It is hard to find anything good to say about the Pharaoh who enslaved our ancestors. Although at times the Bible can be adept at depicting subtle nuances of personality and giving the bad guys redeeming virtues or sympathetic qualities, is it really possible to salvage the reputation of a tyrant who, without any evident provocation, overlooked the immense benefits that Joseph had bestowed upon the Egyptian nation, and reduced the innocent Israelites to arduous slavery?
Nevertheless, there was at least one distinguished Jewish commentator who seemed to be looking for ways to mitigate Pharaoh's negative image.
A Jewish commentators were faced with a thorny philosophical question when they interpreted the story of the Egyptian exodus: Could Pharaoh really be held accountable for his evil policies? After all, it had been foretold to Abraham generations earlier that his descendants would be enslaved in a strange land. Conceivably, therefore, Pharaoh could have defended his actions before the court of history by pleading I was only following orders in helping to carry out a divinely preordained scenario.
Not surprisingly, Jewish commentators dismissed that defense. Maimonides stated flatly that God never compelled Pharaoh or any of his countrymen to oppress the Hebrews, and therefore the Egyptians were fully accountable for their crimes.
However, Rabbi Moses Nahmanides, the Ramban, differed from Maimonides on this point, and was actually willing to grant some legitimacy to the following orders defense. What made Pharaoh culpable, Ramban explained, was the fact that his treatment of the Israelites went far beyond mere enslavemen and extended to brutal subjugation and an attempt at genocide. Nahmanides conceded, however, that if Pharaoh had done nothing more than turn our ancestors into slaves, he would have been justified in claiming that he had done so in order to carry out the divine plan.
Throughout his discussions about the Egyptian enslavement of the Hebrews, in connection with God's predictions to Abraham (Genesis 15:14) and Moses' first confrontation with Pharaoh (Exodus 10:1), Nahmanides avoids mention of Pharaoh's name, and substitutes generic references to the Egyptians, though the Torah itself is quite explicit about Pharaoh's being the initiator of the infamous decrees.
Nahmanides argues furthermore, that once Pharaoh became convinced that the Israelite multitudes constituted a potential threat to Egyptian security, he refrained from taking the most direct form of action, of actively slaughtering the entire nation. Compared to what he might have done, the policy that he actually adopted, of ordering the midwives to do away with the newborn boys, was a model of restraint. He chose that course out of deference to the policies of the previous Pharaoh, and in recognition that an overt attempt at ethnic cleansing would not be condoned by the Egyptian masses. These are hardly the sorts of considerations that we would usually ascribe to a sadistic arch-villain.
There are, indeed, several indications that Nahmanides had a soft spot for the ancient Egyptian sovereign.
Perhaps the strongest reason for holding Pharaoh culpable for his misdeeds was the simple fact that he had been duly warned what would happen if he persisted in his refusal to free the slaves. Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh in the name of the Lord, and before each plague they alerted him to the consequences of his obstinacy. Pharoh knew exactly what he was letting himself in for--or so it would appear.
Not so, according to Nahmanides. He suggests that at least some of the fault lay with Moses. Because Pharaoh was basically a reasonable man, who knew about the God of Israel and his absolute power, he would not have intentionally disregarded Moses' threats if Moses had argued his case in a more persuasive manner, and if it had been demonstrated clearly that Moses was speaking on God's behalf. If Moses had been more insistent, Pharaoh would have realized that he was left with no alternative, and he would have capitulated earlier in the game.
On several occasions, Nahmanides pointed out how Pharaoh treated Moses and Aaron with fitting honors, how he came to respect Moses' credibility, and that the courtesy was reciprocated.
All in all, Nahmanides' Pharaoh comes across as a more pleasant person that is suggested by either the Bible or the midrashic tradition.
Scholars have suggested that, Nahmanides' depictions of ancient royalty were coloured by his personal experiences with royalty. The rabbi had been acquainted with King James (Jaime) I the Conqueror of Aragon since as early as 1232, when the monarch sought his advice concerning an explosive dispute that was splitting the Catalonian Jewish communities, over the study of Maimonides' philosophy.
James was generally well disposed towards the Jews of his realms. He was generous in offering them land and positions in the civil and diplomatic services, often preferring them to their more ambitious Christian counterparts. He went so far as to provide contractual guarantees of the Jews' right to observe their holy days, build synagogues, and conduct their communities according to their own laws. He tried to attract Jews from other lands by offering them land and tax incentives.
Nahmanides' most momentous involvement with King James, who sat upon the Catalonian throne throughout the rabbi's adult life, occurred in connection with the famous disputation of Barcelona in 1263, at which the Jewish sage defended his religion against the apostate Pablo Cristiani. It was the king himself who urged Nahmanides to participate. And unlike many other medieval disputations, where the Jewish spokesmen were under intense pressure not to argue their case too aggressively, James took an active part in the proceedings in order to allow the rabbi freedom of speech.
Following the disputation, James took the unprecedented step of visiting the synagogue and delivering an address there. Although the discourse was, of course, a Christian missionary sermon, Nahmanides was allowed to respond openly, and the exchange was conducted in a spirit of respectful civility, perhaps even warmth.
Alongside this idyllic picture, the Jews of Catalonia were also being subjected to diverse forms of discriminatory legislation, initiated by Catholic monastic orders whose influence was growing, especially during the later decades of James' reign. The very fact that the Barcelona disputation was held, albeit under relatively liberal circumstances, is an example of the darker side of James' reign, as were a 1263 edict ordering Jews to attend Dominican missionary sermons, the confiscation of a work by Maimonides that was considered blasphemous to Christians, and the nominal conviction of Nahmanides on charges of blasphemy.
Perhaps Ramban suspected that, just as the anti-Jewish edicts in Catalonia had been initiated by the Dominicans and Franciscan lobbies and not by the king, so had Pharaoh's enslavement of the Israelites been instigated by hostile parties among the Egyptian populace. This paradigm of royalty shaped Ramban's reading of Pharaoh's motives.
In his interpretations of biblical events, Nahmanides was fond of invoking the talmudic maxim that the deeds of the ancestors serve as paradigms for the fate of their descendants.
In this case, arguably, it was the experiences of the latter generation that shaped the Ramban's understanding of biblical history.
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