by Brenda P. Tirrell
Kenneth Chelst is a professor of operations research in the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Wayne State University. He is also a scholar of Jewish thought and received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University.
His book, Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery, compares the biblical narrative of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and the African-American slave experience. It is his belief that comparing and contrasting these two histories yields new perspectives and insights into both experiences. One of the first differences Chelst points out is that the story of the Israelite enslavement is told in a single sacred narrative. By contrast, there is no single narrative of the African-American enslavement; the story is told through thousands of individual voices, narratives, and accounts.
The Israelites experienced their enslavement as a people and shared a common history of the journey. They entered Egypt together by caravan as invited guests, and then were enslaved through Pharaoh’s plotting and deceit. There were common elements in the journey from the African interior, to Africa’s west coast, and then to the New World. Many future slaves were taken captive by tribal enemies; others were enslaved as punishment for various offenses or sold during times of famine or drought. They did not make the journey as a people, however, or even, in most cases, as families. The horrors of forced migration and the Middle Passage were experienced individually. One third to one half of Africans captured or sold into slavery died between the African interior and the New World. Families that made it together to the African west coast ports were separated on board the ships. When they arrived in the New World, they were scattered.
The slavery of the Hebrews was foretold in a prophesy to Abraham: “Know that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” (Genesis 15:12-14) They were sustained through their oppression by God’s promise that it would end, that they would go free, and that their oppressors would be punished. African-American slaves had no such promise and didn’t know if or when their enslavement would end. They were far removed from their religious and cultural heritage. As Christianity spread through the slave population, African-Americans identified strongly with the biblical story of the Israelites’ slavery. They believed that God’s promise to the Jews applied to them as well: they, too, could hope for freedom and a day of judgment for their oppressors. Moses, chosen by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery and to the Promised Land, became a symbol of hope expressed in oral tradition through story and song:
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.
Chelst attributes many of the differences in the experience of the ancient Israelites and African-Americans to the different nature of their enslavement. The Israelites were political slaves of the state (“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”) while African-Americans were chattel slaves, sold in the marketplace and the absolute property of the owner, who had complete sovereignty over the individual slave’s life and death.
Chelst describes the exodus as the defining experience of Jewish identity, commemorated in Jewish law, custom, and liturgy. The Jews paraded out of Egypt as a people in full view of their oppressors; they witnessed the punishment of the Egyptians through plagues and by drowning when the sea closed over them. They were on their way toward a common destination, a promised land flowing with milk and honey.
For African-American slaves, there was no common experience of emancipation. The Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863 had no immediate or universal effect. Word spread informally, finally reaching Texas two-and-a-half years later on June 19, 1865, now celebrated as “Juneteenth.” Even the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves living in “states in rebellion.” It took years and a series of legislative actions including the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution to move things forward.
Throughout this period, emancipation was experienced by individuals and small groups in many different ways. There was no common destination or defined “Promised Land”. There was interregional migration within the southern states and a pattern of movement into urban areas. Some saw the North as the Promised Land; others promoted relocation and resettlement of freedmen to Africa and the Caribbean. Former slaves had been granted political freedom officially but they were still in the land that had enslaved them and they were still restricted through racial discrimination.
Neither the exodus nor emancipation proceeded as expected. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years until they learned to obey God. They were attacked by the Amalekites, who were succeeded by other biblical enemies, the Spanish inquisition, the Nazis, and contemporary foes.
The promises of emancipation were also elusive. The road to freedom was, and still is, a continuing struggle for dignity, freedom, and justice, thwarted by Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and others. Unlike the Israelites, African-Americans did not have a single leader on the road to freedom. The leadership of African-Americans was provided by an uncounted number of heroes and heroines through generations, including Harriet Tubman, who contemporaries called the Moses of her people.
Kenneth Chelst does an admirable job addressing both narratives and draws deeply on his extensive knowledge of the biblical narrative. By the end of the book, the words of Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech become meaningful in a new way. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro still…finds himself an exile in his own land.”
The original text of the review may be found here.