January 12, 2002
The centuries between the events reflected in the message of Ezekiel and the events of the Exodus from Egypt refer to very different circumstances. Ezekiel’s prophecy against the Egyptians deals with a nation which sinned against Israel by using it as a pawn in its own struggles with Israel’s more powerful northern neighbors. Israel, a small nation caught between two giants (Egypt and Babylon), always seemed to suffer from the consequences of its misbegotten relationship with Egypt. This is different from that described in the generation of the Exodus when the children of Israel suffered directly at the hand of the powerful Egyptian leader who directly affected their fate. The one constant element in both of these tales involves the personality and leadership qualities exhibited by the Pharaoh.
Ezekiel describes Pharaoh with the following words: “Thus said the Lord God: I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt, mighty serpent, sprawling in your channels, who says that the Nile is my own; I made it myself.” (Ezekiel 29:3) Radak, the 12th century Provencal commentator, explains the significance of this prophetic metaphor this way: “The riches of Egypt are the result of the Nile, for it irrigates the country, making it so that there is no need for rain. This is why the Egyptians are proud of it. Egypt is likened to the Nile, Pharaoh to a large serpent who dwells in the Nile and the Egyptian people to the other fish who dwell in it… [Pharaoh says:] The Nile is mine, it irrigates the country, therefore we are self-sufficient and have no need for any other nation for food. I made the channels for irrigation… It was my wisdom and understanding that is responsible for making me a great king.”
Pharaoh’s vice was his overbearing arrogance, bordering on idolatrous self worship. This is a sin that the rabbis attributed to the Pharaoh of the Exodus as well. They use Ezekiel’s description of the Pharaoh of his generation to describe the Pharaoh of Moses’ generation: “Pharaoh was one of four people who deified themselves and brought harm upon themselves…From where do we know that Pharaoh made himself a god? It is written that he said of himself: ‘The Nile is mine and I made it.’ …What caused the Pharaoh [of the days of Moses] to be afflicted? [The fact that he claimed that] ‘The Nile is mine and I made it’. This is why the Holy One Blessed be He said to Moses: ‘See I have placed you in the role of God to Pharaoh’ (Exodus 7:1)… ‘Go and make the one who made a god of himself an abomination in the world.” (adapted from Exodus Rabbah 8:2)
The poetic justice of the image of Pharaoh as a serpent was not lost on the rabbis. “What is the significance of the miracle of the Moses’ staff turned into serpent? Rabbi Eliezer said: God turned the staff into a serpent because Pharaoh was called a serpent, as it is written: ‘the mighty serpent’ (Ezekiel 29:3).” (adapted from Exodus Rabbah 3:12) Pharaoh was made to realize his mortality by the very symbol of his realm. The message to Pharaoh was clear. True moral leadership requires humility.