“We Were Slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”: Literary-Theological Notes on Slavery and Empathy

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Abstract: Michael Walzer suggests that the Jewish people are unusual in that the memory of slavery in Egypt is not suppressed but motivates biblical laws mandating empathy for the unfortunate. A more complicated picture emerges from a close reading of the Torah. Prior to Leviticus 26, the fact that the Israelites had the status of slaves in Egypt is not explicitly mentioned; instead, there are general statements about slavery and references to labors imposed upon them. Until Leviticus 25 slavery plays no role in the Torah’s legislation. In Exodus, some laws are motivated by the “sojourn” in Egypt, not slavery. I propose several overlapping reasons for these literary phenomena, most prominently an initial desire to deflect the indignity of slavery that is accommodated by the divine legislator. Only with the passage of time and development of an ethic of bondage to God does Deuteronomy use the experience of slavery to motivate empathy.

Biography: Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Yeshiva University where he is Chair of Bible and Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva College. He is also Editor of Tradition, a journal of Orthodox Jewish thought.

Volume 4, Number 4 (Fall 2009) pp. 367–380