How Exodus really started
As Passover approached this year, there was something about the Exodus text that had bothered me for years. How exactly did the Israelites become slaves in the first place? Before we can be liberated, we had to become enslaved — and how did that happen exactly?
As I dug deeper into the text for an answer — both into Exodus and the preceding Genesis storyline of Joseph interacting with a “different” Pharaoh — I was actually sort of shocked by what I found.
To start, it’s important to remember how the sons of Joseph, the progeny of Jacob, and heirs to the Israelite legacy, end up in Egypt.
According to the story as written in the Torah, the Israelites actually live first in an adjoining land Canaan. A massive 7 year famine strikes the land. Because of Joseph’s fine work helping Pharaoh prepare for the famine by stockpiling grain (Joseph predicts the famine in one of his infamous dreams), Pharaoh is in a perfect position to help everyone in the land eat when there was no food — in exchange, of course, for their slavery.
“[All Egypt came to Joseph, saying:] “Both we and our farmland — take possession of us and our farmland in return for bread, and we with our farmland will be slaves to Pharaoh, and give us seed, that we may live and not die, and that the farmland not turn to desert.” And Joseph took possession of all the farmland of Egypt for Pharaoh, and each Egyptian sold his field, as the famine was harsh upon them, and the land became Pharaoh’s.” [Genesis, 47:19–20
What happens in this brief passage is quite shocking politically. In the span of just a few years, Pharaoh seems to have become, because of Joseph’s knack for planning and foresight, far more powerful than before the famine. Pharaoh has taken on most of Egypt as slaves and now owns all the farmland. The only group not put in this same situation are the Priests, who Joseph and Pharaoh spare the same fate as the rest of Egypt.
What has occurred in these brief few years is quite a radical shift in the political landscape of Egypt, which the text describes as having a number of individual land holders and a more decentralized power structure. Now, with the critical help of the Israelite Joseph who puts his dreams of the future to use for Pharaoh, centralized power emerges on a scale before now unseen in the region. With a lack of distributed political power, any future Pharaoh can do whatever he wants.
This same centralized power comes back to hurt the Israelites a few hundred years later, when “A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph.” [Exodus 1:8] This new Pharaoh, holding near universal power, and a fear that the Israelites had grown too numerous, enslaves the Israelites brutally and orders male babies murdered. The word “slave” — the Hebrew is avadim — is used to describe the Egyptians who enter into bondage in order to survive the famine and to describe the Israelites when they are enslaved 400 years later. Of course, we have heard the rest of the tale — God and his prophet Moses free the Israelites, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While we don’t normally teach this at our Seders, Jewish complicity in the establishment of an ultra-powerful Pharaoh political regime set the stage for Jewish enslavement later on. Unchecked political power has a way of doing that, regardless of the circumstances (understandable or not) of how that power arises. This lesson from history was one that the American founding fathers got really right — and they built a system of government accordingly, which despite the hiccups of the last few decades, has functioned fairly well to keep any part of the political system from attaining too much power on its own.
In an age when Jews arguably hold more power than at any time in history — in terms of wealth, social status, political power, cultural power, and the list goes on — this reading of the text opens up a number of questions about today’s community and where we find ourselves in an age of expanding income inequality.
Are we American Jews complicit in the creation of expanding income inequality, or are we trying to stop the emergence of an American plutocracy? Are we part of runaway market capitalism, or are we fighting for a better deal for working people?
Are we Moses fighting for enslaved people’s liberation from tyranny? Or are we Joseph, the sycophantic political aide helping a weak political leader weather a crisis and emerge more powerful than he could have imagined?
While it’s easy to tell just the story of our liberation from Egypt at our seders, I’m going to make sure my children hear the story with Joseph’s helping of the “good” Pharaoh — in the hope of adding a warning about what happens when we become too cozy with power. In today’s American Jewish community, it may be that Joseph’s side of the story is what we need to hear.