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Throughout the Torah, the various Egyptian Pharaohs are always referred to as simply "Pharaoh" or "the king of Egypt" (or both), but never with any other parts of their official titulary.

By contrast, in Nach, some of them are also left otherwise unidentified (such as the one whose daughter Shlomo married), but for others a name is given:

And to top it off, some of the ones who are named in some places are unnamed in others. For example, Yechezkel, even though fully four chapters of his book are devoted to prophecies of the downfall of Egypt and its king, never names him as anything other than "Pharaoh" or "king of Egypt" (though we know from the events as described by Yirmiyahu that they refer to Chofra).

Does anyone address the reason for these differences? [If it's because the Torah didn't want to use any of their names, all of which refer to various Egyptian deities, then the same should be true in Nach. But, after all, the Torah seemingly has no problem mentioning other idolatrous personal names of non-Jewish figures, such as the Edomite kings Hadad (Gen. 36:35) and Baal-Chanan (ibid. v. 38).]

(In a comment, DoubleAA pointed out that the same thing can be asked regarding the Avimelechs of Philistia: they are referred to only by that title in Chumash, and mostly also in Nach; but the one of David's times is usually identified by his personal name, Achish (except in Ps. 34:1).)

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  • They don't deserve to be called by name. Jan 9 '12 at 3:17
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    @HachamGabriel: and in Nach they do?
    – Alex
    Jan 9 '12 at 3:17
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    Also Avimelech has no name. It's just Avimelech for Avraham and Yitzchak. Unless those are the same exact person, but wasn't it a long time between them?
    – Double AA
    Jan 9 '12 at 3:20
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    @HachamGabriel: not arguing that point, of course. But see my examples of the kings of Edom. For that matter, most other non-Jewish kings mentioned in the Torah are also named: Nimrod; the four kings against whom Avraham fought, and four of the five kings of Sodom and its sister cities; Balak; etc. So why is Pharaoh the exception? (Not to mention that at least the Pharaoh of Yosef's times seems to have been relatively decent.)
    – Alex
    Jan 9 '12 at 3:22
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    @Alex But I wonder about Pichol the General. Did he also have an honorary title? That seems a bit odd.
    – Double AA
    Jan 9 '12 at 3:49
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To add to what @avi said:

According to Kabbalah (Zohar, part II, 34a), Pharaoh represents a serpent who sits in the Nile and says "I created myself and this river." This idea comes from a prophecy in Yechezkel (29:3), where Pharaoh says this. But the Pharaoh in the prophecy is referring to a later Pharaoh, the one that Nevuchadnetzar would destroy.

The Zohar lumps all the Pharaohs' characteristics together, and says that generally, Pharaoh represents this idea.

So, as @avi said, Pharaoh represents one Kabalistic concept, which is why all the Pharaohs are just called Pharaoh. If we were to refer to Pharaoh by his name, we would be saying that this Pharaoh was unique and distinct from other Pharaohs.

From here:

To quote the mystical words of the Zohar: “G-d summoned Moses into a chamber within a chamber, to the unique, supernal and mighty serpent… But Moses was afraid. Until this point, Moses had only approached the rivers surrounding the serpent (Pharaoh), and he was scared to approach the serpent itself, because Moses saw how profound its roots were on high!”[5]

The Zoharic “serpent” metaphor is based on a description of the prophet Ezekiel.[6] Ezekiel defined Pharaoh as “the great serpent who couches in the midst of his streams, who says: ‘My river is my own, and I have created myself.’” To enter into the center of power of this “great serpent,” the man with a mega-ego who insists “I have created myself,” terrified even Moses. How can you overcome a person who considers himself to be a god, the exclusive authority over his own life, the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong?


Note the Midrash Tanchuma Va'eira, Siman 5 also quotes Pharaoh as telling Moshe "The River is mine and I have created myself".

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When no name is given, the lesson and meaning of the story can be expanded for all generations. When a name is given, it is because what is being said is mostly just relevant to the time period that is being discussed, and generalities should not be derived from those verses.

As a quick example.. When dealing with Nimrod, Nimrod has his own special characteristically that allowed him to do what he did, and the fall that happened to him. However his successor had a different personality and ruled differently, and the character traits of Nimrod did not become the character traits of Babylonia forever. However with Egypt, we are not allowed to ever live in Egypt, and the character traits of the Pharoah, existed for all the Pharoahs. Egypt becomes a symbol for all the nations of the world that would eventually harm us, or treat us poorly, or cause us suffering. And the leaders of those nations would also be considered Pharoahs to us. When the behavior and details of a Pharoah did not match that pattern, then a name was given to them, so it would be recognized as not part of the pattern, but rather the behavior of that specific individual.

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    +1, nice explanation. Do you have a source for this?
    – Alex
    Jan 9 '12 at 14:21
  • Just a method of drash that I have picked up over the years. Sorry.
    – avi
    Jan 9 '12 at 16:31
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    @Alex and apparenlty, it's sourced in the Zohar :) Zohar, part II, 34a
    – avi
    Jan 28 '12 at 16:48
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    @SAH Applies to any measuring tape really ;) It applies when it applies. It's a drash.
    – avi
    Jan 10 '18 at 12:12
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    1. Please cite what exactly Zohar says. 2. Seemingly the explicit text of the Torah "ויקם מלך חדש... אשר לא ידע את יוסף" shows that different Pharaos had different styles and approaches. 3. THe answer is to vague to be evaluated. It appears as more Musar than an explanation.
    – Al Berko
    Oct 15 '19 at 17:12
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While I personally agree that when no name given, the story becomes timeless and can be expanded to all generations, as @avi said, Rabbi Philip Biberfeld in "Universal Jewish History", vol. 2, pg. 87, brings a historical-cultural reason for the lack of names for Pharaohs:

"In full conclusion with the customs prevailing at the time, the name of the Egyptian king is not mentioned. "Pharaoh" is the Hebrew form of the Egyptian title meaning "the great house" which originally was the designation of the palace and later became the official title of the king."

and in footnote 23:

"...the Egyptian sources show a considerable variety of royal nomenclature over a period of 1300 years. In the Bible these changes are followed with such striking accuracy that all the Biblical references might have been devised by Pharaonic scribes for each period...Pilter points out that if the supposed critical sources had been actual writers (or schools of writers) every one of the references to kings of Egypt whose persona name is not added would be an anachronism...At the time they are supposed to have written the name of the pharaoh had to be mentioned, as is actually done in the later Biblical sources..."

The gist of what he wrote is that Egyptian scribes did not use the name of the contemporary Pharaoh in texts they wrote. Only after his or her death could the name be used freely. Therefore, it seems that when no name is given in Tanach, the author of that book (whether Hashem or a prophet) is referring to the contemporary pharaoh, while when a name is given, the author is referring to a pharaoh that has already died. One caveat is Pharaoh Chofra in Yirmiyahu. In this case, I believe that Chofra was still not pharaoh. He became pharaoh a mere few years before the destruction of the Temple. I'd guess that the prophecy was said several years before the destruction, when Chofra was still a prince and the pharaoh was his father. This explains also why Yechezkel doesn't use his name - because by the time Yechezkel prophesied about him, Chofra was already king.

A second caveat is the pharaoh in Yosef's time and the first pharaoh of the slavery in Egypt - neither were contemporaneous to Moshe. I'd say that as the Torah came entirely from Hashem through Moshe's high level of prophecy, we may say that in these cases, the names aren't mentioned because all pharaohs are contemporary to Hashem - Hashem is infinite, above the concept of time.

The same can be said about the Avimelechs: The Avimelechs of the Torah were contemporaneous to Hashem, while the Avimelech of David's time was contemporaneous to David - hence that title being used in Tehillim 34:1. However, the Book of Shmuel was only partially written by Shmuel. It was completed by Natan and Gad - it's likely that one of them inserted Achish's name into the book, because he was no longer king at the time.

As to why the same was not done for most of the kings of other nations in the Torah, I'd guess that it was simply because there was no cultural norm to refrain from writing down the name of the contemporary monarch by those nations.

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  • Does Rabbi Biberfeld cite sources for the claim of not using names of Pharaohs while alive? This is not the case in my experience, and there are many examples of stelas erected with names in the lifetime of the Pharaoh, as well as hymns praising the Pharaoh used while he was alive that contain names, etc., throughout Egyptian history.
    – magicker72
    Sep 30 at 1:12
  • @magicker72 He does. His main source for this point is one of William T. Pilter's books. However, while some of Pilter's books are available online, I have not yet managed to access this one. I don't know about hymns, though I am aware of the stelae and Rabbi Biberfeld certainly was as well.
    – Harel13
    Sep 30 at 10:57
  • Egyptology has progressed significantly in the last 100 years, so if you can find a more recent source for this idea, that would be more believable.
    – magicker72
    Sep 30 at 11:43
  • For example, James Allen's most recent Middle Egyptian textbook has an essay on the Pharaoh's names that doesn't mention this detail. The Wikipedia pages for the (pre)nomen are similarly silent.
    – magicker72
    Sep 30 at 14:44

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