Rabbi Ken Spiro, author of World Perfect, believes that the Hebrew Bible played a significant role in the creation of the United States. The Puritans actually felt akin to the ancient Israelites, who escaped the tyrant Pharaoh and came to the Promised Land after crossing the Red Sea and wandering through the wilderness. The Promised Land, to the Puritans, was America. The opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence, according to Spiro, also have their roots in the Hebrew Bible: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Recently, President Obama made a reference to the Hebrew Bible when making his controversial speech on November 20, 2014 dealing with immigration policy. He cited a verse in Exodus (23:9) as justification for his plan to extend protection from deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants:
“You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” President Obama asserted: Most of these immigrants have been here a long time. They work hard, often in tough, low-paying jobs. They support their families. They worship at our churches. Many of their kids are American-born or spent most of their lives here, and their hopes, dreams, and patriotism are just like ours. As my predecessor, President Bush once put it: ‘They are part of American life.’
The Hebrew Bible considered it very important to remember the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt — not only for those closest to the event in ancient times, but even more critically for later generations. This paper will analyze this Biblical exhortation to remember the slavery; examining why remembering is so important and the benefits to society of holding onto this “memory.” Then we will look critically at issues our society struggles with today — and at the very real consequences of forgetting.
Remember the Slavery
One of the more perplexing directives in the Hebrew Bible is to remember that you were a slave in Egypt. After all, most people would rather celebrate freedom than remember slavery. This directive is stated explicitly five times in Deuteronomy.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath to the Lord your God. You shall not do any work— you, your son, your daughter, your male or female servant, your ox, your donkey, any of your animals, and any stranger residing in your towns, in order that your male and female servants may rest as you do. And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5: 13-15).
And when you send them away free [the Israelite slave], do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, so shall you give them. And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God liberated you. That is why I give you this command today (Deuteronomy 15: 13-15).
And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite that is within your gates, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, that are among you, in the place that the Lord your God will choose to cause his name to dwell there. And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and you shall keep and observe these statutes (Deuteronomy 16: 11-12).
You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger or the orphan; nor take the widow’s garment as a pledge. And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God liberated you. That is why I command you to do this (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).
When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not glean it afterward. Leave what remains for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. And you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God liberated you. That is why I command you to do this (Deuteronomy 24: 21-22).
The command to remember that you were “strangers in Egypt,” similar to the idea of remembering slavery, is stated in Exodus and Deuteronomy in connection with how to deal with the stranger: