An Egyptian Priest or Pharaoh?
“An Egyptian priest named Moses, who possessed a portion of the country called the Lower [Egypt]…, being dissatisfied with the established institutions there, left it and came to Judæa with a large body of people who worshipped the Divinity. He declared and taught that the Egyptians and Africans entertained erroneous sentiments, in representing the Divinity under the likeness of wild beasts and cattle of the field; that the Greeks also were in error in making images of their gods after the human form. For God [said he] may be this one thing which encompasses us all, land and sea, which we call heaven, or the universe, or the nature of things.”
Strabo, Geography (16.2.35)
Was Akhenaten the Egyptian Moses? Was the Biblical image of Moses a mnemonic transformation of the forgotten pharaoh? Only ‘science fiction’ can answer these questions by a simple ‘yes.’ But mnemohistory is able to show that the connection between Egyptian and Biblical monotheism, or between an Egyptian counter-religion and the Biblical aversion to Egypt, has a certain foundation in history; the identification of Moses with a dislocated memory of Akhenaten had already been made in antiquity.”
Dr. Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian (24)
“Before much of the archaeological evidence from Thebes and from Tell el-Amarna became available, wishful thinking sometimes turned Akhenaten into a humane teacher of the true God, a mentor of Moses, a Christlike figure, a philosopher before his time. But these imaginary creatures are now fading away one by one as the historical reality gradually emerges. There is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full blown monotheism that we find in the Bible. The monotheism of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament had its own separate development—one that began more than half a millennium after the pharaoh’s death.
Dr. Donald B. Redford, “Aspects of Monotheism,” Biblical Archaeology Review
ALTHOUGH THERE is no hard evidence that Moses was a historical personage who composed the Pentateuch based on his actual experiences, over the centuries it has been posited that the alleged Israelite founder was one or another of a number of Egyptian pharaohs, priests or other notables from the land of the Nile. The pharaoh most commonly identified as Moses has been Amenhotep IV (d. 1336/4 BCE), whose later pseudonym was Akhenaton/Akhenaten, associated with the patriarch primarily because both the Egyptian and the Hebrew are attributed with “discovering” monotheism. Another pharaoh identified as Moses was Thutmose II (fl. 1493–1479 BCE). The purportedly historical pharaoh of the biblical story has been posited variously to be Ahmose I (fl. c. 1550–1525 BCE), Thutmose III (fl. 1479–1425 BCE), Akhenaten’s son Tutankhamun (fl. c. 1332–1323 BCE), Ramesses I (fl. c. 1295/2–1290 BCE) and Ramesses II (c. 1303–1213 BCE). All of these individuals thrived at different periods, a fact that indicates the swampy “historical” ground upon which the Exodus tale has been set.
We have seen already that Moses’s era has been dated variously during the second millennium BCE. In order to determine the date of Moses and the pharaoh or priest he is suggested to be, if any, we need to know the date of the Exodus itself. However, numerous dates also have been put forth as the time of the “historical” Exodus, ranging across several centuries during the second millennium BCE, including 1960, 1796, 1776, 1738, 1700, 1683, 1598, 1582, 1570–1550, 1561–1542, 1555, 1552, 1523, 1513, 1446, 1290 and others. This plethora of dates reveals the murky depths we encounter when trying to place the Exodus into history.
At 1 Kings 6:1, we learn that Solomon’s temple was constructed in the 480th year after the Exodus, possibly built around 961 BCE, which would thus date the flight out of Egypt to 1441 BCE. Yet, there has been not found a single artifact or stone to indicate where Solomon’s Temple existed, or if it existed. This edifice supposedly was destroyed in 587 by the Neo-Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 605–562 BCE), but no substantiating Babylonian record has been discovered.
Akhenaten the Monotheist?
Despite being incompatible with the date of 1441, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten (13th cent.) is believed widely to have been the “historical Moses” because both individuals purportedly discovered monotheism. Akhenaten set up a new capital at a place called Amarna and went on a massive building campaign to establish his chosen god, the solar Aten, as the main Egyptian deity. However, Akhenaten did not discover monotheism as we know it; rather, he focused on one god as chief above all the others, who nevertheless remained real. This perception of a god above all others already existed within Egyptian religion but was not necessarily a fanaticism among the ruling elite until Akhenaten.
Monolatry and ‘Polytheistic Monotheism’
The practice of favoring one god over all others is called “monolatry” or “henotheism.”155 The original Egyptian idea of “monotheism” or, rather, monolatry, represented one main god (e.g., Ptah as creator) whose attributes were “limbs” or “auxiliaries,” perceived as other deities.
Among other appellations, these auxiliary or prototype gods have been said to be “Ari” or “Ali,” an Egyptian word, or , meaning “to make, to do, to create, to form,” “to be made” and “to be used as an auxiliary.” It is claimed that all other deities proceed from the Ari, a term that is part of the name Aus-ar(i) or Osiris, among many other Egyptian usages. The “enthroned eye” hieroglyph is also the symbol of Horus and the sun.
Fig. 14. Hieroglyphs for ‘Asari.’ (Budge, 1973:1.25) Concerning this “polytheistic monotheism,” as it were, Dr. James A.S. Grant Bey (1840–1896) summarizes:
The one God of the Egyptians was nameless; but the combination of all the other good divinities made up His attributes, which were simply powers of nature…. In the ancient Egyptian religion, therefore, we have clearly depicted to us an unnamed almighty Deity, who is uncreated and self-existent.
Yahweh eventually possessed similar attributes but appears as such much later in the literary record.
German Egyptologist Dr. Jan Assmann (b. 1938) likewise comments that “most polytheisms known to the history of religion are complex in the sense that they reckon—or better, live—with a divine realm beyond which there is a ‘god’ or ‘highest being’ who created the world and its deities.”
As I state in my book Christ in Egypt (56), although it is widely believed that monotheism was introduced essentially by Akhenaten, the consensus of earlier Egyptologists was that monotheism and polytheism existed side by side at least as early as the Fifth Dynasty, around 2500 BCE. We would venture that such concepts may have been devised much earlier in humankind’s long history, possibly tens of thousands of years previously, as among the world’s oldest peoples such as the Pygmies or Ituri people of the Congo.
The notion of “polytheistic monotheism,” reflecting one divine whole with many auxiliaries or “gods,” can be found within Hinduism as well, which posits the figure of Brahman, the transcendent, supreme universal being from whom all creation emanates and is expressed as the numerous deities. An example of Indian monolatry can be found in Rigveda Hymn 10.121, a text little different from what we find in Genesis as concerns the biblical god, but which dates to some 3,000 years ago at the latest.
Syncretism and Oneness
Discussing the sacred fusion of Egyptian gods, Egyptologist Dr. James P. Allen states:
Although the Egyptians recognized most natural and social phenomena as separate divine forces, they also realized that many of these were interrelated and could also be understood as different aspects of a single divine force. That realization is expressed in the practice known as “syncretism,” the combining of several gods into one.
Egyptian monolatry appears in the Coffin Texts (c. 2181–2041 BCE), which repeatedly refer to the “primeval god” or the “Primeval One,” who is “superior to the primeval gods” (Coffin Text Spell 39) and who is “older than the gods” (CT Sp. 317).
Concerning the concept of oneness within the Egyptian faith, Assmann remarks, “Time and again the Egyptian sources predicate the oneness/singleness/uniqueness of a god.” In this regard, in the Egyptian religion the great God Sun is “the One Alone with many arms.”
Rather than discovering such “monotheism,” already a concept well developed by his ancestral Egyptians and others previously, Akhenaten emphasized the Aten, also transliterated as “Aton,” said to be the “primal god” and represented by the disk of the sun. Aten worship was called “Aten monolatry,” “Atenism” or the “Amarna heresy.” Initially, Akhenaten was not a monotheistic fanatic who destroyed all other symbols of deity, but he did become increasingly intolerant, going almost as far as the Israelites, as depicted in the Old Testament.
Fig. 15. Akhenaten worshipping solar disc Aten, rays extend as hands holding life-giving ankhs or Egyptian crosses, 14th cent. BCE. Alabaster carving from tomb of Akhenaten, Amarna, Egypt
The record shows Akhenaten, like a good Yahwist king, eventually defacing and closing temples, especially those of the old supreme god Amun, as well as destroying idols, while declaring in his “Great Hymn to the Aten”: “O Sole God beside whom there is none.” However, we do not find accounts of the pharaoh ordering his troops to purge the land of heathens, as we do throughout the Pentateuch with Moses and the “chosen people,” commanded to slaughter entire cultures, such as the Midianites at Numbers 31.
Prophet of God or Megalomaniac?
The same megalomaniacal fanaticism by which Akhenaten declared himself the sole god’s only mediator can be seen also in the stories of Jesus and Mohammed, as well as to a certain extent that of the Persian divine lawgiver Zoroaster, among many others who professed to speak for God or a god. Rather than representing a historical Moses who did the same, Akhenaten appears to be the most visible individual in a long line of religious fanatics. He also seems to be one of the relatively few megalomaniacal “prophets” who actually was historical. The conclusion is that, while Atenism started out as monolatristic or henotheistic, worshipping one god among many, the pharaoh subsequently became increasingly fanatical, asserting superiority and dominance of the Aten.
While proselytizing the most fanatical type of monotheism, the Bible also depicts the Israelites and Jews as worshipping many other gods, and an apparent henotheism or monolatry develops out of this behavior, as in: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The Hebrew word for “gods” in this verse at Exodus 20:3 is ' אלהים elohiym, the plural of ' אל el, this latter denoting “god” but also, importantly, the name of the Canaanite high god, El or Ilu.
The resemblance between the Semitic Elohim/Elim and the Egyptian Ari/Ali has been noted. In this regard, the Egyptian “First Dynasty of Gods” often has been equated with the Elohim, a plural word frequently rendered as the singular “God.” As Grant Bey says: “The Elohim of the Hebrews was exactly the same as the gods of the Egyptians, i.e., a unity in plurality and vice versa, and God with many attributes.”
As we can see, the plural Elohim represent the same type of monolatry or “polytheistic monotheism,” eventually serving as a single title for Yahweh,
culminating in the Hebrew henotheism.
It has been contended thus that Moses was a henotheist or monolatrist, rather than a strict monotheist, since, in the biblical tale, he acknowledges the existence and power of other gods. The monolatry and henotheism of the Old Testament are made clear in the passages in which Yahweh competes with other deities, defeating them but nevertheless maintaining that they are real and indeed have supernatural powers.
This depiction of other gods as “real” can be found also in biblical contests with other humans, such as at 1 Kings 17:1, when the Hebrew prophet Elijah (9th cent. BCE?) cuts off Baal’s life-giving water, connoting the dew and/or rain. This miracle is reiterated in the New Testament epistle of James (5:17), in which Elijah is portrayed as praying successfully for a drought. There are many such instances in the Bible in which the gods of other cultures are depicted as real beings, including where the word elohim is used.
Regarding the claim of Mosaic monotheism, Jewish studies professor Dr. Frank Eakin concludes:
...the highest claim to be made for Moses is that he was, rather than a monotheist, a monolatrist.... The attribution of fully developed monotheism to Moses is certainly going beyond the evidence.
Hence, again, Moses may be viewed as a monolatrist or henotheist, rather than a monotheist. If we accept that some of the Pentateuch was composed up until the third century, it is possible that Jewish monotheism or henotheism with the Judean tribal god becoming transcendent was influenced by Plato, rather than discovered by a historical Moses.
As further evidence, if Moses were the “discoverer” of pure monotheism, then what was his predecessor patriarch, Abraham? If Moses were the first “monotheist,” then Abraham was not, and his god is one of many. Is Abraham to be admitted as having been polytheistic? If so, he could be viewed as a follower of El Elyon, the “God Most High,” a separate deity, rather than simply a god-name of Yahweh, as at Genesis 14:19:
And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth…
The original Hebrew for this verse is:
וארץ ש ׃ ק מים ע נה ל ליון א אל ב ברם ו רוך ו יאמר יברכהו
Here we discover not only this figure of ' אל עליון el 'elyown but also שמים shamayim, rendered “heaven.” Shamayim or šmym is a Ugaritic/Canaanite name, meaning “celestials” or “celestial beings,” related to the West Semitic god of the heavens, transliterated Šmm. In these words shamayim and šmm, we may also see inferences of the Semitic term שמש sh.m.sh, a vowel-less word frequently transliterated as shemesh or shamash, “sun.” These heavenly words also are related evidently to the Indo-European root sm denoting “sun,” a logical premise in consideration of the fact that the sun dominates the heavens.
At Genesis 17:1, Abraham is depicted as worshiping another of the Elohim, El Shaddai:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.”
The Hebrew here for “God Almighty” is ' אל שדי el Shadday, the latter word used 48 times in the Old Testament. El Shaddai is evidently an Ugaritic/Canaanite god, one of the 70 Elohim or “sons of El,” like the limbs of the main god within the religious philosophy of Egypt and India, for example.
El Shaddai is also an epithet used at Exodus 6:3 to describe “one of the patriarchal names for the tribal god of the Mesopotamians”
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by my name YHWH I did not make myself known to them.
וארא אל־אברהם אל־יצחק ואל־יעקב באל שדי ושמי יהוה לא נודעתי להם ׃
Jacob is the patriarch whose offspring represented the 12 tribes of Israel (Gen 47–49).
Thus, Exodus 6:3 introduces us to Yahweh on Mt. Horeb, while various other verses likewise depict him as coming from Horeb/Sinai. In this verse, the Hebrew word usually translated “Lord” is the tetragrammaton יהוה Yĕhovah. The inference is that, prior to this moment in the Israelite story, God never had been known by this name יהוה YHWH. The term here for “my name” is שם shem, as in השם HaShem or “the Name,” the code word for the theonyms Yahweh and Adonai, which pious Jews are loathe to pronounce (Lev 24:11).
Fig. 16. Hebrew tetragrammaton signifying ‘YHWH,’ ‘Yahweh’
Yet, despite this purported introduction in Exodus, the writer of Genesis evidently erred with an anachronism by including Yahweh in the verse at 15:7, in which the god appears to Abraham:
And he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chalde’ans, to give you this land to possess.”
ויאמר אליו אני יהוה אשר הוצאתיך מאור כשדים לתת לך את־הארץ לרשתה ה ׃ זאת
In this Genesis verse, God goes by the tetragrammaton יהוה Yĕhovah, even though at Exodus 6:3 it is claimed Abraham did not know the deity by that name. In addition, at Genesis 21:33 we find Abraham planting a tree at Beersheba and calling on Yahweh:
יהוה אל עולם or “YHWH El Everlasting.”
The Hebrew word here for “everlasting” is ' עולם owlam.
In spite of the claims of Yahweh being unknown to Abraham, the sacred tetragrammaton is used throughout Genesis, attributed by modern scholarship not to Moses but to an unknown scribe or scribes. This disparity of when Yahweh first emerges on the scene is one of those problems addressed by the Documentary Hypothesis, which evinces that the discussions of Yahweh in Genesis emanate from the hand of “J” or the “Jahwist” source text, while the Exodus introduction was composed by the “E” or “Elohist” a century or so later.
In any event, the Bible itself makes it clear that Yahweh as a dominant force is a later development in the Israelite pantheon of earlier Semitic gods. The biblical book of Amos (4:13, 5:8) insists on Yahweh’s supremacy, and it would seem that it was during this Hebrew prophet’s era (c. 750 BCE) that the push for domination and exclusion was intensified, with the result of Hezekiah’s purges, Manasseh’s “relapse” and Josiah’s renewed violent Yahwist fanaticism. The northern kingdom of Samaria is the particular area of interest for Amos’s Yahwist diatribe, since the god was special to the south, which attempted constantly to force him upon the north, as the latter continued to “whore after” or worship the gods of their forebears and neighbors.
From Sun Disc to Cosmic God
Yahweh’s development from tribal war and volcano god to the God of the universe is similar to the earlier monolatristic progression of Aten from a sun disc to a universal deity. Moreover, Akhenaten’s later fanaticism of banning religious images other than the solar disc resembles Jewish law, but predates its formulation by many centuries. Hence, if borrowing there be, it would be from the Egyptian to the Israelite.
In the final analysis, it is surmised that the Jews were not monotheistic until the time of the Maccabees (2nd cent. BCE). Nevertheless, they continued well into the common era to feature Greek gods and others in their mosaics and other depictions, as well as in spells syncretizing Yahweh to these numerous other deities, as we shall see.
Great Hymn to Aten and Psalm 104
Within this syncretism appear solar concepts as in the biblical Psalm 104, based on the same genre as Akhenaten’s famous “Great Hymn to Aten.” While Akhenaten flourished in the 14th century BCE, the earliest psalm by conservative dating was written during the First Temple Period, which traditionally began around 950 BCE, with the latest psalm perhaps composed during the sixth century BCE. Critical scholars date the composition or compilation of biblical texts to later centuries, although these scriptures may represent more ancient writings and oral traditions to some extent, as is surely the case with Psalm 104.
Concerning the relationship between the Egyptian and Hebrew texts, Redford remarks:
Certain affinities have long since been pointed out between the hymn to the sun-disc and Psalm 104, and the parallels are to be taken seriously. There is, however, no literary influence here, but rather a survival in the tradition of the northern centers of Egypt’s once great empire of the themes of that magnificent poetic creation.
Rather than direct dependence, Psalm 104 may have been based on a widespread and enduring genre of solar hymns with the same or similar themes, possibly themselves based on Akhenaten’s hymn.
However, Oxford Old Testament professor Dr. John Day outlines various commonalities between the two texts and remarks:
...Psalm 104 is indeed dependent on Akhenaten’s hymn to the Sun but...this dependence is confined to Ps. 104.20–30. This is because the parallels here are especially impressive, all of them with one exception occurring in the same order, a point often overlooked, which seems too much to attribute to coincidence.
Day concludes that “it very much looks as if the author of Psalm 104 did indeed have access to Akhenaten’s hymn to the Sun in some form.” He further cites the close relationship between the Canaanites and Egyptians of the era, including Akhenaten’s two “high officials of Canaanite or Syrian origin.” He also surmises that the hymn may have passed into the Near East during the reign of Akhenaten, when Canaan was part of the Egyptian empire. Here it was translated into Northwestern Semitic at some point, ending up as Psalm 104.
Other than the megalomania and fanatical monolatry or henotheism, a characteristic shared by many other individuals over the millennia, there exists little resemblance between the lives of Akhenaten and Moses. Akhenaten is not recorded as having been chased by a pharaoh across the miraculously parted Red Sea with some two or three million people in tow, to be led through the desert by pillars of cloud and fire, and sustained for 40 years by the Jewish tribal god Yahweh’s miraculous creation of manna from heaven and water from a rock, and so on.
Moreover, the timing of Akhenaten (d. c. 1336/4 BCE) does not correspond to the traditionally posited dates of 1441, 1290 or others proffered over the centuries for the Exodus. For these reasons, the historical correlation between the two figures has been dismissed by scholarly consensus. Furthermore, it is the opinion of Israeli archaeologists such as Finkelstein that the Israelites emerged from the Samaritan and Judean hill country at the beginning of the Iron Age, centuries after Akhenaten.