Exodus (pt. 13): Leaving the Ghetto with Gold

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The Israelites acted on Moses’ word and asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the Lord gave the people such favor in the Egyptians’ sight that they gave them what they requested. In this way they plundered the Egyptians.
— (Exodus 12:35–36).

YHWH’s war on the gods of Egypt was economically, ecologically, and socially disruptive. It brought the gears that kept the everyday processes of that society to a halt. God’s famous ten plagues destroyed their crops, blasphemed their gods, humiliated their leaders, and took lives.

Because of the devastation, the Egyptians expelled the Hebrews as quickly as possible — afraid that YHWH would keep on ravaging the land until there was nothing left to destroy (Exodus 12:33).

The Hebrew’s exit from Egypt is written in military terms: “…they plundered the Egyptians,” the text reads. They marched out of the ghetto with gold and silver under their arms: the spoils of YHWH’s war.

It would have been a sin, after all, to send the Hebrews out of Egypt with nothing. On that morning, God required that their masters abide by a biblical standard of justice, as recorded in the Torah:

When you let [a slave]go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed.You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him (Deuteronomy15:13–14, emphasis added).

The Exodus passage goes on to point out how long the Hebrews had toiled in Egypt: 430 years. Twice, almost back-to-back, the reader is reminded of those centuries of oppression, because all of that time mattered. It had not, all of a sudden, become water under the bridge because an emancipation proclamation had been issued. All of the wealth acquired by Egyptians, and losses endured by Hebrews, during those centuries were still salient at that moment the Hebrews were cast out of Egypt.

The Egyptians could not legitimately say, “It is enough that we let you ghetto children go! Leave our gold out of this!” In the Exodus story, the Hebrews contributed to the generational wealth of their masters. It was only right that they partake of some of the riches of the society they were forced to build. It was only right that the Egyptians in this story, that had taken so much from the Hebrews, also make provisions for the future the Israelites were walking into.

The Israelites we’re going out into the desert to worship, and those riches of Egypt would be used to build the sanctuary for them to do so.

Moreover, what good would it have done to leave slavery in Egypt only to walk into abject poverty in the desert?

This text shows some important lessons about justice: First, that consequences for wrongdoing — like the plagues — are only a part of the equation; (2) so is ending offending behaviors; (3) ultimately, justice is about making things right, to whatever degree possible.

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Further Exploration:

  1. On What Was Life Like After Slavery?
  2. On the relationship between slavery and generational poverty: Where Thrived, Inequality Rules Today
  3. What America Could Have Done Differently: Bryan Stevenson Talks About Reparations
  4. The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates