Pharaoh's Astrologers II

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Rashi explains (Exod. 1:16) that Pharaoh killed the Jewish firstborn males due to their prediction that "a savior would eventually be born". They "saw" that this savior would be smitten with water, so they counseled Pharaoh to react with water – drowning the infants.

Later (Exod. 1:22), the astrologers said the savior was born "today", but they weren't sure if he was a Jew or an Egyptian. This, Rashi explains, is why Pharaoh changed his decree from killing the Jewish male infants, to killing both Jewish and Egyptian infants.

There are a number of questions we must ask:

Why did the atrologers change their advice?

Why didn't Jews – a higher level nation – have any astrologers with their own forecasts?

Why didn't Rabbi Elazar (Sotah 12b) feel there is truth to forecasters? Rabbi Elazar quotes Isaiah's critique of astrologers saying they "chirp and snort [make sounds as if prophesying] but know not what they say".

What is the plain reading of the verses? Pharaoh is concerned that the Jews outnumber the Egyptians, and that they will revolt. He commands the Jewish midwives to commit genocide to preempt this possibility. When he saw the midwives refused his decree, he then instructed the Egyptians to kill the male Jewish infants. This is  also Unkelos' understanding of the word "his people". Unkelos says this phrase means that Pharaoh redirected his decree to kill Jewish infants from the midwives, to his own people. Rashi interprets this phrase to mean Pharaoh decreed death literally on "his people". Unkelos clearly rejects Rashi's interpretation. But let's better understand Rashi.

I don't feel we need to accept that the Egyptian astrologers possessed clairvoyance. I say this based on both Maimonides' and Rabbi Bachya's teachings. They both teach that man is to accept as truth only three matters: 1) what he experiences in reality through his senses; 2) what his mind sees as truth; 3) and what intelligent persons transmit. Astrology does not fall under any of these classes, and Maimonides actually rejects astrology in his Letter to Marseilles. Abiding by Rabbi Elazar, I offer this following possibility...

Pharaoh is clearly concerned of the Jews' numbers. The verses openly say this, and the astrologers see this. They wish to remain in their posts, since they originally obtained their posts through their own ego desires. They cannot risk predictions that can clearly be refuted, exposing them as liars. This is why they formerly told Pharaoh that his dream of seven fat and emaciated cows represented Pharaoh's eventual seven daughters, whom he will bury. This can happen at any time in the future. Even fifty years later, without having yet had these predicted daughters, Pharaoh cannot condemn the astrologers on this prediction, for they can respond, "You will 'yet' have these daughters."

I believe the astrologers heard Pharaoh's concern about the Jews' numbers. They fed on his concern fabricating the false prediction "a savior will be born." Pharaoh naturally gravitated to this view, as it substantiated his fears. So the astrologers' position was quite safe, and cunning, on their behalf. They solidified their standing with Pharaoh. But as time passed, the astrologers could not remain silent, lest they lose any purpose for Pharaoh. This is why they spoke up again, but changed their prediction to, "the savior is born today". Again, they play on Pharaoh's fears, solidifying their posts once again by duping Pharaoh into feeling they have seen "new" information. This is why the astrologers changed their position.

Psychology alone explains Rashi quite sufficiently. No need exists to accept any truth of astrology, certainly when we see no basis for it. Human intelligence has a method: one studies, and sharpens his mind. He observes causes in nature, and develops rational concepts of laws all based on a logical thought pattern. All thoughts that result in truths, must follow a rational path. But as the future is not perceived by reason or the senses, man cannot know what it is unless God or a true prophet informs him. How then can we accept that gazing at the stars, listening to birds chirping, reading man-made cards, or conjuring with bones, has any ability to discern the future? If one cannot reasonably answer this question, one cannot reasonably defend astrology. 

Furthermore, as my friend Howard suggested, such a prediction that a savior will be smitten with water rejects free will. Free will teaches that we must accept that the savior could at anytime repent, and be free of their forecast of a punishment by water. So not only is their prediction baseless, it contradicts what we know to be true. 

I would also add that the astrologers' response follows their devious methods. They predicted water was to be the cause of the savior's downfall, and they counseled Pharaoh to therefore use water. This means that they wished to "fulfill" their false prophecy. Reassuring Pharaoh that they didn't simply offer him alarming news, but also a solution again solidified their positions. This method also catered to Pharaoh's belief in astrology, making him feel that his problem has been addressed through the mystical system of belief to which he adhered. Again, this substantiates his need for the astrologers, as the astrologers planned.

It is crucial to grasp that God created natural law, and the entire universe. Laws are those natural  behaviors that repeat. This repetition is to allow man to recognize a pattern, and appreciate nature's Designer. For no pattern exists without a designer. If all was haphazard with no rhyme or reason, no laws could be observed, as no pattern exists. But as God created laws that do in fact repeat, He desires man to appreciate His existence by rationally examining His brilliance and perfection expressed in all corners of the universe. It is therefore a contradiction to God's plan that we accept as real, any phenomenon that does not follow reason. And even according to Rashi who says the astrologers "saw" the future, we can explain this to mean that they "said" they saw it, not that they actually did. Isaiah, Maimonides, Rabbi Elazar, and Unkelos are of this opinion: not one of these great thinkers gives credence to the astrologers. This also explains why a higher level nation – the Jews – had no astrologers.  For higher level people act in accord with reason – or should – unlike the mystical and idolatrous Egyptians.