[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

Yigal Levin:
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: 
26, 29
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.
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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