that it seems relatively
Instead, it looks as if the author of Exodus took
enslavement to be the inevitable consequence of the stories in Genesis – or,
rather, the necessary background for the story of the plagues and the
deliverance that he knew must follow.
We are left with a view of Genesis
as a kind of historical novel desperately trying to explain how the Israelites
were enslaved. Even Mendenhall was convinced that the “peasants’ revolt” must
have had a core group of slave laborers who had succeeded in escaping an
intolerable situation in Egypt.
Their history became everyone’s. For if
there was no Israelite slavery in Egypt at all... why does the Bible have so
much trouble explaining it? The writer is the creator of The Commentators’ Bible
and of the Torah Talk podcast. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.