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

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Wed Aug 20 10:25:00 EDT 2008

Yigal Levin:
You wrote:  “Actually, Jim, you're ignoring the context.”
O.K., so then let’s try out your theory of the case,  i-n  c-o-n-t-e-x-t.
You wrote:  “[T]he verse continues to state what God "touched" Pharaoh "and 
his house" with - "nega'im gedolim". So you have to look at the noun "Nega'". 
The most common usage of this word in the Bible by far specifically refers to 
leprosy.  In other cases it clearly refers to some disease.  It does not appear 
elsewhere in Genesis, 
 but it Exodus 11:1 it also refers to something that God is about to bring 
 down on Pharaoh and on Egypt - we soon find out that it refers to the death 
 of the Egyptian firstborn.  So in my analysis, a "nega'" is (usually) a 
divinely-incurred disease, brought upon a specific person or persons in order to 
punish them or to warn 
 them (remember, this is how leprosy was viewed as well, which is why it was 
 "cured" by a priest and not by a doctor).”
On your theory of the case, Pharaoh has brought Sarah into his harem.  
Pharaoh and his household then come down with leprosy.  Whereupon this is what 
“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 
 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
On your theory of the case, why would Pharaoh associate the outbreak of 
leprosy upon Pharaoh and his household as having anything to do with Sarah?  If 
Pharaoh had honestly thought that Sarah was an unmarried woman when he brought 
Sarah into his harem (which I presume may be your theory of the case, since many 
scholars make that assumption), why then would Pharaoh think about Sarah when 
this outbreak of leprosy occurred?
How did Pharaoh find out that Sarah was a married woman?  On your view, did 
YHWH say that to Pharaoh?  If not, how could Pharaoh have guessed it?  If YHWH 
said that to Pharaoh, then why does YHWH also cause an attack of leprosy to 
infest Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household?  If Pharaoh had not known that Sarah was 
a married woman, then what was it that Pharaoh did wrong in bringing into his 
harem a woman whom Pharaoh honestly thought was an unmarried woman? 
But look again now at Genesis 12: 18-19 quoted above.  Isn’t that, in point 
of fact, actually official Egyptian government propaganda?  Isn’t that Pharaoh’
s public, self-serving claim that Pharaoh is innocent of the charge of 
knowingly bringing a married woman into his harem?
I hope you may agree with me that the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal 
narratives was sophisticated enough to set forth an accurate account of what Pharaoh 
 s-a-i-d  publicly, without expecting a Hebrew audience to assume that an 
Egyptian Pharaoh is necessarily speaking the truth.
Since Sarah was a middle-aged woman who accompanied middle-aged Abraham into 
Egypt, isn’t it much more realistic to think that Pharaoh knew darn well from 
the get-go that Sarah was not a virgin, and was not an unmarried woman?  What 
is accurately set forth in the text at Genesis 12: 18-19 is not the 
unvarnished truth, but rather is an accurate, unvarnished account of an official 
Egyptian government propaganda claim.  Although Abraham, Sarah, YHWH and Pharaoh know 
better, Pharaoh is proclaiming to the Egyptian public that Pharaoh did not, 
immorally, knowingly bring a married woman into his harem, because Pharaoh has 
supposedly only just now found out that Sarah is Abraham’s wife.
As I noted in my first post on this thread, it is likely that Abraham had 
predicted to Pharaoh, based on divine advice Abraham had gotten from YHWH, that 
in due course Pharaoh would receive a divine indication as to the proper time 
to return Sarah to Abraham.  (If Abraham had no such divine advice and made no 
such prediction, and Abraham honestly believed that he was losing beloved 
Sarah forever, then Abraham would thereby be portrayed as being cowardly and 
immoral, which does not make sense for a portrait of great Hebrew Patriarch Abraham 
in Hebrew sacred scripture.)  Pharaoh (and Pharaoh’s household) duly got that 
NG(/“mysterious, harsh divine  t-o-u-c-h, which had great meaning”, just as 
Abraham had predicted.  Pharaoh immediately complies with that divine message. 
The reference to "nega'im gedolim" literally means “with great touchings”.  
That is needed at Genesis 12: 17, where Pharaoh’s entire household receives 
this divine “touching”, whereas at Genesis 32: 25/26 it is only Jacob alone who 
receives the divine “touching”.  That “touching” in chapter 12 of Genesis 
has to impact Pharaoh’s entire household, in order to guarantee that this will 
be a public matter.  One key divine test that Abraham and Sarah are undergoing 
here is being willing to put up with the malicious gossip that would have 
swirled around Egypt as Abraham and Sarah returned to Canaan.  That malicious 
gossip was not accurate (Pharaoh never touched Sarah, and Abraham was neither 
cowardly nor immoral), but that salacious gossip was very real, very prominent, 
very unpleasant, and very predictable.
On your view of the case, I fail to see how an outbreak of leprosy in Pharaoh’
s household (which also afflicted Pharaoh himself) would have caused Pharaoh 
to think about Sarah, one way or the other.  Pharaoh might rather have thought 
of any other number of vices, big or small, of Pharaoh’s own.  Whereas on my 
view of the case, Pharaoh is waiting for the divine communication regarding 
Sarah that the monotheist Abraham has sagely predicted.  Pharaoh’s harsh words 
to Abraham at Genesis 12: 18-19 are for public consumption only, being official 
Egyptian government propaganda, not the unvarnished truth, on my view of the 
case.  (If Abraham had really been cowardly and immoral in Egypt, and had been 
properly and righteously rebuked therefor by an Egyptian pharaoh, of all 
people, then why on earth would beloved Hebrew Patriarch Abraham be portrayed as 
going to Gerar and doing the same cowardly, immoral thing a second time, in 
chapter 20 of Genesis, right after Abraham has twice been told that YHWH 
guarantees that Sarah will bear Abraham a male heir less than 12 months from now?  Is 
that a sensible theory of the case?  What Hebrew author would make up a 
horrible storyline like that?  Certainly that cannot be the correct interpretation 
of what the Hebrew author of the Patriarchal narratives is intending to portray 
in these memorable stories.  Abraham is no coward, Abraham is not immoral, 
Abraham does not fear for his life in tightly-governed Egypt (the safest place 
to be on the face of the planet at that time;  as to totally lawless, dangerous 
Canaan, see the chilling Amarna Letters), Pharaoh does not lust after 65-“year
”-old Sarah, for heaven’s sake, and Abraham does nothing dishonorable 
regarding Sarah.  Rather, Genesis 12: 18-19 is public propaganda issued by the 
Egyptian government for the benefit of the Egyptian public, which Pharaoh well 
knows will be understood for the false official propaganda it is by Abraham, Sarah 
and YHWH.)
Interpreting the Patriarchal narratives in light of the Book of Exodus, as 
you have done (along with most other scholars), is fraught with danger, because 
the authors of the much later Book of Exodus are anti-Egypt, whereas the 
author of the Patriarchal narratives is pro-Egypt, as I noted in my first post on 
this thread.  The mindset of the Patriarchal narratives is very different from 
the mindset of the Book of Exodus.  In Exodus, both Pharaoh and Egypt are 
evil, and richly deserve all the terrible plagues they get from YHWH.  (That fits 
the JEPD mindset perfectly.)  Whereas in the Patriarchal narratives, by sharp 
contrast, the old Pharaoh’s actions make Abraham rich;  Pharaoh allows Abraham 
to keep Sarah and all the great possessions that Abraham acquires in Egypt 
(Abraham not having tricked Pharaoh at all);  the young Pharaoh later places 
Joseph in charge of all Egypt, even before the first feast year (much less a 
famine year) has transpired;  the young Pharaoh graciously welcomes all the 
starving Hebrews to live off “the fat of the land” in Egypt indefinitely (despite 
the fact that Egypt notably faced 5 more terrible famine years, so that no 
other immigrants would have been welcomed into Egypt at that time);  Pharaoh 
personally meets with old Hebrew Patriarch Jacob on a cordial basis;  and in the 
last chapter of Genesis, the young Pharaoh authorizes the finest funeral 
imaginable for great Hebrew monotheist Jacob/“Israel”, incredibly even featuring all 
of Pharaoh’s top officials going all the long way to Canaan for that 
ultra-magnificent funeral for Israel.  (That is antithetical to the JEPD mindset!)  
That is to say, in the Patriarchal narratives, so unlike the rest of the Hebrew 
Bible, these two Pharaohs give “special treatment”, of a very positive kind, 
to their fellow monotheists -- Abraham, Joseph and Jacob/“Israel”, whom these 
two Pharaohs instinctively trust and admire deeply.  This pro-Egypt feeling 
of the early Hebrews didn’t last long, but it’s there on full display in the 
truly ancient Patriarchal narratives. 
YHWH “touches” Pharaoh at Genesis 12: 17, and likewise YHWH “touches” the 
great Hebrew Patriarch Jacob at Genesis 32: 25/26.  That’s the argument I am 
making, based on the wording of the Patriarchal narratives, interpreted in the 
context of the Patriarchal narratives.  To me, that is the natural reading of 
the text, if one does not go astray by viewing the Patriarchal narratives 
through the anti-Egypt lens of the much later Book of Exodus.
How one interprets the Hebrew word NG( at Genesis 12: 17 has a profound 
impact on one’s entire interpretation of the Patriarchal narratives.  To my mind, 
NG( at Genesis 12: 17 and Genesis 32: 25/26 means that YHWH applied “a 
mysterious, harsh divine  t-o-u-c-h, which has great meaning”.  NG( as a verb means “
touch”.  A translation of “plague”, though admittedly within the range of 
semantic meaning at Genesis 12: 17, is nevertheless not a good translation, as it 
hides the intimate connection to the same Hebrew verb, NG(, at Genesis 32: 
25/26.  Making that precise connection is, in my opinion, of critical importance 
in understanding the Patriarchal narratives.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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