Why Did the Children of Israel have to Suffer as Slaves in Egypt?
This week we begin the book of Shmot (Exodus) It begins with the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and their ultimate redemption through the 10 plagues and the Exodus from Egypt under Moshe’s leadership.
Since God had promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the Land (Genesis 12:7 and 15:7), why did they have to leave Canaan, descend into Egyptian slavery, only to come out again to return to the Land?
The answer lies in a curious interaction between Avraham and God at the Brit Ben HaBetarim (The Covenant of the Parts).
After promising Avraham that his descendants will be countless like the stars in the sky, God says to Avraham, “I am God who took you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land as an inheritance.” (Gen 15:7)
Avraham responds, “My Lord God, how do I know that I will inherit it?”
On the surface this response seems astonishing! Avraham’s hallmark is his dedication to bringing the idea of monotheism to the world and teaching people there is no other power in the world other than God. How can he doubt God’s promise?
Abraham understood that he was being given the Land of Israel in order to build a monotheistic nation that would teach the world about God and having a relationship with Him. Abraham also knew, that he had dedicated his life to this cause, and as a result he personally merited to inherit the Land.
But what about Abraham’s yet to be born descendants? What if they abandoned their mission? They would certainly not merit the Land and could not inherit it (that’s exactly what happened with Esav when he sold his birthright!). How could Avraham guarantee that his descendants for all time would merit the Land, even if they temporarily abandoned their mission?
God understood Avraham’s concern. Avraham wanted a guarantee that God would keep His own side of the agreement, even if for whatever reason Avraham’s descendants didn’t keep their side. In legal terms that is called a Covenant (Brit). Each side must keep their end of the bargain, even if the other side is in breach.
God explained what Avraham’s descendant’s would have to go through in order to merit a “Covenant over the Land,” and explains..
“Know for a certainty that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, [And that foreign nation] will enslave them and afflict them for 400 years. And I will judge the nation that enslaved them, and afterwords [your descendants] will come out with great wealth” (Genesis15:13-14)
This was not a “price to pay” for the covenant. By becoming slaves to the most powerful nation and ruler of the world, and then to be rescued through open miracles by the “Hand of God,” the idea that there is no power in the world that exists independent of God would be imprinted on the souls and collective conscience of the Jewish people.
After the Egyptian exile, whether it was the power of the Babylonian, Persian, Greek or Roman empires who tried to destroy or assimilate us. Or the Crusades who tried to convert us. Or the European pogroms and the Nazi plan for extermination. Or today’s Arab/Muslim terror…. the Jewish people have never lost their faith that God will keep His promise and return his Children to the Land of their Inheritance.