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A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. He said to his people: 'Behold! The children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us…' So they appointed taskmasters over them in order to afflict them with their work… (1:8-11)
Who was the new king? The Talmud brings the dispute between Rav and Samuel: one holding that the Pharaoh was indeed new, and the other suggesting that he was the same Pharaoh as in Joseph's day, but had turned over a new leaf.
Fragments of mainly secondary sources (such as Manetho, quoted by Josephus) suggest that the new king was indeed a new dynasty. During the period of Joseph, Egypt appears to have been occupied and ruled by the Hyksos, an invading or infiltrating (historians are divided) non-Egyptian force that undermined and eventually took over the Middle Kingdom of the Pharaohs. How far the Hyksos' origin was Indo-European as opposed to Semitic is also disputed by ancient historians. Indications of distinctly Hyksos characteristics appear in the text. For example, there is evidence that they introduced the Egyptians to the chariot (c.f. Gen. 41:43).
Thus the Pharaoh of Joseph's time was a Hyksos, not a real Egyptian. It would appear that Joseph rendered great service to Hyksos as the Egyptian landowners had to mortgage their lands to Pharaoh: "Thus the land became the property of Pharaoh" (Gen. 47:20) - the non-Egyptian Hyksos Pharaoh. And for good measure - to remind the people who indeed owned the land, Joseph "moved the people… from one end of Egypt to the other" (Gen. 47:21).
In those circumstances, the Egyptians had to comply if they wanted to eat. But Joseph's initiative as part of a foreign regime over Egypt that uprooted families who had been living in the same locality for generations might well have been remembered bitterly.
The new king that "did not know Joseph" was a real Egyptian. It seems likely that his dynasty - the beginning of the New Kingdom - was the one who finally defeated the previous Hyksos regime.
This sets the text into a clearer context. The New Kingdom associated the Israelites with the Hyksos, who were their enemies. Their birth rate gave cause to concern that indeed "war would break out, and they would side with their enemies" (1:10) - the Hyksos. Thus the Egyptians set to enslave them for reasons of national security.
Perhaps this underlies the message of Jeremiah's Letter to the Exiles. There, Jeremiah outlined a code of conduct to the newly-exiled Israelites: "Build homes… plant orchards… seek the welfare of the city… and pray for the welfare of that city, for its peace is your peace" (Jer. 29:5-7). So far, no further. He did not advice the exiled Israelites to become involved in ruling the city, as a change in ruler could put the Jews in the firing line of having supported the previous regime. Indeed, that had happened to the Jews in medieval and even post-medieval periods, in both Christian and Moslem countries…
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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