In his book Ani Maamin, Rabbi Joshua Berman makes a comment about the usage of the term "Pharaoh" in the Book of Exodus, indicating that it was in line with the standard conventions in Egypt c.1200 BCE, which is when he envisions the biblical Exodus narrative having been composed:

In the Exodus account, pharaohs are simply called "Pharaoh," whereas in later biblical passages, Egyptian monarchs are referred to by their proper name, as in Pharaoh Necho" (II Kings 23:29). This, too, echos usage in Egypt itself, where, from the middle of the second millennium until the tenth century BCE, the title "pharaoh" was used alone. (Ani Maamin p.53)

This statement was made without elaboration, citations, or footnotes.

Is Rabbi Berman's statement accurate? (In at least some sense? I could not tell if he meant that the proper names of pharaohs in Egypt were consistently absent during that time period, as in the Book of Exodus, or if he meant that it was at least sometimes used alone during that specific time period but not in later ones.) If so, how common would it have been to use "pharaoh" alone during that time compared to a full name such as "Pharaoh Ramesses," and how much of a shift was there in this convention after the tenth century BCE?

I tried checking some ancient texts such as the Amarna Letters, statues with inscriptions, and peace treaties, from around the time period in which Berman states the title "pharaoh" was used alone, and the full names of the pharaohs are indeed used in the examples I was able to find. However I don't have such a sufficient breadth and scope of familiarity with ancient references to the Egyptian monarchs to reach much of a conclusion about the accuracy of the above claim.

  • In the Exodus account, pharaohs are simply called "Pharaoh" - Many ancient Pharaohs bear the particle -mos- or -mes-, meaning born, in their royal names. As you are probably aware, Moses, Exodus' main character, is said to have been raised at the Egyptian court; as such, even if not explicitly named, it seems somewhat odd to pretend that (part of) the regnant Pharaoh's name isn't, at the very least, (strongly) hinted or suggested in the biblical text. The folk etymology proposed in 2:10 represents a sort of (re)interpretatio iudaica. – Lucian Jun 10 at 12:30
  • Did Egyptian distinguish the title from the proper noun? Were there noun markers? Was there a difference between "The king did X" and "King did X" and "King AL did X"? I don't know enough about the grammar of the period. Absent the grammatical distinction, there would seem to be no difference between "King Al" and "King". – MCW Jun 10 at 13:01

This is at least partly correct.

Egyptian titulaturs for pharaoh and Egyptian royal titulary changed significantly over time and between dynasties.

What is remarkable in this context is that 'pharaoh' only became used to represent 'king' in the middle of the second millennium BCE. In inscriptions it was often only to be read as 'Horus did this and that', not giving any clue to an actual name. At the same time a superstitious belief manifested itself to not pronounce a holy name. (Cf — Herodotus, Histories II,61; II,170) This tradition of not speaking out loud the name of any pharaoh is well attested for at least beginning in the Middle Kingdom period. (— Hans-Werner Fischer-Elfert: "Die Lehre eines Mannes für seinen Sohn. Eine Etappe auf dem Gottesweg des loyalen und solidarischen Beamten des Mittleren Reiches", Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, vol 60, Harrassowitz: Wiesbaden, 1999.)
Only around 1000 BCE it became common to combine the title Pharaoh with a given name.

The entry from New Pauly reads:

Pharaoh —— Greek rendering (φαραω/pharao) known from the Old Testament (Hebrew Gn 12:15 and passim) of the ancient Egyptian term for an Egyptian ruler. In Egypt, the term referred originally to the royal palace or court and literally means 'great house'. From Thutmosis III (1479–1426 BC) at the latest, this expression also designated the person of the Egyptian ruler. As a title before the name of the ruler, it is encountered from the 10th cent. BC onwards.

— Kahl, Jochem (Münster), “Pharaoh”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and, Helmuth Schneider, English Edition by: Christine F. Salazar, Classical Tradition volumes edited by: Manfred Landfester, English Edition by: Francis G. Gentry. doi First published online: 2006

As described here:

Prohibition of naming the king (pharaoh).
Particularly striking is the prohibition to mention the name (ancient Egyptian ren) of deities. Such taboos are only secondary and partially studied in Egyptology for ancient Egyptian religion. Herodotus reported the prohibition of publicly pronouncing the name of Osiris in certain contexts. The negative confession of Ramses VI, who boasted of not having pronounced the name of Tatenen, belongs in this subject area.
The rite of not mentioning the name of the king, but only writing it down and reading it, is attested more often; for example, extensively in the Middle Kingdom in the "Teaching of a Man for His Son" and in sources that address "right conduct toward the king." Reasons for this taboo are probably to be seen in the reverence and fear of the respective deity, since public utterance was associated with the reception of negative magical powers. In the case of the prohibition of pronouncing the name of the king, the main motive might be the fear of magical consequences, to which a possible defamation by imprudence could add. In this context is the further taboo environment to mention the "hidden and secret names of certain gods".

Why "partially correct"?

The biblical account seems to use the word anachronistically. Not for the time after 1000, but before, for example during the time the Moses story is set:

The Year 17 inscription is an important palaeographical development because it is the first time in Egyptian recorded history that the word pharaoh was employed as a title and linked directly to a king's royal name: as in Pharaoh Siamun here. Henceforth, references to Pharaoh Psusennes II (Siamun's successor), Pharaoh Shoshenq I, Pharaoh Osorkon I, and so forth become commonplace. Prior to Siamun's reign and all throughout the Middle and New Kingdom, the word pharaoh referred only to the office of the king.

WP: Siamun 986–967 BC (21st Dynasty)

Juxtaposing biblical tradition with developments in Egyptian history:

Another factor that might account for the absence of Pharaoh's name in the exodus narratives is that it was normal in New Kingdom inscriptions not to disclose the name of Pharaoh's enemies. Several examples of this practice will suffice to illustrate this point. Thutmose Ill's campaign against the rebellious coalition at Megiddo was fomented by the king of Kadesh (on the Orontes) — who is named "that wretched enemy of Kadesh" (hrw pf hs n kdsw) or simply "that •wretched enemy" in the Annals of Thutmose III and in the Gebel Barkal stela.Even when reviewing the booty taken from this battle, the scribes do not name the king whose possessions the Egyptians captured: "the fine chariot made of gold belonging to the prince (wr) of [Megiddo]," "the fine mail armor of that enemy (i.e., the king of Kadesh)" and "the fine mail armor of the prince of Megiddo".

Giving the fitting description, albeit with a little too far-reaching conclusions:

Historians have long lamented that the writer of the Joseph narratives (and those of Exodus, too) did not furnish the reader with the name of the Egyptian king. Throughout Genesis and Exodus, the well-known title "Pharaoh," derived from pr '3, literally "great house," is used.

As a reference to the palace, this expression goes back into the Old Kingdom, but as an epithet for the monarch, it does not occur until the Eighteenth Dynasty,sometime before the reign of Thutmose III (1479–1425 B.C.).

By the Ramesside period (1300–1100 B.C.), "Pharaoh" is widely used and continued to be popular in the late period. From its inception until the tenth century, the term "Pharaoh" stood alone, without juxtaposed personal name.

In subsequent periods, the name of the monarch was generally added on. This precise practice is found in the Old Testament; in the period covered from Genesis and Exodus to Solomon and Rehoboam, the term "pharaoh" occurs alone, while after Shishak (ca. 925 B.C.), the title and name appear together (e.g., Pharaoh Necho, Pharaoh Hophra).

Thus, the usage of "pharaoh" in Genesis and Exodus does accord well with the Egyptian practice from the fifteenth through the tenth centuries. The appearance of 'pharaoh" in the Joseph story could reflect the New Kingdom setting of the story, or, if its provenance is earlier (i.e., the late Middle Kingdom through Second Intermediate Period), its occurrence in Genesis is suggestive of the period of composition.

— James K. Hoffmeier: "Israel In Egypt. The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition", Oxford University Press: London, New York, 1996.

In conclusion it seems evident that the 'patriarchal usage' of 'pharaoh' is a very distorted one, adapted to contemporary understanding at the time — just like we ourselves often tend to call all rulers of Egypt 'pharaoh'. In the case of the Exodus narrative however, it is quite diligent to not over-interpret the parallels that seem apparent between Biblical usage and Egyptian usage. It is not the only interpretation to infer that 'therefore, the texts were indeed originally written/composed [then/as eye-witness account etc…]'.
Instead we should really stick to the description Berman used himself: "This, too, echos usage in Egypt itself,…"

Further insights into this obviously interconnected but often disjunctively discussed matter: — Thomas E. Levy & Thomas Schneider & William H.C. Propp: "Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective. Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience", Springer: Cham, Heidelberg, 2015.

  • a superstitious belief manifested itself to not pronounce a holy name - Notoriously reflected in the Decalogue. – Lucian Jun 10 at 12:38
  • @Lucian Not quite the same? The parallel to hashem/adonai etc instead of Tetragrammaton is even more striking…? (queue in the stoning scene in Life of Brian: "he said…") – LаngLаngС Jun 10 at 12:41
  • Thanks for the detailed answer. To clarify, was it just in casual speech that the proper name of the pharaoh was not used—"rite of not mentioning the name of the king, but only writing it down and reading it"—but in written works the name would be used, maybe particularly if he was viewed as not divine by the Israelites in the hypothetical context of an actual exodus? Also to clarify, was it only that the formulation "Pharoah Name" was not used prior to Psusennes II—but the proper name was also used w/o that prefix (e.g. like I said I have found the name used on texts/statues from earlier). – A L Jun 10 at 20:12
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    @AL Not sure I understand: For a while, having the term pharaoh already connected to the ruler, uttering 'the name' would be seen as sacrilegious or impolite. There are texts where writing the name was avoided as well, but it was written down as well by Egyptian scribes when needed. How hypothetical Israelites would behave? IDK (cf Hoffmeier vs Dever in Levy/Schneider/Popp). With Siamun the combo 'Pharaoh Name' became commonplace — combo absent earlier, but earlier ruler's names were used 'as needed' ((?) ie: sadly they are missing a lot of the time, even in ancient letters, poems, lists…) – LаngLаngС Jun 11 at 0:09
  • @LаngLаngС Thank you! – A L Jun 11 at 0:51

Rabbi Joshua Berman is an Orthodox Jew. Among other things, this means that he takes as a matter of faith that the entire Torah, including Exodus, was literally handed to Moses at once by God. Verbatim.

If one takes that as a given, then inconsistencies in language usage constitute a genuine logical problem that one may be forced to devote no small amount of intellectual effort into explaining away. This is what he's doing here.

For this website, we embrace all creeds, colors, and genders, and rely on a variant of textual criticism and the Scientific Method known as the Historical Method. That means we are free to readdress theories that don't explain the evidence well, rather than desperately try to readdress evidence that doesn't explain our immobile theories well (often called "the Unscientific Method")

In this case, the best explanation for large consistent language differences between different parts of different Jewish texts is that they were written by completely different people at completely different times. In this particular case, it appears the scholarly consensus is that Exodus was originally composed by the Jewish community in exile in Babylon around the 6th Century BC. This is centuries after it is set, so honestly the most likely explanation for "Pharoh" not being specifically identified by name is that the people who wrote it weren't sure, and didn't consider that detail particularly important to the story.

There was a very specific reason they wanted that story of escape from enslavement in Egypt taught to their children while they were enslaved in Babylon, and it wasn't to give us people today a history lesson.

  • 3
    It appears as though the consensus is that it was redacted together around 600-400 BCE, but the earliest forms of the Exodus stories are potentially much older, the Song of the Sea possibly being the oldest. Rabbi Berman also takes a slightly more liberal approach to the composition of the Torah than others. All of this is really besides the point though as I’m asking if his specific claim is accurate. He has a PhD in Bible from Bar-Ilan and teaches there, hence the question here, as he ought to know what he’s talking about, so I don’t want to dismiss him entirely without checking the claims. – A L Jun 9 at 21:28
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    This is tangential & unsatisfactory. Labeling an author is a very weak form of argument, and in this case the A jumps ahead to then explain something of which we (for this post) still haven't seen the prerequisite — in real history, not literary composition/redaction etc of biblical texts: is it the case or not? To get at an answer, we have to turn to egyptology, since the Q cones from biblical texts but aims at Real Egypt® (and afterwards, this A may come into play). – LаngLаngС Jun 9 at 22:19
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    @LаngLаngС It's worse than "a very weak form of argument"; it's the logical fallacy of "poisoning the well." – Meir Jun 9 at 23:17
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    Legends are very rarely made up out of whole cloth, but are formed over time from "true" stories that are told, retold, embellished, half-forgotten, misremembered, and edited to be interesting, entertaining, and useful to new generations. Whether the book of Exodus was in fact dictated by Moses verbatim or is a heavily revised redaction of various earlier sources is not relevant to whether or not a specific apparent observation about how it names people it is accurate or not. – Robert Columbia Jun 10 at 0:14
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    Only when used alone/as sole reason such ad hominem is a fallacy… There are valid reasons for source monitoring and analysing the writers, not just in History. But in this case 'orthodox Jew' is quite a misleading start. 'Proper' workmanship is still possible, as 'professed' here timesofisrael.com/… and evident as seen here global.oup.com/academic/product/… – LаngLаngС Jun 10 at 15:12

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