Models of Slavery
When trying to imagine what the enslavement in Egypt was actually like, readers naturally look to examples of oppression and slavery in modern times and read those back into the narratives of Sefer Shemot. Some envision barracks, emaciated figures, and gulag or concentration camp conditions. Others picture plantation workers mercilessly being bought and sold from hand to hand, as occurred to slaves in the American South.
A close look at the Torah's accounts, however, may suggest that the conditions in Egypt were somewhat different. Verses in Sefer Shemot appear to indicate that the Children of Israel retained their own homes and possessions,1 their families remained intact,2 and some apparently had freedom of movement and employment.3 Later on in the Wilderness, the nation even nostalgically remembers their stay in Egypt,4 recalling the abundance of free fish and vegetables they had to eat and, at least on occasion, expressing a desire to return to Egypt! While the Israelites may be romanticizing their Egyptian experience, is it possible that their memories bear no resemblance to reality?5
Moreover, even the Torah itself in Devarim 23 commands us not to abhor the Egyptian people, as we were sojourners in their land, implying the need for some measure of gratitude for the stay in Egyptian. What light does all of this shed on the character of the Israelite experience and the harshness of the conditions in Egypt?
Taxation and Hard Labor
The initial enslavement of the Nation of Israel is described in Shemot 1:11-14:
(יא) וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיִּבֶן עָרֵי מִסְכְּנוֹת לְפַרְעֹה אֶת פִּתֹם וְאֶת רַעַמְסֵס. (יב) וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. (יג) וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ. (יד) וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה בְּחֹמֶר וּבִלְבֵנִים וּבְכׇל עֲבֹדָה בַּשָּׂדֶה אֵת כׇּל עֲבֹדָתָם אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ בָהֶם בְּפָרֶךְ.
(11) Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses.
(12) But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And they were adread because of the children of Israel.
(13) And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour.
(14) And they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; in all their service, wherein they made them serve with rigour.
The above verses contain lexical ambiguities which affect one's understanding of the conditions in Egypt:
- שָׂרֵי מִסִּים – The first stage of slavery entails the appointing of "tax officers". Is this a monetary tax or a labor quota? How does it relate to the building of storage cities described at the end of the verse?
- וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ – This verse appears to constitute a worsening of the slave conditions. How did this work? What does the term "פָרֶךְ" mean? Does the word "מִצְרַיִם" refer to the Egyptian king or to the entire Egyptian nation?
Slavery or Genocide?
- Genocide – Shemot 1 discusses not only enslavement but also Paroh's plan to kill all male infants. After the birth of Moshe in Chapter 2, however, this plot is never again mentioned in Sefer Shemot. Moreover, there is never any reference to this infanticide in any other Biblical books which discuss the slavery in Egypt. For how long was this particular decree in effect? How significant were its consequences for the Israelite population?
- Were the Children of Israel unique? Were the Israelites the only group of people enslaved, or were there other Egyptians or minorities who were similarly oppressed?