What do we know of Pharaoh, the evil king of Egypt who played a key role in our formation as a nation, from the enslavement to the Exodus?

Many are familiar with the basic story of how Pharaoh ordered the murder of the Jewish boys and enslavement of the adults; how Moses, acting as G‑d’s agent, brought 10 plagues upon him and his people; and how he met his end beneath the churning waves of the Red Sea.

But there’s more.

According to some opinions,1 this was the same pharaoh who appointed Joseph as viceroy. (The generic name “Pharaoh” was given to Egyptian rulers for more than 3,000 years.2) Originally, when his advisors came up with the idea of enslaving the Jews, he rejected it outright out of a sense of gratitude to Joseph, who had been so good to Egypt. His cabinet was not impressed, so they demoted him from his rulership for three months. Desperate to get back his seat, he told them, “I’ll listen to whatever you tell me!”

According to another opinion,3 this was a new pharaoh who felt no sense of debt to Joseph and hence was quite comfortable with tormenting the Jews.

Fascinating Facts

Jewish literature is rife with anecdotes and tales about this Pharaoh. Here is a small sampling that offers a bit of perspective on this figure.

  • Pharaoh was a magician, and even better at it than his court magicians.4
  • He was very proud of his foolishness, and was an anti-intellectual.5
  • He was afflicted with leprosy, and his magicians recommended that he bathe in the blood of Jewish children.6
  • He claimed to be a god. How did he maintain this image? He would relieve himself only when no one was around.7
  • He was the only firstborn to survive the plague of the death of the firstborn.8
  • He took dreams very seriously. Think about it: he appointed a former prisoner—Joseph—as viceroy just due to his ability to interpret dreams.
  • He was Moses’ adoptive grandfather without knowing it! When Moses was found by Batyah in the Nile, she then brought him back to be raised in her father’s palace. Her father was none other than Pharaoh himself. So, in one of the greatest ironic twists in history, the savior of the Jews was raised in the home of the tormentor of the Jews.9
  • He was a (very!) stubborn fellow. He refused to give in, even after suffering through the plagues.10
  • He had a very long beard.11
  • The day that Moses and Aaron showed up to relay the message “Let My people go!” just happened to be Pharaoh’s birthday. Everyone else was presenting gifts and flattery to him. When they relayed their message to him, they not only crashed his party, they crashed his mood as well. He went into a frenzy: “What kind of G‑d sends me directives instead of presents!?”12
  • He was slapped by Moses. This happened before the tenth plague, when Moses had had enough of his stubbornness and slapped him across the face.13
  • According to some opinions, he was the only survivor of the Egyptians who had chased after the Jews into the Red Sea.14 He then moved to the city of Nineveh, and became king there. Many years later, when Jonah the prophet was sent to Nineveh to warn them that they must repent, it was this very same Pharaoh who—thanks to lots of previous experience—took Jonah’s words seriously and got the whole realm to repent and be saved.15

Delving Deeper

The mystics and commentaries delve deeper into the character and philosophy of Pharaoh.

The Zohar tells us that Pharaoh acknowledged the existence of G‑d, but only a G‑d within nature. The idea of a supernatural G‑d who defies the laws of nature was something he couldn’t grasp. That is why, when he said “I don’t know of G‑d,” he used the name Y-H-V-H, which refers to the supernatural level of G‑d. So when Moses spoke to Pharaoh, he would always refer to Him with that name (rather than Elokim, which references His connection to nature).16

The holy Shaloh adds that when Joseph offered to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he said, “Elokim will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh!”17 Hence Pharaoh had been introduced to the natural expression of G‑d, through which He creates and interacts with reality. But the manifestation of G‑d that supersedes nature and can miraculously deliver the Jews from the most impregnable fortress was beyond his realm.18

In chassidic thought, Pharaoh signifies several themes:19

  • The ultimate denial of G‑d’s existence. The prophet Ezekiel quotes him as saying, “The Nile is mine and I made it!”20
  • Ingratitude about all that G‑d does for us.21
  • The individual who believes in G‑d only when he witnesses miracles. The moment the miracles stop, his faith wavers.22

Thus, we each have a bit of Pharaoh within us—the part that doubts, denies, takes things for granted. But the inner Pharaoh can be vanquished by the Moses within us. All we need to do is to stand tall and declare: “Time to get out of Egypt! I can break through my personal hangups to be truly free. I will let myself go free!”