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How Does Pharaoh Come to be in Nineveh?

How Does Pharaoh Come to be in Nineveh?

By: Gilad Sasson*

The “Song on the Sea” describes the drowning of Pharaoh’s forces in the Red Sea: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; and the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds” (Ex. 15:4); “For the horses of Pharaoh, with his chariots and horsemen, went into the sea; and the Lord turned back on them the waters of the sea” (Ex. 15:19).[1]

In these verses, Pharaoh’s army, horses and chariots are collective references to Pharaoh’s armed forces, but did these expressions include Pharaoh himself? Did he also drown? The answer is to be found in the description of the event: “The Egyptians came in pursuit after them into the sea, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and horsemen…The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen—Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained” (Ex. 14:23-28).

The text emphasizes that there were no survivors, which means that Pharaoh, as well, did not remain alive, even though this is not explicitly stated.[2] Contrary to what is implied by Scripture, a different opinion is voiced in the writings of the Sages (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate de-Va-Yehi, ch. 6):

The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen (Ex. 14:28)—even Pharaoh, says Rabbi Judah, as it is written, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army [He has cast into the sea; and the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds]” (Ex. 15:4). Rabbi Nehemiah says: Excluding Pharaoh, for it is written of him, “Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: [in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world]” (Ex. 9:16). Others say: Pharaoh went down last and drowned, as it is written (Ex. 15:19), “For the horses of Pharaoh, with his chariots and horsemen, went into the sea; and the Lord turned back on them the waters of the sea.”

The Tannaim disagree as to Pharaoh’s fate. In Rabbi Judah’s opinion, close to the plain sense of the text, he drowned along with his forces. Rabbi Nehemiah, in contrast, holds that Pharaoh survived because the Lord so willed it: 1) so that he would witness with his own eyes the great might of the Lord, as he sees his entire army drowning in the sea; 2) so that he would retell the story of his defeat, and thus the name of the Lord would be aggrandized.

What accounts for Rabbi Nehemiah’s new reading, diverging from the plain sense? He seems to be of the opinion that Pharaoh’s surviving when all his army was destroyed was a far greater defeat for him. Pharaoh would continue to relive his fall every day of his life. This is a punishment worse than death, where the sense of defeat is but momentary. The last view takes a middle-of-the-road approach, between the two that precede it: Pharaoh indeed drowned, but he was last to do so. He both witnessed the might of the Lord and experienced defeat for a more protracted time, yet he also died.[3]

Pharaoh remaining alive also appears in the later midrash, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 43):

Rabbi Nehunya ben Ha-Kanah says: Observe the power of repentance. Learn from the example of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who rebelled exceedingly against the Supreme Rock, as it is written, “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him?” (Ex. 5:2). Using the same expression with which he sinned, so did he repent, as it is written, “Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials” (Ex. 15:11),[4] and thus the Holy One, blessed be He, delivered him from among those who were dying.

And whence do we know that he did not die? For it is said, “I could have stretched forth My hand and stricken you [and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth]. Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: [In order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world]” (Ex. 9:15-16)…He went and became king of Nineveh…and when the Holy One, blessed be He, sent Jonah to bring to the city prophecy of its destruction, Pharaoh heard, arose from his throne, rent his garments and put on sackcloth and ashes, and he declared that all his people should fast with him for three days; and whoever would not do these things would be burned at the stake.

This homily tells of Pharaoh being saved, but adds two further developments: 1) Pharaoh repents, and the Lord saves him from dying, not as a punishment but as a reward.[5] 2) Pharaoh comes to Nineveh and is king of the metropolis when Jonah brings the tidings that the city is about to be destroyed.[6] This legend prompts us to ask whence came the notion that Pharaoh repented and how was a connection arrived at between Pharaoh and the king of Nineveh, who lived centuries later?

Comparing the story of Moses and Pharaoh with the story of Jonah and the king of Nineveh, on the one hand we observe certain similarities, but on the other, differences.

The points of similarity are: 1) Almost the identical formulation is used to delegate the prophet to go to the gentile king. Moses was told, “Speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I will tell you” (Ex. 6:29). Jonah was told, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you” (Jonah 5:2). 2) Both prophets refused to go on the Lord’s mission.

The points of difference: 1) The reason given for being opposed to the mission: Jonah was opposed because he knew that the people of Nineveh and their king would repent, and he was opposed to the possibility of the Lord forgiving them. Moses was opposed because he knew full well that Pharaoh would refuse to listen to him. 2) The king of Nineveh was quick to do the Lord’s bidding, whereas Pharaoh stubbornly refused to listen to Him. In short, Pharaoh and the king of Nineveh present opposing figures, so the question of connecting the two only becomes more thorny.

Rabbis and scholars, aware of the problematic nature of this legend, have sought various explanations, but none seems to be adequate.[7] It seems that the answer lies in the chapter incorporating this passage in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer. That chapter begins with the words, “Repentance and good deeds are a barrier against disaster,” and concludes with the words, “Blessed are you, O Lord, who desires repentance.”

The entire chapter deals with repentance and presents various figures who repented, changing their ways dramatically: Ahab, David, Menashe, and Resh Lakish. The last figure to be presented is that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who became king of Nineveh. To illustrate the tremendous power of repentance, the midrash sought to show that even a negative figure such as Pharaoh could repent. Since, as we have said, the contrasting figure to Pharaoh is the king of Nineveh, identifying Pharaoh with the king of Nineveh conveys a sharp and clear message about the great power of repentance. If Pharaoh can become the king of Nineveh, then there is hope for the betterment of every human being. Identifying Pharaoh with the king of Nineveh is not meant as an historical claim as an illustration of the idea of repentance.


Translated by Rachel Rowen

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* Dr. Gilad Sasson, Department of Talmud, Bar Ilan University. This translation originally appeared in Hebrew in 2017 and has not been reviewed by the author.

[1] Also in Deuteronomy, when Moses retells what happened, he says, “what He did to Egypt’s army, its horses and chariots; how the Lord rolled back upon them the waters of the Sea of Reeds when they were pursuing you, thus destroying them once and for all” (Deut. 11:4).  Mention is also made of the event in Psalms:  “Who hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds, His steadfast love is eternal” (Ps. 136:15).

[2] This is implied by Psalms 106:9-11:  “He sent His blast against the Sea of Reeds; it became dry; He led them through the deep as through a wilderness.  He delivered them from the foe, redeemed them from the enemy.  Water covered their adversaries; not one of them was left.”

[3] A later homily tries to reconcile the position of Rabbi Nehemiah with Exodus 14:28:  “‘Not one of them remained’—this refers to Pharaoh, who remained and did not die, in order to recount the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, as it is written, ‘Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: [in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world]’ (Ex. 9:16)” (Midrash Aggadah, Exodus, Be-Shalah 14:28, Buber ed., p. 145).  Some Bible commentators have interpreted verse 14:28 in the light of this homily.  E.g., Hadar Zekenim, and Da`at Zekenim of the Tosafists.  Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra knew of this interpretation but took exception to it (see his short commentary, loc. cit.).

[4] The homilist puts this line in Pharaoh’s mouth by reading as the text as a single consecutive quote from verse 9 through verse 11: “The foe [Pharaoh] said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake…You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them, they sank like lead in the majestic waters, [and then Pharaoh said:] Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials.’”

[5] This development reached as far as the Koran (Sura 10, 90-92):  “And We took the Children of Israel across the sea, and Pharaoh and his soldiers pursued them in tyranny and enmity until, when drowning overtook him he said, ‘I believe that there is no deity except that in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am of the Muslims.’  Now?  And you had disobeyed [Him] before and were of the corrupters?  So today we will save you in body that you may be to those who succeed you a sign…” (https://legacy.quran.com/10/90-92).  On the connection between Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer and Islam, see Joseph Heinemann, Aggadah and Its Development [Hebrew], Jerusalem 1974, pp. 181-199.

[6] The notion of Pharaoh coming to Nineveh also appears in Sefer ha-Yashar, ch. 20, Yosef Dan ed., Jeruaelm 2006, p. 319.  Also see Bereshit Rabbati, Parashat Va-Yehi, Albeck ed., p. 258.

[7] For example, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Ba`al Ha-Turim, on Exodus 14:31, where he explains the connection between these two figures in the light of the fact that the word, va-ya’aminu (= they had faith or believed) only occurs twice in Scripture:  “They had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” (Ex. 14:30), and “The people of Nineveh believed in G‑d” (Jonah 3:5).  Rabbi Eliyahu ben Amozag, in his commentary, Em la-Mikra, which appears in Torat Ha-Shem (Leghorn 1863, on Ex. 14:10), sought to explain this on the basis of historical knowledge of how Ramses III reached Nineveh in his conquests. 

Yair Zakovitz and Avigdor Shinan have suggested that the key is to be found in the verse from Nahum (3:7-8), which predicts a prophecy of destruction to be brought upon the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and says inter alia:  “All who see you will recoil from you and will say, ‘Nineveh has been ravaged!’  Who will console her?  Where shall I look for anyone to comfort you?  Were you any better than No-amon, which sat by the Nile, surrounded by water—its rampart a river, its wall consisting of sea?”  (See Sefer Yonah: Perush Yisraeli Hadash, Jerusalem 2015, p. 103).  In their opinion, this association of Egypt with Nineveh “sufficed to also make a connection between the king of Nineveh and Pharaoh, king of Egypt.”

Last modified: 30/12/2018