Wednesday, September 1, 2021

How Egyptian was Moses, and how Mesopotamian?

I have recently stressed the complete absence of any afterlife teaching from the Torah of Moses. Kevin McCall left a comment pointing out that (according to a tradition reported centuries later by St. Stephen) "Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22) and thus must surely have been familiar with the afterlife beliefs that played so prominent a role in Egyptian religion.

This made me ask the question, Just how Egyptian was Moses, really? I have often assumed, from his being raised in Pharaoh's palace, that he was almost entirely Egyptian by upbringing and had little direct knowledge of his ultimately Mesopotamian heritage. (Abraham was from Mesopotamia.) When God spoke to him from the burning bush, Moses said,

Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, "The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you"; and they shall say to me, "What is his name?" what shall I say unto them? (Ex. 3:13)

His name was El, of course -- El Elyon, El Shaddai -- but Moses didn't know that. When the voice from the burning bush identified itself as "the God of thy fathers," Moses had to ask, in essence, "The God of my fathers -- uh, which God is that again?" He comes across in this passage as fundamentally deracinated -- and, presumably, thoroughly Egyptianized.

When you ask what about Moses was distinctly Egyptian, though, it's hard to come up with much. The miracles, certainly, feel far closer to Egyptian than to Babylonian magic, but is there anything Egyptian in his teachings? Genesis 1-11 is of course indisputably Mesopotamian in nature, with many parallels to the Enuma Elish and Gilgamesh, and the Law of Moses itself has its closest parallel in the Mesopotamian Code of Hammurabi. One can see how secular scholars would conclude that the Torah was written during the Babylonian exile, but the other possible explanation is that these were traditions preserved from the time of Abram of Ur.

The golden calf of Aaron has always seemed Mesopotamian to me, too, a symbol of El or Adad. The Egyptians had bovine gods as well (Hathor, the Apis Bull), but Aaron seems to identify it as a non-Egyptian deity -- "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." I don't think the Hebrews could readily have imagined any Egyptian god taking their side against Pharaoh, the manifestation of Horus.

I think that, while Moses was indeed raised as an Egyptian and "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians," he deliberately rejected that heritage, tried to learn about the traditional (broadly Mesopotamian) religion of the Hebrews (collecting the stories we now have in the Book of Genesis), and tried to interpret his own experiences through the Hebrew lens. The afterlife is not passively omitted from the Torah, as if it "hadn't been discovered yet," but was actively excluded by Moses as part of the Egyptian tradition he rejected. I think this has more to do with the individual personality of Moses than with anything else; it is interesting to speculate how the development of the Hebrew religion might have been different if Moses had been less of a purist.

Despite this active effort to be un-Egyptian, did something of the Egyptian spirit nevertheless come through in Moses and his work? If so, I have not noticed it -- but perhaps that is simply because I am less familiar with Egyptian thought and religion than with its Mesopotamian counterparts.

4 comments:

jorgen said...

That the first commandment after fleeing slavery is allowing the former slaves to have slaves...that is Egyptian, or is that also Mesopotamian.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

All ancient civilizations had slaves. It was taken for granted.

No Longer Reading said...

This sounds plausible to me.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I just corrected a typo —I had written “is is” in the final sentence instead of a single “is.” Given the context — Egyptian religion — does that count as a Freudian slip or something?

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