At Exodus 2:23, there is a verse that we are all familiar with: “In the course of those many days, the king of Egypt died, and Bnei Yisrael sighed because of the avodah, and they cried out, and their cry for help rose up to God, from the avodah.”
What is the connection between the king of Egypt dying and Bnei Yisrael sighing and crying out because of the avodah?
A widespread answer is that once the king of Egypt died and Bnei Yisrael saw that they were still not freed, they realized that their slavery was becoming permanent. This led them to sigh with despair. Of course, the verse does not say this, but this is a good try.
My father-in-law liked to suggest that when the king of Egypt died, they had to build a monument for him and a lot of work was involved. This, too, is very clever, but it is not stated in the verse.
Many other weak answers have been offered. For example:
When the king of Egypt died, the Egyptians mourned for him and perhaps the Israelites even had a day of rest. Bnei Yisrael were then able to exhibit their suffering externally, but they were not mourning for the death of the Pharaoh but for their own difficult condition.
When the king of Egypt died, the Egyptians blamed/took their anger out on Bnei Yisrael and ordered them to work harder.
The verse, in an awkward way, is telling us that the next king was crueler than the first king.
But what is the true answer to our question? What is the connection between the death of the king of Egypt and Bnei Yisrael sighing and crying out? The best answer is offered by Rashbam and many modern commentators (e.g., U. Cassuto, and Da’at Mikra, p. 36, note 1, first suggestion). There is no connection! The remark about the death of the king is just a parenthetical background statement. Verse 2:15 had told us that Moshe fled Egypt because Pharaoh wanted to kill him for his killing an Egyptian. But now the background has changed. There is a new Pharaoh and God can now call Moshe back. The Israelites need to be led out and God can assure Moshe that those seeking to kill him are dead (as He does at verse 4:19). (The view of Rashbam is also implicit in the brief statement of Ibn Ezra printed in the standard Mikraot Gedolot.)
I have always been fascinated by a midrash on this verse at Exodus Rabbah 1:34 that stated that the king did not die, but became a leper. Rashi quotes this midrash as well. (The “leper” interpretation is also found in Targum Yonatan). Why should there be a midrash that interprets the word “va-yamat” to mean “he became a leper?”
There is a similar midrash in the case of king Uziahu, where his “death” at Isa. 6:1 is interpreted as “becoming a leper.” (See Ex. Rabbah 1:34 and Tanchuma Tzav). But in the case of Uziahu, there are verses at the end of chapter 26 of II Chronicles that refer to him becoming a leper, so the midrashic reinterpretation of his “death” at Isa. 6:1 is not totally out of the blue.
Here are a few explanations for the midrash on Exodus 2:23 that have been offered:
1. Bnei Yisrael should have been happy at the death of the Pharaoh. Since they were not happy, he must not have died.
2. The midrash also refers to Pharaoh having to slaughter Israelite babies and bathe in their blood as a cure for his leprosy. Accordingly, by making Pharaoh into a leper who needs a cure, the midrash is able to portray his enslavement of the Israelites in an even crueler manner.
3. There was a tradition in ancient Egypt that the Israelites were kicked out of Egypt because they were lepers. See the second story of the Israelite enslavement and Exodus reported by the 3rd century B.C.E. Egyptian historian Manetho, recorded in Josephus, Against Apion I (commencing at para. 230). Our midrash was a polemical response to that tradition.
4. The story of those first 15 chapters of the book of Exodus would have a much better message if the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites was also the one who was punished with the ten plagues and drowning at the sea. A literal reading of verse 2:23 ruins this symmetry. But by reinterpreting the “death” at Exodus 2:23, the midrash is able to equate the Pharaoh of the oppression with the Pharaoh of the exodus and interpret the story as consistent with the general principle of “midah ke-neged midah.” See A. Shenan, Midrash Shemot Rabbah, p. 99, note 37.
The last answer was very clever, but we can now do even better. The approach we will take is very similar to the last answer. A longer version of the midrash at Ex. Rabbah 1:34 was found in a work known as Midrash Ha-Gadol. Midrash Ha-Gadol emanates from Yemen and often preserves older readings of midrashim. (See Encyclopedia Judaica 11:1515.) In our passage, it has additional statements at the beginning: “Could he have died? But a verse [Exodus 9:16] reads: “because of this I appointed you [to show you my power]…” The implication of this additional passage is that verse 9:16 implies that the entire story of the first 15 chapters of the book of Exodus involves only one Pharaoh. God appointed a certain individual as Pharaoh and then wanted to teach that same Pharaoh a lesson about His power. This explains why the passage that refers to his “death” had to be reinterpreted.
Verse 2:23 is an important verse in identifying the Pharaoh of the exodus. Ex. 1:11 tells us that the Israelites built store cities called Pitom and Ramses. Ramesses II reigned for over six decades in the 13th century BCE and archaeology has shown that he was responsible for building a vast city called Pi-Ramesses that would have required vast amounts of laborers and brick. (Ramesses I reigned for only 16 months and is not known to have built any cities.) Perhaps the implication of Ex. 1:11 is that Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of the oppression. If so, Exodus 2:23 would imply that his successor Merneptah (c. 1213-1203) was the Pharaoh of the exodus. Much more needs to be said here, including the fact that there is an inscription of Merneptah dated to his 5th year that refers to a group called “Israel,” who seem to have been in the land of Israel already. But I will pass and refer you all to the essay of Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz in his Pentateuch, at p. 395. (Anyone interested further can read my essay at seforim.blogspot.com of April 2011.)
Michell First can be reached at M[email protected] For more of his articles, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org. Hopefully, your shuls still have the Hertz Pentateuch!