This is Part 2 of 20 in a series about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In it we will explore the context of the book, specifically its relationship to the Egyptian culture of its day.
Click here to read the entire series.
As we said last week, I believe that properly understanding the Pentateuch requires understanding Moses’ cultural context. Moses was inspired by God to write the Pentateuch, but he still did so in his own voice and with his own cultural outlook. So if we wish to understand his context, we need to understand a bit about him, his era, his culture, and where he was raised.
Ancient Egypt – The Greatest Superpower in History
Ancient Egypt is famous for mummies and pyramids, the Nile and strange gods, hieroglyphics and pharaohs. It is undoubtedly the ancient society which most captivates our imagination today, filled with strange and exotic history. But what we often fail to realize is just how powerful ancient Egypt really was.
About 3100 BC, sometime after Noah but long before Abram rose to wealth in Ur, Egypt became a civilized society under the leadership of the first Pharaoh. The scope of their power is staggering.
America as a nation is 236 years old, and has been a major world power for roughly 100 years. U.S. Intelligence forces see us fading out of our role as a superpower sometime in the next 30-100 years; thus America’s time as a superpower will be somewhere between 250-300 years total. Egypt remained the largest superpower in the Mediterranean world for 2,700 years.
Let’s try to put that in perspective.
Try to think back to how long it has been since 688 BC. This is not long after the time of Solomon. Since that time, the Babylon Empire rose and fell. So did the Persian Empire. So did the Greek Empire. And the Roman Republic. And the Roman Empire. Then the Dark Ages came and went. The Holy Roman Empire rose and fell. The Reformation and Renaissance occurred. The Scientific Revolution happened. Europeans settled the new world. The Russian, French, Spanish, and British periods of colonial empires all came and went. America became independent, and had a civil war. America rose to power as WWI, WWII, and the Cold War came and passed.
The length of time from 688 BC until now…that is how long the Egyptian Empire lasted. All of those things I just mentioned happened within 2,700 years-—the lifetime of Ancient Egypt.
In the ancient world, Egypt was a superpower which lasted longer than the entire history of western civilization has lasted. Egypt rose to power not long after the end of the Stone Age, and remained in power until the time of Aristotle and western philosophy. Writing had barely been invented when they rose to power and people had just begun making metal weapons when the Egyptian superpower formed…and it remained in power through the entire Bronze Age and the entire Iron Age!
Let me put it another way: America would have to remain the only world superpower until the year AD 4,544 in order to match Egypt.
So we cannot underestimate the Egyptian reading of our Pentateuch. During nearly every event in the Pentateuch, and during all of the time it was written, Egypt was the most dominant power the world had ever known—-indeed, the only dominant and stable power that most of them knew. Egypt had a well-organized and efficient government, a writing system, stable irrigation, a powerful military, and massive wealth. It is critically important to read the books of Moses from his perspective, and his perspective is one in which Egypt is the de facto worldwide power.
The Egyptians are not just characters from a few chapters of the Pentateuch: they are the easel upon which Moses' entire picture is being painted.
Dating the Life of Moses
As you can imagine, such a long national history also means that the culture changed from time to time. So it is important that we know how to date the events of Moses’ life. There are many books and research papers dedicated to this, and I will not attempt to recreate them here. Suffice it to say that there are two general dates proposed, one of which is based upon what I see as relatively loose evidence and one of which is based upon strong evidence, so I will merely present the strong, earlier date.
1 Kings 6:1 tells us that 480 years from the Exodus is the fourth year of Solomon’s reign; thus we can place the Exodus at 1445 BC. This also fits with every bit of textual and historical evidence we have. Therefore we shall assume henceforth that Moses wrote the original Pentateuch sometime around 1450-1400 BC.
So what do we know about Egypt from this time? As you read the below, try to picture each scenario in your mind's eye, as this will be the backdrop of the Penateuch, and I will be referring to these as we go through our series.
The Culture of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus
Egypt was led by government whose king was called Pharaoh. Pharaoh was the commander-in-chief of the military as well as supreme ruler of the kingdom. Pharaohs were considered royal blood and the position was passed down from parent to child and often—-as with later European monarchies—-incest was used to ensure the purity of the bloodline.
Pharaoh had a chief administrative assistant called his Vizier, who managed the day-to-day administrative duties such as land surveys, tax collection, project management, and the like. Under this Vizier were 42 regional rulers called “nomes,” serving sort of like local governors. (This will become important later in Genesis, when we reach the story of Joseph.)
Each line of Pharaohs is called a Dynasty, and Egyptologists divide the long history of Egypt into its dynasties; thus when you hear of the “Eighteenth Dynasty,” this means it is the eighteenth family group to rule Egypt as Pharaoh. These dynasties often lasted longer than our entire nation’s history.
This length of rule obviously greatly changed the worldview of the Pharaohs as well as the people they ruled. Thutmose III, who I will propose in a few weeks to be the Pharaoh of the oppression at the beginning of Exodus, was the sixth Pharaoh of his dynasty (the same dynasty which included Tutankhamun and Nefertiti). This dynasty was in power longer than America has even existed. Try and imagine the impact that has on a person's worldview. Imagine if President George W. Bush was not only the President for 8 years in America, but the latest in a line of President Bushes going all the way back to the nation’s founding! Imagine if every single generation in the history of America had been underneath “President Bush”—-can you imagine how much we would simply accept that this is the way of life? And how often one of those from the family would be incompetent or cruel? And how entitled to leadership they would feel?
But while Pharaoh ruled in power, it was the Temple which served as the foundation of the economic strength of Egypt. Due to the complexity of hieroglyphics, only the priests and royalty could learn how to write. As you can imagine, this gave them immense power over the illiterate masses. So the Temple priests served as the kingdom’s scribes.
Not only was the Temple a house of worship, but it was also the storehouse for all grain. Egypt had a very carefully state-controlled economy: indeed, I would argue that this is the longest, most successful form of communism which ever existed. Grain was brought into the storehouses, and then each person was paid by the government in grain based upon their job. Information on pay rates is sketchy due to the many ages which have passed, and sources vary greatly. But it appears that the daily pay was something like 1 1/3 loaves of bread and a certain amount of beer for slave workers. Thus the slaves were receiving about 1500 calories per day from their bread pay and additional calories from the beer (which was very low alcohol content but high calorie). Obviously that is barely enough to live on, so they have no extra for trading for other goods or services. This in turn made the slaves (like the Hebrews) completely dependent upon their owners for all of their needs. Higher classes like craftsmen were much more highly compensated, on the scale of 38 loaves per day. Though they were technically paid in “loaves,” in reality the government did not bake the bread for them—they actually received the pay in grain, and had to bake it themselves. Archaeologists have discovered standard-sized jugs used to ensure everyone was getting a fair amount.
Prices of all goods were fixed by the government, so there was no price-gouging: a jar of milk would cost the same no matter where you bought it. Coins would not be around for another thousand years; until then they used standard weights of grain as their monetary system.
The farmers not only could not keep what they grew, but they also had to pay a tax on the salary they were paid. So they would take the grain they grew to the storehouses at the Temple, and be paid their monthly salary. Then, later, tax collectors would take a percentage of the grain that they were paid as a tax.
The lowest class in ancient Egypt, as in the rest of the ancient world, were the slaves. Slaves were provided daily food and lodging but had no freedom to own property or serve in the military or receive benefits. Often slavery was voluntary in the ancient world; they entered slavery for a period of time due to high debts. Indeed, often slavery was seen as preferable to starving as a free person. It was not at all uncommon for foreigners to come into Egypt and volunteer to be slaves in order to remove debts or gain consistent food. Also common was for conquered people to be brought in as slaves. Many of the impressive works of ancient Egypt (like pyramids) were built by slaves.
Just above the slaves were the daily laborers and farming class. This group worked on agriculture and could be reassigned as needed to construction projects as well. As mentioned, they did not keep what they produced, but were paid a state-controlled salary. Their salary was enough to live on, but they remained poor. Thus it was not uncommon for them to take off their clothing in situations where it might get dirty, and walk and work nearly completely nude.
The craftsmen and artisans formed the next class. They had shops in the Temple. Just as with the laborers, the proceeds of their earnings went into the government store-houses, and they were paid a salary of grain.
The upper classes were the scribes, priests, doctors, and engineers. They wore white linen to show that they did not work with their hands. They showed their status in art, jewelry, perfumes, and the like. Above the upper class was the nobility and royalty.
Everyone except the slaves were considered equal under the law, however, and all had the right to appeal to an audience with the Royal Vizier. (Again, this will become important context in one of our stories.) Slaves lacked this legal protection, although they were provided free medical care and were generally well-treated by their owners, due to the extreme expense. (For reference, purchasing a slave in this region was more expensive than buying a house, and five times as expensive as the annual cost of leasing a house.) Also, generally there were options for slaves to work off their debts and earn their freedom.
Both men and women could own and sell property, divorce and remarry, etc. In fact, other than the slavery, it was actually a fairly progressive, socialistic regime.
Family and Daily Life
Homes in Egypt were mud-brick to avoid the heat of the desert, and small. They had a kitchen with an open roof, a grindstone to turn their grain salaries into flour, and an oven for baking their bread. Egyptian wheat could be made into about 40 different kinds of bread and pastries, usually cooked without yeast in flat loaves and then having honey, milk, eggs, etc. added to it.
Walls were painted white and often had wall hangings. Poorer Egyptians slept on the floor, while the wealthier slept on raised beds. They used tables and chairs. Hygiene and appearance was very important. They bathed regularly and used soap and perfumes. The upper class wore wigs, jewels, and cosmetics.
Children were generally nude until age 12. At this point the males were circumcised as a rite of passage into adulthood, and showed that they were Egyptian citizens. Their heads were also shaved at this point. Fathers were providers and mothers were homemakers.
Entertainment consisted of music and dance (using lutes, bells, cymbals, and drums), board games, juggling, and sports. Food was mostly beer and bread, with some vegetables and fruits. Wine and meat were eaten only on feast days for the poor, but were fairly common among the upper classes. When they did have meat, it was fish, beef, or fowl grilled or stewed.
Religion and Cosmology
One of the ways the Egyptians retained power (much like the Roman Empire after them) was because they allowed quite a bit of variation in religious theology. Some people worshipped some gods, others worshipped other gods. There was no real agreed-upon creation history, and each region claimed that their particular local deity was really the most important part of the story. Generally it was a period of widespread religious tolerance—-to each his own.
Just as with the Roman Empire, however, the cult of the emperor was important. Pharaoh was seen not as a god per se, but as ruling by divine right. He was more than man but less than the gods. The best modern description I can think of is that he was viewed similarly to how Catholics view Mary: just as Catholics view Mary as as less than God but specially (immaculately) conceived to be a mediatrix between us and Him, so too did the Pharaoh fill a role mediating between the gods and man--and was therefore worthy of honor, worship, and praise.
The Egyptian religion was not really big on public worship or congregational meetings. They generally only worshipped publicly on feast days. Other devotions were private and involved sacrificing offerings to the gods to keep them satisfied and hold chaos at bay. Citizens often had private shrines in their homes and used magic amulets for protection.
The Egyptians saw humans as a combination of a body, a shadow, a soul, a life-force, and a name. The ultimate goal in the afterlife was to find and unite to your soul and life-force. All people were seen as living eternally and being judged in the afterlife to determine one’s eternal fate.
In all versions of Egyptian religion, the universe existed before the gods or man. The universe was always here: there was no beginning. There was a primordial ocean of chaos that pre-existed creation, and at some point an island arose and a god on that island created the universe. (Who the creator was depended upon the region of the country you were from.) One or more gods spontaneously generate and, through a combination of sex and violence, create the world as we know it. Each part of nature either was a god or was ruled by gods—-for example, the earth was the god Geb, the sky was the goddess Nut, and Shu, the god of air, stood between them. The sun was a god, Ra, who traveled across the underside of the sky during daytime.
The Pharaoh was the intermediary between the gods and man, and worshipping at the temple and offering regular sacrifices was what kept the world orderly and peaceful.
This was the world that Moses entered into, and when he is inspired by God to record the things he has been told in Genesis, and the things he experiences in Exodus-Deuteronomy, the fingerprints of ancient Egypt are all over it. In order to properly understand these texts, you must properly understand Egypt.
Join us next week as we start off our text with a bang…a rather big bang, in fact.