The biblical text doesn’t identify the Pharaoh of the Exodus, no doubt because the text is a timeless story of the journey from slavery to freedom, and what is needed is a generic Pharaoh, not a historical figure. But the story seems set in the Egypt of the New Kingdom period. How can we accommodate the natural desire to utilize contemporary scientific knowledge to help us understand the text?
Some have argued that Merneptah, the son of Ramses the Great, was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, and not Ramses, as is generally assumed by those who need a name. I object to Merneptah not on the grounds of historical likelihood, but for a more fundamental reason. Merneptah was a second-rate Pharaoh, and a second-rate Pharaoh does not fit in with the narrative. If we have to name a Pharaoh, it should be Ramses the Great, a Pharaoh of almost mythical stature, which is what is required. So let us be scientific and see where such a hypothesis leads.
We know a great deal about the reign of Ramses the Great, and we even know a great deal about him as a person because we have the corpse. Yes, the corpse of Ramses, and for that matter the corpse of Merneptah, is available for our inspection because priests of the New Kingdom moved the mummified bodies out of their individual tombs into a collective tomb in the Valley of the Kings to protect them from grave-robbers. They were discovered there more than 100 years ago, and since then the mummy cloths have been unwound and the bodies X-rayed, photographed and examined. The corpse of Ramses the Great even traveled to Paris for a little stabilization work at the Louvre. More recently, Ramses has had a CT scan. Ramses the Great suffered from arteriosclerosis and had severe dental problems.
So now we have a precise hypothesis: If Ramses the Great was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, then the Pharaoh of the Exodus suffered from arteriosclerosis, and had severe dental problems.
We can test this hypothesis by seeing if it has explanatory power; by seeing, in other words, whether it can solve certain difficulties our sages have observed in the text. In particular, these two problems:
The text repeats often that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, but what exactly does this mean?
Why did Moses and Aaron have their first meeting with Pharaoh down by the river rather than in the palace, as you would expect? We are told this in Exodus 7:15, in which God says to Moses: “Get thee unto Pharaoh in the morning; lo, he goeth out unto the water, and thou shalt stand by the river’s brink to meet him.”
The first medical fact has a straightforward application to the first textual problem. Arteriosclerosis is popularly known as hardening of the arteries. Suffice to say that if Ramses was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, then God not only hardened his heart but hardened Pharaoh’s arteries as well.
But the connection between Pharaoh’s dental problems and the textual fact that Moses’ first meeting with Pharaoh was down by the river may not be immediately obvious, and so I’ll expound on this connection by means of midrash.
After Moses received the command to go to Pharaoh, he and Aaron set off, of course, for the palace, to make an appointment. I say “of course” for two reasons: first, because that was the normal way to do things, and second, because Moses grew up in the palace and so he knew that there was an Office of Appointments, headed by the Chief Appointments Scribe (CAS) who had reporting to him a number of Assistant Appointment Scribes (AAS). He also knew the protocol; you entered the office and came up to the huge desk of the Chief Appointment Scribe and told him your business and he then directed you to one of the Assistant Appointment Scribes, who were sitting in little booths behind windows, like tellers in a bank today.
Moses and Aaron came up to the desk of the CAS, who asked them, “What is the nature of your business?” Moses said, “I come to Pharaoh bringing a message from God, the king of kings, the creator of heaven and earth.” The CAS said, “Ah, a message from a tribal god. Window 16.” Moses and Aaron went to window 16. There was a line. Eventually they got to the window, but by then Moses had become impatient. The AAS for Messages from Tribal Gods asked, “When do you want the appointment?” Moses said, “When do I want the appointment? I want it today. I want it now!” The AAS said, “You can’t have it now because right now Pharaoh is enjoying the benefits of a visit from the Royal Dentist. If you listen carefully you can hear the screams even from this distance. But wait! What do I see here in my appointment book? You’re in luck! No one, it seems, has requested the time slot immediately after the visit from the Royal Dentist. Shall I write you in?” Aaron said to Moses, “Moishe, this is a sign from heaven that portends well for the success of our mission.” Moses said, “Aaron, leave this to me.” The AAS said to Moses, “I can see from your expression that you understand. In fact, Pharaoh doesn’t see anyone for an entire week after a visit from the Royal Dentist, and then of course all the top ministers need to see him, so we’re looking at two, maybe three weeks minimum.” Moses said, “That isn’t acceptable. But tell me, does Pharaoh ever go out of the palace in the week after a visit from the Royal Dentist?” The AAS said, “Yes, in fact, he goes down to the Nile early each morning to completely immerse himself in the cool water and try to ease his aching jaws.” Moses said, “So we’ll catch up with him there.”
Moses, of course, told God of his plan, and God agreed, saying [Exodus 7:15] “Okay. Get thee unto Pharaoh in the morning, lo, [as] he goeth out unto the water; and thou shalt stand by the river’s brink to meet him.”
David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward.