Pharoah and the Jews: a Case Study in Anti-Semitism

The Biblical Book of Exodus begins with the tale of Pharoah and the Jews under Egyptian rule. Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story, but few notice that it is the first account of organized, institutional anti-Semitism against the Jews.

At the end of Genesis, we learn that the insight and guidance of one prescient Jew saved the entire nation of Egypt from starvation and anarchy. Joseph, the son of Jacob, correctly foresaw that the region was destined to enjoy seven years of plenty, not knowing that seven dark years of famine would follow. He suggested that Pharoah build storehouses and implement a mandatory 20% tax during the years of bounty, rather than allowing the populace to consume and waste the excess.

Though Joseph came before Pharoah as an imprisoned slave, Pharoah was so taken with his foresight and advice that he appointed Joseph to be his second-in-command, and placed him in charge of this crucial project. Joseph was so successful that, as we see from the text itself, the Egyptians were able to not only feed their own, but even to sell the surplus to residents of other nations – such as ten brothers from Cana’an. Once reunited as a family, Joseph brought the entire clan to settle as a separate but loyal community of citizens under Egyptian rule.

Years later, a new Pharoah was crowned, one who claimed to be unaware of the Jews’ pivotal contribution to Egypt’s survival and enhanced international reputation. He insisted that something must be done about the Jews, for they had too much power. Otherwise, he said, the Jews could show disloyalty, joining those who come to wage war and (commentators differ on this point) either plundering Egypt’s wealth and carrying it off to Cana’an, or even expelling the Egyptians and taking the real estate for themselves.

To be certain, all of Pharaoh’s accusations were baseless lies – until his own blind hatred made them reality. He not only enslaved the Jews, he made their lives impossible, and tried to kill them out by drowning all newborn Jewish boys. The oppressed Jews cried out to G-d, Who punished the Egyptians with a series of plagues that killed their crops, their livestock, and even their firstborn sons. Oral tradition teaches that the Egyptians willingly handed over their wealth to the Jews so that they would leave and stop the plagues.

In the end, another bout of irrational hatred consumed Pharaoh. He ran to wage war against the Jews and drag them back – and he and his entire army were drowned.

Perhaps you find yourself among the many millions of people who believe this story to be nothing more than an interesting fable. If so, it is all the more necessary to ponder why it might be that although the Egyptian nation of that era has disappeared in the sands of history, the lies that Pharoah believed and told about the Jews are precisely those that continue to be circulated to this day:

  • The Jews have too much power and control.
  • They care only about themselves.
  • They think they are superior to us.
  • They are disloyal.
  • They will make war against the innocent.
  • They want to take our money and property.
  • They want to kill or exile us.
  • The Jews will do to us the very things we now plan to do to them.
  • And finally, all of this is the Jews’ own fault.

To which we might add one more: the Jews talk too much about their victimization at the hands of others. After all, they’ve been reading this story for over 3,300 years.

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8 Responses

  1. Mr. Cohen says:

    Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Shemot, chapter 5:

    When Joseph died, the Jews abandoned circumcision.
    They said: Let us be like the Egyptians!

    G_d then abandoned His love of the Jews, as it says:
    “ He changed their minds to hate His people (Tehillim, chapter 105, verse 25)”
    …then a new king arose in Egypt, and issued harsh decrees against the Jews.

    • Y. Ben-David says:

      Mr Cohen-
      Living in the Galut, outside our home in Eretz Israel INEVITABLY leads to inundation of non-Jewish values into even the most insular Jewish communities. It is impossible to prevent it. Up until the the 19-century Emancipation it may have been possible to limit the outside influence but even before that there were communities that weakened over the generations.

      • mycroft says:

        When was there a majority of Jews following both Torah shebeal peh and Torah shebichtav in Israel?

      • Steve Brizel says:

        The Beis HaLevi, Netzviv, and Meshech Chachmah both state that Torah Shebicsav and TSBP were initially given together and were only split apart as part of the giving of the Luchos Shniyos. There is a statement in the Talmud that during the reign of King Hezekiah that the level of Torah learning was unprecedented-even in Dinie Tumaah vTaharah.

  2. Steve Brizel says:

    There is an amazing comment by Ramban in this week’s Parsha that lends tremendous support to R Menken’s thesis. It is well worth learning this comment by Ramban ( as well as his commentary on a weekly basis) for in depth insight into the events in Mitzrayim tha led to the oppression of Am Yisrael.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Assimilation blinds many to obvious facts they could learn from history and personal experience.

  4. dr. bill says:

    there is a difference between acquiring relevant perspective from the past, why maase avot are just a “siman” lebanim, and drawing facile comparisons. it is often also the case that people with disagreements about the present/future often dispute past events as well.

  5. Nachum says:

    Just a historical note: Around the time of Avraham, Egypt was taken over by Semites from Canaan called the Hyksos. They acted like Egyptians but weren’t really. They were still in power when Yosef arrived. Years later, the native Egyptians, who had built up quite the resentment of the interlopers, managed to throw the Hyksos out. (“Vayakam melech chadash…”) Naturally, they viewed with suspicion the other Semites from Canaan- the Hebrews- who had been pretty close to the ruling powers. You can see this in Pharaoh’s words- “If war occurs (i.e., if the Hyksos return) they will join our enemies…”

    (Tyrants love to scare their people into submission by warning of external threats, often imagined. The Hyksos actually disappeared almost immediately.)

    Of course, this doesn’t detract from any of the points made here, but provides a bit of background.

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