In summary thus far, it has been demonstrated that contrary to much modern scholarship Israel was in fact a unified ethnic group also identified as Hebrews. This fact is confirmed by the text of Exodus, which describes unique Hebrew physical and sociological traits, by the familial language used to discuss Israel, and by God’s affirmation as the reason for Israel’s existence is the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The task of this paper is however far from complete. In order to build a theology of race and intercultural relationships from Exodus, the focus must now shift to investigate other ethnic groups in the text and how they are portrayed. If God favors Israel because of Abraham’s covenant, what does that mean for the rest?
The ethnic group dominating the pages of Exodus aside from Israel is of course the Egyptians, and their notorious albeit unidentified pharaoh. There is hardly another nation in all of scripture absorbing such a pounding as Egypt in Exodus 1-18, and the reasons for such punishment must be assessed. Can it be that Exodus is a racist text, uplifting one culture and freely denigrating another?
True one culture, Israel, is unequivocally uplifted and another, Egypt is unequivocally denigrated. However, the basis for doing so is theological and not cultural.35 So though the Egyptians are singled out for vicious punishment, it is because they refuse to acknowledge the power and reign of God over and against the power of pharaoh. This truth has two central support pillars. First, the Egyptians consistently use violence to manipulate their circumstances as embodied by the hardened heart of pharaoh. Secondly, the name “Egyptian” itself is used in Exodus as a literary device to signal oppression and dependence on human pride. We shall now look at each of these in turn.
The first piece of evidence supporting the conclusion that the destruction against Egypt is not ethnically driven is the Egyptians cynical behavior in dealing with Israel. They are time and time again caught trying to manipulate their circumstances to maintain absolute control. One example of this behavior was already discussed above. The new pharaoh judges the Israelites a threat and utilizes political theatre resulting in Israel’s enslavement in order to curb their population. A part of the pericope, Exodus 1:12, is a subtle signaling of the judgment entailed here. Though the new pharaoh wants to curb Israel’s numbers, the more he manipulates them to do so, the more they increase. So while the king of Egypt says in fear, “Lest they multiply,” the king of the universe says, “The more they shall multiply.”36 In the end, pharaoh’s most desperate efforts, the murder of all Hebrew baby boys, lead only to the rise in pharaoh’s very household of the one who will make Egypt’s worst fears come true. The greater power, against which pharaoh will rage for many chapters, is thus invisibly introduced in the very first chapter.37
The most prominent exhibit of Egyptian hubris against God is the heart of none other than pharaoh himself. Pharaoh is presented throughout the text as a man who simply cannot conceive of power except through coercion and domination.38 This becomes exceedingly clear when the defiant king, in the course of the plague narratives, interprets God’s staying hand as weakness instead of the mercy and chance of repentance that it truly is.39
While it is beyond the scope of this paper to deal with the theological issues surround the hardening of pharaoh’s heart, it suffices to say his pride long preceded any rendering of judgment on God’s part. A triad of passages will make this point abundantly obvious. Exodus 9:17 reveals Pharaoh’s ongoing attitude as Moses writes, “You are still exalting yourself against my people.” Pharaoh has obviously not treated the Hebrews justly for some time as the use of the adverb here alludes to.40 Secondly, in Exodus 9:29, Moses exclaims to pharaoh as justification for the falling hail, “So that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s.” This passage is echoed in Exodus 14:17-18 with the exception that the latter is dealing with all of Egypt, not just pharaoh, knowing about God. Obviously, these passages would be unnecessary if pharaoh and his cohorts did not believe themselves to be in control of the earth. One can safely conclude therefore the prejudice against Egypt in the Exodus narrative has nothing to do with racial or cultural bias, and everything to do with Egypt’s sinful unwillingness to worship its creator.
The second line of argument against Egypt is the name Egypt itself. It is used throughout Exodus as a symbol of oppression and self-worship more than it is an ethnic group or nation. This is most clear in passages when people of Egyptian ethnicity act positively towards Israel on their own accord. In these passages they simply are not called Egyptians as elsewhere in the book. In Exodus 2:1-10, pharaoh’s daughter lifts Moses from the river and enlists the boy’s mother to become the baby’s a wet nurse. The term Egyptian is never used. In Exodus 8:19, the magicians, previously called magicians of Egypt in 7:11, are solely magicians when they recognize their humility in the face of the power before them. Additionally, in Exodus 10:7, pharaoh’s officials are also not linked with the actions of pharaoh when begging for the release of Israel. While they are also not called Egyptians in other verses when acting negatively, it is pharaoh who is the central character in those verses. The officials are only mentioned as following him. This is not to say these characters are ready to forsake idolatry and walk in faith with the true God of Israel. While one cannot be overly dogmatic about the above conclusions, it is however an interesting omission in the text, and it seems in the very least these Egyptians realize a power exists far greater than pharaoh.
To summarize, the text’s portrayal of Egyptians is overwhelmingly negative because they are posited as a symbol for prideful resistance to the rightful reign of the creator. This is however a literary function and is in no way emblematic of all Egyptian people. On the contrary, some Egyptians in Exodus recognize the true God or at least voice doubt in their pharaoh’s ability to protect and deliver. Thus God’s punishment of Egypt is not ethnically motivated at all. It is necessitated by the Egyptian regime’s idolatry, a roadblock for God’s redemptive plan for the entire world. The universal ramifications of both Egypt’s indolence and God’s loyalty to the family of Abraham are most pronounced after the miraculous destruction of pharaoh’s army, when in the Song of Moses Israel cries out in praise at the eternal deliverance now at hand as all the nations know of the might of Israel’s God.41
Next time, we will look at other nations mentioned besides Israel and Egypt. It is the most difficult section of this project.
35) Renita J. Weems, “The Hebrew Women Are Not Like The Egyptian Women: The Ideaology of Race, Gender, and Sexual Reproduction in Exodus 1.” Semeia no. 59 (1992): 33.
36) Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, translated by Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University: 1967), 11.
37) J. David Pleins, Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction (Louisville, KY: Wesminster John Knox Press, 2001), 160.
38) William A. Ford, God, Pharaoh, and Moses: Explaining the Lord’s Actions in the Exodus Plague Narrative (Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2006), 73.
39) Ibid., 73.
40) Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, 728.
41) Richard D. Patterson, “Victory at Sea: Prose and Poetry in Exodus 14-15,” Bibliotheca Sacra 161