"Israel in Egypt" by Edward Poynter, 1867
"Israel in Egypt" by Edward Poynter, 1867

Why did Pharaoh turn on the Jewish people?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 1:1-6:1

The beginning of the Book of Exodus seems completely disconnected from the end of Genesis, when the Children of Israel are enjoying rights that are only reserved for the privileged priestly class.

Joseph had restructured all of Egyptian society in a way that secures his family for the rest of the famine and beyond. In fact, Pharaoh had invited Joseph’s siblings to care for his own livestock and join the ranks of prominent civil servants in their society. (Genesis 47:6)

But then after Exodus opens with a quick mention of the passing of that first generation, it immediately jumps a couple of hundred years to a very different reality. “The Children of Israel were fruitful, teemed [like vermin], increased and became very very strong, and the land became filled with them.” (Exodus 1:7)

The last verse of Genesis had pointed out: “… they were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” (Genesis 47:27)

Both describe a population increase, but in Exodus, there are a few extra words that cast the expansion in a distasteful light. The Hebrew word vayishratzu actually means that they spread out like vermin. The narrative seems to be reflective of the perspective of the Egyptians toward the Jews.

The next lines of the text confirm the negativity. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people. ‘Behold! The people, the Children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than we. Come let us outsmart it lest it become greater and if war should happen, it too will join our enemies and fight with us and go up from the land.’” (Exodus 1:8-10)

What is the cause of the mistrust that Pharaoh has for the Children of Israel?

There seems to be no other indication in the text except for the population growth. Furthermore, how could it be that a king of Egypt would not know Joseph? Was he not responsible for the current structure of absolute power that the monarch enjoyed?

Rashi, the foremost medieval Torah commentator from 11th-century France, actually commented on that verse with an opinion in the Talmud that suggests that the king knew good and well exactly who Joseph was and what he had done. He just chose not to recognize his contributions.

As mentioned above, Joseph was single-handedly responsible for the economic restructuring of all of Egypt. He saved the entire country from starvation during the years of famine, and he managed to acquire and consolidate all power and wealth in the hands of the Pharaoh.

Could it be possible that a new king would not know of him?

It seems that we can find that the roots of antisemitism run deep in our history.

The Egyptians viewed the Hebrews with disdain because of their success. That was enough to feed into the narrative that they were a fifth column that threatened their national security. Hatred is blinding. It can completely obfuscate the truth and hide all traces of the positive impact that Joseph had in Egypt.

Unfortunately, the story of antisemitism is one that is all too familiar. Our past is replete with countless examples of accusations thrust at the Jewish community merely because they are distinct and successful.

In our own communities here in California, we’ve had to increase security measures over the past few years because of fears of attacks on Jewish institutions that have materialized. Despite the countless contributions that Jews have made to general society in the areas of science, technology, medicine and more, Jews are still often singled out and targeted.

We would do well to learn from our past that there is no rational explanation for antisemitism.

In the case of Egypt, we do not have evidence of any appeal to Pharaoh to change his decree until Moses appears on the scene.

When one is acting irrationally, it is often counter-productive to engage in a sensible conversation. What we do see is that when the Hebrews get respite from their labor, they turn to God for help and that is when He intercedes.

As a community, we should remember that the only real ally that we have to turn to in times of trouble is God Himself.

That does not mean we are guaranteed the positive outcome that we often wish for, but it does maintain the relationship that our people have had with Him for thousands of years, and hope is never lost.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.