The Exodus Narrative and the Four Children


The Hidden Subtext

The Torah is often laconic in the descriptions of the lives of its protagonists, and this can sometimes be a source of frustration to the reader who yearns to know more details. This is especially true when it comes to characters' thoughts and emotions which are often not made explicit. Thus, while the story of the Exodus speaks at length about both the hardships of the enslaved and the punishments meted out to Paroh and his nation, it hides how all of this was viewed by the Israelites. When Moshe spoke about Hashem redeeming the people, what were they feeling?  What did they know of Hashem beforehand?  Were they long time monotheists, or mired in the polytheism of Egypt?  Were they exuberant or hesitant about the idea of leaving Egypt, eager or skeptical about following Hashem?

Impact on the Larger Story

The way one answers the above questions has widespread ramifications for understanding the entire story of the Exile and Exodus, and touches on numerous topics raised by the opening chapters of Sefer Shemot:

  • Purpose of the exile and bondage – Why did Hashem decree both the exile and the enslavement in Egypt?  Were they punishment for sin, or was there some positive value in the experience?  If the latter, what did the nation gain that justified so many years of oppression?
  • Goshen – Why did the Israelites originally decide to reside in Goshen? Did they remain there throughout the sojourn in Egypt or did they spread beyond its borders to mingle with the rest of Egyptian society? How did the choice of residence affect their religious beliefs and social standing in Egypt?
  • Nature of the bondage –  Were the people slaves to the State or also to individuals? According to either scenario, what were relations like between lay Egyptians and the slaves? How severe were the conditions of the bondage?  Was anyone exempt?  Were all miserable in their low status, or might some have become so accustomed to slave life that it rarely bothered them?
  • Three day journey – Why did Moshe request just a three day leave rather than asking for total freedom?  Was this not deceitful?  Was the ruse aimed at Paroh, the Egyptians, or the Israelites themselves?
  • The Plagues – What was the purpose of the Plagues?  The verses only explicitly state that the Israelites were spared in five of the plagues; does that mean that they were struck by the others? For what purpose? What lessons were these wonders meant to instill in both the Egyptians and Israelites?
  • The Pesach – How is the Pesach rite, with all its accompanying laws, meant to be understood?  Was it merely a means through which to distinguish Israelite homes, or did it play some more fundamental role?  As above, who was the primary target of its lessons, the Egyptians or Israelites?
  • Roundabout route – The Torah shares that upon leaving Egypt, Hashem intentionally took the nation via the Wilderness route which led to Yam Suf.  What were the advantages of this route?  Hashem speaks of avoiding war "lest the nation return to Egypt".  What does this suggest about the people's feelings regarding leaving? 

The "Four Children" in Egypt

This topic will use the "Four Children" of the Pesach Seder as prototypes through which to consider the various types of Israelites that might have existed in Egypt:

  • The Wise or Righteous Child –  A nation of righteous people who believed in Hashem and were fully prepared to obediently follow Him and Moshe.
  • The Assimilated or Wicked Child – Pockets of idolaters who might have been reluctant to leave Egypt and follow an unknown God.
  • The Simple Child Who Does Not Know – Masses of simple people who wavered in their beliefs and were anxious in the face of change and the unknown.

The nation was obviously not monolithic in its make-up, and it presumably was a complex composite of all of these types.  Nonetheless, the Approaches presented here will separate the models, looking at each individually so as to more clearly define the implications of these various portraits.  The exact proportions in which these models existed among the Children of Israel are harder to ascertain, but any accurate representation of the reality in Egypt will most definitely combine elements of each.