Pharaoh's Astrologers

Moshe Ben-Chaim

In Exodus 1:22, Rashi states that the day Moses was born, Pharaoh’s astrologers told him that the Jewish messiah had been born, but they weren’t sure whether this messiah was of the Jews or of the Egyptians.


Later in Exod. 2:3, Rashi states that the reason why Moses’ mother Yocheved could not hide him anymore, was because the Egyptians counted the months from when Yocheved and her husband remarried, to determine when a new baby would be born, in order to slay him. Since Moses was born three months premature, his mother was able to hide him that length of time. But at the ninth month, she knew that the Egyptians would be visiting to kill Moses.


A number of questions surface:

1) Did or did not the Egyptians know when Moses was born? From the first Rashi, they seemed to know based on astrology, but from the second Rashi, we learn they miscalculated by three months, as they did not include Moses’ premature birth in their calculations. If they felt Moses’ true birthday was the day the messiah was born, they should have searched Yocheved’s home three months earlier than they actually did, on Moses’ actual day of birth. Additionally, they should have ceased killing males from that day forward, satisfied in their knowledge that they killed the messiah on that day. The fact that they continued to kill males even after their calculated day of the messiah’s birth demonstrated their own doubt in their prediction.
2) How can humans know something outside of their sense perception? Is astrology fact or fiction?

3) Why were these astrologers only “certain” about one aspect (that he was born) but they were ignorant of his nationality?


On the one hand, one could side with the Egyptians and state that when they predicted Moses’ birth, it was indeed his birthday. But since he was born three months premature, they didn’t bother searching his mother’s tent, as they assumed whoever was born, was born at nine months. This still shows ignorance. On the other hand it seems more correct to state that the Egyptians really didn’t know anything, and when they stated that the messiah was born, it was a guess, perhaps to maintain their position. Previously, they suggested that Pharaoh’s dreams of the 7 cows represented 7 daughters who would be born and then die. They were wrong here, and in many other cases. But it wasn’t objectively proven that their theory was impossible, so they remained at their posts.


A Rabbi suggested that this might not have been the first time the Egyptian astrologers predicted the birth of a messiah. The astrologers, as in the past, had to produce information to make them credulous, and to keep their positions. If they never inform Pharaoh of news, Pharaoh might dismiss, or even kill them. Thus, they were always under pressure to provide information to Pharaoh. They also had to be sure that any information couldn’t be proved 100% wrong. So when they would make predictions, they would do so either in generalities, or in areas that one can never prove impossible. Alternatively, the astrologers saw that Pharaoh was now subjugating the Jews, as the Jews were more numerous, and possibly could pose a threat to the Egyptians. The astrologers surmised the possibility of an uprising, and weren’t sure whether it would be spearheaded by a Jew or an Egyptian sympathizer. They therefore used rational deduction in their forecast to Pharaoh and told him that it could be either a Jew or Egyptian savior.


The fact that the astrologers could not determine Moses’ nationality, and that the second Rashi implies miscalculation, uncovers their ignorance, and removes any credibility of their astrology. Perhaps this is why Rashi recorded these two stories, to teach that their astrology is a farce. Just as people today cannot read palms, or foretell events, so too was the case in Egypt. Pharaoh positioned astrologers as a source of security to placate him at times when he was in doubt. All that was needed was that Pharaoh believed them. When objective reality could not be ascertained, emotional security filled the gap.


The Radak, as well as the Rabbis, dismiss any truth to the Baales Ov (the witch) in Samuel I, 28:7-19. They deny any reality to this story, and call it all “futility, void, lies, and mockery”. King Saul had visited the Baales Ov to bring up Samuel from the dead. The story on the surface says she did, and that King Saul talked with Samuel. The Radak however quotes the Rabbis and states, “the Rabbis said three things in regards to conjurers, 1) the one who brings up the dead sees but doesn’t hear the dead person, 2) the one who is in need hears, but sees not the dead, and 3) the ones who do not care either way, neither see nor hear anything. Such was the case with King Saul, he was in need, so he imagined hearing Samuel talking. The Baales Ov out of fear of KIng Saul said she saw Samuel, but didn’t hear, and the two who Saul traveled with, Avner and Amasa, neither saw nor heard a thing.”


What does this prove? It proves that King Saul’s discussion with Samuel was a daydream, a fantasy. Just as sometimes we think we hear someone talking to us or calling our name, all but to turn and see nobody there, so too according to Radak and the Rabbis was this case with King Saul and the Baales Ov. Saul was in such emotional need and distress, that he thought he heard Samuel. His two men didn’t care, so they heard nothing. And the Baales Ov needed to keep her status, so she feigned seeing him.


As Jews, a rational people, we do not believe knowledge emanates from sorcerers. They are all false. Knowledge emanates from God, and there are specific ways of uncovering this knowledge; careful analysis and rational thinking. Just as the study of physics and all other sciences which are based on principles embedded in the tangible universe require methodology to arrive at concepts, so much more so, the abstract world of ideas disclosed to us through the Torah requires a refined, trained, and rational approach.


It is relatively easy to detect when something is an accurate science. If it follows rational principles, it can be a science. If however, we hear statements such as, “this crease in your palm is long, therefore you will live long”, “wear this red string and you will ward off the evil eye”, or, “their is holiness is one's beard”, where there is no connection between the causes and suggested effect, these types of statements should be immediately identified as outside the rational sphere. Blind faith is not the way to learn. Even when reading a Rashi, we should look into it and see if it is as clear as rational ideas should be. If not, perhaps he is teaching us something beyond the surface. It is crucial to dismiss any person – gentile or Jew – who makes mystical, unproven claims. I say this, since so many orthodox Jews have accepted and spread nonsensical notions that are Torah violations. An intelligent person must not look upon one's exterior, title or his reputation and assume this alone endorses his words as Torah truths. Too many men of authority know how to attract others with phony warmth, and then feed them lies about in fallible Rebbes and Tzaddikim, amazing powers, Kabbalistic heresy or that God is found inside each of us. Ideas that please our emotions are typically false. To learn God's true teachings, refer to the Torah and our leaders like the Prophets or great minds like Maimonides. But in no way is it wise to blindly accept anyone today based on externals; certain when he violates Torah verses.


A reader responded:

Reader: You seem to say that Pharaoh’s astrologers were incorrect, in essence guessing, and that Saul did not really hear Samuel. If so, first of all, why were these episodes recorded in Tanach?

Rabbi: See the Radak on the incident concerning Saul and the Baales Ov, the female conjurer. The Radak states that Samuel did not rise from the ground as a cursory reading would suggest. Radak states that it was all a projection on Saul’s part - a fantasy of his mind. The Torah is designed to teach man about the law, which is aimed to benefit man’s soul, his mind, and his drives. As such, the reason the Torah records such stories is to teach us how man operates psychologically, whether it be when man operates positively, or even negatively, as with Saul, and Pharaoh’s astrologers. Seeing how Saul and Pharaoh’s astrologers made mistakes, teaches the reader about incorrect notions, so we learn more about our nature as humans, and that we may also identify fallacy so we might distance ourselves from it.

Reader: Also, if the astrologers were guessing, why would Pharaoh be willing to kill the thousands of Egyptian boys who would have been born that day?

Rabbi: The astrologers were in positions of counsel due to Pharaoh’s need for advice. They counseled Pharaoh with general statements, such as those where they could not be proved wrong, i.e., “you will have 7 daughters, and you will bury 7 daughters”. If Pharaoh approached them and said, “Where are my 7 daughters?”, they could respond. “You will have them yet”. Similarly, they stated, “A savior of the Jews is to be born”. Pharaoh was superstitious, and out of a fear of an uprising, he, like any other leader insecure of his reign, might resort to following the only prospect for success, that being the astrologers’ advice of slaying even Egyptian males.

Reader: And if they were guessing, how did they get the date right?
Rabbi:  Who said this was the only day they told Pharaoh that a savior could be born? Perhaps they said this on many occasions, and chance had it that they also said it on Moses’ birthday. Keep in mind that the astrologers previously stated that a savior is to be born. The first time they said this, they were unsure about his date of birth, and they were unsure about his origin, whether it was Egyptian or Hebrew. They were feigning knowledge of future events, as Pharaoh was looking to them for direction. They couldn’t say “we don’t know”. They would either lose their positions, or be killed. They therefore made general statements that had possibility of coming true, based on current events.

Reader: Similarly, how did Saul hear from his dream of Samuel correct information about his and his son’s death in the coming war? And why would he have imagined hearing his teacher telling him he would die?

Rabbi: Saul stated that he was grieved by the Philistines’ oppression, and that God had removed Himself from him. This shows that Saul was in a worried state. When one is in such a mindset, his dreams may follow his fears. This also applies to daydreams, which the Rabbis state Saul was experiencing. Why he actually was killed with his son, may have been due to his mindset. One not at ease, and with tremendous worry, will falter in his decisions, and Saul’s decisions here were in war. His death, and his son’s death were not foretold, rather, they were either results of his fears distorting his clear thinking, or God’s punishment. Many times, what one fears is brought our in a nightmare as a method of dealing with the fear. This means that to move past the fear, one may construct a nightmare where he faces that fear, for the longer-term goal of not having that fear anymore. But in no way are people’s fantasies actual perceptions of the future, unless they are prophetic, in which case, they are not fantasies.