Specifically, what kind of slaves were the Israelites? Some historians believe that the Egyptians had no slaves, at least in the sense that we would define slaves, as unpaid, bonded labor. It has been said that the Egyptians hired their whole labor force, rather as we in the United States do today, making the Egyptians the most enlightened employers of the Ancient World. Moses, as leader of the Israelites, was certainly no slave. He marched right into Pharaoh’s presence together with his brother Aaron and held contests with Pharaoh’s magicians. He did not have to meet quotas and gather straw to make bricks. The story of the plagues, of Pharaoh’s hard heart and glib scientific explanations, all this has the qualities of a duel, not a one sided argument between master and slave.
You may ask why the nature of the Israelites' slavery is an important question. After all, the Moses story looks far more toward deliverance from slavery than a detailed exploration of its conditions. Except for the most blatant forms of bondage like that of the Africans in the New World, slavery can be a fluid concept. What was once honorable labor can, imperceptibly, evolve into a hell of stress and exploitation.
The lives of the Israelites and the Egyptians had been intertwined for centuries in ways far beyond divisions of labor. In the days of Joseph, to labor for Pharaoh was a sign of honor. Joseph saved Egypt and Egypt saved Israel. This mutual dependency probably continued even to the time of building cities. It is likely that the Israelites, if they were ever even there – this is sacred story, after all, and sacred stories often take place off the map – were recruited into the building trades because of their skill and engineering. But at some point along the way, what had once been technological success became dehumanizing. Somewhere along the way, the Israelites appear to have lost their inner lives.
As Rabbi Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon pointed out, when Moses came down from Midian and brought to his people God’s incredible promise of deliverance, the Israelites could not even hear him. They were exhausted from overwork and squeezed by a “shortness of spirit.” Slavery had reduced their once rich souls to a series of irritations and distractions. They could no longer breathe. In Hebrew, the word for spirit, “ruach” is the same as the word for breath. One can be remunerated quite fairly and still be a slave if one is so distracted and short of breath that life is reduced to mere survival.
Now, not all the Israelites were so lost, or they might not have had the breath to cry out. The midwives were brave. Moses’ mother put her child into a basket which sailed down the river to Pharaoh’s court. We’re not certain about the rest. The important thing to remember about their story is that the search for God is also a search for another way than the world's way. Freedom is one of the important signposts of that spiritual life formed at the crossroads.
By contrast, many churches will tell you that obedience is the primary practice, or strict fidelity to dogma, or the fact that you are stained by original sin, or that you face the possibility of hell. All these can be helpful at the appropriate time, but if they do not lead toward freedom, they are probably just another word for slavery. God does not need slaves to maintain order. God is order. In getting to know God, one begins to make connections that had heretofore been invisible.
None of this is easy. This may be one of the reasons the Israelites spent forty years in the wild complaining about comfort and convenience and pampering their own sense of fearfulness. God had amazing faith in these people. God thought they could get their act together in a mere forty years.
Thousands of years later, in my own Promised Land, I’m still trying.