You are here

Israel and Egypt : Pesach D'var

Dvar Torah

If I was to mention the word “Egypt” to you I feel sure that most of you would think of “slavery” “oppression” and other similar negative thoughts.  I think that this relationship has been defined by our annual ritual of Pesach as the festival of our freedom and release from the quaintly named “House of Bondage.”  That term always seemed to raise the combined visions of sadomasochism and shopping which somehow seems appropriate for Pesach.  Certainly the sages who developed the Haggadah over quite a long period of time wanted to foster the idea of Egypt as the enemy.  I would like to re-examine the relationship in the Tenak between Israel and Egypt because a study of the text reveals a relationship that was not exclusively defined by the “master/slave” motif of Pesach.  My suggestion is that Egypt was not the mortal enemy of Israel – that role is more than adequately filled by Amalek.  In fact the text suggests an affection bordering on longing for Egypt and I suggest that this view was what the sages of the Haggadah wanted to dispel.

The first mention of Egypt occurs in Genesis 12.10 

וַיְהִי רָעָב, בָּאָרֶץ; וַיֵּרֶד אַבְרָם מִצְרַיְמָה לָגוּר שָׁם, כִּי-כָבֵד הָרָעָב בָּאָרֶץ

And there was a famine in the land; and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was sore in the land.

Here Egypt is depicted as a land of rescue.  Why did Abraham not go back to his birthplace – the fertile area of the Tigris and Euphrates – rather than venture into the unknown Egypt that he could only have known by reputation as an unsafe place (viz. the deception that Sarah was his sister, not his wife)?  He did send back to his birthplace for a wife for his son rather than to Egypt so fear of his reputation as an idol-smasher was not a factor.

The whole narrative of Pharaoh’s dreams and the universal famine is a strange story.  Why did God send the famine in the first place and why did He give the warning to a pagan king?  As the story unfolds we can only conclude that the whole elaborate charade was in order to engineer the emergence of the Children of Israel as a separate nation.  The nation thus forged in the furnace of oppression emerged to freedom and was thus able to choose to exchange obedience to temporal masters (Egypt) with obedience to the spiritual master (God) that we celebrate by this festival of Shavuot.

Egypt again is the rescuer when Jacob sends his sons to buy food (42.1-2). 

וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם; וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב לְבָנָיו, לָמָּה תִּתְרָאוּ.

1 Now Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, and Jacob said unto his sons: 'Why do you look one upon another?'

ב וַיֹּאמֶר--הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם; רְדוּ-שָׁמָּה וְשִׁבְרוּ-לָנוּ מִשָּׁם, וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת

2 And he said: 'Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt. Get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die.'

The Ten Commandments opens with the statement that God had brought the Children of Israel out of “The land of Egypt – the house of bondage.”  מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים firmly associates Egypt with slavery and certainly the opening chapter of Exodus shows Egypt in a most unfavourable light with graphic accounts of the cruelty and oppression meted out to the Children of Israel within Egyptian society.  However there was a notable exception of most profound compassion.  Pharaoh’s daughter, who one must presume, had been brought up in the strict confines of the imperial court and thus imbued with the prevailing political spirit of the time sees the infant in the ark (2.6).

וַתִּפְתַּח וַתִּרְאֵהוּ אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד, וְהִנֵּה-נַעַר בֹּכֶה; וַתַּחְמֹל עָלָיו--וַתֹּאמֶר, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה.

And she opened it, and saw it, even the child; and behold a boy that wept. And she had compassion on him, and said: 'This is one of the Hebrews' children.'

This is a truly astonishing statement.  To imagine that such a high born, privileged person could have such pity on anyone so much lower in social status is a clear demonstration of the universal potential for pure kindness that exists and was apparent in even such a supposedly depraved society as Egypt has been depicted.  The kindness of Pharaoh’s daughter does not end with her ignoring her father’s decree that Hebrew baby boys should be thrown to the Nile as food for the crocodiles, but extends to an ongoing commitment to pay for the nourishment of the child by promising wages to the “wet nurse.”

The relationship between the Egyptians and their alien Children of Israel was not a solely Master/Slave state with a fixed social boundary.  There was a hierarchy in both groups.  5.14 speaks of שֹׁטְרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל the officers or foremen of the Children of Israel who had direct access to Pharaoh as they are able to complain to him in the following verse

וַיָּבֹאוּ, שֹׁטְרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּצְעֲקוּ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לֵאמֹר: לָמָּה תַעֲשֶׂה כֹה, לַעֲבָדֶיךָ.

15 Then the officers of the children of Israel came and cried unto Pharaoh, saying: 'Why do you deal thus with your servants?’

Among subservient peoples it would normally be unthinkable that representatives could have direct audience with the highest echelons of their masters.

Among the Egyptians there were slaves of their own people.  The tenth plague (killing the first born) affected the whole range of Egyptian society 11.5

וּמֵת כָּל-בְּכוֹר, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם--מִבְּכוֹר פַּרְעֹה הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל-כִּסְאוֹ, עַד בְּכוֹר הַשִּׁפְחָה אֲשֶׁר אַחַר הָרֵחָיִם;

5 and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even to the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill;

Furthermore in the context of this tenth plague it would appear that there was not strict separation between the dwellings of the Egyptians and the Children of Israel.  They were living in close proximity and are described as neighbours רֵעֵהוּ and רְעוּתָהּ His and her neighbour respectively from the verb root רָעָה associate with.  In the words of my erstwhile tutor and supervisor – Diana Lipton – “We are dealing with Hampstead rather than Warsaw.”  If there had been strict ghettos for the Children of Israel then it would hardly have been necessary for the sheep’s blood to have been displayed so prominently on the doorposts and lintels of their houses.  That sign was surely so that the Egyptians could see it and see one of their “gods” – the sheep – being openly desecrated.  This could only be affected by the two peoples living “cheek by jowl.”

However hard the working conditions of the Children of Israel were, there is no indication that they were living in poverty.  In the context of the effect that the plagues were having on the livestock of the Egyptians – the very severe pestilence, דֶּבֶר, כָּבֵד מְאֹד - there is the comment that the livestock of Children of Israel were not affected.  Also when Pharaoh started to relent to allow the Children of Israel to leave he asked, “Who will go?” and Moses replied בְּצֹאנֵנוּ וּבִבְקָרֵנוּ, נֵלֵךְ- with our flocks and herds so they must have possessed considerable sheep, cattle and goats.

Exodus continues with the power struggle between Pharaoh as the embodiment of the Egyptian gods and Moses the servant of God and reality begins to dawn on sections of the Egyptian people.  At the time of the plague of hail some acknowledged the power of Moses’ God (9.20)

הַיָּרֵא אֶת-דְּבַר יְקוָק, מֵעַבְדֵי פַּרְעֹה--הֵנִיס אֶת-עֲבָדָיו וְאֶת-מִקְנֵהוּ, אֶל-הַבָּתִּים.

20 He that feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses;

This realisation of the folly that their king, who had previously been revered as a deity, was pursuing in his stubborn determination to prove his superiority over Moses, is evidence of an enlightenment that was spreading among the Egyptians.

Under divine instruction the Egyptians were disposed kindly towards the exiting Children of Israel as 12.36  וַיקוָק נָתַן אֶת-חֵן הָעָם, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם so perversely the people were left with rather fond memories of Egypt.

These fond memories crop up repeatedly during the time in the wilderness.  Scarcely had the Children of Israel set out having crossed the Red Sea and departed from Elim the people complain 16.3

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִי-יִתֵּן מוּתֵנוּ בְיַד-יקוָק בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּשִׁבְתֵּנוּ עַל-סִיר הַבָּשָׂר, בְּאָכְלֵנוּ לֶחֶם לָשֹׂבַע: כִּי-הוֹצֵאתֶם אֹתָנוּ אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית אֶת-כָּל-הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה בָּרָעָב.

3 and the Children of Israel said unto them: 'Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.' 

In the next chapter at the wilderness of Sin there was a water shortage and again 17.3

 לָמָּה זֶּה הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָמִית אֹתִי וְאֶת-בָּנַי וְאֶת-מִקְנַי, בַּצָּמָא.

3: 'Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?'

At times when the Children of Israel were complaining about conditions in the wilderness they harked back to Egypt (Numbers 11.4-5)

וְהָאסַפְסֻף אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבּוֹ, הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה; וַיָּשֻׁבוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ, גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר.

4 And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said: 'Would that we were given flesh to eat!

ה זָכַרְנוּ, אֶת-הַדָּגָה, אֲשֶׁר-נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם, חִנָּם; אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים, וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים, וְאֶת-הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת-הַבְּצָלִים, וְאֶת-הַשּׁוּמִים.

5 We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;

At a time of extreme distress the people suggested a return to Egypt; as occurred on receiving information from the spies (Numbers 14.4)

וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו: נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ, וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה.

4 And they said one to another: 'Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.'

Within the text dealing with legislation there are frequent comments that lead one to infer that the treatment the Children of Israel had in Egypt was usually good.  The injunction to treat strangers with equality is a frequent refrain usually accompanied by the phrase (22.20)

וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shall you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

And in the next chapter (23.9)

וְגֵר, לֹא תִלְחָץ; וְאַתֶּם, יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת-נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר--כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

These comments however have to be balanced against the immorality of Egypt.  The section dealing with sexual relations starts (Leviticus 18.3)  כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם-בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּAfter the manner of the land of Egypt where you lived, you shall not do.”

From all these quotations there is inconsistency of attitude of Children of Israel towards Egypt.  Yes it was an immoral place where they were not masters of their fate but they did have a societal structure with a degree of autonomy and they did have their physical needs met.  Freedom had brought them hardship and difficulty and under these circumstances there is little wonder that they remembered Egypt with “rose tinted spectacles.”

Lipton has postulated that the message from this interaction was that the danger from Egypt was loss of identity and assimilation.  The Children of Israel were getting too comfortable, too used not to have to think for themselves, and this was the tendency that needed to combated.  If the Children of Israel were to fulfil their divine mission they had to be “slaves” to God and could not be slaves to an earthly power.  שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי, וְיַעַבְדֻנִי Let my people go that they may serve me.  Menachem Kellner (professor of Jewish Thought at Haifa University) stated that “The Children of Israel only became Jews at Mount Sinai” so the festival of Shavuot marks the development of status from “ethnic group” to “religion.”  Autonomy with freedom is a harder road to tread than slavery; it is the slave mentality where all decisions are made for you that pose the danger to identity.  This is why the Haggadah is written in the way it is – to reinforce this message.

Anthony Nicholls

Pesach 5773

More documents on this Parshah: