The Blackening of Egypt's Reputation
It was from Egypt –and not, e.g. from Babylonia or Khatti (Turkey—Hittite land) or any other country of the Ancient world – that the Israelites believed themselves to have emigrated in order to enter the covenant with God and eventually the Promised Land of Canaan. The reason for this choice may be historical, if we believe in the historicity of the exodus, or symbolic, if we take the exodus story as a foundational myth rather than a historical account. In either case, however, it is legitimate to ask about the significance and origin of the stark antagonism that the biblical account constructs between Egypt and Israel.
The negative image of Egypt in the exodus story blackens the memory of Pharaonic Egypt until today. It focuses mainly on two points: Egypt as the “house of serfdom” and Pharaoh as the paragon of tyranny and despotism.
Conscripted Labor not Slavery
In Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, slaves were understood to belong by nature to a lower species of human beings; this idea was unknown in Egypt. Egyptians worked as servants, laborers, and peasants, but not as slaves. There was, however, the institution of corvée or conscripted labor.
Throughout the Ancient Orient, conscripted labor was a customary form of taxation and could be paid in the form of labor service. In Egypt, conscripted labor played a particularly important role since the annual flooding of the Nile put a halt to work in the fields for three to four months at a stretch, freeing up farm hands for other activities. Furthermore, huge loads that would otherwise have had to be arduously hauled overland could now be transported by ship.
We must further distinguish between normal conscripted labor and forced labor. The first form is free from every degrading or punishing aspects, the second form, however, is the usual form of punishment in antiquity and highly degrading.
In the New Kingdom (1500-1100 BCE), forced and corvée labor was more and more left to prisoners of war and people deported from occupied countries like Nubia (to Egypt’s south) and Canaan. In this way, even Hebrews and other Canaanites may have been engaged in the large building projects of Ramses II. In Egypt, these foreign workers were called capiru, a Babylonia loan word (hapiru), meaning “vagabonds, outlaws, migrants.” This fits the meaning of capiru in the exodus story, in which the enslavement of the Hebrews begins with conscripted labor, then forced labor, and eventually full enslavement.
Solomon’s Conscription of Captives
The closest the Bible comes to describing an Israelite king enslaving his population is the text concerning Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, which focuses on domestic rather than foreign corvée labor. When asked to lower the service burden, Rehoboam famously said: “My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:14). But Rehoboam never gets to make good this promise; unsurprisingly, his outburst brings on the secession of the Israelite northern kingdom.
When describing the “actual” corvée system under Solomon, however, the Bible does not make use of the same hyperbolic tone as we see in Exodus, though both texts use same term, mas (מס). Exodus 1:11 describes Pharaoh appointing “officers of the levy/labor (שרי מסים)” over the Hebrews; in 1Kings 5, the term is used both for the levy (מס) Solomon demanded of his own people and for the forced labor exacted from defeated cities and enslaved captives.
The book of Kings reports that Solomon, who spent twenty years building the Temple and royal palace in Jerusalem while also undertaking further construction projects in Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer, conscripted 30,000 men (1 Kings 5:27-30 [=vv. 13-16 in most English Bibles]):
וַיַּ֨עַל הַמֶּ֧לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֛ה מַ֖ס מִכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיְהִ֣י הַמַּ֔ס שְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף אִֽישׁ: וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֣ם לְבָנ֗וֹנָה עֲשֶׂ֨רֶת אֲלָפִ֤ים בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ חֲלִיפ֔וֹת חֹ֚דֶשׁ יִהְי֣וּ בַלְּבָנ֔וֹן שְׁנַ֥יִם חֳדָשִׁ֖ים בְּבֵית֑וֹ וַאֲדֹנִירָ֖ם עַל הַמַּֽס: וַיְהִ֧י לִשְׁלֹמֹ֛ה שִׁבְעִ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף נֹשֵׂ֣א סַבָּ֑ל וּשְׁמֹנִ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף חֹצֵ֥ב בָּהָֽר: לְ֠בַד מִשָּׂרֵ֨י הַנִּצָּבִ֤ים לִשְׁלֹמֹה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל הַמְּלָאכָ֔ה שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת אֲלָפִ֖ים וּשְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֑וֹת הָרֹדִ֣ים בָּעָ֔ם הָעֹשִׂ֖ים בַּמְּלָאכָֽה:
And King Solomon raised a levy out of all Israel; and the levy was thirty thousand men. And he sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand [men] a month by courses: a month they were in Lebanon, and two months at home: and Adoniram was [supervisor] over the levy. And Solomon had threescore and ten thousand that bare burdens, and fourscore thousand hewers in the mountains; Besides the chief officers of Solomon which were [deployed] over the work, three thousand and three hundred, which ruled over the people that wrought in the work.
Although the Bible describes what sounds like very hard work, the text offers not the slightest suggestion that the levy introduced by Solomon was tainted by indignity, degradation, enslavement, suffering, or the deprivation of rights.
A little later in the Book of Kings, however, we are told that Solomon levied only Canaanites for construction work and spared the Israelites for service in the army (1Kings 9, 20-22):
כָּל הָ֠עָם הַנּוֹתָ֨ר מִן הָאֱמֹרִ֜י הַחִתִּ֤י הַפְּרִזִּי֙ הַחִוִּ֣י וְהַיְבוּסִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹֽא מִבְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל הֵֽמָּה: בְּנֵיהֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר נֹתְר֤וּ אַחֲרֵיהֶם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹֽא יָכְל֛וּ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהַֽחֲרִימָ֑ם וַיַּעֲלֵ֤ם שְׁלֹמֹה֙ לְמַס עֹבֵ֔ד עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה: וּמִבְּנֵי֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹֽא נָתַ֥ן שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה עָ֑בֶד כִּי הֵ֞ם אַנְשֵׁ֣י הַמִּלְחָמָ֗ה וַעֲבָדָיו֙ וְשָׂרָ֣יו וְשָׁלִשָׁ֔יו וְשָׂרֵ֥י רִכְבּ֖וֹ וּפָרָשָֽׁיו:
And all the people that were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, which were not of the children of Israel, their children that were left after them in the land, whom the children of Israel also were not able utterly to destroy, upon those did Solomon levy a tribute of bondservice unto this day. But of the children of Israel did Solomon make no bondmen: but they were men of war, and his servants, and his princes, and his captains, and rulers of his chariots, and his horsemen.
This passage navigates the difficultly between two conflicting principles: not to oppress the Israelites with bondservice and the obligation of Deuteronomy 7:1-2 and 20:16-18 to annihilate the Canaanites. Solomon’s treatment of the Canaanites that are still living in Israel amounts to a flagrant violation of Deuteronomistic puritanism, but by enslaving them and thus avoiding the creation of Israelite bondsmen, the passage ameliorates the problem somewhat. It also demonstrates some ambivalence about the idea of Solomon levying his own people to do hard labor; no such ambivalence is expressed about doing so to foreigners.
Pharaoh’s Shift to Forced Labor and the Use of Genocide
Considering the fact that a king levying work, even physical labor, from his citizens and certainly from foreign residents was the norm in the ancient Near East, including Egypt and Israel, the accusation against Pharaoh in Exodus needed to be about something more extreme than this. And thus we read in the exodus story, about how Pharaoh gradually exchanges the normal forms of conscripted labor to aggravated forms of forced labor (Exod 5:6-9).
But the accusation against Pharaoh is much more serious and by far exceeds anything connected with forced labor: In order to cull the Israelite population, he commands his people to kill all the males among the Hebrew newborns by drowning them into the Nile (Exod 1:22):
וַיְצַ֣ו פַּרְעֹ֔ה לְכָל־עַמּ֖וֹ לֵאמֹ֑ר כָּל־הַבֵּ֣ן הַיִּלּ֗וֹד הַיְאֹ֙רָה֙ תַּשְׁלִיכֻ֔הוּ וְכָל־הַבַּ֖ת תְּחַיּֽוּן:
And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.
This step, however, is told in chapter 1, long before Pharaoh’s negotiations with Moses, and is never referred to in the later unfolding of the narrative. The story belongs within the widely-known myth of the Exposed Child and bears unmistakable fairy-tale traits. It may, however, serve as a foreshadowing of the 10th plague, the killing of the Egyptian firstborn and is, in the Christian reading of the Old Testament, the typos or prefiguration of the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem recounted in Matthew 2.
The Narrative Logic of the Sinister Egypt
The sinister role Egypt and Pharaoh play in the story of Exodus reflects the narrative logic of the story that leads from utter God-forsakenness in Egyptian slavery to the status of God’s Chosen People and the enjoyment of permanent divine presence. God, who is completely absent in the two first chapters describing the sufferings of the Israelites (through Exod 2.23-25 where in five sentences Elohim is mentioned five times), ends up by entering into the tabernacle in order to “dwell in the midst of his people,” “speaking from above the Kerubîm.”
The dark image of Egypt in the book of Exodus is a construct, not founded in historical reality. Its depiction of Egypt as a paradigmatic rogue state is a theological and narratological necessity. The Egyptian enslavement is needed in order to understand the covenant and its laws as liberation. God is the liberator “who led thee out of Egypt, the house of bondage.” They themselves are continually reminded of this fact and enjoined never to forget that they “were slaves in Egypt.”
They are to remain slaves, however; from slaves (avādîm) of the Egyptians they have become the servants of YHWH:
כִּֽי־לִ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ עֲבָדִ֔ים עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם:
For unto me the children of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am YHWH your God (Lev 25:55).
The Torah’s message is that servitude to God frees one from human enslavement.
אֲנִ֞י יְ-הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם מִֽהְיֹ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם עֲבָדִ֑ים וָאֶשְׁבֹּר֙ מֹטֹ֣ת עֻלְּכֶ֔ם וָאוֹלֵ֥ךְ אֶתְכֶ֖ם קֽוֹמְמִיּֽוּת:
I am YHWH your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt from being their slaves, and I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright (Lev 26:13).
Historical Context of the Narrative
In the Bible, the story of the exodus from Egypt is set in the New Kingdom or Late Bronze Age. The orally transmitted myth that serves as the basis for this story may very well go back to this age, when Canaan was ruled by Egypt and its inhabitants suffered under the Egyptian occupation or even – as deportees – in Egypt itself.
In my opinion, however, in its current, elaborated form, it must postdate the time when the kingdom of Judah collapsed (586 BCE) and the people were deprived of any exterior stabilizers of memory and identity: kingship, state and territory, temple, priesthood and cult. In exile, they experienced, discovered or invented a new form of spiritual resettlement in the ideas of revelation, covenant and faith, which they codified in the Torah. Upon their return to Jerusalem, they made this Torah the spiritual foundation of the new Second Temple Judaism.
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April 18, 2016
January 19, 2021
Prof. Jan Assmann is Professor (Emeritus) of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg and is now Honorary Professor of Cultural and Religious Studies at Constance. He received his Ph.D and Dr.habil from Heidelberg, as well as honorary degrees from Muenster, Yale and the Hebrew University Jerusalem. Among his many books are Moses the Egyptian; The Search for God in Ancient Egypt; The Mind of Egypt; Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt; Of God and Gods; The Price of Monotheism; and From Akhenaten to Moses.
Essays on Related Topics:
Envisaging the Exodus Story: Meet the EgyptiansSymposium:Envisaging the Exodus Story: Meet the EgyptiansMore Responses
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