Egyptian Mythology and the Bible
Did the Egyptians and the Hebrews borrow from one another's myths and culture?
These are two questions that students have frequently asked me in my class on Who Wrote the Old Testament?
Gary Greenburg, President of the Institute of History, Archaeology and Education, has shown how Egyptian mythology and literature strongly influenced much of early biblical history; especially the Creation, flood and patriarchal narratives.
According to Greenberg, “the lack of attention to Egyptian influences on the Bible by both biblical scholars and Egyptologists is unfortunate.” He laments that “a conscious and deliberate effort exists to keep the two spheres separate, yet the Bible shows a long and continuous relationship between Israel and Egypt.”
Creation in Egyptian Mythology and the Torah
Egyptian myths are metaphorical stories intended to illustrate and explain actions and roles of the gods in nature. Many myths exist in different or even conflicting versions but they convey the same symbolic meaning. Mythical narratives are rarely written in full. Texts often only contain episodes from or allusions to a larger myth.
Egyptian mythology is especially significant for its creation myths. According to these stories, the earth emerged as a dry space in a primordial ocean of chaos. The first rising of Ra, the sun god of Heliopolis, marks the moment of this emergence indicating that the sun is essential to life on earth.
Various forms of the myth describe the process of creation in different ways as the transformation of the primordial god Atum into the elements that form the world. This process includes the creative speech of the intellectual god Ptah and the act of the hidden power of Amen.
Below: The motif of the sun rising from a pyramidal mound was present in most Egyptian creation myths.
These Egyptian Creation traditions appear to anticipate the Creations narratives in the Hebrew Torah. Egyptian mythology describes the first four pairs of gods and the elements they represent:
Huh and Hauhet = unformed space
Kuk and Kauket = darkness on the face of the waters
Nun and Naunet = the primeval flood, or the “deep”
Amen and Amenet = an invisible wind that hovered over the deep
Greenberg points out that if the four pairs of deities are omitted Genesis 2:1-2 provides a remarkable parallel:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
The oldest extant manuscripts of Genesis are the twenty-four fragments found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from between 150 BC and AD 70. The consensus of scholarship dates the fragmentary development of the Genesis text in the first millennium BCE. The most recent scholarship places the final compilation of the text in the post-Exilic Jewish community of the 5th century.
The documentary hypothesis proposed by the German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) demonstrates that the text of the Torah as preserved can be divided into identifiable sources that actually predate its final compilation by centuries. These sources are designated the Jahwist (J), the Elohist (E), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly source (P). J, the earliest source, dates to as early as the 10th century BCE.
Most Egyptian Creation stories predate even J by many centuries.
Creation Initiated by the Spoken Word
In Egyptian mythology, Creation is initiated by the spoken word. This has no counterpart in Mesopotamian Creation myths, which are also reflected in Genesis. Egyptian traditions affirm the power of the spoken word to create the cosmos and control the environment.
The Theban deity Amen is described in one text as “the one who speaks and what should come into being comes into being.”
Another text claims that the Memphite Creator Ptah “thinks out and commands what he wishes.”
In Theban cosmology “Amen the Wind” and "Ptah the Speaker” are actually forms of the same deity.
Beginning in Genesis 1:3, each creative act in the biblical Creation narrative begins: “And God said…”
Hymn to Amen
According to the Theban Creation myth the process of Creation begins with the appearance of light as indicated by the following passage from this hymn to Amen...
“[The one (i.e., Amen)] that came into being in the first time when no god was [yet] created, when you [Amen-Ra] opened your eyes to see with them and everybody became illuminated by means of the glances of your eyes, when the day had not yet come into being.”
This is reflected in the biblical Creation narrative...
“God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” (Gen. 1:4-5).
In the Image of the Creator
The Hebrew idea that humankind was created in the image of the Creator and that the Creator had both male and female characteristics is found in earlier Egyptian mythology.
The Instruction Book for Merikare, which dates from the IXth Dynasty (c. 2160 BCE) and was widely circulated throughout Egypt during the New Kingdom (1650-1069 BCE) and which included the Israelite’s Egyptian sojourn states:
“Well tended is mankind - god’s cattle. He made sky and earth for their sake, he subdued the water monster, he made breath for their noses to live. They are his images, who came from his body.”
Right: Atum, the supreme god in the Heliopolitan Ennead (group of nine gods)
Other Egyptian texts portray the Creator as having male and female aspects and that human beings were formed in the Creator’s image.
In the Heliopolitan tradition, Atum gives birth to two deities, Shu (male) and Tefnut (female). Atum is also known as known the “Great He-She.”
In the Memphite tradition, the Creator, Ptah, also has male and female characteristics: “Ptah-upon-the-Great-Throne, Ptah-Nun, the father who made Atum; Ptah-Naunet, the mother who gave birth to Atum…”
Scholars suggest that these Egyptian myths are literary sources for the Genesis tradition...
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27)
The most important of all Egyptian myths was the myth of Osiris and Isis.
That the Egyptians and the Hebrews borrowed from one another's myths and culture and that Egyptian mythology influenced and even informed certain ideas incorporated in the Torah is highly plausible.
However, there are as many reflections of Mesopotamian Creation myths as Egyptian in the biblical Creation narratives as well as unique elements in the Hebrew texts that Jews and Christians have traditionally attributed to divine revelation.
To study Egyptian mythology in depth, I recommend the following books and study resources...
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