And it came to pass the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, that he made a feast unto all his servants.… But he hanged the chief baker.… (kjv)
The Watchtower organization has prohibited birthday celebrations among its adherents, using Genesis 40:20–22 as a key part of the “scriptural basis” for this ruling. Their thought is that the word birthday appears in the Bible only in reference to Pharaoh of Egypt (as above) and King Herod of Galilee (Matt. 14:6 and Mark 6:21). Both of them were pagans, and both men had someone put to death in connection with the celebration. Since no men of faith are recorded in the Bible as having celebrated their birthdays, but only wicked men—so the Watchtower reasoning goes—Jehovah’s Witnesses of today must not be allowed to celebrate birthdays either.
It is worth noting that, as with other teachings, it is not left up to the individual Witness to read the Bible and come up with this conclusion. Rather, the sect’s secretive governing body has promulgated this official interpretation and uses its disciplinary procedures to enforce the policy on all Witnesses. For example, one elderly JW of our acquaintance in Massachusetts decided that he would send a birthday card to his non-Witness son, but his wife reported it to the local elders. They summoned him before a closed-door judicial-committee meeting and put him on trial for this offense. The seventy-year-old gentleman challenged them to show him one Scripture verse prohibiting sending a birthday card, but the committee went ahead and disfellowshiped him on the basis of the Watchtower Society’s ruling. His Witness relatives now refuse him admittance to their home, and Witnesses who encounter him on the street turn away without even saying hello.
In refuting the Watchtower’s so-called scriptural basis for banning birthday celebrations, you can point out that Pharaoh and King Herod were arbitrary rulers and violent men; such monarchs were accustomed to executing people on all sorts of occasions, not just on their birthdays. Moreover, a person sending a birthday card, or a parent providing a cake with candles at a children’s party, can hardly be accused of following the pattern of those murderous men.
Although the actual word birthday appears only in connection with Pharaoh and Herod in most translations, the Bible does contain reference to such celebrations in godly families:
In Job 1:4, it says of the patriarch Job’s family, “And his sons went and held a banquet at the house of each one on his own day; and they sent and invited their three sisters to eat and drink with them” (nwt, italics added). That “his own day” refers to each one’s birthday becomes clear when we read further: “It was after this that Job opened his mouth and began to call down evil upon his day. Job now answered and said: ‘Let the day perish on which I came to be born … ’ ” (Job 3:1–3, nwt, italics added). The Living Bible’s paraphrase of Job 1:4–5 expresses this thought: “Every year when each of Job’s sons had a birthday, he invited his brothers and sisters to his home for a celebration. On these occasions they would eat and drink with great merriment. When these birthday parties ended.… ”
Even the Watchtower Society’s own translation reveals that the birth of John the Baptist was celebrated, when it records this angelic announcement: “And you will have joy and great gladness, and many will rejoice over his birth” (Luke 1:14, nwt).
If the birth of John the Baptist was an occasion for rejoicing and if faithful Job’s children celebrated their birthdays, the fact that Pharaoh and Herod also celebrated theirs cannot logically be used as a basis for banning birthday parties among Bible believers today.
Reed, D. A. (1997, c1986). Jehovah’s Witnesses : Answered verse by verse. Includes indexes. (electronic ed.) (24). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.