“Pharaoh’s Ultimate Fate”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Beshalach, we read of the splitting of the Red Sea and the miraculous salvation of the Israelites from the hands of Pharaoh and his mighty armies.

Although Pharaoh hastily chased the People of Israel out of Egypt, once the people departed, Pharaoh had a change of heart and decided to pursue them in order to bring them back to Egypt. Scripture records Pharaoh and his servants saying (Exodus 14:5): “Mah zoht ah’see’noo kee she’lahch’noo et Yisrael may’ahv’day’noo?” What have we done that we have sent away Israel from serving us?

The Torah reports that Pharaoh himself harnessed his own chariot, and took 600 of his elite chariots and officers with him to pursue the Children of Israel. He overtook the Israelites encamped by the sea.

Thoroughly panicked, the Children of Israel cried out to Moses (Exodus 14:11-12), “What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt…for it is better that we should serve Egypt than die in the wilderness?” Moses assured the people that G-d would save them (Exodus 14:13-14): “For as you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall not see them ever again. G-d will do battle for you, and you shall remain silent.”

Moses soon stretched his hands out over the sea, and G-d split the sea with a strong east wind. The Children of Israel walked through the sea on dry land, as the water formed walls for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptian forces pursued the Israelites, coming after them with their horses, chariots and riders into the midst of the sea. The Torah reports that G-d confounded the Egyptian hosts, removing the wheels of their chariots and causing them to drive with difficulty.

When the Egyptians tried to flee, G-d instructed Moses to once again stretch his hand out over the sea, so that the waters would go back upon Egypt, its chariots and its horsemen. The Torah then states (Exodus 14:28): “Va’yah’shoo’voo ha’ma’yim va’y’cha’soo et ha’reh’chehv v’et ha’pa’rah’sheem l’chol chayl Par’oh ha’bah’eem ah’cha’ray’hem ba’yahm, lo nish’ahr ba’hem ahd eh’chahd,” The water came back and covered the chariots and the horsemen of the entire army of Pharaoh who were coming behind them in the sea–-there remained not one of them.

The Torah then concludes by describing the resounding triumph over Egypt (Exodus 14:30-31): On that day, the L-rd saved Israel from the hands of Egypt. Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore. Israel acknowledged the great power that G-d had displayed against the Egyptians, and the people revered the L-rd, and had faith in the L-rd and in Moses, His servant.

In the very next chapter of the parasha, Exodus 15, Moses leads the men of Israel in triumphant song, and Miriam leads the women of Israel in a song of victory.

That is the last that we hear of Pharaoh, or is it?

The Ha’amek Davar (The Netziv, R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Haamek Davar, 1817-1893) offers a fairly literal interpretation of the Torah’s words. He notes that the Torah’s language, “lo nish’ahr ba’hem ahd eh’chahd” (not one remained) indicates that not only did every soldier and every chariot rider succumb to the powers of the sea, but even those who were not warriors perished. All those allied with the Egyptians, even non-combatants who only assisted in caring for the chariots, succumbed.

However, not all commentators accept the literal interpretation of the Biblical text. While some (like the Ha’amek Davar) insist that Pharaoh drowned in the sea together with his army, other commentators cite differing opinions. In the Midrash Mechilta, Beshalach 2:6 we find that the rabbis are troubled by the expression, “lo nish’ahr ba’hem ahd eh’chahd,” (there remained not a one of them). Some commentators argue that “ahd eh’chahd” may mean, even one, or as much as one. In fact, they maintain that the “one” who survived the churning seas was Pharaoh himself, so that Pharaoh could serve as living proof and retell firsthand the account of the miracles and wonders that G-d had performed on behalf of the People of Israel.

The commentators also note that confirmation of Pharaoh’s death is glaringly absent from the Song of Moses crossing the sea. While the text states in Exodus 15:4, “Pharaoh’s chariots and army, He threw into the sea, and the pick of his officers were mired in the Sea of Reeds,” it fails to mention anything about Pharaoh himself. Again, at the conclusion of the song, Scripture reports (Exodus 15:18) that “When Pharaoh’s cavalry came with his chariots and his horsemen into the sea and G-d turned back the waters of the sea upon them, the Children of Israel walked in the dry land amid the sea.” Again, it never states that Pharaoh himself drowned. This is what leads the commentators to suggest that, perhaps, Pharaoh survived.

Prof. Louis Ginzberg, in his monumental work on the Midrash, The Legends of the Jews, records the incident as follows:

Thus all the Egyptians were drowned. Only one was spared– Pharaoh himself. When the children of Israel raised their voices to sing a song of praise to God at the shores of the Red Sea, Pharaoh heard it as he was jostled hither and thither by the billows, and he pointed his finger heavenward, and called out: “I believe in You, O God! You are righteous, and I and My people are wicked, and I acknowledge now that there is no god in the world beside You.”

Without a moment’s delay, [the angel] Gabriel descended and laid an iron chain about Pharaoh’s neck, and, holding him securely, addressed him thus: “Villain! Yesterday you did say, ‘Who is the Lord that I should hearken to His voice?’ and now you say, ‘The Lord is righteous.'” With that he [the angel Gabriel] let him drop into the depths of the sea, and there he tortured him for fifty days, to make the power of God known to him.

At the end of the time, he [Gabriel] installed him [Pharaoh] as king of the great city of Nineveh, and after a lapse of many centuries, when Jonah came to Nineveh, and prophesied the overthrow of the city on account of the evil done by the people, it was Pharaoh [now the King of Nineveh] who, seized by fear and terror, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes, and with his own mouth made this proclamation and published this decree throughout Nineveh: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed or drink water; for I know there is no god beside Him in all the world, all His words are true, and all His judgments are true and faithful.”

An alternate Midrash claims that Pharaoh never died, and never will die.

He [Pharaoh] always stands at the portal of hell, and when the kings of the nations enter, he makes the power of God known to them at once, in these words: “O you fools! Why have you not learned from me? I denied the L-rd G-d, and He brought ten plagues upon me, sent me to the bottom of the sea, kept me there for fifty days, released me then, and brought me up. Thus I could not but believe in Him.”

This is not the only instance that an archenemy of G-d is portrayed as ultimately testifying about G-d’s truthfulness. The Midrash similarly reports that when the earth opened up and swallowed Korach, as Korach went down into the bowels of the earth, he cried out, “Moses is true and his Torah is true, and I am sinful.”

A pattern emerges. After giving a sinner numerous opportunities to repent, the Al-mighty punishes the sinner, at times rather grievously. While the punishment is obviously meant to repay the perpetrators for their wickedness, for G-d, it is intended more to serve as a means for mortals to achieve contrition and, even more importantly, to teach others to conduct themselves properly.

Had Pharaoh simply drowned in the sea along with the Egyptian hosts and troops, it would not have been nearly as impactful as knowing that Pharaoh survived to proclaim the truth of the L-rd.

The man who had hardened his heart time and again is now given the opportunity to soften up the hearts of countless would-be defiers of G-d throughout the ages.

May you be blessed.