Pardes 360: Pharaoh and Trump – Xenophobic-Demagogues or National Saviors?

Posted by Daniel Roth on January 17, 2017
Topics: Pardes 360, Shemot, Shemot (Exodus)

This Friday, the 45th president of the United States will be sworn into office.  For half of America, Donald Trump is the epitome of a xenophobic demagogue poised to bully and denigrate minority groups of all kinds. Yet for the other half, he is the long awaited national savior coming to protect America, make it stronger, more prosperous and “great again.” One thing all American’s may agree on though, is that they sharply disagree over how to see Trump, leaving constructive dialogue across this identity border almost impossible.

So now what?

I find inspiration from another ‘new’ leader whose coming to power continues to be an area of much dispute: Pharaoh, King of Egypt mentioned in this week’s parsha, Shmot. The Book of Exodus (1:8-10) says “And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise (lit. go up) from the land.’” For over 2,000 years the commentaries have interpreted Pharaoh and his motives in diametrically opposed ways.

Perhaps the most antagonistic read is the contemporary academic commentary of Prof. William Propp (Anchor Bible on Exodus, p. 133), who describes Pharaoh as a young, insecure, xenophobic demagogue who created the historically preposterous myth of an Israelite demographic threat for his own selfish political gains.

And there are those who saw Pharaoh as the exact opposite – a responsible national hero for his people. The earliest ‘commentator’ of the Bible, the Book of Jubilees (200BCE), describes the historical realities very differently claiming there was a ‘new king’ since the old king was killed in battle in the war with the other regional super power, the Canaanites, and the only thing that saved Egypt was the wall he built around them. The Israelites, who buried their dead in Canaan and whose hearts were towards Canaan, were a serious threat of a fifth column in the larger Egyptian – Canaanite conflict. Thus Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites to rebuild the wall around Egypt that parts of which had been destroyed during the war.

So which one of these interpretations is correct? Which is the simple ‘factual’ reading of the text? The answer, of course, is it depends on who you are and how you choose to look at it.  However, what is clear is that if someone were to only read Propp and another person where to only trust the Jubilees News they would find it impossible to communicate since they are reading diametrically opposite stories, leading to each one seeing the other as crazy or naïve. The only way for them to engage in a constructive conversation would be to accept they are both reading interpretations that are ambiguous and allow for conflicting reads.

This brings me back to our two Americas who are reading and trusting very different news sources that interpret Trump and the world in very different manners. The result is an inability to separate “facts” and “commentary”. One of the important challenges of anyone attempting to avoid further, deeper divides would be to read the news they generally do not trust, with respect and curiosity. This should never be at the expense of advocating passionately for each side’s read of reality, but to do so in the knowledge that there may be other interpretations.

I pray this crisis within American society ultimately leads to further and deeper ways to engage in the most difficult of conversations constructively.

The 9Adar Project’s fifth annual Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict is taking place February 19-25, 2017. Visit www.9adar.org to get involved.

Click here for a study guide to accompany this article.


Pardes360 is a series of responses to world current events by Pardes faculty in 360 words (or sometimes a few more). The views expressed in the articles are those of the author and do not reflect and institutional stance. To read other Pardes360 articles, click here.

About Daniel Roth

Daniel is the director of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution. He holds a Ph.D. from Bar Ilan University‘s Program for Conflict Resolution, Management and Negotiation writing on Jewish models of conflict resolution, peacemaking, and reconciliation. Daniel has been teaching advanced rabbinics, Bible, conflict resolution and other subjects at Pardes for over fifteen years. Click here to read more.

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