Monday, May 11, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History (Part 9): The Preservation of Pharaoh’s Body

The mummified body of Ramesses II was discovered in 1881 in a cache of forty mummies.  Priests had deposited and concealed these mummies around 1,000 BCE because of an epidemic of grave robbery.  They remained concealed for almost three thousand years until their discovery less than two centuries ago.[1]

This finding confirms another distinctive element of the Qur’an’s narrative of Pharaoh, its claim that his body would be preserved for later generations:

Today We will save you in your body so that you may be a sign for those after you.  Truly many people are heedless of Our signs. (10:92)

This claim is unique to the Qur’an, and is not found in the Bible or any prior Jewish or Christian sources.  This āya has been compared before to some rabbinic tales in which the Pharaoh repented and God rescued him, so he went on to become the king of Nineveh.[2]  However, the obvious implication of this āya is that Pharaoh’s last-minute recantation was not deemed acceptable and he drowned, but his body was in some way preserved as a sign for later generations.  The Qur’an here and elsewhere emphasizes Pharaoh’s demise as a punishment for his crimes.

It is significant that the Qur’an never makes a similar statement about other destroyed peoples, but only states that their abandoned buildings, ruins, or “news” have been made signs for later generations.  This āya explicitly specifies that Pharaoh’s body was preserved as a sign, and not just for his own time or witnesses (as some commentators have suggested), but in open terms—“for those after you” (li-man khalfa-ka).  As Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli point out, “Since its discovery, Ramesses II’s mummy has been seen by people from everywhere.  It is currently one of the major tourist attractions in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.”[3]

The mummy of Ramesses II

An objection that has been raised before is that at the time of death, Ramesses was at the ripe age of ninety and was suffering from atherosclerosis as well as battle wounds.  He would have not been in the physical condition to pursue the Israelites into the desert.  The Bible answers this objection best when it states that Pharaoh’s stubborn and reckless actions were a consequence of God hardening his heart, in order that God may display His signs against him (Exod. 7:3), or as the Qur’an says, “as a sign for those after you.”

[1] Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 112.
[2] Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 43, pp. 341-343 (Friedlander); Book of Jashar 81:36-41; Chronicles of Jerahmeel 48:12; Legends of the Jews, vol. 3, 29.  Moreover, each of these sources postdates the Qur’an.
[3] Fatoohi and Al-Dargazelli, 114.