Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Monotheistic Pharaoh

A tomb has been found in Egypt of an official during the reign of Akhenaten (1379-1362)--the heretic Pharaoh. Read the brief article, here.

After doing a little reading, the worship of Aten has a bit more history, so it's more complicated (not surprising), but here are some thoughts I wrote about the subject.

If you don't know, Akhenaten is famous for trying to make Egypt worship only one god, the Sun-disk-Aten. He threw out the old religious system and tried to reinvent the faith of the Kingdom. His reforms didn't go over very well as the old-guard was pretty powerful.

What I've wondered is, why would an Egyptian leader want to suddenly embrace a monotheistic faith after centuries in the old system?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the Bible and the inability of the Egyptian deities to withstand the power of Israel's, one God, YHWH.

There is a great debate in biblical history surrounding the dating of the Exodus. When did it happen? Two dates are typically proposed, the "late" date is the one featured in the classic movies and the Prince of Egypt, with Rameses as Pharaoh, about 1290 BC. There is some sound arguments for this date which I won't go into.

The other "early" date proposes 1446 BC and comes from readings of 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges.
There are some sound arguments for this date as well.

The greater miracle is the truth that these events happened, so I'm not trying to start a which date is accurate debate.

But the presence of Akhenaten in my mind provides some support for the 1446 date. The rise of a monotheistic leader, I would think, would only come because of a powerful display like the plagues and exodus. Many Egyptians left with the Israelites, others, who stayed, would have remembered the humbling of their deities before the One God of Moses.

Akhenaten came to power a mere 67 years after this proposed date. I believe he moved this way because, either he witnessed himself the plagues (sorry, I don't know his age when he came to power) or was raised by or around those who did. Can you imagine the trauma the Egyptians must have experienced in the wake of the Exodus? All of their major deities were humiliated before Moses: the Nile, Hathor with the plague on livestock, darkness-against Re the sun God, among others. From this demonstration that their gods could not provide or protect or withstand this One God of the Israelites, I believe Akhenaten and others would have been influenced to consider and embrace a monotheistic faith. After all, Exodus records that many officials of Pharaoh "feared the word of the LORD [and] hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside."--Ex. 9:20

Now, I realize that the reverse argument could be made--that this monotheistic reform influenced Moses and the Israelites, after all, they would have been in captivity during this time with the 1290 date. However, this seems unlikely to me. First, the Israelites already came in with a monotheistic faith. Second, any influence Egypt's theology had over the 400 years of their captivity would have driven them to polytheism, not the other way around. Third, these reforms were too short lived--17 years to have a great influence. The reforms were quickly reversed.

If the "early" date is accurate, then for a time Egypt's religious world was shaken. That, to me, is consistent with the biblical teaching of the Exodus.



Irenesson said...

I completely fail to see any proof of "the inability of the Egyptian deities to withstand the power of Israel's, one God, YHWH" in your text. On the contrary, Egypt was a economical super power, with a smooth state bureaucraty, while the Hebrews were a nomadic tribal nation. So no, your guesses as to what prompted Akhenatons infamous heresy are illogical.

Abraham predates both Akhenaton and Moses by several centuries, and if he was the father of monotheism (as claimed by moslems), Akhenaton and Moses must have either belonged to or joined an existing monotheistic cult. Akenatons father (Amenhotep 3) apparently also had leaning in the same direction, and kept unusually tight trade connections with Mesopotamia, where both Abraham and Moses originated from.

It's very likely possibility, that the Hebrews were in fact Akhenatons Aton worshipping subjects, with Moses as a high priest of some kind, and that the exodus from Egypt were in fact flight from revenge for their heresy. Whether the exodus happened immidiatedly after Akhenaton's death, or whether the Hebrews suffered slaveship for a number of years before being expelled is uncertain. But it makes much more sense than all the myths about plagues etc. in the OT, myths that clearly aren't supported in any other historical accounts.

Kelly Reed said...


Do keep in mind that I am starting from the belief that the Bible is an accurate account of the Israelites' stay in and exit from Egypt. Since you don't seem to hold this conviction, we would have to start the conversation somewhere else, we could do that sometime, but that is not my point in this post.

This post is more about the Exodus and the effects it could have had on the nation of Egypt.

To me it is more logical to say that an attempted transition to monotheism occurred as a result of the events described in Exodus, rather than pre-dating them. So in a sense, it points to the "earlier" and more traditional date of the Exodus events.

You are right, that Egypt was an "economical super power, with a smooth state bureaucracy. In my mind, since Egypt's system was so successful, it makes such a radical shift to monotheism so illogical. This shift would have and did significantly disrupt that smooth operating system. I believe there had to be some kind of "trigger event" to move enough of the nation's leaders or royal family into this role.

Each one of the plagues described in Exodus is a slap in the face of one or more of the Egyptian deities. The events described were as much a spiritual conflict as a physical or cultural one. For a time, they Egyptian magicians could mimic the events. Later, they could not and even more, the Hebrews were protected from the events while the Egyptians suffered (except those who heeded the warnings).

The Egyptians would not have recorded these humbling effects in their histories as seen in their unwillingness to record Necho II's defeat at Carchemish in 605 BC.

The net effect of the plagues (which lasted over several months) was devastating to the Egyptian religious, political and economic life. Which COULD HAVE motivated them to make a serious re-evaluation of their system.

What's amazing is that the Egyptians gave gold an other items to the Hebrews to get out. Ironically, it was this wealth and gold that was later used to build the Ark of the Covenant and other furnishings for the Tabernacle. It was more gold than they would have had on their own.

Thanks for stopping by. Your own blog is an interesting read. Just so you know, I would disagree with Muslims saying that Abraham was the first monotheist. I would say it goes before him and that there were others independent of Abraham (Melchizedek being one).

Also, just a note of correction, given that the name "Moses" is an Egytptian name, (see its similiarity to Rameses) he was not born in Mesopotamia, even though his people may have migrated from there centuries before.

Thank you for participating and for your comments. Maybe more will follow your example and at least let themselves be heard!!!


Veya said...

This is a very interesting view... I am fascinated by Akhenaton. The possibile scenario Irenesson described, also seems plausible to me.

We will never know why exactly he made his mission monotheism, the point is he DID. That is irrefutable.

Believing in One God, for me, approaches the truth of Life on Earth (and perhaps far beyond): ONE-ness, to the truth that we are all connected and hurting each other and Nature is hurting ourselves. And the reverse! Glory be to God!