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” (
- 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 (
The pharaoh in Exodus is more villainous. He imposes unreasonable quotas on his Israelite slaves (
A different situation obtains in historical narratives as found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Kings, and Chronicles. They report the actions of specific pharaohs, including Shishaq (
The prophets are particularly polemical. Isaiah warns that relying on Egypt will bring shame (
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.