Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Exodus in the Qur’an, the Bible, and History (Part 10): "King" vs. "Pharaoh"

In English, “pharaoh” is used as a generic term for any king (or queen) of ancient Egypt, without distinguishing between different periods or dynasties.  This is how the term is used in the Bible as well.  In the stories of Abraham and Joseph, which are almost universally located in the Middle Kingdom period (c. 2055-1650 BCE), the ruler of Egypt is called “Pharaoh” over ninety times.  Likewise, in the story of Moses, which is almost universally located in the New Kingdom period (c. 1550-1069 BCE) (see part 6, “The Identity of Pharaoh”), the Egyptian ruler is called “Pharaoh” 128 times.[1]  The term “king of Egypt” is also used in both the stories of Joseph (Gen. 40:1; 41:46) and Moses (Exod. 6:13, 27; Deut. 11:3).  Therefore, in the Bible, the terms, “Pharaoh” and “king of Egypt” are both used for both time periods without distinction.[2]

The Qur’an is therefore peculiar in that it does not follow the biblical pattern.  It does use both terms, “Pharaoh” and “king,” but without mixing between them.

In the story of Joseph, the Qur’an consistently refers to the Egyptian ruler as al-malik (“the king”), and never as Fir‘awn (“Pharaoh”).  For example,

The king (al-malik) said, ‘I dreamed about seven fat cows being eaten by seven lean ones; seven green ears of corn and [seven] others withered.  Counselors, if you can interpret dreams, tell me the meaning of my dream.’ (12:43)

Further references to the ruler as “the king” occur in āyas 50, 54, 72, and 76.

On the other hand, in the various retellings of the story of Moses in the Qur’an, the Egyptian ruler is consistently referred to as Fir‘awn—over seventy times—and never as al-malik.  For example,

And Moses said, ‘O Pharaoh, I am a messenger from the Lord of all peoples’ (7:104)

What is surprising about the Qur’an’s usage is that it accords precisely with the way the term “Pharaoh” was historically used in ancient Egyptian history.  The term comes from the Egyptian pr-‘3, meaning “great house.”  Prior to the New Kingdom period, the term was used to refer to the royal palace as a whole.  It is only during the New Kingdom period, and specifically the eighteenth dynasty (16th-14th centuries BCE), that the term came to specially designate the Egyptian ruler.  As we saw in part 6, this is exactly the time the Exodus is dated.

The Qur’an’s selective usage of the terms “Pharaoh” and “king” is therefore striking in its precision.  The Qur’an could employed any of the following possibilities:
  1. It could have used both terms for both times periods, just as in the Bible and even modern English, without any distinction.
  2. It could have exclusively used the term “Pharaoh” for both time periods.
  3. It could have exclusively used the term “king” for both time periods.
  4. It could have used the term “Pharaoh” for the period of Joseph and “king” for the period of Moses.
  5.  Instead, the Qur’an uses the term “king” exclusively for the period of Joseph and the term “Pharaoh” exclusively for the period of Moses.

From the perspective of a seventh-century Arab, Jew, or Christian, any of these possibilities would be acceptable, and there would be little to favor one over the other.  The historical distinction between the two epithets has only come to light with the advent of modern Egyptology following the translation of hieroglyphics in the nineteenth century.  In light of these facts, the Qur’an’s usage is an impressive example of one of its most remarkable features, its stunningly precise word choice.

[1] “Pharaoh” in O. Odelain and R. Séguineau (Trans. M. J. O'Connell), Dictionary Of Proper Names And Places In The Bible, 1981, Robert Hale Ltd.: London, p. 301-302.  Cited in David, Karim, and Saifullah.
[2] I have summarized this information from A. David, E. Karim, and M.S.M. Saifullah, “Qur’anic Accuracy Vs. Biblical Error: The Kings & Pharaohs Of Egypt.”, 3 Mar. 2006.  Accessed 2 Feb. 2015.  (For the record, though the Qur’an’s precise and selective usage of these terms is remarkable, I do not personally regard the biblical usage as an “error.”)  One may consult the essay for a more detailed explanation, with more extensive reference to the scholarly literature.