By Zahavit Shalev
The Ten Plagues are drawing to a climax. The terrible plague of darkness will shortly descend, and in preparation, God issues some instructions to Moses (according to the JPS Torah translation):
Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow [veyishalu] of his neighbour, and every woman of her neighbour, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold. (Exodus 11:2)
“Borrow”? But aren’t they leaving Egypt permanently? Isn’t this a bit disingenuous? Even dishonest? Is “borrow” really the best translation of the Hebrew verb sha’al?
Abraham was told that his descendants would be slaves but would eventually leave slavery with great wealth (Exodus 15:14). Now that this is really happening, the following description is given of how matters will unfold:
And I will dispose the Egyptians favourably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty-handed. Each woman shall borrow [ve’sha’ala] from her neighbour and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping the Egyptians. (Exodus 3:21-22)
This is every bit as unclear as it seems! Let us explore what might be happening here.
Apparently the Egyptian slave-owners will surrender goods of their own volition. But if that were the case why would the Israelites need to ask? And once they are asking, why “borrow” with no intention of returning the goods? And as for the term “stripping” – that surely indicates booty won or taken by force during war.
Are the escaping slaves borrowing goods, being given gifts, or plundering their former captors?
The lexical field of the verb sha’al is indeed very wide, ranging from to ask (a question), to ask (for something), to make enquiries (about a third party), to consult (an oracle or deity), to make a petition or request, or to make a demand (actual or metaphorical.) The verb can legitimately be translated as any of these, depending on context.
It was the very influential translator of the King James Bible who originally opted to translate the term in this instance as “borrow”, which has in turn influenced all subsequent English translations of the Bible.
The classical Jewish commentators are not too bothered by the white (or possibly outright) lie implied by “borrowing”. For them, the Israelites are simply doing as commanded. If there is any concern about a lack of total honesty the defence would be that the Israelite slaves are only taking what is owed to them – goods as compensation for 200 years of unpaid labour. Traditional commentators also point out that Israelite slave-owners will themselves be required to furnish their slaves with goods when they go free, so there is really no double standard (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).
But Jews in modernity have slightly different concerns: we are particularly sensitive to the portrayal of our Israelite ancestors as wily and mercenary. I for one am relieved – but not convinced – by the KJV’s euphemistic choice of “borrow” in these verses.
Zahavit Shalev is Rabbi’s assistant at New North London Synagogue and studying for the rabbinate at Leo Baeck College.