Exodus 3:21-22

21 I will even make the Egyptians so well-disposed toward this people that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed. Every woman will ask her neighbor and the resident alien in her house for silver and gold articles and for clothing, and you will put them on your sons and daughters.

This passage raised a few of questions for me. Since I think these questions are interrelated, I'll ask them all here rather than creating a separate post for each.

  • In what sense were the Egyptians "neighbors" to the Israelites. Did they live side by side with them in the same neighborhood even though the Israelites were slaves? We some the Egyptians also slaves and thus living with the Israelites?

  • Some translations use the verb "borrow" instead of "ask" in this verse. Should we understand the Israelite women to be asking for a gift, or merely borrowing the jewelry with the expectation that it be returned after a brief journey to attended an Israelite festival?

  • If Israelite women were enslaved to work in Egyptian households, their neighbors could have been other Canaanite slaves, and the resident alien might refer to the master of the house. Commented Apr 21 at 22:24

3 Answers 3


Addressing the second question:

Some translations use the verb "borrow" instead of "ask" in this verse. Should we understand the Israelite women to be asking for a gift, or merely borrowing the jewelry with the expectation that it be returned after a brief journey to attended an Israelite festival?

The specific verb is שָׁאֲלָה which can mean either ask or borrow. Traditional commentators are split on whether the items were loaned or gifted. Sforno says that the takers had an obligation to return the items until the Egyptians pursued Israel, at which time the "borrowed" goods became the spoils of war:

ונצלתם את מצרים. אף על פי שתקבלו הכל מהם דרך השאלה, ותהיו חייבים להחזיר, הנה תקנו אחר כך את הכל בדין, ברדפם אחריכם להלחם בכם ולשלול את שללכם. כי אמנם כאשר מתו באותה המלחמה, כי ה' נלחם, היה בדין מדה כנגד מדה כל שלל הרודפים לנרדפים, כמנהג בכל מלחמה: Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno on Exodus 3:22

While others are adamant that this was a gift. Ibn Ezra goes so far as to teach this act of generosity was another wonder:

גם היה דבר פלא שמצריים היו מפייסין את ישראל שישאלו מהם וזה טעם וישאילום וזה הפך משפט אנשי העולם.

The Egyptians’ appeasing of the Israelites by imploring them to ask for jewels and raiments was also a great wonder. This is the opposite of the behavior of the world’s inhabitants. - (Ibn Ezra on Shemot)

  • I have a dilemma in that my questions received three useful answers, all upvoted. I particularly like this one because in good talmudic fashion it preserves more than opinion. I'll see if other answer arise before deciding to accept one. Commented Apr 22 at 1:43

I have written previously on this site about the less than clear demarcation between Israelites and Egyptians during their time in Egypt. The sheer demands of biological number meant that the two nations were quite intermarried both with the Canaanite peoples and the Egyptian peoples, else they could not have grown from 75 people to three million is just four generations.

Equally, the Israelite enslavement was almost certainly similar in severity than that imposed under Solomon where all workers were rotated on a three month basis - one month on and two months off.

Lastly, even ancient rulers understood that slaves cannot be worked too hard or they collapse. This was forcefully demonstrated by the Japanese slaves in Burma and some of the farms in the USA during antebellum times.

The Egyptians wanted good slaves, highly skilled and motivated to produce the exceptional work that was created. This is not to suggest that the Israelite slaves were well-off; quite the contrary. However, they did own lands, have leaders, meetings (as will Moses and Aaron, etc), run farms with extensive animals and had some possessions. All this was gathered up when they left.

All this also shows that Israelite society and Egyptian society was less-well demarcated than some assume. The Israelites did not live in slave camps. Their enslavement was the result what today would be called a highly racist policy of permitting some people, based entirely on race/religion, certain rights and denying these to the Israelites. The enforcement mechanism was much more than the whip or containment wall (the latter appears to have been non-existent) but probably economic and social.

  • Even if Moses is the great-grandson of Levi, the assertion of four generations does not fully account for the 400 years of Israelite enslavement, as described in the Bible. Commented Apr 21 at 22:14
  • 1
    @VincentWong - look carefully at the chronology - the time from Jacob entering Egypt to the exodus was 215 years. There are other questions in this site about this. For example, hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/66867/…
    – Dottard
    Commented Apr 21 at 22:34
  • thanks for a very informative answer. Very interesting facts concerning the nature of Israelite slavery... can you recommend a source for more info? Commented Apr 22 at 1:46
  • In 1 Chronicles 7:20-27, the genealogy from Ephraim to Joshua is recorded, spanning 10 generations: Ephraim-Beriah-Rephah-Resheph-Telah-Tahan-Ladan-Ammihud-Elishama-Nun-Joshua. It's noteworthy to consider potential generation gaps in Hebrew record, as exemplified in Matthew's Genealogy Matt 1:8, where "Jehoram the father of Uzziah" omits mention of "Ahaziah, Jehoash and Amaziah". Consequently, the assertion of four generations from Levi to Moses merits some limited credence. Commented Apr 22 at 2:25
  • 1
    @VincentWong - then I suggest you read this verse: Gen 15:16, - In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” See also hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/58239/…
    – Dottard
    Commented Apr 22 at 9:55

The word translated neighbor in Exodus 3:22 is the female form of שָׁכֵן. Its verb form means to dwell (see In John 1:14 what does ἐσκήνωσεν mean?). Thus, it has the idea of one living nearby. While neighbor is רֵעַ in the "love your neighbor" passage (Leviticus 19:18). This word more often means friend and is the most common word for friend in the Tanakh (Hebrew Old Testament). See Given the dynamics of the words πλησίον and רֵעַ, what did Jesus illustrate with the Good Samaritan?)

Figure 1. Hebrew words translated neighbor in the ESV.

enter image description here

The terms sojourner גֵּ֣ר and foreigner/stranger נָכְרִי are used for the Israelites in Egypt, of course not the Egyptians (Exodus 2:22).

The word translated ask שׁאל usually meant ask. It rarely meant borrow. The context doesn't seem to support borrow. However, the JSP1985 translation does translate it borrow.

  1. shall borrow Rather, “shall request,” which is the usual meaning of the stem sh-ʾ-l.-- Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus (p. 19). Jewish Publication Society.

Figure 2. The senses of שׁאל in the Tanakh.

enter image description here

Related question: Exodus 12:36 Did the Egyptians obey because they favored the Israelites, or because God favored the Israelites?

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