Abram’s “Pharaoh” Biblically Named
and Archaeologically Identified
Damien F. Mackey
Toledoth and chiasmus, the keys to the structure of the Book of Genesis,
lead us to a real name for this Pharaoh.
- 1. The Toledoth Guide
Since it was common in ancient Egyptian documents for the ruler of Egypt to be referred to therein simply as Pharaoh (Egyptian per-aa. “The Great House”. “Palace”), critics are not correct in their claim that the lack of an Egyptian name (e.g. Khety, Thutmose or Ramesses) for the ruler in the case of the Abram and Joseph narratives of Genesis (cf. 12:15 & 39:1) is a further testimony, as they think, to these texts being unhistorical. Since these texts refer to the ruler of Egypt only as “Pharaoh”, it is argued that we ought not to take them as being serious histories.
It appears, however, from a consideration of the structures of the Book of Genesis, that the Holy Spirit may have a trick for us all, at least in the case of Abram’s history. From the now well-known theory of toledôt (or Toledoth, a Hebrew feminine plural), we might be surprised to learn that so great a Patriarch as Abram (later Abraham), did not sign off the record of his own history (as did e.g. Adam, Noah, and Jacob). No, Abram’s story was recorded instead by his two chief sons, Ishmael and Isaac.
“These are the generations of Ishmael …” (Genesis 25:12).
“These are the generations of Isaac …” (Genesis 25:19).
So, there were two hands at work in this particular narrative, and this fact explains the otherwise strange repetition of several famous incidents recorded in the narrative.
And it is in the second telling of the incident of the abduction of Abram’s wife, Sarai (later Sarah), that we get the name of the ruler who, in the first telling of it is called simply “Pharaoh”. He is “Abimelech” (20:2).
Admittedly, there are such seeming differences between the two accounts, as regards names, geography and chronology, as perhaps to discourage one from considering them to be referring to the very same incident; and that despite such obvious similarities as:
– the Patriarch claiming that his beautiful wife was his “sister”;
– the ruler of the land taking her for his own;
– he then discovering that she was already married (underlined by plagues);
– and asking the Patriarch why he had deceived him by saying that the woman was his sister;
– the return of the woman to her husband, whose possessions are now augmented.
The seeming contradictions between the two accounts are that, whereas the first incident occurs in Egypt, and the covetous ruler is a “Pharaoh”, the second seems to be located in southern Palestine, with the ruler being “King Abimelech of Gerar”, and who (according to a somewhat similar incident again after Isaac had married) was “King Abimelech of the Philistines” (26:1). Again, in the first account, the Patriarch and his wife have their old names, Abram and Sarai, whereas in the second account they are referred to as Abraham and Sarah, presumably indicating a later time. In the first account, the “Pharaoh” is “afflicted with great plagues because of Sarai”, whereas, in the second, “God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children” (20:17).
The differences can be explained fairly easily.
Ishmael understandably wrote his father’s history from an Egyptian perspective, because his mother, Hagar, was “an Egyptian slave-girl” in Abram’s household, and she later “got a wife for [Ishmael] from the land of Egypt” (cf. 16:1 & 21:21). Ishmael names his father “Abram” because that is how he was known to Ishmael. Moreover, the incident with “Pharaoh” had occurred while the Patriarch was still called Abram. Isaac was not even born until some 25 years after this incident. His parents were re-named as Abraham and Sarah just prior to his birth. So, naturally, Isaac refers to them as such in the abduction incident, even though they were then Abram and Sarai. Again, there is no contradiction geographically between Egypt and Gerar because we are distinctly told in Ishmael’s account that it was just before the family went to Egypt (12:11) that Abram had told his wife that she was to be known as his sister. Gerar is on the way to Egypt.
Finally, whether the one whom Isaac calls “Abimelech” was still, in Isaac’s day, “Pharaoh” of Egypt, as he had been in former times, he was most definitely at least ruler over the Philistines at Gerar. Perhaps he ruled both lands, Egypt and Philistia. Be that as it may, the Holy Spirit has apparently provided the name of Abram’s “Pharaoh”. But one needs to respect His literary structures to discover that name. We now know his personal name: “Abimelech”.
In Hebrew it means “Father is King”.
Since Abimelech is not an Egyptian name, though (see discussion of this in 2. below), and since the other designation that we have for him is simply “Pharaoh”, that data, in itself, will not take us the next step of being able to identify this ruler in the Egyptian historical (or dynastic) records. But that our Abimelech may have – according to the progression of Ishmael’s and Isaac’s toledôt histories – ruled Egypt and then gone on to rule Philistia, could well enable us to locate this ruler archaeologically. Dr. John Osgood has already done much of the ‘spade work’ for us here, firstly by nailing the archaeology of En-geddi at the time of Abram (in the context of Genesis 14) to the Late Chalcolithic period, corresponding to Ghassul IV in Palestine’s southern Jordan Valley; Stratum V at Arad; and the Gerzean period in Egypt (“The Times of Abraham”, Ex Nihilo TJ, Vol. 2, 1986, pp. 77-87); and secondly by showing that, immediately following this period, there was a migration out of Egypt into Philistia, bringing an entirely new culture (= Early Bronze I, Stratum IV at Arad). P. 86: “In all likelihood Egypt used northern Sinai as a springboard for forcing her way into Canaan with the result that all of southern Canaan became an Egyptian domain”.
This new phase would seem to correspond very nicely with the time of Narmer, since, at this very archaeological phase, according to Osgood (ibid., p. 85): “Belonging to Stratum IV [at Arad] Amiram found a sherd with the name of Narmer …”. Now Narmer was either the first pharaoh of Egypt’s First Dynasty or the last pre-dynastic ruler of what is sometimes known as Dynasty 0 (or perhaps he was both).
- 2. The Chiasmus Guide
In response to a further tentative suggestion that I have made that Abimelech might even have been the same as Lehabim (i.e. abim-e-leh), the third son of Mizraïm (or Egypt) (Genesis 10:13), a reader, Ken Griffith, has disagreed with me on the basis of these names supposedly having different Hebrew meanings (his e-mail 29/11/10):
The semitic name Abi-melech means “father is king”.
The name Ley-haw-beem (Lehabim) means “flames” and the im is the plural form.
That said, they were probably cousins, as Abimelech, being a Philistine, would be descended from the Caphtorim out of Mizraim.
And (also 29/11/10):
My error. The Philistines came from the Casluhim, not the Caphtorim (Cretans),
I put forward the proposition that these Mizraïmite names probably originated in Sumerian Mesopotamia, where the ‘im’ ending was common (e.g. Alulim; Utnapishtim; Mesalim). The Hebrews may just have given the (perhaps foreign) name, “Lehabim”, an intelligible Hebrew form, “Abimelech”.
Griffith then (his e-mail 02/12/10) came up with the very interesting proposal of chiasmus that he thought might even verify my view, Abimelech = Pharaoh. He wrote:
|…. Though men can write chiastically, only God can write historical chiasmus by causing events to happen in a symmetrical manner.
I am quite open to the idea that Abimelech might have been the Pharoah. However, you need to deal with the literary structure of the passage in question. I think chiasmus is a far better explanation in this case than having two authors. ….
Ken has thus further confirmed my merging of “Pharaoh” with “Abimelech” by kindly providing a chiastic structure for this part of the Book of Genesis. But before I give his more complex version of this, here is a very simple one from I. Kikawada and A. Quinn, Before Abraham Was (Ignatius Press, 1989), p. 95 :
Sarai and the Pharaoh (chapter 12)
The saving of Lot (chapter 14)
Covenant for land (chapter 15)
Covenant with Abraham (chapter 17)
Covenant for seed (chapter 18)
The rescue of Lot (chapter 19)
Sarah and Abimelech (chapter 20)
Now, here is Ken Griffith’s version of it:
A – Promise, Test (leave father’s house), Worship
Promise of Blessing
Leave and go to another land.
Abraham & Lot Depart
Promise of Land
B – Crisis, Attack, Conflict, Child
1 – Attack on Woman (Pharoah)
Goes down to Egypt
Call yourself my sister
Abram leaves with wealth
2 – Crisis with Lot and Canaanites ( Sodom plundered )
Abraham “comes up” from Egypt
Parts the land with Lot
God promises all the Land he can see.
dwelt by Terebinth trees of Mamre
Amraphel 4 kings invade
Abram Rescues Lot
Melchizedek blesses Abram
Bread and Wine
3 – Promise Hagar Sarah Conflict I
Vision “I am your shield and reward”
Abram – I have no children
Your descendants shall be as stars
Proof of giving land
Covenant with halved animals
Prophesy of Egyptian bondage
God goes between pieces
Promise of land from Nile to Euphrates
Sarai No children
Gives Hagar in 10th year
Hagar offends Sarai
Hagar flees pregnant, prophecy of Ishmael
Hagar returns, bears Ishmael, Abram 86
Abram 99, God makes new covenant
Abram -> Abraham, father many nations, very fruitful
Sarai -> Sarah, will have son
Abraham circumcised Ishmael, and household
B’ – Crisis, Attack, Conflict, Child (Sodom destroyed)
2′. Crisis with Lot and Canaanites
Lord appears by terebinth trees of Mamre, judgment on Sodom
Son will appear in a year
Sarah laughs, his name shall be laughter (Isaac)
Abraham intercedes for Sodom
If there were 50 I would save it.
If there are 10 I would save it.
God & Abraham depart
Angels enter Sodom
Lot gives lodging
Men of City demand men
Angels blind them
Angels say, collect your family
Son in laws don’t listen
Lot flees with family
Lot escapes to Zoar
God overthrows cities
Lot’s wife turned to vapor
Abraham goes to where he had met with God
Sodom and Gomorrah and plain smoking like furnace
God remembered Abraham and delivered Lot
Lot with his daughters
Birth of Moab and Ammon
1′ – Attack on Woman II leading to Child (Abimelech -> Isaac)
Abraham journeys South (goes down), delt between Kadesh and Shur
“she is my sister”
Abimelech King of Gerar sends for Sarah
God warns in dream
Abimelech judges Abraham sends him away with money.
Lord visits Sarah as promised,
Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son, at set time.
Abraham calls his son Isaac.
Abraham circumcised Isaac.
3.’ [ Promise + Sarah -> Hagar conflict II ] (This time Hagar gets the promise.)
Child weaned and feasted.
Ishmael scoffed and sent away.
Hagar meets God again in desert.
God promises great nation to Ishmael
Hagar finds water and gets a wife for her son from Egypt.
Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech
Abraham finds his own well of water at Beersheeba.
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, in land of Philistines.
A’ Promise, Test, Worship
God calls Abraham, tells him to go to Land of Moriah
God tests him with Isaac.
God promises many descendants, stars of heaven and seashore, possess gates of enemies. Blessing.
Abraham returns to Beersheba and dwelt there.
[End of Ken’s chiasmus]
Note how B. 1 and B’. 1’ merge beautifully with “Pharaoh” in B. 1 reflecting “Abimelech in B’. 1’.