Early in the portion of Bo, Moses and Aaron stand before Pharaoh and threaten him with a plague of locusts of a magnitude such as Egypt has never seen before. As Moses and Aaron exit, Pharaoh’s subjects ask their king to reconsider and allow the Israelite men to leave and worship their God, saying, “Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?”
Moses and Aaron are recalled, and Pharaoh says, “Go and worship YHVH your God.” But when Pharaoh then asks who will be going, Moses answers, “With our young and our old we will go; with our sons and our daughters, with our sheep and our cattle we will go, for it is YHVH’s pilgrimage festival for us.” And to this statement, Pharaoh replies with apparent sarcastm (Exodus 10:10): “Then may YHVH be with you, just as I will send you forth with your children; see that Ra’a (evil) is before your faces!”
What is the meaning of this cryptic reply? Specifically, what is this Ra’a that Pharaoh says will confront the Israelites. The commentators and translators all struggle with Pharaoh’s intention. According to the Aramaic translation of Onkelos (as interpreted by Ramban), Pharaoh’s meaning was that the evil action that the Israelites were about to undertake would return to strike them. Rashi says he agrees with Onkelos’s interpretation, but then offers an alternative explanation from the Midrash: Ra’a in verse 10:10 should not be taken simply to mean “evil”; rather, says Rashi, Ra’a is the name of a star, and that star is an omen of blood and death that, Pharaoh claims, will work against the Israelites. Rabeinu Bachyay agrees with both of the above interpretations and adds that the heavenly body called Ra’a is actually the red planet Mars. And Sforno, who generally seeks the most straightforward explanation consistent with the language of the Torah text, interprets Pharaoh’s reply to mean, “You are headed for evil consequences.”
To me, none of these explanations is fully satisfying, and I want to propose a different interpretation. None of the traditional commentaries look at Pharaoh’s statement from Pharaoh’s point of view, in the context of Egyptian culture. This is Pharaoh speaking – Pharaoh, king of Egypt, regarded among his people as a god on earth, who claims his father to be the sun god Ra. And thus, the word Ra’a in verse 10:10 may not be the Hebrew word for evil, but rather a transliteration of the name of the Egyptian sun god; and Pharaoh’s reply may therefore be viewed as a challenge to the Israelites, pitting his deity against ours: “Then may YHVH be with you, just as I will send you forth with your children; see that Ra [my god] opposes you!” In other words, let your God be with you, and we shall see how much good that does when my god opposes you.
© Copyright 2012 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.