[b-hebrew] Was Pharaoh "Touched" or "Plagued" by God at Genesis 12: 17?

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Mon Aug 18 16:53:22 EDT 2008


Karl W. Randolph:
 
1.  You wrote:  “The meaning of נגע NG( when looking at all its uses in the 
Bible is "to
 reach out to touch, used for all touching from soft caresses to a hard blow 
intended to injure or kill, also for sexual contact".  As such, that is not 
the same meaning as used in English.”
 
I agree that nun-gimel-ayin means “to reach out to touch”, in a wide variety 
of applications.  In Hebrew, to “touch” in this sense could be, but need not 
be, to render “a hard blow intended to injure or kill”.  Or it could refer 
to, but need not refer to, “sexual contact”.
 
As a noun, in its second use at Genesis 12: 17, Gesenius says that 
nun-gimel-resh means “stroke, blow, mark, spot”.  It really means “touch”, viewed 
broadly.  Genesis 12: 17 says that YHWH “touched” (nun-gimel-ayin) Pharaoh and 
Pharaoh’s household with “strokes, blows, marks or spots” or “touchings” 
(nun-gimel-ayin) of considerable magnitude. 
 
2.  You wrote:  “Genesis doesn't give us the details of how God "touched" 
pharaoh, other than that it was great, and given the term's broad uses, "plague" 
fits the
 context.”
 
One important “detail” that Genesis does give is that YHWH “touched” 
Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household.  That means that YHWH did not rain down a plague on 
Egypt as a whole.  So we are not dealing with a plague afflicting the country 
of Egypt.  No, we are dealing with YHWH “touching” Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s 
household.
 
In what sense does translating nun-gimel-ayin as “plague” at Genesis 12: 17 “
fit the context”?
 
It is perhaps possible that Pharaoh and many people in Pharaoh’s household 
came down with the plague of leprosy.  But Pharaoh does not say that at Genesis 
12: 18-19 (quoted below).  And why would Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household 
coming down with leprosy or some similar disease be interpreted by Pharaoh to mean 
that Sarah must be a married woman?
 
Note that Pharaoh does not claim that either he has been afflicted by 
infirmities or an individual plague, or that Egypt has been afflicted by a plague:
 
“And Pharaoh called Abram, and said: 'What is this that thou hast done unto 
me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?  Why saidst thou: She is 
my sister? so that I took her to be my wife;  now therefore behold thy wife, 
take her, and go thy way.'”  Genesis 12: 18-19
 
Pharaoh’s reference to “that thou hast done unto me” is Pharaoh’s claim 
that Abraham has allegedly put Pharaoh into an immoral situation by reason of the 
fact that Sarah, who has been in Pharaoh’s harem for a short time, is a 
married woman.  That meaning is clarified by the immediately following line:  “why 
didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?”  Pharaoh is not claiming at 
Genesis 12: 18 that Pharaoh has been afflicted by an individual plague, or that 
Egypt has been afflicted by a plague.  No, Pharaoh is claiming that Abraham has 
put Pharaoh into a potentially immoral situation, allegedly under false 
pretenses, which in turn has led to a sharp divine communication to Pharaoh (by 
means of both Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household being divinely “touched”) to cease 
and desist immediately as to Sarah being in Pharaoh’s harem.  This sharp 
divine communication affected not only Pharaoh individually, but also Pharaoh’s 
household generally, and it was done in such a way that all attention 
immediately focused on Sarah.  Note, importantly, that YHWH makes this a  p-u-b-l-i-c  
matter.  Since Pharaoh’s household has been divinely and unpleasantly “touched”
 by YHWH, in a way that focuses attention on Sarah’s curious and unpleasant 
plight, all of Egypt will soon know of Sarah’s awkward situation.  We should 
ask ourselves why it is important that Sarah’s awkward situation becomes  
p-u-b-l-i-c  knowledge throughout Egypt.
 
Since all of Pharaoh’s household is undoubtedly buzzing about these divine, 
undesired “touchings”, which in turn would set all of Egypt buzzing about 
these divine and undesired “touchings”, the necessary implication is that Pharaoh 
summoned Abraham to a very  p-u-b-l-i-c  audience with Pharaoh at Genesis 12: 
17-18 to deal with this matter.  Pharaoh in effect loudly tells all of Egypt 
that this woman who was recently introduced into Pharaoh’s harem is the wife 
of this monotheistic man from Canaan.  Then instead of having Abraham impaled 
(cf. Genesis 40: 22), or throwing Abraham into jail (cf. Genesis 39: 20), or at 
least confiscating Abraham’s new great wealth that Abraham has just now 
amassed in Egypt, this is what Pharaoh does regarding the Hebrew monotheist from 
Canaan, his wife, and his possessions:
 
“And Pharaoh gave men charge concerning him;  and they brought him on the 
way, and his wife, and all that he had.”  Genesis 12: 20    
 
Remember now, Pharaoh does all this high-profile action in  p-u-b-l-i-c.  Can 
you imagine the incredible buzz in Egypt?  Why would this Pharaoh have wanted 
that particular buzz?  Everyone in Egypt would be buzzing about Pharaoh’s 
special treatment of this monotheist (Abraham) from Canaan.  It is perhaps easier 
to see why that buzz (malicious gossip) was an unpleasant ordeal that Abraham 
and Sarah had to endure, as part of a series of divine tests showing them to 
be worthy of being the first Hebrew monotheists.
 
At the end of the day, we do not know the precise way in which YHWH “touched”
 Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household.  What the text says at Genesis 12: 17 is 
that God “reached out to touch” (nun-gimel-ayin) Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s 
household, with “touches” of great magnitude.  That was the clear, unambiguous divine 
signal that Pharaoh was to return Sarah to Abraham.  Which Pharaoh promptly 
did.
 
YHWH touched Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household.  It likely was a harsh touch.  
It certainly made a big impression on everyone.  We know that Pharaoh got the 
divine message, loud and clear, that’s for sure.  But I see an English 
translation of “plague” as being unwarranted at Genesis 12: 17, as it fails 
miserably to reflect the nuances and ambiguities of the wonderful Hebrew word 
nun-gimel-ayin/“touch”.
 
Why YHWH “touched” Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household with great magnitude in 
such a  p-u-b-l-i-c  way is one key to understanding what is going on in 
chapter 12 of Genesis.  Another key is to understand that Pharaoh is reacting to 
Abraham as a monotheist, not as the consort of an irresistibly physically 
attractive woman (Sarah, who is age 65 “years” and almost beyond the normal age of 
childbearing in the ancient world).
 
We see that the old Pharaoh in chapter 12 of Genesis gives “special treatment”
 to Hebrew monotheist Abraham.  Ditto for the young Pharaoh at the end of 
Genesis for Hebrew monotheist Joseph.  Why?  Why this special treatment?  Are 
these believable stories, that would have seemed credible to their initial Hebrew 
audiences?
 
These stories make sense, both logically and historically, if and only if the 
old Pharaoh at the end of his reign, and the young Pharaoh throughout his 
reign, were semi-monotheists, who respected Abraham, Joseph and Jacob/“Israel” 
as being fellow monotheists after a fashion.  Otherwise, the Pharaohs’ actions 
towards (special treatment of) Abraham, Joseph and Jacob are inexplicable.  
That in turn solidifies the historical time period of the Patriarchal Age as 
being the Late Bronze Age.  These stories are credible, and make sense, only in 
that one particular, peculiar, unique historical time period.
 
I agree that nun-gimel-ayin often has a different meaning than the normal 
meaning of the English word “touch”, which I believe was the point you were 
validly making.  But if the English word “touch” is viewed very broadly, then I 
nevertheless see it as being a better translation than the English word “plague”
, which destroys all the subtleties, nuances, overtones and ambiguities in 
the Hebrew original, and even, in my opinion, misrepresents what the Hebrew text 
is actually saying.  YHWH communicated to YHWH a specific message, by harshly 
“touching” Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household.
 
Genesis 32: 25 importantly uses the same word nun-gimel-ayin/“touch”, when a 
divine figure “touches” Jacob and then re-names Jacob as “Israel”.  You 
would not say that that divine figure “plagued” Jacob, would you?  No, although 
Jacob thereafter has a terrible limp (like the immediate successor, 
historically, of the young Pharaoh at the end of Genesis), this phenomenon of being 
divinely “touched” has the same fundamental ambiguity in Hebrew at Genesis 32: 25 
as it does at Genesis 12: 17.  This is the mysterious divine “touch” in the 
Patriarchal narratives.  It is not gentle or pleasant, but it’s not a “plague”
 either.  Rather, it is a harsh divine “touch”. 
 
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois




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