Pharaoh’s Astrology: Was He Right?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Moses approached Pharaoh once again, warning him of the onslaught of the 8th plague of locusts that would devour all Egypt’s produce. Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long shall Moses be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is devastated?” (Exod 10:7) Pharaoh appears to give in and free the Jews. But when Moses said to Pharaoh he would take the entire nation including children, Pharaoh told Moses “you are facing evil.” A simple understanding is that Pharaoh meant that Moses was asking too much; children aren’t needed to offer sacrifices. But Rashi cites a midrash (allegory) about what the evil (ra-ah) is:
Pharaoh said, “There is a certain star the name of which is Evil (Ra-ah). By my astrological art I see that star rising towards you in the wilderness to where you travel. It is a sign of blood and slaughter.” Later, when Israel sinned by worshipping the calf (in the wilderness of Sinai) and God intended to kill them, Moses said in his prayer, “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘God brought them out together with evil intent (ra-ah)?” This is exactly what Pharaoh said: “Evil is before you.” Immediately, the Lord retracted the evil (killing the Jews), and He changed the blood of death to the blood of circumcision when Joshua had them circumcised later. This is the meaning of what is said, “This day have I rolled off from you the disgrace of the Egyptians” (Joshua 5:9).
In short, Pharaoh seems to astrologically forecast Jewish blood in the desert. Once in the desert, the Jews worship the Gold Calf. God wishes to punish them with death. Moses prays to save the Jews so God doesn’t appear evil in Egypt’s eyes, saying that He took the Jews out of Egypt just to kill them. Due to Moses’ prayer, God doesn’t kill the Jews, but He doesn’t completely remove the blood, as He converts it to blood of circumcision in later years.
1) Most glaring is the suggestion that Pharaoh’s astrology accurately forecasted the Jews fate of blood in the desert! And in fact, God would have fulfilled that forecast, had Moses not asked God to save the Jews. Are we to then say Pharaoh’s astrology was correct?
2) Does God need Moses to alert Him to avert creating an evil reputation, that God only freed to Jews to slaughter them? Didn’t God know this without Moses saying so?
3) The midrash says that after Moses prayed, “Immediately” the Lord retracted the evil. What is this “immediacy”?
4) What is the significance of the wilderness mentioned twice?
5) Why does God “convert” the blood of killing into blood of circumcision? Why not simply terminate the blood altogether! On the surface, God appears to be retracting His plan to kill the idolatrous Jews in order that Pharaoh should not be correct. That seems as odd reasoning. Why should God be concerned with what Pharaoh says, since the Jews deserved to be killed, God should kill them.
The first step is to explain the puzzling correlation between Pharaoh’s false astrology, and reality. God’s wish to kill the Jews aligning with Pharaoh’s forecast indicates that Pharaoh’s astrology partook of reality…in some respect. But as astrology is false, we must look into man’s psyche for this correlation, as that is the originator of astrology.
Man is worried and insecure about his unknown future; astrology was a method to offer man a glimpse into his future. Be it a good or evil forecast, at least with astrology, man would not be walking in the dark. The unknown is more disturbing than a known problem. So man conjured up a system based around the “mystical” heavens that can predict his future.
But besides time (the future), man worries about other matters: places.
Some lost their way in the wilderness, in the wasteland; they found no settled place. Hungry and thirsty, their spirit failed. In their adversity they cried to the Lord, and He rescued them from their troubles. He showed them a direct way to reach a settled place (Psalms 107:4-7).
The desert is a place of isolation and hunger…a place of worries. Talmud Gittin 66a (Tosfos) says demons are seen only in 4 places, and one is the desert. This means that places of isolation generate worries, and imaginary people are conjured in man’s psyche to remove isolation. Leviticus 17:7 says, “And that they may no longer offer their sacrifices to the goat-demons after whom they stray.” The Jews sacrificed to demons in the wilderness—the open fields—possibly to appease the demons of their imagined fears. And Isaiah writes (13:19-21):
And Babylon, glory of kingdoms, proud splendor of the Chaldeans, shall become like Sodom and Gomorrah overturned by God…nevermore shall it be settled nor dwelt in through all the ages [desolate]. No Arab shall pitch his tent there, no shepherds make flocks lie down there. But beasts shall lie down there, and the houses be filled with owls; there shall ostriches make their home, and there, shall demons dance.
Again Torah teaches that desolate, isolated places like deserts produce fears in man where his fears conjure-up imaginary destructive forces.
Torah’s repeated themes—as compared to singular instances—indicate a primary phenomenon. Astrology is a response to human insecurity. Therefore, astrology aligns somewhat with psychology. Here, the psychological lesson concerns the desert—a predominant fear. Pharaoh—like all other men—possessed a fear of the desert. This explains his astrological forecast of blood for Israel in the desert. But how was he right?
Israel miscounted Moses’ descent from Sinai. When Moses didn’t arrive as they anticipated, they panicked. Had the Jews not been in the desert when they miscounted Moses descent from Sinai, they might not have been compelled to create the Gold Calf. The desert and its associated fears caused the Jews to overreact and create a Gold Calf to replace Moses. Moses prayed to God, “Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that God delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains” (Exod. 32:12). “Mountains” refers to the wilderness of the Sinai desert.
Pharaoh didn’t predict anything, but merely shared the same fear of the desert which the Jews feared. This is the alignment of Pharaoh’s astrology and the Jews’ reality.
Immediately, the Lord retracted the evil (killing the Jews), and He changed the blood of death to the blood of circumcision when Joshua had them circumcised later.
Immediacy means God was quite ready to cancel His decree; He didn’t need Moses to raise the consideration of what Egypt would say of God. But God wished that His retraction of death be clearly understood as a concession to man, to Egypt’s impression of God. Therefore He waited until Moses raised the concern about Egypt’s view of God. In this manner, God is responding to Egypt, a concession. The world’s impression of God overrides punishment of a small group of mankind.
But as the Jews sinned, a response was still warranted. In place of killing the idolatrous Jews, God converted the blood of death, into the blood of circumcision. This means that He would address the instinctual drive that leads to idolatry by minimizing human instinctual gratification. This is the purpose of circumcision. After circumcision, the Jews would have far less instinctual drive that could manifest in idolatry.
In the end, we realize that man’s fear outweighs reality. Desolate places present danger, but only from wild animals, weather, and lack of food. King David killed a bear and a lion (I Samuel 17:37). He could anticipate their natural movements and from what angle and distance he should attack. Man can use wisdom to kill wild beasts, and certainly to shield from the elements and prepare food for long journeys. But to invent demons of the mind violates reality, and Torah. Pharaoh catered to this baseless fear when he said the star Ra-ah forecasts doom. There are no forces outside of God, nature and man. This is a fundamental, and why Torah repeats the theme of demons in deserts.
We appreciate the rabbis’ ingenuity in scripting midrashim. They follow God’s style of encrypting wisdom, and the prophets’ metaphoric writings as seen on Proverbs. Encryption drives the mind to analyze, compare statements, search for the meaning of selected words, and unveil a deeper message than surface meanings. Doing so, our minds become more sharpened and probe greater depths. Such abilities are required as we are venturing to explore God’s wisdom, which, by design, is not surface information, but is many strata of interrelated wisdom. To plunge to deeper levels, one requires a mind that can analyze and interpret. Midrashim enhance these skills.