Despoiling the Egyptians: A Concerning Jewish Legacy?
Borrowing from and Spoiling the Egyptians: The King James Version
In describing how the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt, the King James Version (KJV) of Exodus 3:22 reads:
שמות ג:כא וְנָתַתִּי אֶת חֵן הָעָם הַזֶּה בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם. ג:כב וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת וְשַׂמְתֶּם עַל בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל בְּנֹתֵיכֶם וְנִצַּלְתֶּם אֶת מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 3:21 And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty: 3:22 But every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.
The same idea occurs twice more, at Exodus 11:2 and 12:35-6:
שמות יא:ב דַּבֶּר נָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב. יא:ג וַיִּתֵּן יְ-הוָה אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם...
Exod 11:2 Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold. 11:3 And the LORD gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians…
יב:לה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשׂוּ כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת. יב:לו וַי-הוָה נָתַן אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת מִצְרָיִם.
12:35 And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: 12:36 And the LORD gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they spoiled the Egyptians.
This translation states that Israel was told to “borrow” materials from the Egyptians, implying that they meant to return it, which they did not. Almost all Protestant and Catholic versions from the mid-19th to the late 20th century have changed the KJV to “request/ask of” (or something similar), most likely to avoid the impression that God commanded the Israelites to lie. Nevertheless, some contemporary Jewish versions, such as the NJPS, retain the term “borrow” without even noting the controversy or alternative.
19th Century Jewish Bible Translators
How different it was for earlier Anglo-Jewish translators of the nineteenth century. For the most part, these translators made use of the KJV translation, and generally limited themselves to revising it where they perceived the text to be in serious error, or if the translation was problematic from a Jewish perspective, casting doubt on the authenticity of God or his chosen people, Israel. The translation of ש.א.ל in the above passages was one such example.
Selig Newman’s Critique of KJV
Selig Newman, a Jewish translator (KJV reviser) from the 1830s, was expansive in his criticisms of KJV here:
[There are many passages in which the KJV] translators were decidedly wrong. [Such cases] may prove dangerous to the infidel, by strengthening him in his unbelief, as well as to the believer, by raising doubts in his mind of the authenticity of a book which apparently contains so many incongruities. For example: “One shall borrow of his, or her neighbour,” but the meaning in the original is not borrow, but ask: i.e., “One shall ask or demand.” This is perfectly in accord with justice… whilst the permission or order to borrow without intending to restore, being a licence to defraud, could not have emanated from the fountain of justice.
Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz: Noting Antisemitic Overtones
Newman’s observations were not isolated or idiosyncratic. The remarks of J.H. Hertz, chief rabbi of the British Empire (1913-1946) and editor of a very influential one volume English-language commentary on the Torah, echoed those of Newman:
[KJV] translates, “every woman shall borrow of her neighbour.” This translation is thoroughly mischievous and misleading. If there was any borrowing, it was on the part of the Egyptians, who had been taking the labour of the Israelites without recompense…. In modern times, enemies of the Bible vie with one another in finding terms strong enough in which to condemn the “deceit” practised on the Egyptians.
“Borrowing” vs. “Aske” in Early English-Language Versions
William Tyndale’s version of the Bible (for which he was murdered), published piecemeal in the 1530s, is the first English-language rendering of the Hebrew Bible. It contains the term “borrow” in all relevant passages in the book of Exodus. Almost eighty percent of KJV is taken word-for-word from Tyndale, so statistically it not surprising to find “borrow” here.
But this was not the universal practice among early English translations. Most famously, the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560 by anti-monarchic Puritans, rendered the Hebrew with “aske.” Editions of the Geneva Bible were being printed in England as late as 1615, that is, four years after KJV first appeared. To signal the continued popularity of the Geneva Bible, the 1615 edition was the work of Robert Barker, who also had sole rights to publication of KJV.
Had KJV turned in this instance to an edition of the Geneva Bible (which they did on occasion), they would have included a form of “ask” rather than “borrow.” But the translators went with Tyndale here, and “borrow” became part of the English Bible from the mid-seventeenth century until the early twentieth, and with it, the harsh response of Newman and Hertz all but accusing the KJV of antisemitism, and certainly expressing concern that the translation could be used maliciously.
“Borrow” vs. “Ask” in Medieval Jewish Commentators
Ancient versions and translations offer us little help in determining how these verses were understood in antiquity. The Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) uses the same root as that of the MT. The various Aramaic targumim all use the Aramaic version of the same root albeit with different spellings. The Greek LXX and the Latin Vulgate both use terms that can also be translated as borrow or ask (αἰτέω and peto/postulatum respectively).
Anglo-Jewish translators were not the first to debate the meaning of this term in context. The matter was vigorously debated among the medieval commentators (mefarshim). For them, as for the 19th century Jewish translators, the matter wasn’t purely philological, but ideological. One commentator who made this point explicitly was Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1158) in his gloss on Exod. 3:22:
ושאלה אשה משכנתה – במתנה גמורה וחלוטה, שהרי ונתתי את חן העם כמו שאל ממני ואתנה גוים נחלתך. זהו עיקר פשוטו ותשובה למינים.
“A woman will ask her neighbor” – as an unreserved and flat-out gift, for [the previous verse says] “and I will give this people favor [in the site of the Egyptians].” And this is akin to [the use of the root ש.א.ל in] (Ps 2:8), “Ask it of me and I will make the nations your domain.” This is the simple meaning [of the verse], and this is the answer to the sectarians.
Rashbam is explicit that the issue isn’t merely one of finding the best meaning for the context, but also about responding to what the “sectarians” or “heretics” (i.e., Christians) are saying. Ostensibly, he refers to the claim that if the Israelites had asked to borrow, it would have been a lie, leading to fraud and theft. This impulse to defend the ancient Israelites from charges of manipulation and theft goes all the way back to Second Temple and rabbinic literature.
Nevertheless, a number of medieval Jewish commentators such as Rashbam’s contemporary, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), believed that the term should be translated as “borrow.” Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865) too says this in no uncertain terms (Exod 3:22):
אין ספק שהיה זה מעשה תחבולה, כי הם לא אמרו להם שלא לשוב עוד אלא ללכת דרך שלשת ימים ולשוב.
There is no doubt that this was an act of trickery, for [the Israelites] did not say to the Egyptians that they would never return but that they were going for three days and then coming back.
Certainly, neither Shadal or ibn Ezra was interested in making Jews look bad—both even defend what they did as fair. Instead, they were simply trying to translate the text accurately, and understood the verb differently than Rashbam.
These different translations suggest that ש.א.ל may indeed be ambiguous. Is this really so?
“Request” or “Borrow” – An Ethical and Lexicographical Quandary
Some passages require the Hebrew root ש.א.ל. to be rendered “borrow,” while in others it must be rendered “request/ask for.”
Achsa wants land (Josh 15:16, Judg 1:14)
וַתְּסִיתֵהוּ לִשְׁאוֹל מֵאֵת אָבִיהָ שָׂדֶה
She (Achsa) induced him (Othniel) to ask her father (Caleb) for some property.
Sisera asks Yael for water (Judg 5:25)
מַיִם שָׁאַל חָלָב נָתָנָה
He asked for water she gave him milk.
Gideon asks for jewelry (Judg 8:24)
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם גִּדְעוֹן אֶשְׁאֲלָה מִכֶּם שְׁאֵלָה וּתְנוּ לִי אִישׁ נֶזֶם שְׁלָלוֹ
And Gideon said to them, "I have a request to make of you: Each of you give me the earring he received as booty."
Starving children (Lam 4:4)
עוֹלָלִים שָׁאֲלוּ לֶחֶם
Little children ask for bread
A borrower loses an object (Exod 22:13)
וְכִי יִשְׁאַל אִישׁ מֵעִם רֵעֵהוּ וְנִשְׁבַּר אוֹ מֵת
When a man borrows an animal from another and it dies or is injured
Elisha tells a woman to borrow jugs (2 Kings 4:3)
וַיֹּאמֶר לְכִי שַׁאֲלִי לָךְ כֵּלִים מִן הַחוּץ מֵאֵת כָּל (שכנכי) [שְׁכֵנָיִךְ]
"Go," he said, "and borrow vessels outside, from all your neighbors, empty vessels, as many as you can.”
Which of these possible usages is intended in the Egypt story? Are the Israelites supposed to borrow the items, pretending they will return them, or are they asking for gifts?
Reading the Story in Its Biblical Context
We may not be able to determine which verb, “borrow” or “request,” is best, but it is certain that the Torah has little problem with Israel’s plundering the Egyptians, and presents the matter unambiguously as part of the divine plan.
The Torah presents this plunder as part of the punishment to the Egyptians and the reward of the Israelites, and does not seem overly concerned about the fair play. As already noted above, God ensures that the Egyptians give their possessions to the Israelites willingly; this is repeated in all three passages about the requesting/borrowing.
Additionally, as a number of commentators point out, the “plundering” or “despoiling” of the Egyptians was part of God’s promise to Abraham in the ברית בין הבתרים (Covenant between the Parts; Gen 15:14):
בראשית טו:יד וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.
Gen 15:14 But I [God] will execute judgment on the nation they [Israel] shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.
Finally, as other commentators point out, the granting of property to the freed Israelite slaves may anticipate the law of the Hebrew slave in Deuteronomy 15:
דברים טו:יג וְכִי תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ חָפְשִׁי מֵעִמָּךְ לֹא תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ רֵיקָם. טו:יד הַעֲנֵיק תַּעֲנִיק לוֹ מִצֹּאנְךָ וּמִגָּרְנְךָ וּמִיִּקְבֶךָ אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַכְךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ תִּתֶּן לוֹ. טו:טו וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיִּפְדְּךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה הַיּוֹם.
Deut 15:13 When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: 15:14 Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the LORD your God has blessed you. 15:15 Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.
Historical context explains why the problem of ancient Jewish dishonesty became particularly acute for 19th century Jewish translators.
Understanding Newman and Hertz in Context
Modern scholars have a tendency to dismiss a worry such as that of Newman and Hertz as irrelevant or, worse, silly. Why should the translation of a biblical verse, erroneous or not, have been the cause for so much alarm among earlier generations of translators and commentators?
Although nineteenth century England is less distant temporally from twenty-first century America as the latter is from ancient Israel, all sorts of presuppositions separate us from that century. Thus, understanding the historical reality in which Newman and Hertz were working is critical to understanding their response.
During much of the nineteenth century, British Jews were seeking social and civic equality; the Jewish community also was engaged in internal and institutional developments of its own. Thus, these Jewish translators were especially concerned to remove from their English versions (since they could not change the Hebrew text) any expression that would suggest character flaws on the part of biblical personages and their Anglo-Jewish descendants.
What was at stake, in the view of these translators, was the safety, perhaps even the survival, of their fellow Jews in a society in which they still labored under many social and legal impediments. In the hands of their enemies, a shifty Jacob of the Bible could easily foreshadow a shiftless Jacob from London’s East End, and Israelites who pretended to borrow from the Egyptians with no intention of repaying could become blood-sucking moneylenders.
We may therefore conclude that a relatively innocuous biblical reference loomed larger than we might have expected for British Jews a hundred and fifty years or more ago.
Egyptian Lawsuits—Ancient and Modern Versions
Beyond its value as a historical and cultural footnote, does this have any relevance for us today? Alas, it does.
In 2003, as reported by the media worldwide, an Egyptian jurist, Dr. Nabil Hilmi, Dean of the Faculty of Law at Zagazig University, relying on just these passages, was preparing a lawsuit against “all the Jews of the world.” He claimed that their ancestors were responsible for absconding with the equivalent of more than 1,000 trillion tons of gold during the Exodus. This jurist apparently was willing to amortize this debt over a millennium, so long as cumulative interest was calculated and paid.
He was not the first to make such a claim; the rabbis tell a story about just such a lawsuit brought by the Egyptians against the Jews in the time of Alexander the Great. The Jews were defended by a sage named Gevihah ben Pesisa. This suit is explained in the Scholion to Megillat Taanit, (Oxford MS):
אמרו מצריים: כתוב בתורה: ושאלה אשה מש[כנ]תה ומגרת ביתה כלי כסף וכלי זהב. החזירו לנו שלנו.
The Egyptians said: “It is written in the Torah (Exod 3:22): ‘Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold.’ Return our property to us!”
השיב להם גביהה: ארבע מאות ושלשים שנה שנשתעבדו ישראל אצלכם שש מאות אלף רגלי, ותנו לכל אחד מהם מאתים זוז בשנה, שהם שמונה מאות וששים רבוא מנה לכל אחד ואחד, ונחזיר לכם את שלכם.
Gevihah responded to them: “For 430 years, 600,000 Israelites were enslaved by you. Give each one of them 200 zuz per year [of service], which amounts to 8,600,000 maneh (1 maneh=100 zuz) per person. Then we will give you back your property.
יצאו כולם בפחי נפש.
They all left with deflated spirits.
In both the rabbinic story and the modern attempt, the lawsuits went nowhere. Yet, they reflect Jewish anxiety about how the story of the despoiling of Egypt can be used against us, and offer an important lesson. For those seeking to discredit the Book, or the People of the Book, there is no concept of a statute of limitations and no desire to try and understand this account in its literary or historical setting. It merely serves as a useful pretext for anti-Jewish stereotyping. This cannot determine our translations, which must follow philology and context, but we should always remember what is at stake in any given choice.
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February 22, 2017
January 17, 2021
Prof. Leonard Greenspoon holds the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Chair in Jewish civilization at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and is also Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies and of Theology there. His Ph.D. from Harvard University. Greenspoon is the editor of Purdue University Press’s Studies in Jewish Civilization series and among his many edited and author books are, Max Leopold Margolis: A Scholar’s Scholar, Fashioning Jews: Clothing, Culture and Commerce, and (with Sidnie White Crawford) The Book of Esther in Modern Research.
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