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Israel in Egypt: Slaves or Sojourners?

Dr. David Frankel
| 12/04/2008

Did the Israelites really come up out of Egypt ? Is there any historical actuality beneath the Exodus story? And how might this issue affect our religious perspective?

In an important study, J. Wijngaards (J. Wijngaards,” hotzee and he’ela : A Twofold Approach to the Exodus,” VT 15 (1965), pp. 91-102). pointed to the fact that two different formulas are employed in the Bible to describe the Israelite Exodus from Egypt . In most biblical passages reference is made to the God who brought Israel out of Egypt . The Hebrew term used in these passages is hotzee . A significant number of texts, however, refer to God not as the one who brought Israel out of Egypt , but as the one who brought Israel up from Egypt . The Hebrew term used in these passages is he’ela . What is the significance of this divergence? Why do some biblical writers use the hotzee formula, while others use the he’ela formula? Part of the answer to this question has to do with the varying implications of the two terms. Wijngaards showed that the hotzee formula emphasizes the idea of liberation from slavery and captivity (cf. Ex. xxi, 7). (For the direct connection between the hotzee formula and liberation from slavery cf. Wijngaards, pp. 92-92. The same point is highlighted by D. Daube, The Exodus Pattern in the Bible, London 1963, pp. 24-25, 31-34, contra M. Noth, History of Pentateuchal Traditions, p. 52, n. 169). This is why it is specifically the hotzee formula, and not the he’ela formula, that is typically used together with the phrases “from the house of slavery” and “with a mighty hand” (cf. Ex. xiii, 3, 14; xx, 2; Lev. xxvi, 13; Dt. v, 6; vi, 12; viii, 14; xiii, 11; Jer. Xxxiv, 13). Slaves that are held in servitude against their will must be released by force, with a mighty hand. The he’ela formula, in contrast, is not employed with reference to Israel ‘s bitter slavery in Egypt , and carries no implication about the conditions, harsh or otherwise, under which the Israelites lived during their stay in Egypt . Strictly speaking, the term he’ela refers only to the leading of a migration. It does not imply liberation from captivity, and is therefore not said with reference to “a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” The he’ela formula does imply that God’s act of grace culminates in the settlement of the migrants in a new territory, to which they were “brought up.” It is the desire for new territory that motivates the migration, and provides the reason for embarking on the journey.

The act of hotzee is an act of liberation whose goal is freedom. The act of he’ela is an act of guidance whose goal is settlement .

How do these two formulas relate to one another, historically speaking? Wijngaards suggested that the earlier and more original formula was hotzee (‘He took them out’). At a relatively late period, however, certain biblical authors sought to emphasize the importance of the giving of the land, and so began to speak of the Exodus in terms of “going up” rather than merely “going out.” We believe that the opposite is the case. The earlier formula was he’ela (‘He brought them up’). It reflected an understanding of the Exodus story wherein what was most important was the giving of the land. The departure from Egypt was meaningless, in this understanding, as an isolated event in its own right. Indeed, what benefit could there be to Israel in the Exodus event without the provision of a new and viable living place to replace the land of Egypt ? In this earlier “version” of the Exodus tradition, Egypt was the place where the Israelites lived as landless foreigners, as outsiders and aliens, as sojourners ( gerim ). The great act of divine kindness that Israel was taught to remember was that they started their existence as landless aliens, and that the Lord led them up to a land of their own.  Only at some later period in Israel ‘s history did a concern develop to qualify the centrality of life in the land for Israelite faith. At this point, it became increasingly necessary to see the Exodus from Egypt as an event of significance in its own right, even without its culmination in the conquest and settlement in the land. In order to achieve this independent significance for the Exodus, a new motif was developed. Israel was now said to have been enslaved prisoners in the land of Egypt , and subjected there to various forms of cruel treatment. Their departure from the Egyptian prison was only made possible by God’s strong hand and mighty wonders. Thus, Israel must thank God for the Exodus from Egypt irrespective of its culmination in the settlement in the land.

Let us reflect on the comment of Ex. xiii, 18b, “The Israelites ascended from Egypt armed .” As noted by S. E. Loewenstamm, (S. E. Loewenstamm, The Tradition of the Exodus in its Development, Jerusalem , 1987, pp. 96-100). the idea that the Israelites left Egypt with arms does not coincide naturally with the broad narrative of the Exodus. The overall impression of the Exodus narrative is of a helpless band of slaves who are rescued by God from the harsh Egyptian oppression, not of armed warriors who set out looking for new settlement, prepared with arms for battles of conquest. While the story accounts for how the Israelites acquired jewelry and clothing at the time of the Exodus (Ex. xii, 36), there is no explanation of how they managed to leave Egypt fully armed.  In our opinion, the idea that the Israelites left Egypt “with arms” constitutes a relic of an ancient, “variant” tradition concerning the Exodus – one that diverges in its outlook of the Exodus from the outlook that became “dominant” in the Torah  (See Lowenstamm, Tradition of the Exodus, p. 100, where he asserts that the Torah employs a fixed literary pattern of migration which does not coincide with the story as a whole. He thus believes that the formulation reflects a late literary phenomenon. He does not include the verse among the motifs that he considers ancient and rejected (cf. pp. 48-56)).  The dominant tradition sought to highlight the helplessness of the Israelites under Egyptian oppression so as to emphasize the salvation of the Lord with His “mighty hand.” The idea that the Israelites left Egypt well armed , on the other hand, reflects the idea that the Israelites were not so helpless, and not passively dependent on God’s liberation. The Israelites were “sojourners” who took their fate in their hand, took up arms, and went out to win for themselves a land that they could call their own (Other examples in which he’ela  is used without reference to a miraculous liberation from harsh slavery include Ju. xi, 13, 16; Is. xi, 15; Hos. xii, 14; Am. ii, 10; Jer.ii, 6;  xv, 14).  This may indeed be the historical basis of the exodus story.

This conception of the Israel’s departure from Egypt as constituting little more than the starting point of the march toward conquest may lie behind the striking statement in Dt. xxiii, 8, “Do not detest an Edomite for he is your kin; do not detest an Egyptian for you were a sojourner in his land.” The verse bases the prohibition of detesting the Egyptian on the national debt owed to the Egyptians for hosting the Israelite sojourners! We would suggest that Deuteronomy here preserves the ancient conception according to which the stay in Egypt was not thought of in terms of entrapment or harsh and oppressive slavery, but more simply as a time of living as landless foreigners under Egyptian sovereignty. In the earlier form of the tradition the Israelites were said to have been gerim , sojourners, and not avadim , slaves. The status of a ger is distinguished from that of a “slave” (cf. Lev. Xxv, 40f ). It is important to note that that which stands in opposition to the “landlessness” of the “sojourner” is the “settlement” of the “landowner.” Thus, the hardship of landlessness in Egypt was not rectified by “going out ” of Egypt , but only by “going up ” into the land.

The transition from the depiction of the Israelites in Egypt as sojourners, to their later depiction as entrapped slaves, may also be seen from a comparison of the law codes in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Whereas in connection with the laws of Deuteronomy we often find call to remember: “for you were a slave in the land of Egypt ” (Dt. V, 15; Xvi, 15; xvi, 12; Xxiv, 18, 22), this phrase is never found in the non-priestly law codes of Exodus. Here we find only the phrase ” for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt ” (Ex. Xxii, 20; xxiii, 9). Only the laws concerning the sojourner evoke memories of Egypt in the covenant code of Exodus! (Particularly telling is the fact that in Dt. Xxiv, 18 and 22, the injunction to remember: “for you were slaves in Egypt ” comes in the wake of laws which call for the protection of the sojourner! This may be another indication that Deuteronomy’s formula, “for you were a slave in Egypt”, is secondary, and that the earlier conception of Israelite life in Egypt (still reflected in the ancient prohibition in Dt. Xxii, 8-9 against hating Egyptians) was “for you were sojourners in Egypt”).

What might we learn from this “critical” reconstruction of Biblical literature and history for our religious life today? One of the concerns of the Torah is to fight against man’s tendency to glorify in his own powers, and to proudly proclaim “My strength and the power of my hand gave me this victory.” This danger is as real today as it ever was in the past, and so, regardless of the question of historical veracity, the idea that we needed God from the very beginning of our departure from Egypt provides a vital message concerning our ultimate dependence and our mortal limitations. At the same time, however, we must always be careful to preserve a theological balance. Jewish history has taught us not only the dangers of hubris and arrogance, but also the dangers of an exaggerated sense of helplessness and passivity, and of the self righteous conviction that we are always the victims of the animosity of the “other.” The ideas that we have tried to recover from the substrata of the Exodus story may well serve as useful corrective to this victim mentality, and self perception of powerlessness. We need not see ourselves exclusively as the casualties of the oppression of other nations. A strand in our tradition remembered the Egyptians as our gracious hosts to whom we owe a debt of gratitude! Rather than powerless beings, utterly dependent on the help of God. The Israelites went up from Egypt of their own initiative, and had the resourcefulness to devise an armed expedition with the goal of securing for themselves a home of their own! God did indeed come to Israel ‘s aid, but following the human initiative to take up arms and seek out a better life! The two ideas must be balanced and, indeed, combined and synthesized. A retrieval of a more empowering version of the Exodus story need not be seen as a threat to religion. On the contrary, it may help in reminding us that it is our duty to work as active partners with the divine in our quest to achieve human redemption.

Dr. David Frankel is Senior Lecturer in Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Photo: Departure of the Israelites, by David Roberts, 1829

David Frankel has served as a senior Bibile lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies since 1992. He earned his PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld. His publications include “The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School: and “The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel.”  From 1991 to 1996, Rabbi Dr. Frankel was rabbi of Congregation Shevet Achim in Gilo, Jerusalem.

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