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]):
מלכים א ה:כז וַיַּעַל הַמֶּלֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה מַס מִכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיְהִי הַמַּס שְׁלֹשִׁים אֶלֶף אִישׁ. ה:כח וַיִּשְׁלָחֵם לְבָנוֹנָה עֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים בַּחֹדֶשׁ חֲלִיפוֹת חֹדֶשׁ יִהְיוּ בַלְּבָנוֹן שְׁנַיִם חֳדָשִׁים בְּבֵיתוֹ וַאֲדֹנִירָם עַל הַמַּס. ה:כט וַיְהִי לִשְׁלֹמֹה שִׁבְעִים אֶלֶף נֹשֵׂא סַבָּל וּשְׁמֹנִים אֶלֶף חֹצֵב בָּהָר. ה:ל לְבַד מִשָּׂרֵי הַנִּצָּבִים לִשְׁלֹמֹה אֲשֶׁר עַל הַמְּלָאכָה שְׁלֹשֶׁת אֲלָפִים וּשְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת הָרֹדִים בָּעָם הָעֹשִׂים בַּמְּלָאכָה.
1 Kgs 5:27 And King Solomon raised a levy out of all Israel; and the levy was thirty thousand men. 5:28 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. 5:29 And Solomon had threescore and ten thousand that bare burdens, and fourscore thousand hewers in the mountains; 5:30 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:
מלכים א ט:כ כָּל הָעָם הַנּוֹתָר מִן הָאֱמֹרִי הַחִתִּי הַפְּרִזִּי הַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה. ט:כא בְּנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר נֹתְרוּ אַחֲרֵיהֶם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָכְלוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַחֲרִימָם וַיַּעֲלֵם שְׁלֹמֹה לְמַס עֹבֵד עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. ט:כב וּמִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא נָתַן שְׁלֹמֹה עָבֶד כִּי הֵם אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה וַעֲבָדָיו וְשָׂרָיו וְשָׁלִשָׁיו וְשָׂרֵי רִכְבּוֹ וּפָרָשָׁיו.
1 Kgs 9:20 And all the people that were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, which were not of the children of Israel, 9:21 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. 9:22 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:
שמות א:כב וַיְצַו פַּרְעֹה לְכׇל עַמּוֹ לֵאמֹר כׇּל הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד הַיְאֹרָה תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ וְכׇל־הַבַּת תְּחַיּוּן.
Exod 1:22 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:
ויקרא כה:נה כִּי לִי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
Lev 25:55 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.
The Torah’s message is that servitude to God frees one from human enslavement.
ויקרא כו:יג אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִהְיֹת לָהֶם עֲבָדִים וָאֶשְׁבֹּר מֹטֹת עֻלְּכֶם וָאוֹלֵךְ אֶתְכֶם קוֹמְמִיּוּת.
Lev 26:13 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.
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
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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.
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