Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Egyptian Influence Upon the Hebrew Religion?

A proverbial heritage

For 50 years, scholarship has tended to play down the interrelations between Ancient Egyptian culture and the religion of the biblical Hebrews. Jill Kamil argues it is time to re-open investigations.

Egypt is indisputably a part of the Biblical tradition. This much is clear, not only from the role the country plays in providing the setting for certain famous episodes in both Old and New Testaments, but in the contribution made to the Hebrew worldview by its language, culture and thought.

This legacy was a subject of great interest to European and American scholars during the first three decades of the 19th century. Linguists of various nationalities produced a plethora of articles on the subject, as well as books in several languages. Among the latter, perhaps the most influential was James Breasted's popular and widely- distributed A History of Egypt, first published in 1905, followed by a new edition in 1909, and no fewer than 14 reprints up to 1939.

Not long after the end of the World War II, however -- commencing in 1946 to be exact -- Hebrew links with Ancient Egypt were struck from the historical record almost overnight. Breasted's work was removed from the list of recommended reading in departments of Oriental Studies in Western universities, where its place was taken by a publication entitled The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, written by three scholars from the Oriental Institute of Chicago. The authors of the new work were Dutch Egyptologist and orientalist Henri Frankfurt, who was previously professor of pre-classical antiquity at the University of London, American Egyptologist John Wilson, and Danish cuneiformist Thorkild Jacobsen.

Earlier studies had sought to illuminate the interpenetration of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations whose material remains and spiritual heritages had long occupied a central role in educational curricula and museum displays. However, just at the moment when the Hebrews as God's chosen people (Deut. 14: 1-2) became the focus of their own history, literary and intellectual parallels began to be disregarded. Fields of specialisation multiplied, and as the number of "oriental" departments and archaeological institutions increased, contrasts in the "world outlook" of different cultures was stressed, rather than their similarities. As a result, many theories and interpretations which had previously been considered mainstream now fell out of favour.

Yet, can there be any doubt that it was Pharaoh Akhenaten's Hymn to the Aten, written in the 14th century BC, that inspired Psalms 104:24 in the Old Testament?

"How manifold are all thy works! They are hidden from before us, O thou sole god, whose powers no other possesseth. Though didst create the earth according to thy desire [...] all cattle large and small; all that are upon the earth" (Akhenaten's hymn)

"O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom has thou made them all; The earth is full of thy creatures" (Psalm 104)

Breasted pointed out the marked similarity in thought and sequence between these two passages. He observed that the Egyptian Pharaoh "grasped the idea of a world-dominator, as the creator of nature, in which the king saw revealed the creator's purpose for all his creatures, even the meanest... He based the universal sway of God upon his fatherly care of all men alike, irrespective of race or nationality, and to the proud and exclusive Egyptian he pointed to an all-embracing bounty of the common father of humanity, even placing Syria and Nubia before Egypt in his enumeration."

Other similar examples abound. "Yahweh [Jehovah] weigheth the hearts," it is written in Proverbs 21:2. The only previous instance of a god who makes a practice of weighing up human hearts is in Egyptian mortuary literature, where this method of judgement is exercised at the court of Osiris in the underworld. We could also cite the biblical description of men being fashioned out of clay by Yahweh: "The potter of the same clay he maketh both the vessels that serve for clean uses, and likewise also all such as serve to the contrary" (Book of Wisdom, 15:7). This image is essentially identical with the Ancient Egyptian image of men being fashioned on a potter's wheel out of the clay of the river Nile by the ram-headed god Khnum, one of the great gods of Egypt. In this connection, it is worthy of note that a Jewish temple was built on Elephantine Island in the sixth century BC, immediately behind the great Temple of Khnum: indeed, archaeologists have shown that the two places of worship were at different strata.

Chapter Six of the Book of Proverbs deals with the issue of justice. The commandment, "Do not move the boundary-stone nor shift the surveyor's rope, do not tamper with the widow's land-bounds", clearly reflects precepts to be found in Egyptian "instruction literature", as do passages in Chapter 11 on coveting: "Covet not the poor farmer's property nor hunger after his bread: the peasant's morsel will gag in the throat and revolt in the gullet".

Such striking similarities between the Instruction Literature of an Egyptian sage called Amenemope and the Book of Proverbs cannot easily be dismissed. In Proverbs Chapter 13 on morals and neighbourly love, we read: "It is better to be praised for neighbourly love than have riches in the storeroom; better to enjoy your bread with a good conscience than to have wealth weighed down by reproaches." This does little more than repeat almost word for word a verse in Amenemope's Instruction Literature, as does Chapter 27 on consideration towards the afflicted: "Mock not the blind nor deride the dwarf, nor block a cripple's path".

Borrowing by one culture from another is a natural part of intellectual growth, and the fact that the process works both ways only serves to emphasise its fundamental truth. Egyptian words and metaphors translated into Hebrew can be paralleled by influences operating in reverse -- Hebrew words and names which have passed into the Ancient Egyptian language. However, by far the largest and most persuasive mass of evidence clearly indicates the primacy of the longer and more enduring civilisation of Egypt.

There were contacts between Egypt and the Syria-Palestine region as early as the Middle Kingdom, around 2000 BC, when Egypt exercised economic, if not political, domination over the Levant. It is in this period that the migration of the Hebrew patriarchs to and from Egypt belong (Gen. 12:10ff). Contacts increased during the New Kingdom, especially following the conquests of Thutmose III, the creator of a vast Egyptian empire. Thutmose went to war regularly every summer and returned to Egypt around the end of September. The "Annals of Thutmose III" which are inscribed on the outer wall of the sanctuary at Karnak give details of the cities and tribes subdued in the course of his military campaigns.

Thutmose was no warmonger, and never appointed Egyptian governors to rule over conquered territories. Instead he gave power to local chieftains and sought to kick-start cultural relations by bringing the sons of foreign tribal chiefs to Egypt. Here they would study and absorb Egyptian culture, ideology and religion, before returning to their homelands. Egypt's possessions in the Syria-Palestine region were lost during the time of Akhenaten (c. 1403- 1348), but there is evidence from nearly 400 clay tablets discovered at the Pharaoh's capital of Tel Al-Amarna (written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the time) of letters from the rulers of the city-states of the Levant, which were under Egyptian control, and copies of the replies. From them we learn that one of the royal scribes of the ruler of Tyre was an Egyptian.

Contacts between Egypt and the Hebrew people increased during the so-called Period of Decline that followed the New Kingdom. David, a member of the Edomite royal house, fled to Egypt and was given political asylum by an unnamed Pharaoh (1 Kings 11: 14-22). Solomon married an Egyptian princess (1 Kings 3:1) and the palace he constructed for her was of Egyptian design; he also patterned his scribal schools on those of Egypt. No wonder that such a large number of Egyptian loan words, phrases and intellectual ideas should be preserved in the Old Testament, along with a large number of idiomatic expressions, and two Egyptian units of measure.

Late in the seventh century BC, a colony of Jewish mercenary soldiers was established on the island of Elephantine at Aswan. From this, and other sites such as Saqqara, Edfu and Hermopolis Magna (today's Ashmunein), have come a great horde of letters and business and legal documents, written in Aramaic on papyrus, ostraca, and leather. These texts contain evidence of Egyptian influences, especially in regard to names and religious practices. One particularly eloquent example survives in a papyrus that reads, "I bless you by Yahweh (Jehova) and Khnum".

The fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC was followed by large-scale emigration to Egypt (Jer. 41:16ff). Here the immigrants joined the already substantial Hebrew colonies, whose existence is recorded by the Prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 14:8; 44:1) and confirmed by archaeological evidence in the Delta, at Memphis (capital of Egypt for about 1,000 years, and an important religious and commercial centre throughout the 3,000 years of the country's ancient history), and in Middle and Upper Egypt.

The "wisdom literature" of Amenemope is a key piece in this complex puzzle. It consists of some 30 sayings written in demotic on a papyrus now in the British Museum, and is generally assigned by scholars to the Ramasside period between 1320 and 1080 BC. It was part of a written record that would traditionally have been passed down from father to son, and which school children would have copied from generation to generation as sample texts on which to practise their handwriting.

Miriam Lichtheim, author of Ancient Egyptian Literature, writes that the Book of Proverbs resembles Amenemope's text, not least in being a carefully composed and unified work. She refers particularly to the final statement of Proverbs: "Have I not written for you thirty sayings of admonition and knowledge", adding: "It can hardly be doubted that the Jewish author of [the Book of] Proverbs was acquainted with the Egyptian work and borrowed from it."

In his chapter on "Egypt and Israel" in The Legacy of Egypt (Second Edition), Ronald William cites a passage in which Amenemope admonishes resoluteness of mind in the following terms: "Keep your intellect steadfast; do not steer with your tongue, a person's tongue is the steering-oar of a boat." William points out that this image survived into the Bible in the following form: "Look at ships... though they are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder... so also the tongue is a little member and yet makes the most boasts".

For generations, scholarly debate has raged over the question of monotheism in Egypt -- whether the Ancient Egyptians believed in one supreme god who evolved into a celestial reflection of the earthly sovereign (i.e. who was made in the likeness, and with the qualities, of earthly kingship), alongside the provincial gods depicted in tomb and temple relief.

For Egyptologist Gaston Maspero and the authors of The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, the Egyptians were primarily polytheists. However, the contrary opinion prevailed among earlier experts. The French scholar Emmanuel de Rougé (1868) was convinced that the Ancient Egyptian religion was originally and fundamentally monotheistic, and he was followed in this, with certain reservations, by the British Egyptologist and historian of religion Peter le Page Renouf, who published his Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion 10 years later. Among researchers of the next generation, Heinrich Brugsch collected striking passages from a wide range of texts to support his conviction that the Ancient Egyptian religion was a pure form of monotheism; Paul Pieret found clear evidence in these texts that the Ancient Egyptians believed in One Infinite and Eternal God; and Auguste Mariette shared this interpretation, as did James Breasted.

These days, there is a tendency to turn back to the excavations and studies of early scholars, to reassess their work in the light of objects and archaeological evidence which they might have overlooked, and to re-evaluate their conclusions. Perhaps the time is also ripe to re-open the case of how much ancient Hebrew doctrine may owe to Egyptian sources.

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Photo: The Hieroglyphic Alphabet. Egyptian is the parent stock of the Hebrew language. A simple comparison of both alphabets will bear this out. The "Egyptian" I am referring to here is NOT the Arabic dialect spoken in Egypt today BUT to the language of Ancient Egypt which was (is) an independent Afroasiatic language.

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