‘Once Upon a Time’ (v) Egypt and the Sun

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As I noted in my 1st post on this theme, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament contains many echoes of far older, interesting and amusing creation myths, flood stories and epic poems which, because used to train scribes, were widely spread in location and time across the ancient near east. The Hebrew writers/editors used a number of their ideas and themes, while altering them to reflect their own religious beliefs and distinctive viewpoints.

Being Canaanites, the early Israelites would have had some acquaintance with Egyptian culture and religion because, from 1540 to 1069 BCE, Canaan was under Egypt’s control. From 1887 CE, clay tablets began to be unearthed in Amarna, an ancient capital city founded by Pharaoh Akhenaten (father of Tutankhamun). Included in these, are two-way letters between the Pharaoh and the Canaanite rulers subordinate to him, which provide valuable historical and cultural information.

Although the biblical story of an Israelite exodus from Egypt is embellished with an abundance of supernatural marvels, it is consistent with the fact that, in times of drought and famine, Canaanites did go down to Nile-rich Egypt to obtain food. Payment for this might sometimes have entailed periods of compulsory labour. If a group of labourers did escape, giving rise to an exodus story, it most likely happened during the reign of Rameses II (1279-1213 BCE). Exodus 1:11 says that Israelites helped build “Pithom and Rameses as store cities for the Pharaoh.”

The Egyptians, like the Canaanites, had a large number of gods, with particular ones worshipped at different locations, and several of them were regarded as world creators. Especially interesting from a biblical point of view are Ptah, who thought in his heart what he wanted to make, and simply uttered a word to bring it into being. This is reminiscent of the creation story in Genesis where, “God said … and it was so.” Similarly, Khnum was a potter-god who, like Yahweh in Genesis 2, fashioned human beings out of clay from the soil.

In Job 31:6, when Job envisages facing the judgement of God, he says, “Let him weigh me with honest scales; then God will discover my integrity.” This recalls the Egyptian idea of the dead person’s heart being weighed in the scales against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. If that person had led a good life, the heart would be in balance with the feather, and paradise would be the reward. 

Similarly, Psalm 104, which is a ‘creation psalm’, shares a number of parallels with ‘The Hymn to Aten’. Compare the Psalm’s “Yahweh, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures“, with the Hymn’s “How many are your deeds; you made the earth as you wished; you alone, all peoples, herds and flocks.” Similarly, Proverbs 22:17 to 24:22 shares numerous wisdom sayings with ‘The Instruction of Amenemope’. Likewise, the erotic biblical book, ‘Song of Songs’, has many close similarities to Egyptian love poetry.

There’s also the possibility that Israel’s monotheism may owe something to an awareness of the radical ideas and actions of Pharaoh Amenophis IV (1353-1336 BCE). He decided that Egypt should worship only one god, the Sun God, in the form of the solar disk which was called ‘Aten’. Much to the anger and disgust of the priests of the other gods, he changed his name to ‘Akhenaten’ and built his new capital city, Amarna, where worship was exclusively centred on the god Aten. He was fighting a losing battle however. As soon as he was dead, the status quo ante was restored, the city of Amarna was razed to the ground and, in an ancient foreshadowing of Orwell’s ‘1984’, an attempt was made to write him out of history – an early example of the ‘dark side’ of religious intolerance.     

This is the last in a series of 5 posts looking at the many parallels between the religious literature of Israel and that of earlier and surrounding peoples. It’s a reminder that a rich and enlightened understanding of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament includes an appreciation and valuing of the fact that it shares in a common stock of myth, legend, folk-tale, love poetry and proverbial wisdom, in addition to its own distinctive material which can sometimes be ethically challenging and spiritually uplifting. None of this need necessarily undermine anyone’s faith, but it should deter us from selecting quotes to give ‘divine authority’ to our opinions about contemporary issues. The Bible is an important word, but never ‘the last word’. It needs to be open-mindedly explored, and freshly understood, by each succeeding generation.

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