Monday, January 08, 2007

What Was Pharoah Afraid Of?

What was the Pharoah at the beginning of Shemot/Exodus so afraid of, that made him declare 'open season' on Israelite baby boys? Let's look at his own words:
Hey, the Nation of the Israelite People is greater and more powerful than us! C'mon, let's be wise to them — lest they get more numerous, and it may be that war will be called against us, and they, too, will become added onto our haters, and they will fight us, and ascend from the land.

The end of Par‘o's unwanted scenario is that Beney Yisra’eil will fight against Egypt, ועלה מן הארץ, "and ascend from the land".

What does that mean? The King of the Land of Fertile Black Soil probably would not use the same philosophical geographic motion axis as the Israelites, who still hold that "Israel is the highest of all lands" and therefore we speak of making aliyá 'ascent' when we speak of moving there.

My theory (please tell me if you've seen this somewhere else) is that when he said "ascend from the land", he meant "come up [as if] out of the land itself, like a plague of zombies rising up out of our own soil to devour—" woops, sorry, got carried away for a second there. But the idea is that he's expressing anxiety NOT over the possibility that the Israelites will leave Egypt and go 'up' to Cana‘an, but instead that they will form a native-grown 'fifth column', rising up as if out of the very soil that has been nurturing them since the time of Yoseif, to betray and slaughter their so-far magnanimous hosts (who at this point stopped being so magnanimous after all).


hey, look! ancient egyptian reconstructed religion!

11 Comments:

Blogger The back of the hill said...

Something very similar is said in Isaac Asimov's Bible commentary.

Plus a whole lot more about Egyptian and Hittite rivalry, and Canaanitish groups caught in the middle.

But I love the idea of the plague of zombies - it adds very much a twilight zone feeling to the first parsha of the second book.

1/08/2007 11:44 PM  
Anonymous Simon Holloway said...

I haven't heard that idea before and I would agree with The Back of the Hill: it adds a nice, macabre sense to the story.

Otherwise, it's important to remember that (whatever your personal beliefs are regarding authorship), nobody thinks that Pharaoh wrote the beginning of Exodus. Who's to say that this is a direct quote? עלה can most certainly have the connotations of moving to the Land of Israel.

1/09/2007 12:23 AM  
Blogger Noyam said...

I like this understanding; very nice.

However, picking up on what Simon started on, we can perhaps read this not as a direct quote, and not even as a "conversation" that really happened, but rather the "author" giving context to the subsequent story, where the biggest story is the "going up," from the perspective of the intended audience.

1/09/2007 10:06 AM  
Blogger Elie said...

Nice pshat. Anotyer approach would be that the object of "ועלה מן הארץ" is the Egyptians themselves, not the Jews. Pharaoh was worried that the Hebrews would grow strong enought to evict them and take over the country. This accords well with the theory that the "new pharaoh" was in fact a new dynasty, i.e., the return of native Egyptians to rule after they deposed the Semitic Hyksos, to whom Joseph's pharaoh had belonged. The new regime was understandably concerned with cementing their rule and preventing its overthrow, in particular by the Hebrew allies of the previous rulers.

1/09/2007 10:10 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

No time to post a translation or vocalization, let alone explanation, but here's the text of Bekhor Shor on verse 1:10 (from the Keter CD):

(י) הבה נתחכמה לו פן ירבה - נערים עליו לעשות דבר, שלא ירבה; שאם ירבה, והיה כי תקראנה מלחמה - כי יהיה מקרה אל מלחמה, יתחבר עם שונאינו ונלחם בנו ועלה מן הארץ - ילכו להם, ונפסיד עם גדול כזה, שראוין להשתעבד בהם בשעת הצורך. ולכך נשתעבד בהם שלא לצורך, שלא ירבו ולא יעלו מן הארץ, ויהיו מצוים לנו בשעת הצורך. כי זאת העבודה לא היתה לצורך, אלא פן ירבה. ויש לפרש ועלה מן הארץ - כלומר: מן הארץ יהיה עליון, יותר ממנו, והיינו משועבדים להם. שניהם מדעתי, והראשון נראה; כי בסוף ניכר, שבסוף הקפידו שיצאו מתחת ידם. ומדקאמר והיה כי תקראנה יש להוכיח, שבפני עצמו לא היו יריאים מהם.

(Now I must work.)

1/09/2007 10:16 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Mr. of the Hill:

ah cool. i remember hearing about Asimov's commentary, how is it? (let me guess, 'heretically delicious'?)

Mr. Holloway:

good point... if other quotes (such as much of Devarim according to some opinions) can be paraphrased, definitely what Par‘o said could be, especially to 'translate' it for an Israelite audience.

Mr. Noyam:

thanks! and thanks for the elaboration on the thematic connection!

Mr. Elie:

right, i think Rashi says something similar... that Par‘o is afraid that actually "we" Egyptians will have to leave, and he's using a euphemism of attributing the verb not to himself and his people, but to Beney Yisra’eil.

Mr. Gavriel:

thanks! here's the translation...
C'mon let's be wise to them - let's pile up on them to do something so that they won't multiply; for if they will multiply, and it may be that war will be called, they will join up with our haters, fight against us and ascend from the land - they will go off, and we will lose such a large people, who deserve to be enslaved/utilized by us when we need it. And therefore we will enslave them when we don't need it, so that they don't become numerous and don't ascend from the land, and they will be around for whenever we need them. Because that work was not for need, but lest they multiply. And it [makes sense] to explain and ascend from the land - as follows: from the land, they will be higher up than us, and we would then become enslaved to them. These two are my opinion, but the first makes more sense; because in the end we recognize that at the end they insisted that they go out from under their hand. And from what is said "and it may be if war is called" we can prove that [without that scenario] by themselves they would not have feared them.

1/09/2007 7:51 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Azimov's commentary is usefull, except that he hardly ever gets into the words, or reading between the lines.

For that Rashi is still fun.

On the other hand, he also never delves into gmatria (unlike some other mefarshim), so he's not irritating to read.

But for some real apikorsus, Friedman (both his 'commentary' as well as his docuhypothetica stuff) is hard to beat.

By the way, is there a commentary you can recommend (in English) which is really utterly irritating? I need one I can fight with.

1/09/2007 8:01 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

נַעֲרִים = "let's pile up"? I would have thought something like "let's be cunning", from עָרְמָה. How did you-- oh, you're deriving it from עֲרֵמַת חִטִּים. Of course, Abravanel (in his commentary on Shemôth 15:8) says that the two expressions are related....

However, picking up on what Simon started on, we can perhaps read this not as a direct quote

Or perhaps it's focalization!

1/10/2007 12:47 AM  
Blogger yingerman said...

There is a sefer called sefer hayoshor, of unknown heavily debated authorship that metions wars in egypt mostly between afikaan peoples vs egypt with the assistance of the Israelites and even the offspring of Eisav with great victories going to (surprise!) to descendants of Avraham.
The verses posed here seem to indicate that the jews were very mighty men and the local populace feared them (bedtime stories have that, long term, larger than life, effect) and therefore the expression V'nosaf hu al sonaynu.
They would superceed our enemies and in a position of power, leave Egypt without their benefits, i.e labor, army and general middleman administrative services that the Jew have always been good at.

1/10/2007 11:32 AM  
Anonymous brother esav said...

"the Jew have always been good at"

contextless essentialism alert.

1/10/2007 3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First werewolves, now zombies...

I wonder if the phrase "veyidgu lerov bekerev haaretz" could be related to what you're saying. Bekerev haaretz - literally, WITHIN the land. Ha ha.

1/11/2007 5:16 AM  

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