Pharaoh the God King
Firmly established in the land of Goshen, the children of Israel enjoy a privileged status as long as Yosef and his memory remain alive. With his demise, a new era begins, ushered in by a change of leadership and by a corresponding change of policy. "A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Yosef." This Pharaoh is quick to unleash an insidious process that benignly begins with national service, progresses quickly into forced labor, and eventually culminates in the brutal oppression and dehumanization of the Hebrews.
Thus begins the Book of Shemot, the story of the forging of the Jewish people. The basic outline of the narrative is of course well known and well loved, for the themes of its struggle are universal. As readers of the biblical text, however, we often tend to overlook the geographical and historical framework of the pertinent personalities and relevant events. In so doing, we unwittingly forfeit a critical dimension of understanding and appreciation. Let us therefore consider the details of the account from a broader perspective.
The Nile River and the Biblical "Mitzrayim"
The land of Egypt, looming large on the horizons of the Hebrew Bible, is the geographical backdrop against which the epic of the Exodus unfolds. It is an arid land, situated at the northeastern tip of the African continent. The hot and dry winds of the Sahara desert blow across its barren expanse, a parched and unforgiving plateau of rock and sand. The monotony of the landscape is relieved only by the blue-green waters of the Nile River, a life-giving artery that originates in the vast lakes of the African interior. Rising and falling according to an annual cycle of inundation precisely documented by an expectant populace, the river is the source of life for the Nile valley. Cutting a long, narrow, but verdant swath through the harsh landscape, the Nile suddenly broadens as it nears the Mediterranean Sea. At ancient Memphis, the river fans out to form a broad triangular marsh known as the Delta.
This ancient land, one of the cradles of civilization, was traditionally divided into two main regions, known respectively as Upper and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt began at the first cataract of the Nile River at Aswan. Its arable land, which was intensively farmed, consisted of two narrow strips of black earth that straddled either side of the river. The Delta was known as Lower Egypt, and its climate and topography were considerably less severe. Early on, the two lands were united under the rule of a single monarch and remained inseparable throughout Egyptian history. What is important to bear in mind is that the survival of the ancient Egyptian was completely dependent on the caprices of this river. It is therefore not at all surprising that the Nile River was worshipped as a god.
The centrality of the river is actually reflected in the biblical name for Egypt, which is 'Mitzrayim.' The root of this word is MTzR, containing a stem (TzR) that connotes narrowness or constriction. By extension, a MtzR is, in Jewish legal texts, a boundary line or more generically the narrow strip that edges one's fields (hence the 'dina de bar metzra' of property law). The 'ayim' ending, rather than signifying the plural, in fact indicates 'two of something,' such as 'yadAYIM' (two hands), 'einAYIM' (two eyes), 'oznAYIM' (two ears), 'raglAYIM' (two legs). Taken together, Mitzr-ayim therefore yields 'two narrow strips' and is a particularly apt description of its habitable topography.
The Sun and the Sun God
The second primary component of Egyptian existence was the sun. In a land in which rainfall or cloud cover are almost unknown, the constant and predictable sun cast its radiant, brilliant light upon every facet of Egyptian vitality. Though thoroughly polytheistic, Egyptian culture nonetheless held a special place for the veneration of the sun, a powerful god whose favor was sought throughout every period of Egyptian history.
In a land of absolutes, in which strong central government was a prerequisite for fair and efficient management of the River, it was almost inevitable that a powerful monarchial system should develop. The Pharaoh was therefore a supreme autocrat, and early on the doctrine developed that he was the direct descendant of the sun god himself. His subjects regarded Pharaoh as a god incarnate, who could secure Egypt from earthly and cosmic threats through his personal intervention. The title 'Pharaoh,' which was used to refer to every Egyptian king, is a derivation of the two words 'per aa' meaning 'Great House.' It was an honorific circumlocution analogous to our use of the expressions 'the White House denied the rumors...' or 'Buckingham Palace refused to comment...' when in fact we are referring to the heads of state who inhabit those edifices.
Although the Egyptian pantheon contained a vast and confusing array of major and minor gods, it was the triad of the Nile, the sun and the Pharaoh himself, that wielded the most direct influence over the everyday lives of most Egyptians. Let us keep this in mind as we continue to explore the early parashot of Sefer Shemot.
The Descent to Egypt – The Historical Framework
According to traditional Jewish chronology, the Exodus from Egypt took place in the year 1312 BCE (corresponding to the year 2448 on the Jewish calendar). Using Avraham's year of birth as a reference, which took place in the year 1812 BCE (1948 on the Jewish calendar), it is possible to pinpoint the descent to Egypt as taking place in the year 1522 BCE. Yitzchak's birth occurs when Avraham is one hundred (1712 BCE), Yaacov's birth takes place when Yitzchak is 60 (1652 BCE), and Yaacov announces to Pharaoh at his audience that "the days of my life are one hundred and thirty years" (1522 BCE). While the attempt to correlate conventional chronology with biblical chronology raises serious difficulties that are beyond the scope of this article to resolve, for the period under discussion a rough agreement may exist. In fact, a number of details in the narrative of the Torah seem to corroborate the conclusion that the ascent of Yosef to greatness and the subsequent descent to Egypt took place during this time.
Let us assume that Yosef's rise to prominence as Viceroy and the subsequent descent to Egypt take place in the 16th century BCE. This would correspond with the end of the period of Egyptian history known as the age of the 'Hyksos,' which lasted from about 18th century BCE to approximately the middle of the 16th century BCE. The Hyksos, or so-called 'Shepherd kings,' were foreign invaders from Asia Minor who overpowered the native Egyptian kings by making excellent use of the chariot warfare that they introduced. Seizing the throne of the Pharaohs, they ruled from a capital that they established in the Delta.
Yosef's rise to position of Viceroy in spite of his own Semitic origins, in a society that tended to be homogeneous and markedly xenophobic, is much more plausible if in fact it transpired during the reign of these 'foreign' kings. Moreover, it becomes clear from the Torah's narrative that Yosef's residence, the palace of the Pharaoh, as well as the land designated for the settlement of his family (the land of 'Goshen') are all located in the Delta region. Is it mere coincidence that Pharaoh instructs that Yosef be paraded in his "second royal chariot" as a mark of his authority? Furthermore, is it not curious that Yosef instructs his brothers to relate that they have been "shepherds from their youth"? Tending flocks was a vocation not well tolerated in Upper Egypt, for the scarcity of agricultural land and its consequent intensive cultivation precluded the designation of large tracts of land for grazing. The situation in the Delta, however, was less acute; Yosef realizes that his family and their flocks will be not only more comfortable in Lower Egypt, but also closer to the centers of control.
The Dawn of the Enslavement
After a period of about one hundred and fifty years the Hyksos domination came to a close, with their forceful ouster by the powerful Pharaohs of the 'Eighteenth Dynasty.' Their overthrow ushered in the period of Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom, and during this time Egypt achieved its imperial apogee. With the demise of the Hyksos, a reaction against foreigners and their influences was for a time felt in the palace halls. Dating the beginning of the enslavement to this period seems quite plausible, and would best explain the cryptic biblical assertion that "there arose a new Pharaoh who knew not Yosef." We are told at the beginning of the Book of Shemot that the Hebrews are pressed into national service and slave labor, and are set building store cities, fashioning bricks and working in the fields. This situation continued for some time, and was not relieved until the Exodus occurred.
The most intriguing question concerns the identity of the Pharaoh of the oppression and Exodus, who is not identified by name in the text of the Torah. A number of allusions, however, seem to point to Rameses II, who ruled for most of the 13th century BCE. This indefatigable builder has bequeathed to posterity some of Egypt's most famous monuments, such as the completed hypostyle hall at Karnak, additions to Luxor, and the Ramasseum at Thebes. He ruled from Tanis, his capital that he established in the Delta region, where Israelite labor would have been readily available. The Torah does in fact refer to the Israelites being set to work constructing the store cities of "Pitom and Raamses." A measure of this Pharaoh's personality may be gauged by a cursory evaluation of the famed Temple of Abu Simbel, which he erected deep in the Sudan. A massive edifice, it is hewn out of the living rock and its entrance is flanked by four colossi, two on either side. These massive carved figures are each about 25 meters high and tower over the approach to the temple. Most remarkable, they are four identical representations of Rameses II himself!
Why is it that a significant figure such as Rameses II or a Pharaoh like him is not identified by name in the Torah? The answer lies in understanding the Torah's technique of gauging a person's accomplishments, which is in sharp contrast to the conventional method. For the historian, dimensions of a leader's greatness are determined by surveying the extent of his/her military conquests, acquisition of wealth, political influence, and rule over the masses. The cultural historian will also include an analysis of public monuments, building projects and artistic or literary accomplishments. According to all of these tests, Rameses II was a great and memorable monarch. His exploits on the field of battle and in the realm of architecture solidified Egypt's position of preeminence on the world stage.
Nevertheless, the Pharaohs of this period are presented by the Torah not as enlightened and accomplished rulers but rather as oppressive, cruel demagogues with arrogant dispositions and delusions of grandeur. The Torah is not interested in their exact identity and overlooks their personal names. Their material accomplishments are associated not with glory but with infamy, for they are raised up on the broken backs of oppressed slaves. How fitting that Rameses' name, which he carved with such resolve on every temple, obelisk and statue set up to perpetuate his renown, should be absent from the text. How appropriate that his appellation, which excitedly fills the accounts of ancient Egyptian history, is missing from the Torah's purview, in which distinction is predicated on moral integrity and 'fear of God.'
"Pharaoh said to the midwives whose names were Shifra and Puah: 'When you assist at birthing the Hebrews, if the child born is male, then kill him. The midwives feared God and did not do as Pharaoh commanded, but preserved the boys...On account of their fear of God, He made for them houses..." What a telling polarity is here preserved! The mighty Pharaoh, whose rule is absolute and whose demeanor is that of a god, commands that the Hebrew children be killed. His identity, however, the name that would assure the immortality which he so craves, is obscured. The midwives' names in contrast, which in all historical accounts would have at most merited a minor footnote, are carefully and lovingly spelled out. Their greatness is predicated on their willingness to 'fear God' and do what is right; not even the decree of a god king can awe them into submission. The 'houses' that God makes for them as a result of their moral fortitude, will far outlive Pharaoh's maniacal monuments of stone.
The Significance of the Title
Bearing this contrast in mind, let us consider the significance of the word 'Pharaoh.' As pointed out earlier, it is an Egyptian word combination meaning 'Great House' and constitutes yet another reference to grand buildings and impressive structures. The Hebrew equivalent of 'par'oh' is nothing more than a transliteration of the Egyptian term. Since it is a transliterated word, there are a number of possible renditions that would have been acceptable in biblical Hebrew. It could have been spelled 'PaRO' (ending with a 'vav'), or 'PaROh' (ending with an 'aleph'). Instead, the Torah spells it 'PaRO'H,' ending with an 'ayin' and 'heh.'
This is not without significance, for the biblical root PRO' occurs in other contexts in which it connotes 'loose' (Bemidbar 5:18 "he shall untie [uPhaRA] her hair"), 'unlimited' (Shemot 32:25 "Moshe saw that the people were behaving without constraint [PhaRuA']"), or 'unbounded' (Mishlei/Proverbs 15:32 "he that casts off [PoReA'] instruction despises his own soul, but he that heeds reproof acquires understanding"). This indicates that Pharaoh represents an archetype, the human being that refuses to live according to limitations and constraints imposed by a Higher Sovereign. Pharaoh is not only a god in the eyes of his subjects, but possesses divinity in his own eyes as well. Thus, he is free to behave without moral compunction in his self-interested drive to achieve enduring and eternal fame. Or to recall the words that he himself employs to rebuff Moshe's first attempts to secure the release of the Israelites, "who is Hashem that I should hearken to his voice to free Israel? I do not know Hashem, nor will I release Israel!"
In many ways, the contest between the Israelite slaves and Pharaoh, the midwives and Pharaoh, Moshe and Pharaoh and for that matter between the invisible Hashem and Pharaoh, are all variations of the same struggle. In it, the seemingly powerless protagonist who stands shorn of any material might or prestige, is pitted against the most potent temporal sovereign of the ancient world's greatest empire. The encounter seems lopsided in the extreme, for who can prevail against the Pharaoh's omnipotence? As the account unfolds, however, it becomes apparent that perseverance and ultimate success are secured not by physical monuments or monoliths to self-aggrandizement, but rather by moral courage and spiritual fortitude. In the end, it is the force of justness that prevails, while the adversary's impressive but lifeless works of stone are buried by the sands of time.
The English poet Shelley captured some of these sentiments in his poem 'Ozymandias,' the title of which is actually the Greek corruption of 'Rameses' and refers to the indefatigable builder of whom we speak:
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."