Comparison Between Egyptian Mythology and Jewish
Thoughts on returning from Egypt 2003
- Temples are constructed with an ascending floor and descending ceiling to give the feeling of heaven and earth joining at a focal point , the inner chamber.
There was a central axis by which one could peer from the farthest outer room into the inner most chamber (like Herod's Temple). Thus, a temple is a the ideal place for a god to meet Earth. It is a sort of pyramid layed on its side.
- Columns represent reeds, palm trees and the general prosperity of nature. The temple is also
a source of prosperity and therefore filled with columns. Not necessarily for
- The inner chamber has an alter where a sacrifice is placed in front of the idol. It is hoped the god is
thereby tempted to enter the idol to eat the offering.
The god eats the essence of the offering leaving the outer shell for the priest. In Judaism the part for G-d is burnt. This maybe be in order to prevent
one trying to feed a real idol. Priests also eat parts.
- Idol is a place for a god to reside, like Temple in Jerusalem; thus our system differs mainly in
that it requires centralized worship. This created a more
politically unified religion. By placing
food before the idol it was hope the god would choose to dwell in the idol to eat the food. He was tempted
into the idol. The idol was made to resemble or symbolize the god so that
he would view the idol as similar to him and therefore hospitable and would be further inclined to inhabit the idol. Once in the idol, the god was trapped at least for a time and could be controlled in a magic
fashion, doing the will of the priest.
The material of the idol was never worshiped. The Bible is against this kind of amoral sympathetic magic. It instead promotes success based
on moral behavior and allegiance.
- Creation myth : Bird flies over water to find land.[like Noah's dove.] The son of the earth-god Geb and the sky-goddess Nut, Osiris is credited with teaching the skills of agriculture to the Egyptians. Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth. Osiris and his sister Isis loved each other and Seth was jealous.
[Like medrash that Cain and Able fought over Eve.] In the Bible the women are noticeably absent from the
story of creation. This is perhaps in order to deny this Egyptian myth, or perhaps for political reasons
relating to male exclusivity in the priesthood. In the biblical story itself we find "And Cain spoke to his brother Abel. And it was that they were in the field and Cain rose up on Abel his brother and killed him. " The commentators note that the conversation is cut short. We are not told of what they spoke.
Perhaps the subject was their sister's love and was left out to deny the Egyptian account. In fact in our story, Cain and Able have no sisters. Strangely,
Cain marries someone later in the story. Probably the Bible
removed the women to eliminate women from the priesthood. Female priests had been
used in fertility ceremonies with local kings. It was either for political reasons (male domination) or ethical ones that
woman were removed from the rite. After Osiris' death, Isis recovered the 14 (or 42) scattered parts of his dismembered body and restored him to life. Osiris, however, remained in the underworld as king, while his posthumous son Horus (conceived with Isis) became king of the living. This myth was favored by Ptolemy since
he too married his sister.
Isis and her sister Naphthas hide the child Horus in reeds to prevent Seth from finding him. [Like Yochevet and Miriam hiding Moses] Seth is the Egyptian god of chaos who embodied the principle of hostility - he was the adversary (and brother) of the god Osiris.
- Dead people are represented as having one leg, like a bound mummy. For example, Osiris is depicted with one leg (or rather two legs bound together), stiff like a mummy. This is similar to Jewish idea of angels
having one leg.
During kiddusha Jews stand with their legs together to
immitate the angels who also say kiddusha. They are pretending to have only one leg,
or at least a stiff, bound together leg like a mummy.
Angels are said to have no knees. One who has no knees, cannot
walk, i.e. can progress. Men, however, do progress in life. Angels
are perfect from their creation and do not progress. Having no knees and
having one leg symbolize the same thing, a lack in the
the ability or need to progress.
This is true of man in the afterlife and of angels. It source is in the
physical form of a man after being embalmed.
The afterlife is a place of closeness with the gods and of greater wisdom. Thus
oneleggedness signifies both the afterlife and greater wisdom
and closeness to the god. All this applies to the Jewish
conception of angels as well.
- In Egyptian paintings, the snake is often depicted with legs and wings. He leads (or carries on his back) men to the underworld. He is source of wisdom; the underworld is a place of true wisdom and it is his realm. He spits venom
which is a life and a death force.
He is equated with the mail organ which also "spits" and gives life. This relates to Eve being tempted by a snake and gaining wisdom. Also explains that snake used to have legs.
It seems the Bible wants to refute/deny the conception of a positive worship-able snake. It turns the snake into a more evil form. It becomes, perhaps
unwittingly, the source of man's downfall, that which removed man from the
idylic realm of Eden and brought him away from the true wisdom which is
to serve G-d.
Though, in the creation story, the snake does retain his role of imparting
wisdom. Moreover, in the desert Moses
uses the snakes as a positive healing force. A later king destroys Moses' snake in fear it
would be worshiped as an idol.
- Egyptians probably considered snakes as knowing the way to the underworld
because when one sees a snake, seemingly without moving, it instantly
dissapears even while one is looking at it.
It is as though he vanishes into a secret hole in the ground, into another
In the Biblical story the snake leads Eve into the
underworld since he is the cause of her ultimate death and entry into the next
world. Thus this ancient Egyptian notion is preserved in the Bible.
- Snakes are the only one legged animal. Perhaps this is the origin of
the connection between snakes and the afterworld.
- The Jewish story that the first man Adam had scales for skin may indicate that
he was snake-like. Adam saw his body as if it were his cloths because he identified
himself with his soul. His
body was a covering for his soul. Snakes shed their skin. They are therefore an animal
which graphically represents the idea of ones body actually being a clothing
on ones true self. A snake and his skin are two separate entities. Therefore,
Adam's body was compared to the skin of a snake to explain his nakedness before
- Hathor the god of cow and laughter (cows were a source of prosperity), was
a very popular god. Golden calf was inspired by it. Kings (Pharaohs) were depicted sucking from
cow to show they were divinely approved.
- Hebrew word for cow is para. Two letter base root is p-r. Pharaoh comes from this word. So does fruit "pri" in Hebrew. so does Joseph's son Ephraim, and
boss Potifar. It means fruitfulness and power. Both things the cow represents.
In Ezekiel's vision the cow is the king of the domestic animals. (lion king of wild animals, Eagle king of birds, and man king of all creation.)
- Lake of purity was situated next to temple to allow priest to bath to purify self before each sacrifice. like Yom Kippur service. There were mikvaot and a laver in Herod's Temple.
- I believe the priest would wear the mask of the god he was serving. Paintings in the tombs
of the kings depict men with the head of various animals. The graphic depiction
seems to be of a real man wearing a mask, and not of a fantastical man with
the head of an animal. The priest was
representing the god on earth. He was infused with powers of the god
when he wore his mask. Similar to tefillin (which have the hair of a calf in them and resemble a cows horns)
and to priestly parting of hands in
birchat cohanim, the cohen "splits his hooves" like the cow.
- This also explains why Jeroboam made a golden
cow to take religious center away from Jerusalem.
The cow was the popular god of the region. Also idol worship in general
implies a decentralization of religion, since there can be many idols of the same
god and he can reside in each person's house. I distinguish between idolatry
and polytheism. One can be either without being the other.
- I think that originally in Egypt there was a less central worship. Then
there was some kind of institutionalization of relgion and the creation
of an institutionilized priesthood, complete with schools and
The religion was more central in the sense that each town had one place to
worship and its priest, but it was not truly central.
There were many places of worship, there were many gods, it was a
grassroots religion backed by years of cultural indoctrination.
Then one Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV-better known as Akhenaten the monotheist came along.
( See touregypt for more about him.)
He wanted political control of religion, so he forbid any worship other
than that of the sun god. He was the high priest. He got rid of other priests.
Then his son, Tutankhaten, a.k.a. Tutankhamun, a.k.a. King Tut went back to the
old ways, probably because this
was the deep desire of the people. the Jews probably had decentralized
worship at an early stage. This appealed also to their deep sensibilities.
The forefathers worshiped at all kinds of places in all kinds of ways.
They were independent of the high priest Avimelech.
But the Torah is aimed at centralizing things, perhaps to bring politcal unity.
After all, the people faced many enemies. They must unite behind one banner if they
ere to keep control of the land of Israel.
The Judges period still lacked centralization, but David did
centralize things a bit. The people revolted and the northern kingdom
has several (2) temples. It worships the calf. This is kind of a similar story
to what happened in Egypt. History repeats itself. The Korach story can
be understood in this context. It is a story of the rebel demanding
egalitarian , decentralized worship, and G-d telling him, forget it.
A pretty good lesson for the pro-centralization period. So, I
would not say there was a historical development in the
early Israelite period regarding centralization of the religion.
It was not first one and then the other,
but rather there was a constant battle, a give and take between political
needs for central authority and the peoples long felt need for local worship.
( Another example is Shilo. It seems Shilo was basically left alone; no one
visited it. Channa was special because she would go every year, not even three
times a year, just every year. So centralization never really was
popular.) It was not until the Second Temple period that centralized worship
was universaly supported. Perhaps teh Babylonian exile finally weened
the Jews of their Egyptian influences. Did it replace them with Babylonian
- The gradual development of Pyramids: Graves would be dug up by hungry
Jackals. This seemed a disgrace to the Egyptians.
Thus Egyptians began to be obsessed with preventing the jackal from eating their dead.
They started covering the grave with a large square rock to keep the jackal away. After some time, one
pharaoh decided to put smaller and smaller stones above the one stone. Thus a stepped pyramid.
Therefore pyramids have square not
triangular bases. In the large pyramids the grave is carved deep into the bedrock beneath the pyramid.
- The Jackal became the symbol of the underworld since he seemed so interested in corpses
(in reality he was merely hungry). He is said to eat the heart of anyone not deserving
entry into the afterworld.
- A boat brought people to after world because boat was only means of transport they knew.
Perhaps they had never reached the source of the Nile and so considered that place
to be the after-world, or Eden. Note that Biblical Eden is the source of several rivers.
The land of Israel has very few flowing rivers and the Jordan is not mysterious, both its end and beginning are easily discernible. By and large boat travel is non-existent in Israel.
The biblical association of Eden with the source of rivers seems to flow from a
Egyptian river based culture or a Babylonian one. In general it seems that albeit
Biblical law and Myth seems generally to be based on Babylonian law and myth, Biblical rite
is based on an Egyptian model. Let us not forget that these two peoples were the main
and only two powers of Biblical times. Thus, Biblical Judaism may be said to be Egyptian rite with
Babylonian laws and morals.
- The burial of Pharaoh's innards in [bottles placed in] a gold-covered box, which is carried by
poles is conspicuously like the Ark. Even more like the Ark is the throne in which the king is carried
parade style through the streets. The Israelites carry the Law in such a way; they are showing that
their king is the Law. Abba Eban sees the Jewish concept of a singular G-d/King as derived
from Babylonian civic kings who created laws which bound their citizenry. When the Hebrews left these
city-states they brought with them their law but not their king. Thus they conceived of a invisible
to be the source of their law. This law is therefore binding even outside the city, even in the roamings
of the shepherds. This concept is aptly symbolized by the empty (or at least empty of any
personage) throne the Hebrews carry.
Some other thoughts about modern Egypt
- Egypt today has a culture, but lacks any signs of civilization.
Civilization means order out of chaos.
Perhaps centuries of flood washing away all refuse
and construction has forever instilled within Egyptians a disregard for
- The Egyptians have a highly filtered view of history. In their view,
Israel has been the aggressor in '56 and '67 , aiming at stealing the Sinai.
The peace was the forcing of Israel to accept Egyptian right to Sinai.
Thus the belligerent Israel was tamed by Sadat, though it still vents belligerence
toward the Palestinians.
The only things which are not distorted are simple facts: there was a war, Israel took land
there was a peace. The reasons for the war, the causes, the aims, all this will be lost in
the translation. But the facts have a certain power. Thus the only
thing which will influence Arab sentiment at large is fact. If there is a peace. If there is a victory.
If Israel hold land for a hundred years, that means something.
But as for justify a war, there is no point in attempting this,
except maybe to the U.S. We can fight with or without justification. Either way
the Arabs will see it as unjustified. So too retreat or peace is weakness.
It will not be seen in the context of good will. But peace itself is also a fact, and
the longer it lasts the more it defines Israel as a partner in the Arab world.
- Having traveled throught El-Arish on the way to Israel, I must confess that
El-Arish seems from a geographical point of view to be part of Israel. The
whole Sinai is basically sand, as opposed to the Negev which has trees and small plants
but reaching El-Arish which is situated at the mouth of a major wadi, where there
seems to be some natural well-water, a kind of oasis, one is struck
by the similarity to Israeli floral life. At least plant life
seems to be increasing from this point onward. There are fields of date trees and general
Also there are houses built with Jerusalem stone, perhaps a legacy of the period of
Israeli control. ( The only other remnant of an Israeli presence I could see
was several orange, rusting bus shelters circa 1976. It seems the Sinai
now lacks any regular bus service, but the old Israeli bus stops are
left there to rust, or perhaps as a reminder of a more well arranged time.)
The town itself has charm. In the western part of the town the road
is closer to the sea and there is a single row of modest but comfortable
houses lining the beach, lying between the road and the beach. What
a nice place to live. Then, as one travels eastward, the road gets further from the shoreline
and one finds oneself in a small city center with several narrow roads
leading out in all directions. There was even a policeman directing traffic.
All in all it was quaint, at least by Egyptian standards. One has to ignore
the ubiquitous rubish and building materials and other mess.
In any case, El-Arish is proposed by some as the Biblical Nahal Mitzraim, or
Egyptian Wadi which the Bible considers the southeastern Israeli border.
This is also supported by historical records from Pharonic times that El-Arish was considered the
beginnning of Israel, or at least the end of the Egyptian land. It certainly is the end of the
Sinai desert which was probably a kind of no-man's land, or nomad's land.
So for geographical, Biblical and historical reasons, it would appear El-Arish is
Israeli's border town.
other observations :
- The emphasis on resurrection [after all, the sun reappears, why not man ? ] - P.D.
- The multicolored short kilted garment with various marks of rank resembles priestly clothing and
tzitzit. - P.D.
- The Jewish (Babylonian) prohibition against incest seems in stark contrast to
Egyptian customs. - P.D.
- The procession through doors [pylons]; through a court; into an inner place visited only by
the High Priest reminds one of the tabernacle: of the Temple. - P.D.
- The explosive use of hieroglyphics [most of which are naturalistic images], covering everything in
sight, is countervailed by the Biblical proscription of images [very. UN-Egyptian]. - P.D.
the "monotheist" sun-worshiping pharaoh encouraged naturalistic hieroglyphics while at the same
time discouraged mythic hieroglyphics. This was obviously in order to eliminate or at least diminish
the belief in the various gods of these myths. Out of sight, out of mind. After all, all the stories of
other gods contradict his notion of one god. His son god was an effort to take power from the various high
priests and take sole authority. The Bible seems to even more strictly prohibit image creation, perhaps
for the same reason, to remove any lingering belief in false mythology, to encourage belief in the
Torah G-d, and to unite the people.
- The Egyptians practiced circumcision (and still do today in Egypt, but at birth, not at 13).
- Preservation of corpse contrasts with our preference for disintegration. - P.D.
- There were Jewish customs to be buried with lye to speed the decay process.
- The Jewish belief in resurrection closely resembles the Egyptian one.
- King Tut's head-mask is gold and blue. Torah speaks of decorating tabernacle with gold and lapis
[blue]. - P.D.
- In general, the priests wore the same colors as required in Biblical law.
- The ancient Egyptians believed in Kai, the force of life that the recently
popular interior design theory fung-shway is based on. They had coffins the inside panels
of which were
painted with doors and windows for the Kai to go out. Perhaps all the false doors that
were put in tombs were not just to fool robbers but were to let life forces flow in and out,
to help give life to the dead.
Also, the real tomb was often behind such a false door. Perhaps the dead man could
walk through these carved doors just as the Kai could pass through them. In a sense,
the door was a special door which kept the living out, but let the dead through.
Modern fung-shway is based on this idolotrous practice.
See www.reshafim.org.il for
a good explanation of Egyptian Mythology.
© Nachum Danzig