The Book of Exodus, narrating the events that occurred on the eve of the Israelites’ departure from Egyptian slavery, calls Egypt “בֵּית עֲבָדִים” (beit ’avadim). The phrase is usually translated as House of Bondage, yet it literally means House of Slaves. On the surface, the phrase seems accurate enough. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. The name can hardly offend the Egyptians. Yet when the phrase is viewed in its contemporary context, there is more to it than meets the eye.
The ancient Egyptians considered themselves vastly superior to the surrounding nations, who were seen as unworthy barbarians. Egyptian cities and places reflected this chauvinistic attitude in their
names. Typical Egyptian place names consisted of two elements, the first of which was pr, meaning house of. The second element was the name of a deity or pharaoh, an earthly god. For example, the city-name, Pr-Atum meant House of [the deity] Atum. The city-name Pr-Raamses meant House of the Pharaoh Raamses. One can surmise that Egyptians took pride living in the reflected glory of the gods and kings after whom their cities were named. Perhaps for similar reasons, early Americans named cities after monarchs and God: Princeton (the Prince’s town), Jamestown (King James’ town), and Providence Town (town of Divine Providence).
Seen in this context, nicknaming Egypt the House of Slaves was a galling rebuke to rulers who fancied that they dwelt among gods and kings. And for this same reason, the epithet must have provided encouragement to the Israelite slaves who, on the eve of their flight to freedom, now dared to speak truth to power.
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