Shmot - Keeping your name 
© 2016 S.H. Parker

The book of Shmot (Exodus) opens with

 וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵלּ These are the names of the children of Israel (1:1)

My teacher, Rabbi Gedalyah Engel of blessed memory, taught that this pasuk teaches us that Jacob's descendants did not change their names while in Egypt. They kept their language. They did not assimilate. They did not acculturate. They retained their social, cultural and religious identity.

Given that this pasuk occurs at the beginning of Israel's sojourn in Egypt, this is a remarkable insight. But the evidence is that Israel did the same thing, maintained their language, in the Babylonian ("eastern") exile (see "How Hebrew Became a Holy Language," Jan Joosten, Biblical Archaeology Review, 43/1, January-February 2017).

Further, given what we know now about middle-/late Bronze age Egypt, this is an even more remarkable fact.

We know that western Semites lived, in large numbers, in the eastern Nile delta from at least the 18th century, possibly even the 19th. We know that in the 18th / 17th century horizon, a group of western Semites, known to history as "Hyksos" (rulers of foreign lands, not "shepherd kings"), assumed more and more of the administrative tasks of lower Egypt. By the 17th century, the Hyksos had formally taken over lower Egypt and started their own Pharaohnic dynasty. 

What we know of the Hyksos comes to us from Flavius Josephus and the 3rd century BCE Egyptian history writer, Manetho. Josephus asserts that the Hyksos are Israel's ancestor. Manetho identifies Joseph and his brothers as Hyksos. They tell us that the Hyksos thoroughly assimilated, becoming, as it were, more Egyptian than the Egyptians (inter alia, this explains why Joseph's brothers could not identify him; he no longer resembled a Canaanite, he was completely Egyptian in appearance).

The picture that emerges is that our progenitors completely assimilated/acculturated. But not the children. They kept their names.

Joseph dies and we immediately read:

וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ--בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. [And] the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. (1:7)

On this passage, RASHI comments that וַיַּעַצְמו ... וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ ("fruitful ... multiplied") indicates that they bore six children at each birth. Rosenbaum and Silverman ("the Silverman RASHI") add "an exaggeration, of course, but suggesting extraordinary fertility." Chabad.org offers no further comment.

I'm not quite sure what to make of RASHI's drosh here. But I think it safe to assume that neither his wife nor his daughters (he had three) were involved in editing or proofreading this.

  וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף There rose up a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. (1:8)

To this, RASHI makes a most unexpected remark. He notes a dispute between Rav and Samuel. One of these Amoraim claims that this unnamed king really is a new king. The other claims that he was not "new" - since Torah does not inform us of the death of a Pharaoh (see Sotah 11a, Exod. Rabbah 1:8) - but his policies and ruling changed.

What's so remarkable? Why the hair-splitting over whether or not we're informed that one Pharaoh had died and another had assumed power?

Well, as it turns out, there is a likely case - in the time period covered by the Joseph cycle - where a Pharaoh was deposed or abdicated, thus left office without dying, and was replaced ... a new Pharaoh without a death notice.

Amenhotep IV, under the regnal name Akhenaton, unilaterally imposed a strict monotheistic religion on Egypt. He forcibly closed all temples not dedicated to the Aten. And because he held that he was the sole medium to the Aten, the only one who could communicate with god, this means that he closed all temples in Egypt except his own at Akhetaton (Amarna - does any of this sound suspiciously like Josiah's reforms and the Ahronid priests' claims about the only acceptable methods of communicating with God?). At first, the army maintained order against the displaced priests and the unhappy nobility. Eventually, even the army turned against Akhenaton.

He was deposed. There is no record, anywhere, of his death. Given the ... unpleasant things Egyptians have to say about Akhenaton, we should certainly expect to hear celebrations of his death. We don't. His son, by a secondary wife, took over (after promising to restore the old gods, i.e., restore the priests to their former power). The son was Tutankhamun .

In any case, we have a clear case of a new Pharaoh coming to power without a death notice for his predecessor. Is Tutankhamun, or one of his successors, the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph?

Not likely.

Long before Akhenaton (14th century BCE) - though mid-14th century is right at the traditional Rabbinic dating of the exodus, see I Kings 6:1 - Egypt was known to subject Canaanites to corvée (impressment) and, sometimes, to full enslavement for centuries.  The Pharaoh who did not know Joseph?-Most likely an aetiological device to bridge the successes of Joseph to the fact of enslavement (which most likely was corvée, not full enslavement, and we may infer the same from Torah's own accounts later when Israel complains of the wilderness hardships and compares life unfavorably with life in Egypt).

Through all this, through all these upheavals, they did not forget their names. Moses hid who he was. Reuel's daughters say:

They replied, "An Egyptian man rescued us from the hand[s] of the shepherds...."   ןָ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י הִצִּילָ֖נוּ מִיַּ֣ד הָֽרֹעִ֑יםֹ

He never says that he isn't an Egyptian. Never.

I guess the rules are different for slow of tongue and of speech prophets. But the rest of us remembered who we were.