Oops—let us rephrase. Oh, Pharaohs.
That's right. There are two main Pharaohs in Exodus. The first one appears during Moses's childhood and adolescence, and the second one gets hit by all the plagues. We'll take the former, thankyouverymuch.
Before we dive into these guys, let's get a few things straight. First, these men are considered god-kings. That means Pharaohs are part of the divine pantheon—just like God. Yep, this is a war among gods. No wonder it gets so gory.
Second, we don't really know much about either of the Pharaohs. Exodus isn't really interested in their stories, which means their perspectives get less screen time. In modern film adaptations of the story, directors have plugged this hole with good actors (Yul Brenner in the 1956 The Ten Commandments) and new plotlines (the Moses-Pharaoh brother plotline in The Prince of Egypt), but the Bible didn't go there.
Many tweed-sporting scholars have tried to place the Exodus story along the timeline of Egyptian ancient royal history, which itself begins around 3000 BCE and continues to the Roman period. The trouble is, Exodus doesn't give us the names of the Pharaohs. Since the truthiness (let alone the exact date) of the Exodus can't be verified, we're not left with much to work with. Not that it stops people from trying.
We here at Shmoop will just focus on the story.
Our first Pharaoh only appears for a couple of chapters, but he sets in motion the events of the entire book. Right off the bat, we're told that this guy "did not know Joseph" (1:8). Um, who cares? We do. Because Joseph was in the old Pharaoh's elite crew. Since then, the Israelites have expanded so much so that they actually outnumber the Egyptians. That's actually why Pharaoh initiates the slavery thing in the first place (1:9).
But then things get fuzzy. Let's take a look.
Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews, but they multiply even more. So Pharaoh goes to the two Israelite midwives and tells them to kill all firstborn male children. Does it sound weird to anyone else that there are only two Hebrew midwives? We thought we were talking thousands of people here. Looks like the Bible's urge to hyperbolize an event trips on itself. But hey, it makes for a good story.
In any case, the midwife thing doesn't work out, so Pharaoh orders all Egyptians to kill Israelite firstborn male babies (1:15-22). And this single act is why all of Egypt will get punished later on. Plagues, anyone?
Moses is born in the middle of all this hub-bub, but he's saved by Pharaoh's daughter and raised by her. The text skips a ton of time here, and the next time we see Moses, he's killing the Egyptian overseer.
So here's what we know:
Seems a bit bizarre, right? Pharaoh is his grandfather, but he's aware of his heritage? What kind of house is this? Oh, and once Moses kills the Egyptian overseer, Pharaoh "sought to kill Moses" (2:15). Kill his own adopted grandson? Hmmm.
Does this verse about Pharaoh #1 make Moses's flight seem more reasonable?
Bottom line: we really don't have much evidence in the text about the Pharaohs. We have no conclusions about whether their actions are justified, intelligently thought out, or just plain evil. These guys don't get much credit, and they don't get much chance to explain themselves.
P.S. This Pharaoh dies in 2:23, while Moses is in Midian.
Same name, different game.
The writers let us know that this is a different king, but that's pretty much all we get. No more details. Which leaves us wondering, if Egyptian royalty passed titles on to their sons, then wouldn't Pharaoh #2 be the son (or relation) of Pharaoh #1? And wouldn't that mean that Moses grew up with him in the royal household? This question has been fodder for fan fiction writers, Cecil DeMille, and DreamWorks for decades.
The text makes it abundantly clear in that Pharaoh #2 doesn't know who God is: "Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord" (5:2)
Got it? He doesn't know who God is.
Wait, what? Everyone knows who God is.
Now, maybe, but definitely not back then. God wasn't a universal figure yet. He needed to prove himself in the realm of the other regional deities, and that includes Pharaoh. Maybe that's why God wants to "harden Pharaoh's heart." If Pharaoh up and quits, there's no show. And God needs to put on a show.
After all this heart-hardening business, we can't help but ask: is Pharaoh stopping the Israelites from leaving Egypt, or is God? Philosophically, this isn't a question that's answered by the text—the writers just didn't care. Instead, they work as hard as possible to make sure that we, the readers, know two things:
(1) God is making Pharaoh stubborn. It's not Pharaoh's fault he keeps reneging on his promises. God is controlling him to demonstrate how awesome his power is compared to Pharaoh's. God: 1, Pharaoh: 0.
(2) Pharaoh is a big meanie anyway. Seriously. He puts a moratorium on straw-providing, which makes it really hard for the Israelites to do their work. All because they asked to worship their God for a few days.
Point (1) makes us wonder if God is a little rash and competitive. But point (2) sweeps in and suddenly, God's actions seem a little less morally messy. Nothing like a nasty Pharaoh to make God look good.
So Pharaoh's kind of a jerk. But if you look carefully, these jerky moments can give us some insight into his relationship with the Israelites.
In 5:17-21, the Israelite overseers come and talk to Pharaoh about the new bricks-without-straw rule. When it comes down to it, this is a negotiation scene about labor rights. And you know what? We're pretty sure slaves don't negotiate with their masters. Also, why doesn't Pharaoh just kill Moses? Why threaten him, just to keep meeting with him (10:27-29)? The whole scene looks a lot more like community leaders arguing with each other than a master-slave dynamic.
Just some Shmoopy food for thought.
Back to the power struggle. The Bible doesn't really think of this God/Pharaoh business in terms of right and wrong. Pharaoh is neither a victim of God, nor an evil oppressor. He's just a vessel and a plot device for God to use to display his power.
Same goes for the slavery issue. Exodus is not a critical evaluation of the rights and wrongs associated with slavery. After all, the Israelites themselves kept slaves and had laws for dealing with them. Slavery was just a part of life in the ancient world. It all just comes back to a power struggle between the Egyptian god-king Pharaoh and God.
Example? Why, of course.
Pharaoh himself has an entourage who performs his magic, trying to prove his superiority over God. Pharaoh's priests work to replicate the miracles of Moses using "secret arts" (7:11). The story wants us to think, "Hmmm, God has power, these dudes have arts. God wins.
And boy does he. In 9:27, Pharaoh admits that he has sinned:
"This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Pray to the Lord! Enough of God's thunder and hail! I will let you go; you need stay no longer."
Wait, what? What exactly has Pharaoh sinned against? The Ten Commandments haven't even been written yet. The answer is that Pharaoh has transgressed nothing more than God's power. Pharaoh's not saying, "I've seen the error of my ways"—he's saying "Uncle."
Once the Israelites get through the Red Sea, Pharaoh pretty much drops out of the story. His army is destroyed, and we get little indication about what happened to him personally. Many post-Exodus stories wonder about this, but in the end—does it matter? Pharaoh is just a means to an end for God. Once God wins the deity competition, Pharaoh is dust.