As Passover Approaches... A New Look at Slavery in Ancient Egypt
Keith W Stump
Travel back in time for a remarkable look at slavery zn ancient Egypt. And then discover to whom you are in bondage now!
What was it like to be a slave in ancient Egypt? Life is so different today, with no slavery — you think. But what you may not realize is that the whole world is in slavery today — but of an entirely different sort! Let me explain.
Flying over Goshen
Come with me, for a moment, to the ancient land of the pharaohs. I was sent to the Middle East last summer to observe the political and military situations there for The Plain Truth magazine. And, secondarily, to study the archaeological records of ancient Egypt as they relate to Bible history. My early morning flight from Amman, capital of Jordan, to the Egyptian capital of Cairo ran into unexpected difficulty. Thick cloud cover above Cairo — unusual in summer months, but present nevertheless — prevented three attempts by the captain to land the large Alia (Royal Jordanian Airlines) jet at Cairo Airport. The decision was made, reluctantly, to head north to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and to sit it out there until conditions cleared above Cairo. This unexpected diversion afforded an opportunity that otherwise would not have been available: a chance to see, from the air when the cloud cover lifted, the very ground on which the ancient Israelites had labored as slaves of the Egyptians. The hour-long southward flight from Cyprus to Cairo passed directly over Egypt's Nile Delta. The Delta is the fertile, triangle-shaped region at the mouth of the Nile, where that mighty river — the world's longest — empties into the Mediterranean Sea. As I viewed the magnificent expanse of the Nile Delta from the window, I thought back to the time, some 3,500 years ago, when the Delta — specifically the eastern portion, called Goshen (see map) — was home for the 12 tribes of Israel. On the very ground passing swiftly below me the children of Israel anciently suffered Egyptian bondage. What were their lives like?
What was it like to be a slave in ancient Egypt? As we approach the Passover season, this question is not only of deep spiritual significance, but timely, with Egypt so much in the news. The daily life of ancient Egypt is profusely illustrated on colorful tomb paintings, inscriptions on monuments and papyrus records. These sources from the past give us a remarkable insight into the day-to-day life of Egyptians at all levels of society. I had the opportunity, while in Egypt, to examine many of these records firsthand. The social organization of the ancient Egyptians can be likened in structure to a pyramid — the very symbol of Egypt itself. At the top of the pyramid sat pharaoh and the royal family. Immediately below pharaoh stood the nobility. Included in this category were top administrative officials, priests, senior scribes, lawyers, doctors and generals. Next came the craftsmen and artisans. They were responsible for building and decorating the country's temples, palaces and tombs. Then came the lower classes, including the unskilled laborers and peasants. Peasants worked in the fields, reaping and sowing and tending flocks and herds. At the base of the Egyptian social pyramid were the slaves. In most civilizations of the ancient Near East, slaves were usually acquired from foreign lands as fruits of military conquest. In the aftermath of war, it was simply more profitable to keep enemy captives in servitude than to kill them. In the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and at sites throughout Egypt, I saw ancient paintings and stone carvings picturing these wretched masses impressed into slavery by the Egyptians. Among them were Nubians, Libyans, Hittites, Philistines, Syrians and many other defeated foreign peoples. With Egypt's dramatic territorial expansion in the New Kingdom period (l6th century B.C. onward), foreign captives began flowing into Egypt in greater numbers than ever before in Egypt's history. The pharaohs' lust for building also grew during this time, creating an ever-increasing demand for construction workers. Tomb paintings illustrating the use of forced labor proliferated in number during this period.
Captives from Canaan
The conquering Pharaoh Thutmose III of Dynasty 18 is a good illustration. Thutmose ruled during the first half of the 15th century B.C. Carved on the walls of the great Temple of Amon at Karnak (ancient Thebes, modern Luxor in Egypt) are detailed annals of his Asiatic military campaigns. I walked through this awesome structure and saw for myself these time-worn inscriptions. Among the records is an account, in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, of his capturing the Canaanite city of Megiddo. One sentence reads: "List of what was carried off afterward by the king:... 1,796 male and female slaves, as well as their children." Every year Thutmose Ill's war galleys, returning from annual military campaigns such as the one to Megiddo, brought captive Asiatics back to Egypt. Picture the scene: Bound one to another in long lines, the captives descended the gangplank to begin a new life of slave labor in a strange land. Egyptologist J. H. Breasted describes the spectacle: "Their arms were pinioned behind them at the elbows or crossed over their heads and lashed together; or, again, their hands were thrust through odd pointed ovals of wood, which served as handcuffs. The women carried their children slung in a fold of the mantle over their shoulders. With their strange speech and uncouth postures the poor wretches were the subject of jibe and merriment on the part of the multitude" (A History of Egypt. 1905). On the walls of Madinet Habu temple in ancient Thebes, I saw another, even more grim, description of the fate of war captives. In it, Rameses III of Dynasty 20 described the fate of his enemies. Men who were not "overthrown in their blood and made into heaps," Rameses boasted, were captured and then "branded and made into slaves stamped with my name, their women and children treated likewise." Stop for a moment and imagine yourself in their shoes — bound, branded, mocked by the crowds, facing a hopeless future. That was the fate of the vast majority of slaves anywhere in ancient times.
In theory, all captives of pharaoh were his property. But in practice, captured slaves were distributed widely throughout the land and their types of service varied greatly. The one common denominator: Their lives were no longer their own. What would your fate have been had you been a slave in ancient Egypt? Some slaves were given to the priests for forced service in the pagan temples. Other slaves were impressed into the Egyptian army or into naval service as oarsmen. Still others — usually large numbers — were assigned as laborers to royal building projects and various public works. The more fortunate slaves served as domestics in noble households. Female slaves often became serving girls and nannies to the children of the upper classes. But in the main, slavery for the majority was an unchanging round of arduous labor. And, at its worst, slavery could be literally intolerable. Scenes of slave beating can be seen in many tomb paintings. Cruel and brutal treatment was often the result of foremen — usually recruited from among the enslaved peoples themselves — driving slaves to the limit to avoid the wrath of the Egyptian taskmasters over them. The ancient Greeks recorded that some of the worst conditions for slaves in Egypt were to be found in the state quarrying and mining operations, such as the gold and copper mines of Nubia, the Sudan and the Sinai. According to the Greeks, men in these mines daily dropped dead by the scores in the torrid heat, under the merciless lashes of foremen and overseers. Female slaves were not exempt from cruel treatment. They were often prostituted against their will, or made to become concubines of their Egyptian masters.
Bricks without straw
In all of Egyptian history, possibly no enslavement was as severe as that of the Israelites. Originally 75 in number, the children of Israel came voluntarily into Egypt in the 18th century B.C., during the famine in the days when Joseph was second in command over Egypt (Gen. 41-47). They were freemen, and inhabited fertile Goshen in Lower (northern) Egypt (Gen. 45:10). But later a new pharaoh arose in Egypt, who "knew not Joseph" (Ex. 1:8). A change in dynasty transformed the free Israelites into a race of slaves, a subject people. The Egyptians "set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens" (verse 11). We are told that the Israelites were put to work building the pharaoh's "treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses," located in the eastern Nile Delta. It was over that area that I passed during my southward flight from Cyprus. "And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour," the account continues. "And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field" (verses 13-14). The oppression of the Israelites grew increasingly bitter. Following Moses' first face-to-face confrontation with Pharaoh, still another burden was placed upon the Israelites: "Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying, You shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves" (Ex. 5:6-7). Ancient inscriptions show that mud brick was the almost universal building material in Egypt. Bricks were in constant demand by contractors. (The Egyptian word for brick, tobe, is the origin of the modern word adobe.) Were you to visit the tomb of Rekh-mi-Re in the Tombs of the Nobles in Thebes, you would see a remarkable wall painting illustrating the step-by-step process of ancient brickmaking (shown in part, in accompanying photo). Rekh-mi-Re (ca. 1450 B.C.) was grand vizier under Thutmose III and his son Amenhotep II of Dynasty 18. The contemporary tomb painting depicts the same procedure followed by the Israelite slaves. Imagine yourself, clad only in a linen apron, laboring relentlessly under a scorching desert sun as a forced worker in this ancient " assembly line": First, a fellow worker draws water to make mud, into which others knead chaff or chopped straw. Then you carry away the mixture of mud and chaff in buckets to the brickmakers and dump it on a pile. The mud is then shaped in rectangular wooden molds and set out to dry in the sun. Finally, the finished bricks are carried off to the building site. The painting also shows foremen, carrying sticks, watching closely over the workers. A hieroglyphic inscription accompanying the painting has one of the Egyptian overseers sternly warning his slaves: "The rod is in my hand. Be not idle!" Ten plagues were ultimately required to gain the Israelites' release from bondage. At the time of the Exodus, Israel numbered more than 600,000 men 20 years of age and above, plus women and children (Num. 1:46). The total probably approached three million. It is not surprising that Pharaoh was reluctant to part with such a massive supply of cheap slave labor. But Pharaoh lost in the end. After the Egyptian firstborn were slain on the night of the Passover, he had little choice but to relent. One of the most barbarous chapters in the history of man's oppression of his fellowman came to a triumphal end (Num. 33:3).
Slavery — today?
All would agree that the slavery of ancient Israel was a bitter and unsavory episode. But, though most people don't realize it, the entire world today is in slavery! No one — not even you or I — is excluded! That slavery is of two types. The majority in the world today is in slavery to sin. This slavery is more insidious and more oppressive than any physical bondage of ages past. Jesus declared that "Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin" (John 8:34). The word translated "servant" in the King James Version is the Greek word doulos, meaning "slave." The apostle Peter calls the ungodly "the servants [slaves] of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage" (II Pet. 2:19). Those who yield to sin are its slaves. Sin holds them in its clutches. Sin is their master. One experiences abject servitude under this merciless taskmaster. In biblical symbolism, Egypt is pictured as a type of sin. Just as God led the ancient Israelites out of the oppressive physical slavery of Egypt, so has He provided a way out of the spiritual slavery of sin. But in becoming free of the slavery of sin, we become slaves of another sort. Notice: Through Jesus Christ we can be made free from sin (Gal. 5:1). Through faith in Him we can come out of sin, just as "By faith he [Moses] forsook "Egypt" (Heb. 11:27). But we are still slaves! We have changed masters. No longer slaves to sin, we have become slaves of God! As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 6:18: "Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants [slaves] of righteousness." We have been bought with a price (I Cor. 7:23). That purchase price was the shed blood of Jesus Christ. As Christians we must now serve Him, yielding ourselves completely to the way He has set before us. Our lives are no longer our own! The yoke of slavery to sin is heavy. Those encumbered by it toil in a desolate wilderness. But slavery to Jesus Christ is a beneficent form of bondage. "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light," Jesus declared (Matt. 11:30). Keep that firmly in mind during the Passover season. Let's not make the mistake made by the ancient Israelites, whose outwardly hard life of wandering in the Sinai Desert made them forget that God delivered them from forced labor in Egypt (Ex. 16:3, Num. 11). We must strive to maintain the right perspective and not allow ourselves to drift back into that from which we were once delivered — sin. "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free" (Gal. 5:1).