Who Said “Let My People Go!”… Anybody?

By: David Altschuler
April 21, 2024

When, as a young adult, I skeptically attended my first Bible class in 1978, I assumed that the attendees would be… drooling like zombies. That’s the image of religious people often portrayed in secular homes and public schools. Secular liberals pride themselves on nuanced thinking, genuine curiosity, and open-mindedness; they tend to view religious people quite differently.

I love a good joke, but this time the joke was on me. 

The topic that day was Noah, of ark-and-flood fame, one of the “good guys” of the Bible. The verse being discussed was Genesis 6:9 where Noah is introduced as “whole-hearted (or perfect) in his generation.” Jewish commentators were quoted as disagreeing on whether this is an admiring description of Noah or not. Does this mean that Noah was great, despite being in a decadent society, suggesting he might have been even greater in a more moral environment? Or does it mean he was not so great, only seeming superior relative to the corrupt society around him? The discussion acknowledged both viewpoints, showing that human personality is subtle and complicated. The attendees at this lecture were engaging in deep, thoughtful analysis—not drooling!

So I came back the next week. And the next week…and the next month, year, decade, etc.

Even after 46 years, more subtleties and surprises continue to emerge from my re-readings of the Bible. Here’s another one, particularly relevant as Passover approaches.

How many other Bible translations, books, songs and even movies feature Moses demanding that Pharaoh stop using Jews as slaves with the ringing words, “Let My people go!”

What a dramatic line! If only that is what the Hebrew words, “shelach et ami,” really mean.

It’s not an awful translation, perhaps a bit melodramatic. “Let My people go!” would more accurately have been written shachreir et ami (“Free my people!”). But the Hebrew word shelach means “send out,” or to add a touch of melodrama, “kick My people out,” which implies that the Jews were not motivated to leave!

Is that possible? Beaten and starved, yet not desperate to get out?

If “send My people out” is what God said, He must have understood that the Jews’ mindset did not match our popular image of Jewish desperation for freedom and independence.

When God first appeared to Moses at the burning bush, instructing him to accept the leadership of the Jews back in Egypt, God said “You will take out the children of Israel” (Exodus 3:10-12).

Moses announces to his fellow Jews that G-d will “send you out” (3:20).

Moses then confronted Pharaoh in Exodus 5:1, demanding, “Send out My people,” a phrase he repeated before most of the forthcoming ten plagues described in Exodus 7:11-11:11.

And after the last plague, Pharaoh explicitly told Moses, “Get up and GO!” This was not merely permission to leave, but a demand that they MUST leave NOW. 

“Take” and “Send” – are the words used throughout the story of the Exodus, never “Free” or “Release”.

Now we can consider why God might have chosen the terminology that He did.

One classical Jewish commentator suggests that the Jewish people knew from a tradition dating back to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for 400 years (Genesis 15:13), yet they had been in Egypt for only about half that duration. Thus, Moses was suspected of fabricating his divine mission, and many slaves likely feared leaving Egypt prematurely. Several plausible start dates for the “400 years” make this theory historically interesting, but of less psychological interest.

It is more likely that the slaves needed to be “sent” or even “kicked” out because people often “prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know.” Leaving the advanced civilization of Egypt meant not knowing where the next meal would come from, where water might be found, and how one would survive the harsh elements of the desert. Parents had responsibility for their children (recall that the Bible says the Jews had very large families) and would wisely resist counting on ongoing miracles for sustenance.

Moreover, the Jews had been slaves for generations, not soldiers! Even if they crossed the Sinai desert, how would they defend themselves against the inhabitants of the Holy Land to which they were headed?

No, common sense indicated that while God would surely take them out of Egypt one day, that day had not yet arrived. It would take a year’s worth of plagues to devastate Egypt and convince the Jews that God intended for them to leave now — and, by then, there was little left in Egypt to keep them there.

In our times, an increasing number of Jews have been immigrating to Israel since the start of the war with Hamas on October 7th. The confusion and anarchy prevalent in much of Western civilization, along with a rise in overt antisemitism, are compelling many to leave their current homes. Effectively, these conditions are “sending” Jews back to their ancestral homeland—a place that is prepared, organized, and ready to welcome them with open arms. This contemporary migration, much like the Exodus, is shaped by both divine calling and the pressing circumstances in the countries they inhabit.

Israeli soldiers are risking their lives to protect us all from Islamic terrorism. But they need our help. Sign up for Israel365 Action to receive updates on how YOU can help fight Hamas and its supporters in the United States and around the world.

Shira Schechter

Shira Schechter is the content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. She earned master’s degrees in both Jewish Education and Bible from Yeshiva University. She taught the Hebrew Bible at a high school in New Jersey for eight years before making Aliyah with her family in 2013. Shira joined the Israel365 staff shortly after moving to Israel and contributed significantly to the development and publication of The Israel Bible.

David Altschuler

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