That Flirtation with Monotheism in Egypt
Djhutmose was the perfect son and heir. He was a priest of Ptah and a philanthropist who even had a limestone sarcophagus made for the body of his embalmed cat Ta-miu.When he died suddenly, his father Amāna-ḥāpta (Amenhotep III) had his sarcophagus inscribed with the phrase mꜣꜥ ḫrw (maa-kheru – literally “the true voice”). This was the greatest honor one could bestow on a person in Egypt. In his place, Djhutmose’s younger brother Neferkheperure would succeed their father and receive the sḫm.ty (se-khem-ty) crown and rule Egypt.
When Amāna-ḥāpta died in 1351 BC), his younger son took his father’s regnal name; but unlike Djhutmose, this new pharaoh did not venerate Ptah. As pharoah, the young ruler attempted to reform the priesthoods, which he believed were corrupt and power-hungry.
In the fifth year of his reign (1347 BC), he changed his name from Amāna-ḥāpta to Akhen-aten (“useful to Aten”). He dispensed with all the honors paid to the gods in his five names, and in their place he attributed all of his power to the sun disk jtn (Aten). He dissolved the priesthoods, confiscated the temple lands, and he shifted his capital from Thebes to a new site at Amarna. All of this was a rejection of the polytheistic Egyptian religion in favor of a quasi-monotheistic religion which venerated Aten. He even composed the liturgy of the new worship of Aten.
How manifold it all is, what you have made!
Your secrets are hidden from the face of man.
O lone god, there is none like you…
You are in my heart
There is none other who know you,
Only your son, Neferkheperure,
Who you have taught your ways and your might…
All of Akhenaten‘s dreams came crashing down after he died around 1335 BC. His last couple of years are veiled in time, but it appears he became ill and his wife Nefertiti may have ruled first as his co-regent and then solely for a short time on her own (using the name Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare Djeser Kheperu, abbreviated to Smenkhkare). Then his son, Tut-ankh-aten, became pharaoh while still a child and his regent Horemheb quickly turned the tide against Akhenaten’s religious reforms. The young king was renamed Tut-ankh-amun, signifying the return of the ancient gods.
When Tut-ankh-amun died mysteriously, Horemheb took the crown and began a campaign to expunge the entire episode from history. Akhenaten’s legacy was defaced, destroyed or rewritten. He was deleted from history, and his new capital razed to the ground. Even Tut-ankh-amun was forgotten, which benefited later history since his tomb remained unopened and untouched until the early 20th century.
When Re Said, “I am that I am”
Why tell all of this? Because inscribed on the walls of Tutankhamen’s tomb is the first record of the “Book of the Heavenly Cow” – an Egyptian creation myth which seems to have been composed as part of the reinvigoration of the ancient religion. It appears in the tombs of many of the familiar New Kingdom pharaohs, including Seti I and several of the Ramessids.
The cow in question is one which represents the universe, but that is not really what is important about this text. The first part of the inscription is “The Destruction of Mankind,” which the author drew from sources dating back to at least 2000 BC. In this portion, the god Re asserts that mankind cannot and will not rebel against him (and by extension, Pharaoh and the priesthood) because:
I am who I am. I will not allow them to take action.
Anyone familiar with the Exodus story will recognize that first line. They are the same words that YHWH speaks to Moses at the burning bush.
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:14)
In case you are wondering, the phrase “I am who I am” is unmistakable in both Hebrew and Egyptian. The Egyptian word for “to be” is YW and the Hebrew word is HYH, and they are undeniably linked. (See John D. Currid’s Ancient the Gods, p. 100)
***Also, just as a side note, it is commonly taught that this is the first use of God’s covenant name YHWH. I would just like to point out that the Hebrew here is ‘HYH, not YHWH. It is a verb form and not a name. YHWH reveals his name in the following verse (Exodus 3:15), completely distinct from this statement.***
The Extraordinary Challenge of YHWH
This is, in my opinion, one of the most amazing moments of polemic theology in the entire Hebrew Scriptures. Here is YHWH – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – intentionally usurping a historical and well-known declaration by the god Re. And he is turning it to his own purposes.
Re makes the declaration as a statement against rebellion. This phrase was clearly meant to be pro-Pharaoh propaganda after Akhenaten’s failed revolution. Re appointed the new pharaohs, and he would corrected any aberrations from being faithful to his way.
YHWH makes the declaration as an act of rebellion against Re and the world system in Egypt. It is an open challenge to the gods of Egypt to try to stop him.
What we think of as this moment for Moses, when YHWH reveals his name to him, is really something more. Egypt habitually absorbed deities and ideas. The kingdom had been around for almost 1500 years at this point. It was irresistible; and the failure of Akhenaten’s revolution was an obvious demonstration of the irresistible power of the Egyptian gods (in Egypt at least).
But YHWH will have none of it. He make an open challenge and uses Re’s own words against him.
We miss this when we focus on Moses, when we try to think only of God as helping Moses get the courage to lead the rebellion. It is a waste when we think of the Bible in such small terms.