[b-hebrew] Was Pharaoh "Touched" or "Plagued" by God at Genesis 12: 17?
JimStinehart at aol.com
JimStinehart at aol.com
Thu Aug 21 10:34:25 EDT 2008
You wrote: “OK, you've lost me. Please explain, in a message short enough
and in plain enough English for even me to understand, exactly how you think
God "touched" Pharaoh, why, and what that has to do with Jacob's thigh.”
1. How Did God “Touch” Pharaoh?
When applied to YHWH communicating with a human, NG( refers (in my opinion)
to YHWH applying “a mysterious, harsh divine t-o-u-c-h, that has a significant
meaning”. YHWH probably did not say any words to Pharaoh. Pharaoh was
waiting to see if Abraham’s prediction would come true that Abraham’s deity would
make some clear communication to Pharaoh, which if it happened would mean that
Pharaoh should promptly return Sarah to Abraham. Moreover, in order to make
this a severe divine test for Abraham, and also for Pharaoh to get the
diplomatic leverage that Pharaoh wanted to get out of this situation in dealing with
Pharaoh’s own local problems in Egypt (discussed below), the divine
communication needed to be public.
At Genesis 12: 17, both Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s household get “a mysterious,
harsh divine t-o-u-c-h, that has a significant meaning”. The text never tells
us the exact nature of this mysterious divine “touch”, but it was obviously
powerful. It alerted everyone in Pharaoh’s household, and hence indirectly
everyone in Egypt, that something important was up.
Pharaoh promptly returned Sarah to Abraham. That had been the original plan,
as long as Abraham’s deity came through with the divine communication, which
happened in spades. Also, as planned, Pharaoh falsely told the people of
Egypt that Pharaoh had not known Sarah’s marital status at the time Pharaoh
brought her into Pharaoh’s harem. (See #2 below as to “why” this procedure was
2. Why Did God “Touch” Pharaoh?
Abraham righteously trusted in YHWH to make sure that nothing untoward would
happen to Sarah in Pharaoh’s harem, and that Sarah would soon be returned to
Abraham. By acting pursuant to his faith in YHWH, Abraham took the first step
in proving himself to YHWH. If YHWH had not come through and “touched”
Pharaoh, Abraham would never have seen beloved Sarah again, and Abraham would never
have had a proper male heir. So only if Abraham had full faith in YHWH would
Abraham allow Sarah to go into Pharaoh’s harem.
Secondly, Abraham and Sarah had to prove themselves willing to be the
subjects of unending salacious gossip, involving false accusations that Abraham and
Sarah could never directly disavow. This again was a step toward proving
Abraham and Sarah worthy of being Patriarch and Matriarch #1. The gossip-mongers
in Egypt naturally gossiped that this monotheist’s wife was a loose woman, and
that this monotheistic man was cowardly and immoral in giving his wife to
Pharaoh under the pretext of the wife being merely a sister. Although each of
those accusations was untrue, they were part and parcel of Pharaoh’s pre-arranged
cover story. Abraham and Sarah kept their promise (as an integral part of
this divine test) never to disavow those vile rumors.
Rumors, even though false, often have consequences. Lot’s wife now refused
to have anything to do with Abraham and Sarah upon returning to Canaan. Lot’s
wife insists that Lot split from Abraham, which is the real reason why Abraham
and Lot split up so very very quickly upon their return to Canaan. The
diplomatic cover story that the parties told outsiders was that Abraham’s and Lot’
s flocks were too large to sojourn together, but we know that is just a cover
story, as the same diplomatic cover story is used by Jacob and Esau at Genesis
36: 6-7, in a context where we know it is nothing more than diplomatic
Those ugly rumors coming out of Canaan also go a long way toward explaining
Abraham’s very public, and otherwise peculiar, insistence at Genesis 14: 22-24
that Abraham and his 318 armed retainers will not take even a “sandal-strap”
of the booty of Sodom to which they were entitled after rescuing Lot and the
booty. Abraham is effectively rehabilitating his image in Canaan, even as
Abraham can never openly state that Pharaoh was not telling the truth when Pharaoh
told the Egyptian people that Pharaoh had not known that Sarah was Abraham’s
wife when Pharaoh took Sarah into Pharaoh’s harem.
Finally, what did Pharaoh get out of this? Why was Pharaoh willing to
participate in this divine testing of Abraham? Pharaoh wanted the Egyptian public
to see Pharaoh as having a new-found devotion to a type of semi-monotheism.
Pharaoh’s reasons for this were mainly political, not religious. Pharaoh feared
that unless he could use diplomacy to get the too-rich polytheistic cult of
the ram-headed god Amen to voluntarily relinquish some of its vast landholdings
along the Nile River, then Pharaoh’s son and successor (the young Pharaoh at
the end of Genesis) might well launch the first religious war in history, for
the purpose of confiscating Amen’s vast landholdings. That in fact is exactly
what happened, both in secular history and at Genesis 47: 13-26. In an
unsuccessful attempt to prevent that from happening, the old Pharaoh in chapter 12
of Genesis goes out of his way to publicly favor a monotheist from Canaan
(Abraham). Pharaoh pays top dollar for the lapis lazuli that Abraham brought from
Ur, Pharaoh takes old Sarah into his harem under the above-described
circumstances, Pharaoh soon returns Sarah to Abraham, as planned, and Pharaoh publicly
allows monotheistic Abraham to waltz out of Egypt scot-free with all of
Abraham’s newly-acquired vast wealth. Pharaoh was trying to get the cult of Amen
to realize that the winds were now blowing in the direction of monotheism, and
that the polytheistic cult’s vast landholdings along the Nile River could not
stand. Pharaoh w-a-n-t-s the Amen cult priests to hear that Pharaoh and all
of Pharaoh’s household were duly impressed by an apparent divine
communication from a monotheistic deity on behalf of a monotheistic man (Abraham) from
Canaan. Pharaoh w-a-n-t-s that buzz to happen, as long as Pharaoh has a
convenient cover story to purvey to the Egyptian public by which Pharaoh can claim,
without ever being contradicted by Abraham, that Pharaoh supposedly did not
know Sarah’s marital status when Pharaoh brought Sarah into his harem. Abraham
passes Abraham’s divine test, and Pharaoh makes an effective communication to
the Amen cult. (By contrast, Abimelek’s motivation to participate in the
second round of this type of divine testing of Abraham was to get Abraham to utter
a fertility prayer for childless Abimelek. Genesis 20: 17-18)
3. What Does YHWH’s “Touching” of Pharaoh Have to Do With Jacob’s Thigh?
Both with Pharaoh, and with Jacob at Genesis 32: 25/26, YHWH communicates by
means of “a mysterious, harsh divine t-o-u-c-h, that has a significant
meaning”. In Jacob’s case, there is a mysterious being involved, as to which we
are not quite sure if it is a man, a dream, a semi-divine being, a divine being
other than YHWH, or YHWH. Yet despite these ambiguities, it is clear that
YHWH, acting directly or indirectly, “touches” Jacob’s thigh:
“And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of
his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with
him. …And he said: 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for
thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.'” Genesis 32:
The mysterious divine touching of Jacob’s thigh is an integral part of the
confirmation that Jacob will henceforth be the namesake of the Israelites, as
Jacob’s name is divinely changed to “Israel”. That it is YHWH who effectively
made this important name change is soon confirmed at Genesis 35: 10-11, where
the reference to “God Almighty” clarifies that YHWH is the ultimate source of
this key name change.
I fear this message has already gotten too long. There is no room here to
discuss further the famous incident in which Jacob wrestles with that mysterious
being. As I noted before, however, Jacob is a successor monotheistic leader
with a severe limp, as a result of that divine encounter, and historically the
successor of the young Pharaoh at the end of Genesis is the only pharaoh I
know of who had a severe limp. The author of the Patriarchal narratives seems
to be saying here that having a severe limp should not disqualify a person from
being a monotheistic leader. Everything about the Patriarchal narratives is
thoroughly redolent of the well-documented secular history of the Late Bronze
Age, and nothing in the Patriarchal narratives is redolent of J, E, P or D.
4. Why Does This Matter?
I am trying to get people not to view Pharaoh as being “plagued” in chapter
12 of Genesis in the way that Egypt, and “the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph”,
are, properly, terribly divinely plagued by real plagues in the Book of Exodus.
I am also trying to show that Abraham is neither cowardly nor immoral in
Egypt (or at Gerar).
In the Patriarchal narratives, YHWH operates regarding both Pharaoh and Jacob
by means of “a mysterious, harsh divine t-o-u-c-h, that has a significant
meaning”. That is why, in my opinion, we see the Hebrew verb NG( at both
Genesis 12: 17 and Genesis 32: 25/26.
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