Travel back in time for a remarkable look at slavery in ancient Egypt. And then discover to whom you are in bondage now!
What was it like to be a slave in ancient Egypt? Life is no different today, with no slavery, you think. But what you may not realize is that the whole world is in slavery today, but of an entirely different sort!
Come with me for a moment to the ancient land of the Pharaohs. What was it like to be a slave in ancient Egypt? As we approach the Passover season, this question is not only a deep spiritual significance, but timely with Egypt and the Middle East so much in the news.
The daily life of ancient Egypt is profusely illustrated on colorful tomb paintings, inscriptions on monuments and papyrus records. These sources from the past give us a remarkable insight into the day-to-day life of Egyptians at all levels of society.
The social organization of the ancient Egyptians can be likened in structure to a pyramid, the very symbol of Egypt itself. At the top of the pyramid sat pharaoh and the royal family. Immediately below pharaoh stood nobility, Included in this category were top administrative officials, priests, senior scribes, lawyers, doctors and generals.
Next came the craftsmen and artisans. They were responsible for building and decorating the country’s temples and palaces and tombs.
Then came the lower classes, including the unskilled labourers and peasants. Peasants worked in the fields, reaping and sowing and tending flocks and herds. At the base of the Egyptian social pyramid were the slaves.
In most civilizations of the ancient Near East, slaves were usually acquired from foreign lands as fruits of military victory. In the aftermath of war, it was simply more profitable to keep enemy captives in servitude than to kill them.
In the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and at sites throughout Egypt, you will find ancient paintings and stone carvings picturing these wretched masses impressed into slavery by the Egyptians. Among them were Libyans, Hittites, Philistines, Syrians, and many other defeated foreign peoples.
With Egypt’s dramatic territorial expansion in the New Kingdom period (16th century B.C. onward), foreign captives began flowing into Egypt in greater numbers than ever before in Egypt’s history.
The conquering Pharaoh Thutmose III of Dynasty 18 is a good illustration. Thutmose ruled during the first half of the 15th century B.C.
Carved on the walls of the great Temple of Amon are detailed annals of his Asiatic military campaigns. Among the records is an account in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, of his capturing the Canaanite city of Megiddo. One sentence reads: “List of what was carried off afterward by the king, 1,796 male and female slaves, as well as their children.”
Every year Thutmose III’s war galleys, returning from annual military campaigns such as the one to Megiddo, brought captive Asiatics back to Egypt. Picture the scene: Bound one to another in long lines, the captives descended the gangplank to begin a new life of slave labor in a strange land. Egyptologist J.H. Breasted describes the spectacle:
“Their arms were pinioned behind them at the elbows or crossed over their heads and lashed together, or again, their hands were thrust through old pointed ovals of wood, which served as handcuffs. The women carried their children slung in a fold of the mantle over their shoulders. With their strange speech, and uncouth postures, the poor wretches were the subject of jibe and merriment of the part of the multitude” (A History of Egypt 1905).
On the walls of Madinet Habu temple in ancient Thebes, were descriptions of the fate of war captives. In it Ramses III of Dynasty 20 described the fate of his enemies.
Men who were not overthrown in their blood and made into heaps, Ramses boasted, were captured and then branded and made into slaves stamped with my name, their women and children treated likewise.
Stop and think for a moment and imagine yourself in their shoes, bound, branded, mocked by the crowds, facing a hopeless future. That was the fate of the vast majority of slaves anywhere in ancient times.
In theory, all captives of pharaoh were his property. But in practice, captured slaves were distributed widely through-out the land and their types of service varied greatly. The one common denominator: Their lives were no longer their own.
What would your fate have been had you been a slave in ancient Egypt? Some slaves were given to the priests for forced service in the pagan temples. Others slaves were impressed into the Egyptian army or into naval service as oarsmen. Still others, usually large numbers, were assigned as laborers to royal building projects and various public work projects.
The more fortunate slaves served as domestics in noble households. Female slaves often became serving girls and nannies to the children of the upper classes.
But in the main, slavery for the majority was an unchanging round of arduous labor. And at the worst, slavery could be literally intolerable.
Scenes of slave beatings can be seen in many tomb paintings. Often, and brutal treatment, was the result of foremen usually recruited from among the enslaved peoples themselves, driving slaves to the limit to avoid the wrath of the Egyptian task masters over them.
The ancient Greeks recorded that some of the worst conditions for slaves in Egypt were found in the state quarrying and mining operations such as the gold and copper mines of Nubia, the Sudan and the Sinai. According to the Greeks, men in these mines daily dropped dead by the scores in the torrid heat, under the merciless lashes of foremen and overseers.
Female slaves were not exempt from cruel treatment. They were often prostituted against their will, or made to become concubines of their Egyptian masters.
In all of Egyptian history, possibly no enslavement was as severe as that of the Israelites. Originally 75 in number, the children of Israel came voluntarily into Egypt in the 18th century B.C., during the famine in the days when Joseph was second in command over Egypt (Gen. 41:47). They were freemen and inhabited fertile Goshen in Lower (northern) Egypt (Gen. 45:10).
But later a new pharaoh arose in Egypt, who “knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8). A change in dynasty transformed the free Israelites into a race of slaves, a subject people.
The Egyptians “set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens” (v. 11). We are told that the Israelites were put to work building the pharaoh’s treasure cities, Pithom and Ramses, located in the eastern Nile Delta.
The oppression of the Israelites grew increasingly bitter following Moses’ first face to face confrontation with Pharaoh. Still another burden was placed upon the Israelites. Pharaoh commanded the same day “the taskmaster of the people, and their officers, saying, you shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves” Ex. 5:6-7.
Ancient inscriptions show that mud brick was the almost universal building material in Egypt. Bricks were in constant demand by contractors.
Paintings also shows foremen carrying sticks, watching closely over the workers. A hieroglyphic inscription accompanying the painting has one of the Egyptian overseers sternly warning his slave, “The rod is in my had, be not idle!”
Ten plagues were ultimately required to gain the Israelites release from bondage. At the time of the Exodus, Israel numbered more than 600,000 men 20 years of age and above, plus women and children. The total probably approached three million. It is not surprising that Pharaoh was reluctant to part with such a massive supply of cheap slave labor.
But Pharaoh lost in the end. After the Egyptian firstborn were slain on the night of the Passover, he had little choice but to relent. One of the most bitter chapters in the history of man’s oppression of his fellowman came to a triumphal end.
All would agree that the slavery of ancient Israel was bitter. But though most people don’t realize it, the entire world today is in slavery.
This slavery is in two types. The majority in the world today is in slavery to sin. This slavery is more insidious and more oppressive than any physical bondage of ages ago.
Jesus declared that “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34). This word, translated servant in the King James Version, is the Greek word doulos meaning slave.
The apostle Peter calls the ungodly “the servants (slaves) of corruption for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage” II Peter 2:19.
But we (Christians) are still slaves. We have changed masters. No longer slaves to sin, we have become slaves to God! As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 6:18 “Being then made free from sin, ye become the servants (slaves) of righteousness.”
We have been bought with a price (I Corth. 7:23). That purchase price was the shed blood of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we must now serve Him, yielding ourselves completely to the way He has set before us.
Our lives are no longer our own! The yoke of slavery to sin is heavy. Those encumbered by it toil in a desolate wilderness. But slavery to Jesus Christ is a beneficent form of bondage. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” Christ said in (Matt. 11:30).
Keep that firmly in mind during the Passover season. Let’s not make the mistake made by the ancient Israelites, whose outwardly hard life of wandering in the Sinai desert made them forget that God delivered them from forced labor in Egypt (Ex. 16:3; Num. 11).
We must strive to maintain the right perspective and not allow ourselves to drift back into that from which we were once delivered. “Stand fast therefore in the liberty where-with Christ has made us free” (Gal. 5:1).