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Austin Cline

Ancient Egypt and Judaism

By May 16, 2010

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What is the relationship between Egyptian religion and ancient Judaism? There was a time when the links were being explored by scholars, with many thinking that Egypt was at one point a strong influence on the Hebrews. Today the connections seem to be dismissed or ignored, but that really needs to change. It's implausible that the large, powerful kingdoms of Egypt would have had no influence on a smaller trading partner and buffer against great powers in the east.

Ahram reports:

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.

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.

We can trace the influence of Babylonian beliefs in Judaism, like the introduction of angles after the Babylonian Captivity. So what about Egypt? For example, might the development of Jewish monotheism been helped along by the early, though short, attempt to introduce monotheism in Egypt? Unfortunately, the farther back we go the sparser the records are and therefore the harder it is to chart the course of any beliefs within a culture, never mind how outside cultures might have exerted an influence.

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".

The question is not "did Egypt influence the Hebrews over the course of centuries and millennia," because of course such influences must have existed. Egypt was one of the most powerful cultures in the region and exercised widespread influence. The real question would seem to be just how extensive the influence was and how much of what is currently regarded as "Jewish" may have roots in ancient Egypt.

Comments
August 24, 2009 at 8:30 am
(1) Ol Rappaport says:

I am really surprised to find such an uncritical acceptance of Biblical historicity. There is no extra Biblical evidence that David or Solomon existed as described in the Bible. If Solomon ruled such a big kingdom, from the Euphrates to Eilath, wouldn’t have someone (the neighbours perhaps) mentioned the matter?

The Bible is NOT a history book and anybody who tries to use it as one is doing their God-given intelligence and the Bible a great disservice. Any similarity to actual events is coincidental – where history could be shown to confirm God’s authority it is used. Where history does not confirm God’s authority, the authors and editors either ignore it or make it up.
None of which contradicts the suggestion that Judaism has many Egyptians accretions. The evidence is much more firmly based than Biblical narrative.

September 1, 2009 at 2:13 pm
(2) john hanks says:

The Bible must be rescued from itself.

September 2, 2009 at 3:48 am
(3) Tom Edgar says:

Jules Verne’s prophecies were much more accurate and a darned sight more interesting

January 19, 2010 at 4:12 pm
(4) Mead says:

The Hebrew peoples were nomads and wanderers who picked up bits and pieces of other cultures as they traveled. Judaism and Christianity don’t have a single original thought as they have been pilfered from every other culture the Hebrews passed through. All you have to do is look at the similarities between the mythos and traditions…I mean for crying out loud the Pope’s headgear is a copy of the Pharaoh’s crown!! Also, take two pyramids and lay one upside down atop the other and you have the Star of David. Nothing but religious plagiarism and the bulk of the world has been gullible enough to accept the “Big Three” religions as being “the word of God”.

October 15, 2010 at 5:32 am
(5) Thomas Ikol says:

Egypt is mentioned so many times in the Bible and many biblical plots right from Genesis, Exodus and even the new testament have a connection to Egypt. Archeological evidence does not support the presence of a large prosperous Jewish Kingdom as described in the Bible. During what the Bible describes as the Peak of the Jewish Nation under King Solomon, Israel was at best a tiny priestdom surrounded by powerful neighbors like Egypt, Assyria and the Hittite empires. Israel’s culture must therefore have been greatly influenced by its powerful neighbors chief of which was Egypt. Moses is believed to have written the Pentateuch( 1st five biblical books) and the name Moses itself sounds Egyptian like Ramses or Amhose. The book of proverbs has very many similarities to the Instructions of Amenomope and this is difficult to ignore. It is therefore quite plausible that Judaism may have began as a cult of Egyptian religion and then gradually developed by borrowing from other neighbors and incorporating Jewish traditions…

November 14, 2010 at 8:13 pm
(6) Michael Anthony says:

Does anyone have any good sources for their information?

I’m doing an essay and could use something to cite.

please e-mail me
thank you!

April 9, 2011 at 8:06 am
(7) solomon says:

what is currently regarded as “Jewish” have indeed roots in ancient Egypt.

December 17, 2011 at 2:17 am
(8) MDS says:

The only thing everyone has in common is, The Bible is not the word of God.
“I am really surprised to find such an uncritical acceptance of Biblical historicity”
“The Bible must be rescued from itself.”
“Judaism and Christianity donít have a single original thought”
“Judaism may have began as a cult of Egyptian religion”

Here is a thought for you,”The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” BIBLE
There is no original thought. The light of God speaks to all men whether they are Egyptian or Jew. This article dealt with cultural influences, but lost me on making a case for Egyptian influences on Jewish religious thought. I’m sure Moses made an influence on Egyptian thought when God sent the plagues.

January 3, 2014 at 11:10 am
(9) Yuya says:

Judeo-Christian culture describes and influences the world, and dictates the values of every day life in Western Civilization… much good has come from its teachings. Ancient Egypt had a major influence on the values and teachings in those cultural ideals. Many of the great Judeo Christian principles were known already thousands of years even at the time of Abraham. Ancient Egypt gets big time credit for the advances in civilization we have and appreciate today!

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