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Exodus without slavery: An alternative history of the Israelites in Egypt

Gili Kugler
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Published: 25 March 2018

Last updated: 5 March 2024

“SLAVES WE WERE to Pharaoh in Egypt”, recounts the Passover Haggadah – a medieval collection of Rabbinic blessings, prayers stories and statements, read in a ritual ceremony on the first night of the Jewish Passover.

This ceremony is meant to pass on the tradition of the exodus, namely the story of the magnificent redemption of the Israelites from the Egyptian slavery and oppression. The story is based on the narrative of the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, formulated many centuries before the creation of the medieval Haggadah.

The Bible narrative of the people’s redemption from the Egyptian slavery plays a central role not only in the book Exodus but also in most biblical books, genres and sources of literature. However, some Biblical references do not contain a central aspect of the broadly- known exodus narrative: the slavery.

One such example is found in chapter 20 of the book of Ezekiel the prophet. Ezekiel, on behalf of God, narrates that when the people of Israel lived in Egypt God chose them to be his own nation, then swore an oath and revealed himself to them, and then decided to take them out of Egypt. In this recount, neither the servitude nor the people’s distress is mentioned. This is what we read:

“…On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to the offspring of the house of Jacob—making myself known to them in the land of Egypt—I swore to them, saying, I am the LORD your God. 6On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands.”

Biblical scholars over the years tended to read Ezekiel 20 in a non-literal way. Some have restored the missing scene of the Egyptian bondage into the prophet’s words, attributing to the prophet an indirect reference to the famous story, or at least knowledge of it. Others have explained it as a deliberate alteration of the story for certain rhetorical needs, while the writer still had in mind the familiar tradition.

But evidence from other biblical references indicates that Ezekiel’s narrative of Egypt-without-slavery was a valid, alternative tradition with an independent existence besides the rhetorical purpose.

Numerous historiographical accounts in the Bible report a close socio-political and economic connection of Israel and Egypt. Most of them, though, do not mention the Israelites’ enslavement by the Egyptians.  Similarly, several biblical laws indicate a positive economic-based relationship between Israel and Egypt with no indication of the people’s past trauma in that land.
Numerous historiographical accounts in the Bible report a close socio-political and economic connection of Israel and Egypt. Most of them, though, do not mention the Israelites’ enslavement by the Egyptians.  

An example is the law that prohibits the inclusion of Ammonites and Moabites in the congregation of the Lord, while allowing people with Egyptian heritage to be admitted to the nation after only three generations. And indeed, the law defines the Israelites’ past residential status in Egypt as, “an ethnic minority” rather than as “a slave”, as one would expect.

Elsewhere in the Bible Egypt is even portrayed as a pleasant place for foreigners to live in. The narratives of the wandering in the desert convey the people’s constant longing for the land of Egypt, reflecting on “the fleshpots” and “the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic”.

Whereas these statements are set in the stories as defeatist utterances in moments of despair, nothing in the literary context – in Moses’ responses or in the narrator’s – attempts to deny that Egypt indeed supplied all that. Similarly, the description of Egypt by Dathan and Abiram as a “land flowing with milk and honey”  seems not so much a provocative utterance as an ironic allusion to the misleading label of Canaan as a “land flowing with milk and honey”, asserting that it is far from being so.

Indeed, the Deuteronomic law admits that Canaan is “not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden”, and other sources name Egypt the garden of God or Eden..

These positive references to Egypt reveal phases of the ancient Israelites’ connections, or desire to be connected, with the southern neighbour, accompanied by the assumption that residing in Egypt is not such a dreadful fate. These voices seem not to consider or even be aware of the image of Egypt as an abusive nation that exploited the Israelites when they resided among them.

Whether this image of abuse was shaped in the Babylonian exile or among the community in Judah – it was probably derived from literary circles that opposed the persistent admiration for Egypt.

A demonstration of this anti-Egyptian tendency is found in the aggressive and vigorous speeches of the prophets against Egypt, reflecting the authors’ zealous pursuit for distinctive identity and national independence. Deriving from the politics of the day, also these speeches show no familiarity with the narrative of the past experiences of oppression in the land of Egypt.

While Ezekiel 20 mentions the land of Egypt as the place of the people’s initiation, it portrays the time there with no reference to persecution, slavery or any abuse. In the absence of suffering from which the people need to be redeemed, the departure from Egypt, according to this portrayal, is not a salvation. Instead, the decision to take the people out of Egypt, is based on a different motivation.

NEXT EDITION: A further glance at the alternative tradition of Israel in Egypt

Image: From Israel in Egypt, 1867, by the English painter Edward Poynter (Wikimedia)

About the author

Gili Kugler

Dr Gili Kugler is a Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies in Sydney University. Her book, When God Wanted to Destroy the Chosen People: Biblical Traditions and Theology on the Move, was published this year by De Gruyter

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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