Shemot: Demagogue

Demagogue (noun): a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Egypt has too many immigrants! says the pharaoh says at the beginning of the book of Exodus/Shemot. If they increase we’re in trouble!

Here are the pharaoh’s words in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1):

“Hey, the Israelite people are countless, more numerous than we are! Come, let us use our wits, or else they will increase. Then it will happen that war will be proclaimed against us, and [these people] will actually join our enemies and make war against us, then go up from the land!” (Exodus/Shemot 1:9-10)

Semites visiting Egypt, Tomb of Knumhotep II, c. 1900 BCE

A few centuries before, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, a pharaoh appreciated Joseph’s service so much he invited Jacob’s clan of 70 people to migrate from Canaan to Egypt. Now they have so many descendants that some of the native Egyptians are nervous. The pharaoh escalates their fears by predicting both that the Israelites will rise against the Egyptians, and that they will leave Egypt and, presumably, stop contributing to its economy.

Today demagogues in many western nations spread the notion that immigrants and their descendants will take away jobs, use up public resources, and change the culture of the country. Why did the pharaoh at the beginning of the book of Exodus raise the specter of civil war instead?

The scenario the pharaoh describes in this week’s Torah portion may have actually happened when a Semitic people called the Hyksos conquered northern Egypt and ruled it from 1638 to 1530 B.C.E.. A recent analysis of teeth found in skeletons in the remains of Aravis, their capital in the Nile delta, indicates that the Hyksos came from an established immigrant community within Egypt.1

Ramesses II capturing enemies, c. 1250 BCE

None of the pharaohs in the book of Exodus are named, but the first one to speak is sometimes identified with Ramesses II, who ruled in 1279–1213 B.C.E. and built a new capital city, Pi-Ramesses, near the old site of Avaris. During his reign Canaan was a colony of the Egyptian Empire, populated by Semites but controlled by Egyptian administrators and soldiers. Nevertheless, historical memory of the Hyksos might have haunted Egyptians.

After fomenting fear and loathing of the Semitic Israelites living in Egypt, the first pharaoh in Exodus takes two actions. First he takes advantage of the anti-Semitism he has revived to get free labor for his own projects.

Then they set over them [the Israelite men] overseers for corvée labor in order to oppress them with their forced labor, and they built cities of warehouses for Pharaoh: Pitom and Rameseis. (Exodus 1:11)

Native Egyptians are probably glad their pharaoh is conscripting resident aliens instead of them. However, this corvée labordoes not address the pharaoh’s original claim that the Israelites are dangerous because they might fight on the enemy’s side in a war. Even though the Israelite men are supervised by Egyptian overseers, they might revolt if an army from another country promised them liberation.

(The first book of Kings provides an example of rebellion due to forced labor. King Solomon imposes corvée labor on his own people, sending Israelite men in shifts to quarry stone in Lebanon for building Jerusalem’s new temple. Unlike the Israelites in Egypt, Solomon’s laborers work in the quarries one month, then get two months off at home.2 The levy continues for further building projects in the northern part of Solomon’s kingdom.3 When Solomon’s son and successor, Rechavam, announces he will work the northern Israelites harder, they revolt and set up their own kingdom.4)  

The first pharaoh in Exodus, besides taking advantage of the anti-Semitism he has revived in order to levy forced labor, attempts to commit gradual genocide. He orders the midwives for the Israelites to kill the male infants of Israelite women, but let the females live.5 Perhaps his rationale is that the boys would grow up to become soldiers fighting against the native Egyptians. A more efficient way to commit genocide would be to kill the girls as well, since they will give birth to future generations. But the cultural assumption was that girls could be trained as servants and concubines and safely absorbed into the Egyptian population. Why deprive the native Egyptians of a class of docile domestic servants?

But the midwives disobey the pharaoh.

Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them: “Why have you done this thing and let the boys live?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh: “Because the Ivriot are not like the women of Egypt, because [they are] chayot. Hey! Before you come to them to serve as a midwife, they have given birth.” (Exodus 1:18-19) 

Ivriot (עִבְרִיֺּת) = female Hebrews.  (Plural female of Ivri, עִבְרִי. The term Ivri may be related to the term habiru in letters sent from Canaan to Egypt in the 14th century B.C.E.. The habiru were a marginal social class of outsiders, often outlaws or mercenaries. In Hebrew, Ivri is related to the verb avar, עָוַר = pass through, cross over; an ivri is a boundary-crosser or a nomad. Today the Hebrew language is called Ivrit, עִבְרִית.)

chayot (חָיוֹת) = wild animals.

The midwives probably refer to the Israelite women as Ivriot and chayot in order to sound as if they are as anti-Semitic as the pharaoh.6 They get away with their excuse; the pharaoh refrains from punishing them.

Although classic commentary says the two spokeswomen for the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and actually Moses’ mother and sister, Pharaoh would hardly respond positively to their excuse if they were Semites! But why would the Israelite women use Egyptian midwives? The Torah offers no explanation. Why complicate a juicy story?

Even though the pharaoh lets the midwives off the hook, he still needs to pander to the masses he has inflamed. So he incites the native Egyptians to take violent action.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive.” (Exodus 1:22)

Vigilante groups of Egyptian men must have responded by searching Israelite houses, seizing infant boys, and drowning them. The next two sentences in the Torah portion are:

And a man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and she gave birth to a son. And she saw him, that he was good, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:1-2:2)

This baby boy is Moses, who is later adopted by a daughter of the pharaoh who does not share her father’s anti-Semitism.

I believe the pharaoh in this story acts unethically by inciting murder, by imposing corvée labor on residents of his country in a time of peace, and by encouraging prejudicial acts against native-born children of an immigrant population. But not everyone today would agree with me. Demagogues have risen in more than one modern Western nation in the 21st century, and a few have even been elected as heads of state.

Since the pharaoh in this week’s Torah portion is an absolute ruler, he can issue inflammatory orders without fear of reprise. I pray that all demagogues who incite violence in our time will be brought to justice.

  2. 1 Kings 5:27-31.
  3. 1 Kings 11:26-28.
  4. 1 Kings 12:1-20.
  5. Exodus 1:16.
  6. Exodus 1:17-19. See my post Shemot: Disobedient Midwives.

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