Biblical Archeology

"You Shall Not Go Empty." An understanding of ancient customs sheds light on a puzzling text.

Leonard McMillan is youth director of the Washington Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.


"And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of her who sojourns in her house, jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; thus you shall despoil the Egyptians" (Ext. 3:21, 22).

Was it ethical for the slave nation of Israel to ask their Egyptian masters for gold and other valuables, knowing they would never return them? Were they simply using the unique situation to take advantage of their now-frightened oppressors? Certain accepted customs of the ancient world regarding the treatment of slaves help us to understand better this somewhat puzzling suggestion of God to Israel.

For example, in antiquity the release of slaves at specified intervals was a widespread practice considered especially pleasing to the gods. 1 Also the custom of a relative (go'el) acting in be half of a slave to redeem the individual from slavery was an established practice and well understood long before the Exodus. 2 The imagery Moses used of God requesting Pharaoh to release His first born son, Israel, attempted to remind the monarch of this time-honored custom (see Ex. 4:22, 23). But how shall we understand the Israelites asking silver and gold of the Egyptians?

We should consider another normal usage concerning the release of slaves before condemning the Hebrews as dis honest. Although we may think it some what strange for God to counsel His people not to go empty from Egypt, actually such a statement reflected the thinking of the time. We find the same expression la the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1690 B.c.),3 as well as in other references of Scripture besides Exodus 3:21, 22. Deuteronomy 15:13 later counseled the Hebrews concerning the release of their own slaves, "You shall not let him go empty-handed." Such formulations did not necessarily indicate a natural impulse on the part of the master to do good; more likely it reflected the fear of what might happen if the slave was sent away empty-handed. The ancient world considered a slave who departed "empty" as badly disposed and thus an omen of evil.4 God's command recognized this attitude. "As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him [the slave]" (Deut. 15:14). In other words, one who freed his slave willingly and generously at the end of his servitude would place himself in such a position that God could in turn bless him. The implications of disobedience are also clear.

Pharaoh showed his familiarity with these accepted customs when during his final confrontation with Moses he pro claimed, "Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and be gone; and bless me also" (Ex. 12:32). According to the prevailing ideas of the day he could expect Moses to bless him since he had finally fulfilled (although reluctantly) the practice of giving gifts to departing slaves. Thus we see in Exodus Pharaoh's dilemma as he is torn between the wish to maintain his wealth and the desire to prevent the curses that would fall on him if he sent the Israelites away empty.

By the social standards of the time, the Israelites Were entitled to ask their masters for silver and gold, flocks and herds. In addition, God used these well-known requirements to teach His people a valuable lesson regarding their relationship to Him. He would have them recognize that He had acted as the go 'el, kinsman, to redeem what was His. He would have them understand, also, that He had claimed them from the Egyptians as His bride (a metaphor used through out Scripture). It was customary for a slave-wife to be granted a dowry from her master. 5 Interestingly enough, it was the Israelite women who asked their mistresses for silver and gold, in accordance with current marriage practices (see Ex. 3:22).

The Jewish rabbis later saw the experience of Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) and Laban as illustrative of the national experience in Egypt. In fact, traditional rabbinic interpretation viewed Laban as an earlier Pharaoh, incorporating into the Passover-eve recital the claim that Laban anticipated Pharaoh's attempt to kill the infant sons of Israel. 6 In effect, what happened to the individual Jacob (or Israel) fore shadowed what would happen to the nation. Both resided as welcome guests in a foreign land until "enslaved" by an arbitrary decision of their host (cf. Gen. 29 and Ex. 1:9). Both increased in wealth despite harsh treatment; both were re leased from bondage. Neither Jacob nor the Israelites went away empty-handed, although God's special intervention was necessary in both cases to ensure the liberality of their captors upon their re lease (cf. Gen. 31:3, 42, and Exodus 3:19, 20). Both Laban and Pharaoh at tempted to recapture the slaves after their release, with the result that they and their gods were soundly defeated (cf. Gen 31:31-33 and Ex. 15:19-21). Thus in archeological witness and in God's Word we note the antiquity of the "release motif."

The Israelites were neither deceptive nor dishonest in their dealings with the Egyptians. They were simply receiving the gifts normally given to departing slaves. When the Egyptians chose to ignore the social requirements of the day, the Israelites were well within their rights to make a request as a reminder to their former masters.


1 AO 2673, p. 27. Compare James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, second ed. (Princeton: University Press, 1955), p. 159.

2 "The Code of Hammurabi," par. 32. Pritchard, op. cit., p. 167. See the comments by David Daube, The Exodus Pattern in the Bible, All Souls Studies II (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), p. 39.

3 Pritchard, op. cit., p. 175 (Hammurabi's Code, par. 191). See also the discussion by Daube, op. cit., pp. 55-61, 86-88.

4 Ibid., p. 58.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., pp. 71, 72.

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Leonard McMillan is youth director of the Washington Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

December 1978

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