Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 3—1942-1513 B.C.E.—Egypt—Battlefield of the Gods
“Beneath and above everything in Egypt was religion.”—Will Durant, 20th-century author and historian.
EGYPT’S original settlers were descendants of Noah’s son Ham, most likely through Ham’s son Mizraim, Nimrod’s uncle. (Genesis 10:6-8) After the confusion of languages at Babel, the unsuccessful tower builders scattered to make a new beginning, taking along their Babylonish religion. Some of those frustrated builders settled in the area that became known as Egypt.
In The Story of Civilization, Will Durant speaks about “the derivation of certain specific elements of Egyptian culture from Sumeria and Babylonia.” Thus, Babylonia’s religion left a deep mark on Egypt, and religion became a dominant factor in Egyptian life. The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “Cultural and social life were so deeply permeated with religious ideas that an understanding of Egyptian culture is impossible without an understanding of Egyptian religion, and vice versa.”
Inconsistent and Contradictory
Egypt’s religion was polytheistic, characterized by over 500 gods, and possibly twice that many. “Throughout Egypt generally the company of gods of a town or city were three in number,” says Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge. In time, a principal triad developed, a holy family composed of Osiris, the father; Isis, the mother; and Horus, the child.
Polytheism resulted in several gods’ claiming to be ‘the sole god.’ But priests and theologians evidently saw no problem in believing in one god and at the same time viewing him as existing in a multitude of forms. Author B. Mertz comments that this “is only another example of that pleasant inconsistency which is so characteristic of Egyptian religion.”
Animals were often used to represent attributes of gods or even the gods themselves. But French author Fernand Hazan claims that these animals were more than symbols, being considered worthy of reverence “because they were the focal point of good or harmful divine powers.” Thus, it is not surprising that a Roman citizen was reportedly lynched for killing a cat and that mummified bodies of dogs, cats, crocodiles, falcons, and bulls have been found in Egyptian graves.
Ritualism, mystery cults, and magic practices were deeply entrenched in Egypt’s religion. So also was the use of religious images and symbols, such as the symbol of life, the crux ansata. These were given such prominence, says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, that “individual faith (i.e., personal piety) was never of primary importance.” It adds that among images, “that of Isis with the child Horus on her lap, perhaps the prototype of the Madonna with the Child, is the most noteworthy.”
The Egyptians believed in life after death. They mummified their dead and preserved the bodies of dead pharaohs in impressive pyramids. Ancient graves have yielded, as one author puts it, “such pathetic but significant vanities as cosmetic palettes, beads, and pots which once contained food and drink.”
Ten Blows in a Countdown to Destruction
In 1728 B.C.E., something happened that would have dire consequences for Egypt and for its religion. About two centuries after a man named Abraham visited Egypt, his descendants moved there to escape the consequences of a serious famine. (Genesis 12:10; 46:6, 7) Known as Israelites, they remained there for 215 years. This set the stage for a battle of gods, a multitude of Egyptian gods on the one side and the sole Israelite God, Jehovah, on the other. When the Israelites asked permission to leave Egypt to worship Him, things rapidly came to a head.
Egypt’s ruler, the pharaoh,* a title derived from the Egyptian word for “great house,” rejected their request. Jehovah then expressed his purpose to exercise his power in a miraculous way in behalf of his people. (Exodus 7:1-6; 9:13-16) By bringing a series of ten blows upon Egypt, he challenged its gods in a face-to-face confrontation.—Exodus 12:12.
The first blow turned the Nile River, Egypt’s lifeline, into blood, killing its fish and forcing the Egyptians to dig for drinking water. (Exodus 7:19-24) What a disgrace for Hapi, god of the Nile!
The frog was a symbol of fertility, and the book The Gods of the Egyptians tells us that “the Frog-god and the Frog-goddess were believed to have played very prominent parts in the creation of the world.” So the plague of frogs, besides embarrassing such fertility gods as Osiris, Ptah, and Sebek, even humbled the Egyptian gods of creation.—Exodus 8:1-6.
The magic-practicing Egyptian priests were unable to duplicate the third blow as they had the first two. (Exodus 8:16-18) Thoth, lord of magic, had lost his magic touch. And Geb, god of the earth, was unable to prevent “the dust of the earth” from turning into pesty gnats.
Starting with the fourth blow, a line of demarcation was drawn between Goshen, the location of the Israelite community in Lower Egypt, and the rest of the country. While Goshen was untouched by the plague of gadflies, other sections of Egypt were brought to ruin. (Exodus 8:20-24) Buto, a tutelary goddess, and the god Horus were clearly unable any longer to control happenings in that part of the land for which they were responsible—Lower Egypt.
Hathor was a cow-headed goddess. Nut, the sky goddess, was also depicted as a cow. How humiliating for both when pestilence caused “all sorts of livestock . . . to die” in blow number five!—Exodus 9:6.
Thoth is said to have known “all the magic formulas necessary to heal the sick.” And Amon-Ra, says the 70th stanza of a poem written in his honor, was a physician “who dissolves evils and dispels ailments.” But both of these quack healers were unable to prevent “boils with blisters [from] breaking out on man and beast,” even upon “the magic-practicing priests,” in blow six.—Exodus 9:10, 11.
The gods Shu, Reshpu, and Tefnut helped control the weather. But no more than today’s weather forecasters could they prevent the thunder and hail that in blow seven pelted man, beast, and vegetation and that “shattered all sorts of trees of the field.” (Exodus 9:25) What the hail failed to destroy was eaten up by the locusts of blow number eight. (Exodus 10:12-15) What a defeat for Min, god of the harvest, who, holding a thunderbolt in his right hand, supposedly controlled thunder and lightning! Both slipped from his grasp during these two plagues.
“A gloomy darkness began to occur in all the land of Egypt for three days,” a ninth blow. (Exodus 10:21, 22) Ra, the sun god; Sekhmet, the goddess who wore the solar disk; and Thoth, the moon god, literally had their lights put out.
And what an outcry when the Egyptian firstborn were suddenly struck dead, leaving “not a house where there was not one dead,” including the “great house” of Pharaoh! (Exodus 12:29, 30) Since Pharaoh was a supposed offspring of the sun god Ra, the unexpected death of his firstborn was equal to the death of a god. What a stunning defeat for Bes, protector of the royal house, and Buto, defender of the king!
Disgraced and humiliated—not once but ten times—fevering for vengeance, Pharaoh and his troops rushed madly in pursuit of the departing Israelites. (Exodus 12:37, 41, 51; 14:8) In honor of little-known Pharaoh Ni-maat-Re, an ancient poem once boasted: “Fight on behalf of his name . . . There is no tomb for a rebel against his majesty, and his corpse is cast into the water.” But as regards the Pharaoh who had experienced a divine countdown to destruction, it was his own corpse that landed in the water. “Pharaoh, the incarnation of the god Horus here on earth, heir to the kingship of Atum, son of the sun god Re [Ra],” as a reference work calls him, had perished in the Red Sea at the hand of the Israelite God against whose majesty he had rebelled.—Exodus 14:19-28; Psalm 136:15.
Did This Really Happen?
Significantly, The New Encyclopædia Britannica, although claiming that the Exodus account contains “legendary elements,” nevertheless admits that “present-day scholars tend to believe that behind the legends there is a solid core of fact.” In speaking about the difficulty of dating Egyptian dynasties from lists of kings, Britannica also says: “The weakness of these lists as historical records is that they include only the names of kings deemed worthy of honour; many modest and certain unpopular rulers are wholly overlooked—expunged from the record.”
In the face of such historical inaccuracy and manipulation of facts, is it surprising that this devastating defeat for Egypt and her false gods was simply “expunged”? This becomes evident when we remember that those who recorded history did so under the tutelage of priests, whose chief interest, obviously, was maintaining their position and upholding the glory of their gods.
In view of those ancient events, the future bodes no good for anyone upholding modern-day counterparts of Egypt’s religion. Only those who practiced true religion—the Israelites and a number of their Egyptian companions—survived the battle of the gods unscathed. Great things were now in store for them, this “Nation Set Apart, Unlike All Others.” Read about it in part 4 of this series.
It is impossible to identify with any certainty the pharaoh who ruled at this time. Egyptologists have suggested it could have been, among others, Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, or Ramses II.
[Box on page 22]
How Would You Answer?
During the time they were in Egypt, were the Israelites alone in practicing true religion?
No, for “a man blameless and upright, fearing God and turning aside from bad,” lived in neighboring Uz, now Arabia. His name was Job. He underwent severe trials of integrity, likely sometime between Joseph’s death in 1657 B.C.E. and the raising up of Moses as Jehovah’s faithful servant.—Job 1:8.
[Picture on page 23]
The pharaohs were regarded as incarnations of the gods
Courtesy of Superintendence of Museo Egizio
[Picture on page 24]
Some pyramids were extravagant burial tombs of pharaohs