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 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Museum)
Dead Sea Scrolls 311
(photo credit: 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 skeptical mind.
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 enslaved.
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 given.
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 return.
Finally, the novelistic reason: The largest single chunk of the book of Genesis is essentially a family saga, a two-generation battle of brothers.
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: The Prequel.
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 unimportant.
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.