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1655 BCE - 1491 BCE - Bondage in Egypt

To Israel Egypt was a land of wealth, civilization, abundance of food, and slavery. Beginning in the third millennium BC, large numbers of western Semites had migrated to Egypt, usually drawn by the richness of the Nile Valley. They came seeking trade, work, or escape from hunger, and sometimes they came as slaves. From beginning to end the Old Testament regards this land of riches, idolatry, covetousness, oppression and cruelty, worldly security and bodily enjoyment as a source of spiritual danger. Its earliest mention in the Bible1 is in connection with Abram, who entered it from Palestine because of a famine in the latter country. The visit of Abram to lower Egypt became the first of a long series of similar journeys and connections of Israel and Egypt.

Isaac was warned not to go into Egypt, and the manner in which Jacob came to dwell in that land for seventeen years and his descendants came to be a race of serfs under the hard hand and heart of the Egyptian Pharaohs, is very wonderful. The whole story hinges on the hatred and sale of Joseph by his brethren to a caravan bearing spices and balm from the region east of Jordan down to Egypt. The jealousy of his brethren towards Joseph, Jacob's favorite son, causes them to sell him as a slave to a caravan of Egyptian merchants; after various adventures at the court of Pharaoh, he is promoted to the highest rank, and becomes the Prime Minister of the Egyptian sovereign. His sale to Potiphar the captain of Pharoah's guard, his prison life, his summons to appear in the presence of Pharaoh, his elevation to the chief office in the kingdom, are but steps that led naturally to the settlement of Jacob in this land.

The first impulse of Jacob on learning of Joseph's preservation and exalted dignity in Egypt was to go down to that country and spend his last years with his beloved son. Some time late in the sixteenth or early in the fifteenth century BC, Jacob's family -- numbering about 150 people -- migrated to escape the drought and famine in Canaan, and to settle in Egypt in the land of Goshen.

The prosperity which the Israelites enjoyed in Egypt during the lifetime of Joseph long continued after his death. After this, the Land of Promise appears almost forgotten by his descendants, who in their Egyptian home grew in time to be a great nation. For 430 years the history of the chosen people is almost a blank; but at the expiration of that period theyw were no longer the honored guests of a friendly sovereign, but oppressed and tyrannized. Bishop Ussher regarded the 430 years of the sojourn in Egypt (Ex. 12:40, 41) as beginning when Abraham came to Canaan. This is the traditional interpretation, explicitly stated in the Septuagint and Josephus, and apparently followed by Paul (Gal. 3:17;. The 400 of Genesis 15:13 seemed to be a round number to the same effect, beginning at about the time when the message was given to Abraham. Some scholars, however, counted the 430 years as occupied with the actual sojourn in Egypt, thus lengthening the whole period by more than 200 years. Ussher calculated that the Exodus itself took place in 1491 BCE.

A "new King who arose over Egypt and did not know Joseph" (Exod. i, 8). His aim was so to weaken the Israelites as to render them of no account in case of a foreign invasion from the east. The Book of Exodus describes in detail the conditions of slavery of the Jews in Egypt and their escape from bondage. The Exodus episode is a pivotal event in Jewish history. The liberation of a slave people from a powerful pharaoh -- the first such successful revolt in recorded antiquity -- through divine intervention tied successive generations of Hebrews (Jews) to Yahweh. The scale of the revolt and the subsequent sojourn in Sinai created a self-awareness among the Hebrews that they were a separate people sharing a common destiny.

In obedience to the divine command Moses returned to Egypt; in conjunction with Aaron he announced to the Israelites their coming deliverance, and demands of the king to allow the Israelites to depart. The period of Egyptian oppression that drove the Israelites to revolt and escape probably occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1304-1237 BC). Most scholars believe that the Exodus itself took place under his successor Merneptah. A victory stela dated 1220 BC relates a battle fought with the Israelites beyond Sinai in Canaan. Taken together with other evidence, it was believed by some that the Exodus occurred in the thirteenth century BC and had been completed by about 1225 BC. Others dated it to as early as 1652 BCE.

With the conclusion of Egyptian servitude, the Children of Israel were formed into a nation by Moses, their liberator. Moses led Israel, by a circuitous route, through the desert, towards Canaan. Forty years were consumed in making that journey, during which time, Israel's appointment as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" with the establishment of a theocracy as highest aim, was made known; religious tenets, ethical precepts, hygienic laws, and social principles were piomulgated; a tabernacle, with an elaborate sacrificial cult, was established; countless hardships were endured; frequent rebellions were instituted, and numerous battles were fought.

The giving of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai set down a moral framework that has guided the Jewish people throughout their history. The Mosaic Code, which includes the Ten Commandments and a wide body of other laws derived from the Torah, not only proclaimed the unity of God but also set forth the revolutionary idea that all men, because they were created in God's image, were equal. Thus, the Hebrews believed that they were to be a people guided by a moral order that transcended the temporal power and wealth of the day.

The history of the chosen people as a nation begins with the Exodus, their departure from Egyptian soil being signalized by the miraculous deliverance at the passage of the Red Sea. The children of Israel did not take the ordinary route from Egypt to the Promised Land, but were delayed by the forty years spent in tho wilderness. In the plains of Moab, on the 1st day of the 11th month, Moses addressed to the Israelites admonitions, repetitions, and supplements to the law. He gave the law to the priests, teaches the people his great song, blessed each of the tribes, and went up into the mount Nebo. Thence he surveyed the land of Canaan, and died, aged 120.

Upon his death, Moses was succeeded by Joshua, a warrior chieftain, who, crossing the River Jordan, and vanquishing many of the n live tribes, divided Canaan, by lot, among the tribes, and set up the tabernacle at Shiloh. The natives who were not vanquished, proved sources of annoyance to the invading Israelites, and often made certain portions of Israel tributary to them. The conquest of Canaan under the generalship of Joshua took place over several decades. The biblical account depicts a primitive, outnumbered confederation of tribes slowly conquering pieces of territory from a sedentary, relatively advanced people who lived in walled cities and towns. For a long time the various tribes of Israel controlled the higher, less desirable lands, and only with the advent of David did the kingdoms of Israel and Judah come into being with a capital in Jerusalem.

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Page last modified: 29-09-2011 18:37:26 ZULU