What was it like to be a slave in Egypt? I usually imagine images from popular movies and art. I think of some of the worst scenes from books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, scenes of horrible oppression and back breaking labor and injustice in the American South. I think of Roman slavery, with men chained to oars, rowing themselves to death under excruciating circumstances, starving, gasping for breath. I imagine Israelite slaves gasping for air, falling over dead in the sand, overworked for hours on end, day after day, collapsing at night and dragging themselves back out into the burning sun. I picture slaves worked to death, crushed beneath Pharaoh’s cold and merciless tyranny.
But the Bible presents Egyptian slavery with more complexity than this. For one thing, the Israelites have not been out of Egypt for a few days before they want to go back. If life was a constant near death experience, horrific injustice and oppression day after day, why would they get out and immediately want to go back? Wouldn’t dying in the wilderness in peace be better than being raped and beaten and starving to death day after day? But the Israelites immediately say just the opposite. It would be better to have died in Egypt than to perish in the wildnerness. More than that, the Israelites describe how good life was in Egypt, and they specifically remember all the food. They had lots of good food in Egypt apparently, and this includes lots of meat. They sat by the “pots of meat” and “ate bread to the full” (Ex. 16:3). There was lots of good food in Egypt for the Israelites. Later, during one of the rebellions in the wilderness, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram refer to Egypt as a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Num. 16:13). Whatever the hardships, Egypt could be plausibly described as a land flowing with milk and honey for Israel. Even if these are all overstatements and romanticized recollections, they refer to something and something that could be collectively remembered by the people such that they would rebel so frequently in the wilderness.
A third piece of evidence for the nature of the slavery in Egypt is the Israelite idolatry in Egypt. Some two generations later, Joshua will plead with the people of Israel on his death bed, urging them to put away the gods their fathers served in Egypt (Josh. 24:14). Joshua asks Israel to choose between the gods of Egypt and Yahweh who brought them out of Egypt, and if Israel is still struggling with that Egyptian idolatry some 80 years later, how much more so might that idolatry have been in the land before Yahweh struck Egypt and delivered His people? People do not worship idols for nothing. The worship of Egyptian gods is a sign that the people of Israel were integrated to some degree into Egyptian culture and life.
And this makes sense with Joseph as second in command in Egypt and Israel being given the best land in Egypt in Goshen. The Israelite slaves were not an entirely lower class of citizens, oppressed and crushed at the bottom of Egyptian society. In fact, under Joseph, all the Egyptians had sold themselves into the service of Pharaoh during the seven years of the great famine. Thus, in some ways, the entire nation of Egypt could rightly be described as a “house of bondage” for both Israelites and Egyptians. It seems likely that Hebrews were integrated into many different sectors of Egyptian society, in higher and lower classes of the culture.
This also helps explain the Israelite reluctance to be saved. When Moses initially arrives on the scene, he is received and believed, but this reception is short lived. After Moses’ initial confrontation with Pharaoh, Pharaoh increases the work for the Hebrews and shows no intention of listening to Moses, and the officers of the children of Israel are angry with Moses. And after that, despite God’s promises to deliver them, Israel did not listen to Moses. Whatever the difficulty of the slavery in Egypt, they did not want to be saved by Moses. They preferred the status quo. They had figured out a way to make it by in the Egyptian system. They had government grants and investments, retirement accounts and college loans. They had figured out how to make a living on the steep taxes, and besides, the food was really good and abundant. And there really wasn’t a better alternative.
Israel preferred not to be delivered, not to be distinguished from the Egyptians. It was safer to keep your head down, keep working, and make the best of less than ideal circumstances. Thus when Yahweh comes and begins making a difference between Egypt and Israel, He is interfering with their plans. When He strikes the land with plagues and distinguishes between Israel and Egypt, He is graciously offering the blessing of difference. When hail stones only strike Egypt, one becomes rather thankful for living in Goshen, even if you really didn’t want to be delivered before. When Yahweh says that He will make a difference, this is not necessarily a difference that Israel initially wanted Him to make, but Yahweh comes for His people and makes a difference because of His love for them, because of His promises.
Israel went to the same shopping malls as the Egyptians, read many of the same books, watched the same movies, maybe they all went to the same schools and universities, cheered for the same teams in the professional chariot racing games, and used the same banks and libraries. And Yahweh in His grace came for His people in this bondage to Egypt, in this slavery to Pharaoh, in their worship of the gods of Egypt. He came to deliver them from their pots of meat and abundance of bread. He came to save them and bring them out to freedom and life in the Promised Land.
[Many of these observations are made by Michael Walzer in his book Exodus and Revolution.]