The pharaohs of Egypt play an important role throughout the Bible, starting in the Book of Genesis. While the pharaoh is never named in Genesis, he is a key figure in the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and the early Israelites. Understanding who the pharaoh was during these biblical events provides insight into this tumultuous time in Egypt’s history.
- The pharaohs of Genesis refer to the kings of Egypt during the time period from Abraham to Moses (approximately 2000 – 1200 BC).
- While unnamed in Genesis, historians have theories on their possible identities based on Egyptian records and archaeological evidence.
- Pharaohs such as Senusret II, Amenemhet III, and Ramesses II have been proposed as candidates for the pharaoh of Joseph.
- The pharaoh of the Exodus is believed to be either Thutmose II, Amenhotep II, or Ramesses II based on the biblical timeline.
- The pharaohs interacted with biblical figures like Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, and Moses, playing a role in pivotal events.
- Their actions revealed the immense power and arrogance of the Egyptian dynasties.
- God used the pharaohs to accomplish His purposes, including moving the Israelites to Egypt and liberating them from slavery.
Abraham and Sarah’s Deception
The first pharaoh appearing in the Book of Genesis is the one that Abraham deceives by passing off Sarah as his sister. According to Genesis 12, Abraham and Sarah travel to Egypt seeking relief from a famine in Canaan:
Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to dwell there, for the famine was severe in the land. (Genesis 12:10 NKJV)
Abraham fears that the Egyptians will kill him to take his beautiful wife:
And it came to pass, when he was close to entering Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, “Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance. Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.” (Genesis 12:11-13 NKJV)
Sarah agrees, and Pharaoh is told she is Abraham’s sister. Finding her very beautiful, Pharaoh takes Sarah into his palace. Abraham profits from the deception, acquiring sheep, oxen, male and female donkeys, camels, and male and female servants (Genesis 12:16).
But the Lord afflicts Pharaoh and his household with plagues because of Sarah. Pharaoh figures out Abraham lied to him and confronts him, allowing them to leave Egypt safely (Genesis 12:17-20).
This account reveals the immense power of the Egyptian ruler, who could simply take another man’s wife because of her beauty. It also shows the vulnerability of the patriarchs to the whims of rulers and the lengths they would go to avoid danger. While Abraham’s deception was wrong, God protected Sarah by plaguing Pharaoh.
Scholars are uncertain of this pharaoh’s identity, although possibilities include Pepi I, Merneferre Ay, or Wahkare Khety of the 6th dynasty.
Joseph Rises to Power Under Pharaoh
One of the best-known stories of Genesis is Joseph’s journey from slave to second-in-command of Egypt under an unnamed pharaoh. After being sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph is imprisoned on false charges by Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39). In prison, Joseph correctly interprets dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker (Genesis 40).
Two years later, Pharaoh has two disturbing dreams no one can explain. At this point, the cupbearer remembers Joseph interpreting his dream in prison and recommends he help Pharaoh. Brought before Pharaoh, Joseph reveals the meaning of the dreams:
Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one; God has shown Pharaoh what He is about to do: … Indeed seven years of great plenty will come throughout all the land of Egypt; but after them seven years of famine will arise, and all the plenty will be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine will deplete the land. So the advice was good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of all his servants. (Genesis 41:25, 29-31, 37 NKJV)
Amazed at this interpretation, Pharaoh appoints Joseph as second-in-command to oversee preparations for the prophesied famine:
And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find such a one as this, a man in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Inasmuch as God has shown you all this, there is no one as discerning and wise as you … See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:38-41 NKJV)
Joseph’s wise leadership saves Egypt and his family when the famine arrives. The pharaoh is so grateful that Joseph’s family is invited to stay in the land of Goshen (Genesis 47).
Historians propose possible identities for Joseph’s pharaoh based on Egyptian records, Archaeology, and the biblical timeline. Candidates include Senusret II (1897–1878 BC), Amenemhet III (1860–1814 BC), and Ramesses II (1279–1213 BC).
This story highlights God’s providence in placing Joseph in power to assist his family and fulfill prophecy. It also reveals pharaoh’s unchecked authority to appoint a foreign prisoner to high office based on one interpretation.
Oppression Under a New Pharaoh
After Joseph’s death, the favor shown to the growing Israelite population ended under a new Egyptian king:
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we … Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens … But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were in dread of the children of Israel. (Exodus 1:8-9, 11-12 NKJV)
This pharaoh likely ascended 400 years after Joseph, given the biblical timeline. He feared the Israelites and decided to subjugate them into forced labor. Even under intense oppression, the Israelite population increased, causing Pharaoh to take more drastic measures:
So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage … But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive … And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, “Every son who is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.” (Exodus 1:13-14, 17, 22 NKJV)
Despite his efforts, Pharaoh could not stop the growth of God’s people. The midwives’ courageous defiance of murdering Hebrew babies shows that God was at work behind the scenes.
This later pharaoh is believed to have been either Thutmose I or Thutmose II based on Egyptian records and Exodus’ dating of Moses’ birth around 1526 BC.
The Exodus Battle Between God and Pharaoh
The confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh has become one of the classic stories of the Bible. After living in Midian for 40 years, Moses returns to Egypt after God appears to him in the burning bush (Exodus 3). God sends him to demand that this new pharaoh let the Israelites leave Egypt.
Pharaoh arrogantly refuses:
Then Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2 NKJV)
This begins a power struggle between God and the stubborn ruler of Egypt. God unleashes 10 plagues on Egypt designed to destroy their gods and sources of pride (Exodus 7-12).
After each plague, Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go but keeps hardening his heart. The final plague is the death of the firstborn, leading to Pharaoh finally relenting. However, he changes his mind again once the Israelites have left:
Now it was told the king of Egypt that the people had fled … Then Pharaoh made ready his chariot and took his people with him. Also, he took six hundred choice chariots … So the Egyptians pursued them … And when Pharaoh drew near, the children of Israel lifted their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians marched after them. So they were very afraid, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord. (Exodus 14:5-6, 9-10 NKJV)
This sets the stage for God’s miraculous parting of the Red Sea, destroying Pharaoh’s armies and delivering the Israelites safely to the other side (Exodus 14). Pharaoh’s repeated defiance and arrogance leads to his ultimate downfall.
The pharaoh of the Exodus has been proposed as Thutmose II, Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV, and Ramesses II. Ramesses II built the cities the Israelites were said to have worked on and reigned during the likely timeline of the Exodus.
This climactic confrontation shows God asserting His supremacy over Egypt’s mightiest ruler. Even the powerful pharaoh was helpless before God’s plagues intended to deliver His people from slavery.
The Pharaohs in Biblical Perspective
The unnamed pharaohs play a pivotal role in Genesis and Exodus by interacting with patriarchs like Abraham and Moses. Their immense power represents the zenith of Egypt’s dominance in the ancient Near East.
Yet in the stories, God uses the pharaoh’s actions to put His plan in motion. Abraham’s deception leads to God protecting Sarah and sanctioning Pharaoh. Joseph’s imprisonment prepares him to lead Egypt and save his family. An oppressive ruler eventually spurs the Exodus.
The arrogance and cruelty of the pharaohs provide a picture of man trusting his own power over God’s. Their stubborn resistance to God’s commands through Moses highlights this pride. At the same time, God’s miracles and dominance over the pharaohs displayed His unmatched authority over all earthly rulers.
Ultimately, the unknown pharaohs served God’s purposes in these early Bible stories. Their pride and corruption demonstrated why God needed to deliver His people from Egypt’s clutches. The power struggle between Moses and Pharaoh revealed God’s supremacy for generations to come.
Even the mighty Egyptian dynasties could not overcome God’s plan to forge the Israelites into a great nation under His care. As these vivid stories show, He fulfills His promises regardless of the defiance of kings.
The pharaohs of Genesis and Exodus provide an essential backdrop to God’s works through the patriarchs and Moses. Though unnamed, historians have proposed theories on the rulers who may have played these roles based on archeology and Egyptian records.
Regardless of their exact names, the pharaohs’ interactions with biblical figures were a consistent display of royal arrogance and earthly power. Their actions revealed complete authority in Egyptian society.
Yet God proved His supremacy by using the pharaohs’ decisions to accomplish His purposes. He protected His followers, predicted and relieved famine, and delivered the Israelites from bondage through standing against the stubbornness of Egypt’s kings.
As formidable as the pharaohs appeared to the ancient world, they were no match for the King of Kings. The Genesis stories provide early examples of God asserting His strength over earthly authorities to achieve His will. The obedience and courage of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses show that perfect faith can overcome even the hardest of royal hearts.