The Psychology Of Pharaoh: Decoding The Hebrew Roots

For some people the bible is nothing but a bewildering book of odd myths and legends that have not much relevance for modern life. For others it’s a thing for special “holy hours”, a warehouse of motivational quotes and weaponized opinions. And yet for others it’s simply a historical document, charting the strives and struggles of early humanity.

As we mentioned in our previous essay, it’s possible to understand the bible not just in a historical sense, but as a road map for the human soul that travels through time and space. And just like reading any other map where we have to know what all the different icons and symbols refer to (hospitals, scenic viewpoints, train stations, etc.) we also need to decode the biblical names and figures to make sense of them — a process which is far from arbitrary feelings and loose “moral” interpretations.

Using the bible as a navigational system without understanding the underlying connections between the “signifier and signified”, i.e. between what is said and what is meant, is like driving around using a map of the city of London to navigate the streets of New Dheli, which of course is totally pointless. But one might ask: is it the map’s fault or the navigator’s?

Similarly, although it may seem tempting to read it as such, the bible is not a one-to-one representation of our world, describing (historical) world events and characters but according to ancient Hebrew lore it actually describes events and phenomena that are taking place “above”, beyond or parallel to our day-to-day reality.

The Dominion of Duality

Let’s look for example at the story about Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Who is that character? An archaeologist might take us to the physical country of Egypt and point to the pyramids as evidence for the Pharaonic dynasty, showing us hieroglyphs about the distribution of grain, ancient wars and romances, etc. If one is looking for archaeological and historical evidence, these are valid approaches. But if we’re trying to understand the inner existential meaning of the biblical Pharaoh, these approaches are like trying to scoop up water with a fork.

Our road map, as documented in-depth by the Hebrew sages and their commentaries, tells us that the Pharaoh is the king of Egypt, but again — not the physical state of Egypt here in this world, but Egypt as the human body or form.

To explain this idea more thoroughly we have to look at the original Hebrew terms which include a lot of additional meaning that most translations will simply miss, not because the translators are at fault, but because the act of translation always implies interpreting, i.e. choosing one of many ambiguous meanings.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzraim, from the root Tzar which means narrow. It’s also closely related to the words Tzurah (shape, form) and Tzarah (trouble, suffering). The ending “aim” is simply the suffix that marks a double aspect.

So according to this brief introduction, Egypt (Mitzraim), has the meaning of a double narrowness, form or suffering. But what does that mean?

The sense of Egypt (again, not as a geographical place, but as a part of human nature) always expresses itself in a dualistic way, e.g. in terms of having vs. not having. It’s that nagging feeling we all know which constantly says: there is not enough space, not enough food, not enough time, not enough money and so on and so forth. The details may vary but the underlying theme is always the same. It’s this sense which says, even if not in those exact words, but more like a general background anxiety: “You will never be happy, you will never succeed, you will never have a choice, you are doomed, nothing will come of you, or from your life, you are a failure.”

Bad-Mouthing Our Experience

How do we get to such a conclusion? First of all, the name Pharaoh, in Hebrew (פרעה) uses the exact same letters as the phrase “bad mouth” (פה רע), just in a slightly different order. So the Pharaoh inside of us is what’s literally “bad-mouthing” everything that we see, hear, touch, think or feel.

Furthermore, the Hebrew name for Pharaoh (פרעה) also uses the same letters as the expression “Oref Hashem” (‘ערף ה), which literally translates to “the nape of God”. It would take too long to explain the exact meaning of this expression here, but for now we can simply say that it refers to a way of looking only at the back-end of things, where nothing is complete and a person finds many faults with himself and the world.

Now, the story in Exodus 1 tells us that while the Sons of Israel were in Egypt they multiplied so much that the king of Egypt began to feel threatened by them, and as a result of this fear he enslaved them. But what does that mean? And who are these “Sons of Israel”?

The Struggle Of Pharaoh With The Sons of Israel

First of all, we have to remember that Israel is the name that Jacob was given after “fighting the angel of death”. It would go too far to unfold this story in detail, but for now we can say that this name Israel (literally: struggling with the Higher) refers to a sense of overcoming worldly boundaries, of seeing beyond.

Put differently, the Sons (descendants, consequences, etc.) of Israel are an aspect of the human spirit which remembers that we are only passing through this world — because how long does a person live, after all? Even if we accrue great wealth and fame in this life, with even the best medicine and healthiest lifestyle, after about 90, 100, or even 120 years perhaps, our journey in this world eventually comes to an end. And then what?

The king of Egypt fears this line of thinking, because it goes against the dominion of duality. As long as we’re thinking in terms of gathering as many possessions, trying to wring as much pleasure out of every moment, because “life is short and then we die”, we’re firmly under his rule, justifying our choices according to the laws of Egypt, i.e. the laws of this world, the laws of duality. But the moment we start to question their absolute validity, we relativize their sway over us. And Pharaoh, as the pinnacle of worldly power is afraid that the influence of the spirit will get stronger, and that it will come to an open conflict with the body, whose powers in this world may seem very strong but are ultimately limited.

This is why Pharaoh’s only logical response to the Sons of Israel is to enslave them, to cut them down. But somehow turning the sons of Israel into slaves in the name of the limited, narrow body, doesn’t even limit their ability to follow the free spirit, quite on the contrary — the more they are enslaved, the more they grow and multiply! One might expect that if someone is tortured he’ll be weakened gradually, but in this case it only leads to immense growth!

And this was something Pharaoh could not have foreseen, because it literally cannot be understood from a dualistic, worldly perspective. So he asks his advisors who advise him to throw the Hebrew baby boys into the water of the Nile, in the hope of extinguishing the spirit of Israel forever and with it all questions that may jeopardize his power.

The Midwives’ Disobedience

In order to carry out this royal decree, Pharaoh turns to the Hebrew midwives who are attending the moment of birth, and says: “If it is a baby boy, kill it, and if it’s a baby girl let it live.” But the Hebrew midwives, coming from the aspect of Israel, disobey the king’s order and let all children live.

Also it is said that the Hebrew women don’t even need the midwives. They give birth before the midwife arrives, who then finds both mother and child healthy and alive. Whereas it is said about the Egyptian women that they die during labour and need the assistance of the midwives to revive both them and their babies.

To the attentive reader it will be obvious that these comments are not made in the spirit of medical or racial distinction but that something else entirely is at play. But in order to understand this story we have to first decode a couple of elements: Baby boy, baby girl, Hebrew midwives, Hebrew women and Egyptian women.

The Male & The Female

Baby boy is the aspect that remembers where the human soul comes from, as we say in Hebrew: “Ben Zachar”, Zachar (male) from Zocher (remembers), the one who remembers, and since he remembers he shall always remind us of this fact. The male always refer to this inner, essential aspect of human nature. (In each human being, both male and female aspects are present of course.)

Baby girl on the other hand is an aspect of the external, the casing, the wrapping, the envelope or the shell protecting the essence or the seed. Female in Hebrew means Nekevawhich refers to a hollowness or a space. It stands for the body, this world, in Hebrew “Ha Olam Haze”, the world which is revealed and which we can capture in our senses.

The Hebrew women are the element in a person which knows that whatever arrives, boy or a girl, hidden or revealed, comes from one source. The children are coming from the Eternal, and they shall return to the Eternal. This is why these women don’t need the help of the midwife, because they already know that it’s the spirit, in Hebrew Ruach (also: wind) that blows through everything and revives everything.

In the case of the Egyptian women, we have a situation where the power of the body gives birth to another body, killing the first one in the process. This is because the power of the body always wants to get something, not to give. And so the Egyptian women need midwives, to mediate life and death, they are quite literally in the middle: they come to revive the Egyptian women who die while giving birth, and also they come to revive their babies which are born dead.

Breaking Out Of The Loop

To summarize, the worldly power within us always wants to extinguish any memory we might have of something else, because it is only when we totally accept the rules of narrowness without any alternative that they hold absolute power over us. Under this rulership of duality each time we try to move towards new life, we “die” and are then at the mercy of the same worldly powers to “revive” us. It’s a closed system.

If, on the other hand, we remember that although we are passing through this world, our essence, our true origin is not of this world, we break the cycle and can grow with ease, even through great suffering, by holding on to hope, because there is a sense that we’re coming from the Eternal and going to the Eternal and everything along the way is but a revelation of the wondrous nature of Existence.

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About Eti Shani

Eti Shani was born in Israel and has been teaching Hebrew for more than 10 years with a special interest and experience in ancient Hebrew scriptures and culture. She's also the author of a series of books for novice and intermediate Hebrew learners.