Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ancient Egypt and the Exodus -- what really happened?

As sure as the tax man cometh, so comes the annual Easter airing of Cecil B. Demille's classic film, The Ten Commandments. Each year we can delight in Yul Brenner’s Rameses II facing off against Charlton Heston's Moses – both actors chewing up the scenery with their delightfully overacted bluster – egged on all the way by DeMille’s penchant for the extravagant (which sadly, makes his movies feel horribly dated). The exodus has been on my brain of late as Tammy and I have been viewing the Teaching Company’s course on the History of Ancient Egypt (see earlier post about Joseph).

Dr. Brier, the course lecturer, lingers on Pharaoh Akhenaten, the "heretic pharaoh" who ditched the pantheon of Egyptian gods and subsequently enforced monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun disk. Akhenaten moved the capital and religious center to a new city that he built in the desert; for 17 years, he ruled Egypt as a Howard Hughes like recluse, his neglect of administration leading to a period of confusion and decline. Following his death, his son, Tutankhamen (yes, THE king Tut), probably under the influence of the grand vizier, restored polytheistic worship. Soon Tutankhamen died (possibly murdered) and the Vizier, named Aye, took over as pharaoh. Aye died after 3 years and general Horemheb became Pharaoh -- and he undertook a campaign to erase the whole history of Akhenaten -- destroying monuments, erasing names, and eradicating traces. He restored the ancient traditions of Egypt.

Now Brier, and a good chunk of other scholars, consider Akhenaten to have “invented” monotheism. According to this evolution of religion school of thought, no-one had ever conceived of a single god -- the Hebrews in captivity liked the concept and adopted it for themselves. As the Hebrews came out of Egypt during the reign of Rameses II, they brought their adopted monotheism with them, forging a brand new national identity. They even loosely based one of their psalms (104 to be exact) on Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Aten”.

However, there might be a different read of events. I Kings 6:1 tells us: “In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the Lord.” The fourth year of Solomon’s reign is generally accepted to be around 966 or 967 BC; this being the case, the exodus may have occured around 1446 or 1447 BC, well before Rameses II, who reigned in the 13th century. Indeed, this would place the Exodus before Akhenaten’s revolutionary changes in Egyptian religious structure. Some suggest that the Pharaoh of the Exodus might be Thutmosis III or Amenhotep II.

So the radical idea might be this – what if Akhenaten got the idea of monotheism from the Hebrews? What if he heard stories, or actually as a boy witnessed the wrath of God poured out upon Egypt and his heart was melted. What if he became convinced that the God of the Hebrews was the true God, but having little knowledge of them, he expressed that faith in the best way he knew how – by essentially saying “Men of Thebes, I see that you are religious people – you have a temple to a formless god – let me tell you about that god.” (the allusion to Paul’s Mars Hill dialogue is intentional). What if the Hymn to the Aten wasn’t the inspiration for Psalm 104, but derived from it?

Could it be that the living God would harden on Pharaoh, yet soften another – all to the praise of His glory?

Soli Deo Gloria

As a postscript – for similar type of divergent read on ancient religious development, check out The Parthenon Code – no endorsement of the site implied, but certainly interesting reading!