Biblical Archaeology Review 37:3, May/June 2011

Biblical Views: The Pharaoh, the Bible and Liberation (Square)

By Ronald S. Hendel

After the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, Google executive Wael Ghonim tweeted: “Good morning, Egypt. I truly missed you for the past 30 years!” This revolution, which was nonviolent and democratic, was an entirely modern phenomenon. But the backdrop of the Great Pyramids and the frequent references to Mubarak as the Last Pharaoh bring to mind a time span much longer than 30 years. The rule of the pharaohs in Egypt began around 3000 B.C.E. In the big picture we’re talking about 5,000 years of authoritarian rule by pharaohs, kings, emperors and dictators. In this long span, it is natural to think of the Biblical Exodus as in some ways a precursor of the latest revolution in Egypt. The plea to Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” would be an apt caption to the scenes of popular demonstrations in Cairo’s Liberation Square.

Of course, unlike the recent events in Egypt, the Exodus was neither a popular movement nor a democratic revolution. According to the Biblical account, this movement was in fact largely opposed by the Hebrew slaves, who had been worn down by their slave existence and slave mentality. Moses, the liberator chosen by God, had to force them to be free. Even after their liberation, the people were nostalgic about their Egyptian bondage, where at least they had had enough to eat. The stiff-necked Hebrews were not democrats. They essentially exchanged one king—Pharaoh—for another, to whom they owed absolute obedience. Their new king was God, who gave them laws and made them his people.

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