Was Israelite bondage in Egypt comparable to American slavery?

Woke Evangelicals, such as Dr. Eric Mason, have used the book of Exodus to promote the idea of reparations for slavery. But can the American slave system be compared to that of the Hebrews in Ancient Egypt? In this series, we will examine the use of the Hebrew experience in Egypt to advance an agenda of the Social Justice Gospel. The first question that must be tackled is whether the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt at all or whether the nature of their bondage was something slightly different.

For this examination of the text, we will be using the New American Standard Bible because it is a literal word for word translation. With this disclaimer said, it must be noted that the word “slavery” or “slave” is not used in Exodus to describe the Israelite bondage in Egypt. The word does not appear in Exodus until after the exodus from Egypt.

In fact, the decision to put the Israelites in bondage was quite a deliberate one. Exodus states the reason right here:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Behold, the people of the sons of Israel are more and mightier than we. 10 Come, let us deal wisely with them, or else they will multiply and in the event of war, they will also join themselves to those who hate us, and fight against us and depart from the land.”

Exodus 1:8-10

There are three important observations that must be true for the Pharoah to come to this conclusion. The first is that the Hebrews are a distinct culture which is an evident conclusion in verse 9. The Sons of Israel were distinct enough to be seen comparably to an ethnic minority group, one that was believed to be physically stronger and better at childbearing (verse 19). The second observation is that the Hebrews had enough cohesion. The Egyptians believed in the event of an invasion, the Sons of Israel would defect to the other side. This would mean that they were collectively organized enough to be a belligerent in a conflict. Thus the Egyptians recognized the Israelites as a nation within their boundaries. The third observation is that they wanted the Israelite to stay (verse 10).

11 So they appointed taskmasters over them to afflict them with hard labor. And they built for Pharaoh storage cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out, so that they were in dread of the sons of Israel. 13 The Egyptians compelled the sons of Israel to labor rigorously; 14 and they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar and bricks and at all kinds of labor in the field, all their labors which they rigorously imposed on them.

Exodus 1:11-14

The word “taskmaster” (שָׂרֵ֣י) is not synonymous with slaver, rather in Hebrew it is a far more bureaucratic term closer to official, prince, chief, or captain. Verse 14 is certainly where the notion of slavery can be made. However this was still different than other instances of slavery in Egypt. For instance, Joseph was sold into slavery (Genesis 37). The Israelites are not said to be bought nor sold. However, they are ruthlessly extorted (verse 13).

From this we an gather that the Israelites were not slaves like the African slaves in American history. In verse 12, we see that despite the bondage, the Israelites remained cohesive and culturally unique, and God makes this evident by multiplying them. At the end of Exodus 1, the Egyptians resort to a plan to culturally eradicate the Israelites by suppressing the male infants. And this population control method is what sets the rest of Exodus in motion.

So were the Israelites enslaved in Egypt? Bondage is surely an accurate term to use, as is extortion. They were not allowed to leave and remained a unique cultural group. The state of the Israelites in Egypt may be most accurately labeled tributary bondage. To prevent aggression, the Israelites had to labor for Pharaoh. This tributary system is evidence in the quotas they had to produce via extortion (Exodus 5:8).

A tributary system of governance is not unheard of in history, though it is not one commonly attributed to Egypt, which would mean that the Hebrews were a special instance because they were a concentrated ethnic minority with nomadic tendencies and a swelling population. The Egyptians wanted their labor but did not want them to become powerful enough to contend with as nomadic groups often were. They relied on tributary bondage to accomplish this objective.

Though not ancient Egypt’s contemporary, the developmentally comparable Aztecs operated a massive tributary empire, because they had no draw animals. And so when Cortez arrived with a small force around five hundred, he liberated the subjugated people groups to overthrow the Aztecs. In Exodus, God commands Pharaoh to let his people go which would support a tributary bondage system as opposed to chattel slavery in which the demand from God may be worded slightly different. Therefore, the experience of the Hebrews in Egypt cannot be equated to the experience of Africans as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. And because these systems were vastly different, the applications of the Hebrew bondage in Egypt by Woke Evangelicals are complete misrepresentations of the text. It is critical that we understand the nature of the Hebrew bondage in Exodus so that we can most accurately understand the text and avoid falling for such false teachings. The idea of a tributary bondage is a far more accurate reading of the text than the supplication with our contemporary understanding of slavery systems that are not substantiated within the text.

In the next edition, we will discuss reparations.

One comment

  1. For reparations, look into Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). It is one of their strongest arguments (not to a thinking person), as it allows reparations without burdensome taxation. MMT will be here, as its an elixir too enticing for our leaders to resist.

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