Last week I wrote the first installment in our focus on kings of the bible. For part 1, I focused on Nimrod.
Today I turn our attention to Pharaoh.
There are several Pharaohs in the bible. They show up in Genesis, Exodus, 1 & 2 Kings, and Isaiah. It would be impossible for us to examine all of these Pharaohs in one blog post. So instead I’m going to focus on one Pharaoh – the unnamed Pharaoh of Exodus.
This Pharaoh appears throughout Exodus 1-14. And he ends up being the key Pharaoh figure for Scripture. It is this Pharaoh that most people think about. He is the Pharaoh that can arguably be said to be the most important Pharaoh figure in Scripture.
Which Pharaoh is it though? All we are told come from Exodus 1:8 – “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
Wikipedia (not always the most reliable of sources) has a nice summary of potential actual Pharaohs this could be:
“In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites, the descendants of Jacob’s sons, are living in the Land of Goshen, under a new pharaoh. This pharaoh has forgotten all of Joseph’s contributions and seeks to oppress the Hebrews, forcing them to work long hours without break and killing their children to reduce their numbers. Moses, a Levite, is saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter, and raised in the Pharaoh’s house. Throughout Moses’ life, he is aware of his Israelite status, as is the Pharaoh, who still permits Moses to remain in his house.
“Possible suggestions for a historical counterpart to Pharaoh include:
- Dedumose II (died c. 1690 BC): David Rohl’s 1995 A Test of Time revised Egyptian history by shortening the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt by almost 300 years. As a by-result the synchronisms with the biblical narrative have changed, making the Second Intermediate Period king Dedumose II the pharaoh of the Exodus. Rohl’s theory has failed to find support among scholars in his field.
- Ahmose I (1550–1525 BC): Most ancient writers considered Ahmose I to be the pharaoh of the Exodus.
- Akhenaten (1353–1349 BC). In his book Moses and Monotheism Sigmund Freud argued that Moses had been an Atenist priest forced to leave Egypt with his followers after Akhenaten’s death.
- Ramesses II (c. 1279–1213 BC): Also known as Ramesses the Great, he is the most commonly imagined figure in popular culture (most widely via the 1956 film The Ten Commandments), being one of the most long standing rulers at the height of Egyptian power, but, as with all other Pharaohs, there is no documentary or archaeological evidence that he chased any slaves fleeing Egypt. Ramesses II’s late 13th century BC stela in Beth Shan mentions two conquered peoples who came to “make obeisance to him” in his city of Raameses or Pi-Ramesses but mentions neither the building of the city nor, as some have written, the Israelites or Hapiru. Additionally, the historical Pithom was built in the 7th century BC, during the Saite period.
- Merneptah (c. 1213–1203 BC): Isaac Asimov in his Guide to the Bible makes a case for him to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus.
- Setnakhte (c. 1189–1186 BC): Igor P. Lipovsky makes a case for him to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus.
- Senusret III”
As with the blog post on Nimrod, my focus is not on the historic accuracy of the kings beyond sharing a little bit of history, but rather to look at the theological impact of these kings on the people, governing, and relationship with God.
Regardless of who the Pharaoh of Exodus 1-14 was, we know this much – he was a complicated character.
We get a first glimpse into his character and treatment of other people in Exodus 1:9-11 – “He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.”
This short introduction tells us a great deal about this Pharaoh. First, Egypt is an empire. As I’ve said before – all empires have four things in common. They exploit, oppress, kill, and destroy. Just in this introductory paragraph alone, we hear about Pharoah’s efforts to exploit and oppress the people. Later in Exodus 14 we read about Pharoah’s attempt to chase after the Israelites through the Red Sea to kill them.
Second, this Pharaoh sees himself as an emperor. He sees himself as the savior of his people. He uses fear of the other to rally his people and subjugate the scapegoated Israelites. In this sense, this Pharaoh doesn’t need a name. He represents all emperors or would be emperors who desire to do the same thing – use fear to oppress a group of people, exploit them for their labor and value, and destroy their identity and heritage, and ultimately his desire is to kill them.
Exodus 1:13-14 states: “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.”
Exodus 1:22 states: “Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.'”
Chapter one of Exodus sets the stage well – Israel, and Israel’s God Yahweh, are up against an empire and emperor in the form of Egypt and Pharaoh. This becomes a recurring theme of Scripture that will carry through to the New Testament. Which is why it doesn’t matter which Pharaoh this is. In essence, Scripture is arguing that all Pharaohs are alike – whether they are literally the Pharaohs of Egypt, or any other would-be emperor anywhere. They all act the same way and have the same character traits. And they all lose eventually.
Throughout the narrative of Exodus 1-14 we certainly hear about the character of Pharaoh, but more importantly we learn some things about God. We learn first hand how God is a God of liberation – setting the captives free. When the Israelites finally make it to the wilderness and are starving, we hear how God is a God who feeds the hungry and provides water for the thirsty. We hear stories in Genesis and elsewhere where God provides clothing for those that are naked. We hear stories throughout Genesis about how God is a God who welcomes the stranger. We hear stories about how God cares for the sick. Sounds an awful lot like Matthew 25, doesn’t it?
Pharaoh, on the other hand, represents the opposite of God. He forces work, offers no rest, takes away supplies and resources, oppresses people, and more. The plagues against Egypt and Pharaoh are judgements on the Egyptian gods and what they represent. The plagues are judgements against empire also and what it represents – itself being a false god. Empires promise peace and salvation for its people. But it is a false peace and salvation brought about at the price of blood and violence.
Because Scripture doesn’t give the Pharaoh of Exodus 1-14 a name, what it does it shows us that the evil perpetuated by Pharaoh wasn’t tied to a specific individual, but rather to a system of government, to an ideology of empire, to an idolatry of empire. Pharaoh is the personification of this. And he faces the harshest judgement and loss. Multiple times we read about God hardening the heard of Pharaoh. This shows that Pharaoh may be in charge of the empire and what it represents, but all that power is nothing when it comes to God who changes Pharaoh like a play thing.
In the end, Pharaoh loses much. Empire has been judged and found to be lacking of godliness, righteousness, and justice. And so it suffers the consequences and is written off, left with ruin.
Questions to ponder:
How does Pharaoh rear his head in our world today? Where do we encounter Pharaoh’s empire in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, in our nation, in our world? Empires don’t have to be military in nature. There can be empires of culture, institutions, and beliefs. How do we see God acting against these empires today?