III. The Religion of Amarna and the Religion of Israel

The religion of Amarna is very innovative since, as already mentioned in the Introduction, it is based on the completely new concept of monotheism: the only existing god is the solar disc Aton. (All the other religions were polytheist at that time) (1). However it is necessary to say that the cult of the sun god Ra or Re existed since a long time in Egypt and the god was notably venerated in a delta town called Heliopolis. The fact that a natural element, the sun, represented the god means that at time gods were intended in a materialistic way. Also the fact that Ra was just one – although one of the most important – of the many gods inhabiting the Egyptian Olympus, is the most relevant element of the present close examination or rather an opposing element to it. Ra was usually represented with other gods, for example with the goddesses Nekhmeth, Hathor, Isis and with Amun. Amun was often depicted as a warrior, but when together with Ra, he also had a solar disc on his head, thus taking the name of Amun-ra or Amun-re. However Ra is often represented with Horus, the hawkh-head sky-god who, having a solar disc on his head, changed his name into Ra-Herakhti or Re-Harakhti. It is important to refer briefly to the fact that  the way the theological concept of polytheism was intended by Egyptians was radically different from that of the Roman-Greek world for example, according to which every god had his own well- defined identity. As far as the Egyptian polytheism is concerned, we are sometimes faced with what I define a real phenomenon of transposition, that is to say with the combination of different gods who, even keeping the essence of their primary identity, were actually new gods (2). Amarnian religion is unique and innovative in that it moves away from pre-existent religion, not only because of its monotheism, but also because of its abstract and trascendent content (3). The god does not identify with the solar disc as we would expect, but with that mysterious, trascendent force sent forth by the sun rays. Through them that force reaches the king who, in the same way of a satellite, projects it on the Egypt’s entire population and on the whole mankind. In doing so the king acquires divine powers, a thing already known during that period since in Egypt and in other civilisations and cultures kings were usually considered and venerated as gods belonging to the local Olympus. However, in the case here examined, the theological concept is different and much more complex. Actually the king was at the same time the god’s son, his incarnation and his spirit. The meaning of the name Akhenaton (mentioned above) is exactly Aton’s spirit, his incarnation (4). Therefore, next to the concept of god’s oneness (the idea contained in Aton), there is at the same time the principle of divine trinity arising from the concept of Aton as the father of mankind and of the entire universe, of the king as the son of the god who bears the  message and from the concept of the spirit, the god’s incarnation in the king (the idea contained in Akh). The extreme complexity of such a concept, whose heritage probably arises from the peculiar Egyptian view of politheism (on which I have focused my attention), explains the reason why I have dwelled upon the cult and the representation of god Ra. The concept of god as oneness and trinity at the same time reappears after 14 centuries in the derived religion of Christianity (5). Another very innovative element, and in my opinion the most important of Amarnian religion, is the concept of universality. Aton is not only the god of Egyptians but of all mankind, even of Egypt’s enemies who therefore are greatly respected. The idea of universality is something inconceivable, really revolutionary and absolutely unique in the history of ancient religions since gods, at the time, protected only those people who worshipped them (6). Even Israeli religion did not avoid this principle as Yahweh was the god of the Chosen People. On order to find something similar to the concept of universality, it will be necessary to wait Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and above all Christianity (7). Amarnian religion exalted the joy of living, the love for the neighbour and the non violence. It seems historically accertained that during his reign Amenophi IV forbade the capital punishment, a decision which at that time was inconceivable (8). The principle of non violence caused the weakening of the empire. During his reign Amenophi IV did not start any military campaign, whether offensive or defensive. On the other hand, the cult of the dead was neglected, thus going against the traditions and the cult of the Egyptians who, since the beginning of time, had always given extreme importance to death. Death was considered as the hottleneck of a sandglass where in the upper half there was earthly life whereas in the lower half there was the coveted eternal dwelling (the Is discussed in the Introduction). Every Egyptian during his life, by means of good actions, tried to reach it, thus avoiding the monster Amemelet’s jaws. According to Cyril Aldred, one of the most important scholars of Amarnian period, the main reason for the sudden decline of this religion was the behaviour towards death and the cult of the dead (9). At that time this cult was not in keeping with the sensitivity of Egyptians who could not understand its content. Aldred adds that the priests of the dismissed cult of Amun were not the only ones who wanted to reintroduce the cult, but it was the entire population who wanted to go back to the past and to old traditions. So far, in brief, Amarnian religion’s content which we know from the Hymn to Aton whose text is carved on the rock of Eye’s grave in Amarna. However, Amarnian period is characterised not only by a new religion, but also by many other revolutionary innovations which involved the entire society. Amarnian art has its main feature in an extreme verism which sometimes reaches even the grotesque. The art belonging to this period is very different from the Egyptian art which preceded and followed it. Ancient Egyptian images with war scenes of kings killing enemies and taking prisoners are usually characterised by stateliness and solemnity, whereas in Amarnian art scenes of peace and calm, with nature, animals and birds are the most represented, and in no case war is portrayed. Even writing underwent a sort of revolution. Since it was necessary for people to undestand the exact meaning of the Holy Scriptures, the king introduced ordinary language into hieroglyphics (10). In ancient Egypt language used in hieroglyphics belonged to previous times, therefore hieroglyphics written during the 18th dynasty presented the dead language of the 12th dynasty, which dated back to many centuries before. Such a revolution may be compared to the introduction of various languages, instead of Latin, in the catholic liturgy with the 2nd Vatican Council. There was a great change also in fashion, both for men and women. Men wore short-skirts longer than the traditional knee-length skirts. Women, who commonly wore full, opened in front, transparent and pleated skirts, during the 18th and 19th dynasties chose long and very tight skirts, probably in order to move gracefully when advancing with little steps. The technique of building was even innovative and revolutionary.  In ancient Egypt only the royal palaces and funerary urns were stone buildings, the other hauses were put up with mud. and cut up strow bricks sun dried. This building methods always dominated during the plurimillenary Egyptian civilization before and after the Amarnian period. For this reason we have no traces of archeological finds concerning the houses. The only exception is Akhetaton (Tell el-Amarna) or Sesebi on the border between the middle and lower Sudanese Nubia (Egyptian Kush). Amunhotep IV founded this boundary town, with a road linking the two cities Soleb and Sesebi in order to avoid the large bight of the Nile in those places.  In conclusion, Amarnian period was really revolutionary in almost all fileds, utterly going against the mentality and the way of living typical of the time. Most historians agree in considering Amenophi IV a great revolutionary and a great forerunner not in terms of centuries but rather of millennia. He was certainly a man who was not understood by his contemporaries because his revolutionary ideas, in all fields, did not absolutely belong to his time. On the contrary, he might definitely belong to our age or even, in some regards, to our century. Aldred, Weigall, Redford, Silverberg and others consider him the first great character of history. Some verses in the Hymn to Aton are strikingly similar to the Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. Some scholars consider Amenophi also the first great pacifist and ecologist of history, since he lived more than 2500 years before St. Francis. Israeli religion too is monotheist as the only god is Yahweh. It has a trascendent content as well, in that Yahweh shows himself to Israel through those prophets who do not acquire divine powers but who simply bear the divine message to the Chosen People. The concept of territoriality is what makes Israeli religion remarkably different from Amarnian religion: it is a sectorial religion, in other words Yahweh is the god of Israeli sons whereas the other populations are considered enemies that must be fought even with the sword when it becomes necessary. Thus Israeli religion, in certain circumstance, allows not only the use of the force and of the violence, but it is also vindictive since Yahweh punishes even those those Israeli sons who do not comply with his Verb. Nevertheless, beyond these differences, it has been found that some passages of the Holy Scriptures are substantially similar to the above mentioned Hymn to Aton (11). The analysis which could lead scholars to determine the probable period during which Israel left polytheism for embracing monotheism, is extremely difficult because sure historical sources on this matter do not exist. The only elements – or nearly the only ones – to be taken into account are the Holy Scriptures. The same difficulties arise in defining a reliable historical period during which patriarchs lived. According to some scholars, Ur-Kasdim Abraham may be dated back to 1700-1900 B.C., whereas in others’ opinion he might even go back to the year 2500 before the Vulgar age (12). On the other hand, Stade and Wellhausen consider that patriarchs lived later than Moses (13). According to them the age of patriarchs was moved to a previous date by the Pentautech in order to give an organic unity to Israeli historical events. R. Kittel, T.H. Robinson, A. Alt, J. Bright, A. Parrot and others believe that the period preceding Moses is the most likely. In brief scholars, in supposing with great probability that patriarch hisotircally existed (14), indicate their historical period around the 13th – 14th century (15), that is to say during a very near age, almost contemporary, to Amarnian period.

1 – Without considering the monotheism of Jahweh, which will be discussed later, some authors think that Zoroastrianism is the oldest monotheist religion in the world (cf. Philipp Smith, The History of  ancient Eastern, London  1870 – first ed.) The historical period of Zoroaster is extremely foggy and very difficult to determine. Although he lived previously (some even think of him as a mythical figure) and, according to Zend-Avesta, from the beginning Dewa (the god) was perhaps the only god, the concept of monotheism remained at an embryonic state because that religion was moulded by the Magi of Media. They changed Dewa from the only primordial god into a god superior to the others (the concept of pantheism). For this reason Zoroastrianism can be considered one of  polytheist religions.

2 – The combination of different gods can also be found in other religious cults of that period, notably within the Hittite polytheist cult (cf. Johannes Lehmann, Die Hethiter, Wien, 1975.

3 – Still nowadays some scholars consider Amarnian religion a materialistic creed because the god is identified in a solar disc. The main supporter of this thesis was at the beginning of the present century James Henry Breasted (History of Egypt, London U.K., 1906). The recent archaeological discoveries have contributed to weaken this theory.

4 – The word Akh is represented by the ibis, a bird with a brilliant plumage. This symbol better renders the meaning of this word which assumes different aspects according to the complex way hieroglyphics are translated. Akh means “bright being”, “useful being”, but all its other meanings have the common element of resurrection.  In this case it means the resurrection of Aton in the person of the king.

5 – The concept of divine trinity was known in Mesopotamia since the Hammurabi period, when the two big trinities of Anu, Enlil and Ea and also Sin, Sciamash and Ishtar already existed.

6 – From the Hymn to Aton: “…the lands of Syria and of Nubia and the land of Egypt: to each of them you have given a precise place and you give to everybody according to their needs. To everybody his own part…”. It appears clear the concept of equality of all men before God.

7 – First Christianity was shaped by Hebraism’s principles and therefore the new religion had to be the religion only of the Jewish. It seems that it was also Peter’s way of intending religion. It was certainly the disciple Paolo who gave it a decisive turn towards universality, coming therefore in conflict with Peter (cf. Manlio Simonetti, Roma e l’Italia – Radices Imperii, Milano 1990 pag. 232). In its abstractness, also the other derived religion, i.e. Islamism, is a universal religion but not in practice, because it creates a sharp separatism between believers and infidels. The latter will have to be won and converted through the Jiad.

8 – According to an Amnesty International report, after 3500 years capital punishment is still carried out in two thirds of the world. Every year about 9.000 death penalties, among which 5.000 only in China, occur.

9 – C. Aldred, Akhenaten, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London U.K., 1968. A similar idea is expressed by A. Piankoff, Les grandes compositions religieuses du Nouvel Empire, from the Bullettin de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1962, Norman Davies, Akhenaton at Thebes, JEA, 1909 and others.

10 – The interpretation of hieroglyphics is very complex since the various representations have at the same time a symbolic and phonetic value, or more simply a figurative value, depending on the cases. For a closer examination, cf. Alan H. Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar: Being an introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphics, London U.K., 1927 and Gustave Lefèbvre, Grammaire de l’egyptien classique, Cairo, 1940.

11 – See the Psalm 104 of the Holy Scriptures vv. 20-24: “When the night falls, all the wild beasts get out of the forest and all the lions, longing for their prey, ask their food to God. At the sunrise, they draw back…”. It is in contrast with the Hymn to Aton: “…Lions get out of their dens, snakes bite, darkness prevails over the silence, since the one who has created them has gone to rest in the West…”. There are other analogies also in vv. 27-30 of the same psalm. It appears clear the common matrix of both the passages It is difficult to date exactly the Holy Scriptures, but they are definitely more recent than Amarna’s events. Usually scholars agree in dating them back to the period between the 6th and the 9th century. They were probably the result of a series of historical events, traditions, etc., which accumulated during the centuries and which were assimilated mostly by the nearby populations, above all by those who exerted a particular influence in – broadly speaking – civilisation. The Sumerian-Babylonian matrix appears to be the most influential (the criticism on the famous Babel und Bibel, that made a great noise at the beginning of this century, is very significant). For further investigation cf. M. Liverani, Oriente Antico, Roma-Bari, 1991; G. Alstroem, Royal Administration and National Religion in Ancient Palestine, London U.K., 1982.

12 – According to P. Smith, op.cit., the period is the 18th century, whereas William Foxwell Albright thinks that it is likely to be around the 20th century (Albright W.F., From the stone age to Christianity, 2nd edition, Baltimore MD, 1946). Liverani stresses the fact that since the beginning and for a certain period, Jahweh was one of the many gods who were known among Israeli tribes in Western Asia (before the 13th century). It is epigraphically ascertained that Jahweh himself – as it was in use at that time – was associated to a goddess.

13 – Stade B., Geschischte des Volkes Israel, 1st ed. Berlin, 1889; Wellhausen J., Israelitische und Judische Geschichte, Berlin, 1958.

14 – Bright J., A History of Israel, Philadelphia PA, 1959; Parrot A., Abraham et son temps, Neuchatel CH, 1962; Alt A., Der Gott der Vater, Ein Betrag zur Vorgeschichte der israelitischen Religion, Muenchen DBR, 1959; Kittel R., Geschichte des Volkes Israel, Gotha, 1923; Robinson T. and Osterley W.O.E., A History of Israel, Oxford U.K., 1932. It is hardly necessary to mention that in its largest meaning, the term Patriarch should include not only the three patriarchs mentioned in the Old Greek Testament, but also those known as antediluvian and posdiluvian patriarchs. However, the present study has exclusively to do with the determination of the historical period related to the three patriarchs just referred to.

15 – Two authoritative scholars, O. Oissfeldt of the Martin Luther Universitatt in Halle Wittenderg DBR and H.J. Franken of Leiden ND Rijksuniversiteit, agree.