Egyptian Background and the Exodus Narrative1


Egyptian Names

A number of Israelite names in the generation of the Exodus appear to be of Egyptian origin.2 These include:

"יָד חֲזָקָה"

Pharaohs often bragged about their "strong arm", with which they smote their enemies. This is seen as early as the Egyptian king Narmer, who is depicted smiting with his arm (see picture). Pharaohs also sometimes used the title nb ḫpš, literally "arm master". Thus, the repeated references to Hashem's strong and outstretched arm (see Shemot 3:19-20, 6:1, 7:4, 15:6) may highlight that it is Hashem's arm which is the powerful one and which twisted Pharaoh's arm into releasing the Israelites.5

"כָּבֵד לֵב פַּרְעֹה"

In ancient Egypt, to enter into the afterlife one had to pass a simple test: the heart was weighed on a scale against a feather (see picture). If it was pure, it would be as light as a feather, and the deceased, declared pure, would be allowed to proceed. If the heart were not as light as the feather, though, it meant that the person was tainted with sin, and could not be redeemed. Accordingly, when Hashem says, "כָּבֵד לֵב פַּרְעֹה", He may be saying that Paroh is guilty (rather than stubborn, for which "וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה" or "הִקְשָׁה פַרְעֹה" is used).6

The Plagues

Both Shemot 12:12 and Bemidbar 33:4 explicitly state that the Plague of the Firstborn executed a "judgment against the [Egyptian] gods". This may be true of the other plagues as well. Various Midrashim7 already note that the Nile was worshiped in Egypt, and that the first plague of Blood was directed against the belief in this god.8 Modern scholars9 have extended this theory. Their suggestions include that the Plague of צְפַרְדֵּעַ was intended to mock Heqet the Egyptian goddess of childbirth who was depicted as a frog, the Plague of דֶּבֶר came to show the powerlessness of the Egyptian gods Apis or Hathor who were portrayed as bovines, the Plagues of Hail and Locust were brought against Min the Egyptian god of fertility and vegetation, and the Plague of Darkness was directed at the belief in Ra the Egyptian sun god.