World of the Sages: Plundering Egypt

Was the fledgling nation justified in carrying off Egyptian goods?

Was the fledgling nation justified in carrying off Egyptian goods? The biblical passage where Israel is instructed to despoil Egypt as part of the Exodus (see Genesis 15:13-14; Exodus 3:20-22; 11:2-3; 12:35-36; Psalms 105:37) has provoked - and indeed continues to trigger - discomfort among readers: With the instruction to "borrow" gold and silver utensils, was the Almighty sanctioning deception? Was the fledgling nation justified in carrying off Egyptian goods? To be sure, this may have been standard practice in times of war during the biblical era (see II Chronicles 20:25). Nevertheless, we may question whether such actions are worthy paradigms to be imitated. The history of grappling with this passage is long and vigorous. Our sages suggest that the key to understanding the Almighty's instructions to Moses is the use of the beseeching "please" or "I beg of you" (Exodus 11:2). The Talmud paraphrases God's charge to Moses: "I beg of you, go and tell Israel - I beg of you, borrow from Egypt silver utensils and gold utensils, so that that righteous person, Abraham, should not say - You fulfilled and they will enslave them and they will afflict them (Genesis 15:13), but you didn't fulfill and afterwards they will depart with much property (ibid v. 14)" (B. Berachot 9a-b). The exhortation was necessary because at that time the enslaved Jewish people were solely concerned with swiftly escaping Egyptian custody. Our sages continue with the response of Israel: "We wish to only leave ourselves!" Property issues and divine pledges to Abraham were of no interest to the trapped, freedom-desiring people. The Talmud concludes the passage with a short parable: "A person is incarcerated in prison and is told, 'Tomorrow, you will be taken out of jail and be given vast wealth.' The prisoner responds to these tidings: 'I beg of you, take me out today and I desire nothing more.'" One commentator - following this talmudic passage - acknowledges that the despoiling of Egypt in this manner was a necessary part of the divine plan. He goes further, however, saying that the Jewish people felt that the task at hand was foreign and repugnant (Ran, 14th century, Spain). It was the odious nature of what Israel was being asked to do, that necessitated the Almighty first beseeching Moses to pass the directive on to Israel and further imploring Israel to fulfill the request. The approach suggested by this passage was followed by talmudic sages and later by biblical commentators over the ages of exegesis, providing us with a gamut of perspectives on the plundering of Egypt. The common denominator among the approaches suggested is the attempt to justify the deed and expose its appropriateness. Thus many commentators note that the Egyptians gave items to the Jewish people willingly, acknowledging their debt and wishing to repay their creditors (Rashi, 11th century, France; and many others). In this light, the act can hardly be termed plundering or despoiling and the moral cloud hanging over the biblical episode dissipates. Other commentators cite a grand divine rule of property rights: The earth and all that is in it belongs to God (Psalms 24:1). The Almighty, who is the rightful owner of everything, allocates temporal ownership with infinite wisdom. At the Exodus there was a justified redistribution of God's assets (Ibn Ezra, 12th century, Spain). Another approach relies on the legal maxim that under certain circumstances a person may carry out judgment without recourse to the court system (B. Bava Kama 27b). Egypt unlawfully held assets of Israel and the despoiling was aimed at affecting lawful restitution. What debt did the Egyptians owe Israel? On what grounds was redistribution from Egypt to Israel equitable? What assets under Jewish ownership was Egypt holding? Various suggestions have been offered. First, in his tenure at the helm of Egypt, Joseph had amassed great wealth (see Genesis 47:14). When Joseph died, his assets were seized and appropriated to the coffers of Egypt. It was these property interests that were now being returned to Jewish hands as Israel prepared to leave Egypt (B. Pesahim 119a). Alternatively, the departing Jewish people were forced to abandon unmovable property. In exchange for what they were leaving behind, the Egyptians handed over moveable goods that could be taken on the journey to the Promised Land. In this way, the despoiling of Egypt was in fact a legitimate exchange of property, not an unlawful plunder (Hizkuni, 13th century, France). A third possibility of Egyptian indebtedness is the unpaid wages to the Jewish workers for the lengthy duration of their enslavement. Moreover, according to Jewish law a freed slave is granted an entitlement by his master as a parting gift (see Deuteronomy 15:13-14). Utensils were therefore given in lieu of these rights (Rabbenu Bahya, 13th century, Spain). Other commentators shy away from a discussion of financial rights and obligations. They read the biblical passage through a universal moral lens. Thus one commentator suggests that the entire biblical episode aims at teaching us that the Almighty does not forsake the oppressed, the exploited and the abused. Reading the passage should make us realize that God will exert any effort to ensure that the ill-treated will be looked after and cared for (Shadal, 19th century, Italy). An honest appraisal of the explanations offered above may reveal that some approaches sound more apologetic than intrinsic to the text. Certainly the Bible uses terms that are not normally employed to describe repaying debts or lofty moral principles. Thus coming to grips with the biblical passage remains a challenging endeavor. The preponderance of commentators who grappled with the issue, however, may provide some comfort. Our forebears understood that whatever the secrets of the biblical passage, one message is clear: Our tradition cannot be suggesting a paradigm of wily, devious behavior; despoiling an enemy under the pretense of "borrowing" utensils is unacceptable. Reading the commentators we may conclude what the biblical lesson cannot be; it remains for us, however, to reveal what the passage is trying to teach us. Thus we continue on the quest of unlocking the mysteries of the hoary texts of our heritage. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.