In Exodus and Emancipation: Biblical and African-American Slavery, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Chelst presents a new perspective on the saga of the Jewish people’s enslavement and departure from Egypt by comparing it with the African-American slave experience in the United States, their emancipation and subsequent fight for dignity and equality. The comparison is designed to enrich the reader’s understanding of both experiences. Both peoples suffered centuries-long oppression, with the African-American slave population at the time of emancipation in the 1860s roughly double that of the Israelites at the biblical Exodus.
Whatever the setting, slavery takes a terrible toll on the individual as well as the community. Chelst dives deeply into the Biblical narrative, using classical and modern commentaries to explore the social, psychological, religious, and philosophical dimensions of the slave experience and mentality. He draws on slave narratives, published letters, eyewitness accounts, recorded interviews of former slaves, together with historical, sociological, economic and political analyses of this era. He explores the five major needs of every long-term victim, and journeys through these five stages with the Israelite and the African-American slaves towards physical and psychological freedom.
He weaves the two sets of narratives into a rich multi-dimensional collage of parallel and contrasting experiences. The linkage between the slavery of the Israelites and that of the African Americans is not new. Simply recall the powerful black spiritual, “Go Down, Moses.” African American spokesmen began to identify publicly with Israelite history towards the end of the eighteenth century. William E. Channing made the equation explicit: “For ages Jews were thought to have forfeited the rights of men as much as the African race at the South, and were insulted, spoiled and slain.” As a result, when we study exodus and emancipation side by side, each enriches the other with its perspective of a common national destiny that moves from slavery to freedom.