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Saturday, November 27, 2010

On The Origins of Monotheistic Religion

Religion in the ancient world has always been a source of interest for me. How people worshipped, what they worshipped, and why they moved away from these religions is akin to fascination in my opinion. How we got from there to here isn’t useless information to me. On the contrary, I believe it helps us to understand a lot of why we do the things we do today.

The concept of monotheistic religion especially piques my interest because it is so out of place among the plethora of other ancient beliefs. Like most people, I once thought – incorrectly – that the worship of one god started with Moses. Many years ago I read of an Egyptian pharaoh named Akhenaton, who was the father of King Tut, and then filed away this story in the annals of my mind, not to revisit it again until I recently began an exhaustive amount of research into how monotheism came about. The information I found during my reading astounded me, and also led me down a path I didn’t expect to find.

The pharaoh Akhenaton preceded Moses by almost a thousand years. What sets him apart from other kings of Egypt during this time in history is that he did something unheard of in antiquity. Akhenaton declared that the pantheon of Egyptian gods was all false idols and that there was only one god, whom he called the Aten. The Aten was a sun disk that Akhenaton believed was responsible for all life and even the earth itself. He abolished the old order of Egyptian religion and moved his capitol from its traditional city of Thebes to his own city; the first planned city in history, that we call Amarna.

Akhenaton reigned over Egypt for almost twenty years. Along with his wife, Nefertiti, he had many children, some by minor wives, and one of them Tutankhamen, would follow him to the throne. During the time of Akhenaton’s reign, the priests of the old Egyptian religion came to despise him. He had, quite effectively, put them out of work. By declaring the past religion to be false, Akhenaton also stripped the priests of the power and the authority that they commanded before the sweeping change he brought about. He was seen as a heretic and as the years passed a growing wave of dissatisfaction with his rule developed.

When Akhenaton died, no one is quite sure how, his son Tutankhamen became king and the priests moved quickly to have him restore the religion of his ancestors. With the worship of the old gods back in place, and the temples reopened, the priests set out to annihilate the memory of Akhenaton altogether. Amarna was deserted and anything having to do with the heretic king was either destroyed or buried in rubble. Tut didn’t do anything to stop this desecration of his father’s legacy either. Why, scholars still speculate.

As I found out more about Akhenaton, I became intrigued by the idea that an Egyptian pharaoh, coming from generations of kings who worshipped the gods of Egypt, who saw themselves as living gods, and who were seen as such by their subjects, would suddenly outlaw the beliefs that he was brought up with. It didn’t make sense. How could he risk the possible ramifications of such an action, not only to himself and to his family, but also to his kingdom? Hoping to find the answer, I kept reading.

History does not record why exactly Akhenaton did what he did. It does tell the story of how he loved his queen Nefertiti and how the two of them had a warm relationship with their children. For the first time in history, hieroglyphics show an Egyptian king spending much quality time with his family. All the austerity of the old order was gone and in its place was this pharaoh who seemed to embrace everything his forebears shunned.

Uncovered in the ruins at the ancient city of Amarna was a clue to the state of things in Akhenaton’s kingdom during his time on the throne. It was a mess, to be quite honest. He was ignoring matters of state in favor of philosophizing about the universe and The Aten and how man fit into the whole picture. His advisors and priests couldn’t have been happy with this either. Yet he was the king and no one was strong enough to oppose him; not even the priests of the old religion.

Among the tablets found at Amarna was a letter to Akhenaton from the kings of Canaan, who were under Egyptian rule at the time. They were begging him for help. Being attacked by nomadic peoples from the south who they called Habiru, they were pleading for troops and supplies to ward off the onslaught they were enduring. Oddly, Akhenaton did nothing. He simply wrote back asking them for more glassware for his dinner table.

Another mystery? Why would Akhenaton turn his back on his own subjects, leaving them to their fate at the hands of the Habiru? Why didn’t he send the requested troops and supplies? It makes no more sense than why he abolished the old Egyptian religion without a second thought.

I kept reading. Something I found in Akhenaton’s past waved a red flag at me. His grandfather was a man named Tuya. Tuya, it seems, was an oddity among the Egyptians. His mummy is in the Cairo museum and it bears distinctly Semitic characteristics. Also, his name sticks out like a sore thumb. Egyptian kings and nobles took their names and patterned them after the god who they most closely associated with. There is no god with a ‘ya’ in his name that I can find.

Which led me to wonder if Tuya might have indeed been of Semitic ancestry and the ‘ya’ at the end of his name was there to associate him with Yahweh? Yahweh is the name the ancient Hebrews gave to their god. Their one god. 

Wait a minute.

Akhenaton’s kings in Canaan were being attacked by a people they called Habiru. Habiru and Hebrew sound an awful lot alike. Plus the conquering of Canaan is well recorded in the Old Testament books of Joshua and Daniel.

Could Tuya be the reason Akhenaton did nothing when he was asked for help? Did he not care if his kings in Canaan were defeated by the Habiru because possibly these were his ancestral people? Could Akhenaton and Nefertiti have secretly been Habiru themselves, with Akhenaton descended from Tuya, an Egyptian man with distinctly Semitic features? If so, this could explain a lot of things.

Most importantly, it would explain why Akhenaton vanquished the old religion of Egypt in favor of the worship of one god. It would also explain why he did nothing to stop the Habiru from chasing the Egyptian subjects out of Canaan and into Egypt where they would have been suddenly in service to the Egyptians. Possibly leading down through time to when a Hebrew man named Moses (which is an Egyptian name no less) would confront the pharaoh Ramses, demanding the release of his people from bondage?

Of course this is all just a theory. Or is it?

In further reading, I discovered that Akhenaton had a scribe called Merari. Merari is a Hebrew name. In fact, the Merarites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Coincidence?

As of now there is no further solid archeological evidence that this is anything but a theory.

I knew that I couldn’t possibly the only person who ever noticed all this either. I did some more research and found this to be so as well. Until something is discovered to neatly tie all the pieces of this puzzle together, it will remain conjecture but it does lead one to wonder.

The origins of monotheistic religion look to be even more interesting than I first thought.

2 Comments:

Blogger Valerie said...

WOW, Carey! That is very, very interesting! I have never heard of any of this until now! Great stuff!!

November 28, 2010 at 7:22 AM  
Blogger Carey Parrish said...

Thanks, Val. I was so intrigued by this that I have contacted Professor Carol Fontaine with Andover Newton Theological School, and Professor Zahi Hawass, the curator of antiquities for Egypt, to find out what the accepted thoughts on this are.

November 28, 2010 at 8:04 AM  

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