3.3. “A new king arose over Egypt” (1:8-14)
(8) A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
(9) And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.
(10) 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 from the ground.”
(11) So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses.
(12) But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.
(13) The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites
(14) the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.
(8) A new king arose over Egypt: This did not happen immediately. At least a century had passed since Joseph’s death.
Who did not know Joseph: Needless to say, the new Pharaoh is familiar with the story of Joseph, but he does not want to know him. He does not want to acknowledge Joseph’s merits, or even to hear about him. Jewish life in Egypt (and in the Diaspora, in general) is not an independent existence, but subject to the whims of each ruler; previous successes are no guarantee of security. Even if a given generation manages to succeed in the Diaspora, a new ruler will always arise, sooner or later, such that all previous attempts to assimilate into the dominant culture will necessarily be doomed to failure.
But it is important to note that the new Pharaoh is introduced only after “the land was filled with the Jews,” that is, after the Jews had already integrated into the country and absorbed many of its achievements. It was now time to begin the process of severing them from it. In this regard, Pharaoh’s refusal to “know” Joseph was a necessary prerequisite to separating the Jews from Egypt (Hebrew yada’, “knew,” always indicates a very close connection between the knower and the person or thing known). Thus, all the hardships that Israel endured as slaves to the Egyptians were necessary for the birth of the Jewish nation.
(9) And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us: If you wish to destroy someone, your first step must be to declare him an “enemy of the people” and set the masses against him.
The literal translation here is “the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we are.” But that is not entirely clear. After all, there are undoubtedly far fewer Jews in Egypt than Egyptians. The rendering given by the translation here therefore seems more correct. “The Israelite people are much too numerous for us,” i.e., we Egyptians cannot allow such a large and powerful people to live in such close proximity to us.
(10) Let us deal shrewdly with them: The Midrash believes that the birth of Miriam, Moses’ older sister, coincided with the beginning of the Egyptian persecutions, and that her name “Miriam” is derived from the Hebrew word mar, “bitter.”
So that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground: The literal, more common translation is: “… they will fight against us and ascend from the (i.e., our) land.” But what danger do the Jews pose to Egypt? And since the Egyptians are prepared to destroy the Jews, what, then, is the urgency of preventing them from leaving the country? Apparently, the Egyptians, much as they dislike the Jews, are also averse to their departure, since the Jews are an important economic force in Egypt.
The phrase “and leave the land” has no explicit subject. Exactly who will leave the land? It is most natural of course to assume it refers to the Israelites. But we can also understand it in the opposite sense: “We, the Egyptians, will leave the land, for they will drive us out.” The Egyptians fear that the Jews, in collusion with Egypt’s enemies, will drive out (or perhaps enslave) the Egyptians themselves.
But there is yet a third possible reading: “They will lift up (something) from the land,” that is, they will leave, and take the riches of our country with them. The Egyptians fear that the Jews, upon leaving, will strip Egypt of its content and meaning – they will devastate Egyptian civilization.
And this is exactly what happened in the end, with Pharaoh’s own actions, more than anything else, contributing to that result. The aggressions perpetrated by the Egyptians against the Jews aroused in them the desire to leave Egypt.
(11) So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses: This is the first stage of enslavement. The Egyptians want to give the impression that their goals are entirely highly constructive, but in actuality their only objective is to benefit themselves.
(12) But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out: A weak nation when subjected to external pressure will be even further weakened, and gradually disappear. But for a strong nation the result is quite the opposite – it increases and advances.
So that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites: An alternate translation is “the Israelites became abhorrent to them.” The Egyptians sense that they are psychologically weaker than the Jews, and are rather certain that were they to find themselves in the same situation, they would simply capitulate. This feeling of inferiority engenders hatred.
(14) … the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field: This is the next stage of enslavement, and also the next stage of degradation for the Egyptians, which happens in parallel with the strengthening of the Jewish people. The Egyptians no longer have a constructive goal of building something for themselves. Their primary objective is simply to crush the Jews.
But the Midrash asks: Given that the Almighty has predetermined that the Jews would be subjected to Egyptian slavery, why, then, are the Egyptians held responsible for enslaving them? The Midrash answers: Indeed, it was predetermined by God that the Jews would be enslaved to the Egyptians, but it was the Egyptian’s own decision to oppress the Jews with such extreme cruelty. That is why the Egyptians are punished.