Hebrew Bible

The Slavery of the Israelites in Egypt from a Historical Perspective: Guest Post by Dr. Liora Ravid

Just in time for Passover, we’re bringing you a fascinating look into the historical background of the Exodus and the Passover story by acclaimed historian and author of Daily Life in Biblical Times, Dr. Liora Ravid!

The story of the Exodus, told in the Book Exodus and the Book Numbers, is certainly one of the most well-known stories in the Western world. 

This story is mainly known from the theological aspect, and from the descriptions of the great miracles God performed for the Israelites in the distant days when He saved them from their slavery in Egypt. 

But alongside God’s great miracles, Exodus and Numbers provide fascinating historical details about the daily lives of the slaves who lived in Egypt. 

Bricks Tell an Ancient Story

This fact is of great importance because ancient Egypt is best known for its pyramids, palaces, temples, and other magnificent treasures.  To this it should be added that Intensive archaeological excavations carried out in Egypt also provide an extraordinary picture of the enormous wealth of this country and the wealth of the kings, the pharaohs, who ruled over it. 

As we know, Egypt is one of the oldest nations in the world, and its history goes back about 7,000 years. During the long years of its existence, Egypt became a very developed and very rich country, with an orderly and hierarchical monarchical regime. But where there is great wealth, there is also great poverty and there is slavery! 

The archaeology and documents found in Egypt provide us with a very good picture of the great wealth of the pharaohs, as well as a good picture of the slaves who worked in the fields, construction, road construction, digging irrigation canals and more. As we know, according to the Book of Exodus, the Israelites were slaves who were engaged in making the bricks used in construction – and the brick industry provides us with a fascinating picture of the geography and the lives of slaves employed in construction.

Egypt is a desert country crossed by the Nile (about 4,350 miles), which is the only water source for this huge country. For this reason, most of the Egyptian population lived by the banks of the river, and the brick industry was also carried out on its side. (archaeological excavations revealed sites where the bricks were prepared for construction.) 

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The material used to make the bricks was mortar and straw. The mortar is a muddy silt that the slaves took out of the Nile and put into sacks, which they carried on their backs to the site where the bricks were made. To the mud, the slaves added straw. Straw is an extremely important component of the bricks, because when it meets wet silt, it becomes a sticky material, preventing the brick from crumbling. The mixture of mud and straw was poured into molds and dried in the sun or baked in ovens. 

In addition to the murals that depict slaves carrying heavy sacks of mud on their backs, written documents add to another very important detail to what we have already said. Namely, that the slaves had to fill a daily quota of bricks, otherwise they were severely beaten by the inspectors whose job it was to ensure that the work was carried out properly. 

The book of Exodus which tells of the Israelites slavery, accurately repeats what we learn from Egyptian archaeology:

"Then a new king…. came to power in Egypt. "Look," he said to his people, "the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them, or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country." So, they (the Egyptians) put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh….. They (the Egyptians) made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields…" (Ex. 1: 8-14) 

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Building Pyramid in Egypt in ancient time use men to be slave the whole day,cartoon version

On the question of why Pharaoh feared that the Israelites would join his enemies, we will speak immediately. But first let us read a short paragraph from chapter 5, which also gives us a rare and an accurate picture of the lives of slaves who worked in the brick industry: 

"… Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: "You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don't reduce the quota. ….. So, the people scattered all over Egypt to gather stubble to use for straw. The slave drivers kept pressing them, saying, "Complete the work required of you for each day, just as when you had straw." (Ex. 5: 6-13) 

According to scholars, the pharaoh mentioned in the Book of Exodus was Ramses II. ('Pharaoh' is an equivalent name for a king, which is why the kings of Egypt were called 'pharaohs'.) And Pharaoh Ramses had good reason to be afraid—and that fact needs to be explained. 

Ancient Egypt was one of the richest and most developed countries in the ancient world. For this reason, it attracted for many centuries masses of tribes and nomads from present-day Saudi Arabia and Sudan, who sought to settle there. These tribes, just like the Israelites, became slaves in Egypt. Due to their huge numbers, and the fact that slaves were never loyal to the government, slaves in Egypt gradually became a real threat to the stability of the Egyptian regime. 

The bible talks only about the lives of slavery of the Israelites, and ignores the fact that Egypt was home to masses of slaves who came there from all neighboring countries. For this reason, it does not specify which enemies Pharaoh feared the Israelites would join. Nevertheless, from a historical perspective, the fear of a slave revolt was entirely realistic. It could well be the reason why Pharaoh toughened the working conditions of the slaves. 

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Papyrus: More than Paper

Another fascinating picture of life along the Nile we get from the story of Moses' birth. Sometime after Pharaoh gave the order to throw into the Nile the sons to be born to the Israelites, a son was born to Amram and Jochebed, who were among the slave families – and of course that son was Moses! 

Jochebed, who wanted to save her beautiful baby, hid him in her home for three months, until he could no longer be hidden.

Then she decided to make a small box, or basket, into which she would put her baby, and then send the box across the Nile, hoping that it would be found and that someone would adopt her son. According to the story, it was Pharaoh's daughter who found the box with the baby: 

"When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch…" . (Ex. 2 :2-3) 

The fact that Jochebed made the box from papyrus and coated it with tar is what matters to us. Papyrus is a plant that grows in water and appears in thousands of wall paintings found in Egypt, which testifies to its great importance – and rightly so!

Papyrus was an important component of Egyptian industry. It was used for weaving baskets and sandals. From the papyrus, they prepared small boats for the transport of goods, which they sailed on the Nile. And of course, from the papyrus they made paper, and to this day the word "paper" preserves the name of the plant from which it was made. Since the papyrus grew along the banks of the Nile, and since it was widely used, it makes sense that Jochebed made the box out of it. 

The tar she used to coat the box was another material widely used in Egyptian industry. Tar is a bituminous and viscous material used by the Egyptians to sealant the boats and ships that sailed across the Nile and was also used to mummify mummies. 

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Let us briefly summarize what we have said:

It is a well-known rule that slaves are disloyal to the rule of the country in which they live – this was the case in Egypt and so it has always been throughout history. Over the years, slaves seek to become free citizens in the country in which they live. Thus, the fact that Pharaoh feared a slave revolt is logical and explains why he toughened the conditions of slavery for the Israelites. 

Finally, the story that Jochebed made a small papyrus box that she coated with tar shows that she used raw materials that were widely used in Egyptian industry. In contrast, it is worth adding one more note. Since Israel does not have large rivers like the Nile, the industry that characterizes Egypt has never developed there. The construction in Israel was made of small stones and the material used for writing was leather and not papyrus (we'll talk about that in one of our next blogs). 

Let us conclude with the following words: The book of Exodus places major emphasis on the great miracles God performed for the Israelites in the days when He brought them out of slavery to freedom. But alongside the miraculous deeds, the Book of Exodus provides us with a glimpse into the lives of the slaves engaged in construction, which are precisely consistent with Egyptian archaeology, and with the raw materials used in the industry that existed on the banks of the Nile. 

 

Liora Ravid is a Ph.D. in Biblical studies. Ravid is an expert on the history and ways of life and the law that existed in the ancient world and in the period that the Bible speaks of. 

Ravid wrote a book called Daily Life in Biblical Times. The book examines the family stories in the Bible, from a historical, social, and legal perspective, which explains the constraints that obliged the heroes of the Bible to act as they did. Also, the book is based on extensive research over many years, it was written in a simple language that is suitable for everyone. The book can be purchased through the Judaica Webstore site.

In addition, Ravid has a podcast called "the biblical times podcast", which, like her book, examines the stories of the Bible from a historical and literary perspective.

 

Read more of Dr. Ravid's expert biblical analysis by purchasing your very own copy of "Daily Life in Biblical Times"!

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