Pharaoh’s Man Problem and the Birth of Jewish Exceptionalism

Did Pharaoh have a problem with men? Or did he have a larger agenda in ordering the boys to be killed? Exploring two parallel stories – the first near the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha, the second spanning the end of Bereishit and the beginning of Shemot – opens up the possibility that the office of the Egyptian monarch harbored a plan more systemic, methodological, and even ideological than usually assumed.

Let’s explore the beginning of the first story, Bereishit 12.

בראשית פרק יב
וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֙יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ

An important thing to notice, and one which will factor into our analysis of this story (which we will call Story #1), is that the famine here mirrors the two later famines in the Book of Bereishit. The first of those (see 26:1 ff.), which opens with a seemingly gratuitous reference to the famine in our story, involves Yitzchak and seems to parallel our story, in that Avimelech, the King of Gerar, abducts and nearly sleeps with Rivka. But the third famine (Chapters 31 ff.), to which we will pay more attention, is the one experienced by Yaakov and most of his sons, sans Yosef, and it is that famine which ultimately sends the Jewish people down to Egypt for centuries of slavery. Let’s compare the beginning of Avraham’s famine (story #1, above) with the beginning of Yaakov’s famine (which we will call Story #2):

בראשית פרק מא
וַתְּחִלֶּ֜ינָה שֶׁ֣בַע שְׁנֵ֤י הָרָעָב֙ לָב֔וֹא כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר אָמַ֣ר יוֹסֵ֑ף וַיְהִ֤י רָעָב֙ בְּכָל־הָ֣אֲרָצ֔וֹת וּבְכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם הָ֥יָה לָֽחֶם
נה וַתִּרְעַב֙ כָּל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּצְעַ֥ק הָעָ֛ם אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֖ה לַלָּ֑חֶם וַיֹּ֨אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֤ה לְכָל־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לְכ֣וּ אֶל־ יוֹסֵ֔ף אֲשֶׁר־יֹאמַ֥ר לָכֶ֖ם תַּעֲשֽׂוּ
נו וְהָרָעָ֣ב הָיָ֔ה עַ֖ל כָּל־פְּנֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּפְתַּ֨ח יוֹסֵ֜ף אֶֽת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֤ר בָּהֶם֙ וַיִּשְׁבֹּ֣ר לְמִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֶּחֱזַ֥ק הָֽרָעָ֖ב בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם
נז וְכָל־הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ בָּ֣אוּ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לִשְׁבֹּ֖ר אֶל־יוֹסֵ֑ף כִּֽי־חָזַ֥ק הָרָעָ֖ב בְּכָל־הָאָֽרֶץ

בראשית פרק מג
א וְהָרָעָ֖ב כָּבֵ֥ד בָּאָֽרֶץ

If a parallel can be drawn between the famine which drew Avraham to Egypt temporarily and the famine which brought the collective Jewish people down to Egypt for a far longer duration, it would not be interrupted by Yitzchak’s famine, one which, after all, did not result in Yitzchak’s leaving Israel for Egypt, which is why Yitzchak dealt with Avimelech of Gerar rather than Pharaoh. But in any event, the first parallel between Story #1 (Avraham’s famine) and Story #2 (Yaakov’s famine) – between our first and second national sojourns in Egypt – is the idea of famine.

Let’s continue with the Avraham story:

יא וַיְהִ֕י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הִקְרִ֖יב לָב֣וֹא מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ הִנֵּה־נָ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֛י אִשָּׁ֥ה יְפַת־מַרְאֶ֖ה אָֽתְּ
יב וְהָיָ֗ה כִּֽי־יִרְא֤וּ אֹתָךְ֙ הַמִּצְרִ֔ים וְאָמְר֖וּ אִשְׁתּ֣וֹ זֹ֑את וְהָרְג֥וּ אֹתִ֖י וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ

Avraham seems to have a surprisingly lucid advance awareness of the proclivities of a foreign monarch as they relate to his own wife. Where else do we find similar wording in Chumash? Let’s return to Story #2, the second national sojourn to Egypt:

שמות פרק א
טז וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖וא וָחָֽיָה
כב וַיְצַ֣ו פַּרְעֹ֔ה לְכָל־עַמּ֖וֹ לֵאמֹ֑ר כָּל־הַבֵּ֣ן הַיִּלּ֗וֹד הַיְאֹ֙רָה֙ תַּשְׁלִיכֻ֔הוּ וְכָל־הַבַּ֖ת תְּחַיּֽוּן

Parallel #2: Pharaoh’s Man Problem. He seems to really likes women, and he also really seems to like killing men. While it is true that Avraham’s fears in Story #1 sound narrowly confined to his wife’s rapturous beauty, maybe more is at stake: Pharaoh’s understanding, perhaps on account of that unusual beauty, that Avraham is on course to develop a nation which will change the world, and that the only way to neutralize that possibility is to capitalize on it by getting to Sarah first – if only she is not already married. The newborn baby girls in Story #2, as well, harbor the possibility of creating just such a nation with the Egyptian men they will have to grow up and marry – if, again, there are no Jewish men with whom to procreate instead. In both stories, eliminating the pesky Jewish male allows for the possibility that the remaining women will have no recourse but to propagate through Egyptian men the ultimate nation on earth.

Let’s proceed with Story #1:

בראשית פרק יב
אמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ
יד וַיְהִ֕י כְּב֥וֹא אַבְרָ֖ם מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיִּרְא֤וּ הַמִּצְרִים֙ אֶת־הָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּֽי־יָפָ֥ה הִ֖וא מְאֹֽד
טו וַיִּרְא֤וּ אֹתָהּ֙ שָׂרֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה וַיְהַֽלְל֥וּ אֹתָ֖הּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וַתֻּקַּ֥ח הָאִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה
טז וּלְאַבְרָ֥ם הֵיטִ֖יב בַּעֲבוּרָ֑הּ וַֽיְהִי־ל֤וֹ צֹאן־וּבָקָר֙ וַחֲמֹרִ֔ים וַעֲבָדִים֙ וּשְׁפָחֹ֔ת וַאֲתֹנֹ֖ת וּגְמַלִּֽים

At first glance, Avraham’s plan is surprisingly narcissistic – לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ, in order that it should be good for me for your sake, and my life will be saved on account of you. Isn’t he concerned at all that his dear wife not be abducted or harmed? Notice the parallel between וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י and וְאֹתָ֥ךְ יְחַיּֽוּ in Bereishit 12, and וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖וא וָחָֽיָה and וְכָל־הַבַּ֖ת תְּחַיּֽוּן in Shemot 12.

So far our parallels are famine, Pharaoh’s desire to destroy specifically men and create a nation with the remaining women, and the concomitant desire shared by Avraham, Shifra, and Puah to preserve a threatened nation. Let’s return to the Avraham story:

בראשית פרק יב
יז וַיְנַגַּ֨ע יְהֹוָ֧ה ׀ אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֛ה נְגָעִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים וְאֶת־בֵּית֑וֹ עַל־דְּבַ֥ר שָׂרַ֖י אֵ֥שֶׁת אַבְרָֽם

Here the parallel is too obvious, but let’s look at it anyway:

שמות פרק יא
א וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה ע֣וֹד נֶ֤גַע אֶחָד֙ אָבִ֤יא עַל־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְעַל־מִצְרַ֔יִם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֕ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּ֑ה כְּשַׁ֨לְּח֔וֹ כָּלָ֕ה גָּרֵ֛שׁ יְגָרֵ֥שׁ אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּֽה

In both cases, Pharaoh and a cast surrounding him – his household in Story #1, and his entire country in Story #2 – are struck with נגעים, unidentified “afflictions.” The word נגע also means to touch or to be personally affected by something, and Pharaoh is indeed being visited by Hashem to let him know that His love interest is elsewhere and that Pharaoh’s services will not be needed in crafting the chosen people.

Back to Story #1:

בראשית פרק יב
יח וַיִּקְרָ֤א פַרְעֹה֙ לְאַבְרָ֔ם
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מַה־זֹּ֖את עָשִׂ֣יתָ לִּ֑י לָ֚מָּה לֹא־הִגַּ֣דְתָּ לִּ֔י כִּ֥י אִשְׁתְּךָ֖ הִֽוא
יט לָמָ֤ה אָמַ֙רְתָּ֙ אֲחֹ֣תִי הִ֔וא וָאֶקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ לִ֖י לְאִשָּׁ֑ה וְעַתָּ֕ה הִנֵּ֥ה אִשְׁתְּךָ֖ קַ֥ח וָלֵֽךְ

And ahead to Story #2:

שמות פרק יב
לא וַיִּקְרָא֩ לְמֹשֶׁ֨ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֜ן לַ֗יְלָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ ק֤וּמוּ צְּאוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ עַמִּ֔י גַּם־אַתֶּ֖ם גַּם־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וּלְכ֛וּ עִבְד֥וּ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֖ה כְּדַבֶּרְכֶֽם

In an act of late-night desperation, Pharaoh calls to Avraham or to Moshe and Aharon – the ultimate abdication of his coveted throne and high position – and sends them contemptuously off on their national journey. Yet Pharaoh’s admission of defeat in both stories equates to his accepting that it is Hashem Who will choose His nation, not Pharaoh; as we see Pharaoh lower himself, we also see him wave the white flag to forfeit his battle to be the leader of the nation chosen by God. Hence,

שמות פרק יב
לב … וָלֵ֑כוּ וּבֵֽרַכְתֶּ֖ם גַּם־אֹתִֽי

So far we have seen famine, a desire by Pharaoh to usurp the status of chosen nation, a negative Jewish reaction, and Hashem’s acquiescence to the latter. Back to Story #1, we see the response of Pharaoh in the form of a tribute to a man in bequest of his sister:

בראשית פרק יב
טז וּלְאַבְרָ֥ם הֵיטִ֖יב בַּעֲבוּרָ֑הּ וַֽיְהִי־ל֤וֹ צֹאן־וּבָקָר֙ וַחֲמֹרִ֔ים וַעֲבָדִים֙ וּשְׁפָחֹ֔ת וַאֲתֹנֹ֖ת וּגְמַלִּֽים
בראשית פרק יג
א וַיַּעַל֩ אַבְרָ֨ם מִמִּצְרַ֜יִם ה֠וּא וְאִשְׁתּ֧וֹ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֛וֹ וְל֥וֹט עִמּ֖וֹ הַנֶּֽגְבָּה
ב וְאַבְרָ֖ם כָּבֵ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד בַּמִּקְנֶ֕ה בַּכֶּ֖סֶף וּבַזָּהָֽב

And ahead to Story #2 for the tribute to a God newly acknowledged as the ultimate Judge of Whom to choose as His nation:

שמות פרק יב
לב גַּם־צֹאנְכֶ֨ם גַּם־בְּקַרְכֶ֥ם קְח֛וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּרְתֶּ֖ם וָלֵ֑כוּ וּבֵֽרַכְתֶּ֖ם גַּם־אֹתִֽי

Back to Story #1 for the result of that decision by Pharaoh:

בראשית פרק יב
כ וַיְצַ֥ו עָלָ֛יו פַּרְעֹ֖ה אֲנָשִׁ֑ים וַֽיְשַׁלְּח֥וּ אֹת֛וֹ וְאֶת־אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־לֽוֹ

And the parallel result in Story #2:

שמות פרק יב
לג וַתֶּחֱזַ֤ק
מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ עַל־הָעָ֔ם לְמַהֵ֖ר לְשַׁלְּחָ֣ם מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּ֥י אָמְר֖וּ כֻּלָּ֥נוּ מֵתִֽים

Here the Egyptians make a cost-benefit analysis: the loss to our own people (“כֻּלָּ֥נוּ מֵתִֽים”) has grown too great to maintain the advantages of maintaining our relationship with this nation or its G-d, or the increasingly remote possibility that we will usurp its crown as the nation of G-d.

So we have seen, in two parallel stories, a false assumption by Pharaoh as to the possibility that he can claim the mantle of chosen nation for his own people, preventative action by the Jews, Hashem’s intervention on the Jews’ behalf, Pharaoh’s acceptance of the new reality, and his resulting expulsion of the Jews from his land. Let’s return to the role of the famines. On a simple level, the famines are merely conduits for Pharaoh to begin to interact with the Jews, but perhaps there is yet more to this particular choice of alibi. On the one hand, nothing more so than famine demonstrates Hashem’s ability to control nature at will, as this disruption of the natural order reminds us both that it is He who gives us food and that it is He Who takes it away. Yet at the same time, by decreeing famine in the entire world other than Egypt, Hashem was setting Pharaoh up for the very delusion that would eventually bring him down. It was to be the match-up of the century: G-d-Who-Controls-Nature vs. King-Who-Calls-His-Own-Shots. And having arranged the confrontation, the Referee would declare Himself the winner.

The roots of the Jewish-Egyptian conflict are here in Bereishit 12, but so too are the lessons that Pharaoh, and the Jews, will need to learn later. Pharaoh is in control of most of the known world, but he cannot control the pesky gnat that is flying in his face. His ego and sense of equilibrium are undone first by a mysterious stranger and his sister, and then by a minority population which mushrooms to become a threat of catastrophic proportions. Yet through it all, Pharaoh must acknowledge his own limitation in deference to a higher power, and consequently that there even is a higher power in comparison with which he is so limited. And therein lies the rub: to lose to a superpower would be humiliating enough; to lose to a gnat, even more so. Yet understanding that that gnat is pulled along on a string by the greatest Superpower of all, and that it is that Superpower which has truly gotten the best of you, assuages the pain. Pharaoh will never rule the chosen nation, but a chastened one which in its own way has unwittingly allowed the Name of the Superpower and of His chosen nation to be proclaimed throughout the world. With a country in ruins, that may be small comfort, but it is perhaps all one Superhero can offer a recovering superpower for the long road home from battle and the dark millennia ahead.


Until now we have compared Avraham’s descent to Egypt with the later descent of Yaakov’s sons. In their acting out of a desire to preserve their nation, however, Avraham and Sarah can also be compared to another seminal pair in Tanach – Mordechai and Esther. Let’s review one of the Pesukim in the Avraham story:

בראשית פרק יב
אמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ

The addition of נַפְשִׁ֖י here may indicate that Avraham is acting beyond the immediate need for self-preservation. Avraham’s plea here may parallel Esther’s in Megillat Esther:

אסתר פרק ז
ג וַתַּ֨עַן אֶסְתֵּ֤ר הַמַּלְכָּה֙ וַתֹּאמַ֔ר אִם־מָצָ֨אתִי חֵ֤ן בְּעֵינֶ֙יךָ֙ הַמֶּ֫לֶךְ וְאִם־עַל־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ ט֑וֹב תִּנָּֽתֶן־לִ֤י נַפְשִׁי֙ בִּשְׁאֵ֣לָתִ֔י וְעַמִּ֖י בְּבַקָּשָׁתִֽי

Avraham, too, senses a threat not only to the immediate survival of himself or his marriage, but by extension to the entire notion of a peoplehood he has been charged to secure. (Recall Rashi’s famous read of “ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן.”) Thus Avraham’s plea to Sarah – which sounds a lot like Mordechai’s elsewhere in the Megillah – to act not merely out of the immediacy of primal self-preservation but with an eye to the future:

מגילת אסתר פרק ד
וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי לְהָשִׁיב אֶל אֶסְתֵּר, אַל תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל הַיְּהוּדִים

יד כִּי אִם הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר וְאַתְּ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ, וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת

Who can fathom the selflessness of the Jew in Galut which drives him to such peril to save his own People! Avraham and Mordechai, each masking their own identity, encourage their protege, Sarah or Esther, to commit the cardinal act of forbidden relations as a way of saving the Jewish nation. Each masks his identity – but prods the woman around him to reveal who she really is. That ability to know when to reveal and when to conceal has been a key to Jewish survival throughout Galut.

Ultimately, both Avraham and Mordechai present paradigms of Jewish leadership as borne of self-sacrifice. Calculated risk, and willingness to sacrifice principle for a larger good, become tools that serve us well in dealing with Lot, Esav, Pharaoh, and on down to our more contemporary foes. Avraham paves the way for Mordechai to take similar steps in his generation. Our challenge is to determine intelligently how to apply the lesson to our own.

This entry was posted in Holidays, Parshat Hashavua, Pesach. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s