Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery

Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery

by Kenneth Chelst

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789655240856
Publisher: Urim Publications
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 446
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Kenneth Chelst is a professor of operations research in the department of industrial and manufacturing engineering, as well as the director of the engineering management masters program, at Wayne State University. He received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, and is the author of Kaddish: The Unanswered Cry. He lives in the Detroit area.

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Exodus and Emancipation

Biblical and African-American Slavery

By Kenneth Chelst

Urim Publications

Copyright © 2014 Kenneth Chelst
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-965-524-086-3



The events leading to Israelite slavery commenced long before the sale of Joseph. They began with God's prophecy to Abraham, which outlined a fearful future but gave no specific details. The prophecy was part of the events and the dream state that surrounded the covenant God made with Abraham, known as the Covenant amongst the broken pieces (Genesis 15). In this covenant God reaffirmed the agreement to give the Land of Canaan to Abraham's direct descendants, who would one day number as many as the stars of heaven. However, before this could happen, Abraham's descendants would spend their formative years as strangers and ultimately oppressed slaves in a foreign land. This forecast was so bleak and foreboding that God delivered the message to Abraham while he was in a deep sleep.

As the sun began to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him. And He said, "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth." (Genesis 15:12 — 14).

The end of this prophecy, "but I will execute judgment," gave hope to future Israelite generations who experienced the brutality of Egyptian servitude. Although African Americans had no similar prophecy, they possessed something that was almost as powerful: the story of the Israelites' exodus from bondage. African-American slaves knew that the God Who had heard the Israelites' cries throughout the long night of slavery heard theirs as well. They hoped, prayed, and expected that He would deliver them from bondage as He had delivered the ancient Israelites.


When, where, and how slavery would come to an end was as unknown to the African Americans as it was to the Israelites. God's prophecy to Abraham was enigmatic. Abraham's descendants would be strangers, later enslaved and oppressed, but the duration of the various stages was not foretold. Even the period of four hundred years mentioned in the prophecy was considered only an approximation, especially when no starting date had been specified. The dream gave no hint as to how soon and where this journey into slavery and oppression would take place. Although we as readers recognize that Joseph's sale into bondage began the process that led to the Israelites' descent into Egypt and later slavery and oppression, Joseph himself did not perceive it as such. Although he saw God's guiding hand in his life story, as when he told his brothers in Egypt, "God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance" (Genesis 45:7), he could not know what was to follow. Even Joseph the dreamer could not imagine that Egypt would become the place of enslavement and oppression foretold to Abraham, as evidenced by his recounting to his brothers of how God "has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt" (Genesis 45:8).

As the elderly Jacob approached the last habitation of Canaan, the city of Beer Sheba, on his way to see Joseph in Egypt, he had a vision in the middle of the night in which God told him: "I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation, and I Myself will also bring you back" (Genesis 46:3, 4). The Bible does not record Jacob's emotions at this time, but from God's response we can intuit a fear for the destiny of the Jewish people. Although he knew that Egypt would provide his family with much-needed sustenance in a time of famine, he was concerned that his descendants would grow comfortable there, forget their destiny, and not wish to return to the land promised to their forefathers. Thus God offered him a personal guarantee that Jacob's fears would not be fulfilled.

As he neared death, Jacob passed the message on to Joseph: "I am about to die; but God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers" (Genesis 48:22). Nothing in the vision or in Jacob's words explicitly referred to slavery and oppression, but the reader senses that Abraham's earlier prophecy is lurking behind these words. Joseph's dying exhortation to his brothers also carried no hint of the dreadful time of slavery that God had foretold to Abraham, but he reminded his brothers that the destiny of the Jewish people as a nation with a homeland would be played out not in Egypt but rather in Canaan. God would see to that. "God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob" (Genesis 50:22).

Joseph went so far as to demand that his brothers swear to carry his bones with them on their return to Canaan. This would ensure that his descendants, though born in Egypt to an Egyptian woman, would share in the destiny of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet his statements to his brothers, all of whom outlived him, seemed to apply to a time in the near future when they themselves might return to Canaan. There was no hint that more than two centuries would pass before the Israelites would journey back to their ancestral homeland.

The lack of specificity in the original prophecy to Abraham suggests that God had not, in fact, pre-ordained any of the ensuing details. There would be enslavement, but by whom, for how long, and with what degree of severity were as yet undetermined. Since the free will of human beings would establish the direction and timeline within the broad parameters that God had established,5 the instigators and perpetrators would be held accountable for their choice to impose an oppressive form of slavery: "I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve."

The initiating act of bondage surely engendered a range of responses from those who were captured. Joseph was almost certainly shocked by the sudden attack of his brethren that quickly transformed his privileged status into servitude. In contrast, an African captive sold into slavery might not have been too surprised by his fate. The slave trade was a common element of the local economy. However, the captive's sense of uncertainty as to his fate could only have grown if his journey into slavery stretched into weeks and months and passed far beyond familiar territory and recognizable tribal dialects. He must have been terrified at the sight of the Atlantic Ocean as he was herded into large holding complexes. His terror certainly would have peaked as he met Europeans for the first time, a bizarre-looking race whose complexion, facial expressions, and hair were so unlike his own. As he was handed over to them and placed in the stifling hold of ship, his first thought might have been that he was destined to be eaten. As a result, the stunned captives often attempted to jump overboard, seeking the certainty of suicide over the uncertainty of what lay ahead.

Later, on the American continent, the enslaved African and his African-American descendants could not have known, over hundreds of years, when or even if their slavery would end. Events along the way might have seemed misleading or full of false hope. The nineteenth century, for example, began with the passage of laws prohibiting the importation of slaves. The 1830s were even better: Great Britain eliminated slavery in its territories, patrolled the seas, and negotiated treaties in order to end the transatlantic trafficking in human beings. However, the 1850s saw a series of major political setbacks for the abolition movement in the United States. In January 1861, as the secessionist movement gained momentum among the southern states, no slave could have dreamed that five years later, constitutional amendments would be passed that would not only end slavery but also guarantee the rights of the newly freed.

Brother Selling Brother

The first Israelite steps toward national political enslavement began tragically with one brother's journey into slavery. Almost from the very moment that Joseph, the favored seventeen-year-old son of Jacob, is introduced in the biblical narrative, his dreadful descent into slavery is set into motion. His first reported activity involved helping the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah as they tended their flocks. However, immediately we read that Joseph reported some unspecified misbehavior of these brothers back to Jacob.8 Clearly this presaged a difficult relationship with his brothers. Then as the brothers saw Jacob's special love for Joseph, as symbolized by the gift of a special garment, "they hated him; and they were not able to speak to him peaceably." This failure to communicate compounded their misunderstanding of Joseph's every motive, most of all the symbolism of his dreams and their validity as prophecy rather than as reflections of his personal desire for power. To make matters worse, Joseph insisted that his brothers hear his dream: "And Joseph dreamt a dream and told his brothers and they hated him even more. He said to them, 'Please hear this dream that I dreamt. ... My sheaf arose and also stood, then behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf" (Genesis 37:5 — 7). The brothers quickly read a disturbing meaning into the dream: "'Would you then reign over us? Would you then dominate us?' and their hatred of him grew more" (37:9). His final dream seemed even more explicit and radical. Unlike the first dream of bowing sheaves of grain, in this second dream the focal point was Joseph himself. He saw "the sun, and the moon, and eleven stars bowing down to me" (37:9).

The Joseph story is often characterized as jealousy taken to extremes, complicated by an inability to communicate. However, classic Jewish commentaries found this simplistic analysis difficult to accept because each of the brother protagonists was to become the founder of a tribe within the Israelite nation. Their tribal leadership formed the basic structure of the first Commonwealth of Israel. Each tribe had its own area of the land to settle, its own stone on the jewel-studded breastplate of the high priest, and a distinct mission within the community of Israel, as envisioned by Jacob on his deathbed. This diversity was supposed to be an integral part of the Jewish people as it pursued its national and religious destiny.

Given the status accorded the brothers, many commentators have wondered how these powerful leaders who became such a critical element of Jewish nationhood could succumb to petty jealousy over a father's favoritism. How could their jealousy of Joseph's special coat drive them to the point of considering murder before deciding to sell Joseph into slavery in a far-off land? These commentators believe that the reason is much more than mere jealousy over favoritism shown toward a son who had dreams of grandeur.

The commentaries combine several midrashic traditions to present a deeper analysis of the motivations that drove ten of Joseph's brothers to debate extreme strategies. The brothers' core fear was that they would end up like Ishmael and Esau, cut off from the destiny promised to the patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob represent the pre-nation status of the Jewish people and religion. Each patriarch, who had a unique personal relationship with God, offered future generations a distinct role model. Each was given his own promise that the Land of Israel would pass to his descendants. However, both Abraham and Isaac faced the difficult choice of passing on their primary heritage to just one of their two sons. Isaac, not Ishmael, and Jacob, not Esau, were promised the land of Canaan and a unique relationship with God.

The birth of Jacob's twelve sons presaged a new era, the development of a nation. With Jacob, the chain of transmission blossomed such that all of his children would be part of the development of nation-state and religion. However, the brothers felt that Jacob's treatment of Joseph and the unique status accorded him undermined and possibly precluded this broader destiny.

Jacob's favoritism took the form of declaring Joseph a ben zekunim, a son of old age. This term is more than just a descriptive statement that Joseph was born to Jacob in his old age. This would be true of all of Jacob's children. Rather, the designated ben zekunim had the primary responsibility for staying with and caring for the elderly father and was almost always at his side. The midrashic tradition asserts that Jacob took special interest in educating Joseph and personally taught Joseph the traditions he had received from his father, Isaac, who in turn had received them from his father, Abraham. An extraordinary robe symbolized this special status; it was more than just a fashionable multicolored garment. In effect, Jacob had declared Joseph to be first among equals or, worse yet, the heir apparent.

The brothers saw in Joseph's dreams a growing threat to their vision of a shared destiny. It was clear to them that Joseph saw himself as more than first among equals; rather, Joseph dreamed that he would be in charge and all his brothers would be subordinate to him. Joseph's persistent recounting of his dreams seemed to indicate his desire to rule over them. The second, more grandiose dream conveyed an even more ominous message. It was as if Joseph, upon seeing the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him, had elevated himself to godlike status with not only his family but also the whole universe under his domain. It seemed that even before Jacob died, Joseph envisioned usurping the role of leader and guiding the family destiny. Yet unlike the earlier dreams of the patriarchs, Joseph's did not include a vision of God or an angel to validate the prophecy. Thus, the brothers judged him guilty and concluded that in order to save the shared destiny of the children of Israel, drastic action would be necessary.

The opportunity to act out upon this conviction arose while they were tending the family's flocks in Shechem, several days' journey from Jacob's home base in Beer Sheba. As the unsuspecting Joseph approached, they said to one another, "Here comes that dreamer" (Genesis 37:19). At the suggestion that he should be killed for his perceived misdeeds and in order to prevent his future usurpation of power, the thoughts of at least one unspecified brother may have been on revenge: "We shall see what comes of his dreams" (Genesis 37:20). They stripped Joseph of his special tunic, cast him into a waterless pit, and continued their discussions over a meal. Soon after, Joseph was sold for twenty pieces of silver to a passing caravan of Midianites and Ishmaelites and ultimately sold in Egypt to Potiphar, a courtier and chief steward of Pharaoh.

State of Mind

The Bible is silent in this chapter about Joseph's reaction to his brothers' attack. The Midrash views the low price paid for him as evidence that his confinement in the pit so depressed him that his appearance deteriorated rapidly. Much later, however, the Bible records the brothers' remorse for their action when their initial meeting with the unrecognized Joseph, the vizier of Egypt, turned hostile: "Alas, we are punished on account of our brother, because we looked upon his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us" (Genesis 42:21). Implied in their statement were three reasons that they should have reconsidered their plans and shown Joseph mercy. He was their brother; they saw his anguish; they heard his pleas. However, they were unmoved and simply continued to eat as the caravan of traders drew near.

Thomas Mann, in his three-part novel Joseph and His Brothers, goes beyond the biblical narrative to give voice to Joseph's unrecorded pleading:

"Brothers, where are you? Ah, go not away, leave me not alone in the pit. It is so earthy and so horrible. Brothers, have pity and save me still out of the night of this pit where I perish. I am your brother Joseph. Brothers, hide not your ears from my sighs and cryings, for you do falsely to me. Reuben, where art thou? Reuben, I cry thy name from below in the pit. ... Brothers," he cried, "do not that with the beast and the robe, treat not the father so, for he will not survive it. Ah, I beg you not for myself, for body and soul are broken in me and I lie in the grave. But spare our father and bring him not the bloody garment — it would kill him."


Excerpted from Exodus and Emancipation by Kenneth Chelst. Copyright © 2014 Kenneth Chelst. Excerpted by permission of Urim Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Journey and Acknowledgments,
Part I - JOURNEY INTO SLAVERY: Wagons and Ships,
Chapter 1: The Israelite Beginnings of Slavery,
Chapter 2: Beginnings of the Atlantic Slave Trade,
Chapter 3: Group Journey into Slavery,
Part II - SLAVE EXPERIENCE: Political Slavery vs. Personal Chattel,
Chapter 4: Evolution and Institutionalization of Slavery,
Chapter 5: Breaking the Human Spirit,
Chapter 6: The Burdens of Slavery,
Chapter 7: Cultural Identity,
Chapter 8: Population Growth and Fears,
Chapter 9: Controlling the Population,
Chapter 10: Rebellion,
Chapter 11: Righteous Among the Nations,
Chapter 12: Religion of the slave,
Chapter 13: Hope,
Chapter 14: Children's Voices,
Chapter 15: Leadership,
Part III - FREEDOM'S ROAD: Exodus and Emancipation,
Chapter 16: Social and Psychological Needs of the Oppressed,
Chapter 17: Hasty Departures,
Chapter 18: Knowing and Perceiving God: Seeing is Believing,
Chapter 19: Breaking the Will of the Oppressors,
Chapter 20: The Celebration of Freedom,
Chapter 21: Remembering,
Chapter 22: Freedom's Troubled Journey through Stages,
Chapter 23: Freedom's Transformation and Consequences,
Epilogue: The Struggle Continues,
Hebrew Bible Commentators and Hebrew Words,
Index to Biblical Verses,
About the Author,

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