This week, Jews around the world begin reading the book of Exodus in their synagogues. One of the key figures is the wicked Pharaoh who enslaves and decimates the Hebrews. I have a theory about the personality of this pharaoh, based on certain scriptural clues. (Disclaimer: This may not be an original theory, but I did come to it on my own. If any scholar or commentator has said the same thing, I’m happy to be in their intellectual company.)
As the book of Exodus begins, we read about how “a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Yosef.” (Exodus 1:8) Rashi, the great commentator, posits a theory that this was actually the same pharaoh as before, who knew Yosef well, but he chose to act as if he didn’t know Yosef. Why would Pharaoh do this? Wouldn’t he have a huge debt of gratitude for the man who single-handedly saved Egypt from an apocalyptic famine and, at the same time, made Egypt into the superpower of its day?
I believe that Rashi’s theory is correct. I think this is the same pharaoh that we met three weeks ago, in Parshat Miketz (Genesis 41:1). According to my theory, when we meet him in Miketz, he is a boy king. Very young. The first thing we read about this king is that he is troubled by a dream he’s had, and demands an interpretation from all of his attendants. It makes sense that a young child would be so traumatized by a nightmare that he’d wake everyone in the palace to make him feel better. Then Yosef comes along. He not only interprets the dream(s) in a way that sounds about right, but he also soothes the young pharaoh by not-too-subtly placing himself in a position to take the troubles off the boy king’s shoulders and deal with the crisis himself. An older ruler might have been reluctant to give so much power to a convicted attempted-rapist fresh out of prison. But our pharaoh is more than happy to reward the man that made his bad dream all better and promised to make sure everything will be okay.
Nine years later, Yosef brings his whole clan from the backwaters of Canaan to live in the fertile Goshen district of Egypt. Despite the Hebrews’ rustic manners, Pharaoh is gracious to them, and even offers them jobs (if they’re qualified). It seems he still appreciates all that Yosef has done for him and his country. As a matter of proper protocol, Yosef brings his father to meet his boss. When the 130-year-old Yaakov meets Pharaoh, the pre-teen/teenage king blurts out “How old are you?” in a kids-say-the-darndest-things sort of way. (Genesis 47:1-8)
However, years go by and Pharaoh grows up. As he does, he begins to resent the Hebrew ex-con who psychologically bullied a little boy into giving up a lot of his power (at least, that’s how he sees it). By the time Yaakov dies, the relationship between Yosef and the now-late-teen-or-young-twenties pharaoh has cooled considerably. Yosef doesn’t even feel comfortable enough to ask his boss directly if he can have permission to temporarily leave the country; he has to discreetly get a message to Pharaoh, asking for permission to attend his own father’s funeral (Genesis 50:4-5). This is hardly the friendly working relationship they used to have.
And then Yosef dies. After all these years, pharaoh can finally be his own man, not the one built up by that Hebrew who tricked a confused child, freshly awake from a nightmare, to make him viceroy. He wants to show everyone (including himself) that he never needed Yosef to rule this land. He actively forgets Yosef ever existed in terms of his role in making Egypt a superpower. All he chooses to remember is the sneaky Hebrew who weaseled his way into the palace. And he resents the hell out of that. But what can he do? Yosef is dead, Pharaoh can’t take out his resentment on a dead man. But he can take it out on his hillbilly family who, by the way, have been breeding like rabbits. He’ll show them what happens to those who try to manipulate the great Pharaoh. Not only will such a man go unremembered, but his family will spend the rest of their days in backbreaking slave labor.
So that’s my theory. That in these four parshiot (Miketz, Vayigash, Vayechi, and Shmot) we are witnessing — in the background of the main story — the maturation of a very young child-king into a cruel and resentful tyrant.