The Central Manifestation of Paganism: The Egyptians, Canaanites and the radical Hebrews
An exploration into the common links of ancient paganism will naturally unearth similarities between all participating cultures despite separation of time and place. For instance, the connections in religious worship between the ancient Egyptians, Canaanites (which we will both be studying) will show how both people groups, despite having different customs, language, religious expression, ruling worldviews, and so on, may actually have more in common than the regular person on the street may perceive. This commonality which I seek to open exists in the religious expression of the worship of nature which therefore rules and dominates that particular society’s life and thus controls their direction, decisions, governing bodies, military actions, agrarian pursuits, and the list continues. Let’s just say in simpler terms, “What you truly believe in will guide and dominate how you live, whether for good or for evil.”
One may say that paganism is something of days where ignorance was rampant, superstition ruled, and people were uneducated neanderthals, prone to believe anything and easily duped by strange, wild, interpretations of nature. Well, the apple does not fall far from the tree. As it states in the Christian scriptures of the Bible (New Testament) in Romans 1:24-25, that because of man’s wickedness God gave them to the “lusts of their hearts”, which interestingly enough it states in verse 25, “who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”
In this recent year, the practice of Druidism has become an official religion in the United Kingdom as it has well passed the minimum 10,000 adherents a faith needs to be recognized as a viable religion. On the other hand, Witchcraft/Wicca has become more popular as an umbrella based practice that views itself as connecting with and worshiping nature and the world. Environmentalists call the earth, “Gaia the mother goddess of the earth”, people flock to New Age expression to connect with nature (believing God or a great spirit, is in everything), ecologists place humanity on the same scale as animals (even saying humans are less of a concern), and now there are millions throughout the globe who demand to be called, “Neo-pagans” (as if what they believe is any real difference then the thousands of years of pagan practice) and that they are a true form of humanity and represent progressive human needs. This bunch believes that they alone can purify the world, cast off the chains of bondage (which is Christianity/Judaism or simply monotheism) and purport themselves as the true shepherds of nature, the animal kingdom, and guardians. So, has anything really changed? We may not be wearing toga’s, or embalming our dead and locking them in pyramids with mummified felines and alligators, but we are not that much different. So, let us first go back in time to the age of the ancient Egyptians.
Part One: Ancient Egypt (3150-30 B.C.E) Date is based on estimate of the ruling dynasties to the end of the Ptolemies before coming under Roman rule.
In the Hebrew TaNaK (Old Testament), a phenomenal story unfolds in the Torah (second book of Moses which is called, Exodus) where we see a Hebrew man ordained by God through a series of events named Moses. Ultimately, God charges Moses with the task to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt and demand that the Hebrew slaves be set free, which Moses is able to do with the assistance of his spokesman, Aaron.
In an epic showdown, Moses departs from the land of Midian and travels to his home in Egypt where he declares to Pharaoh for the enslaved and oppressed Hebrews to be released to go out into the wilderness and make a sacrifice to their God. This was naturally an affront to Pharaoh who would have viewed himself as god and who was part of a society which worshiped what they could see, namely nature. To believe that gods or spirits lived in living things (whether animal or plant or natural wonder) was the norm and which went contrary to a belief in one monotheistic God who was invisible and had selected a certain people as His own. When Pharaoh objected to Moses’ demand and refused, we see God send a series of ten deadly plagues (Exodus 7-12) through the actions of Moses to torment the people of Egypt until Pharaoh relinquished control over the slaves and allows them to leave. Now, to someone who is unfamiliar with the purpose of the plagues, they may be surprised to discover that the particular plagues were not chosen by mere chance. It was not like God had a fascination to torment people with frogs and insects because those were the creepier options, no, the plagues we read about that judged the land were precisely directed at the Egyptian’s pagan lifestyle and their elevation of nature and creatures over the Creator. It was God showing to them that their gods were nothing and powerless under His divine authority which was true power and fulfillment. Let’s take a closer look at these plagues and the gods that they defied.
1. Water turns to blood (Exodus 7:14-25) The water of the Nile turned to blood which corresponded to Hapi, the Egyptian god of the Nile. This plague would have devastated the agrarian aspect of Egypt in particular as the silt from the Nile enriches the fertile land for farming around the Nile. Along with the destruction of the farm land, the fish and any wildlife would have also died causing a catastrophe. However, Pharaoh would not so easily yield to the God of the Hebrews as he would cast his country and empire into such a dismal and terrible state until he would be brought to his knees. Following the powerful plague of the Nile, the priests of Pharaoh were able to duplicate this plague and the Pharaoh did not listen to Moses’ demands.
2. Plague of Frogs (Exodus 8:1-15) The outbreak of frogs that tormented the land and caused suffering corresponded to Heket, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, water, and renewal who is pictured with a human body and frog head. The priests of Pharaoh were able to also bring up frogs but only Moses was able to make them go away. One can just imagine how the land would have reeked from the piles of dead frogs and how sickness easily could have broken out.
3. Plague of Lice (Exodus 8:16-19) The outbreak of the lice which came from the dust of the earth was an attack against the Egyptian god, Geb, who was seen as the master of the earth. This interesting correlation also can be seen in the creation of man from the dust of the earth in Genesis, but in this case it was the plague that was a torment to man. The priests of Pharaoh are unable to content with this power and are humiliated as both man and beast suffer.
4. Plague of Flies (Exodus 8:20-31) The plague of the swarms of flies was a direct confrontation against Khepri, who was seen as the Egyptian god of rebirth, creation, and movement of the sun and was pictured with a human body and the head of a fly. This plague now only affects the Egyptians leaving the Hebrews (living in the land of Goshen) unscathed. It also elevates the plagues to causing destruction and not just discomfort as did the earlier ones. We see Pharaoh attempt to negotiate with Moses on his terms about the Hebrew’s leaving and when the plague ceases Pharaoh returns to worshiping his Egyptian gods.
5. Plague of Pestilence (Exodus 9:1-7) The plague of pestilence attacks cattle and livestock alike, but great death is noticed among the herds of cattle more than anything and this is a front against the Egyptian goddess, Hathor who is seen to be the goddess of love and protection. The interesting thing about, Hathor is that she is pictured with a cow’s head and therefore represented directly the cattle, which was a main commodity of Egypt which would have affected military, transport, economic, and agricultural pursuits and lifestyle. Plain and simple, it would have been devastating to Egypt, but nevertheless, Pharaoh continued to be faithful to his gods and goddesses and refused to acknowledge the one and true God or give in to Moses and let the Hebrews leave.
6. Plague of Boils and Sores (Exodus 9:8-12) The horrible plague of boils was a direct attack against the Egyptian deity of Isis who was believed to be the goddess of medicine and peace. This was the first plague which we see directly affect the Egyptians physically and ironically enough it was a plague of great agony and discomfort to people’s health which revealed that a goddess such as Isis (who was a deity of medicine) ironically was powerless to do anything to relieve the misery of her faithful adherents. As well, this particular plague sent a strong and firm message to the Egyptians who were regarded as a very clean and hygienic people who this plague would naturally pronounce them as unclean and marred by the filth of their sores. One again, the Hebrews are unscathed by such a disease stricken plague and God shows that this is a personal judgment and vendetta against the people who are enslaving His people and are bound in the darkness of pagan idolatry. We also see a division between Pharaoh and the priests as the priests are unable to do anything to counter act the plague and therefore are removed from the scene completely and unable to even be in the presence of the king.
7. Plague of Hail and Fire (Exodus 9:13-35) The plague of hail and fire once again is a direct correlation to assaulting another Egyptian deity known as Nut who is the goddess of the sky. This literally shows the thing that was being worshiped, the sky, had become the enemy of the people as a firestorm rained down upon the land destroying the Egyptian crops. The crops ruined in the account were flax and barley, which would have been ripening in the fields at the time and ready for harvest. The interesting thing about this punishment is that the Egyptians did not eat these grains but used them in the process of clothing and libations for ceremonial temple practices. God was sending a message to the Egyptians but was merciful at the same time because He spared their fields of wheat (which was a main food source) as God was giving the Egyptians another chance. This entire plague, like all the ones before and after, were signs pointing to the one, true, God and that He alone was the God over the earth and the heavens and that He alone was God and not the gods and goddesses of the Egyptians.
8. Plague of Locusts (Exodus 10:1-20) The eighth plague was a devastating one that followed the hail and fire and this one was a result from Pharaoh hardening his heart and refusing to acknowledge the God of the Hebrews, and this plague was swarms of locusts (grasshoppers) in the billions. This plague was a direct attack against the Egyptian god of storms and disorder, Seth. This plague would devastate the country, destroying fields and tormenting everyone in its path. Like locusts do, they fly through fields, jumping upon each other and clinging to stalks of vegetation, devouring anything in their path. Their swarms can sometimes be so thick they blot out the sun and the beating of their wings can be so loud and terrifying it has been known to drive animals crazy with fear. Even today, swarms of locust are a huge problem. However, in the case of the plagues, God sent these locust by divine judgment to devastate the country and bring it to its knees. Yet, still Pharaoh would not listen.
9. Plague of Darkness (Exodus 10:21-29) One of the most widely known Egyptian gods, even today, was the god Ra who was the sun-god. Therefore, the plague of complete and utter darkness was a direct sign to the Egyptians that the God of the Hebrews was ultimate and was the one really in control, even over the sun.We see the Egyptians overcome by fear that is ripe within the land, and it being a time of terror. To the Egyptians, the essence and symbol of darkness was that of death, judgment and hopelessness. Therefore, with the sun being blotted out for three days it showed that the God which Moses spoke on behalf of, was ruler over life and death, a startling reality for the Egyptians who saw these attributes in Ra. However, Pharaoh did not relent and we move to the tenth and most terrible plague.
10. Plague of the Death of the Firstborn (Exodus 11-12:1-30) The final plague is an interesting one for it is directed at one type of person, the Firstborn. In ancient times the firstborn was the one who would inherit the family estate, blessings, and would be the leader of the house. When the Angel of the Lord passed through Egypt and killed the firstborn this was a devastating and crippling blow to Egypt. However, perhaps the most crippling blow was upon the house of Pharaoh himself, who his own child and firstborn died, and many scholars believe that he himself must have had an elder brother who did not inherit the throne (because of a handicap) and that he would have died and not the Pharaoh we read about. This would also explain why the Pharaoh in the Biblical account did not die from a plague that covered the entire land. Yet, the death of the firstborn in the house of Pharaoh was also significant mainly because Pharaoh was believed to be god on earth and believed to be the greatest of all gods, in fact the son of Ra manifest in the flesh. It was only after the death of the firstborn that Pharaoh relented and let the Hebrews go, yet we see further on in the account that Pharaoh’s pride would not end here but in the Red Sea after his entire army and himself had been drowned.
Conclusion of the Egyptians
Even after the terrible destruction caused by the plagues and the flight of the Jewish people from their bondage in the Exodus, we still see a hardening of the heart of ancient Egypt and the refusal to change. Pagan life around the Nile would continue as Pharaoh’s like Merneptah and Ramses III would reign in era’s considered “golden ages” yet immersed within the culture would continue the worship of nature, natural forces, and their kings. Massive pyramids, statues, palaces, and cities would be built in the honor and deification of nature, amulets, images, and names would be inscribed upon basic daily items such as perfume jars, combs, seals, kitchen ware, furniture, and wall reliefs. Entire compilations of papyrus scrolls would be written by scribes laying out the orders for burial, spells, magical incantations, and practices, all of which are found in the famous, “Book of the Dead”, as well as practically every other wall relief and scroll.
The worship and reverence of nature and life was interwoven like a thread in a quilt as the Egyptians continued this belief system even through when it became a Roman province in the year 30 B.C.E. It is important to note that the correlation between what the ancient Egyptians believed and what is going on today is no different. We still seek after and are entranced by that which is not God and truth as the Egyptians did. We still buy into the lie, follow blindly what we do not know, and stray away from hope and truth which leads to an understanding who God truly is and the salvation and freedom from darkness that He offers. We can definitely learn from the Bible which is laid out like a road map before us. As the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes states 1:9-10, “That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, “See, this is new”? It has already been in ancient times before us.” (bold added by me).
by: Peter J. Fast
Soon to come: Part Two: The ancient Canaanites 2500 – 411 B.C.E. Date is based on period known as Late Bronze Age to the last recorded Canaanite king Abdemon