Were Israelites Not Slaves to the Egyptians?

With Passover beginning on April 19, I thought it might be nice to look at a new theory of the Exodus.  If you want to see some of the previous theories, click here for my post on Questions about the Exodus.  I just reviewed a video from the History Channel called Bible Battles.  The film analyzes military strategy for many battles in the Bible.  They make the surprising claim that the Israelites in Egypt were not slaves, but were a military unit.  In some ways, another video seems to corroborate this view.  Jim Hoffmeier discussed a mistranslation of the word “elith.”  (The following quote comes from Science of the Exodus, by National Geographic.)

The Bible says that 600,000 men left Egypt.  …

However, archaeologist Jim Hoffmeier of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School says the number is probably far fewer, due to a mistranslation dating thousands of years.  The original Hebrew says there were 600 elith.

Hoffmeier, “The word elith can be translated 3 different ways:  it can be translated thousand.  Elith can also be translated to the clan.  The third option is that it’s a military unit, which I think is a more plausible scenario.”

According to Hoffmeier’s interpretation, instead of 600,000 men and their families, there were as few as 5000.

I was a bit surprised that the above quote was not referenced in Bible Battles, because there are quite a few points of agreement between Hoffmeier and Richard A Gabriel, PhD and author of Military History of Ancient Israel.  In the Bible Battles video, Gabriel said,

“If you read the Bible text in Hebrew, it uses the word “avadeem”.  Avadeem is not the word for slave, it is the word for “worker” or even servant.  The fact of the matter is that the Israelites in Egypt were not slaves.”

Narrator, The notion that the Israelites might not have been slaves in Egypt contradicts fundamental Judeo-Christian beliefs.  But by examining the Exodus from a military perspective, new light may be shed on this historic journey.

Aaron Shugar, PhD, Archaeomettalurgy, Lehigh University, “This is a tricky subject because outside the Bible there is no definitive corroborating text that can either support or refute the fact that the Israelites were slaves.  But if we ask the simple question, could a nation of mere slaves, be able to go up against the mighty Egyptian army and survive?  Logically, it doesn’t seem like they could.”

Mark Schwartz, Professor of Anthropology, Grand Valley State University, “Now what if they weren’t slaves?  What if they actually were a group with military experience.  Remember Abraham and some of his military exploits.  Now a group of people leaving Egypt with a military arm puts a completely different spin on the story.”

Narrator, “To better understand the Exodus, one must travel back in time about 200 years to the land of Canaan.  Here Abraham and his Israelite descendants are forced to flee the land because of famine and drought.  They migrate to the eastern edge of Egpyt and settle in the land of Goshen, where the earth is fertile and flocks and crops thrive.

But some scholars believe they are also in this area fighting as mercenary soldiers in the Egyptian army.  Their job would be to serve as a first line of defense against invaders from the north.

Schwartz, “These ‘habiru’ were mercenaries, they were soldiers of fortune.  They would fight for who ever it was in their best interest at that time to fight for.  It seems like they had a good thing going in Egypt for a few hundred years.”

Narrator, “But eventually, a new pharaoh rises to power.  Some scholars believe he is Seti I, and he does not seem to care much for the Israelites.”

Exodus 1:9-10, “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.’

Gabriel, “The sheer location of where the habiru are in the land of Goshen, sitting astride the key route of invasion or defense of Egypt, probably convinced Seti himself, a professional warrior that something had to be done either to remove them, or weaken their influence, or at least remove them from their geographical area.  Thus it is that Seti becomes, most historians think, the pharaoh in the Bible who first sets the Israelites to physical labor.”

Narrator, “Many believe this physical labor amounts to slavery.  But this may be a historical inaccuracy.  While forced labor is practiced, some scholars believe that ownership of another person is rare at this time.”

Gabriel, “There was no slavery in Egypt right from the beginning until the end of the empire.  Well, if in fact they were not slaves set to labor, what were they?  The answer is corvee labor.  That is the term used to describe, essentially conscripted civilian workers to work on public works projects.  These people were not slaves, they were paid and they were well treated, and we know that from the military medical texts which stations military doctors with the workmen in order to make sure they are well-treated and well fed.”

Narrator, “Whether slaves or not, the demotion from soldier to common physical worker probably signaled to the Israelites that it was time to leave Egypt.”

Gabriel, “They had lost their status as noble allies.  They were now being treated like common workers.  It was time to go!”

Shugar, “So Moses says to Pharaoh, ‘Listen, God told me personally to lead my people out of here.  So you’ve got to let my people go.  But Pharaoh resists, then what follows is the Passover story and the plagues that wrought devastation upon Egypt.  With the 10th and final plague, the killing of the First Born,  this culminates in the pharaoh allowing the Israelites to leave Egypt.  But the Bible says something very interesting right after this episode, something that actually makes us question whether they really in fact were slaves or not.”

Exodus 13:18, “Now the Israelites went up armed, out of the land of Egypt.”

Gabriel, “It’s very clear, of course, that slaves do not march out armed from their oppressors.  So what we have is the military arm now is formed, as it had always been, to protect the rest of the habiru clan, as it begins to move out of Egypt, and reach its homeland back in Canaan.”

Narrator, “Almost immediately however, Pharoah changes his mind, and sets his army in pursuit of the Israelites.  But it is unclear exactly why Pharaoh does this.  The answer may be found in Exodus 12 verse 35.”
Exodus 12:35-36, ‘The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver, gold, and clothing, and the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request.  Thus they stripped the Egyptians.’

Gabriel, “Well, it just stretches credibility to think that the Egyptians would have done such a thing, especially so when you read the text.  The term that is used is nes-ai-al in Hebrew, which means to despoil.  What seems to have happened is that the Israelites are fleeing Egypt, they are not equipped to be in the desert.  They need food, shelter, water, animals, and what they do is they take it.  So the reason, I think one could argue, that changed in Pharoah’s mind was news that Israelites were leaving had simply raided a town, and sacked it and took all the supplies, and the text bears me out on this.  For it says, that Pharaoh found the Israelites were leaving Egypt boldly.  Keep in mind, this is not just a group of nomads.  This is a habiru group of some size with a military arm, and they used that military might to provision themselves in order to survive in the desert.”

Narrator, “In response to this possible attack, pharaoh unleashes his army in pursuit.  The hallmark of the Egyptian force is the horse-drawn war chariot.”

Gabriel, “The Egyptian army was armed with the lightest, fastest, and most maneuverable chariot in the world. ”

Narrator, “With the Egyptian chariot force in hot pursuit, the Israelites quickly leave the Nile delta area.  But now, Moses does something surprising.  According to the Bible, he turns off the main road leading to Canaan and heads into the desert.”

Gabriel, “One can only imagine what the young junior officers must have thought, and that was that Moses had lost his mind.  Why would Moses do such a thing?”

Narrator, “While the move to lead the Israelites into the desert surprises many, it seems Moses has a plan.  Some believe he is luring Pharaoh into a trap.

The Bible states that Moses had previously spent 40 years in this desert, and like all good military commanders, has an intimate knowledge of the terrain.  Some believe he knows exactly where he is, and exactly where he is heading, and according to the Bible, God is leading the way.”

Exodus 13:21-22, ‘The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light that they might travel day and night.’

Rabbi Jonathan Hecht, PhD, Temple Chaverim, Plainview, NY, “The pillar of cloud, and the pillar of fire that we read about in the Bible are what led the people through the desert and it represented the fact that God’s presence was always with them.”

Narrator, “Though the pillar of smoke and fire has religious significance, it can also be explained from a military perspective.  Ancient Egyptian stone reliefs depict a scene in which Pharaoh Ramses is sitting in front of two soldiers, each of whom is holding up a large pole.

Gabriel, “On top of one of those poles is the hieroglyph for flame, and on top of the other is the hierglyph for a closed brazzier which of course, if you put a cover on a brazzier you get smoke.”

Narrator, “Erected at the front of a marching column, a pillar of smoke and fire is a way for a military commander to communicate with the rest of his troops.”

Gabriel, “So the pillar of smoke, and the pillar of fire is a very common, at least for the Egyptians,  military mechanism for leading troops and pitching camp.”

Narrator, “At the end of the third day of marching, the Israelites make camp.  That night, Pharaoh arrives and sees the pillar of fire directly in front of him.  Pharaoh might believe that he has the upper hand.  Understanding that the pillar of fire always leads the group, it looks to him as though Moses has gotten himself turned around and is heading back to Egypt.

Gabriel, “The first rule of military tactics: always decieve your enemy as to your intentions.  Moses is trying to decieve pharaoh into thinking that he is lost in the desert.”

Narrator, “The placement of the pillar of fire seems to be integral to Moses’ strategy into losing the Egyptians because on the other side of the Israelite army is the Sea of Reeds.”

Schwartz, “Perhaps no event in the Book of Exodus, in fact the entire Bible has captured the imagination much like Moses parting the Sea of Reeds.  I mean who hasn’t seen the Cecil B. DeMille classic with Charlton Heston raising his arms and parting the Sea of Reeds.  It’s an incredible moment.  But I think if you look at it from a critical eye, especially the point of view of a military historian, what you see is that Moses is using an intimate knowledge of the terrain to defeat the Egyptian army without even raising a sword.”

Gabriel, “Night falls upon the encampments.  The pillar of smoke changes to a pillar of flame, and behind that pillar of flame is the escape route that Moses has planned.  Now anyone who’s been a soldier understands at night, you never look into a bright light.  If you look into a bright light, it affects your eyes for as much as 30 minutes.  So here you have a situation of a bright light burning in front of the Egyptians.  They can see the light, but they are blind to anything behind that light.  At the same time, in the midst of the night, and east wind begins to blow.”

Narrator, “An easterly wind mentioned in the Bible likely quite loud convinces Dr. Gabriel that the Egyptian soldiers on night watch might now be deaf, as well as blind.  It is at this point that Moses moves his people across the Sea of Reeds.”

Exodus 14:21, “Then Moses held out his arms over the sea, and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind, all that night and turned the sea into dry ground.”

Narrator, “Some biblical historians believe the crossing of the Sea of Reeds occurs about 20 miles south of the Mediterranean Sea in an alluvial swamp–a swamp subject to tides.  One explanation of this phenomenon is that the tide goes out making the swamp passable.  The easterly wind is likely quickening the process.”

Gabriel, “Very simply, what probably was an alluvial swamp of perhaps 8-10 inches of water suddenly over a period of 45-50 minutes becomes dry.  At that point, the Israelites safely behind their bright light still blinding the Egyptians with the wind howling so they cannot hear, begin to withdraw across the Reed Sea.”

Narrator, “At dawn, Pharaoh discovers an abandoned camp.  He immediately gives chase.  But while the tide may be out, the ground is too soft to handle the weight of pharaoh’s chariots.”

Exodus 14:24, “At the morning watch, the Lord looked down upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.  He locked the wheels of their chariots so that they moved forward with difficulty.”

Gabriel, “Now while stuck in this mud, probably the tide begins to come in–perhaps some people drown.  But what is important is, that tide is going to be in for almost 8 hours now.  There’s no way for pharaoh to pursue.”

Narrator, “Pharaoh would have to march 2 hours north to a crossing at a down called Migdol to continue the pursuit.  By that time, he most likely would have lost the Israelite scent.”

Gabriel, “So here you have a fine Israeli strategic and tactical commander, making great use of his knowledge of the terrain that he had gathered through his own life in that area.”

The Hebrews have eluded the Egyptians…”

The film then goes on to discuss Moses training warriors for the future battle for Canaan, as well as the military campaigns of Joshua.  So what do you make of the Sea of Reeds, and this theory of the Exodus?


18 comments on “Were Israelites Not Slaves to the Egyptians?

  1. I saw a documentary on Moses and the Exodus some years ago. I don’t remember wchich channel made it. I have tried to google it. But what I remember, though, is that there is sparse if any evidence that there were Isrealites or Israelite slaves in Egypt at the time of Moses (app 1290 BC).

  2. This story seems much more plausible than what we are taught. I watched a documentary that tried to explain the miracles of the Bible and the parting of the Red Sea was one of the miracles they studied. They actually set up experimental reenactments in areas similar to the Reed Sea and proved that strong winds could in fact push back the water and dry the soil beneath. Tides were also mentioned as a possibility, so here is another corroborative film.

  3. […] you’re interested in learning more about this video, click here.  What do you think of this theory that Israelites were not slaves? […]

  4. It is well known and documented, that there were Jewish settlements in Egypt from app 500 BC and up to modern times.
    The documentary you mention, has been broadcasted on National Geographic quite a few times. I guess what it all comes down to, is how literally one reads the Bible or not.

    Doesn’t that documantary come up with an interesting theory, though, that the word “Red Sea”, may be a wrong translation from the Hebrew and into the Bible; and that an alternative translation is the “Reed Sea”? This then could imply that the exodus from Egypt took place much further north, maybe even in the Nile delta?

  5. Woops…..I realize now, that all the 3 of us probably have seen the same documentary, “the Science of the Exodus”. I guess I am adding stuff, though, that might be from another documentary, as well. If “the Science of the Exodus” doesn’t mention the problems with archaeology and Israelites in Egypt at the time of Moses (app 1290 BC), that may be from another documentary I have seen.

  6. Did my comment yesterday get lost in the spam?

  7. I’ve hadan interest in where the exodus took place for quite a while. The pilliar of fire and smoke expaination was quite interesting and makes sense. Other documentaries I have watched normally gloss over that. I am not convince by the whole sea of reeds explanation. I do belive that it was a wind that pushed the water back. I watched another documentrythat explained how the event could have happened at the top of the red sea near the same area that Nephi camped at. I also believe in the New Chronology which places the Exodus in about 1490 bc. everything falls into place for the exodus and invasion of israel having happened as deccribed in the bible when the new chronology is used.

  8. Sorry everyone–I’ve been away for a few days. Thanks for the comments. Ben, I checked the spam filter and didn’t see anything, so it looks like your comment was lost–can you post again?

    Astral_LDS, in my other post, it talks about “early” (~1400 BC) and “late” (1200 BC) exodus periods. I did think the chronology of this documentary was a bit off–they seemed to put Abraham around 1200 BC rather than the traditional 2000 BC that most others do, and they seemed to compress Joseph and Moses much closer together than typical.

    Canute, this is the 2nd video that I’ve seen about Red/Reed Sea. Simcha Jacobovici in his film “Exodus Decoded” spends considerable time discussing this mistranlsation, and Bible Battles seems to agree with many of Simcha’s theories. Simcha also discussed tides and believes it is the Reed Sea that parted, though Simcha believes the Santorini eruption in Greece caused the earth to dry up rather than simply the tides as Gabriel does.

  9. Whether the Israelites were actually slaves or conscripted labor is just a matter of semantics. The text of Exodus really connotes conscripted labor to me.
    As for the Sea of Reeds theory, I have heard that many years before this documentary and have no problem with it as an alternative to a possible mistranslation.
    As far as the blinding light theory, it would have had to be a humongous light to blind the Egyptians from such a distance.


  10. Documentaries on “historical” television channels are about as reliable and accurate and unbiased as you are in your views of the religious history of the nation Israel. “I watched this one show on the History channel once…” Give me a break!

  11. Shane, this is a review of a show. If you have something to add, let me know. I’m not saying I agree with the producers of the show–after all I am not an expert as you alluded to. It was an interesting angle of the story. So tell me, what did the producers get wrong (that apparently you know so much about)?

  12. These shows are great. Worse case they get you thinking in a direction you may not have prior. I watch these whenever I can. Some are quite plausible, like the localized flood / Black Sea, and the Reed Sea / High Winds. I also enjoyed the Sodom and Gomorrah show which seemed plausible. Are these shows factual? Who knows, but the plausibility is very intriguing.

  13. The bible is pretty useless as a historical document. I would rather look at Egyptian records of the actual times, diplomatic and military correspondence etc. They were a highly advanced burocracy state that recorded everything meticulously.

  14. This documentary doesn’t explain how the great egyptian soldiers could have drowned in 8-10 inches of water. Furthermore, for the period of time that the israelites were in egypt it send to me that they would have grown in numbers to much more than 5,000. They were, after all, a fertile lot. The egyptians were notorious for deleting records of previous pharoahs so their records would be pretty useless as historical documentation.
    Also, if these men were so strong and skilled at battle why would they have been scared to enter the promised land? They would have been fighting these same peoples for years already.

  15. The story loses all it’s appeal if they were a small military unit that just walked out of the country unharassed and crossed a dry spot of land during low tide. At that point the story is no longer even interesting enough to try to explain.

  16. Isn’t the point of the stories that the Israelites had to depend on God totally for their sustenance and deliverance? The stories were were set down some 500 to 800 years after the events depicted, so why would the writers choose to make it seem as if the Israelites were in bondage? ….. If not to demonstrate the overarching power of God. Looking to demonstrate that the stories have natural and/or human-sized explanations kind of does away with the point of it all. But going along in the same vein, what does anyone have to say about the theory of some Israeli historians that the ancient Israelites never left Canaan and were simply local Canaanites who developed into Monotheists?

  17. […] theories of the miracles Moses performed just prior to the Passover.  Some people think the Israelites weren’t really slaves to the Egyptians.  Others question whether the Exodus actually happened.  Others have tried to […]

  18. So ur saying that the Hebrews were not rlly opressed in Egypt but rather they lost their status to a Pharoh who distrusted a foriegn army in the midst of his kingdom.
    They then used their military experience to escape Egypt but rewrote their own history so it would seem that God led them out and not man?
    This is very interesting. It makes me wonder, if they lied abbt this, what else have they lied abbt?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: