Children of Israel – Religious Identity in Egypt


Sefer Shemot

The Torah supplies little information about the religious beliefs and conduct of the Israelites during their sojourn in Egypt. It does record, though, that when Moshe first spoke to the nation's elders, they initially believed that Hashem had seen their affliction and was going to redeem them. It was only after Paroh worsened the conditions of the bondage, that the people became impatient and disinterested in listening to Moshe. According to the Torah, Hashem redeemed the Children of Israel because he heard their cries1 and remembered the merits of their ancestors.

Sefer Yechezkel

A completely different picture emerges from Yechezkel's prophecy in Chapter 20.2 First, Yechezkel tells us that the Israelites worshipped idols in Egypt.3 Even more poignantly, Yechezkel describes how when Hashem appeared to deliver the Israelites from slavery, they refused to cast aside their idols, causing Hashem to consider wiping out the entire nation. According to Yechezkel, Hashem ultimately redeemed the Israelites neither because of their prayers nor because of His covenant with the Patriarchs, but rather only to avoid a desecration of His name amongst the nations.


The books of Shemot and Yechezkel thus leave us with totally different impressions, obligating us to consider how to reconcile these conflicting portraits.4 Were the Israelites in Egypt God fearers or idol worshippers? Did they completely assimilate into Egyptian society or did they retain a distinctive culture and life style? Finally, how did they react when Moshe appeared on the scene to announce Hashem's plan to take them out of Egypt, and how did this impact on God's plans?