The Dreams of Pharaoh


Rabbi Israel Chait

Transcribed by a student


Exodus 1:8 states, “A new king arose on Egypt that did not know Joseph.” There is an argument amongst the Rabbis. Rav says he was literally a new king. Shmuel says he was not a new king but rather, the same Pharaoh, who acted as though he did not know Joseph and made new decrees against the Jews. The position of Shmuel seems difficult. A simple reading of the text would indicate he was merely a new king. Why did Shmuel feel compelled to understand the meaning of the verse in such a strained interpretation? It is obvious that Shmuel detected something in Pharaoh’s personality that indicates that he pretended as though he did not know Joseph.

In order to properly analyze the personality of Pharaoh and his relationship with Joseph, we must examine Pharaoh’s dream and how Joseph’s interpretation led to his ascendance to power. Pharaoh’s dreams can help us examine his personality. There are two causes of dreams: 1) divine/prophecy, 2) a person’s wishes or the thoughts of his unconscious. Pharaoh had two dreams. By analyzing and contrasting both dreams we should be able to determine the portion of the dream which is prophetic, and the part which is an expression of his personality. The aspects of his dreams which are duplicated are obviously of divine origin. However, if we examine the portions of one dream, which are not common to the other, said portion is not prophetic. It would understandably be an expression of Pharaoh’s unconscious. 

By analyzing the dreams we note one striking difference with respect to the dreams concerning the cows. Pharaoh sees himself as part of that dream. Genesis 41:1 states, “and behold I was standing above the river.” Another unique aspect of this dream is that it states the origin of the cows. The cows were coming up out of the river. However, the dream of the bundles of wheat does not state their origin. We must understand; why does Pharaoh include himself in the first dream, and why does he envision the cows appearing from out of the river? 

Another clue to Pharaoh’s personality would be an analysis of his actions. Upon Joseph’s interpretation of the dreams, Pharaoh’s response seems overwhelming. He immediately appoints a despicable “Jewish lad, a slave” as his viceroy, the second most powerful position in Egypt. He dresses Joseph in ornate clothing and extends him a regal coronation. Furthermore, when his subjects come to ask his advice when they were starving, he replies “go to Joseph and whatever he tells you to do, abide by it.” It would seem rather unlikely that Pharaoh was willing to relinquish all control and credit, and suddenly bestow it upon Joseph. His response, besides being overwhelming, seems incongruous to Shmuel’s interpretation of his later actions. At this juncture he seems to be a righteous individual capable of appreciating and recognizing the good of Joseph. However, later, after Joseph’s death, there is a complete transformation of his personality and he denies Joseph’s existence and in fact, acts ruthlessly to his people, the Jews. 

An understanding of the extraneous portion of his dreams can give us an insight into his personality and can demonstrate why seemingly incompatible actions are actually consistent with his character. 

In his first dream the cows arose from the river. The Hebrew term for river that the Torah uses is “ye-or.” Rashi explains that this term is used because it is referring to the Nile. The Nile was the source of sustenance for the land of Egypt. Egypt is a dry climate and the Nile overflows and irrigates Egypt. The Nile represents the source for the fulfillment of the Egyptians’ basic needs. However, in Pharaoh’s dream he was standing “al ha ye-or,” above the Nile. This signifies that Pharaoh felt that he was “above” the Nile. In his own mind he was more powerful than the powers of nature. Pharaoh considered himself a god. In fact, the Medrash tells us, that he even emptied his bowels without anyone knowing, so as the feign divinity in front of his people, never needing to relieve himself. He professed to be above the laws of nature. Thus, the most threatening occurrence to Pharaoh would be if he were not in total control. It would shatter his self image as a god. Thus, the occurrence of a drought was a fearful event to Pharaoh. The Torah tells us “vatepaem rucho,” his spirit was troubled. Unconsciously, he feared losing control. That is why in the dream he envisioned the cows coming out of the river. He feared a natural event that would be beyond his control. He thus sensed that Joseph’s interpretation was accurate. He therefore had to come to grips with the possibility of losing control. However, Joseph presented him with the ability to maintain control. He realized that through Joseph he would be able to retain control and keep intact his image as a god. However, in order for him to view his reliance on Joseph as a situation akin to being in control, he was coerced into viewing Joseph as an extension of himself. Psychologically there was total identification with Joseph. Therefore, his response to Joseph was overwhelming. The deification of Joseph was not an abnormal response, but on the contrary it was necessitated by his identification with Joseph. It was an expression of his vision of Joseph as his alter ego. This relationship reinstated his self-image as the most powerful force in the world: with Joseph, he now resumed his self-image as a god. Therefore, when people asked him what to do, he quite naturally responded, “whatever Joseph says, do.” It bolstered his image of being in control. Joseph’s actions were merely expressions of his own power. Pharaoh and Joseph together, in his mind, were one entity. 

We can now understand Shmuel’s explanation. After Joseph’s death, Pharaoh, because of his psychological make-up, faced a terrible problem. Narcissism, the love of oneself, was a key characteristic of Pharaoh’s personality. A narcissistic individual’s psychic energies are directed towards the love of the self. However, when a person like Pharaoh, strongly identifies with another individual and views him as his alter-ego, that other person becomes a source of his narcissistic, psychic energy. Therefore, upon Joseph’s death, the excess psychic energy could no longer be channeled towards his alter ego. He began to confront the same emotions that he previously experienced. He felt threatened by the fact that he was really not in control. However, he could not use the defense mechanism of identification but instead resorted to denial. He was unable to confront the fact that Joseph really allowed him to retain control. Therefore, psychologically, in order to function without feeling threatened, he had to act as though he did not know Joseph. Any remembrance of Joseph or acknowledging Joseph’s value was painful to his self-image of being all-powerful. Accordingly, not only did he have to act as though he did not know Joseph, but that denial coerced him to act in the opposite fashion. His remembrance of Joseph was so painful; it served as the source for his oppression towards Joseph’s people, the children of Israel.

Therefore Shmuel stated, “a new king” is only viewed as new, in terms of his actions. However an analysis of Pharaoh’s personality indicates that on the contrary, it was the same Pharaoh. That is why the Torah specifically articulates that the new king did not know Joseph. If he were truly a new king, the statement would be redundant. The Torah is really offering us an insight into his nature. 

An example of this type of psychological mechanism is evident in Christianity. The Christian hates the Jew for ostensibly killing his god. However, this is indicative of a psychological defense mechanism. The Christian cannot admit that we gave them their god, since Jesus was Jewish. 

Jacob, upon meeting Pharaoh, was keenly aware of Pharaoh’s true nature. His response to Pharaoh’s inquiry with respect to his age seems rather lengthy and irrelevant. Genesis 49:9 says, “And Jacob said to Pharaoh, the days of the years of my sojourning are 130, few and bad were the years of my life and I have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my fathers, in the days of their sojourns.” Nachmanides questions this rather lengthy response. However, based upon our insight into Pharaoh’s personality, it is understandable. A person, who perceives himself as all-powerful and god-like, feels threatened by someone who possesses something that is desirable, which he does not have. Jacob realized that Pharaoh had such a personality. He sensed that Pharaoh, when questioning his age, noted he was an elder and was asking more out of a sense of envy rather than curiosity. He sensed that he possessed something that Pharaoh desired: old age. Accordingly, Jacob who was old, at a time when people were not living so long, responded based upon this perception. He stated that he was not so old, and that he did not have a good life nor had lived as long as his fathers. He attempted to dispel any envy that Pharaoh may have had. He did not want to entice Pharaoh’s anger by giving him any cause for jealousy. Therefore, his lengthy response was appropriate and warranted, considering the circumstances. 

It also explains the blessing that Jacob bestowed upon Pharaoh. Rashi tells us that he blessed him that the Nile should rise to greet him whenever he approaches it. Jacob was aware of Pharaoh’s personality. This blessing Pharaoh truly cherished. It represented that even the most powerful phenomenon of nature would be subordinate to his control.