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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.

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.

  • noegel-scott

    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