The Israelites Were Sojourners in Egypt and Life Wasn’t So Bad
The Passover seder is meant to pass on the tradition of the miraculous redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, as told in the book of Exodus, and referred to elsewhere in the Bible. However, many biblical references to Israel’s experience in Egypt do not mention slavery, and some even reflect a neutral or even positive attitude toward Israel’s residency there.
Ezekiel’s Depiction of YHWH’s Taking Israel out of Egypt
In the book of Ezekiel, composed during the exilic-period, YHWH gives Ezekiel a long message for Israel, which includes a review of Israelite history, beginning from when YHWH chooses them—for the first time(!)—in Egypt:
יחזקאל כ:ה ...בְּיוֹם בָּחֳרִי בְיִשְׂרָאֵל וָאֶשָּׂא יָדִי לְזֶרַע בֵּית יַעֲקֹב וָאִוָּדַע לָהֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וָאֶשָּׂא יָדִי לָהֶם לֵאמֹר אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Ezek 20:5 …On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to the offspring of the house of Jacob—making myself known to them in the land of Egypt—I swore to them, saying, “I am the YHWH your God.” 
This text does not claim that the Israelites needed to be freed from Egypt due to their oppression. Nor is YHWH’s intervention described as a response to the people’s plea. Instead, YHWH seems to have come across them there in happenstance, and takes a liking to them, swearing to be their God. YHWH further promises to give them a land of their own.
יחזקאל כ:ו בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא נָשָׂאתִי יָדִי לָהֶם לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תַּרְתִּי לָהֶם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ צְבִי הִיא לְכָל הָאֲרָצוֹת.
Ezek 20:6 On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands.
The land is apparently a place that YHWH actively searched out and found on Israel’s behalf. YHWH has one stipulation, however: that Israel stop worshipping Egyptian deities since he should be Israel's exclusive deity:
יחזקאל כ:ז וָאֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם אִישׁ שִׁקּוּצֵי עֵינָיו הַשְׁלִיכוּ וּבְגִלּוּלֵי מִצְרַיִם אַל תִּטַּמָּאוּ אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Ezek 20:7 And I said to them, “Cast away the detestable things on which your eyes feast, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the YHWH your God.”
The people, however, ignore this demand and continue to worship Egyptian deities:
יחזקאל כ:ח וַיַּמְרוּ בִי וְלֹא אָבוּ לִּשְׁמֹעַ אֵלַי אִישׁ אֶת שִׁקּוּצֵי עֵינֵיהֶם לֹא הִשְׁלִיכוּ וְאֶת גִּלּוּלֵי מִצְרַיִם לֹא עָזָבוּ...
Ezek 20:8 But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me; not one of them cast away the detestable things on which their eyes feasted, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt…
Given this reaction, YHWH considers reneging on the promise and leaving them in Egypt:
יחזקאל כ:ח ...וָאֹמַר לִשְׁפֹּךְ חֲמָתִי עֲלֵיהֶם לְכַלּוֹת אַפִּי בָּהֶם בְּתוֹךְ אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Ezek 20:8 … Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt.
Nevertheless, YHWH decides he must offer Israel a new opportunity by bringing them into the wilderness and giving them his laws:
יחזקאל כ:ט וָאַעַשׂ לְמַעַן שְׁמִי לְבִלְתִּי הֵחֵל לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הֵמָּה בְתוֹכָם אֲשֶׁר נוֹדַעְתִּי אֲלֵיהֶם לְעֵינֵיהֶם לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כ:י וָאוֹצִיאֵם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וָאֲבִאֵם אֶל הַמִּדְבָּר. כ:יא וָאֶתֵּן לָהֶם אֶת חֻקּוֹתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי הוֹדַעְתִּי אוֹתָם אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אוֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם.
Ezek 20:9 But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt. 20:10 So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. 20:11 I gave them my statutes and showed them my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live.
In this account, Israel seems to be an ethnic group living as a minority in Egypt, worshipping Egyptian gods. The story says nothing about Egypt enslaving them or even forcing them to stay. It is natural for readers familiar with the biblical story of the exodus to read Ezekiel's review of the past with an assumption that Ezekiel is referring to the well-known event from the Torah, indicating hints or allusions to it. Alternatively, some see it as a deliberate alteration of the well-known story for rhetorical needs. I would argue that Ezekiel is working with an alternative tradition about Israel’s origins and its relationship to Egypt.
The Absence of Slavery in Legal References to Egypt
Several legal statements in Deuteronomy lack any acknowledgment of the trauma Israel experienced in Egypt and refer to the status of the Israelites’ life there as sojourners (גרים), i.e., as strangers or alien residents rather than as slaves. It is striking to find a requirement to accept Egyptians into the Israelite congregation as a gratitude for the period the Egyptians hosted the Israelites in their land:
דברים כג:ח לֹא תְתַעֵב אֲדֹמִי כִּי אָחִיךָ הוּא לֹא תְתַעֵב מִצְרִי כִּי גֵר הָיִיתָ בְאַרְצוֹ. כג:ט בָּנִים אֲשֶׁר יִוָּלְדוּ לָהֶם דּוֹר שְׁלִישִׁי יָבֹא לָהֶם בִּקְהַל יְ־הוָה.
Deut 23:8 You shall not abhor an Edomite, for such is your kin. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in that land. 23:9 Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of YHWH in the third generation.
This demand puts the Egyptians on equal standing with the Edomites, who due to family connection are entitled to be protected from the Israelites’ abhorrence, and to be accepted into the Israelite congregation under certain terms (v. 8–9). Contrast this with the vengeful attitude the same set of laws expresses towards Moabites and Ammonites:
דברים כג:ד לֹא יָבֹא עַמּוֹנִי וּמוֹאָבִי בִּקְהַל יְ־הוָה גַּם דּוֹר עֲשִׂירִי לֹא יָבֹא לָהֶם בִּקְהַל יְ־הוָה עַד עוֹלָם. כג:ה עַל דְּבַר אֲשֶׁר לֹא קִדְּמוּ אֶתְכֶם בַּלֶּחֶם וּבַמַּיִם בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם וַאֲשֶׁר שָׂכַר עָלֶיךָ אֶת בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר מִפְּתוֹר אֲרַם נַהֲרַיִם לְקַלְלֶךָּ... כג:ז לֹא תִדְרֹשׁ שְׁלֹמָם וְטֹבָתָם כָּל יָמֶיךָ לְעוֹלָם.
Deut 23:4 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of YHWH; no descendants of such, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of YHWH, 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… 23:7 You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live.
It seems impossible that the same author would have such a vindictive feeling toward the Moabites and Ammonites for not offering Israel water, and at the same time, would convey such a forgiving attitude to Egyptians despite holding Israel in bondage for scores of years. Rather, the author of these laws likely predates the stages of editing of the book of Deuteronomy that certainly assume the idea of Israelite slavery in Egypt. In other words, these laws were part of a more ancient law collection, which did not have the tradition of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, and instead knew of the idea that the Israelites had lived there as sojourners for a period of time, similar to the picture depicted in Ezekiel 20.
Additional laws found throughout the Torah describe Israel’s residence in Egypt as sojourning, not slavery, and use Israel’s experience as a justification for the demand to love the stranger (not the slave). The Covenant Collection notes twice:
שמות כב:כ וְגֵר לֹא תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 22:20 You shall not wrong or oppress a sojourner, 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 sojourners in the land of Egypt.
A similar law appears once in the Holiness Collection, commanding love for foreigners, as a result of the time in Egypt:
ויקרא יט:לד כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Lev 19:34 The sojourners who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt: I YHWH am your God.
And it appears once in Deuteronomy (in the introductory section, before the law collection), after describing YHWH as a deity who loves the sojourner and gives them bread and clothing:
דברים י:יט וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Deut 10:19 You too must befriend the stranger, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
The term גרים, “sojourner,” is neutral, saying nothing about a traumatic experience. Sojourners can be treated well or badly or somewhere in between, and in none of the verses which refer to Israel as sojourners in Egypt do we hear anything about their being oppressed or mistreated. In other words, we do not hear anything like be kind to sojourners for you know what it is like to be mistreated when you were sojourners, when the Egyptians mistreated you.
Most interpreters read an experience of slavery into these passages. Read on their own, however, these text urge the addressees to remember how they were befriended by the Egyptians when they sojourned there, and to treat outsiders who are sojourners in their land similarly.
Moreover, sometimes the period of sojourning in Egypt is presented positively.
Positive Memories of the Residence in Egypt
When the Israelites in the wilderness complain of hunger, they think back on the abundance of food in Egypt:
שמות טז:ג וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִי יִתֵּן מוּתֵנוּ בְיַד יְ־הוָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּנוּ עַל סִיר הַבָּשָׂר בְּאָכְלֵנוּ לֶחֶם לָשֹׂבַע...
Exod 16:3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of YHWH in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!...”
A similar idea is expressed when the Israelites feel sick of the manna:
במדבר יא:ד ...וַיָּשֻׁבוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר. יא:ה זָכַרְנוּ אֶת הַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם חִנָּם אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים וְאֶת הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת הַבְּצָלִים וְאֶת הַשּׁוּמִים.
Num 11:4 …And then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 11:5 We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
This sentiment is repeated when they struggle to find water:
במדבר כ:ה וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה לֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן וּמַיִם אַיִן לִשְׁתּוֹת.
Num 20:5 “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”
Thomas Römer argues that the motif of the “Egypt nostalgia” in the complaint stories was a late interpolation of post-Deuteronomistic redactors who wished to emphasize the theme of Israel’s rebellious nature. It is possible to understand these reminiscences as defeatist utterances in moments of despair, used by a late author to make the returnees look bad. Nothing in the literary context of the statements, however, either in the leader’s response to them, or in the narrator’s remarks, denies the idea that Egypt was a good place for the people to reside.
Indeed, Datan and Abiram go so far as to describe Egypt as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (ארץ זבת חלב ודבש), using the very words the Torah uses elsewhere to describe the Promised Land (e.g. Exod 3:8; Lev 20:24; Deut 6:3, cf., Num 14:8):
במדבר טז:יג הַמְעַט כִּי הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ לַהֲמִיתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר כִּי תִשְׂתָּרֵר עָלֵינוּ גַּם הִשְׂתָּרֵר.
Num 16:13 Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?
Although Datan and Abiram use this phrase for rhetorical effect, it should not be read as a mere provocation, given that the Torah itself compares Egypt to the garden of God:
בראשית יג:י וַיִּשָּׂא לוֹט אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת כָּל כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן כִּי כֻלָּהּ מַשְׁקֶה לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת יְ־הוָה אֶת סְדֹם וְאֶת עֲמֹרָה כְּגַן יְ־הוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם...
Gen 13:10 Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before YHWH had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—like the garden of YHWH, like the land of Egypt…
Even Deuteronomy’s claim about Egypt as a land without rain (compared to Canaan) does not depict Egypt negatively, but rather as a place where agriculture requires labor, as farmers water the seedlings themselves, like a person tending a vegetable garden:
דברים יא:י כִּי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ לֹא כְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִוא אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִשָּׁם אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע אֶת זַרְעֲךָ וְהִשְׁקִיתָ בְרַגְלְךָ כְּגַן הַיָּרָק.
Deut 11:10 For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden.
Moreover, this verse implies that the Israelites worked their own fields when they were in Egypt. (See more below.)
Preventing Interaction with Egypt
Even when the Bible speaks negatively about Egypt, it often makes no reference to slavery. In the Deuteronomic laws, the king is warned:
דברים יז:טז רַק לֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ סוּסִים וְלֹא יָשִׁיב אֶת הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס וַי־הוָה אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה עוֹד.
Deut 17:16 Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since YHWH has warned you, “You must not turn that way again.”
The verse is concerned with Israel’s dependence on Egypt, urging the Israelites and their leaders to avoid economic connections with them. Yet the trauma of past servitude in Egypt is absent. The potential close relationship of Israel and Egypt is indeed indicated by other biblical passages that portray Egypt as the place in which Israelite groups and leaders have searched for assistance in moments of distress. Thus, Isaiah criticizes the Judeans who trust Egypt as disloyally plotting against YHWH:
ישעיה ל:ב הַהֹלְכִים לָרֶדֶת מִצְרַיִם וּפִי לֹא שָׁאָלוּ לָעוֹז בְּמָעוֹז פַּרְעֹה וְלַחְסוֹת בְּצֵל מִצְרָיִם. ל:ג וְהָיָה לָכֶם מָעוֹז פַּרְעֹה לְבֹשֶׁת וְהֶחָסוּת בְּצֵל מִצְרַיִם לִכְלִמָּה.
Isa 30:2 Who set out to go down to Egypt without asking Me, to seek refuge with Pharaoh, to seek shelter under the protection of Egypt. 30:3 The refuge with Pharaoh shall result in your shame; the shelter under Egypt’s protection, in your chagrin.
Other examples referring to dependence on Egypt include:
- Jeroboam runs away to Egypt to escape Solomon (1Kgs 11:40);
- Hezekiah relies on Egypt to fight the Assyrians (2Kgs 18:21 [=Isa 36:6]);
- Jeremiah criticizes Judeans for running away to Egypt to escape war (Jer 42:14).
References to Egypt’s enslaving of Israel could have easily buttressed the rhetorical power of these texts, especially the diatribes in Isaiah and Jeremiah, and yet these texts do not allude to the people’s oppression in Egypt.
Whether the image of slavery and abuse was shaped in the Babylonian exile or among the community in Judah – it was probably derived from literary circles that opposed the persistent admiration for Egypt. A demonstration of this anti-Egyptian tendency is found in the aggressive and vigorous speeches of the prophets against Egypt.
Isaiah 19, a text from the 8th century B.C.E. predicts a collapse of the Egyptian gods and anarchy in the country’s social and economic order (vv. 1–15), but without any reference to YHWH’s having done this to the Egyptians, hundreds of years earlier. Several elements in this chapter could have been buttressed by noting the traditions found in the Book of Exodus, but these are absent:
Nile—Isaiah presents a vision of deadly harm to the Nile (vv. 5–10), but makes no allusion to YHWH’s striking it, turning it to blood and killing all its fish, as found in Exodus (Exod 7:17–25).
Defeat of Pharaoh—the prophecy predicts an undermining of Egypt’s leadership capabilities (Isa 19:11–15) without referring to YHWH’s defeat of Pharaoh in the exodus story (e.g., Exod 9:11, 10:7–8, 12:30, 33).
YHWH’s Fame—the text describes Egypt’s fear of YHWH (Isa 19:16–17) without alluding to when YHWH made his name known throughout Egypt and terrified the Egyptians (Exod 8:15, 9:20, 27, 10:16–17).
Similarly, oracles reflecting the Babylonian dominion in Egypt, such as Jeremiah (46) and Ezekiel (29–32), dated to the late seventh and sixth centuries, make no allusion to the past oppression of the Israelites in Egypt. While they convey a harsh and critical stance towards Egypt, they do not allude to the narrative of the past defeat of the Egyptians even though such an allusion could have strengthened the rhetorical case about Egypt's anticipated loss.
A Gradual Evolution
In recent years, several scholars have noted that the exodus account contains expansions that heighten the negativity of the Egypt experience.
For example, Diana Lipton argues that the decree against the baby boys, which is mentioned only in one episode of the plot (1:15–22), is a later supplement, used as a literary device to introduce the myth of the birth of a hero (cf. 2:1–10). Certainly, throwing baby boys into the river paints Egypt as an evil empire and existential threat to Israel’s survival as a people.
Christoph Berner points to the loose connection of the motif of forced labor, i.e., slavery, in the story (especially in 1:11–14 and 5:4–19), and argues for the secondary nature of this element in the narrative evolution.
Even the term עבדים, “slaves or servants,” in relation to Israel’s status, seems to be redactional. Moreover, the noun עֶבֶד more frequently indicates the status of Pharaoh’s close officials. For example, when the Israelites complain to Moses about his getting them in trouble with Pharaoh, they say:
שמות ה:כא וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם יֵרֶא יְ־הוָה עֲלֵיכֶם וְיִשְׁפֹּט אֲשֶׁר הִבְאַשְׁתֶּם אֶת רֵיחֵנוּ בְּעֵינֵי פַרְעֹה וּבְעֵינֵי עֲבָדָיו לָתֶת חֶרֶב בְּיָדָם לְהָרְגֵנוּ.
Exod 5:21 and they said to them, “May YHWH look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his servants—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”
This usage is ubiquitous in the story (Exod 7:10–29, 8:5–27, 9:14–34, 10:1–7, 11:3, 11:8, 12:30, 14:5). While those officials are called servants/slaves, they themselves appear to possess servants/slaves, who do not seem to belong to the Israelite group:
שמות ט:כ הַיָּרֵא אֶת דְּבַר יְ־הוָה מֵעַבְדֵי פַּרְעֹה הֵנִיס אֶת עֲבָדָיו וְאֶת מִקְנֵהוּ אֶל הַבָּתִּים.
Exod 9:20 Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared YHWH’s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety.
In contrast, the Israelites themselves are not usually defined as Pharaoh’s slaves; only in the episode that describes the increasing burden on the people (5:15–17), which Berner argues is a later supplement, and in a few comments by God where Egypt is called בית עבדים, “the house of slaves” (13:3, 14, 20:2). But it seems that in the older layers of the narrative, the Israelites were not referred to as עבדים, “slaves/servants.”
Moreover, the Israelites are often depicted in Exodus as having personal independence, and not as a people enslaved by the Egyptians: they have their own possessions (9:7, 10:9, 24, 26, 12:3, 23, 32), their own homes and residential areas (8:18, 26, 10:23), and maintain good relationships with their Egyptian neighbors (11:3, 12:3, 36). If anything, the Israelites are slaves or servants of YHWH, whom they are required to serve (3:12, 4:23, 7:16, 26, 8:16, 9:1, 13, 10:3, 7, 8,11,26, 12:31).
From Living in Egypt to Slaves in Egypt
In sum, while one of Israel’s ancient traditions was that they once lived in Egypt, the idea that they were slaves to Pharaoh was a later expansion. An early substrate of the exodus story did not have this theme, and many biblical texts from the First Temple period, which speak of the Egypt experience, do not seem to know of the suffering of the Israelites. And thus, here and there, from laws and snippets of narrative, we can hear a very different version: The Israelites were sojourners in Egypt, and had homes, friends, and food, and could look back fondly on the experience as a reminder that they should offer foreigners in their own land the same conditions.
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March 27, 2023
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Dr. Gili Kugler is a Senior Lecturer of Biblical Studies in the University of Haifa. Until recently she was a lecturer in Biblical Studies and Classical Hebrew at the University of Sydney. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and teaches and writes about topics such as chosenness in biblical theology, religion and politics in prophecy, and biblical narratives and mythology in light of modern psychology. She is the author of several articles as well as the book When God Wanted to Destroy the Chosen People: Biblical Traditions and Theology on the Move (De Gruyter, 2019).
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