One often-overlooked aspect of the biblical liberation story from Egypt is the succinct prologue at the beginning of Exodus describing how the enslavement began. The explanation of the bitter enslavement with which the story of Jewish nationhood begins leaves several troubling issues unresolved. What justifies a people’s suffering for hundreds of years? What justifies their being enslaved, dehumanized, exploited and humiliated?
Given the theological context of the Bible, where suffering is linked to sinful behavior, the condition of slavery needs explanation and justification. If no justification is forthcoming, we shall then pose a more intriguing question: what is the significance of beginning the foundational memory of Jewish history with an account of undeserved suffering?
The original descent into Egypt was described in the Book of Genesis in terms of Jacob and his family’s flight from a famine that afflicted Canaan. Jacob’s son, Joseph, was a celebrated hero in Egyptian society after singlehandedly forewarning and organizing Egyptian society to withstand seven years of famine, while shrewdly consolidating the Pharaoh’s political and economic control of the land. Because Joseph was so widely revered in Egypt, Jacob was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the Egyptian ruler.
Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “As regards your father and your brothers who have come to you, the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them stay in the region of Goshen…” (Gen 47:5-6)Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly. (ibid. 47:27)
In gratitude and appreciation for Joseph’s contribution to Egyptian society, the children of Israel became firmly ensconced in Egypt, where they prospered and flourished. But then, at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the narrative abruptly states:
A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people: “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Exod. 1:7-8)
The rabbis in the midrash (Sotah 11a) were bothered by the cryptic statement, “a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph,” that introduces the radical change of fortune that befalls the children of Israel. The narrative explains the sharp transition from well being, security and prosperity to alienation and enslavement with a cursory reference to Pharaoh’s “ignorance” of Joseph.
“What do you mean, ‘did not know Joseph,’” asks one of the rabbis in the midrash incredulously. How could the Pharaoh or, for that matter, any ordinary Egyptian not have known what Joseph did to rescue Egyptian society from catastrophe? Or, to use a more familiar formulation: How could anyone not have been aware of the Jew’s contribution to civilization? The midrash resolves this rhetorical puzzlement by revealing the act of deception suggested by the euphemistic reference to Pharaoh’s ignorance. “Did not know Joseph” means: Pharaoh acted as if he did not know Joseph.
The sad but not unfamiliar conclusion that can be drawn from this succinct passage is that unanticipated political conditions (“A new king arose over Egypt”) that bring insecurity and instability to ruling classes or governing bodies can turn human fates inside out. The essence of the charge leveled against the targeted minority is that they are different and should be feared.
Xenophobic fear of the stranger grows under conditions of uncertainty where “the other” is identified and then demonized as potentially subversive. Political change and insecurity engender fear of the stranger – in this situation, fear that the Jewish people’s growth and prosperity makes them a formidable enemy. Jews cannot be trusted. They are suspect because they are numerous and different.
Although these kinds of political and psychological dynamics are not uncommon in human history, they suggest an arbitrary dimension that undermines one of the cardinal principles of providential history. The prophetic tradition is rooted in the idea that nothing in history occurs arbitrarily. Historical explanations are grounded on moral premises.
The prophets constantly point an accusing finger at social neglect and exploitation of the weak, at corruption and social injustice, to explain the fate of the Jewish people. Disobedience to Torah, the failure to live up to God’s laws, is ultimately the cause of exile and suffering. The classic biblical explanation of suffering is, therefore, moral failure and sin.
The story of the enslavement in Egypt, however, does not fit this explanatory model. There does not seem to be any moral justification for the sudden turn of events that led to slavery and exploitation.
In contrast to the main thrust of providential histories, the story of the inception of the Jewish people is predicated on a description of the contingent and precarious features of history. The prologue to Egyptian enslavement may be summarized as follows: The social, economic and political status of the Jews in Egypt, where they enjoyed security, prosperity and social recognition, are unexpectedly and completely overturned by an insecure monarch who succeeds in isolating and demonizing the Jewish people.
Political change and unrest in the Egyptian ruling class result in disaster for the Jews. The chain of events leading to isolation, disenfranchisement and enslavement are, from the victims’ and the narrator’s points of view, arbitrary and unpredictable.
The revelation to Abraham that refers to the future enslavement in Egypt is sometimes cited to explain the overall divine plan. This reference, however, offers no explanation that could be considered a moral justification.
And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. As for you,You shall go to your fathers in peace;You shall be buried at a ripe old age.And they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen. 15:13-16)
The prolonged duration of the oppression for 400 years is linked to the time needed for the indigenous population of the land of Canaan, the Amorites, to fully deserve the punishment of expulsion. This indirect explanation for delaying Israel’s entry into the land has little bearing on the need for suffering and slavery in Egypt. The people who were persecuted in Egypt could just as well have waited while enjoying Egyptian hospitality. This passage, therefore, hardly changes the impact of the introductory verses of the book of Exodus.
The lack of a plausible moral explanation for the appearance of a xenophobic tyrant who brings disaster on the Jewish people makes the themes of historical contingency and undeserved suffering integral motifs of the foundational memory of the Jewish people.
In teaching how one should relate the story of the exodus during the Passover seder, the Talmud says, “You begin with (telling about) shame and conclude with praise and thanksgiving” (Psachim 116a). The story of Passover begins by telling about our ancestors’ servitude and immersion in idolatry; only then do we proceed to tell about our liberation.
One interpretation of this approach is that we must include the tragic aspect of the story of Egypt, the precariousness of human history, within the multidimensional story of Passover. Our founding national tale is not only about freedom and liberation, but also about uncertainty, arbitrary evil and the unpredictable contingencies of human history. There can be no permanent security in history because the appearance of a new king “who did not know Joseph” is an ever-present possibility.