The Exodus story tells us of how enslaved people fled to Canaan, but how did the Israelites become enslaved in Egypt in the first place?
The Bible claims Pharaoh enslaved them because there were simply too many Israelites. However, many scholars contend that the ancient Israelites were not enslaved in large numbers in Egypt at all.
This article will break down the many theories surrounding the Exodus and slavery in ancient Egypt.
How Does Anyone Become Enslaved in Ancient Egypt?
There are three main reasons why someone would become enslaved in ancient Egypt, whether they are an Israelite or not:
- Indebtedness: The most common way to become enslaved in the ancient world, including ancient Egypt, was to owe someone money. If the person could not pay, they would instead become enslaved to the person that they owe. Sometimes this form of slavery is called “bonded slavery.”
- Criminal Conviction: In ancient Egypt, slavery was a punishment for certain crimes.
- Prisoners of War: This was uncommon in earlier Egyptian dynasties, but as Egypt began to interact and go to war with the civilizations that surrounded them, they enslaved some of the people they conquered. If the ancient Egyptians enslaved any Israelites, this seems the most plausible way they would have done so because the Israelites were foreigners.
What the Bible Says About Egyptian Slavery of Hebrews
Suppose the historical record doesn’t reflect the mass enslavement of the Hebrews.
How did we get the idea that this enslavement occurred?
Our perception of how the Israelites became enslaved in Egypt comes from Judaism’s holy book, the Torah (Tanakh), which is known as the Old Testament in the Bible.
The two books in the Bible that most concern the Israelites in Egypt are Genesis and Exodus.
Genesis tells us the story of Jacob and his twelve sons. Jacob’s favorite son is Joseph, whose brothers sell him to a caravan on its way to Egypt out of jealousy. Joseph becomes very important to the Pharaoh for his ability to interpret dreams, and years later, he reunites with his brothers when they come to Egypt for food and water.
The first passages of Exodus explain that after Jacob and his sons came to Egypt, the Israelite population quickly multiplied. After Jacob, Joseph, and the rest of Jacob’s sons die, a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph rose to power in Egypt. This Pharaoh worried that the Israelites were too numerous and would ally with Egypt’s enemies against him, so he decided to enslave the Israelites to keep them from rising in number.
The Pharaoh forced the Israelites to build cities out of straw and mud bricks and instructed the midwives to kill any male Israelite baby. Summing this up, the Israelites became enslaved simply because the new pharaoh did not trust them.
How Do We Know There Were Jews in Ancient Egypt?
We know that Semitic people, or people who spoke Semitic languages who migrated from the Levant (present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine), lived in ancient Egypt. There is archeological evidence of their presence in Egypt that dates back to the 20th century BCE. Hebrew, of course, Judaism’s biblical language, is a Semitic language. However, these Semitic people were not Jewish.
Religion in ancient Israel was far different than modern, or even premodern, Judaism. Like other ancient people, the Israelites were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Monotheism, the worship of one god, did not develop among the Israelites until around 1000 BCE.
The oldest Egyptian archeological evidence that we have of the Israelites is the Israel Stele, which is a stone slab inscribed by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah. It dates back to 1208 BCE and is ancient Egypt’s earliest, and only, reference to Israel.
For a moment, let’s consider the creation of the Israel Stele to be a time when Israelites existed in Egypt. The Israel Stele existed 200 years before the Israelites began to adopt monotheism. The most complete form of the Torah was not written until sometime between 539 and 333 BCE.
Egyptian Evidence of Semitic People
Besides the Israel Stele, we have little to no Egyptian archaeological evidence of Israelites in Egypt. There are a few reasons why, if the Exodus did occur, the Egyptians did not document it. Some scholars say the Egyptians rarely recorded losses, while others believe Egyptians were unconcerned with the Israelite population.
However, some surviving sources reference the existence of the “Apiru” people. Scholars believe that the Egyptian word “Apiru” was later transformed into “Hebrew.” The term roughly translates to “stateless people,” which would support the Bible’s assertion that the Israelites came to Egypt as refugees escaping famine.
We can’t say for sure that there was a sizable population of Israelites or Hebrews in ancient Egypt, but we have plenty of evidence of other Semitic people in the region. One such Semitic group was the Hyksos. In around 1782 BCE, the Hyksos settled in Avaris, a city on the eastern delta of the Nile.
Despite the Hyksos’ Semitic origins and their documented presence in Egypt, we do not have evidence showing that the Hyksos were a Hebrew community. The Egyptians, nor any other culture, did not report mass enslavement of the Hyksos, either.
How Long Were Jews Slaves in Egypt?
We don’t have an exact timeframe of how long the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt.
According to the Bible, Israelite presence in Egypt began with Joseph. Later, Joseph reunites with Jacob and his brothers in Egypt and lives until he is 110 years old. Enslavement by the Egyptians was said to begin after Joseph’s death, but the Bible does not say when exactly the phenomenon began.
We do not have any archaeological evidence from Egyptians that documents large numbers of Israelite slaves. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that slaves built the Pyramids of Giza, but Egyptologists say that this was likely an error.
Did Jewish Slaves in Egypt Build the Pyramids of Giza?
In short, no, Jewish slaves did not build the Pyramids of Giza. Historians and archaeologists largely disproved the theory that Jewish slaves built any pyramids, let alone the massive pyramids in Giza. Additionally, Exodus lacks any mention of pyramids nor their construction.
Instead, Exodus 1:11 says the following: “So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses.” Some scholars believe that the names Pithom and Raamses were, in essence, typos.
Instead, the Egyptian names for these cities are Pi-Atum and Pi-Ramesses. In ancient Egyptian, these names mean “House of Atum” and “House of Ramses,” respectively.
Scholars also say it is doubtful that the pyramids were built by slave labor at all. The ancient Egyptian economy revolved around farming, and they relied on the Nile’s annual flooding to deposit nutrients into their soil.
While they waited for the waters to recede, the 90,000 farmworkers freely worked on massive building projects such as the pyramids, and they received payment for doing so.
When Did the Exodus Occur?
Some scholars believe that if the Exodus occurred at all, it happened during the early years of Ramses II’s reign, meaning Israelite slavery ended sometime between 1279 and 1212 BCE. Others argue that the Exodus occurred later, during Merneptah’s reign from 1212 to 1202 BCE. There are historical explanations to support either one of these periods being the time when the Exodus occurred.
There are details in the Bible that line up with the historical record to suggest that the pharaoh in the Exodus was Ramses II. The cities mentioned in Exodus 1:11 are Pithom and Ramesses, and were both real cities in ancient Egypt.
Ramesses, also known as Pi-Ramesses, was Ramses II’s capital city. Ramses II outlived most of his sons, so the complicated succession following his death loosely coincides with the final plague in the Exodus story.
How the Israelites Became Enslaved in Egypt Is Debatable
The purpose of this article is not to refute that the ancient Egyptians enslaved Israelites. Instead, we encourage readers to use the Bible the same way we look at other ancient epic tales. It is important to note historical context when studying ancient stories because it helps us understand the story’s meaning.
There are many possible reasons why ancient Israelite scribes wrote the Exodus story, even if that meant sacrificing some historical accuracy. One such reason is to hold the Hebrew people together in the face of expulsions and invasions.
In early Jewish history, the Israelites were exiled from their homeland by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. Perhaps the Israelites were never enslaved by Egypt, but they were undoubtedly familiar with oppression.
Assuming the Israelites were, in fact, enslaved in ancient Egypt, here is a review of how and why this may have happened:
- If the Egyptians enslaved Israelites, they were likely prisoners of war because they were not native to Egypt.
- The Bible tells us that the Israelites became enslaved because the Pharaoh thought they were too numerous. To keep the population of Israelites contained, the Pharaoh forces the Israelites into hard labor and requires midwives to kill the Israelites’ male babies.
- While there may have been Israelites in Egypt, they were not Jews because Judaism did not exist yet.
- There is little to no evidence to suggest that the Egyptians ever enslaved a particular population, let alone in large numbers.
- Archaeological evidence disproves that slaves built the pyramids. The pyramids are also not mentioned in the Bible.
- Scholars believe that if the Exodus did occur, it happened during the reign of Ramses II or Merneptah.
Regardless of its historical accuracy, the story of Israelite slavery remains an essential, foundational text for multiple religions and is among the most fascinating tales written in the ancient world.