The Death of the Pharaoh

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None of the signs Moses was sent with to the Pharaoh proved to be sufficient to change his blind belief in his own divinity.  He had even, in the face of all these signs, pridefully dared to challenge the notion of a god higher than himself. In this regard, he said:

“Pharaoh said: ‘O chiefs!  I know not that you have a god other than me, so kindle for me (a kiln), O Haman, to bake (bricks out of) clay, and build a lofty tower for me in order that I may look upon the god of Moses; and verily, I think that he is one of the liars.’” (Quran 28:38)

Either the Pharaoh had no notion of who the True God is, or he mistook the God of the Israelites as something like what the Egyptians worshipped, or he simply intended to distract his people from the afflictions assailing them.[1]

The Exodus
At last, after the many signs God had sent Moses with to give the Egyptians every chance to repent, He finally gave the order to Moses to leave.  The intervening years had served not only to give the Pharaoh every chance, but also to clearly prove the authenticity of the prophethood of Moses to the children of Israel, and his right to lead them.

They were told to sneak away at night, under the cover of darkness, so their departure would not be noticed.  Some scholars say that the moon was eclipsed[2]  in order to make the night of departure even darker.

They took with them the remains of the prophet Joseph, who had invited the children of Jacob to that land more than 400 years earlier.  This was in accordance with instructions he had left when he died.  It is said that Moses himself carried them.[3]

That the Pharaoh was not aware of the plan is evident because of the fact that he was not ready to set out immediately to round the refugees up after the Israelite ghetto was found empty.  He had to send:

“Callers to every city, saying, ‘These are indeed a small band; and, verily they have enraged us.’

Even so, the Pharaoh was confident of overtaking and destroying them.  In a speech designed to rouse his army to make every effort, he said:

We are a host assembled,[4]  and amply forewarned.” (Quran 26:53-56)

He meant forewarned of the trouble the Israelites could make.  This army was not about to bring the absconders back.  He wanted every last one of them dead.

Archeological evidence points to the fact that the refugees headed south towards Succoth before turning east to Etham, right across the Sinai peninsular.  At that point, they turned south into the labyrinthine Wadi Watir, which disgorged them at its delta onto a wide beach created by its seasonal flow of water.[5]

Wadi Watir and Nuweiba Beach

The Crossing
Any host pursuing would not be able to engage all its soldiers at once in such narrow confines.  Nor would the pursuers be able to see them until nearly upon them.  In fact, the Israelites reached the coast without being sighted, but also found themselves facing a sea which would allow no passage for people without the means to ferry such a large assembly across it.  Not knowing what to do, they stood around, grumbling.  Then, at sunrise, those at the Wadi mouth spotted the foremost ranks of the Pharaoh’s army winding its way towards them, and the Egyptian scouts spied the migrants sitting on the beach.

Some of the believing Egyptians must have accompanied them, as some reports tell that the believer from the Pharaoh’s family attempted to enter the sea on his horse before it was opened by Moses.  The horse, however, balked.

“O Messenger of God,” he said, “Is it here that your Lord commanded you to bring us.”

Moses replied.  “Yes.”[6]

“The companions of Moses said, ‘We are sure to be overtaken.’

Moses said, ‘Nay.  Verily, the Lord is with me, and He will guide me.’” (Quran 26:62)

When the Pharaoh and his army were clearly visible to the people, Moses was commanded:

“…Strike a dry path for them in the sea (with your staff), fearing neither to be overtaken (by the Pharaoh), nor afraid (of being drowned)!” (Quran 20:77)

“…And it parted, each separate part becoming like a huge mountain.” (Quran 26:63)

The people, seeing the dried sea bed as the way to safety, descended onto it, led by Moses, and fled across the sea.  Seeing the receding ranks of fugitives disappearing before his astonished eyes, the Pharaoh charged down to the shoreline.  Looking at the towering walls of water, in suspended stasis, he was assailed by awe, but suppressed it.  He paraded along the ranks of his troops, trying to turn around the events to his advantage:

‘Look how the sea has parted for me!’  He said, ‘so that I can catch these fleeing servants of mine.”[7]  Thus encouraged, the whole host plunged onto the dried out sea bed in hot pursuit.

As Moses oversaw the last of his flock emerging from the sea on the other side, he raised his staff to close off the path behind them; but God commanded him to keep moving:

“Leave the sea as it is; Verily, they are a host to be drowned.” (Quran 44:24)

The End of the Pharaoh
The whole host of the army was drawn into the trap, which sprang upon them in an instant as “the sea completely overwhelmed them, and covered them up.”[8]  At this stage, confronted with the quivering walls of water about to crash down on him, the Pharaoh had at last admitted:

“I believe there is no god but He in whom the Children of Israel believe, and I am one of those who submit (to Him).”

From this, it becomes clear that Pharaoh had indeed believed Moses to be a true prophet from God, but it was his pride and haughtiness which prevented him from doing so all along.  Indeed it is when one sees no fruit in their rejection of God that they finally owe up to the truth.  But when one sees that death has finally arrived and is inevitable, then this admittance of the truth is of no avail.

“It was said to him, ‘What!  Now (you say you submit), after your rebellion and depravity before?  This day we shall save you in your (lifeless) body so that you may be a sign for those who come after you…’” (Quran 10:92)

When talking about this event, the angel Gabriel said to the Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him:

“You should have seen me trying to stop his words with the mud I took from the sea and shoved into his mouth, fearing the Mercy of God would save him.” (Ahmad, Al-Tirmidhi)

This action of Gabriel asserts God’s great Mercy.  Even one such as the Pharaoh could have obtained forgiveness if he had repented and turned to God before his final moment of life.  Once the inevitable moment of death is in progress, however, to believe is no benefit to the rejecter of faith, for God says:

“Even if they were returned to this life (to make amends) they would commit again everything they were prohibited; verily, they are liars.” (Quran 6:28)

To confirm the Pharaoh was dead, God commanded the sea to raise the lifeless body of the Pharaoh high on a wave and throw it ashore.  He was carrying his distinctive shield, by which he was recognized by all.

A Lesson to be Learnt
Although there are some differences in detail, especially in the point of view held concerning Moses and the Israelites between the Islamic and Judeo-Christian accounts, the lessons we can learn from the Story of the Pharaoh when both are taken into account are various.  One can see, for example, that Moses brought a message not only to the Israelites, but also to the people of the Pharaoh.  Some of them believed and even left with the people of Moses.  The message he brought for them was the uniqueness of God as being the only god deserving of worship.  Moreover, the way the message was received shows that those who defy the right of God to be singled out in worship will never be guided to the right path, no matter what signs God sends.  One has to have a clear heart in order to choose the guidance God provides, and if one trusts in God he will provide the means to escape the oppressors.  He will also punish in this world, as well as the next, the oppressors who set themselves against God, claiming for themselves the sovereignty that belongs to Him in the affairs of the world.  Submission to God alone provides for the true seeker the means by which one earns the guidance that will assure salvation; and such true submission is called Islam.

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Footnotes:
[1] It is not clear in the Bible for what construction were the bricks he had ordered made.  However, the reason given for ordering bricks to be made was to increase the quota (set for the Israelites).  This was in order to distract them, with the oppression of work without rest, from their duty to God, thus elevating the people as the source of his troubles, rather than God. (Exodus 5:6-9)

[2] Tafsir ibn Kathir commentary on Quran 26:52, citing at-Tabari 19:354.

[3] Ibid.

[4] It is said the Egyptian host outnumbered the trekking migrants by 3-1.  Ibn Kathir Qasas al-Anbiya; English translation, by R.A. Azimi; Pub. Darussalam 2003, pp. 392: The Story of Moses.

[5] (http://www.wyattarchaeology.com/red_sea.htm).

[6] Ibn Kathir Qasas al-Anbiya; English translation, by R.A. Azimi; Pub. Darussalam 2003, pp. 392: The Story of Moses

[7] Ibn Kathir Qasas al-Anbiya; English translation, by R.A. Azimi; Pub. Darussalam 2003, pp. 394: The Story of Moses

[8] Quran 20:78

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