Pharaoh's Divine Role in Maintaining Ma'at (Order)
Editor’s Preface: Most Jews with some traditional education have heard that Pharaoh saw himself as a god. The Bible never states this explicitly, but the midrash makes much of this. Most famously, Rashi offers the following interpretation of Exodus 7:15, to explain why God tells Moses to meet Pharaoh by the Nile in the morning:
הנה יצא המימה – לנקביו, שהיה עושה עצמו אלוה ואומר שאינו צריך לנקביו ומשכים ויוצא לנילוס ועושה שם צרכיו:
“As he is coming out to the water” – to relieve himself. He made himself out to be a god and said that he had no need to relieve himself. Therefore, he woke early in the morning and went out to the Nile to relieve himself.
This is clearly polemical satire. How would the Egyptians themselves have understood Pharaoh’s divinity?
Pharaoh’s Role as the Son of the God Ra
The Egyptian world is founded on two basic assumptions that are both overturned by biblical monotheism.
The first is the conviction that ma’at, the Egyptian concept and personification of truth, justice, social order and harmony, as well as political success and natural fertility are dependent on the state, i.e., on Pharaoh and his permanent communication with the divine world. Pharaoh, himself a god, was regarded as the son of the supreme deity and given the name, “son of Ra,” and thus incorporated the link between heaven and earth.
According to one text (of canonical normativity), the sun and creator god, Ra:
has placed the king on earth
for ever and ever,
in order that he may judge mankind and satisfy the gods;
establish Ma’at and annihilate Isfet
giving offerings to the gods and funerary offerings to the dead.
Ma’at is constantly threatened by isfet (disorder, injustice, lie), and it is Pharaoh’s role to dispel isfet in order to give room to ma’at. This means: no justice, truth, or harmony is possible on earth without Pharaoh, i.e., the state.
In religious ceremonies, Pharaoh played the role of son to all the gods and goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon, his putative mothers and fathers. He entered this genealogy with coronation, part of which was a ritual enactment of his divine descent. The Egyptian gods were not just a loose assembly but a structured pantheon ruled by a supreme god, the sun, from whom not only all the gods but the entire universe originated. The work of maintenance that the sun god (Ra) exerts in the sky by distributing light and ma’at in the cosmos is mirrored on earth by Pharaoh’s establishing ma’at and dispelling isfet.
The Torah’s Polemic against Sacral Kingship
The concepts of revelation, covenant and faith or loyalty, which the book of Exodus expounds in the form of narrative, represent the exact opposite of this system of sacral kingship, placing the people in direct contact and even permanent symbiosis with God, ruling out any form of political mediation. It is true that in some Psalms, in Jewish messianism, and in the later Christian and Muslim reception history of the biblical monotheism, traces of the political theology of sacral kingship survive this revolution/revelation, but in the Torah – and this is what interests us here – revolutionary concepts of covenant and revelation appear in all their radical power.
In the biblical picture, Pharaoh is deprived of his divinity and appears as a tyrant of grotesque hubris. By portraying Pharaoh as ineffectual again and again, the biblical picture denies Pharaoh’s divinity.
This biblical picture contrasts sharply with the Egyptian concept of sacral kingship, in which Pharaoh does not act on his own account but as deputy, representative, son, and image of the creator whose cosmic work of creation and maintenance he executes on the “earth of the living” and to whom he remains responsible. If he fails in this task, the gods will turn their back on Egypt.
The Egyptians believed that they experienced this during Akhenaton’s monotheistic revolution. Thus writes Tutankhamun in retrospect on his Restoration Stela:
The land was in grave ailment,
The gods had turned their backs on this land.
The Dependence of the World
on the State-Run Rituals
The second conviction of the ancient Egyptians assumed that the world is permanently threatened by collapse and its continuance is dependent on ritual action. Thus, we read in another text:
If the loaves are few on their altars,
the same will happen in the whole land
and few will be the food for the living.
If the libations are discontinued,
the inundation will fail in its source
<…> and famine will reign in the country.
If the ceremonies for Osiris are neglected <…>
the country will be deprived of its laws.
<…> the foreign countries will rebel against Egypt
and civil war and revolution will rise in the whole country.
In the Torah, ritual also plays an important role. But it has nothing to do with maintaining cosmic and social order. Both depend on God’s will rather than human action.
The Tension over Sacral Kingship through Time
Both Egyptian convictions—sacral kingship and the world-maintaining nature of ritual—have proved to be deeply rooted in human mentality. This explains the strong biblical – or, to be more precise, the Deuteronomistic – attack on them. But this polemic was not fully successful, and the ideas of sacral kingship surfaced again and again in Christian and Islamic history. But the Deuteronomist resistance to kingship persisted in places, especially in Protestant movements such as English puritanism, culminating in the public execution of Charles I of England 1647.
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April 18, 2016
November 15, 2019
Professor Jan Assmann is Professor (Emeritus) of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg and is now Honorary Professor of Cultural and Religious Studies at Constance. He received his Ph.D and Dr.habil from Heidelberg, as well as honorary degrees from Muenster, Yale and the Hebrew University Jerusalem. Among his many books are Moses the Egyptian; The Search for God in Ancient Egypt; The Mind of Egypt; Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt; Of God and Gods; The Price of Monotheism; and From Akhenaten to Moses.
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