Richard Gabriel Says Ancient Israelites Were Not Slaves

By: Mormon Heretic
April 18, 2011

With Passover beginning on April 19, I thought it might be nice to look at a new theory of the Exodus.  Bible Battles is a film by The History Channel that analyzes military strategy for many battles in the Bible.  They make the surprising claim that the Israelites in Egypt were not slaves, but were a military unit.

Richard A Gabriel, PhD and author of Military History of Ancient Israel said,

“If you read the Bible text in Hebrew, it uses the word “avadeem”.  Avadeem is not the word for slave, it is the word for “worker” or even servant.  The fact of the matter is that the Israelites in Egypt were not slaves.”

Narrator, The notion that the Israelites might not have been slaves in Egypt contradicts fundamental Judeo-Christian beliefs.  But by examining the Exodus from a military perspective, new light may be shed on this historic journey.

Aaron Shugar, PhD, Archaeomettalurgy, Lehigh University, “This is a tricky subject because outside the Bible there is no definitive corroborating text that can either support or refute the fact that the Israelites were slaves.  But if we ask the simple question, could a nation of mere slaves, be able to go up against the mighty Egyptian army and survive?  Logically, it doesn’t seem like they could.”

Mark Schwartz, Professor of Anthropology, Grand Valley State University, “Now what if they weren’t slaves?  What if they actually were a group with military experience.  Remember Abraham and some of his military exploits.  Now a group of people leaving Egypt with a military arm puts a completely different spin on the story.”

some scholars believe they are also in this area fighting as mercenary soldiers in the Egyptian army.  Their job would be to serve as a first line of defense against invaders from the north.

Schwartz, “These ‘habiru’ were mercenaries, they were soldiers of fortune.  They would fight for who ever it was in their best interest at that time to fight for.  It seems like they had a good thing going in Egypt for a few hundred years.”

Narrator, “But eventually, a new pharaoh rises to power.  Some scholars believe he is Seti I, and he does not seem to care much for the Israelites.”

Exodus 1:9-10, “And he said to his people, ‘Look the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase.  Otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’

Gabriel, “The sheer location of where the habiru are in the land of Goshen, sitting astride the key route of invasion or defense of Egypt, probably convinced Seti himself, a professional warrior that something had to be done either to remove them, or weaken their influence, or at least remove them from their geographical area.  Thus it is that Seti becomes, most historians think, the pharaoh in the Bible who first sets the Israelites to physical labor.”

Gabriel, “There was no slavery in Egypt right from the beginning until the end of the empire.  Well, if in fact they were not slaves set to labor, what were they?  The answer is corvee labor.  That is the term used to describe, essentially conscripted civilian workers to work on public works projects.  These people were not slaves, they were paid and they were well treated, and we know that from the military medical texts which stations military doctors with the workmen in order to make sure they are well-treated and well fed.”

Narrator, “Whether slaves or not, the demotion from soldier to common physical worker probably signaled to the Israelites that it was time to leave Egypt.”

Gabriel, “They had lost their status as noble allies.  They were now being treated like common workers.  It was time to go!”

Another video seems to corroborate this view.  Jim Hoffmeier discussed a mistranslation of the word “elith.”  (The following quote comes from Science of the Exodus, by National Geographic.)

The Bible says that 600,000 men left Egypt.  …

However, archaeologist Jim Hoffmeier of the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School says the number is probably far fewer, due to a mistranslation dating thousands of years.  The original Hebrew says there were 600 elith.

Hoffmeier, “The word elith can be translated 3 different ways:  it can be translated thousand.  Elith can also be translated to the clan.  The third option is that it’s a military unit, which I think is a more plausible scenario.”

According to Hoffmeier’s interpretation, instead of 600,000 men and their families, there were as few as 5000.

If you’re interested in learning more about this video, click here.  What do you think of this theory that Israelites were not slaves?

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28 Responses to Richard Gabriel Says Ancient Israelites Were Not Slaves

  1. Justin on April 18, 2011 at 7:17 AM

    I’ve long thought that the “slavery” of the Israelites was statism — being bound under the yoke of a pharaoh.

    The Lord then liberates the people to as the tribes of Israel [as opposed to an earthly state] patterning themselves according to His tribal law [given at Mt. Sinai].

    Ironically enough — it was Joseph [son of Jacob] who set-up the enslavement of the people to state during the seven years of famine. That ended up coming right back around to bit his descendants in the butt [so to speak].

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  2. Jeff Spector on April 18, 2011 at 7:31 AM

    I can easily buy into this theory because it was the Israelites who actually enslaved themselves in a manner of speaking. They was told to go back to Canaan but were living fat, dumb and happy in the Land of Goshen (what I call Utah, these days). So, when they wanted to leave, the Pharoah did not want them to, whether they were slaves, workers or soldiers, I guess it doesn’t matter.

    I still struggle with some of the passages, Like the first interaction with the Lord and Moses at the burning bush, which seems to support the “afflicted” story rather than the hired help theory.

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  3. Justin on April 18, 2011 at 8:19 AM

    which seems to support the “afflicted” story rather than the hired help theory.

    Who isn’t “afflicted” by a state that controls all the means of production?

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  4. Jeff Spector on April 18, 2011 at 8:26 AM

    “Who isn’t “afflicted” by a state that controls all the means of production?”

    :) Huh-oh, not going there in this post……

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  5. C. on April 18, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    Another theory states that they were a tribute tribe who owed goods and services (including military) to the Egyptian rulers.

    I watched an interesting documentary on the development of the OT with comparative archeology. Interestingly enough, the book of Joshua has the Isrealites sweeping through Canaan and destroying all enemies in one generation, while the archeological evidence suggests that the rise of the group who identified themselves as Isrealites covered several hundreds of years and was less military than cultural. The Torah as we read it now reached its almost modern form during the Babylonian captivity, many centuries after the Exodus supposedly would have taken place.

    Anyone who has played telephone knows that a lot can change in a story very quickly. I think the real question is, if events did not unfold exactly as the Biblical narrative states, does it matter? Or is the underlying theme of a people returning from exile to God preserved and still True (capital “T”)?

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  6. Jeff Spector on April 18, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    this leads to a discussion I try to have with my wife, but she is a bit uncomfortable with it.

    The question is: In the grand scheme there is not a lot of evidence for much of what has been written in the Bible. So, I figure it is more about what we are to learn from it rather than if it really happened. We cannot prove it, so why waste time on that aspect.

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  7. Justin on April 18, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    Jeff, I agree with that as well.

    The non-historical can often be more powerful than the historical. It is ideas that are immortal. Historical evidence [like stone, wood, and paper] rots — but things as fragile as a thought, a dream, or oral gossip go on and on.

    Changing the way people think is how one has a lasting impact on humans. Just like D&C 19:6-7 explains — the Lord is willing to have His people believe a “falsehood” if it might work upon our right-brain hearts more.

    If He was willing to let us believe a falsehood regarding the duration of hell’s punishment — what else might there be that He allows to be believed b/c of it’s affect on our hearts?

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  8. Jeff Spector on April 18, 2011 at 10:28 AM

    I always took this position with the parables. Are they made up stories to make a point? Or true stories, but treated as made up.

    In any made up story, the conditions are set to provide the outcome desired. Real life doesn’t always work that way.

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  9. FireTag on April 18, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    Narratives are interpretations we make up from memories of events to give them meaning. (Didn’t Hawk or BiV have a post about looking back on her own diary and seeing how different the events of her early life looked to her now? I’ll have to hunt for it tonight.)

    The events were real and powerful, or they would not have been able to form a narrative for a people, but they are always a mixture of memory overlaid by subsequent interpretation.

    Think about how JS’s first vision changed from early to later tellings. Or, for a more modern narrative, look at the competing narratives about the events of the 1940′s as told by Israelis and Palestinians.

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  10. Ben S on April 18, 2011 at 2:19 PM

    Very very weak arguments. I’ve not heard of Gabriel before, but he essentially redefines slavery out of existence. ‘bd could mean either slave or servant in Hebrew, ‘avadim is simply the plural. Related terms do mean “service” and work and such, but also “slavery”, so to categorically assert “Avadeem is not the word for slave, it is the word for “worker” or even servant. The fact of the matter is that the Israelites in Egypt were not slaves.” plays fast and very loose with the language.

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  11. Jacob S on April 18, 2011 at 3:08 PM

    “The non-historical can often be more powerful than the historical. It is ideas that are immortal. Historical evidence [like stone, wood, and paper] rots — but things as fragile as a thought, a dream, or oral gossip go on and on.”

    We see this even in our own (American) culture. The stories and “history” of the founding and growth of our country are only by degrees more historical than those of the founding of Israel. We take men like Washington and Jefferson and superimpose on them our current ideals and crowd out all the flaws and inconsistencies that are inconvenient to the narrative. We are and always have been the good guys and they are and always have been the bad guys and we fit everything into that story. I see the Bible as doing the same thing but over a much longer period of time.

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  12. Jeff Spector on April 18, 2011 at 3:51 PM

    “I’ve not heard of Gabriel before, but he essentially redefines slavery out of existence. ‘

    I thought it was an interesting theory that didn’t square too well with the first chapter of Exodus, even in the KJV. but, it is possible and interesting to discuss.

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  13. hawkgrrrl on April 18, 2011 at 4:44 PM

    Personally, I find both theories pretty convincing, but the number of Israelites is the most important change in explaining why they don’t show up in the historical record (the most problematic aspect of the whole story from a history perspective). The mercenary aspect is an appealing explanation because during the time that follows, that’s essentially how they act time and time again, trying to conquer a new land they can occupy. They’ve sold their birthright (land) for a mess of pottage (easy life in Egypt), and now their progeny have to pay to regain it.

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  14. Stephen Marsh on April 18, 2011 at 5:40 PM

    The forced levees were pretty close to slavery. Just intelligent forced work designed not to consume the workers, but still forced work at minimal wages.

    As for “elith” — similar in the line of work to Abraham, Esau and others, it reminds me of the words “centurion” and “century” (Roman words that actually meant military commanders and units of 40 to 60 men, not 100) and the “ten thousands: of the Book of Mormon.

    Interesting stuff, all in all.

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  15. Mike S on April 18, 2011 at 6:42 PM

    #6 Jeff Spector: The question is: In the grand scheme there is not a lot of evidence for much of what has been written in the Bible. So, I figure it is more about what we are to learn from it rather than if it really happened. We cannot prove it, so why waste time on that aspect.

    Could we say the same thing about the Book of Mormon? If that is the case, does it really matter if Joseph Smith actually “translated” actual inscriptions from metal plates, or if the plates were hidden under a blanket while he looked at a stone in a hat?

    Maybe, at the end of the day, that’s all that matters – whether various writings help us become better people or not?

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  16. Douglas on April 18, 2011 at 8:48 PM

    #15 – Well, said, “El” Jefe…(I know, the pun is a tad weak….)

    For neither the Bible nor the BoM should we expect a great deal of archaeological or historical evidence.

    1) History is written and re-written by the winners.
    2) Things get removed, reused, they rust, they decay. When you’re talking about battle sites or abandoned towns having several centuries of the forces of Nature to work on them, it would be surprising if we could find anything.

    For example, I’ve read criticism about the BoM…the last great battle described by Moroni where twelve legions with their “tens of thousands” (might be a bit of license akin to what went on in the OT) fell before the Lamanites. The critics say, “where are the bones of the fallen, and their weapons”. Well, I’m sure even the Lamanites had a graves registration unit! Almost 20K Americans and a like amount of German were killed in the Battle of the Bulge, but we don’t expect to cruise the Ardennes and find a skull with a coal-scuttle helmet, do we? Do we expect Belgium, or Normandy, or Kursk, or Stalingrad, to be littered with the rusting hulks of Tiger tanks? Can we walk the battlefield of El Alemein and pick up a “slightly” weathered Mauser Karabiner rifle? So, why, pray tell, would we find sufficient archaeological evidence to prove anything?

    And even if the record was fully supported by what we found in the diggings, none of that would prove them the Word of God. He does not rely upon OUR scholarship, His own methods suffice.

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  17. Jeff Spector on April 18, 2011 at 9:53 PM

    “Could we say the same thing about the Book of Mormon?’

    yes, as far as the actual events depicted in the Book. however, the thing that makes it slightly different in my mind is that Joseph Smith said “it is the most correct book….”

    I’ve not heard that said about the Bible except by those who buy into it lock, stock and poor translations.

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  18. John Hamer on April 19, 2011 at 9:44 PM

    Gabriel is still offering a highly conservative interpretation that attempts to transform as much Biblical mythology into history as possible. It’s just as possible to argue that no Israelites were ever in Egypt, since evidence is lacking.

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  19. MH on April 20, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    Sorry for not attending to this thread–I was out of internet range for a few days.

    I’m no expert on ancient Hebrew, and I don’t know what to make of Gabriel’s claim that Israelites weren’t slaves. If one of the other definitions is “conscripted civilian labor” or “servant”, well “servant” is pretty close to “slave” for translation purposes.

    If I were conscripted to do a job I didn’t want to do (say digging ditches, or forced into a labor camp), then maybe I’m not being whipped like a piece of cattle, but I can’t imagine finding such work fulfilling, and I would probably compare my treatment to slavery. I know Gabriel says these workers were paid and well-fed, but I can see that it would be quite easy for the workers to claim slavery. After all, our founding fathers compared taxation without representation a form of slavery. Perhaps slavery is a bit of an exaggeration for both ancient Israelites and Founding Fathers, but I can see how easy it would be for them to use the term.

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  20. R J H on February 4, 2012 at 6:27 PM

    I was amased at Gabriels interpretation of the “Batles of the Bible”. I did however have a hang up on how Moses led his people across the Reed Sea. Having grown up on a real family farm in the 50′s I have seen first hand how long it takes for water to drain off a field for planting, let alone enought to march such an exodus of so maney people and wagons across. I thought on this for several days as it was the only interpretation of his I could not grasp as ever happening. If this part was in doubt, the whole story could be in boubt.

    Then about a week later I saw a program, NOVA, Ice Age Death Trap. It told how masadons, elephants, Newts and an assortment of animals had met their death 150,000 years ago in Colorado. It was a process that was exactly the same as what I believe happened at the Reed Sea, only it was the exact opposite. The hard dry solid land would become a mixture of earth an water within minutes. This mixture was not mud. It was like a soup. The animals would sink to whatever depth the mixture went. Sometimes being completly buried, other times just stuck several feet. Even several feet deep they were doomed. After a few hours the water drained out from below and the ground returned hard as ever within 30 to 40 minutes. If this were to happen to people, all being simmerly affected, they would be unable to help each other when this process took place, and it does take place. then surely this process could happen in reverse!!!

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  21. vanessa on March 30, 2012 at 4:58 PM

    Very interesting theory but full of holes. It really comes down to what people believe which is all over the map. I would not imagine the Egyptians would want to have much history of their defeat by the Holy God of Israel who brought Israel out of Egypt. Why would a Pharaoh want that recorded for posterity?

    But just to inject something we can all relate to, here in America my ancestors were brought here as slaves. Try to convince my parents, grandparents, great and great grandparents or me, that slavery never happened.

    Their names were taken and replaced with names of slave owners to destroy any breadcrumbs back to Africa and where they actually originated. If they left their names intact future generations could follow back to Africa to certain places and people. Historic records have been destroyed, lost, hidden or re-written with lies. Africa itself has been renamed along with cities and nations by the British,Europeans, etc.

    Textbooks have lied for centuries about our history and we have finally been penned African Americans with no identity.

    Even President Obama has tried to call us Immigrants as if we came here voluntarily as his father did. We are not immigrants. But America would like to put this history away because it is such a stain on their history. Again, think about Egypt and compare.

    So much of our history was destroyed because our forefathers were not originally allowed to read or write. So they could not record much. Yet we know that some of the old ones who were alive in the 20th Century had knowledge of our origin and passed it down.

    During slavery a slave was beaten senseless for not accepting the name given to him– or killed. Many were killed for trying to pass down what happened to them.

    Later, children were re-educated in colonial schools and taught a distorted view of the Bible. Many slaves wanted to forget and fit into society so they didn’t care.

    Listen to many blacks today and all they want is to forget Slavery and be good Americans. That is how the truth of a people disappears. Ask the Native Americans. That is why I will never allow anyone to further demoralize and disrespect my ancestors by pretending it never happened, especially my own people.

    As far as the ancient Hebrews and Israelites were concerned to deny they were in Egypt is to deny the land of Israel exists. They were scattered to the four corners of the earth into captivities and slavery to this very day.

    Most people indeed look in the wrong places concerning history and debate over things using no common sense. A dangerous combination.

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  22. John Manson on August 2, 2012 at 4:00 PM

    The Israelites were known as the Hyksos, and were rulers in Lower Egypt for roughly 300 years beginning in 1800 BC. Egypt’s King, Ahmoses eventually expelled them from Egypt, and drove them back to Jerusalem, where it is said that he slaughtered them. The story of Exodus in the bible is a complete fabrication.

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  23. MH on August 2, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    John, the Hyksos is one of the theories of the Exodus and is championed by those who favor the “early Exodus”. Others propose a “late Exodus” . I wrote about the question of “When” on my blog:

    When did the Exodus Happen?

    There are two main theories: the Early Exodus Period, and the Late Exodus Period. Supporters of the Early Period point to 1 Kings 6:1, ““Now it came about in the four hundred and eightieth year after the sons of Israel came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel…that he began to build the house of the Lord.” Most historians put the Temple of Solomon at 965 BC. This would put the Exodus at approximately 1445 BC.

    Pharoah Thutmoses I reigned from 1525-1512 BC. Scholars have speculated that his daughter Hatshepsut may have rescued Moses from the Nile. She served as Pharoah from 1503-1482 BC, and battled with her stepson Thutmoses III (1504-1450 BC) for control of Egypt. Thutmoses III eventually removed nearly all traces of Hatshepsut’s monuments. Thutmoses III death in 1450 coincides well with the date of this Early Exodus time period.

    Supporters of the late period refer to Exodus 1:11, “And they built for Pharoah store cities, Pithom and Ramses.” Ramses II seems to be the most likely Pharaoh. He lived 1290-1224 BC. He moved the capital from Thebes to the Nile Delta, and built a new city called Pi-Ramses. Some archaeologists have linked this city built on top of an ancient Israelite city.

    Simcha Jacobovici believes the date of Exodus may be earlier. He believes the eruption of the Santorini Volcano in 1500 BC may explain many of the Biblical plagues. The Egyptian name Ahmose means “brother of Moses” in Hebrew—an interesting play on words. At this time, Egypt was ruled by a Semitic people called the Hyksos, people who were hated by the Egyptians. Since Joseph was of Semitic origins, this may have helped him join the ranks of the Hyksos ruling class. The Bible refers to a pharaoh that “knew not Joseph.”

    Egyptians have recorded and event called “the Hyksos Expulsion” around 1500 BC. Could it be the Israelites were expelled, rather than left freely? Perhaps it depends on who writes the history.

    There’s a lot more at http://www.mormonheretic.org/2010/04/11/questions-about-the-exodus/

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  24. nemesisofignorance on September 5, 2012 at 7:21 AM

    Mr. Gabrael comes from the school of Neanderthal thinking that has turned modern society into a huge toilet. He suggested that Moses was stabbed in the back by the Israelites. That moses himself decided to run the Israelites around the desert for 40 years just to build up a sufficient army. Then he describes Joshua and the army’s annihilation of Jericho as a barbaric slaughter of the innocents. He neglects to inform the audience of people of this area in those days. They offered up their infants as sacrifices by tossing the screaming little babies into a huge frying pan as a sacrifice to molec. These ‘ innocent’ people as he describes them also molded their children… infant babies into the walls of their homes as a protection device. If one could see with spiritual eyes it would be obvious that the same thing is going on in modern society. The sad precedence of plugging one’s ears to the Word of God was set
    when israel refused to hear God on the mountian.[Ex. 20:18-21] For this reason people set up for themselves ‘learned’ and ‘distinguished’ teachers to toss, not only themselves but also their children into the fire like the people of old.

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  25. JC on September 28, 2013 at 12:44 AM

    I agree with Gabriel, the premise that a warrior class were repurposed working on building or public projects is not without precedence It makes perfect sense for Pharaoh to keep these warriors/builder class happy, not for free, but in trade for knowledge and services. The notion of slaves to material items, money, good living and potentially being unfaithful unto their god fits nicely with stereotypical view that Jew’s are attached to money more than being faithful. The slave to good living and not being adherant usually involves the action of G-d in one way or other. I think this fits better than the other theories of Exodus.

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  26. joe lanyadoo on September 28, 2013 at 1:04 AM

    Tho Ra תורה, was written by The god of Thought Thoth who is said to do the bidding of Ra, thus Thorah.. Ra full name is Ra Amon and he is honoured with the universal Amen. The two main Egyptian gods and no one noticed? Tho took the Israelites and left…Not obvious?(the book of tho disappear and thora appeared) According to historians The Amou from Avary (am evri-meaning heb nation!) the Semitic pharaohs ruled egypt for a while and then left Egypt 3500 years ago, the same time the ‘mythical’ Israelite left. The Greek renamed them for some reason – Hixos which they claim means tax collectors. According to Herodotus and Josiphos they settled in Israel. Joseph’s people began as tax collectors(i.r.s, is history repeating itself?) and ended up ruling…that’s why there is no record of them ever invading Egypt just a record of them ruling it….And then there is Baher Youseph…an artificial lake built 3600 years ago to hold and then redistribute the overflow from the Nile..it is still used today and is still called Baher Youseph…The Ocean of Joseph. Joseph figured how to increase wheat production so he was left in charge.
    As to the translation of Avadim as workers…it is used that way in Hebrew.except that if one looks at the torah laws as regard to Avadim it translates better as indentured workers. He/she can go free after 7 years or…gets a mark if he the Avadim decides to stay as a permanent worker-slave.

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  27. Dr. Smith on February 9, 2014 at 12:13 PM

    Gabriel, creates several strong impressions of he and his opinions: 1. He does not believe in the Bible; 2. He is probably an Atheist; 3. He is a non believer, and not a Christian. 4. He looks at everything in the Bible stories as not inspired by God. 5. He may know something about war; but knows nothing at all about the Bible. 6. The History channel did their best to create doubts in any persons mind about the Bible. 7. The History channel did not give any other opposing views. 8. The HIstory Channel did not present the views of any Christian Military Leaders. 9. The History Channel did not present the views of any Bible atuhorities. 10. This is so typical of the History Channel of their Atheistic, and non-Christian presentations. 11. There is always this anti-Bible and anti-Christian thread in all History Channel presentations.

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  28. MR. NORMAL on February 13, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    People need to just read the bible. Egypt grew in power because of a large famine that swept the region. Millions of people were without food. Egypt stocked up food for years before the famine so when the famine hit, people had to survive. People gave there money for food until they had no more money, gave their cattle for food until they had no more cattle, and gave their land for food until they had no more land, and finally they sold themselves as slaves. People had to eat how else would they have been able to eat if they had nothing to trade for food other than servitude? AND THEY HAVE PROVED the curses that fell on egypt upon the “exodus of the hebrews”… they just can’t prove that God had anything to do with it. It is now “unexplained” so it won’t get publicized because they can’t explain it. Nobody wants to watch the news to hear that “they don’t know what happened”. God is right here in our face. and ya’ll lettin the devil distract you.

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