I just watched the 2006 movie, The Ten Commandments, starring (among others) Dougray Scott, Naveen Andrews (Sayid from Lost), and Omar Shariff. In this post, I want to discuss two issues:
1. The movie made certain claims about Egyptian religion. First, we have a priest telling little Moses that there are as many gods as there are people, and that they had no origin, for they’re part of the nature of things. The priest is actually baffled when Moses asks him who made the gods.
Second, a priest tells little Moses that Pharaoh Akhenaten did not believe that the Egyptians had their own gods while other peoples had theirs. Rather, according to the priest, Akhenaten held that there is only one God.
Third, when little Moses sees the tomb of Joseph, he asks the Israelites if that is their god. An old Israelite replies that they do not worship corpses, unlike the Egyptians.
Fourth, somewhere in the movie, the Egyptians boast that they can actually see their gods (as idols), whereas the Israelites could not.
Edward F. Wente has an article in The Anchor Bible Dictionary on “Egyptian Religion.” I will consult that (and other articles) to evaluate these claims about ancient Egyptian religion.
First of all, did the Egyptians believe that the gods eternally existed as part of the nature of things, meaning that they were not created? The answer to that is “no.” Wente states the following:
The Egyptians organized their deities hierarchically, with the creator assuming the role of king of the gods. According to the Heliopolitan, or solar, version of creation, the Sun God emerged on the primal mound from Nūn, the abyss, and by masturbation or spewing forth created the first pair of deities, Shu and Tefnut (air and moisture). In turn this couple produced Geb and Nūt (earth and sky), from whom issued two pairs of deities, Osiris and Isis, and Seth and Nephthys, whose natures were less elemental and more political-cultural. At Memphis the role of creator was assigned to Ptah, and a spiritual mode of creation by thought (heart) and word (tongue) was stressed. A further elaboration of the solar version was developed at Hermopolis, where attention was given to four pairs of primordial elements that, lying dormant in Nūn, were activated in the production of the Sun God, who emerged on a lotus.
So, according to Wente, the Egyptians believed that a god emerged and created other gods, some of whom were associated with nature.
Second, did Pharaoh Akhenaten believe in the existence of only one God? In the course of my studies, I have heard that there is debate on that: some say “yes,” while others maintain that Akhenaten acknowledged the existence of other deities, but wanted Egypt to worship only the sun god. Donald Redford’s Anchor Bible Dictionary article on “Akhenaten” goes with the former point of view. Here are some passages from Redford’s article:
That the predilection for one god constituted something more than mere henotheism is strongly suggested in an early “speech from the throne” in which Akhenaten introduces his god to the court. Therein he describes his celestial deity in terms of uniqueness, transcendence, and permanence that were to become common throughout the reign, while at the same time accusing the gods of having “ceased one after the other” (Redford 1981).
The Hymn to the Sun-disc (Auffret 1981; Bernhardt 1969; AEL, 96–107; von Nordheim 1979), echoes of which seem later to be heard in Psalm 104, describe the solar deity as the creator and sustainer of the universe, the guarantor of life and the eternal hypostasis of pharaonic monarchy in the heavens. In the latter capacity the deity is granted the double cartouche, hailed in royal terms, and conceived in art as the mirror image in the heavens of king Akhenaten upon earth. Pursuant to his iconoclastic urges, Akhenaten rid the cult of images of deity as well as mythology, and even the decorative arts and the script were purified of anthropomorphic and theriomorphic elements (Redford 1984: 173ff.). The great Hope of all Egyptians, the multifarious world of the Beyond, the Underworld over which Osiris and his congeners presided, was done away with; and although outward forms, such as shawabtis, mortuary texts, and sun hymns were retained, they were expurgated of all allusions to the Underworld (Assmann 1972; Redford 1980; Redford 1984: 169ff.).
I don’t understand the part about the gods ceasing one after another. Was Akhenaten saying that the gods were dying off, or that he was about to get rid of them, or what? I found an article on the Internet, Akhenaten: A Brief Biography, which contains a translation of Akhenaten’s court speech. The author of the article interprets it as follows: However, we can surmise from what exists of [the text] that the king was claiming that the gods in the traditional Egyptian pantheon were nothing but material representations which could be destroyed…However, the god that he promoted (indubitably the Aten, or sun-disc) was unique, untouchable, undeniable and indestructible.
Third, did the Egyptians worship corpses? Wente states the following:
One aspect of the afterlife was the simple continuation of existence in the tomb. Already in archaic times natural dehydration of the body in a shallow grave suggested the permanent existence of the deceased, but as tombs became more elaborate and natural desiccation of the corpse ceased to be effective, mummification was developed as a means of preserving the body. Initially only the king and elite had their bodies mummified, but after the Old Kingdom mummification was gradually extended. The superstructure of the tomb contained a cult place where offerings could be made to the deceased’s spirit, which was believed to emerge from below through a false door. Sometimes elaborate contracts were drawn up with mortuary priests to ensure the perpetuity of the cult. In the absence of real offerings, the recitation of an invocation offering was considered a valid means for satisfying the deceased’s needs. But there was more to the afterlife than continued existence in the tomb. In the Old Kingdom the king’s afterlife involved his spiritual participation in cosmic processes such as the course of the Sun God or the motion of the stars. At first only the dead king became identified with Osiris, lord of the netherworld; but with the collapse of the Old Kingdom, royal funerary prerogatives were gradually extended to deceased commoners, whose names were preceded by the epithet Osiris. Funerary texts that had been for the dead king’s use now became the domain of a broader segment of the population. Many new spells were composed, inscribed in the interior of coffins or, later, on rolls of papyrus, known as the Book of the Dead. Included in this funerary literature were spells effecting the deceased’s identification with some of the highest gods, such as Rē, Atum, and Horus. The myth of Osiris’s murder, the finding of his body and revivification by Isis, and the posthumous procreation of their son Horus had an especial appeal. At Abydos, the burial place of archaic kings and Osiris, cenotaphs were erected along the processional route of the god Osiris, enabling the commoner to participate in the celebration of the god’s triumph and renewal.
According to Wente, the Egyptians gave food to the deceased to satisfy their needs, yet they also held that the departed king participated in “cosmic processes such as the course of the Sun God or the motion of the stars.” Gradually, even non-royal people who died were believed to participate somehow in the activity of the gods.
Fourth, did the Egyptians equate their gods with the idols? My hunch is “no,” for they believed that a god created the cosmos and other deities, before there even were human-made images. But they did view the idols as a sign of the gods’ presence on earth, which guaranteed prosperity. As Wente states: The purpose of the ritual was to ensure the god’s continued presence on earth, thus guaranteeing the bounty of the land and success in state endeavors, both at home and abroad. Tutankhamen’s (Amemophis IV) restoration inscription claims that, under Akhenaten, when the cult images were destroyed, neither gods nor goddesses could respond to people’s prayers and even the army could achieve no success abroad.
Also, there was an Egyptian belief that gods could appear to people in dreams as cultic images. So, in a sense, the idols were like a temple for the gods—how the gods ate and received honor and prayers. My hunch is that the Egyptians would be hard-pressed to relate to their gods without the idols.
2. On my WordPress blog, under my post, Divorce and Virginity in Deuteronomy 22, April proposes that Moses came up with much of the Torah himself, but God allowed the Torah to become the law of Israel so that the Israelites might learn their need for Christ’s grace and mercy. She bases her argument on Jesus’ statement that Moses allowed the Israelites to divorce their wives out of the hardness of their hearts (see Matthew 19:8), and she apparently interprets that to mean that Moses (not God) came up with the Torah’s law against divorce. Her proposal is essentially how the 2006 Ten Commandments movie depicted the origin of many laws in the Torah: the Israelites needed a law because of disputes among themselves, and Moses followed his heart: that’s why the Torah has a death penalty for murderers. But Moses comes to believe that he was wrong to rely on his heart and should have consulted God—who likes for Moses to figure out things on his own, yet is there when Moses needs him. And so Moses goes up the mountain and receives from God the Ten Commandments. It’s a little bit like Lost: Jacob wants people to figure things out on their own without him having to baby them, yet he makes a concession by appointing Richard Alpert his spokesman and intermediary.
The Moses movie with Burt Lancaster (which I will watch this Saturday) is somewhat like that as well: Moses (not God) decides to give the land to Zelophehad’s daughters, contrary to Numbers 27:6-7’s insistence that God came up with the idea.
I’m intrigued by April’s idea because it coincides somewhat with how many biblical scholars have viewed the Bible: that there are cases in the Torah in which there are diverse (even contradictory) laws on the same subject (see Fishbane on Numbers 15, Part 1), or examples in which a scribe adds his interpretation of a law to the text, or times when the Torah resembles other ancient Near Eastern laws. Was all of this spoken from the mouth of God? If so, why does the Torah seem to betray human elements, namely, different traditions, interpretation going on in the text, and reflection of culture?
But maybe God felt that the Torah was good enough for his purposes: to teach Israel discipline, to provide the necessary law and order for Israelite society, and to prepare her for Christ. There may have been different Israelite communities that had different laws, but God felt that each of their traditions could fulfill his purposes for his people; at the same time, God allowed the different traditions to become united into one book.
And, even then, who’s to say that God wasn’t providentially involved in how the Torah came to be? Maybe the Torah is a product of human interpretation, decision-making, and culture, and yet God is behind this process in some way, shape, or form. After all, the Torah itself has a “Thus saith the LORD” around about every one of its laws!