The Israelites presumably had not the slightest intention of giving the goods back. Does this mean outright robbery (Ex. 12:36)?
If it does, it was not the Israelites’ own initiative. God Himself commanded them, “Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man ask of his neighbour and every woman of her neighbour jewels of silver and jewels of gold” (Ex. 11:2; cf. 3:21-22).
A series of ancient commentaries (Philo, Jubilees, Wisdom of Solomon, etc.) tells us that that what the Israelites took away was partial compensation for their years of slavery and degradation.
But this still does not explain how the text can say the Egyptians “lent” the goods to the Israelites. If it was a loan, there is a clear implication that someone deceived someone. The problem is in the verb sha’al, which can but need not mean a loan.
Saadya Gaon points out that sha’al normally means “to ask”, and in this context it implies that the Israelites asked, i.e. claimed, from the Egyptians some form of restitution.
Other commentators (e.g. Rashbam, Hiz’kuni, Cassuto, etc.) agree that there was no loan involved but a straightforward request for part payment for labour.
It should be added that there is a parallel in English literature. Shakespeare says, “The heaven such grace did lend her” (which means to give or grant, not to make a loan) “that she might admired be” (Two Gentlemen of Verona, IV:2:40).
An Egyptian professor has recently stated that he intends to sue the State of Israel and the Jewish people in order to get back the jewellery and clothing with which the Israelites left Egypt. The fact that it all happened more than 3000 years ago does not seem to worry him.
Legal systems have statutes of limitations that rule out any possibility of reopening such old issues. But here it is the Jews who are on the agenda, and normal rationality does not operate when it comes to attitudes to Jews.
Presumably the professor is not aware that someone tried this many centuries ago in the time of Alexander the Great, and it did not work.
The Talmud says that Egyptian spokesmen demanded the return of the jewellery and clothing but Alexander dismissed the case when the Jewish representative counter-claimed much larger sums as wages due to the Jews (Sanhedrin 91a).
In any case, what we have said above makes it clear that the Biblical account needs to be read with at least a basic knowledge of the Hebrew language and usage.