Why Pharaoh Went to the Nile
Yahweh’s instructions to Moses in Exod 7:15 have puzzled readers for centuries. The biblical text reads:
לֵךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה בַּבֹּקֶר הִנֵּה יֹצֵא הַמַּיְמָה וְנִצַּבְתָּ לִקְרָאתוֹ עַל־שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר.
Go down to Pharaoh in the morning. Behold, he goes out to the water; and you shall stand by the bank of the Nile to meet him.
Though the author never explains what Pharaoh was doing at the river at this time, exegetes throughout history have suggested several reasons.
Ancient Jewish Interpretations
The well-known response of Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105), founded upon earlier midrashic traditions, both amuses and bemuses:
הנה יצא המימה – לנקביו, שהיה עושה עצמו אלוה ואומר שאינו צריך לנקביו ומשכים ויוצא לנילוס ועושה שם צרכיו.
“Behold, he goes out to the water”—(this means) to relieve himself. He made himself out to be a god and (so) he said that he had no need to relieve himself. Therefore, he woke early and he went out to the Nile and accomplished his needs (secretly).
It amuses, because it offers a rather farcical image of an egomaniac so bent on claiming divine status that he must go to great lengths to hide his humanity. Yet it bemuses, because it forces one to question whether this critical portrait might have a basis in reality.
Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (R. Shlomo ben Meir, ca. 1085-1158) offers a less polemical explanation, reading the passage as suggestive of leisure time. Pharaoh simply had gone down to the water,
כדרך השרים לטייל בבקר ולרכוב אנה ואנה.
As is the custom of princes, in order to take a stroll in the morning or to ride (a horse) hither and thither.
Rashbam’s contemporary, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (ca. 1089-1167) understood the passage as referring to the recording of the Nile’s height during the annual inundation:
לך אל פרעה בבקר. מנהג מלך מצרים עד היום לצאת בתמוז ואב כי אז יגדל היאור לראות כמה מעלות עלה.
“Go to Pharaoh in the morning.” The custom of the king of Egypt to this day is to go out in the months of Tammuz and Ab, because it is then the Nile rises, (and he goes) to see how much it has risen.
Earlier Jewish traditions offer very different explanations for Pharaoh’s presence. Targum Neofiti (early to mid-1st millennium C.E.) suggests that Pharaoh used the river to escape the desert heat:
הוא נפק מתקוררה על נהרא
He came down to cool himself at the river.
A more sinister explanation appears in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (ca. 8th cent. C.E.) and the Babylonian Talmud (ca. 6th cent. C.E.), which associate the location and timing with the dark arts.
הא נפיק למפטור קוסמין עילוי מיא הי כאמגושא ותיתעתד לקדמותיה על גיף נהרא
Behold, he comes forth to observe divinations at the water as a magician (lit. as a magus); so prepare yourself to meet him on the bank of the river.
b. Moʿed Qaṭan 18a
ואמר אביטול ספרא משמיה דרב <פפא> פרעה שהיה בימי משה אמגושי היה שנאמר (שמות ז) הנה יוצא המימה וגו
Abitul the scribe said in the name of Rav <Pappa>: “The Pharaoh in the days of Moses was a magician (lit. a magus) as it is said (Exod 7:15): ‘Behold, he goes out to the water, etc.’”
R. Menachem ben Solomon (12th cent. C.E.), in his Midrash Sekel Ṭov (Genesis 41) offers yet another interpretation, namely, that Pharaoh went to the Nile to worship it:
ומנין שהיאור הוא אלהיו, שנא' הנה יוצא המימה ונצבת לקראתו על שפת היאור
Whence (do we know) that the Nile was his (Pharaoh’s) god? Because it says “He goes out to the water, and you (Moses) shall stand on the bank of the Nile.”
The notion that Pharaoh worshiped the Nile also appears in Exodus Rabbah 9:9 (ca. 10th cent. C.E.):
לָמָּה לָקוּ הַמַּיִם תְּחִלָּה בְּדָם, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁפַּרְעֹה וְהַמִּצְרִיִּים עוֹבְדִים לַיְאוֹר.
Why were the waters struck first with blood? Because Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshiped the Nile.
Contemporary Approaches to the Question
Modern scholars have offered an equally varied bevy of explanations. Umberto Cassuto suggested that Pharaoh went out to the water “to take his usual stroll,” but he observed that the reference to the shore recalls the same expression in Exod 2:3.
S. R. Driver entertained multiple options: “Apparently a standing custom is alluded to (cf. viii. 20; also ii. 5): to bathe (cf. ii. 5), to pay his devotions to the Nile, to ascertain, if it were the time (June) at which the annual inundation was beginning, how much the river had risen, have all been suggested.”
Nahum Sarna similarly opines: “Perhaps it involves some ceremony associated with the morning rituals, or it may be for worship of the god of the Nile during the inundation period. It may also have been to measure the height of the river.”
William Propp infers from the morning visit that Moses received the divine message in a night vision (Num 12:6-8 notwithstanding), and he observes that the Bible elsewhere places Egyptian royalty by the Nile (Gen 14:17, Exod 2:5, 8:16). As for what brought Pharaoh to the water, he avers that it was to wash or cool off. Unlike the previous exegetes, Propp also suggests that the location was required by the tale’s plot.
Limiting the Options
The aforementioned exegetical explanations for Pharaoh’s morning presence at the Nile fit into three broad categories: 1) mundane purposes (relieving himself, bathing, leisure, measuring the Nile), 2) cultic purposes (magic, divination, worshiping the Nile), or 3) literary reasons. Some of these are polemical in nature, others merely explanatory. Yet, not all of them can be correct.
Fortunately, two factors allow us to narrow the interpretive possibilities. The first is an increased appreciation for the tendentious manner in which talmudic and midrashic texts refer to Egyptian cults and customs, and the limited historical contexts that inform such views. The second, is a more thorough knowledge of pharaoh’s cultic responsibilities. The latter, of course, was completely unknown to the medievals, like Rashi, Rambam, and Ibn Ezra, whose knowledge of ancient Egyptian practices only came vicariously through earlier Jewish texts.
Rabbinic Awareness of Egyptian Practices and Beliefs
Increasingly over the last decade, scholars have begun to mine rabbinic texts for what they can tell us about Egyptian customs and beliefs. For example, Gideon Bohak has shown that the rabbis of Late Antiquity had a close knowledge of some Egyptian festivals, objects of perceived power, and cultic practices, including rituals that one might classify as “magical.”
Rivka Ulmer has demonstrated how the rabbis used their knowledge of Egyptian gods, myths, and customs to transform Egypt into the ultimate “Other,” often as a metaphor for Rome and other religious groups, like Christians and sectaries with demiurgic traditions, who laid competitive claims to the God of Israel. This recent scholarship compels us to see rabbinic references to Egyptian religions and customs as the result of negative stereotyping. Moreover, the perception of Egypt as a den for the dark arts was entirely a product of the Graeco-Roman and Late Antique periods.
It is this polemical perspective that informs the talmudic and later midrashic traditions and, thus also, Rashi’s interpretation. While such facts force us to dismiss the notion that Pharaoh went to the river to perform magic and divination, they do not rule out cultic activity entirely or the more mundane explanations for his trip to the river. To narrow these options, I now turn to Pharaoh’s role in the cult.
Pharaoh’s Role in the Egyptian Cult
Egyptians deemed their Pharaoh as the supreme earthly power on earth. Even his royal titulary promoted him as the “son of Re,” and thus divine (Fig. 1). Nevertheless, Pharaoh himself did not engage in divination or in performative practices that one might label “magical.” Such rites were the responsibility of lector-priests, experts in Egyptian ritual and written lore. Instead, as chief representative of the gods, and ipso facto high priest, he was responsible for the daily care rituals for the cult statue, which took place three times a day: dawn, noon, evening.
Each day, Pharaoh arose before daybreak and made his way to the House of Morning (pr dwꜣt)—a separate chamber within the temple precinct—where he would relieve himself and bathe with water from the sacred temple pool (not the Nile, Fig. 2). There he also shaved and donned ritual robes and adornments. Afterwards, he would enter the adjoining temple of Re (as the sun god incarnate) and light a torch, while the chief lector priest praised the god and repelled hostile forces with rituals and incantations.
When reaching the temple’s innermost sanctum, Pharaoh would meet the divinity face-to-face and begin the daily rituals. The rituals involved inter alia waking the deity by breaking the seal to his naos, opening the doors at daybreak, singing hymns, and bathing, clothing, and feeding him (Fig. 3). While departing the sanctuary, he would sweep away his footprints.
The most important daily ritual performed by Pharaoh was the presentation of Maat (mꜣʿt), which unlike the other rites, was accessible to at least some of the public. Maat was a goddess (Fig. 4) and a cosmic force of truth and divine order who ensured the regular inundation of the Nile, the protection of Egypt’s borders from foreign powers, the continual movement of the sun on his daily circuit, and the success of the ruling dynasty. The ritual presentation both commemorated Pharaoh’s desire to uphold the world order and legitimated his kingship (Fig. 5).
At no time would any of Pharaoh’s daily rituals have taken place at the Nile. From pre-dawn until the completion of the morning offering, he would have been preoccupied with religious duties within the temple. This then, rules out Rashbam’s idea that Pharaoh enjoyed his morning leisure there. We also must reject Rashi’s explanation and the midrashic traditions that inform it. Like the accusations of magic and divination, we must consider them entirely polemical. Moreover, from very ancient times, Egypt’s elite enjoyed the luxury of indoor bathrooms replete with cleaning staffs. Indeed, there would have been no need for Pharaoh to use the river for this purpose.
What about the proposal that Pharaoh went to the Nile to worship it? Even if we put aside, for the nonce, the fact that Pharaoh would not have been near the river in the morning, this interpretation also is highly unlikely. In point of fact, there is very little evidence for the royal worship of the Nile god Hapi during the pharaonic period (Fig. 6). While the general population certainly greeted the annual inundation with jubilation, Hapi never had his own temple.
There is some limited evidence for royal offerings to Hapi at Heliopolis and Gebel el-Silsila, but generally, the Pharaohs showed little concern for any rituals to Hapi. Even the Egyptian Hymn to the Nile enjoyed no life in ritual. In fact, there appears to have been no general cult to the Nile whatsoever until the Graeco-Roman period. Therefore, the midrashic interpretations that cite Pharaoh as worshiping the Nile reflect a Graeco-Roman reality, not a pharaonic one.
The suggestions of Nile worship by more modern scholars, like Driver and Sarna, likely reflect the influence of earlier biblical scholarship written during the nascent days of Egyptology, when knowledge of Egyptian religion was first reaching the educated public. Witness, for example, the remark of Adam Clarke in his 1834 commentary: “Some suppose he went out to pay adoration to the river Nile, which was an object of religious worship among the ancient Egyptians. For, says Plutarch, De Iside., ουδεν οὑτω τιμη Αιγυπτιοις ὡς ὁ Νειλος ‘Nothing is in greater honor among the Egyptians, than the river Nile.’” In 1841, George Bush opined similarly, though with more certitude and doctrinal prejudice:
...he (Moses) is directed to meet him by the river’s bank, whither he (Pharaoh) was in the habit of resorting in the morning, either to perform his ablutions or his devotions, or both; as there is clear evidence that the Nile was anciently deified as the source of the fertility of the soil of Egypt, and that it had its appointed priests, festivals, and sacrifices. Indeed at the present day, under the sterner system of Moslem religion, the reverence entertained for the Nile exibits a tendency towards the same superstitious regard, as it is called ‘the Most Holy River,’ and its benefits are still celebrated by a variety of religious rites.
Thirty years later, biblical scholars still maintained this view, though by this time, there existed considerable confusion between Hapi, the Nile deity (Egyptian ḥʿpyT), and the similar sounding Hapi (Egyptian ḥph), the Apis bull, as the comment of Frederic Cook demonstrates:
The Nile was worshipped under various names and symbols; at Memphis especially, as Hapi, i.e. Apis, the sacred bull, or living representation of Osiris, of whom the river was regarded as the embodiment or manifestation. If, as is probable, the king went to offer his devotions, the miracle would have special force and suitableness.
Fortunately, our understanding of Egyptian deities and their cults (and also of Islam!) has much improved since the time of these theologians, even though more contemporary commentaries continue to perpetuate the unrealistic notion of Nile veneration as a reason for Pharaoh’s visit.
Measuring the Nile
This, then, brings us to Ibn Ezra’s proposal that Pharaoh might have gone to the Nile to measure its height, a suggestion that Driver and Sarna also noted. As Ibn Ezra admits, he drew upon knowledge of the practice in his own day. Indeed, he must have had in mind the very public and ceremonial role that the Caliph played in the Fatimid period during the annual inundation, when he perfumed the Nilometer with saffron at Rhoda Island (Fig. 7).
Nile measurements certainly took place also in pharaonic times, not just to determine the level of the river, but to calculate the levy of taxes (Fig. 8). Nevertheless, in pharaonic times such duties were delegated to officials. Thus, we must look elsewhere for a likely explanation for Pharaoh’s trip to the river in Exod 7:15.
To this point, the evidence has ruled out all but one explanation—a literary purpose. I already have noted Propp’s observation that placement by the river is required by the plot and that it literarily recalls other passages involving royalty near the Nile. However, the narrative of the plagues is even more sophisticated. Its redacted form adheres to four literary structures simultaneously.
The first structure groups the plagues “biblically” two-by-two. Thus, the first two involve the Nile (blood, frogs), the second—insects (lice, swarms), the third—illness (anthrax, boils), the fourth ruins the crops (hail, locusts), and the fifth entails darkness (three days of darkness, firstborn die at midnight).
The ten plagues also follow a tripartite structure of three plagues each, plus one (the tenth). The first plague in each of these series (1st, 4th, 7th) contains Yahweh’s commandment to Moses to “station himself” before pharaoh, each time employing the Hebrew root נצב. Each also contains the phrase “in the morning.” The second plague in each series (2nd, 5th, 8th) employs the command “Go to Pharaoh,” each time using the verb בוא. Moreover, within each of the three sets, Yahweh issues a warning for the first and second plagues, but not the third. Finally, Aaron serves as an agent during the first set of three plagues, whereas Moses performs the final three.
A third structure operative in the account is concentric and divides the plagues into two sets of five that reflect upon each other chiastically. Thus, the first and tenth both contain introductory and closing formulas, the second and ninth refer to the hardening of the heart both at the beginning and the end, and they introduce a specific request. The third and eighth plagues contain a prophetic formula and specific request to serve Yahweh. In the fourth and seventh, the opening formula contains a command to Moses for Aaron. The fifth and tenth both feature a prophetic formula and specific request to serve Yahweh.
The fourth structure at work employs a biblical literary device that underscores the importance of the seventh and tenth items in rosters of ten. In this case, the tenth plague serves as the obvious climax for the entire narrative. It kills all the firstborn Egyptian males, including Pharaoh’s heir, as a lex talionis response to the king’s decree to kill all firstborn Israelite boys (Exod 1:16, 1:22).
Yet, the seventh plague (hail and fire) ranks next in importance. It receives the most space other than the tenth, it constitutes a manifestation of the divine presence, it was more severe than the previous plagues, and it was unprecedented in history (Exod 9:18, 9:24). The plague of hail also is the first to force Pharaoh to repent (Exod 9:27). Moreover, unlike the first and third plagues, the narrator’s announcement of the seventh plague omits the words “Behold, he (Pharaoh) goes out to the water.” The change in formula suspends the reader’s anticipation of water, which appears just a few verses later in the form of hail.
The narrative’s four sophisticated structures serve to demonstrate the existence of a divine order behind the catastrophic chain of events. In effect, they convey by literary means the redactor’s theological view that the events were Yahweh’s plan. They also provide ample evidence for why Moses was commanded to go to Pharaoh “in the morning” as “he goes out to the water.” Pharaoh was not present to perform magic or divination, or to worship the Nile. Nor was he there to relieve himself, bathe, stroll, or measure the level of the river. He was there to serve the needs of the redactor.
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April 7, 2017
November 16, 2019
Professor Scott B. Noegel is Professor of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literatures in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington. He holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University andan Honorary Ph.D. in Letters from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Among his many books are Nocturnal Ciphers: The Allusive Language of Dreams in the Ancient Near East; and (with Gary A. Rendsburg) Solomon’s Vineyard: Literary and Linguistic Studies in the Song of Songs.
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