What Was Slavery of the Israelites in Egypt Like?

While no other text from that period describes the systematic and broad enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, this was a significant episode in the events of the King James Bible, and preceded the Exodus that saw Moses parting the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army. But the relationship between Egypt and the children of Israel did not start, nor end, there. What was this slavery like? Was it the similar to the enslavement of Africans in the US?

When the Israelites make their exit from Egypt, according to Exodus 11:2, let every man borrow of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver and jewels of gold. While there might have been a case or two of former slave owners in the South giving money and property to help out emancipated slaves after the Civil War, this was by no means the standard. So in the case of Egypt, we’re inclined to believe that this was compensated slavery, and that perhaps they had not been paid for all of their work. Or, their taxes were so high that they were unable to keep anything that they had earned.

Because no names of the Pharaoh is given in the text, and biblical scholars have found it difficult to identify the exact time period of the slavery of the Israelites and their Exodus, as well as who the Pharaoh might have been. It is widely accepted that there were at least two Pharoahs, that the one who led the pursuit into the Red Sea, and the one that oppressed and enslaved them, were two different men. The leading contenders to fill the shoes of both these roles are Ramesses I & II, Thutmose III, Dudimose, Horemheb, and Ahmose I.

In Genesis 12:10, there is a massive famine throughout the land of Canaan, which inspires Abraham and Sara to flee to Egypt for sustenance. Later, after they had been kicked out, Joseph is sold to Egyptians by his brothers. A Pharaoh promotes him to an advisory position there, and he eventually brings Abraham and the rest of his family down to come from Hebron and live and cultivate the Land of Goshen.

In any case, when we think of slavery, and what that might mean compared to other forms of slavery, we should keep in mind some distinctions. Leviticus 25, for instance, points out the difference between unpaid labor and paid servitude.

And in Matthew 18:25 we find But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

Or in 2 Kings 4:1And he said, Go, sell the oil, and pay thy debt, and live thou and thy children of the rest.

So we see that even the selling of children into slavery was practiced at the time, as a means to pay down a debt. This was, of course, “paid” slavery as such, and when the debt was paid down, the slave was set free. Not exactly an enviable lifestyle, but there is some distinction between this and the living hell of a permanent sale of human beings to other human beings.

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