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Spoil the Egyptians

By Irenaeus of Lyons

Critics of the Bible claim that it was unjust for the Israelites to “spoil the Egyptians” by taking their gold and jewelry on their way out of Egypt.  As this passage from Irenaeus’ Against Heresies shows, this is not a new accusation.  Irenaeus’s brilliant defense of GOD’s justice in instructing the Israelites to do this is still worth reading today.  From Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 1, pp. 502-503.  Somewhat modernized.—Ed.


Those, again, who frivolously object and find fault because the people did, by God’s command, upon the eve of their departure, take vessels of all kinds and raiment from the Egyptians, and so went away, from which [spoils], too, the tabernacle was constructed in the wilderness, prove themselves ignorant of the righteous dealings of God, and of His dispensations; as also the presbyter[1] remarked: For if God had not accorded this in the typical exodus, no one could now be saved in our true exodus; that is, in the faith in which we have been established, and by which we have been brought forth from among the number of the Gentiles.  For in some cases there follows us a small, and in others a large amount of property, which we have acquired from the mammon of unrighteousness.  For from what source do we derive the houses in which we dwell, the garments in which we are clothed, the vessels which we use, and everything else ministering to our everyday life, unless it be from those things which, when we were Gentiles, we acquired by avarice, or received them from our heathen parents, relations, or friends who unrighteously obtained them?—not to mention that even now we acquire such things when we are in the faith.  For who is there that sells, and does not wish to make a profit from him who buys?  Or who purchases anything, and does not wish to obtain good value from the seller?  Or who is there that carries on a trade, and does not do so that he may obtain a livelihood thereby?  And as to those believing ones who are in the royal palace, do they not derive the utensils they employ from the property which belongs to Caesar; and to those who have not, does not each one of these [Christians] give according to his ability?


The Egyptians were debtors to the [Jewish] people, not alone as to property, but as to their very lives, because of the kindness of the patriarch Joseph in former times; but in what way are the heathen debtors to us, from whom we receive both gain and profit?  Whatsoever they amass with labor, these things do we make use of without labor, although we are in the faith.


Up to that time the people served the Egyptians in the most abject slavery, as saith the Scripture: “And the Egyptians exercised their power rigorously upon the children of Israel; and they made life bitter to them by severe labors, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field which they did, by all the works in which they oppressed them with rigor.”  And with immense labor they built for them fenced cities, increasing the substance of these men throughout a long course of years, and by means of every species of slavery; while these [masters] were not only ungrateful towards them, but had in contemplation their utter annihilation.  In what way, then, did [the Israelites] act unjustly, if out of many things they took a few, they who might have possessed much property had they not served them, and might have gone forth wealthy, while, in fact, by receiving only a very insignificant recompense for their heavy servitude, they went away poor?  It is just as if any free man, being forcibly carried away by another, and serving him for many years, and increasing his substance, should be thought, when he ultimately obtains some support, to possess some small portion of his [master’s] property, but should in reality depart, having obtained only a little as the result of his own great labors, and out of vast possessions which have been acquired, and this should be made by any one a subject of accusation against him, as if he had not acted properly.  He (the accuser) will rather appear as an unjust judge against him who had been forcibly carried away into slavery.  Of this kind, then, are these men also, who charge the people with blame, because they appropriated a few things out of many, but who bring no charge against those who did not render them the recompense due to their fathers’ services; nay, but even reducing them to the most irksome slavery, obtained the highest profit from them.  And [these objectors] allege that [the Israelites] acted dishonestly, because, in truth, they took away from the recompense of their labors, as I have observed, unstamped gold and silver in a few vessels; while they say that they themselves (for let truth be spoken, although to some it may seem ridiculous) do act honestly, when they carry away in their girdles from the labors of others, coined gold, and silver, and brass, with Caesar’s inscription and image upon it.


[1] The identity of this “presbyter,” who is often quoted by Irenaeus, is not certain.  It may have been Pothinus, the original missionary to the people of Gaul, who was Irenaeus’s predecessor as bishop of Lyons.  Pothinus died a martyrs’ death, whereupon Irenaeus became bishop.—Ed.