The Brink of Slavery

A painting of daily life for enslaved people in Egypt in the early days of the New Kingdom era, around the time when the Exodus may have occurred. The painting is from an elaborately decorated tomb in Thebes of the vizier Rekhmire. Image credit: Tomb-Chapel of Rekhmire by KairoInfo4U on Flickr.

Being a teen is rough these days. But it was undoubtedly rougher for Israelites about to become slaves to Pharaoh. For one thing, you probably had to get out of bed at around 4 a.m. for most of the year. And your bed wasn’t much more than your cloak laid out on the roof of your house.

What else do we know about how most people lived in the Nile Delta? Quite a lot, actually, even if the everyday routine of ancient Egyptian life hasn’t gotten the royal treatment.

The spectacular archaeological finds from the tombs of the upper classes, especially pharaohs and their families, have shaped our collective imagination regarding the ancient world. But even as King Tut’s treasures were being unearthed in the early 20th century, the village of skilled workers who created all those gold-plated and bejeweled furnishings was also excavated. We know that none of the metalsmiths, carpenters and painters living in Pa-Demi (today’s Deir el-Medina) were Israelites, since Semites had distinctive names not mentioned in the detailed documents kept by local scribes. But we can still get a sense of what it might have been like to be a laborer in ancient Egypt by looking at those records, many of which were written on cheap but lasting material like potsherds. (Papyrus, like wood, was more expensive in ancient Egypt.)

An inscribed potsherd, or ostracon. The “hieratic” script was used for everyday communications, while hieroglyphics were still being painted and sculpted in tombs and temples. This ostracon is from Thebes during the late Ramesside period and was excavated more than a century ago. Image credit: Ostracon with hieratic inscription via Picryl.

Teenagers getting up in the morning – or, probably, being awakened by an older member of the family, just like today – might have breakfasted on yesterday’s bread and leftover grain mash stew from last night’s dinner. The mush would have had the consistency of cold oatmeal flavored with a little bit of fish, duck or goat meat. There wouldn’t have been enough time to heat up the pot again by making a fire using dried sheep or donkey dung for fuel – not to mention getting out the bow drill and straw to light it in the first place, as in this video. Everyone in the family over the age of 13 would need to be on the job soon after sunup.

Most scholars believe that the pharaohs generally did not use enslaved people to build their famous monuments, like the Pyramids of Giza and the Karnak Temple Complex at Luxor. Instead there was a national draft in place that kept a kind of mandatory Army Corps of Engineers at the ready. Today this is called “corvée” labor, and it forced Egyptians to work on the nation’s immense shrines and tombs for a limited period of time in exchange for rations. At least one pharaoh, the rebellious Akhenaten who is sometimes credited with originating the idea of monotheism, conscripted hundreds if not thousands of adolescents to build his capital city – and worked them literally to death. But most other royal construction sites were erected using the corvée.

In my novel Goshen, I envisioned Israelite “slavery” not as the horrific treatment of children as young as nine by Akhenaten, but more as a kind of permanent corvée. Israelite laborers were paid, but not as much as Egyptians; they did the dirtiest jobs, like brickmaking and mucking out horse stalls, that Egyptians wouldn’t have wanted to do; and their general welfare depended on the caprice of their overseers. My twin protagonists, Tal and Aram, are about to turn 13 when the trilogy opens – the age of induction into working life – and are taking one of their last midday swims in the Nile when it turns the color of blood. One after another, the plagues sweep through Egypt as the deadline to register the twins’ names in the slave lists nears . . . and, luckily for them, arrives when the Egyptians have a lot more on their minds than assigning a couple of teenagers to work groups.

Children playing and bathing in the Nile. Image credit: Husseingallery, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the scholarly debates over Israelite enslavement as recorded in Exodus 1:11, but the fact is that Biblical descriptions of brickmaking in ancient Egypt harmonize well with what is known about the Egyptians’ actual techniques. This bolsters the idea that there is a historical kernel of truth in the Exodus narrative. So we can imagine that after a long day of boring, back-breaking work, Israelite teens would have walked back home – likely at least an hour away. (The skilled artisans of Pa-Demi, who decorated the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, lived more than a mile from their workshops; simple brickmakers would have been pushed further out.)

The Israelite working stiffs would have enjoyed a refreshing beer when they got off work, since, according to Joshua Mark of WorldHistory.Org, “men, women, and children all drank beer as it was considered a source of nutrition . . . [as well as] compensation for labor . . . Workers at the Giza plateau, for example, were given beer rations three times a day as payment” (you can read about “Beer in Ancient Egypt” here). Then, after a dinner that had been all day in the preparation, the family would have sat together on the roof and chatted before wrapping themselves in their cloaks as the night air grew chillier.

Multigenerational housing was the norm, so children under the age of 13 probably helped their grandparents around the house as soon as they were able. There was plenty to do; even in ancient metropolitan areas, families had to provide for themselves by gardening, animal husbandry and baking. Poor people couldn’t buy much in the way of finished products, so there was undoubtedly a thriving barter economy: I’ll give you a sack of dates from the tree in my garden for that old stool if you’re not using it anymore. I imagine that girls had a lot more chores to do around the house than boys, just because sexism has been a way of life for thousands of years.

A model of a typical working family’s house in the Middle Kingdom, circa 1750-1700 BCE. Image credit: Model of a House, Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

My female protagonist Tal feels this unfairness keenly. Worst of all, to her, is that her schooling will come to an end once she enters the slave lists. Literacy, while not as widespread as it is today, was likely fairly high among Bronze Age Israelites – at least to the point of being able to read and write letters from family members. Given the number and antiquity of educational traditions among the Jews – in the Book of Exodus, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law advises him to “teach” his people (Ex. 18:20) – it seems reasonable to guess that many children were instructed in the oral history of their tribe as well as the consonantal alphabet. Although Tal, as a girl, cannot continue her education once she reaches the age of womanhood, her twin brother Aram continues as a scribe-in-training – a multi-year process for which archaeologists have found ample evidence.

So although being an Israelite teen in ancient Egypt was hard, one aspect of modern adolescence that looms gigantic for today’s GenZers was thankfully missing: the emotional pressure to do well academically. Although apprentice scribes from the dawn of literacy have been brow-beaten by their elders for sloppy handwriting or wrong answers in math, it’s unlikely that future brickmakers and their teachers would have cared as much about such pursuits. Certainly, parental goading to attend the ancient world’s equivalent of Harvard would have been mostly absent.

And yet it is in large part the tradition of education that has sustained the existence of the Jewish people over the millennia. While there is little archaeological evidence of schools operating in ancient Israel, the Bible itself “testifies to a robust scribal culture that must have existed to create these textual artifacts,” according to UCLA’s William Schniedewind, writing for Oxford Bibliographies Online. Although “there is no word for school in ancient Hebrew,” there was probably “an apprenticeship system located in the family,” Schniedewind believes. By the time the Hebrew Bible as we know it was compiled, probably around the eighth century BCE, untold generations had learned to chant the stories of their people.

It’s a tradition I’m proud to carry on for the sake of teens everywhere, Jewish and otherwise.

The Anti-Defamation League of New England’s annual Passover seder, Judaism’s spring feast commemorating the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. All seders fulfill a commandment to educate even the smallest Jewish children about the community’s history. Image credit: Jewish Boston magazine, courtesy ADL New England.

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