In the… Beginning?
There is no archaeological evidence to support all of the Bible’s account of the exodus out of Egypt. There were no slaves in Egypt -least of all, the people who built the pyramids… in fact, there aren’t even any records of the “Hebrews” in Egypt, at this time… or anywhere else, for that matter. This is actually the point when we begin to see the early formation of what we know of as Hebrew/Israeli/Jewish culture, although each of those names really mark a certain stage in the development of this new way of life. This new culture is emerging from the midst of two empires -Egypt and Babylon to the north. These were some of our first great civilizations, and they influenced Hebrew culture so much that further investigation into those origins is almost required to fully understand the importance behind all of this.
The Hebrews (Habiru)
It’s about 1350 BC, and to the North, Babylon had all but fallen to the Assyrians and Egypt had recently acquired the land of Canaan -what would eventually become Israel. There were many groups of nomadic tribes that lived in the regions around the Egyptian cities, and they were known as the “Habiru”, a word that roughly translates to “lawless wanderer”. These groups/tribes often cooperated for common benefit, as easily as fighting one another or Egyptian settlements. While much of the accuracy of the Bible in recounting this is disputed, this is where it becomes more historical and less fiction… calling it fiction is a bit harsh, this book is almost admittedly a parable. This is a time when there really was no difference between history and the fiction that represented it.
- Originally a title for a specific god (EA=”From the Creator/Beginning”), becoming a generic term for gods, and eventually becoming synonymous with the name of God.
Many reject the connection of the Habiru and the Hebrews, but it’s pretty obvious that these lawless wanderers were at the midst of a great revolution in Egypt that ultimately resulted in what we know of as the birth of the Israeli nation and early Hebrew culture. Many of the Habiru were people leaving from Canaan, from the north -the word “Yah” was taken from the Canaanite word that would be equivalent to our generic use of the word “god” to denote a heavenly deity. It came from an even older (Babylonian/Sumerian/Akkadian) origin, “Ea”, a word roughly meaning “from/of the beginning/creator/supreme”.
The Great Revolution
Egypt had been divided into a large handful of districts, each having their own gods and goddesses, and the people would regularly pit these gods against each other in a sort of intellectual battle of creativity. This became a problem for some because the status of the deities represented the political status of the district. This was a time in the western world when religion and politics were pretty much one and the same. Civilization had only just recently been born out of the emerging social order based around time and authority structures, and pretty much ALL social order revolved around these celestial powers.
- akh-ena-ten > ak-hen-a-ten > asch-en-a-ton > eschenaton > eschaton
- Originally the new name for Amenhotep IV (meaning “Amen is satisfied”), “Akhenaten” (meaning “Living Spirit of the Aten”) becomes synonymous with the “end of the world”. Originally, “eschaton” was used to describe a final stage of mankind rather than an impending end.
With Egypt and other empires quickly growing, this represented a lot of power to be changing hands so easily.Around this time, a pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, Amenhotep IV (“Amun is satisfied”), decided that Egypt should worship only one god and that the Pharaoh should be the living manifestation of this god, changing his name to Akhenaten (“Living Spirit of the Sun-Disk” also “Effective for the Sun-Disk”). While many might simply see the grab for power, this was a drastic change in the view of religion since the recent birth of civilization -this was pretty much the beginning of what we know of as monotheism.
It’s arguable whether Akhenaten was influenced by Moses, or vice versa -but, it’s just as arguable whether or not Moses was even a real person. I think it’s far more likely that this was more of a revolution in the mass populace that had been building for quite some time, and Akhenaten was a catalyst for this change. I can’t throw the guy out, completely -a revolution like this, at that time, would have needed some kind of leader, and evidence suggests that he might have been influenced by his grandfather, who came from Canaan and might have seen similar political problems, there.
The Old World Order
Akhenaten’s reign and his monotheistic god, Aten, didn’t even last 20 years before Egypt transitioned back into polytheism, but it seems to have had a big impact on this group. For a long time before this, the Egyptians worshiped Amun as the head god. Amun had a wife, and they had a son. In the earlier phases of civilization, these religious icons we call “gods” were actual people who were generally the patriarch of a tribe or culture, and through their remarkable deeds, people deified them -gave them the authority of the Gods in sky- and gave them names that reflected their divine connection to the world around them.
These people often handed their power down through their offspring. Sometimes, other people would claim to be the heir of this authority, and this eventually led to the practice of inbreeding to retain power. As civilization grew and cultures collided, we met issues with opposing gods. With people at this time giving such authority to these gods and the stories about them, the aforementioned issue with the status of the gods in this pantheon of deities arose.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that this had happened. It had actually happen many times before -it was something of a running theme throughout our development. As the beliefs and common knowledge grew, the religions changed with them, the power structures change to retain their power.
Before Amun, Osiris had been the chief God of Egypt -in other regions, they had different names, but similar stories. All shared common origin and developed amid common social issues. Amun had attained his status through an earlier shift in beliefs from worship of the moon as chief deity back to the worship of the sun as the head god. While Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution didn’t last, the people who took over Canaan kept trying.
The Fall of the New Order
From here, the Old Testament focuses strictly on the history of Israel and their struggle with following the will of God. I like to compare/contrast the Bible with the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian story glorifying the benefits of civilization -the Hebrews are rejecting civilization for it’s corruption, and the early Israelites are taking this revolution in the extreme opposite direction. The Torah blames this corruption of society on sin (selfishness), and then tells us a story about a people who are chosen to lead this revolution, but struggle with this change, themselves.
Eventually, they appoint a king against God’s warnings, and this marks the beginning of the end of Israel. The nation has repeatedly fallen to sin, and due to their ignorance, they were right back where they were, before. When I think of this conflict in Israel, it reminds me of the American Civil War: There is a migration of people escaping the rule of an empire, and after they settle a new land, they lose sight of their original values and eventually split in half, much like the United States did. Much of the message of the Old Testament is a warning that northern Israel had completely fallen back into to the old ways, and that this was the cause of it’s downfall.
So, What Went Wrong?
“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My peculiar possession more than all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine.” (Exodus Ch. 19 v. 4-5)
I think that Moses is actually a representational reflection of the sociopolitical movement revolving around Akhenaten, meant to detract from Akhenaten’s status as a royal figure of authority. I’d go as far as to say that God is actually foretelling the failure of Israel in Exodus, Chapter 19, and that the whole thing wasn’t supposed to work in the first place. The Torah was mostly written and compiled in the southern region of Israel know as Judah, between 600-400 BC, and is obviously critical of Israeli culture as it had unfolded. My guess would be that they saw how their culture had become corrupted and fallen back into the authority structures of the old world, and the were attempting to correct this problem.
The Bible seems to be taking this revolution one step further by separating that authority from the Pharaoh (King/Ruler), and re-writing that history. There’s obviously a lot going on at this time, and the Bible outright ignores and re-writes much of it. When reading the book, it’s quite apparent why they would have done so -it was detrimental to this movement which seems to be less about the triumph of one god over others, and more about a slew of other social changes that were going on at the time. The struggle obviously continued into what we call the New Testament. Next, we’ll take a closer look at the Torah and it’s relation to the New Testament.