I have read the relevant verses on this subject for decades without understanding them. It is time to finally explore this topic.
At Genesis 15:14, God tells Avraham that his descendants will be strangers and slaves in a foreign land for 400 years and that the nation that they served will be judged by God, and that afterward “yeitzu be-rechush gadol.”
Then, at Exodus 3:21-22 we have: “I will give this people favor (chen) in the eyes of Egypt. And it shall come to pass, when you go, you shall not go empty. Every woman shall ask (ve-shaalah) from her neighbor… articles of silver and of gold and raiment… and you shall spoil Egypt.” (Similar is verse 11:2, which I am omitting.)
Finally, at Exodus 12:35-36: “The children of Israel did according to the word of Moses, and they asked (va-yishalu) of Egypt articles of silver and of gold and raiment. God gave the people favor (chen) in the eyes of Egypt. They let them have what they asked (va-yashilum). They spoiled Egypt.”
This episode raises two fundamental questions: 1) In Rabbinic Hebrew, Sh-A-L usually means “borrow.” Is this the story of an ancient trick by the Israelites, ordered by God? 2) What was the purpose of this entire episode?
To answer the first question, most commentaries believe that there was no deception here. The verb “Sh-A-L” has many meanings in Tanach, including “demand” and “request.” Therefore it need not mean “borrow” here. In fact, “borrow” is a rare meaning of this verb in Tanach.
Regarding the second question, on the simplest level, the purpose of the episode was to fulfill God’s promise to Avraham. God was merely constructing a situation that enabled Him to fulfill it. I would be satisfied with this answer. But the commentators write much more. For example:
-Several point to Devarim 15:13-14, which records that after an “eved ivri” works for six years and is freed, he should not be freed empty-handed. Rather, he is to be supplied liberally from his owner’s flock, threshing-floor and winepress. Perhaps this was not a new law instituted in Devarim, but was a common practice at the time of the Exodus or even earlier in the time of Avraham. As one source (U. Cassuto) explains, this bounty to the freed slaves was required for absolute justice to be done. Although no earthly court could compel the king of Egypt to fulfill this obligation, the Heavenly court saw to it that this requirement of justice was carried out, and directed the course of events to this end. (See Torat Chayim on Ex. 11:2, in the name of R. Chananel and R. Bachya, and Chizkuni to Ex. 3:21, and most elaborately, U. Cassuto.)
-Rav S.R. Hirsch writes that during the three days of darkness, the Egyptians were completely helpless but no Israelite took the slightest advantage of their persons or possessions. When this plague ended and they found all their possessions untouched, God made their recognition of the moral nobility of the Israelites overcome their antipathy to them. They even gave the Israelites these gifts before the Israelites asked. God also wanted the first foundation stone of the prosperity of His people to be acquired through recognition of their moral greatness by those who had hitherto despised them.
(Regarding the last three words of 12:36, he suggests they mean that the Egyptians stripped themselves of their own treasures and gave them to the Israelites.)
-Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz writes that the Torah commands us not to abhor an Egyptian (Deut. 23:8). He takes the position that the purpose of this entire episode was to ensure that there would be a friendly parting so we could end up being able to observe this commandment. The Israelites would come to see that the oppressors were Pharaoh and his courtiers, and not the Egyptian people. (Rabbi Hertz is here following the approach of the scholar Benno Jacob. In this approach, the suggestion is made that the last three words of 3:22 mean “and you shall save Egypt.” I.e., the name of the Egyptians will be cleared and their humanity vindicated.”)
-Nechama Leibowitz and others before her suggest that there is no unfairness here because the Israelites may have left property behind in Egypt. Nechama writes: “This loss of possessions has been a blight that has dogged Jews throughout their expulsions, from Spain in 1492 to Iraq in the first years of the State of Israel. But in all these cases, their neighbors were not so kind as to let them have silver and gold articles in return for the wealth they had left behind, and not even on loan, at that.”
Most interesting, however, is the view of S. D. Luzzatto who believes that the Israelites did trick the Egyptians here at God’s command. The root Sh-A-L certainly means “borrow” sometimes in Tanach, so it can have this meaning here. The Israelites had never told the Egyptians that they were not coming back. Moses had only requested a three-day trip to worship the Israelite God (5:3). As late as Exodus 10:26 (between the ninth and 10th plagues), it seems that Moses is still only requesting permission for a temporary departure to worship the Israelite God.
But what about the moral questions: How could God command such an act of trickery? Would not the Israelites be learning a lesson that trickery is something to be encouraged? On the contrary! Luzzatto writes that what was impressed upon them was that God despises evildoers and favors those who are crushed in spirit. What the Israelites would be learning is that if they themselves were to oppress others, God would avenge them and transfer their wealth to those others! The whole episode strengthened their hearts with reverence for God and love of justice.
The whole idea of Moses’ request for only a temporary departure deserves a separate column. (I forget if such a request was made at any time by Charlton Heston. But there is an interesting post by R. Menachem Leibtag on this topic at tanach.org: “Let My People Go: A Hoax or a Mission.”) In any event, one can respond to Luzzatto that the Egyptian people were not privy to the exact words of the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh. And at 12:33, just prior to the transfer of items to the Israelites at 12:35-36, the verse tells us: “va-techezak Mitzrayim al ha-am le-maher le-shalcham min ha-aretz, ki amru kulanu meitim.” On the simplest level, this sounds like the Egyptian people were desirous of sending the Israelites off permanently, and they still gave them the various items.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. As a scholar, he does not practice deceit. But as an attorney… He can be reached at [email protected] Please visit his website, rootsandrituals.org, for more of his articles.