We celebrate our birthday on the anniversary of our birth. We do not celebrate it on the actual day of our birth - the day on which it occurred. The French have a better word for our kind of birthday - they call it l'anniversaire, which makes the matter clear.
But in the case of the Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled at the time of our ancestor Joseph, he celebrated the actual day of his birth. The Torah makes this very clear, as it says that it was "on the day of the birthing of Pharaoh" (yom huledet et Par'oh) that he judged the lucky butler and the unlucky baker.
How could he do that on the day that he was born? How could he know that he was Pharaoh on the day that he was born? We need to look at the story and at royal Egyptian ceremonial to grasp the full meaning.
Joseph, the wonder-boy, is in prison and interprets the dreams of the butler and the baker. He foretells that the butler will be restored to his post, but the baker will be put to death. The judicial decision will be made in three days' time, "on the day of the birthing of Pharaoh" (the literal translation of Genesis 40:20), when Pharaoh makes a feast for all his servants. How can this be so, if Pharaoh was only just being born?
THE FACT of the matter is that this was the day of the Heb-Sed festival and feast, when Pharaoh is reborn. It is also called the Jubilee Festival, as it is usually held after the Pharaoh has ruled for 25 years. The idea is that he has to come to the people and prove he is still strong and virile enough to lead them, to be their representative of the gods. In the early days he was forced to run around the city walls with an onion round his neck. Running was his proof of strength, and the multi-skinned onion a symbol of fertility.
In later times a special Heb-Sed courtyard was built, as at Sakkarra, near Cairo, with a throne at one end. The Pharaoh had to run round the court (about 200 meters) and his completed circuit would be followed by feasting and jollity, to celebrate the Pharaoh's rebirth. The successful monarch was considered to have been reborn and given a new lease of life, allowing him to reign once more over the people. The Pharaoh would then return to the throne, hold court and pronounce judgment on the cases pending among his courtiers.
DEPICTIONS OF the ceremony on the temple walls have always shown the crown prince in attendance. The purpose of this was to have him on hand to take over from his father should Pharaoh fail the test. If this happened, Pharaoh's fate was sealed and his end would not be pleasant.
The ceremony was therefore not without its dangers, which made it all the more exciting for the people. It must be admitted that in the later periods the running was probably carried out by a surrogate, so there was no danger to Pharaoh himself. But in early times it may have been a useful way to get rid of a failing monarch.
The ceremony fits exactly the short description given in the story of Joseph and emphasizes that the Torah record clearly knew the details of Egyptian royal protocol. And there are further examples of such intimate knowledge.
A few chapters after this incident we come to the 10 plagues. After each disaster Pharaoh beseeches Moses to call off the plague and he will let the people go. But once it is called off he changes his mind. In five out of the 10 plagues Pharaoh himself "hardens his heart" and refuses to let the Israelites go. The Hebrew term is, literally, that Pharaoh "makes his heart heavy" (vehachbed et libo, Exodus 8:11) which is not the same as to harden one's heart. In this case, to make your heart heavy does not make sense. In our terms it implies sadness, lack of spirit and depression in general. However, in terms of Egyptian mythology it makes excellent sense.
ONE MAJOR concern of a ranking Egyptian of the New Kingdom period (some 3,000 years ago) was to ensure that after death he would reach the next world, the world of bliss ruled over by Osiris, the dead Pharaoh. To do that he would have to pass a number of tests beforehand, and the crucial first test was called the Weighing of the Heart.
At this ceremony the deceased had to make a declaration of innocence and, as a test of his sincerity, his heart was weighed on the scales against a feather, the symbol of the goddess of truth, Ma'at. The weighing was conducted by the jackal-headed god Anubis, assisted by a small monkey and supervised by a bevy of 12 minor gods, representing the 12 hours of the night.
The result was recorded by the ibis-headed scribal god Thoth and, if successful, Thoth declared that "the heart (of the dead) has been found true by the Great Balance. There has not been found any wickedness in him, he has not wasted the offerings of the temples, he has not done harm by his deeds, and he has uttered no evil reports while he was on earth."
To deserve this result the heart had to weigh just as little as the feather and the deceased could then pass on into the presence of Osiris. If the heart was found to be too heavy it would be gobbled up by the Ammut monster, in the form of a lion, a crocodile and a hippopotamus, the three animals most feared by the Egyptians, and the deceased was stopped in his tracks. He could not proceed.
This shows that in Egyptian mythology a heavy heart was a sign of wickedness. Pharaoh, by making his heart "heavy" was displaying the evil side of his nature. Again, we see that the Torah record displays an intimate knowledge of Egyptian mythology, which could only have been gained by long familiarity with life on the Nile.
This explanation makes it clear that Pharaoh himself displayed the inherently evil side of his nature without the prompting of God. It might explain a philosophical conundrum, raised by Maimonides and others. Why was Pharaoh punished, when it was God who had destined his heart to be "hardened?" For, as God said to Moshe, "I will strengthen Pharaoh's heart" (7:3) and he will not let the people go.
We can now see that in at least half of the plagues it was Pharaoh who introduced the element of wickedness, for he himself made his heart "heavy" with evil.
The record clearly states that it was he that did it, and thus deserved to be punished.
The writer is a Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeology, Jerusalem.