Last week we looked at the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenation IV, also known as Ikhneton. Ikhneton had many distinctive qualities — a most unusual pharaoh.
- He was a monotheist, a tremendous contrast to the polytheism of his surrounding culture.
- He had only one wife — a significant departure from the usual practice of pharaoh
- He wrote poetry
The surviving images of Ikhneton are not typical for pharaohs either. His bust does not exude power, but rather thoughtfulness, depth, and caring. The image to the right with his family highlights this as well. Again, as far as I know, for pharaoh’s to depict themselves like this in public was quite unusual.
Where did these beliefs and practices come from? A few theories exist:
1. He learned them from the Jews, possibly enslaved during his reign.
2. He learned them from stories he heard about the Exodus, which may have happened about 75 years before he came to power.
3. Perhaps God appeared to him in a vision.
4. Perhaps he learned it from creation around him.
Did he believe in the true God under a different name? I wanted to pose the following to the students:
- Whether or not Ikhneton believed in the true God, he was certainly at least far closer to the truth than his countrymen. What should he do with this knowledge? If people don’t believe him, should he use force? What would the responsibility be of the average Egyptian who agreed with him? Is Ikhneton responsibility different because of his position of power?
As it happened Ikhneton did attempt to use force to spread his religion. He destroyed/banned worship of other gods and declared his own faith to be the only legal one in the realm. Was this the right choice?
- Ikhneton’s project to ‘convert’ his countrymen failed almost entirely. Why was this? Can any kind of force ever work in religious matters? If so, which kind? What does his failure tell us about the power of tradition.
- While many historians come down hard on Ikhneteon, we looked at the Book of the Dead to understand exactly what it was that Ikhneton fought against. Here we see inside Egyptian religion, and are confronted with a maze of charms, spells, and formulas to assure a good afterlife. I can’t imagine anyone keeping it all straight, and this gave enormous power to the priesthood of their hundreds and hundreds of gods. Ikhneton did fail, and perhaps went about his project in the wrong way. But Egypt remained trapped in a religion that gave enormous power to the priesthood.
In this way, Ikhenton’s story can have meaning for our own day. We too need to consider the strengths and weaknesses that come whenever religion is associated with law.
We also looked at the Exodus. As Christians we can have confidence that the Exodus was an historical event, but there is not a great deal of evidence within Egypt itself to support it. Some modern scholars use this as evidence against the Exodus, but we discussed in class why Egypt might want to “cover-up” such events.
An interesting possibility involves the presence of the Hyksos in Egyptian history. The word “hyksos” can apparently mean either “foreign invader,” or “foreign dweller.” Egyptologists propound different theories as to their identity, with some believing them to have been occasional foreign invaders, others foreign immigrants. A couple of curious details, however, may link the Hyksos to the Exodus:
- The dates given for the Hyksos presence in Egypt correspond roughly to the time span the Israelites spent in Egypt (ca. 1800-1300 B.C.)
- Many Hyksos names appear to be semitic in origin
- Many debate whether or not the Hyksos coexisted peacefully or not with Egyptians. But if their co-existence was sometimes peaceful, sometimes not, that would fit the Exodus narrative.
I am intrigued by the theory that suggests that the Hyksos may have been the Israelites. It would fit with the “foreign immigrant” theory, and melds also with the narrative in Exodus 1, which indicates that the as the Israelites grew more numerous they had less favor with some in Egypt. Thus, when the Egyptians talk about “expelling” them from the land ca. 1300-1200 B.C. they may have engaged in the ultimate historical spin. In the official Egyptian narrative then, the Israelites didn’t leave due to plagues, God, etc., but because we forced them to leave! It was a great moment of national pride!
After ca. 1200 B.C. archaeologists note a transition in how the Egyptians built cities. Previously, most Egyptian cities had no walls, contrary to Mesopotamian cities of the same time. After ca. 1200 B.C., most Egyptian cities had walls, marking a transition perhaps to a more unstable, frightening period. Clearly, the 10 plagues would have devastated and de-stabilized Egypt significantly, and this of course weakened them. The presence of walls may very well reflect the kind of dramatic decline the plagues would bring.
Still, I stress that this is only a theory.
Whenever we think the Exodus took place, we should realize that the plagues exposed every foundation that Egypt built its society and identity upon. In class I compared the plagues to waking up and realizing that the life you thought you led wasn’t real, and actually you lived as a nomad in the Sahara with an entirely different family. The psychological impact must have been devastating, which explains why many left Egypt with the Israelites. I also think it explains why many stayed. With such a radical change required, many might prefer to live in a dream.
Another issue is, when did the Exodus take place, and who might the pharaoh have been? Wide disagreement exists within the scholarly community on this issue, but there are two main theories:
1. An ‘Early’ Exodus somewhere around 1450 B.C. 1 Kings 6:1 talks of ‘480 years’ between the Exodus and Solomon’s reign,B.C. And might the Hyksos invasion, which took place around the same time, have been facilitated by the disaster of the plagues? Could we then see the rally of Egyptian civilization under Ramses II as a kind of Indian summer, a last gasp?
2. A ‘Late’ Exodus somewhere around 1250 B.C., which would be at the time of Ramses II. Didn’t Ramses build a new city, which would fit with the Israelites task of making mud brick, as described in Exodus? Might ‘480 years’ be a symbolic number (12 x 40, or the completion of the wandering of the tribes)? I wanted the students to think through the various possibilities, with the caveat that faithful Christians can easily disagree on this, as the Bible does not speak with absolute clarity.
Still, the images of Ramses II seem to reflect the kind of image conscious, stubborn, and arrogant man Moses must have confronted (much different than Ikhneton’s):
Good evidence exists on both sides of this question. Here is one interesting piece of ‘internal evidence’ on the historicity of the Exodus from Egypt itself that may recall the plagues and confirm parts of the Exodus narrative, the Ipuwer Papyrus, which has some possible parallels with the Exodus account, though it is important to stress the date of the papyrus is in great doubt, and may in fact precede the Exodus by at least 400 years):
1. The Plague of Blood as mentioned in Exodus 7: 14-25
Ipuwer 2:3 âPestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere.â
Ipuwer 2:9 âThe River (Nile) is Blood. Men shrink…and thirst after water.â
2. The Plague on Egyptian Livestock as found in Exodus 9: 1-7
Ipuwer 5:5 âAll animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan.â
3. The Plague of Hail and Fire as mentioned in Exodus 9: 22-26
Ipuwer 9:23 âThe fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail.â
Ipuwer 2:10 âForsooth (Help Us), gates, columns, and walls are consumed by fire.â
4. The Plague of Locusts as mentioned in Exodus 10: 1-20 (possible allusion)
Ipuwer 6:1: âNo fruit nor herbs are foundâ¦Oh, that the earth would cease from noise, and tumult (uproar) be no more.â
Ipuwer 4:14: âTrees are destroyed and the branches are stripped off.â
5. The Plague of Darkness as mentioned in Exodus 10: 21-29
Ipuwer 9:11 âThe land is without light.â
6. The Plague on Egyptâs Firstborn in Exodus 12
Ipuwer 2:13 âHe who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.â
Ipuwer 3:14 “Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with lamentations.”
Ipuwer 4:3 “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls.”
Ipuwer 6:12 “Forsooth, the children of the princes are cast out in the streets.”
7. Freeing of the Slaves and their Pillage of Egypt as seen in Exodus 12: 31-36
Ipuwer 1: “The plunderer is everywhere, and the servant takes what he finds.”
Ipuwer 2: “Indeed, poor men have become wealthy.”
Ipuwer 3: “Gold, silver and jewels are fastened to the necks of female slaves.”
Ipuwer 5: “Slaves (who have now been freed) are throughout the land.”
Ipuwer 10: “The king’s storehouse has now become common property.”
And here is a good discussion of the evidence for and against various dates for the Exodus, if you are interested.