Passover: War Spoils from Egyptians

On rare occasions, war spoils were used for good

GOLD EARRINGS bearing the cartouche of pharaoh Seti II: In 2003, an Egyptian lawyer filed a dubious suit against ‘all the Jews of the world’ to recover the gold taken from his ancestors. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
GOLD EARRINGS bearing the cartouche of pharaoh Seti II: In 2003, an Egyptian lawyer filed a dubious suit against ‘all the Jews of the world’ to recover the gold taken from his ancestors.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In our past columns, we showed how Jewish law came to not only prohibit taking war spoils, but also provide legal recourse to recover property stolen in war. This negative outlook on booty seems to go against the morale of the Exodus story in which the Israelites leave with much Egyptian property.
“The Israelites had done Moses’s bidding and borrowed/requested (va-yishalu) from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold and clothing. And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped/despoiled the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35-6).
This was not only a part of the plan originally given to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:21), but was also promised to Abraham: “I [God] will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth (Genesis 15:14).
Especially if one interprets the Hebrew as asserting that the Jews “borrowed” the items, it seems like this was an act of deception. In 2003, an Egyptian lawyer ridiculously filed suit against “all the Jews of the world” to recover all of the gold taken from his ancestors! More seriously, the Jews of antiquity already dealt with this moral question from their neighbors.
According to the Talmud, Egyptians tried to adjudicate this question in front of Alexander Macedon. In response, one of the sages counter-sued for the wages of the 600,000 slaves who worked in Egypt for 430 years, forcing the Egyptians to drop the suit. A similar idea is developed by the first-century commentator Philo, who argued that this was basic remuneration and a much softer form of retribution than the Egyptians deserved. As Prof. Yaakov Blidstein has documented, the sages do not seem overly bothered by the Israelites’ actions. Some even depict Moses and Aaron taking gold, although others have them more occupied with the pious act of recovering Joseph’s bones. Other sages depict the Egyptians as offering the possessions as gifts, perhaps based on the depiction of the psalmist (105:38) that the Egyptians were all too happy for the Israelites to leave and take the plagues with them.
As Prof. James Kugel and Rabbi Elchanan Samet note, some ancients used this approach more apologetically. Josephus, for example, argued that these were gifts given to hasten the Jewish Exodus but also based on good neighborly relations! He further claimed that the Bible prohibits the spoiling of fallen combatants, even as this seems to be utterly false. This apologetic trend was picked up by many medieval scholars who tried to solidify their claims through close readings of the text. Linguists like R. Yonah ibn Janach argued that the Jews merely asked for the property and were granted gifts, by trying to show other places in the Bible where the key Hebrew words could be interpreted in that manner. As Rashbam explicitly states, this was meant to counter Christians and others who used these passages to malign the character of Jews.
Such apologetics continued into the 20th century in the Bible commentary of Rabbi Joseph Hertz, who criticized the King James Bible translation for implying that the Jews deceived the Egyptians. “If there was any borrowing, it was on the part of the Egyptians, who had been taking the labour of the Israelites without recompense!”
Other commentators, however, had no problem with the deceptive act. Abraham Ibn Ezra, for example, defended the Israelites because they were merely following Divine instructions. Moreover, it was a legitimate part of His plan to get the Egyptians to chase after them and receive their due punishment during the parting of the sea. As the Jews recited in the Song of the Sea: “The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil...’ You [i.e., God] made Your wind blow, the sea covered them; They sank like lead in the majestic waters” (Exodus 15:9-10).
Still others even assert that this was a part of the Israelite war plan, and that such ruses are permitted when one’s life is under attack. More compellingly, Shmuel David Luzzatto argued that this must be seen as part of God’s way of bringing justice though historical events. “God desired judgment and justice, that Israel would not come out of Egypt empty-handed, and therefore He commanded that they deal in a deceptive way with the one who himself was crooked.” The Israelites, he further argued, would not develop bad character from this one-time act of deception; instead, they would learn the critical lesson that God ultimately punishes the wicked for what they deserve while providing both compensation and justice to the Israelites.
In this respect, war spoils take on a new light. In many biblical passages, taking spoils is a sign of greed that taints the noble goals of just warfare. This is why figures like Abraham and Mordechai prohibited plundering, to show their honest intentions, and why Jewish law has come to prohibit it in the modern era. On rare occasions, however, they were used for good, as when the Kingdom of Israel used its war booty to clothe and feed the redeemed captives of Judea (II Chronicles 28). On this occasion, they were used by God to provide some minimal form of compensation to the Israelites after so many years of enslavement.
Whether the Egyptians gave up their gold and silver willingly or not, justice was served that day. The story gave hope for generations to come that even in a world of oppression, redemption will ultimately come, a message that we celebrate this Passover.
The writer is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School, the author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, and director of the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute.