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Plundering the Egyptians

BEFORE EMBARKING on their exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel asked their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold jewelry and clothing. Their requests were granted in accordance with God's will; "thus they plundered the Egyptians" (Ex 12:36).

Though it initially may strike us as a minor detail, the biblical narrative emphasizes Israel's departure with Egyptian treasure. Centuries earlier, God had promised Abram that his descendants would leave the land of their oppressors "with great possessions" (Gen 15:14). God repeats this promise to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:21-22) and later instructs him to have the Israelites solicit valuables from the Egyptians (Ex 11:2).

Beyond the exodus itself, the departure with payment/wealth motif frequently recurs in the Hebrew Scriptures. We see it first in events that foreshadow the exodus. After Abram and Sarai take refuge in Egypt during a famine, they leave with substantial assets (Gen 12:10-20). Two generations later, Jacob flees Paddan-Aram with sizeable flocks and Laban's household gods (Gen 31:17-19).

This pattern is also evident in accounts that recall the exodus. When the Philistines capture the ark of the covenant, they soon set it free with golden treasure (1 Sam 6:8,11). When Jews return to Judea from exile in Babylon, King Cyrus gives them gold and silver vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:7-11). Finally, the prophets envision a future exodus from exile when those who afflict Israel "shall become plunder for those who served them" (Zech 2:9).

Since the plundering of Egypt is the subject of so many scriptural allusions, we can infer that it is a significant topic. Indeed, it does convey a number of useful, theological reflections.(1)

FIRST, the "great possessions" (Gen 15:14) are part of the blessing promised to Abraham and his descendants. When the Israelites receive these possessions, God is shown to be faithful to his promise.

SECOND, the plundering of Egypt is one of God's wonders associated with the exodus. Along with the plagues, it is a means by which God humbles the haughty oppressors (Ps 105:26-38). The mighty works exhibited in the rescue of Israel proclaim to the world that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one true God, ruler of all nations.

THIRD, this transfer of wealth is a judgment on Egypt (Gen 15:14) and an example of God's justice in action. By enslaving the Israelites, the pharaohs deprive them of the fruits of their labors. The pharaohs are also guilty of robbing God, the rightful master of Israel and the one entitled to Israel's service. The gifts given to the Israelites at their departure both reimburse them for their labor and punish the crimes of Egypt.

FOURTH, the LORD later specifies in Deut 15:12-14 that Hebrew slaves be set free after six years, generously furnished with startup funds that will equip them to start a new life. By moving the Egyptians to donate to their former slaves, he, in effect, has them obey this commandment of the Torah.

Alternatively, we might view the plundering of Egypt as a restoration of the order of creation by God who is Elohim, sovereign over all he has made. When the Israelites arrived in Egypt, they "were fruitful and increased greatly" (Exod 1:7), carrying out the directive of Gen 1:28. But the Egyptians enslave the Israelites and try to reduce their population, setting themselves in opposition to God's purpose. In the plagues and the Red Sea miracle, creation itself stands in judgment of Egypt's sin and moves to set things right. In this framework, Egypt's payment to Israel restores a kind of creational equilibrium.

The apostles view the events of the exodus as examples for us in Jesus (1 Cor 10:6), so it is also worthwhile to consider applications of Ex 12:35-36 to the Christian spiritual journey. The early church father Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 203) offers valuable insight on this subject.

As bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus faced the challenge of the Gnostic heresy. Gnostics claimed that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was different from and morally inferior to the Father of Jesus. The Gnostics pointed to the plundering of Egypt, which they viewed as theft, as an example of the moral deficiency of Israel's God.

Irenaeus forcefully counters this accusation in Book 4, Chapter 30 of his book Against Heresies, using an argument that he attributes to the presbyter (meaning his mentor Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John). Irenaeus notes that the Egyptians owed their lives to the wise actions of Joseph, but they had then betrayed the Israelites by enslaving them and trying to reduce their numbers. The wealth that the Israelites obtained from the Egyptians, which they needed for their wilderness journey, was only a fraction of what they deserved for their years of unpaid labor.

Irenaeus contrasts Israel's situation with that of Christians who make a spiritual exodus from the societies of this world. Rather than being brutally enslaved, the Christians of his day lived in the relative peace and security of Roman Empire. Like other people, Christians engaged in business to make a living, and these business activities were in no way morally superior to the Israelites' transactions with the Egyptians. The Gnostics, therefore, were in no position to condemn the plundering of Egypt.

Irenaeus asserts that in fact, the plundering of Egypt provides an example of good stewardship for Christians to follow. According to a tradition well known to Jews and Christians in his day, the Israelites used Egypt's wealth to construct the beautiful furnishings of the tabernacle, which was dedicated to the glorious purpose of divine worship. Similarly, Christians can use "unrighteous wealth" in ways that have eternal value (Luke 16:9). Irenaeus lists feeding the hungry and clothing the needy as examples of the redemptive use of wealth, citing Matt 25:35-36, Luke 3:11, and Matt 6:3.

Irenaeus convincingly defends the character of God and the unity of Scripture in his refutation of the Gnostics. Moreover, he challenges us to use the wealth entrusted to us to advance God's purposes in the world. That is how the power of a biblical worldview—grounded in both Testaments—can work redemptively in each generation.


(1) For a good discussion, see Joel S. Allen, The Despoliation of Egypt in Pre-Rabbinic, Rabbinic and Patristic Traditions, Brill, Leiden, 2008, pp. 5-8.


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