Ma’at on Balance

Historians do not know much about Pharaoh Userkaf of Egypt’s 5th Dynasty.  Only fragmentary records survive fromUserkaf the far past, so one must be careful about generalizing from such incomplete information.  But Userkaf did document his reign, which includes this thrilling account. . .

To the spirits of Heliopolis: 20 offerings of bread and beer everyday. . .

To the gods of the Sun temple at Sepre, a stat of land in the domain of Userkaf

[also] 2 oxen and 2 geese everyday,

To Re: 44 stat of land in the home of the Northland

For Hathor: 44 stat of land in the nomes of the Northland

For the House of Horus — 54 stats of land; building of the shrine of his temple in Bute in the nome of Xois

For Sepa: 2 stats of land for the building of his temple

For Nekhhet in the sanctuary of the South: 10 offering of bread and beer every day.

For Butte in Pernu: 10 offerings of bread and beer everyday

The gods of the sanctuary of the South: 48 offerings of bread and beer every day

Year of the third  occurrence of a large amount of cattle: 4 cubits of 2/2 fingers [??]

Etc., etc.

Of course, he may have recorded other things, but from we know, the emphasis of his writing dealt with his offerings to the gods.

Had we written his history it would have looked different.  But people record what they believe to be important, and Userkaf is no different.

No doubt the Egyptian concept of Ma’at directly influences the shape of Userkaf’s narrative.  For the Egyptian’s, Ma’at represented their ideal of peace, harmony, and order.  Some also see Ma’at’s influence in Egypt’s desire to return society to its former days of perfection.  As a god, or at least as a godlike being, a Pharaoh’s first and foremost had to maintain “Ma’at” in his domain.  Very consciously, Userkaf tells his readers, “I have done my utmost to maintain harmony between gods and man.  I have done my job, fulfilled my role.”

As many historians note, Egypt’s focus on Ma’at led to them trying to restore a lost golden age.  It involved looking backwards with a strong focus on maintaining the current order.  This contributed to the static nature of Egyptian society, especially after the completion of the Great Pyramid ca. 2500 B.C.  As we learned more about Egypt in the 20th century, most historians criticized Egypt for the rigid timelessness of their civilization.  But recently others countered along the lines of, “What’s wrong with a devotion to order?  Who can say that change has the upper hand?  We in the West favor dynamic civilization.  Who are we to make that judgment for the ancient Near East?”

These revisionists have a point.  All societies need predictability to function.  Many examples exist of when rapid change led to disaster, like the French Revolution.  One might wonder if our own civilization needs to slow down (I discovered today that Apple officially classifies my 5 year old computer as “Vintage”).  So, yes, stability has its place.  Change can also mean going further from the truth, not closer.

One should always question our beliefs and check to see where lies our preferences and where lies the truth, but implicit in the line of questioning above is that we can never make judgments.  We stand forever bound by our culture.  I disagree with that premise, but that is not the question I wish to address now.

Can we say, in any absolute sense, that “petrifying” one’s civilization is a bad thing, or will we ascribe it to taste?

If each person is made in the image of God, then each person ideally, through grace, will reflect something unique about God in their lives.  Civilizations are not made in God’s image, but the people in them are.  As a collective consciousness, civilizations should reveal something distinct about God.  Growth in Christ requires something akin to risk on our parts.  We should not “bury our talents.”  Well, I think the same holds true for civilizations.

Egypt of course had many, many things wrong with it, but their civilization developed in many unique ways.  They made enormous leaps forward in geometry, astronomy, and masonry.  They developed paper, a calendar, and many other wonderful inventions far ahead of their time.  We can only guess what might have come from Egypt had they continued to push themselves.  Egypt also had keen perspectives on certain spiritual truths, but after a time they stopped, and these partial-truths turned into their snares, enslaving them.  After 1000+ years, not even the 10 plagues and the Exodus could shake them loose.