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Israelites in Egypt: Slaves or Sojourners?

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David Frankel

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Israelites in Egypt: Slaves or Sojourners?

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Israelites in Egypt: Slaves or Sojourners?

The earliest biblical traditions describe Israel as sojourners who dwelt in the land of Egypt, and focused on YHWH bringing them up to the land of Canaan. The depiction of Israel as slaves in Egypt, whom YHWH brought out with a strong hand, only developed later.

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Israelites in Egypt: Slaves or Sojourners?

"We were slaves to Pharaoh," Hispano-Moresque Haggadah, 13th-14th c., Oriental 2737, f. 5v. British LIbrary.

Law Collections: From Sojourners to Slaves

The book of Exodus twice reminds Israel not to mistreat sojourners (גֵרִים)[1] in their land because they themselves were once sojourners in Egypt:

שמות כב:כ וְגֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 22:20 You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
שמות כג:ט וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 23:9 You shall not oppress a sojourner, for you know the feelings of the sojourner, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.[2]

The status of sojourner is what the patriarchs and matriarchs experience in Canaan. Abraham describes himself to the son of Heth (Gen 23:4): גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם “I am a sojourner and resident among you.” Similarly, the stories concerning the stay of Abraham and Isaac in Gerar, describe how the patriarchs make limited pacts with the local authority and navigate conflict with locals,[3] highlighting the difficulties that migrants need to navigate in a land that is not their own.

The laws against mistreating sojourners, which appear in the Covenant Collection—the most ancient of the Torah’s legal collections—seem to be envisioning something similar for Israel in Egypt, namely that the Israelites in Egypt were sojourners, like Abraham in Canaan, and faced the same kind of complicated interactions landless migrants must face when dealing with natives.

In contrast, the later Deuteronomic Collection portrays the Israelites as slaves in Egypt. This depiction is found, for example, when they are warned not to mistreat sojourners, widows, and orphans:

דברים כד:יז לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט גֵּר יָתוֹם וְלֹא תַחֲבֹל בֶּגֶד אַלְמָנָה. כד:יח וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּמִצְרַיִם וַיִּפְדְּךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִשָּׁם עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה.
Deut 24:17 You shall not subvert the rights of the sojourner or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. 24:18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that YHWH your God redeemed you from there; therefore, do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.[4]

In other words, while the Covenant Collection preserves an ancient conception where the Israelites’ stay in Egypt was a time of living as landless foreigners under Egyptian sovereignty, the Deuteronomic collection conceives of the same period in Egypt as one of harsh and oppressive slavery. This is reflected in other places as well where Deuteronomy revises Exodus.

“Remember You Were Slaves in Egypt”

The Decalogue in Exodus states that the Israelites must rest on the Shabbat to imitate YHWH, who rested on the seventh day of creation (Exod 20:11); Deuteronomy revises this explanation, saying that Israel must rest on Shabbat because the Israelites were slaves in Egypt (Deut 5:15).[5]

Similarly, in revising the slave laws of Exodus, Deuteronomy adds the requirement for the master to supply the freed slave with some food, and ties this into Israel’s past slavery in Egypt:

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 YHWH your God has blessed you. 15:15 Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and YHWH your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.[6]

In the Covenant Collection, however, only the laws concerning proper treatment of the sojourner, quoted above, evoke memories of Egypt, and Israel’s time there as sojourners, not slaves.

The Sojourner in Deuteronomy

The festival calendar in Deuteronomy 16 requires a landowner going on pilgrimage to bring his landless dependents along with him:

דברים טז:יא וְשָׂמַחְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְהַלֵּוִי אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם. טז:יב וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּמִצְרָיִם וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה.
Deut 16:11 You shall rejoice before YHWH your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where YHWH your God will choose to establish His name. 16:12 Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws.

This text makes no mention of Israel sojourning in Egypt, focusing instead on their enslavement there, despite its explicitly mentioning the requirement to include the sojourner.[7]

An Earlier Sojourning Layer in Deuteronomy

Other passages in Deuteronomy, however, imply that these references to Egyptian slavery are from a secondary layer,[8] and that this law collection as well originally thought of Israel as having been sojourners in Egypt.

Not to Return an Escaped Slave

For example, Deuteronomy’s laws forbid the return of an escaped slave to his master:

דברים כג:טז לֹא תַסְגִּיר עֶבֶד אֶל אֲדֹנָיו אֲשֶׁר יִנָּצֵל אֵלֶיךָ מֵעִם אֲדֹנָיו. כג:יז עִמְּךָ יֵשֵׁב בְּקִרְבְּךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בַּטּוֹב לוֹ לֹא תּוֹנֶנּוּ.
Deut 23:16 You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. 23:17 He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.

The failure to invoke the “remember you were slaves in Egypt” clause here is striking. It implies that this law dates from a period before the story of Israel as slaves in Egypt was widely accepted, and that for whatever reason, the Deuteronomistic scribe who revised the other laws to include the slave motif overlooked this one.

Not to Abhor an Egyptian

Earlier in this same chapter, Deuteronomy discusses how Israel should relate to their neighbors. The first law is about Israel’s eastern neighbors, the Ammonites and Moabites, whom Israel must shun for eternity:

דברים כג:ז לֹא יָבֹא עַמּוֹנִי וּמוֹאָבִי בִּקְהַל יְ־הוָה גַּם דּוֹר עֲשִׂירִי לֹא יָבֹא לָהֶם בִּקְהַל יְ־הוָה עַד עוֹלָם.
Deut 23:7 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of YHWH; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of YHWH.

The reason for this, Deuteronomy explains, is two-fold:

דברים כג:ה עַל דְּבַר אֲשֶׁר לֹא קִדְּמוּ אֶתְכֶם בַּלֶּחֶם וּבַמַּיִם בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם וַאֲשֶׁר שָׂכַר עָלֶיךָ אֶת בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר מִפְּתוֹר אֲרַם נַהֲרַיִם לְקַלְלֶךָּ.
Deut 23:5 Because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.

The text next mentions Israel’s southern neighbors, Edom and Egypt:

דברים כג:ח לֹא תְתַעֵב אֲדֹמִי כִּי אָחִיךָ הוּא לֹא תְתַעֵב מִצְרִי כִּי גֵר הָיִיתָ בְאַרְצוֹ.
Deut 23:8 You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land.

The verse bases the prohibition of detesting the Egyptian on the national debt owed to the Egyptians for hosting the Israelite sojourners. Yet, according to other traditions in the Bible, including Deuteronomy, the Israelites of Egypt were not just sojourners, but slaves (עבדים), whose baby boys were killed and who were subjected to backbreaking labor! Rashi (R. Shlomi Yitzhaki, ca. 1040–1105) tries, unsuccessfully, to resolve this problem:

לא תתעב מצרי – מכל וכל, ואף על פי שזרקו זכוריכם ליאר. מה טעם? שהיו לכם אכסניא בשעת הדחק.
“You shall not abhor an Egyptian”—entirely, even though they threw your baby boys into the Nile. Why? Because they hosted you in a time of need (=the famine in Joseph’s time).

Rabbi Joseph ibn Kaspi (ca. 1280–1345) offers a similar interpretation:

כי גר היית בארצו – ואם קם אחר כן דור {ו}כבשום לעבדים, ראוי לאדם שלא יכפור בטובה הקדומה.
“For you were a sojourner in his land”—and even though afterwords, the next generation conquered [the Israelites] and enslaved them, it is fitting for a person not to discard the earlier good.

These explanations are forced: the physical oppression and harsh slavery which the Egyptians imposed upon the Israelites should have canceled out any debt of gratitude. [9] Surely the harsh labor that the Egyptians inflicted upon the Israelites should have more negative repercussions than the Ammonite and Moabite refusal to provide food for the wandering migrants!

These laws reflect an earlier form of Deuteronomic law, which was working with the more ancient conception of Israelites as sojourners rather than slaves in Egypt.

Dwelling or Sojourning in Egypt in Torah Narratives

Remnants of a story in which the Israelites were sojourners are found tucked into the narrative about Israel’s Egypt experience in Exodus. David Daube (1909–1999) of Oxford and the University of Berkeley noted[10] that the summary statement about Israel’s time in Egypt speaks only of Israel dwelling in Egypt:

שמות יב:מ וּמוֹשַׁב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָשְׁבוּ בְּמִצְרָיִם שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה.
Exod 12:40 The [length of the] dwelling of Israel which they dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.

Here the root is י.ש.ב “dwell” instead of ג.ו.ר “sojourn,” but the verse similarly describes Israel’s time in Egypt without reference to the harshness of slavery. Indeed, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, they ask Pharaoh to allow them to “dwell” and to “sojourn” in the land of Goshen,

בראשית מז:ד וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה לָגוּר בָּאָרֶץ בָּאנוּ כִּי אֵין מִרְעֶה לַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לַעֲבָדֶיךָ כִּי כָבֵד הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וְעַתָּה יֵשְׁבוּ נָא עֲבָדֶיךָ בְּאֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן.
Gen 47:4 They said to Pharaoh, “We have come to sojourn in this land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, the famine being severe in the land of Canaan. Pray, then, let your servants settle in the region of Goshen.”[11]

When read together with the verse above, Israel’s time in Egypt is characterized as “dwelling” from beginning to end. This stands in contrast, we might add, to the characterization in the Covenant between the Parts of Israel’s time in Egypt as lasting four hundred years, and including both “sojourneying” and “oppressive slavery”:

בראשית טו:יג וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה.
Gen 15:13 And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be sojourners in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.”

This combination is unique to this passage and is probably an indication of its lateness.[12] The fact that the passage of Exodus 12:40 failed to refer to Israel’s stay in Egypt in terms of slavery is probably not insignificant. Daube raised the possibility that these texts preserve “the debris of a very early tradition.”[13] While Daube then dismissed this possibility, his first intuition was probably correct.

Another passage that contradicts the depiction of Israel as slaves in Egypt is YHWH’s command that the Israelites borrow material from the Egyptians:

שמות ג:כב וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת וְשַׂמְתֶּם עַל בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל בְּנֹתֵיכֶם וְנִצַּלְתֶּם אֶת מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 3:22 Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping the Egyptians.

Not only are Egyptian woman neighbors of these Israelite “slave” women, but Israelites even have Egyptian lodgers in their households! This verse is inconsistent with the conception of Israelites as slaves.

Armed Israelites: A Conquest-Story Pattern

The reference to Israel leaving Egypt armed is also discordant with the conception of Israel as slaves, and indicates what the older story of Israelite sojourners leaving Egypt may once have looked like:

שמות יג:יח ...וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 13:18 …Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.

The story of the crossing of the Sea presents the Israelites as utterly helpless, and hardly seems to envision the possibility of their battling against the approaching Egyptians.[14] Moreover, the narrative never explains how abject slaves got hold of weapons.[15]

To explain the reference to Israel being armed, Samuel E. Loewenstamm (1907–1987) of Hebrew University[16] notes that only military age males are counted in the list of how many Israelites left Egypt and that the Israelites are referring to as צִבְאוֹת יְ־הוָה, “YHWH’s army” (Exod 12:41). He argues that this depiction is the result of literary patterning:

From these passages there emerges a picture of an ethnic group which migrated from its former place of habitation in order to conquer a new homeland. That their intent was one of conquest determines the unique character of the biblical account of their migration, in which they are depicted as warriors, and thus as armed.

Loewenstamm refers to the parallel story of how the Danites moved from the Mediterranean coast up into the Galilee to conquer territory and settle there:

שופטים יח:יא וַיִּסְעוּ מִשָּׁם מִמִּשְׁפַּחַת הַדָּנִי מִצָּרְעָה וּמֵאֶשְׁתָּאֹל שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אִישׁ חָגוּר כְּלֵי מִלְחָמָה. יח:יב וַיַּעֲלוּ וַיַּחֲנוּ בְּקִרְיַת יְעָרִים בִּיהוּדָה...
Judg 18:11 They departed from there, from the clan seat of the Danites, from Zorah and Eshtaol, six hundred strong, girt with weapons of war. 18:12 They went up and encamped at Kiryat-yearim in Judah…

Following this pattern, Exodus depicts the Israelites as armed migrants seeking new territory.[17] And yet, Loewenstamm has difficulty explaining why the author felt the need to present them this way:

This pattern, however, does not cohere with the more ancient story which cannot account for the source from which the Israelites obtained their weapons.[18]

Loewenstamm thinks that the tension in the narrative, wherein downtrodden slaves are suddenly transformed into armed warriors without any explanation, is the byproduct of the author’s decision to adopt a fixed literary pattern, even though it is discordant with the basic story he is trying to tell. It is more likely, however, that this image of an armed Israel is part of the earlier tradition, according to which the Israelites were sojourners rather than slaves.[19]

It may further be noted that the phrase “they went up armed” in Exodus 13:18 implies that the Israelites initiated the exodus. This agrees with the opening chapter of Exodus:

שמות א:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ. א:י הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שֹׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ.
Exod 1:9 And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. 1:10 Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and go up from the land.”

This depiction of Israel as a dangerous foe may be another relic of an ancient, variant tradition concerning Israel’s sojourn in Egypt.[20]

Both the king of Egypt’s speech to the people, and the verse about Israel leaving armed, use the verb ע.ל.ה, “to go up.” This is the same verb used in the story of the Danites conquest of Layish in the north, and is the typical term used in the Bible for a people looking to settle in another land.

“Up” or “Out”?

In an important 1965 study, the Dutch Bible scholar, John Wijngaards noted that while most biblical texts refer to how God brought Israel out (הוציא, from the root י.צ.א) of Egypt, some say that God brought Israel up (העלה, from the root ע.ל.ה) from Egypt.[21] He further observed that the “brought out” formula emphasizes liberation from slavery and captivity,[22] and is typically used together with the phrases מבית עבדים “from the house of slavery” and/or ביד חזקה “with a strong hand,” seen, e.g., in the following text:

שמות יג:ג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל הָעָם זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיא יְ־הֹוָה אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה...
Exod 13:3 And Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how YHWH freed you from it with a mighty hand…”[23]

In contrast, the “brought up” formula emphasizes the journey and endpoint, and says little about Israel’s experience in Egypt or how they left:

עמוס ב:י וְאָנֹכִי הֶעֱלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וָאוֹלֵךְ אֶתְכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה לָרֶשֶׁת אֶת אֶרֶץ הָאֱמֹרִי.
Amos 2:10 And I brought you up from the land of Egypt and led you through the wilderness forty years, to possess the land of the Amorite!
ירמיה ב:ו וְלֹא אָמְרוּ אַיֵּה יְ־הוָה הַמַּעֲלֶה אֹתָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם הַמּוֹלִיךְ אֹתָנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ עֲרָבָה וְשׁוּחָה בְּאֶרֶץ צִיָּה וְצַלְמָוֶת בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא עָבַר בָּהּ אִישׁ וְלֹא יָשַׁב אָדָם שָׁם. ב:ז וָאָבִיא אֶתְכֶם אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכַּרְמֶל לֶאֱכֹל פִּרְיָהּ וְטוּבָהּ...
Jer 2:6 They never asked themselves, “Where is YHWH, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, a land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and darkness, a land no man had traversed, where no human being had dwelt?” 2:7 I brought you to this country of farm land to enjoy its fruit and its bounty…[24]

These texts do not imply that Israel’s time in Egypt was especially harsh or that YHWH needed to perform powerful miracles to release them. Amos, for example, describes the appearance of Israel in the land beside other migrating nations:

עמוס ט:ז ...הֲלוֹא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל הֶעֱלֵיתִי מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּפְלִשְׁתִּיִּים מִכַּפְתּוֹר וַאֲרָם מִקִּיר.
Amos 9:7 True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.

Surely Amos is not implying that the Philistines lived in slavery in Caphtor or the Arameans lived in slavery in Kir until YHWH brought His strong hand to bear against their masters. The same is likely the case with Israel. What the term “going up” does imply is that God’s grace is evident in the settlement of the migrants in a new territory.

How the Slavery Concept Developed

The earlier formula, “going up,” reflects an exodus story focused on the settling of the land of Canaan.[25] In this version of the exodus tradition, Egypt was the place where the Israelites lived as landless foreigners, as outsiders and aliens, but not as enslaved laborers.[26] In this version, the great act of divine kindness that Israel was taught to remember was that they started as landless aliens, and that YHWH led them up and gave them a land of their own.

In a later period in Israel’s history, perhaps after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the loss of territorial sovereignty, and the exile of many Israelites, the idea that YHWH’s grace is manifest in the giving of the land was no longer sufficient as a basis for the covenant.

If we became indebted to YHWH because YHWH transformed us from landless aliens in Egypt to landowners in Israel, we should no longer be beholden to such a God. Israel, therefore, needed to reimagine its origin story as something that could have significance even for a landless or dominated people. Such a message became doubly important after the fall of Judah, after which Judah also lost control of their own territory and many Judahites were exiled to Babylon.

Thus, a new motif was developed to keep the Egypt tradition relevant. The exodus story was no longer primarily the account of how Israel migrated from Egypt, where they were sojourners, to Canaan, where they settled the land and made it their own. Rather, the focus became the exodus from Egypt itself, which took on the character of a miraculous rescue from an oppressive and cruel regime.

In this version, Israel only succeeded in leaving Egypt on account of YHWH’s strong hand and mighty wonders, and for this, they are forever in YHWH’s debt. If the Israelites and Judahites could no longer say “we are now an independent people, living on our own land,” they could at least say “we were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but YHWH freed us from there with a mighty hand.”

Published

April 14, 2022

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Last Updated

November 30, 2022

Footnotes

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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).

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