The Jews reached Egypt between the twenty-fourth and twenty-sixth year of the reign of Haremhab and remained there throughout the reigns of Rameses the First, Seti the First and Rameses the Second. Four years after the latter's death they left Pi-Rameses for Palestine. They were in Egypt a little less than ninety years in all. At first, as long as Rameses the First and Seti the First, Jacob's great protectors, were reigning, things went well and these were golden years for Israel. Then things changed under Rameses the Second, who had no reason to consider these subjects as particularly special.
Rameses the Second, a megalomaniacal despot, put all Egypt under the whip in order to bring his "Pharaonic" building plans to fruition. Israel could not avoid this common destiny and the Jews had to bend their backs with the others. This was even more the case since they lived in Goshen, a region situated within Rameses' private domain, and for which he had envisioned great projects; among these was the construction of a splendid new capital city, Pi-Rameses, and of a commercial center, Pithom. The Bible weeps rivers of tears over the conditions of enslaved Jews in Egypt during that period. But the Bible itself gives lie to its own words on several occasions, indicating that, after all, things were not quite so bad and they could not in reality call themselves actual slaves. In fact, in the Sinai desert they frequently looked back with regret on that period of "slavery”--and how many times they were on the point of turning back! (Ex. 16,3 and 17,3; Num. 11,1-7 etc.).
The truth is that during this period the Jews retained all their rights, their property, and their social structure. Rameses did no more than impose a certain number of corvées upon them, in particular for the fabrication of bricks essential to building projects in the two cities. But he never put them in chains, nor did he expropriate their goods or take away their economic independence.
Exodus itself reveals that the Jews were rich. They owned great numbers of livestock; they were the area’s main producers of meat, dairy products, hides and skins. They were free to come and go, to buy and sell as they pleased. They had a multitude of servants and herdsmen (upon whom fell the burden of brick production). Within their territory in Goshen they almost certainly possessed fixed structures, such as fencing, stables, markets, and brick houses. They disposed of these before leaving, bartering them, according to Moses' orders, for small-sized precious objects, such as gold, jewels and fine clothing (Ex. 11,2; 12,34; etc.)
These are not the conditions we usually associate with slaves. What is certain is that the image projected on those cinema screens dear to film directors, of crowds of chained Jews, backs bent under the weight of great stones, being tormented by gigantic, sadistic slave-drivers, is completely unrealistic.
It is possible that after such a long period of time a certain number of Jews, in particular those among the lesser social classes, had become sedentary workers, settling on the outskirts of cities, finding jobs on building sites or working for Egyptian owners ("If you know of any among them with special ability, put them in charge of my own livestock " (Gen. 47,6)). They were "naturalized" Egyptians--Moses himself was one--and a great many of them did not take part in the Exodus. Their living conditions could not have been very different from those of any other Egyptian worker of the same status. But in any case, it is not on the fate of these that the Bible weeps any tears.
Certainly Israel was subject to the Pharaoh's authority. It was an absolute authority, not subject to appeal, often capricious, against which Israel had no defense--just as all the other Egyptians for that matter. Like everyone, they had to pay "taxes," which were manifested, at that time, in unpaid work. This toil was probably heavy, but not unbearably so, and supervised by Jews who were responsible to the Egyptian authorities. The Jews were able to make their complaints heard (Ex. 5,6-19). They were undoubtedly subjected to oppression and injustice by the authorities, just like any other Egyptian; however, their conditions generally could not be defined as intolerable.
Although living in an Egypt which guaranteed order, personal safety, and the exercise of justice, the Jews continued to maintain their own patriarchal social order, which they had brought with them to Egypt. Therefore, they retained their individuality as a people. All goods and property belonged to the nobility, which was comprised of the direct descendants of Jacob, divided among thirteen great families, (the sons of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, in fact, had constituted two separate tribes) relatively independent from one another, and each owning livestock and servants. Judah's family maintained a sort of supremacy over the others (perhaps more theoretical than actual), by virtue of Jacob's testament (Gen. 49,8). This family probably served more as spokesman for all the people in dealings with the Pharaoh and vice-versa. But within Israel there was a sort of aristocratic government in force, composed of an administrative body in which all the tribes were represented at a completely equal level. This body collectively made all decisions.
As we shall see later, each tribe was composed of an average of about three thousand people, whose main economic resources were the livestock they owned. The leaders, averaging about fifty in each tribe, were exclusively the legal male descendants of Jacob. These made up the class of nobles who collectively were the owners of all communal property, especially the livestock. The various tribal leaders were undoubtedly reluctant to accept a member of their own race as a superior authority. The only authority they recognized and respected was the Egyptian.
Living in close contact with the Egyptians, the Jews must have assimilated many of their various techniques, especially regarding handicrafts and the production of small objects for everyday use. Occasionally they were employed in public works on unskilled jobs not requiring any technological capability (Ex. 5,7). The Hebrews have always been compelled to learn the language of the people of the country offering them hospitality, and this was certainly the case in Egypt. But that was probably as far as their cultural assimilation went.
The only ones who may have acquired in some way Egyptian technical, scientific, and administrative knowledge were those "naturalized" Jews such as Moses and Joshua who became sedentary, employed in public administration. They formed a negligible minority during the Exodus; but thanks to their elevated cultural level they were able to take control of the entire population.
In order to understand the mentality, the motives, and the aspirations of the Jews, beginning with Moses, it is important to establish what their religious convictions were prior to the Exodus. They certainly bore no relation to those of the later Hebrew culture and religion. Before Moses, the Jews more or less professed the same religion as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Josh. 24,2; 24,14; 24,19 etc.), perhaps with many Egyptian contributions.
Tradition requires that Abraham, while not respecting Mosaic Law, Easter, and all the other elements of the Jewish religion, differed from other men of his time because he was rigorously "monotheistic;" this would have been very out of character! He was a Mithani, no different in any way from his fellow countrymen of the time. His Olympus was certainly no less populated than theirs!
In Egypt the Jews honored a multitude of Gods: “the Gods your fathers worshipped beyond the river and in Egypt” (Josh.24,14). Among many, they probably acknowledged one that was special, exclusively theirs (Ex.5,3; 18,11; etc). Such a God, the God of the Jews, ferocious and powerful, was known to the Palestinians (Josh.9,9)--not the one and only true God, but one of many. But after Moses, this one became a jealous God; he would not tolerate his protected ones turning their eyes towards other competing divinities (Deu. 4,35; 5,6; Josh. 24,19; etc.). It was thus that monotheism came into existence--thanks to Moses.
The Jews settled in Egypt but they continued to consider themselves the legal proprietors of the Principality of Hebron, which Tuthmosis the Third had assigned to Abraham and his descendants. This must have been written in some document drawn up by Tuthmosis himself. Isaac handed this document to Jacob on the occasion of his "blessing". Jacob must have carried it with him always. Towards the end of his sojourn in Palestine, we find Jacob at Beersheba (Gen.46,1), but only passing through; he never became fully re-integrated in his old domain, and this is the reason why he agreed to leave Palestine and settle in Egypt.
The Principality of Hebron at that time was probably divided into tiny feudal areas, in the hands of the Amorites and Canaanites. However, the Jews must have carried the title deeds of the Principality with them. Jacob certainly had given up his rights to Hebron when he re-entered Palestine and met with Esau. But the Jews in Egypt kept silent about this while promulgating, on the other hand, stories of a birthright sold for a dish lentils and a blessing purloined by deceit.
It seems that Israel never relinquished its claim on the Principality of Hebron; it was a land that, with the passage of time and the distance involved, assumed a mythical character: a fertile land flowing with milk and honey. Little by little, as living conditions in Egypt worsened, the nostalgic memory of that lost territory grew stronger and the idea of returning to Palestine to regain possession of that hereditary land began to spread.
Step by step a party was formed which favored the return of Israel to Palestine, and whose adherents came largely from the most humble classes--those upon whom fell the burden of the corvées in the construction work imposed by Rameses the Second. However, the ruling class was not insensitive to this party, finding the idea of the creation of a free, sovereign state attractive. But all this had to be an underground foment, the chatter of old men around the camp fires, daydreams that no one really believed could become reality.
The Jews were descendants of a warrior race, but during the ninety years in Egypt they had never fought a battle and had lost their fighting spirit. It is obvious that they possessed neither warrior mentality nor capability; they had no organization in the military sense of the word, no weapons, no war material of any sort, and above all, no knowledge or experience in military matters. The Egyptians would never have permitted anything of this sort.
Therefore, the Jews had not the slightest possible chance of escaping--the Egyptians were incomparably more powerful. So it was unthinkable that the Jews could leave without their consent, let alone clearing the way with armed force. And besides, to go where? Palestine was still firmly in the grip of Egypt, and an eclipse of the Empire during Moses' time was quite out of the question.
So the Promised Land was a hopeless dream...that is until the advent of Moses, History's most extraordinary man, who found the way to achieve it.