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A well-known theory about the Exodus posits that a slave revolt lay behind the biblical account (See the discussion in W.H. Propp, Exodus 1–18 (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1999), pp. 741-744). Basing itself on historical sources, the hypothesis proposes a connection between large population movements in the eastern Mediterranean during the 2nd millenium BCE and the Israelite departure from Egypt. Can we find any support in the Bible for the idea of a popular rebellion? While the main narrative of the Exodus speaks primarily of Moses’ and God’s actions in defeating the Egyptian slave masters, we do find mention of a nascent ILF (Israelite Liberation Front) which was nearly nipped in the bud by a devious Pharaoh. I am referring to the story found in Exodus chapter 5, in which Aaron and Moses, filled with enthusiasm and conviction, and accompanied by some of the Israelites, have their first face-to-face encounter with the Pharaoh. This combination of inspired leadership and popular support would seem to promise success, but by the end of the chapter, the resistance movement has virtually dissolved, riven by internal strife. The Israelites curse Moses and Aaron for deluding them into thinking they could have a different fate, and Moses himself confronts God with a biting accusation:
“Why have you treated Israel so badly? Why have you sent me? Ever since I came to speak in your name to Pharaoh the people are worse off than before; you haven’t done a thing to save your people!” (5:22-23)
How did this happen?
From the very beginning the idea of popular liberation was plagued with difficulties. Moses impulsively kills an Egyptian taskmaster and is forced to flee Egypt. The Israelites themselves cry out to God for help, but undertake no initiative to press their cause. Moses has to be summoned back to Egypt to take up the fight, and, following his call at the burning bush, raises no fewer than five separate objections: He’s not the right person for the job, the people won’t believe him, he can’t speak well, etc. Although he is armed with various supernatural devices, including a rod which turns into a snake and back again, only God’s steadfast refusal to take no for an answer compels Moses to return to Egypt. We don’t know if Aaron was similarly reluctant, but we are told that Moses displays his magic to his brother in order to get him to join the fight (4:28). Together they repeat the same words and actions before the Israelites, who, at that moment, are completely won over – “And the people believed” (4:31). With such an impressive alliance – God, Moses, Aaron and all the people – victory is surely guaranteed.
The first cracks in the coalition surface in the gap between the total support of the people in 4:31 and their surprising absence when Moses and Aaron go to confront Pharaoh in the following verse (5:1). Rashi insightfully suggests that “the elders dropped off one by one”. What happened to them? Nehama Leibowitz proposes the following scenario:
The further the delegation advances, the closer the palace, the greater the number of palace guards who come into view, and the nearer the moment of meeting Pharaoh face to face – the more rapidly does the number of delegates diminish… (Studies in Exodus, p. 88)
Aaron and Moses make their demands in the name of God and the people, but the dearth of popular support is clear to Pharaoh. He dismisses Moses and Aaron as mere troublemakers, rabble-rousers with no real popular following (5:4-5). To ensure that these novice organizers fail at their task he intensifies the Israelites’ work, demanding that they produce bricks without straw, requiring the same daily quota without providing the necessary raw material. This was an obvious ploy designed to get the people to blame Moses and Aaron for their worsened situation. But the transparency of the tactic made it no less successful in undermining Moses’ authority, as we will see in the coming verses.
As the order gets passed down from the top, the taskmasters and foremen (all of them Egyptians) set out to enforce it. Just how this was done is explained in 5:14, where we hear about the beatings received by a group called “the foremen of the Israelites”. While they might be understood to be additional Egyptian officers in charge of the Israelites, it more likely refers to Israelite officers who have been placed in a position of authority over their own people. Generations of captors have learned that one of the best methods of controlling a captive group is by dividing their loyalties, placing one group of captives over another and giving those individuals power and authority (and rewards) as long as they keep their fellow hostages in line. The failure of these “trustees” to implement royal policy results in their being beaten by the Egyptian officers above them. The entire verse is instructive here:
“The Israelite foremen whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had put in charge of them, were flogged.”
We can see that authority over the Israelites comes not from God, nor from Moses and Aaron, but only from Pharaoh. His power is reflected in both words and deeds – the demand to produce bricks without straw and the physical punishment of these foremen by their Egyptian taskmasters (with the expectation that they will pass this on to the rest of the Israelites). In response the foremen bypass Moses and Aaron and complain directly to Pharaoh, maintaining that, as privileged officers, they should be treated with respect: “Why are your servants being punished” – the foremen refer to themselves as loyal only to Pharaoh – “when the fault is with your own people” – i.e. the taskmasters who beat us unfairly (5:16-17).
Now comes Pharaoh’s ultimate blow. Instead of agreeing with the Hebrew foremen as to the fairness of their claim, thereby preserving the hierarchy as before, he turns against the foremen and reduces them to the level of slaves. They are no different than the rest of the Israelites – he accuses them of being lazy shirkers (5:17), using the same language with which he described all the Israelite slaves in vs. 8. By breaking down the previous hierarchy Pharaoh risks fostering a new solidarity among all the slaves – “We’re all in the same boat!” – which could potentially lead to a more inclusive revolt. But it appears that Pharaoh understands all too well the fractured relations among the Israelites. And just as he hoped, the Israelite foremen turn against Moses and Aaron in a powerful, almost physical way. The verbvayifge’u (5:20), which describes the encounter between Moses and Aaron and the foremen, carries with it not just the idea of a meeting, but a near-physical sense of assault. The angry words which they speak place the blame on the would-be leaders in unambiguous terms – “You have put a sword in Pharaoh’s hands to kill us (5:21).” Not only has our situation worsened but you, Moses, our supposed savior, have brought this about. And, as if Pharaoh himself had written the script, Moses doesn’t even try to explain Pharaoh’s strategy to the foremen in order to keep up the resistance. Instead he turns directly to God in 5:22-23 with the accusation quoted above – the people’s situation has become more acute and God has done nothing to deliver them. Pharaoh has effectively undercut all trust within the Israelite camp, successfully turning each group of Israelites against the next: the people are at odds with their foremen, the foremen accuse Moses and Aaron, who in turn direct their accusation at God.
The continuation of the story is well known; only the miraculous action of the plagues succeeds in winning back the Israelites’ trust in Moses and God. In this regard Exodus 5 is somewhat at odds with the larger Exodus narrative, and we might well ask why the story has been included here.(See the discussion of the story in ; M. Greenberg,Understanding Exodus, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), pp. 96-102; J. Grossman, “The Officers of the Israelites: From Beaters to Beaten” in M. Avioz et al, Zer Rimonim: Studies in Biblical Literature and Exegesis presented to Professor Rimon Kasher (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013) pp. 1-19; Propp, Exodus 1–18, pp. 258-261).
Some see the main point of the story to be the intensification of the contest between God and Pharaoh, emphasizing Pharaoh’s words in 5:2: “I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go”. Others find here a critique of Moses’ leadership abilities, suggesting that he failed to implement God’s instructions correctly. Still others argue that the key item is the change of heart of the Israelite foremen, who shift their allegiance from the Egyptians to the Israelites by the end of the chapter. There is some truth in all of these views, but I think the story is primarily intended as a cautionary tale; the central point of the narrative is to warn of the dangers inherent in attempting popular revolt. Creating a revolution from the ground up is a risky business, as we have seen time and again throughout history, and in our own day as well. The dubious achievements of contemporary popular resistance movements in neighboring countries show just how fragile a liberation movement can be, and how easily it can be derailed. The Bible is quite clear on this point: the Exodus should not be seen as the story of a slave revolt. Its success is to be attributed to God, not to Israel.
Dr. George Savran is a senior lecturer in Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
George Savran’s academic background is in English Literature and Biblical studies. He taught Bible at Schechter for the past 20 years. Dr. Savran’s interests tend to the literary side of biblical literature: the development of character in narrative, the interplay of different voices in biblical poetry and the function of the lyrical in Psalms. When not reading, he plays folk music on the banjo and the mandolin.