Passover portrays the Israelite Exodus from Egypt as an escape from slavery into freedom. Americans of all faiths take the story of the Exodus to foreshadow America's struggle to eliminate slavery. Read as a celebration of freedom, the story resonates with the widespread contemporary view that freedom is the paramount value, and slavery is the paradigmatic evil.
But this may be a mistaken reading of the Exodus episode. I shall present an alternate reading: The Israelites did not escape from slavery. They were not slaves. The paramount value highlighted by the Exodus story is kindness, not freedom. The paradigmatic evil is mistreatment of workers, not slavery.
Stripping the Egyptians
I begin with a well-known fact about the Exodus. The Israelites do not leave Egypt empty-handed. God tells Moses,
Each woman shall sha'al (borrow, ask, or demand) from her neighbor and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping the Egyptians. (Ex 3:21-22. see also Ex 11:2-3 and Ex 12:35-36)
In the ancient world, only the wealthy have "objects of gold and silver." So God is ordering the Israelite women to "borrow, ask, or demand" clothing and jewelry from their rich neighbors and lodgers without intending to return these objects. Why would the rich surrender their clothing and jewelry? Well, the request is made after the first nine plagues. I imagine the Israelite women saying something like this:
Have you noticed the plagues God has inflicted upon Egypt? He sure is powerful and angry, isn't he! Now "give" me your clothing and jewelry, and maybe God will go easy on you.
Presumably, God thinks that "stripping the Egyptians" is justified by the fact that wealthy Egyptians benefited from the exploitation of the Israelites. Even if they did not personally, deliberately exploit anyone, they accrued their wealth from the exploitation going on around them, so that wealth does not rightfully belong to them. By surrendering clothing and jewelry to the Israelites, the wealthy Egyptians return (at least some of) what they unjustly acquired. God is not commanding the Israelites to steal from the rich Egyptians. God is demanding reparations rather than sanctioning theft.
Reparations for what?
Exactly what is the injustice perpetrated upon the Israelites? The traditional answer is that they were enslaved by Pharaoh. English translations generally lend support to this answer. The Hebrew word avoda and its variants are used to describe the Israelites (e.g. Ex 2:23), and avoda is typically translated "slaves." But avoda just means "workers."
Sometimes translators use other means to support the view that the Israelites were enslaved. For example, the JPS translation of a description of what the Egyptians did to the Israelites is this.
So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Rameses. (Ex 1:11)
However, the phrase "with forced labor" is a translation of the Hebrew word besiblotam which means "with hard labor." The objectionable feature of the labor in this passage is not that it is required, but rather that it is burdensome.
There are several reasons for thinking that the Israelites were not wronged by being enslaved.
First, although the Bible regulates slavery in various ways, it never says that the institution of slavery is immoral. The Bible stipulates that it is wrong to mistreat slaves, but does not say that it is wrong to enslave people.
Second, the Israelites own houses with spare rooms suitable for rich lodgers (Ex 3:21-22 quoted above), and when they depart from Egypt, they take their "flocks and herds" with them (Ex 12:32, Ex 10:24-26). But slaves wouldn't own houses, flocks, and herds. Slaves could own property, but even if slaves acquired such things, they wouldn't keep them. Instead, they would sell them, and use the proceeds to buy themselves out of slavery.
Third, the oppression of the Israelites is not described as curtailed freedom. The Bible does not say that the Israelites lack the freedom of speech or assembly, for example. There is no reason to think that Israelites are banned from sitting at ancient lunch counters or living in certain neighborhoods. There is no evidence that the Israelites were forbidden to travel or worship as they please. (Well, Pharaoh does deny the Israelites permission to go deep into the wilderness to worship, but that is an extreme request.)
The Bible is actually quite explicit about the sort of evil inflicted upon the Israelites by the Egyptians. The Egyptians wrong the Israelites by increasing the onerousness of their labor. Excessively demanding Egyptians supervisors give the Israelites hard, harsh tasks. The focus of the story is on the miserableness of the working conditions rather than any lack of freedom.
Ruthlessly, they made life bitter for [the Israelites] with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field. (Ex 1:14)
After his first conversation with Moses, Pharaoh worsens the Israelites' lot, but he does not reduce their freedom. Instead, he makes their work harder (Ex 5:6-9).
The Israelites do not simply quit their brutal jobs, but this does not imply that they were slaves. After all, many people in the modern world continue to work at jobs they hate because they have no better alternative. Similarly, the fact that the Israelites did not quit implies only that they could not get jobs with better working conditions. Reasonable jobs were closed to them.
Moral of the Story
On the traditional interpretation, the moral of the Exodus story is that slavery is evil. This moral conveniently allows us to do nothing but gratefully savor life in a free country.
However, if the Exodus story is about hard, harsh labor and Egyptians who deserve to be stripped, then we have work to do -- workplaces to reform. Many people are currently stuck in miserable working conditions, and most of the readers of this blog are beneficiaries, if not perpetrators. The moral of the story is not, "Thank God, we are free!" but rather "OMG, let's not become the Egyptians!"
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