During my years in the elementary school grades, attending Sunday school in my little Methodist church in Groveville, NJ, I heard the stories of the Exodus. Jewish people living in Egypt were starting to outnumber the Egyptians. The king of Egypt (the Pharaoh) had his military round up the Jewish population and put them to work as slaves making bricks in an effort to control them and prevent them from becoming a power to be reckoned with.
As the story goes, one Jewish man, Moses, receives a call from God to release his people from slavery and venture out to a whole new land that they can call their own, which, after meeting with resistance from Pharaoh, they eventually are able to do.
Now, as a kid imagining this scenario, I concluded (and, I think, justifiably so) that the Jews who left Egypt, being slaves, were on a par with what we would consider to be poverty-stricken, low-income workers, poor folk who could barely scrape by. The passages in the Exodus story that have to do with the people’s frequent hunger and thirst, for example, would lead to that kind of conclusion.
However, it was only in recent years (I can’t imagine why I never picked up on this before) that I read references to the great wealth that the Israelites took with them. An early reference is Exodus 12.35: “The Israelites did as Moses had told them and asked the Egyptians for their silver and gold jewelry as well as their clothing.” (The Egyptians were more than willing to give the Israelites anything they asked for at this point, since they had just suffered numerous plagues [read: losses] and were quite eager to get the Israelites out of their country. They probably would have done anything to see these former slaves disappear! Exodus 12.33: “The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the land because they thought, We’ll all be dead” [CEB]).
Suddenly, the story of the golden calf idol at the base of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32) made sense. It tells of Moses’ brother Aaron who instructs the people to “take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons [yes, the boys and men!], and your daughters, and bring them to me” (vs. 2). If the Israelites were the poor slaves I pictured as an elementary school age kid, then where would they have gotten enough gold to build even a small idol in the shape of a bull? Keep in mind, also, that we’re talking about nearly a million people altogether (600,000 men, plus women and children). So there were undoubtedly plenty of precious metals to go around.
This revelation completely reversed my mental picture of the Israelites who left Egypt. Sure, they were slaves at one time, but after being gifted with so much wealth from their captors, they set out as fabulously wealthy people. It would be akin to having a million people from the 1% leave the U. S.
I now read that story in a whole new context. It’s no longer a head-scratcher to wonder how they could afford the materials for the tabernacle (gold, bronze, acacia wood, fine fabrics, etc.). These were rich people. Very rich people. Which may also help explain why they complained so much – they learned very quickly how to become spoiled.