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Pharaoh by Scott B. Noegel

Why is the pharaoh rarely named in the Hebrew Bible?

Few figures in the Hebrew Bible have generated more interest and scholarly discussion than the Egyptian pharaoh. Despite appearing prominently in Genesis (94x) and Exodus (115x), these books never provide his name. As one might expect, this has led generations of scholars to seek his identity and to locate the historical period in which he lived—the hope being that such information could validate the historicity of the events portrayed in the texts. Yet such efforts have been frustrated by the literary and polemical nature of the narratives, which resists firm historical moorings. That is, the stories in Genesis and Exodus appear less interested in detailing the actions of a specific pharaoh than in casting him as a literary type. As a self-declared god and the embodiment of Egypt’s international power, he represents the antithesis to Israelite religion and the quintessential enemy of Israel.

Are there differences in the ways individual biblical books treat the figure of pharaoh?

In Genesis, the pharaoh is constantly doing Yahweh’s bidding or suffering at his hand. When pharaoh takes Abram’s wife Sarai into his palace, Yahweh sends him a plague (Gen 12). Elsewhere, the title “pharaoh” establishes the rank and power of his officials, like Potiphar (Gen 37:36, Gen 39:1). In the Joseph cycle, the narrator portrays pharaoh as a hothead, who throws his officials into the dungeon without reason (Gen 40). When his own ritual experts fail to interpret his dream, pharaoh becomes a pawn in Yahweh’s plan to exonerate Joseph and elevate him to a position that allows him to save his family during a famine and return home (Gen 41-50).

The pharaoh in Exodus is more villainous. He imposes unreasonable quotas on his Israelite slaves (Exod 5:6-18), issues an edict to kill their firstborn males (Exod 1:15-22), and pits himself against Yahweh and his ten plagues. This results in heavy casualties, including pharaoh’s own son (Exod 7-15). Yahweh empowers Moses and Aaron to best pharaoh, his priests, and the gods of Egypt (Exod 7, Exod 12:12), which only makes him more obstinate and vindictive. Rather than offering an historical portrait, the authors use pharaoh as a literary foil; he unwittingly abets Yahweh’s plan. As in Genesis, the narratives avoid naming him in order to focus on the plot rather than a historical figure, which in turn allows them to underscore Yahweh’s power over Egypt and its gods.

A different situation obtains in historical narratives as found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Kings, and Chronicles. They report the actions of specific pharaohs, including Shishaq (1Kgs 11:40, 1Kgs 14:25, 2Chr 12:2), So (2Kgs 17:4), Tirhaqah (2Kgs 19:9, Isa 37:9), Necho (2Kgs 23:29-34), and Apries (Jer 44:30). The case of Zerah the Kushite, who attacked Asa (2Chr 14:8), poses problems since he an unknown figure. The account also has no parallel in Kings. The name of the city Ramesses also occurs (Gen 47:11, Exod 1:11, Num 33:3, Num 33:5), but there were eleven pharaohs by that name. Moreover, most of these narratives too are polemical and underscore pharaoh’s wickedness. Shishaq harbors Jeroboam and loots Yahweh’s temple. So allies with Hoshea, king of Israel, who served the “evil” king Ahaz (2Kgs 17:2). Necho’s troops killed King Josiah at Megiddo. Jeremiah regarded the capture of Apries by Nebuchadnezzar as portending Yahweh’s wrath against Judah. The only pharaoh who escapes invective is Tirhaqah, because his troops aided Hezekiah when Sennacherib sought to take Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the text avoids crediting him with victory, and instead ascribes it to Yahweh’s angels (2Kgs 19:35-36).

The prophets are particularly polemical. Isaiah warns that relying on Egypt will bring shame (Isa 30:1-5) and labels pharaoh’s wisemen “drunkards” (Isa 19:11-14). Jeremiah portends Yahweh’s destruction of pharaoh (Jer 25:19, Jer 25:19-26) and portrays them as no match for the Babylonians (Jer 37, Jer 43, Jer 44, Jer 46). Ezekiel sees pharaoh as the Babylonian king’s unreliable inferior (Ezek 17, Ezek 29, Ezek 30). He describes him as a dragon and lion about to be killed (Ezek 29, Ezek 32) and as a cedar about to feel the axe (Ezek 30). Other texts recall pharaoh’s downfall while praising Yahweh’s wonders during the Exodus (Deut 6:22, 1Sam 2:27, Neh 9).

It is difficult to obtain a balanced portrait of the Bible’s pharaohs, because the accounts in which they appear are literary and/or informed by polemic, and the Egyptian records are equally tendentious, often lauding them and their achievements in unrealistic ways. One must read and compare both records with caution and realize that their authors saw the events they reported through very different theological lenses.

Scott B. Noegel , "Pharaoh", n.p. [cited 18 Nov 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/pharaoh

Contributors

noegel-scott

Scott B. Noegel
Professor of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literatures, University of Washington

Prof. Scott B. Noegel (PhD 1995, Cornell University) is Professor of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literatures in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington, a department for which he also served as chair 2006-2015. He has authored, coauthored, and edited nine books and more than eighty articles on diverse topics related to ancient Near Eastern languages, literature, and culture. Currently, he is working on a monograph entitled “World Play” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts. To learn more about his projects or to download his publications, visit http://faculty.washington.edu/snoegel/.

The character of pharaoh, the generic term for the king of Egypt, appears throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Did you know…?

  • The Hebrew title “pharaoh” derives from the Egyptian words “great house,” in much the same way that we refer to the “White House.”
  • The position to which pharaoh elevates Joseph is literally “a father to pharaoh” (Gen 45:8).
  • Scholars have identified the named pharaohs as follows: Shishaq (= Sheshonq I, r. 943-922 BCE), So (= Osorkon IV, r. 730-715 BCE, or perhaps the capital Sais), Tirhaqah (= Taharqa, r. 690-664 BCE), Necho (= Necho II, r. 610-595 BCE), and Apries (= Hophra, r. 589-570 BCE).
  • Solomon is said to have married the daughter of pharaoh (1Kgs 3:1), but he is unnamed. Scholars suggest he is Siamun, who ruled 979-960 BCE.
  • Scholars have argued that the phrase “the spring of the waters of Neptoah (Josh 15:9, Josh 18:15) is a garbled vestige of the “spring of (pharaoh) Merneptah.” The proposal is important, because it suggests that Merneptah (r. 1213-1203 BCE) campaigned in the region, a notion bolstered by a stele composed during his reign that contains the earliest extrabiblical reference to the name “Israel.”
  • One of the few non-polemical references to pharaoh occurs in Song 1:9, which likens the lover to a “mare among pharaoh’s chariots,” i.e., one who arouses men.

Not specific; not connected to a particular version.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

rhetoric intended to oppose a specific position

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Gen 12

The Call of Abram
1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.2I will make of y ... View more

Gen 37:36

36Meanwhile the Midianites had sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the guard.

Gen 39:1

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife
1Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the ... View more

Gen 40

The Dreams of Two Prisoners
1Some time after this, the cupbearer of the king of Egypt and his baker offended their lord the king of Egypt.2Pharaoh was angry wit ... View more

Gen 41-50

Joseph Interprets Pharaoh's Dream
1After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile,2and there came up out of the Nile seven sleek and fa ... View more

Exod 5:6-18

6That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors,7“You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as befo ... View more

Exod 1:15-22

15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,16“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them ... View more

Exod 7-15

1The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.2You shall speak all that I command you, and yo ... View more

Exod 7

1The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.2You shall speak all that I command you, and yo ... View more

Exod 12:12

12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the g ... View more

1Kgs 11:40

40Solomon sought therefore to kill Jeroboam; but Jeroboam promptly fled to Egypt, to King Shishak of Egypt, and remained in Egypt until the death of Solomon.

1Kgs 14:25

25In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, King Shishak of Egypt came up against Jerusalem;

2Chr 12:2

2In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, because they had been unfaithful to the Lord, King Shishak of Egypt came up against Jerusalem

2Kgs 17:4

4But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea; for he had sent messengers to King So of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had don ... View more

2Kgs 19:9

9When the king heard concerning King Tirhakah of Ethiopia, “See, he has set out to fight against you,” he sent messengers again to Hezekiah, saying,

Isa 37:9

9Now the king heard concerning King Tirhakah of Ethiopia, “He has set out to fight against you.” When he heard it, he sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying,

2Kgs 23:29-34

29In his days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. King Josiah went to meet him; but when Pharaoh Neco met him at M ... View more

Jer 44:30

30Thus says the Lord, I am going to give Pharaoh Hophra, king of Egypt, into the hands of his enemies, those who seek his life, just as I gave King Zedekiah of ... View more

2Chr 14:8

8Asa had an army of three hundred thousand from Judah, armed with large shields and spears, and two hundred eighty thousand troops from Benjamin who carried shi ... View more

Gen 47:11

11Joseph settled his father and his brothers, and granted them a holding in the land of Egypt, in the best part of the land, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh ... View more

Exod 1:11

11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.

Num 33:3

3They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month; on the day after the passover the Israelites went out boldly in the sigh ... View more

Num 33:5

5So the Israelites set out from Rameses, and camped at Succoth.

2Kgs 17:2

2He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, yet not like the kings of Israel who were before him.

2Kgs 19:35-36

Sennacherib's Defeat and Death
35That very night the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; wh ... View more

Isa 30:1-5

The Futility of Reliance on Egypt
1Oh, rebellious children, says the Lord,
who carry out a plan, but not mine;
who make an alliance, but against my will,
adding ... View more

Isa 19:11-14

11The princes of Zoan are utterly foolish;
the wise counselors of Pharaoh give stupid counsel.
How can you say to Pharaoh,
“I am one of the sages,
a descendant ... View more

Jer 25:19

19Pharaoh king of Egypt, his servants, his officials, and all his people;

Jer 25:19-26

19Pharaoh king of Egypt, his servants, his officials, and all his people;20all the mixed people; all the kings of the land of Uz; all the kings of the land of t ... View more

Jer 37

Zedekiah's Vain Hope
1Zedekiah son of Josiah, whom King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made king in the land of Judah, succeeded Coniah son of Jehoiakim.2But neither ... View more

Jer 43

Taken to Egypt, Jeremiah Warns of Judgment
1When Jeremiah finished speaking to all the people all these words of the Lord their God, with which the Lord their G ... View more

Jer 44

Denunciation of Persistent Idolatry
1The word that came to Jeremiah for all the Judeans living in the land of Egypt, at Migdol, at Tahpanhes, at Memphis, and in ... View more

Jer 46

Judgment on Egypt
1The word of the Lord that came to the prophet Jeremiah concerning the nations.2Concerning Egypt, about the army of Pharaoh Neco, king of Egyp ... View more

Ezek 17

The Two Eagles and the Vine
1The word of the Lord came to me:2O mortal, propound a riddle, and speak an allegory to the house of Israel.3Say: Thus says the Lord ... View more

Ezek 29

Proclamation against Egypt
1In the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, set your face again ... View more

Ezek 30

Lamentation for Egypt
1The word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, prophesy, and say, Thus says the Lord GOD:
Wail, “Alas for the day!”3For a day is near,
the day ... View more

Ezek 29

Proclamation against Egypt
1In the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, set your face again ... View more

Ezek 32

Lamentation over Pharaoh and Egypt
1In the twelfth year, in the twelfth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, raise a l ... View more

Ezek 30

Lamentation for Egypt
1The word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, prophesy, and say, Thus says the Lord GOD:
Wail, “Alas for the day!”3For a day is near,
the day ... View more

Deut 6:22

22The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household.

1Sam 2:27

27A man of God came to Eli and said to him, “Thus the Lord has said, ‘I revealed myself to the family of your ancestor in Egypt when they were slaves to the hou ... View more

Neh 9

National Confession
1Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads ... View more

Gen 45:8

8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

1Kgs 3:1

Solomon's Prayer for Wisdom
1Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh's daughter and brought her into the city of David, unt ... View more

Josh 15:9

9then the boundary extends from the top of the mountain to the spring of the Waters of Nephtoah, and from there to the towns of Mount Ephron; then the boundary ... View more

Josh 18:15

15The southern side begins at the outskirts of Kiriath-jearim; and the boundary goes from there to Ephron, to the spring of the Waters of Nephtoah;

Song 1:9

Colloquy of Bridegroom, Friends, and Bride
9I compare you, my love,
to a mare among Pharaoh's chariots.

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