Perhaps one of the most important stories in the Bible is the event of the Exodus, which unfolds with the Israelites in the land of Egypt. It is referenced many times in scripture and is often seen as a great victory of the Israelites and their God, Yahweh, as well as perhaps Egypt’s greatest defeat. The story in Exodus tells of the sons of Jacob (also known as Israel) seeking refuge in Egypt after a famine. Unbeknown to them, their brother, Joseph, who was sold to slave traders in Canaan, made a name for himself in Egypt and became a vizier in Pharaoh’s kingdom. Then a Pharaoh who “did not know Joseph” enslaved the Children of Israel into bondage.
Although there are many debates as to the historicity of the event, the focus of this study is that of slavery in general in the land of Egypt. Historians and scholars have to be careful of not committing ethnocentrism when evaluating other cultures according to the standards and customs of one's own culture. The word “slavery” in post-Enlightenment/post-Colonial America is a loaded term and brings to mind a certain type of slavery that was implemented first by Greeks and then ultimately by the Western World in the Americas. The slavery that will be the focus here is the slavery in ancient Egypt. This is important for scholars and those that read the Biblical Accounts as well as evaluating any ancient document. It is very easy for us to view the story and events through our own lenses without any prior knowledge of life in ancient times. This is also important because we discover that slavery viewed in the ancient world was very different than slavery implemented in the Americas.
First to mention is that the data analyzed in this study are from sources found by archaeology and the first problem encountered lies in the sheer amount of sources. Egypt contains a wealth of information concerning how the ruling Pharaoh’s lived day to day. This should be no surprise considering how kings and rulers in the Ancient Near East (Egypt to Mesopotamia) spent majority of their lifetime making efforts to ensure that their name would be remembered forever by building monuments to themselves and having their names carved in stone and in the very foundation of their palaces and temples. Majority of those that were literate in ancient times were those that used reading and writing in their everyday lives, such as those in politics, government or in religious institutions.
In other words, the nobles and upper class typically were the ones privileged enough to learn how to read and write. One will be hard pressed to find anything written by a peasant or slave considering they were more than likely farmers, traders, and miners or had skills in other trades. These trades do not require a formal training in literacy. The sources uncovered which give a glimpse of the ancient life of a peasant or slave are from that of a wealthier human whom, in fact, was not a slave. However regardless of these difficulties, archaeologist and historians make an educated initiative to piece together the lifestyle and liberties of a servant/slave based on written transactions or law codes that correspond with the treatment of slaves.
Second, the term "slave" has a wide semantic range. Anyone who had a master or a lord had “slaves” or servants working under him or her. The Egyptian word for slave/servant is “hm” which is used in a variety of contexts. A priest can be the gods’ slave (hm-ntr), and this phrase also can be the in title of the Pharaoh being a “servant of the gods.” There were however slaves that were, in a sense, property owned by the estate of wealthy families, priests and officials but they were not necessarily confined to hard labor. Many servants worked in occupations in the household and some had significant liberties and responsibilities over their duties and had other servants working under them.
The main source of slaves that populated Egypt was that of prisoners of war. Egypt had many enemies and campaigns through Canaan, Sinai, Lybia and south into the land of Nubia. All of those captured by the Egyptian military became immediately the property of Pharaoh. The Pharaoh was free to divvy out those captured to the temples, his royal residences, or as a gift to soldiers who were brave in battle. In the Brooklyn Papyrus of the Middle Kingdom period, the text provides a list of ninety-five servants given to Senebtisy, an Egyptian noble woman, by Pharaoh. The list gives the names of each worker and their occupation. Of the names mentioned, thirty-three are Egyptian, which implies that they may be criminals assigned to fieldwork because of their crimes. However, forty-five are Asiatic slaves that bear Semitic names, most likely from the land of Canaan.
These Semites show they are skilled workers, most likely captured from war, that were handpicked to serve the Egyptian noblewoman Senebtisy. The Asiatics in this case appear to be highly regarded because of their skills compared to the criminal Egyptians citizens that were probably sent to work hard and manual labor. This included working in the mines, which had the highest mortality rate of other means of labor in the Kingdom. It appears that the Egyptians had no issues with foreigners if they were useful in their particular vocation and in the case of this document, they might have even been preferred workers.
The type of slavery in Egypt and throughout the ancient Near East, was mostly what is known as Chattel Slavery. This is however different from the slavery of modern times where the individual had extreme legal limitations and freedoms. In ancient times, a household slave possessed more social, economic and legal freedom than that of an Egyptian peasant who was also a citizen. Foreign slaves in Egypt could own property, as well as be active in the market place. They even enjoyed the same workweek as an Egyptian (ten days of work, one day off).
In terms of power, the Egyptians seem to have no problem with foreigners (that may have at one point been a slave) taking official positions of power if they excelled at their occupation. The most famous story of course is that of Joseph, sold into slavery and slowly climbing the ranks of Egyptian hierarchy until he became Vizier of Egypt. There are also many Egyptian sources of nobles and officials with Libyan, Nubian and Semitic names given considerable positions of power in ancient Egypt. Slaves in Egypt enjoyed a type of social, political and economic freedom that would have been unheard of in Colonial American slavery.
Servitude to a master was not only limited to criminals and prisoners of war. Slavery was a means to pull oneself out of debt. This would fall into the category of “indentured servitude.” This is not an uncommon practice today and it certainly was not one in ancient times. One could sell himself along with his family, into “slavery” to work off a debt to the owed party. If one has the ability to do this, logically one can assume that economically, it would be better to put oneself under a master in order to provide means and protection of one’s family. It almost appears, as the concept of a “middle class” does not exist in that of the Ancient times. There is simply a “lord” or master and his servant, which he provides, protects and has ultimate responsibility over his subjects, servants and slaves.
There are sources that suggest the masters take familial ownership of their servants. Theban tomb 216 contains a statue of a man with his wife who are clearly affectionate for their young, female servant. Child labor was also perhaps frowned upon in Egypt as according to an eighteenth dynasty letter, children were not allowed to be used in slave labor but masers could only employ them in easier labor such as domestic services. They can even provide education for them in a trade that will one day make them a skilled worker. They would provide the funds for a child to take an apprenticeship under a skilled worker if they did not have the ability to join their father in his trade.
Perhaps the term “slavery” used in an Egyptian context is too semantically broad. It is not the same limited freedoms, which was employed by the Greeks and in later Colonial America in recent memory. Slaves in Egypt had rights, freedoms and the ability for social, and economic mobility. However, when it comes to the Exodus, the labor endured by the Israelites must have been one that was too extreme for even slavery in the Ancient Near East. The Bible is straightforward in the injustices of Egyptians upon their captors. This can be seen in Exodus 3:7 “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings,” and again in Exodus 3:9 “And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.” This is interesting considering what is represented in Egyptian literature compared to law codes that deal with slaves in the Pentateuch.
The laws on treatment of slaves in the Bible resemble that of the Egyptian practices and social mobility and freedoms. The situation of Egypt becoming more limiting of their freedoms concerning slaves can easily be traced to after the Hyksos period, which fits nicely with the typical proposed dates for the Exodus. The New Kingdom Period becomes a very powerful unified Egypt after a time of foreigners (Asiatics) whom had control of the Two Lands in the 2nd Intermediate Period. Egyptian views and treatment of foreigners may have drastically changed which would explain the harshness of the labor imposed on the Israelites of whom were also Asiatics (Semites). The Israelites living in Egypt clearly had complaints of their treatment and the Bible seems to imply that there was a shift in the freedoms and liberties typically given to foreign slaves.
As mentioned before, the purpose of this study is to evaluate Egyptian sources in the lifestyle of slaves in Egypt to form a better understanding of slavery in Egypt as well as in the Ancient Near East. The Bible (Lev 25) also has regulations in how to deal with slaves/servants and it is best to understand this law code in its Ancient Near Eastern context. Too often we view these subjects through our own ethnocentric lenses and imposing these views upon another ancient culture. Let me know what you think in the comments. I will also provide a short bibliography and some sources for further reading and research.
Hallo, William W., and Younger, eds. The Context of Scripture: Archival Documents from the Biblical World (Context of Scripture) Vol. 3. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
Redford, Donald. Ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Wilson, John A. The Burden of Egypt An Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Culture. The University of Chicago Press, 1951.
 Donald Redford. Ed. Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. “Slaves.” 294.
 William Hallo et all. The Context of Scripture. Vol II. “Semitic Slaves on A Middle Kingdom Estate”. Brill. 35.
 John Wilson. The Burden of Egypt. University of Chicago Press. 187.
 Contemporary scholars typically place the Exodus during the mid 15th Century BCE (Thutmoses III/Amenhotep II Dynasty 18) or the mid 13th Century BCE (Rameses II Dynasty 20).