The Development of the Egyptian Subjugation

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Translated by Kaeren Fish

The beginning of our parasha describes the subjugation and oppression of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt. Ramban (Shemot 1:10) seems to be troubled by the question of how a nation can degenerate to the point where its people are capable of casting the infants of a non-native population in its land into the Nile:

“Pharaoh and his wise counselors did not wish to strike with the sword, for it would be a profound betrayal to exterminate without justification a nation which had come to the land by the command of the previous king. Furthermore, the common people would not permit the king to commit such violence (since he consulted them), even though the Israelites were a great and mighty nation who might wage a great war against them. Rather, he proposed that they proceed with cunning, so that the Israelites would not feel that they were being treated with enmity.  Therefore he placed work levies upon them, for foreigners in a land usually pay a levy to the king, as in the case of Sheva, to King Shlomo. [Only] afterwards did he command the midwives in secret to kill the males upon the birthstones, such that even the mothers would not realize what was happening. Finally, he commanded his people, ‘You shall cast every male born into the Nile’ — you yourselves. The point is that that he did not wish to command the executioners to kill them with the king’s sword or to throw them into the Nile; rather, he told his people that when anyone found a Jewish boy, he should cast him into the Nile. If the boy’s father would then complain to the king or to the officers of the city, they would demand witnesses in order to be able to avenge him. But with this royal permit, the Egyptians would search the houses, entering by night in disguise and removing the boys from there. This is why the verse says, ‘And she could no longer hide him’ (Shemot 2:3).”

Although there is no explicit support for this interpretation in the text, Ramban explains Pharaoh’s decrees as a gradual process of dehumanization, culminating in the Egyptians’ acceptance of this moral perversion. His assumption is that if Pharaoh had commanded at the outset that the children of Bnei Yisrael be put to death, “the common people would not permit the king to commit such violence.” In our generation, after the annihilation of European Jewry seventy years ago, this assumption is perhaps less self-evident to us.

The gradual process of subjugation, according to Ramban, is what Pharaoh had in mind when he suggested, “Let us deal wisely with them.” Let us take a closer look at this process.


As a first stage, Bnei Yisrael are recruited to carry out royal work projects, a sort of “national service.” They are commanded to build royal treasure cities:

“And they placed taskmasters (or, literally, officers of the levies - sarei misim) over them to afflict them with their burdens; and they built for Pharaoh treasure cities – Pitom and Ra’amses.” (Shemot 1:11)

This measure might be regarded as justified, since as foreign residents Bnei Yisrael would not serve in the army and should therefore contribute to the kingdom in some other way.

However, already in this preliminary step (perhaps during its later stages) the “national service” turned into affliction and suffering, apparently reflecting the manner in which the citizenry of the host country (the Egyptians) were inclined and/or encouraged to treat the foreigners recruited for these works.

The next stage added agricultural work as well:

“And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of bondage in the field; all their bondage wherein they made them serve, was with rigor.” (Shemot 1:14)

By now Bnei Yisrael were no longer working in their own separate groups, and could no longer help each other. Their labor was no longer a matter of national service; instead, they were servants to private Egyptians – most likely the wealthy elite. The regime encouraged the Egyptians to embitter the lives of their servants, to give them especially difficult jobs, and to allow only minimal living conditions. Many of the Egyptians adopted these guidelines.

There is some similarity between this process and the measures taken by King Shlomo. Shlomo enlisted tens of thousands of “national service” laborers for the supreme goal of building the Temple:

“And King Shlomo raised a levy out of all of Israel, and the levy was thirty thousand men. And he sent them to Lebanon, ten thousand a month by turns – a month they were in Lebanon and two months at home; and Adoniram was over the levy.” (I Melakhim 5:27-28)

The levy, as in our parasha (“officers of the levies”), was not a monetary tax but rather a levy of laborers to serve as a workforce in the service of the nation. These workers were sent to Lebanon to bring wood for the construction.

However, once the workers were already in his service, Shlomo permitted himself to extend their service to other purposes, too. Immediately after the completion of the Temple, we find that the next project was construction of Shlomo’s own palace, followed by a home for Pharaoh’s daughter, the wall of Jerusalem, and “whatever he desired to do”:

“And in the eleventh year, in the month Bul (which is the eighth month) the house was finished in all its parts and according to all its details; and its building took seven years.” (I Melakhim 6:38)

“And Shlomo spent thirteen years in building his own house, and he finished all his house. And he built also the house of the forest of Lebanon…” (I Melakhim 7:1-2)

“… And Shlomo also made a house for Pharaoh’s daughter, whom he had taken to wife, like this porch.” (I Melakhim 7:8)

“And it was, when Shlomo had finished building the House of the Lord, and the king’s house, and all Shlomo’s desire which he sought to do…” (I Melakhim 9:1).

All of these grand and impressive structures were built by the workforce raised through Shlomo’s levy on all of Israel:

“And this is the manner of the levy which King Shlomo raised to build the House of the Lord, and his own house, and the Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, and Chatzor, and Megiddo, and Gezer.” (I Melakhim 9:15)

Some of these projects – such as the wall of Jerusalem – filled a vital national interest. Others, however, represented the exploitation of the workforce at Shlomo’s disposal to carry out “all his desire which he sought to do.” The resulting revolt eventually led to the splitting of the kingdom.

In a similar manner, then, Pharaoh began with “national projects” and then turned the workforce into personal servants for the Egyptians. This situation was made much worse by a gradual imposition of forced labor with affliction and suffering.

To this description we might add another image that arises from the subjugation of Bnei Yisrael:

“…and he saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, one of his brethren.” (Shemot 2:11)

The incident is described as a one-time event which Moshe saw and to which he responded. However, it is reasonable to assume that beatings were a regular feature in the lives of Bnei Yisrael.


Next came Pharaoh’s secret command to the midwives that they kill all boys born to Bnei Yisrael – a command with which they secretly refused to comply. The stage when Pharaoh is able to direct this command to his entire people is when an Israelite comes to be perceived in Egyptian society as an “other,” concerning whom the laws of moral behavior do not apply. The Egyptian perceives himself as a responsible and good citizen, protecting himself and the future of his children. The “other” is demonized as a harmful, dangerous threat, an enemy – even if he is a newborn infant. And thus Egyptian society loses its conscience, feeling no remorse at the sight of young children flailing in the water at they breathe their last.

This peculiar state, in which the Egyptians simply became cruel murderers of children, may also be explained differently – in “religious” terms. Pharaoh might have used his religious status as the son of the Egyptian god, or as a god himself:

“… Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile that crouches in the midst of his streams, who said, ‘My river is my own, and I have made it for myself.’” (Yechezkel 29:3)

This prophecy compares Pharaoh the god to a crocodile – the Egyptian god of evil. (The god of goodness and fertility was the sun-god.) Pharaoh might have approached his people in the name of the crocodile, the god of evil, and demanded in his name the children of Bnei Yisrael for his consumption, as a sort of sacrifice. For religious purposes many different nations – the Egyptians and Canaanites among them – were psychologically able and willing to kill young children as sacrifices:

“… for every abomination to the Lord, which He hates, they have done to their gods, for even their sons and daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.” (Devarim 12:31)

In this view, the children cast into the Nile were thrown specifically into the mouths of crocodiles in the places where they congregated. They were thrown to the crocodiles in impressive ceremonies, with the prayers of the Egyptian priests drowning their cries. The meaning of this becomes clear when we study the plagues, but that is a subject for a future talk.