Exile and Enslavement – Divinely Designed?


Centuries before the Exodus,1 Hashem revealed to Avraham that his descendants would be exiled and enslaved in a foreign country for hundreds of years. Bereshit 15 reads:


(יג) וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה.

(13) He said to Avram, "Know for sure that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years.


The realization of this Divine master plan required the choreographed cooperation of two additional parties – the Children of Israel and the unidentified foreign nation to be named later (i.e. the Egyptians).2 Before Hashem could redeem the Israelites, they first needed to go into exile, and another nation had to enslave them.3

To comprehend the dynamics of this entire process, one must first examine each of its multiple stages and try to establish to what extent each of Hashem, the Israelites, or the Egyptians played decisive roles in their implementation. Did Hashem control the entire process4 or did the Israelites and Egyptians exercise their own free wills at different stages?5 One can then proceed to analyze the motivations of each of the various participants and to address the theological ramifications of the interplay between all of these issues.

Exile: Hashem and the Israelites

The Covenant of Pieces and Yosef's words to his brothers in Bereshit 45:5-8 imply Divine foreknowledge of the exile and Hashem's active intervention to make it happen. This raises several issues:

  • Did God's prophecy to Avraham suspend human free choice?6
  • Why did Hashem decree the exile, and did He force the Israelites to emigrate to Egypt? Could Avraham's descendants have chosen not to leave Israel?
  • Why did the Israelites continue to remain in Egypt even after the famine was over?

For discussion of these questions, see Divine Plans and Israelite Free Choice and Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage.

Slavery: Hashem and the Egyptians

While at the Covenant of Pieces Hashem presents the slavery as a foregone conclusion, Shemot 1 describes how Paroh and the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites without mentioning any Divine role. Both of these also need to be reconciled with Tehillim 105 which implies that Hashem actively caused the bondage.

  • Could the Egyptians or Paroh have employed free choice and decided not to subjugate the Israelites?7
  • If Hashem impacted the Egyptians' decisions, how could He hold them accountable for their involuntary actions?
  • Why did Hashem cause, or at the very least stand idly by, while His chosen nation suffered? Did the Israelites deserve to be enslaved?
  • Why are we so grateful for Hashem's redemption of the Children of Israel, if He was also responsible for causing the exile and bondage?8

For analysis of these issues, see Divine Plans and Egyptian Free Choice and Purposes of the Egyptian Bondage.

Delayed Redemption: Hashem and Paroh

Even after Hashem commissions Moshe to take the Israelites out of Egypt, a long time passes until the Exodus actually occurs.9 This delay is caused by the hardening of Paroh's heart which Hashem, not only predicts already in Shemot 3:19, but actually causes according to Shemot 4:21 and many other verses.

  • Was Paroh's fate determined and sealed with Hashem's proclamation, or could he still have exercised free choice and immediately released the Israelites?
  • If Paroh's flouting of God's word was a preordained conclusion, why was he punished and what was the point of making Moshe repeatedly go through the motions of trying to persuade Paroh to release the Israelites?
  • Why would Hashem force the Israelites to endure additional and even harsher slavery if He had already decided to redeem them?

For further discussion, see Hardened Hearts, Delayed Redemption, and Purpose of the Plagues.