Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?

S. David Sperling

The Torah devotes more than four books to the proposition that the Israelites came to Canaan after having been subjugated in Egypt for generations, and yet there is no archaeological evidence to support that they were ever in Egypt. A prolonged Egyptian stay should have left Egyptian elements in the material culture, such as the pottery found in the early Israelite settlements in Canaan, but there are none.

In short, the traditions of servitude in Egypt, the tales of the Israelites wandering in the desert, and the stories of the conquest of the promised land all appear to be fictitious.

This means that the biblical traditions are allegories invented deliberately to obscure the fact that the Israelites were native to Canaan. But why should Israelite writers have invented traditions of foreignness when these would seem to undercut their claims to the land in which they lived? When were such traditions invented, and by whom?

Whereas foreignness traditions appear in the text of the eighth-century prophet Micah-"For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam" (Micah 6:4)-and the prophet Amos-"Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" (Amos 9:7)-there is no mention of it in one of the earliest extant biblical texts-a long, premonarchic poem preserved in Deuteronomy 33 and set in the southern region of Israel in the period of the nation's origins. Nor is it highlighted in the account of the eighth-century Judahite prophet Isaiah.

Biblical historian Robert Carroll has explained the discrepancy by pointing to a "northern tradition of the Exodus," which was virtually unknown in the south. Between 920 and 720 B.C.E., the land of Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms, Judah in the south with its capital at Jerusalem, and Israel in the north with its capital at Samaria. With the fall of Samaria to the Assyrian rulers of Northern Iraq in 720 B.C.E., many northern Israelites found refuge in Judah, bringing with them their native literature and traditions, among them the traditions of the Exodus, which depicted the Israelite people as foreigners invading from Egypt.

Why, then, did this tradition of foreignness arise in the north? Why does the Torah tell us that the priesthood, the sacrificial cult, the tabernacle, the festivals, most of the covenant traditions to serve Yahweh exclusively, and the laws governing most of life's activities originated outside the promised land? What explains this recounting in Leviticus 18:1-5: "Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I am Yahweh your god. You shall not emulate the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelled, nor shall you emulate the practices of the land of Canaan where I am taking you. Not their statutes shall you follow but my norms you shall observe and you shall take care to follow my statutes. I am Yahweh, your god?"

The reason, I believe, was to enable the Israelites to assert their distinctiveness.

During this period, the Israelites were not unique in believing that a "fear of god" or what we now call "ethics" and "morals" was divinely commanded. The Ugaritians of ancient Syria, part of Canaanite culture, praised the legendary King Daniel for "getting justice for the widow, and adjudicating the case of the fatherless."

The Israelites were also not alone in linking moral law and ritual law. About the same time that the prophet Amos condemned his people for trampling the heads of the poor into the dust (Amos 2:7) and equally for giving wine to the Nazirites (Amos 2:12), the author of the Babylonian work Shurpu cataloged the Mesopotamian sins, which included cheating on weights and measures, omitting the name of God from an incense offering, disarranging an altar, marking boundaries falsely, and eating the taboo food of a city.

Given so many commonalities, the Torah's repeated denial of Israel's Canaanite heritage and its assertion that Israel's most important religious institutions had originated in the desert-the "no-man's land" (Jer. 2:6) where Yahweh found the people (Deut 32:10)-strengthens the claim of Israelite distinctiveness.

In other words, the biblical authors were attempting to foster Israelite religious, social, and political solidarity. As long as the Israelites were conscious of their foreignness, they would be able to maintain their alleged religious and moral superiority. As foreigners with no roots in Canaan or Egypt, they would find it easier to heed the admonitions of the authors of the Torah to reject Canaanite and Egyptian practices.

We must then ask: Why does the Bible make reference to the Israelites' 430 years of servitude in Egypt (Exod 14:30)? The 430-year figure fits remarkably well with the chronology of the eighteenth Egyptian dynasty. The overthrow of the Hyksos by Ahmose (1570-1546) in about 1560 B.C.E. was followed by extensive Egyptian military campaigning in Syria-Palestine, and Ahmose's successors continued his policy. After Thutmose III (1504-1450) won a decisive victory at the Battle of Megiddo (in the north of present-day Israel), he established an administrative system in Canaan that survived until the end of the Late Bronze Age. Only with the invasions of the sea peoples did the old order begin to break down.

I believe the 430-year figure reflects the duration of Egypt's empire in Asia from a Canaanite perspective. The group that became first-millennium Israel had indeed been subjugated by the pharaohs, but in their native land, not in Egypt.

We can glean some of the truth from a report (called El Amarna letter 365) written by Biridiya, ruler of the large Canaanite city of Megiddo, to the king of Egypt. It reads in part: "May the king, my lord, be apprised concerning his servant and concerning his city. Now, I alone am cultivating in Shunem and I alone am bringing mas-people [involuntary laborers]. But see! The city rulers who are with me do not do as I. They are not cultivating Shunem, and they are not bringing mas-people.

In other words, the pharaoh required Birdidiya to round up the inhabitants of Canaan to cultivate the fields in shunem. If these people were cultivating royal land, they had good reasons for resentment, because they could not work their own fields, which would have required cultivation at the same time.

This was not the only highly unpopular institution of forced labor that ancient near eastern rulers demanded of the local populace. The royal governor Kibri-Dagan wrote in Syria in the 18th century B.C.E.: "My lord ordered me to assemble male and female minors into the fortress…. When I sent to the towns of the Jaminites, the sheik of Dumeti answered… 'Let the enemy [that is,"you the governor, or the king himself"] come here and pull us out of our towns!' At harvest time in the towns of the Jaminites, there is no one to help me."

Thus, when Exodus 1:11 says, "So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor," the passage is not describing the subjugation of Israelites in Egypt, but the subjugation of the larger populace-Israelites included-to serve the needs of outside rulers.

Why then was the slave tradition introduced? I believe it served an important theological purpose: If divine action could free the Israelites from slavery, then God was entitled to exclusive worship by them. As written in Exodus 20:2: "I the Eternal am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from that slave barracks. You shall have no other God besides me" (my translation).

In short, the biblical writers invented the idea that the Israelites lived in Egypt in order to impel them to maintain their distinctiveness in Canaan. And the story of servitude in Egypt is an allegory of servitude to Egypt. Our ancestors, among others, did perform forced labor for Egyptian taskmasters, but they were never slaves in Egypt.

This article was adapted with permission from The Original Torah: The Political Intent of the Bible's Writers , published by New York University Press, 1998.