YHWH's War Against the Egyptian Sun-God Ra
Every literature has its cultural setting – the Bible no less than any other. For the people of ancient Israel, that cultural setting was the world of the polytheists around them. In the specific case of the exodus narrative, the context was the world of ancient Egypt.
A stellar illustration of this process appears at the beginning of Parashat Bo. This section of the Torah relates the last three of the plagues: locusts (10:1-20), darkness (10:21-29), and the death of the firstborn (11:1-10, 12:29-30), each of which resonates with literary and religious motifs from the world of ancient Egypt.
Pharaoh’s Pun – Raʿa or Ra Is Before You
In Exodus 10:10, Pharaoh says to Moses and Aaron, during one of their ongoing exchanges, רְא֕וּ כִּ֥י רָעָ֖ה נֶ֥גֶד פְּנֵיכֶֽם (reʾu ki raʿa neged penekem), literally “see, for there is evil before you,” or more idiomatically “look, you are up to no good.” By sheer coincidence, the Hebrew word רָעָה raʿa “evil” is the name of the Egyptian sun-god Ra, the head of the pantheon. In this bilingual pun, made possible by this linguistic coincidence, not only does Pharaoh deny the request of the Israelites to worship their God, but he also states, as it were, “that Ra is before you.”
This effrontery resounds in the next three plagues: no. 8, locusts, which blot out the sun in midday (see 10:15); no. 9, darkness, most commonly understood as a sandstorm, which darkens the skies for three days (see 10:22); and no. 10, the death of the firstborn at midnight, the darkest part of the night, when Ra is most distant from shining (see 12:29).
Given the cultural context of ancient Egypt, the perceptive ancient Hebrew reader would have realized the connection between Pharaoh’s impudent statement in 10:10 and the subsequent narrative, with its focus on the worst possible chain of events for the Egyptian nation, the disappearance of their omnipresent sun-god Ra.
Locusts: Blotting Out the Sun
The Eye of the Land and the Eye of Ra
Playing on this motif, in 10:15, the text states that the locusts covered עֵ֣ין כָּל־הָאָרֶץ֮ ʿen kol ha-ʾareṣ “the eye of the whole land,” a rare idiom in Hebrew, but one very much at home in the Egyptian language. This Hebrew phrase most likely is an adaptation of the Egyptian expression ir.t rʿ, literally, “the eye of Ra,” used to designate the sun and, by extension, Egypt too.
Tradition’s Familiarity with the Egyptian Motif
Remarkably, later Jewish tradition understood these passages within their Egyptian cultural context. First, Midrash Shir ha-Shirim, commenting on Song 1:12, reads,
ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם - אמר ליה אני רואה באצטגנינות שלי כוכב אחד עולה לקראתכם ושמו רעה, והוא סימן דם והריגה.
He [sc. Pharaoh] said to him, “I see through my astrology a star rising to meet you, and its name is Raʿa, and it is a sign of blood and killing.” (ed. Grünhut, p. 15a = ed. Wertheimer, p. 41).
This interpretation, in turn, is quoted by Rashi (Exodus 10:10):
ומדרש אגדה שמעתי כוכב אחד יש ששמו רעה. אמר להם פרעה רואה אני באיצטגנינות שלי אותו כוכב עולה לקראתכם במדבר והוא סימן דם והריגה.
I heard a midrash aggada: There is a star, and its name is Raʿa. Pharaoh said to them, “I see through my astrology this star rising to meet you in the wilderness, and it is a sign of blood and killing.”
In rather extraordinary fashion, these midrashic sources understood רָעָה raʿa not only as “evil,” but also as the name of the Egyptian sun-god (or at least a star by the name of Ra, which is close enough for our present purposes), hence we may wish to render the passage: “see, for there is evil/Ra before you.”
Likewise, it is rather surprising that in rendering the phrase עֵין (כָּל־)הָאָרֶץ ʿen (kol) ha-ʾareṣ “the eye of the (whole) land,” Targum Onqelos departs from its typical strategy of word-for-word translation, and instead translates עין שמשא דארעא ʿen šimšaʾ de-ʾarʿaʾ ‘the eye of the sun of the land’ in 10:5 and עין שמשא דכל ארעא ʿen šimšaʾ de-kol ʾarʿaʾ “the eye of the sun of the whole land” in 10:15. In both cases, Onqelos inserted the word שמשא šimšaʾ, “sun,” in the middle of the phrase. There can be little doubt that the ancient Aramaic translator realized that the rare Hebrew expression refers to the sun.
How such knowledge reached the author of Targum Onqelos we cannot know for sure, though it is not beyond possibility that Jewish tradition simply retained an understanding of the text with reference to the sun throughout the centuries.
Darkness: Blotting Out the Sun
The ninth plague, darkness, not only continues the attack on the sun-god Ra, but uses a literary trope found in two Egyptian texts. The older of the two is the Prophecy of Nefer-rohu, the words of an Egyptian sage who lived c. 2000 b.c.e. In discussing the upheaval which has befallen Egypt, the writer states,
“The sun disc is covered. It will not shine, allowing people to see . . . No one knows when midday occurs, for his shadow cannot be distinguished.”
A more specific parallel occurs in a later Demotic text , known as Setne Khamwas and Si-Osire (or Setne II, for short). Setne Khamwas was the son of Rameses II and high priest of Memphis, and a great magician, about whom a series of tales developed. In one story, Setne Khamwas’s son, Si-Osire, surpasses him in wisdom and magic. In the course of the storytelling, Si-Osire quotes an unnamed Nubian magician, as follows:
“One of them was talking in a loud voice and said among other things: ‘Were it not that Amun would find fault with me, and that the king of Egypt would punish me, I would cast my sorceries upon Egypt and would make the people of Egypt spend three days and three nights seeing no light, only darkness’.”
In other words, the Egyptians believed that the most skillful of magicians could bring darkness to the land.
The reference to three days of darkness in Exodus 10:22-23 is especially striking. These traditions concerning darkness presumably are based on the reality of the sandstorms which affect Egypt on a regular basis (those who have seen the film The English Patient will recall the vivid scene).
Death of the Firstborn: An Ancient Egyptian Myth
The tenth plague, the death of the first-born Egyptians at midnight, also has Egyptian parallels, though they are of a much more enigmatic nature. As is well known, ancient Egypt had a well-developed funerary cult, including funerary texts that span the various epochs (Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom). The funerary texts of the Old Kingdom period were written on the walls of the pyramids themselves, and hence are called the Pyramid Texts. The following passage appears on the walls of the pyramids of Unas, c. 2350 b.c.e., and Teti, c. 2320 b.c.e., both at Saqqara:
It is the king who will be judged with Him-whose-name-is-hidden on this day of the slaying of the first-born (smsw; lit. “eldest”).
During the Middle Kingdom period, Egyptian scribes wrote the funerary texts on wooden coffins, and hence this collective group is called the Coffin Texts. On two coffins, both found at Asyut, we read,
“I am he who will be judged with Him-whose-name-is-hidden on this night of the slaying of the first-born (wrw).”
On four other coffins (two found at Saqqara, two found at el-Barsha), we read,
“this night of the slaying of the first-born, this day of the slaying of the first-born (wrw).”
In these cases, the word for ‘first-born’ is wrw, literally “big, great,” in the plural, with the “deity” determinative following, suggesting that the expression refers to gods in some way; this contrasts with the first source which uses the word smsw, “eldest,” with no determinative following.
An Obscure Reference
We know very little about “this day of the slaying of the first-born,” or “this night of the slaying of the first-born,” or the composite version with both “night” and “day” (in the second of the Coffin Texts noted above). But clearly this motif meant something to the ancient Egyptians.
Moreover, apparently this motif was also known to the ancient Israelites, as it became part of the tradition relating to the Exodus from Egypt (not only in Exodus 12, but in Psalms 78:51, 105:36, as well). This assimilation of an Egyptian motif into various biblical compositions is clear, despite the chronological gap of a millennium or so between the Coffin Texts dated to c. 2000 b.c.e., and the exodus narrative, which, in my view, achieved its more or less canonical form c. 1000 b.c.e. Perhaps because of the depth of the tradition in ancient Egypt, it remained well-known for a millennium even though it is not attested in any extant texts from a later period.
Regardless of how this echo of a myth is to be understood, the following conclusion of the late Israeli Egyptologist, Mordechai Gilula, remains true:
“These passages are strong evidence that a mythological tale once circulated in which some or all of the first-born in Egypt – whether gods, mortals or animals – were slain on a certain day or night. Such a myth may very likely lie in the background of the biblical account.”
Widening the Scope to All Ten Plagues
Scholars have noted that the earlier plagues affect various Egyptian deities: the first plague with reference to Ḥapi, the Nile-god (though more accurately, the god of the inundation of the Nile); the second plague with reference to Ḥeqet, the frog-goddess associated with life; the fifth-plague with reference to Apis, the bull, and Hathor, the cow; etc. The eighth, ninth, and tenth plagues, I submit, are all directed at Ra in some fashion, especially in light (pun intended?) of Pharaoh’s comment in 10:10, which began this essay.
Understanding Egypt – Understanding the Torah
Exodus 12:12 states that God performs judgments not only against the Egyptian people, but also וּבְכָל־אֱלֹהֵ֥י מִצְרַ֛יִם (u-be-kol ʾelohe miṣrayim) “and against all the gods of Egypt.” Our analysis of the plagues narrative within its broader Egyptian cultural setting returns us to this explicit statement in the Bible itself, and helps us uncover the meaning and implication of that statement.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
January 8, 2016
April 19, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Gary Rendsburg serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Professor of Jewish History in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His Ph.D. and M.A. are from N.Y.U. Rendsburg is the author of seven books and about 190 articles; his most recent book is How the Bible Is Written.
Essays on Related Topics: