Pharaoh’s Courtiers

We can identify with Pharaoh's servants--and this need not make us uncomfortable.


Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

At the Passover seder, we narrate the story of our slavery as a real-time autobiography, as if we are, at that moment, experiencing the Exodus from Egypt. Eating bitter herbs and crunching matzah, we identify with our Israelite ancestors, a nation of slaves on the other side of freedom. 

american jewish world serviceContemporary liberation movements also find inspiration in the story of the Israelite nation leaving Egypt. Liberation theology, a movement galvanizing social justice throughout Latin America and the Global South, claims the Exodus as a foundational narrative. Robert McAfee Brown, in his book, Liberation Theology, writes, “Oppressed people today identify easily with the oppressed peoples of yesterday, the Hebrew slaves in the story.” 

We Are Pharaoh’s Servants

From my seat in the Global North, I wonder what it might feel like to identify as an ancient Egyptian. To be afflicted with escalating plagues of environmental destruction and disease. To watch as one’s leader, hard-hearted Pharaoh, recklessly and relentlessly refuses to listen to others or change his disastrous course. To be allied with the oppressor instead of the underdog. 

Brown understands that he and his typical Global North reader have more in common with the ancient Egyptians than with the Hebrews: “I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that most of us who read (and write) books like this can be identified as servants in Pharaoh’s court; lower echelon folk who are nevertheless members of the establishment, with advancement possibilities if we play our cards right.”

But what role do the Egyptian courtiers play in the story? A look at the Exodus narrative shows that some servants in Pharaoh’s court actively try to do the right thing in a place where they have limited power. They attempt to stop Pharaoh, and when they fail in this, they aid the Israelites to escape Egypt. 

Hearing Moses warn Pharaoh about an imminent plague of locusts, the courtiers cry out (Exodus 10:7), “Let the men go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” Pharaoh is temporarily swayed by their collective voice of reason and grants the Israelites permission to leave. 

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Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman is the Rabbi Martin Ballonoff Memorial Rabbi-in-Residence at Berkeley Hillel.

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