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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

God, Single, Seeks Consort

A single omnipotent god is an oddity. To be sure, three of the world’s current major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have such a god, but such a god dominates our thoughts, is accepted as the ‘normal’ state of affairs, simply because of the numbers of today’s adherents. In terms of overall frequency in human history, such a single god is more rarely encountered.

A God without a consort.
Unless we live in India with the vast majority of its people endorsing the polytheistic Hindu faith, or unless we live in a politically atheist country, the idea of a single deity will be all around us, whether we ourselves are religious or not. And if you who are reading this belong to one of these three monotheistic faiths and find my opening sentence unreasonable, let me explain further:

It is a natural spiritual solution to share over a number of deities the widely differing situations which we as humans experience. This god will favour your coming sea voyage, that god has dark mood swings and needs to be kept on the right side of, another god will help you with a successful harvest. One goddess will ease your difficult labour pains, another will watch over your household, and yet another will smile on your fortunes in love and help you to find your partner. Such gods and goddesses have defined roles, and reflect our earthly trials and fortunes. But what happens when all these widely-varying aspects of our hopes and dreams are rolled into one single deity?

His realm, his rules. If you were planning a sea voyage, moody Poseidon needed to be respected. 
What happens is what scripture reveals. We end up with a deity who is magnanimous, jealous, loving, vindictive, creative, destructive, benevolent, picky about which sacrifices are made in his name, chooses (almost) to destroy his entire creation, and chooses to redeem it as well. This God who is the Prince of Peace is also the God who joins in the action on the field of battle. This infinitely merciful God who will grant you [1]eternal bliss in heaven is the very same God who will decide that you shall suffer the torments of the damned forever. All the widely-varying and contradictory characteristics which normally would be distributed over a number of different gods and goddesses are now all bundled into one deity – with all the inherent paradoxes which that inevitably produces.

Sekhmet unleashed.
In a recent [2]post I have described the dark savagery of the God who sanctions the many acts of mass slaughter which are chronicled in the Book of Joshua. If you are a Christian you will believe that this is the same compassionate God who redeems the world several Books and a Testament later. On the face of it, a God who creates the world and all the creatures in it, only to destroy it (and them) a few scant [3]generations later, holds less logic than the parallel version from Dynastic Egyptian religion in which the [4]creator god Re dispatches the ruthless lioness goddess Sekhmet to Earth to do the same. The destruction is wrought by a deity whose business is destruction, not by the creator himself. With each god and goddess assigned his or her specific task, no obvious deific logic has been breached.

Zeus and Hera: storms on Olympus for a wayward god with all-too-earthly desires.
There is another side to this train of thought. When many gods are in the pantheon, ‘god’ is not a bachelor. Osiris had his Isis, Shiva has his Shakti, Odin had his Freya, Jupiter had his Juno, Zeus had his Hera. And Hera had to cope with the various extra-marital shenanigans in which her oversexed husband Zeus indulged – although I’m pretty sure that a few deific pots and pans went sailing through the air when he got back to Olympus, having had his way (in a suitably disguised form) with some lonely mortal shepherdess. Although married life even for a god might at times have seemed a lot like the married life of mortals in the world below, bachelordom for a deity is, it seems, not the usual order of things. But is the god – certainly of Judaism and of Christianity – a ‘bachelor’ in the sense that this deity never actually had a partner?

Asherah: Tree of Life
Israelite religion evolved from the beliefs out of which the Israelite culture itself grew. In the Eden of Genesis, God refers to the plural forms of [5]’our’ and ‘us’. Clearly there is more than one God present on the scene. This other deity, who is referred to in scripture only obliquely, was later expunged from scriptural texts until only her shadowy ghost remained in the diction of these plural terms. Her name is Asherah, the Canaanite goddess in the [6]pantheon from which Israelite religion evolved. When the Israelites, who likely emerged from the Canaanite diaspora displaced by the Egyptian conquest of Canaan, made a drive to define their own distinctive religious forms, this new God of the Israelites was left in a state, not so much of bachelordom, but of forced separation. Deprived of his consort, answerable to no-one but himself, he was free to let rip with all the guy-stuff so prominently in evidence in such books as Joshua.

A male-dominated heaven creates its counterpart on earth.
In such a male-only godhead setup, women were left with little voice. Several millennia later they still are. It’s all ‘God the father’ and ‘God the Son’, with the soothing feminine restraints of a consort being painfully lacking. So does all this deific testosterone have a knock-on effect? Of course it does. We respectfully address ourselves to [7]His Holiness’, ‘His Eminence’ and ‘His Grace’. And let’s not even mention all those [8]imams, mullahs and ayatollahs. It’s more than high time that some healthy balance was restored to our deity’s bachelor boy existence. It’s time that ad was placed in the singles’ columns: “God, Single, Seeks Consort”.

[1] It is a strident moral paradox that God redeems the world through the sacrifice of Christ, but nevertheless shows himself to be fully-committed to having souls suffer the torments of Hell forever with no hope of redemption. The mere existence of Hell in Christian doctrine negates the purpose of Christ’s mission, for what end has been served by Christ’s sacrifice if after death God negates the reason for his sacrifice for so many? The whole point of Hell is that there is no redemption – but according to Christian doctrine any and all souls already have been redeemed through Christ. This makes sense… not. L

[3] For a critical look at the vessel featured in this story please see my post The Lost Ark of Noah.

[4] Dynastic Egyptian religion begins with a single creator god – Re – but then becomes polytheistic with succeeding generations of gods. Isis and Osiris are the second generation, preceded by the earth and sky god and goddess Geb and Nut. Re himself emerges from a cosmic egg out of Nun, the primordial ocean which is the creative female principle.

[5] As in Genesis 1:26: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..” and Genesis 3:22: “And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” The phrase “as one of us” is particularly telling, clearly implying “as one of us gods”. That is: being able to determine all aspects of the moral spectrum, to have the same knowledge and insight as one of the immortal gods.

[6] From clay tablets it is possible to determine an evolution of deities. The supreme Canaanite god was El, with Asherah being his consort. When El eventually became the Israelite god Yahweh, Asherah endured as his consort until she was suppressed by the new monotheism. Both El and Yahweh were initially known as Baal, a titular term meaning ‘Lord’. In later texts which eventually became scriptural, Baal came to be confused with the name for the Canaanite god.

[7] In an Apostolic Letter of May 22 1994 by Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church has banned women from holding positions of authority in the Church forever. The reason given? Christ chose only male disciples: a fallacy which scripture itself refutes. You can read more about this issue (and find a link to this Papal letter in note 3) in my post "Behold This Woman".

[8] I am aware that there are female holders of these titles in Islam, as there are female rabbis and female Anglican bishops. But all these are notable for their minorities, not because there is an even balance of gender in these religious hierarchies.

The top and last images of God creating the sun and moon and God creating the plants are from Michelangelo Buonarroti’s frescoes for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Although I have added my own background of clouds, the figure of God is unaltered from Michelangelo’s originals. If it has ever crossed your mind to wonder why God is companioned by a naked boy instead of a conventional angel, my post Fear and Loathing in the Sistine Chapel will be of interest to you. Michelangelo’s homosexuality (which is also much in evidence in his homoerotic poetry) is considerably more on display in his famous chapel frescoes than is generally realised. Yes, you do see what you think you see in this male nude from the fresco (click on the image right), and I’m not going to point it out – except to say that these are not the only ‘acorns’ on view in these frescoes. And if you find any of this offensive then I suggest that you take your objections to the offices of His Holiness, under whose jurisdiction these frescoes fall.

Portrayals of Sekhmet and Asherah painted for this post by Hawkwood for the ©David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved. Lioness adapted from photos by Mitsuaki Iwago.

Sekhmet: In the traditional myth, having been let loose into the world Sekhmet slips beyond Re’s control and rampages through a lake of the blood of her human victims. Unable to halt the killing, and fearing that humankind will become extinct, the gods conspire to trick her by mixing red ochre with beer and pouring it over the earth. Thinking it to be blood, Sekhmet gorges herself until she falls into a soporific stupor and the mayhem finally ends. The other lioness goddess was Bastet of Lower Egypt. Together with Sekhmet of Upper Egypt they were known as the lionesses of Yesterday (the East) and Tomorrow (the West). Both goddesses were initially forces of destruction, although Bastet later evolved into a tamer cat goddess, and Sekhmet, while remaining a lioness, seems to have curbed her aggressive ways. 

Asherah is traditionally associated with a stylised Tree of Life, which nurtures the animals (usually represented by two goats) portrayed feeding upon it. Asherah, Ashtoreth, Astarte, Ishtar and Inanna are all variant regional names for an enduring goddess who shared similar characteristics across different cultures and historical periods of the Near and Middle East. The Book of Genesis specifically tells us that, as well as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life also was in Eden. Since Asherah was the Tree of Life, and since the Lord (‘Baal’) also was ‘walking in the garden’ (Genesis 3:8), we have both Baal and Asherah present in Eden – which is exactly what that ‘has become as one of us’ phrase (Genesis 3:22) indicates.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Emperor and the Eye of Horus

North Africa, sometime in the first half of the 6th-century. A contingent of horsemen clatters westward across the ochre wastes, the hooves of their mounts breaking the hard crust of surface sand. They approach an isolated [1]oasis, a settlement nestling among a green sea of date palms overlooking a lake, and dominated by a single building on a rocky knoll: their intended destination. They dismount below the knoll, ascend the path to the building and stride inside, confident in the authority vested in them by their emperor. Those at worship inside are forced out, the building is annexed, and its votive fires are quenched forever.

On a mission from the emperor..
This minor incident, one of many of its kind repeated across the empire, nevertheless resonates with a heavy significance. The building is the very last of the temples of Ammon: the only place where the gods of Dynastic Egypt are still actively worshipped. Its forced closure on the orders of Justinian, the Holy Roman Emperor, brings to a definitive end over 3,000 years of a religion which has been among the most enduring and stable of the Ancient World. In terms of an [2]end to a religion and its passing into myth, it is therefore not a natural death, but one which has been terminated by the historical forces which oppose it.

The two foreign empires in Egypt which preceded Justinian’s own – the Greek and the Roman – both attempted to accommodate and absorb Egyptian beliefs. During the dynasty of the Ptolemy’s, the best-known of whom was the famed Cleopatra, the Greeks developed such crossover deities as Isis-Aphrodite and the ram-horned Zeus-Ammon.

The Romans also concocted their own curious hybrid deities. Anubis, jackal-headed guide of the underworld, would be fitted out in the garb of a Roman commander, and Isis, queen of the Egyptian pantheon, would be dressed as an aristocratic Roman lady, although still holding the sistrum – the jingling temple rattle – that was her distinctive symbol. In spite of these changes, it was perhaps an easier and even a logical transition, for all three of these empires were polytheistic, worshipping many gods, and the forces which these gods reflected could be recognised across beliefs.

The Roman Isis.
Justinian’s decision to close the temple might have been driven rather more by political astuteness than by fervent belief: he sought through such a gesture to appease the Christian Copts in North Africa, to demonstrate that he and they were ‘on the same side’. But it is also true that he was vigorously determined to Christianize his own empire. His subjects were given a stark choice: convert, or face exile or death. The Christianization of the early Holy Roman Empire was to prove as ruthless in its expediency as it would be in the following centuries in Europe under such monarchs as [3]Charlemagne. That the West rushed gratefully to embrace Christ is a historical fantasy. The iron will of a succession of men in positions of power, both secular and of the Church, is what history reveals.

The Greek goddess Eileithyia was the patroness of fertility and childbirth. Seen here against the backdrop of the Eileithyia cave in Crete, the aid of the goddess was called upon both by would-be mothers to grant fertility and to aid in a safe delivery. Caves have a long association with the womb of the earth mother.
But these old gods are, it seems, more resilient than the will of earthly emperors. The historian Bettany Hughes, while on Crete, reports encountering in an underground [4]cavern known as the Eileithyia Cave, votive offerings left to a goddess of fertility: a continuous use of the site spanning some five millennia. We might be living in the Christian era and date our calendar from the [5]birth of Christ, but the very days of our [6]week are named for Roman and Teutonic gods. When we wish our architecture to convey a civilized respectability, our role models are the marble edifices of pagan Grecian temples.

Names may change, but heroes endure across millennia. Perseus triumphantly holds the severed head of Medusa aloft, Theseus drags the slain Minotaur from the Labyrinth, Batman crouches darkly above Gotham City and a techno-armoured Iron Man does his palm-of-power thing.
And we might consign semi-divine heroes and their glorious deeds to a long-vanished antiquity, but we still nurture an apparent need for them. It’s just that instead of Perseus, Theseus, Hercules and Jason, we now call them Superman, Spiderman, Batman and Iron Man – and Thor has even resurfaced, still with his hammer and his original name intact.

The proportions might have drifted away from the original, but the Eye of Horus is still going strong in the form of tattoo designs, T-shirt symbols and other readily-available merchandise.
So did Justinian succeed in shutting down those Egyptian gods? Look around on the Web and you’ll find various sites dedicated to Isis and even to Sekhmet. And I do mean ‘dedicated’. These sites are not merely informational, but portals of worship, sincere in their intent. Eyes of Horus are now freely available to purchase as pendants, key rings, T-shirts, even as tattoos: take your pick. Whether you believe or not that gods are an invention of mortals, it seems that it is not up to mortals to decide when their time is up. Fifteen centuries after Justinian thought to close it, the eye of Horus is apparently still wide open and watchful.

[1] The incident which opens this post is briefly recounted in chapter 5 of Tom Holland’s book below. The author does not specify at which oasis the temple was located, but taking into account the location, setting and time frame, I’m assuming it to be the oasis of Siwa, then known as Ammon-Ra, now in Egypt but then a part of Libya, and it is this setting which my post describes.

Siwa has a remarkable-enough history. As a sacred site its use apparently stretches back many millennia. In the 4th-century BCE a Persian army of fifty thousand men were dispatched to commandeer the oasis. They never arrived. Having become lost among the dunes, the entire army perished in the North African desert. The Greek historian Herodotus, whose writings provide us with this incident, was thought to have been exaggerating, but the remains of this ill-fated army have recently been discovered. In the 2nd-century BCE, having conquered Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria, Alexander the Great visited the temple to consult the oracle there. Apparently as a result of this visit he henceforth believed in his own divinity, and that his mission of conquest was graced with divine will. To mark both his visit to the temple and his newly-acquired divinity, the megalomaniac conqueror thereafter had himself portrayed with ram horns (below left), elevating himself to the status of the god Zeus-Ammon (below right).

Following the forced closure of the temple, the settlement declined and its location was lost for some thousand years, only to be rediscovered in the 18th-century. Today its inhabitants live among the ruins (below), with most of the neighboring houses being occupied by the ghosts of history.

[2] Please see my post All Things Must Pass for more about the passing of religions into history.

[3] Please see note [5] of my post John Calvin's Tough Love for more about Charlemagne.

[4] Described in chapter 12 of Bettany Hughes’ book below. I myself remember visiting a Neolithic barrow in Denmark in which pagan offerings have been regularly left over a period of some ten millennia. Standing there in the semi-subterranean darkness of the burial chamber, surrounded by cold granite and with the musty compacted Danish soil underfoot, the line to my own ancestors felt like a very direct one indeed.

[5] No two historical sources agree on the actual year. As to the date: December 25th is actually the celebratory day of the sun god (often thought to be the day of the god Mithras, although this is not historically supported), the date being purloined by the early Church fathers, just as churches were built upon the foundations of the pagan temples which they had destroyed.

[6] Saturn’s Day, Sun Day, Moon Day, Tyr’s Day, Woden’s Day, Thor’s Day, Freya’s Day.

Tom Holland: In the Shadow of the Sword –The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. Little, Brown, 2012. Few authors who write about history convey the great sweep of empire-changing events as vividly as Tom Holland. And few authors dig so deep and so fearlessly in their attempts to discover the historical truth behind the birth of the world religions (in this case, Islam) that are with us today. Since this title's publication Tom Holland has been forced to disappear as a Web presence - yet another indication of the way in which one religion's inability to shoulder criticism of any kind points only more tellingly to what are perhaps discomforting historical truths.    

Bettany Hughes: Helen of Troy – Goddess, Princess, Whore. Pimlico for Random House, 2005. Few books which I have read make the stuff of history as tangible as this one. It is at one and the same time a grand overview of the subject and an intimate portrait, both of Helen (insofar as that is possible for a figure who straddles both myth and history), and of the distant time in which she lived. In Bettany Hughes' title Helen also emerges as a mirror who reflects back to itself each successive age which has portrayed her in its own different way. We discover something about ourselves and our own time through the way in which we regard Helen, and through the way in which she is depicted by artists and writers both past and present.

Isis-Aphrodite and Zeus-Ammon: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Other Isis-Aphrodite statuettes from Christies Antiques. 2nd-century Roman Isis: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (sistrum from the statue of the Roman Isis in the Capitoline Museum, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen). Eye of Horus tattoo from Lilz-eu-tattoo. Inlaid eye of Horus from the tomb of Tutankhamen, Cairo Museum. Renaissance statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini in the Logia del Lanzi, Florence, from a photo by Paolo del Reggio. Kylix of Theseus with the slain Minotaur in the National Archaeological Museum, Salamanca, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Batman painted by Scott Hampton, from Batman: Night Cries, by Archie Goodwin and Scott Hampton, published by DC Comics Inc. 1992. Bat logo © Warner Bros, Legendary Pictures. Iron Man © Paramount Pictures, Marvel Enterprises. Alexander coin: British Museum. Zeus-Ammon coin: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo of present-day Siwa Oasis by Heksamarre. On a Mission from the Emperor painted for this post by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Butcher of Canaan

What must be going through their minds? Dazed with defeat, dragged from their refuge and brought before the leader who had conquered them, these five men must have known that their future was as dark as the cave in which they had hidden, and which had become their prison when their enemy had blocked its only exit. If there is any hope in their thoughts at all, it must be in the wish that this man before whom they now stand would prove himself to be a man of honor, a principled leader who, guided by his [1]beliefs, would be magnanimous in victory, would display some measure of mercy as a gesture of true greatness.

Dragged from the cave which had become their prison.
It is not to be. Instead, they find themselves forced to the ground, are publicly humiliated as, at the prompting of their leader, each captain in his turn sets his foot upon their necks, grinding their faces into the dust of their own homeland. This grim ritualized humiliation over with, the leader himself then steps forward and personally beats them before finally killing them. He then hangs the five corpses on trees and leaves them hanging there until sundown. The corpses are then cut down and thrown unceremoniously into the cave which had been their refuge, and the entrance is sealed forever.

Each captain in his turn sets his foot upon their necks.
It is an incident shocking in its ruthlessness. If these five men were hostages of Al Qaida we would be howling our disgust. Instead, we know these details because all that I have described above can be read in the Old Testament’s Book of Joshua (Joshua 10:22-27), and it is Joshua himself who is the leader in question. My previous [2]post about Joshua dealt with the scriptural account of the defeat of Jericho and its apparent conflict with the archaeology on the ground. That post questioned the veracity of the scriptural account, but with this post I’m assuming these events to be true – not because I personally believe them to be, but because millions around the world accept that they are. This post is about the consequences of accepting that truth.

Historians might disagree about the exactness of the frontiers, but there is no disagreement that Canaan was a part of the Egyptian empire. This map shows the empires as they were during the reign of the heretic king Akhenaten in Egypt, which paralleled the historical situation during the scriptural account of the Israelite conquest of Canaan.
Joshua again presented himself as a subject for a post when I read in my King James Version that the editors describe Joshua’s life as being filled with [3]‘excitement, variety, success and honor’. It’s hard to argue with the first three. But honor? As I have come to realize, an Apologist will find a way to justify [4]anything – as long as that ‘anything’ is found in scripture. So justify this: the Book of Joshua provides us with a list of Canaanite cities conquered by Joshua, but only gives a figure for those slain for one of them – the city of Ai to the west of Jericho. Since, without exception, the entire populations of these cities are slaughtered by the Israelites, and we are given an initial list of ten cities and one battle, as the numbers slain in Ai are given as 12,000, then a low-end estimate for the total inhabitants of these cities slain could feasibly have been some 80-100,000 civilians.

Had Joshua’s Israelite forces existed they would have found the Canaanite battleground already occupied. Events above the timeline are confirmed and corroborated by history, and yet none of these events and the occupying forces which were involved in them are mentioned in the scriptural account of Joshua’s supposed conquest. The events in Joshua could have taken place sometime between 14-1300BCE. While these dates coincide with a period of relative weakness of Egyptian power in Canaan, it was the Hittites, not the Israelites, who took advantage of this.
But further along, we are told that the total number of Canaanite kings defeated by Joshua was thirty one (Joshua 12:24), so the number of field engagements, battles, sieges, kingdoms and other conquests would raise this total considerably. Let’s go with a reasonable estimate of a grand total of 180,000-200,000 Canaanites killed by the Israelites, both armed forces and civilians. Not a [5]soul was left alive in any of the Canaanite cities which fell to Joshua’s forces.  Men and women, children and the elderly: all were put to the sword without mercy. Again, it is scripture itself which tells us this.

Achan is brought before Joshua to face judgement. The sentence: death by stoning. 
So what about Israelite losses and defeats? Forget defeats, because none are mentioned. And losses? In the entire campaign, we are told only of 36 Israelite casualties (Joshua 7:5), slain by the men of Ai in an Israelite ruse that partly misfired. The following verses describe Joshua’s despair at these Israelite deaths, even to questioning the direction of his whole campaign. It turns out that a certain Achan, in violation of God’s stipulation, could not resist doing a little looting in defeated Jericho. This had angered God, which in turn had caused things to go against those 36 Israelites. Joshua gets back on God’s good side by having Achan stoned to death for his misdemeanour, and the campaign is back on track. Evidently a spot of looting by a single individual angered God considerably more than the Israelites’ unbridled slaughter of thousands of Jericho’s civilians. The total annihilation of the population of Ai is what follows, so we can conclude that God is again on Joshua’s side.

“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” Joshua 6:21. This single verse from scripture graphically relates the fate of the civilian population of Jericho at the hands of the Israelites: a fate repeated for every Canaanite city which they were supposed to have conquered. It presents those who accept the Bible as the revealed word of God with a stark choice: either reject scripture and take responsibility for your own moral worth, or accept it as fact, and attempt to morally justify the slaughter of women, children and the elderly in the name of God.
But the Canaanites were not monsters who needed to be cleared out of the way as if Joshua were some dragon-slayer ridding the land of a curse. They were, it is worth remembering, ordinary folk concerned with gathering in their harvests, trading what they had to trade, keeping their families, living out their lives and paying due homage and respect to their [4][13]beliefs. And they were living on their own land. From the Canaanite side of things, Joshua and the Israelites must have seemed like agents of chaos: a devastating invasion force which wreaked havoc and destruction, slaughtering the families which they had struggled to raise, stealing their lands and turning their world into dust and ruin.

Akhenaten (left) and Ramesses II, both with very different attitudes to Egyptian interests in Canaan, and during whose reigns the region would become alternately more chaotic and more subservient. 
But there were other regional forces in Canaan at this time. Why is there no mention whatever in scripture of the Israelites encountering Egyptian military resistance? Tablet correspondences found in [6]Amarna and from the later reigns of the pharaohs Seti I, Thutmose III and Ramesses II actually mention Canaan, which was still a part of the Egyptian Empire. Egyptian forces were garrisoned there - and the Egyptians would later go to war to defend their Canaan territory against the fearsome Hittites. So what happened? Did they just sit back and watch as Joshua stole this part of their empire from under their noses? Why do scrupulous Egyptian records frequently mention Canaan but not the [7]Israelites? Is it because there were in reality no Israelite forces for Egypt to be concerned about?

A Canaanite khopesh (top) from the Late Bronze Age, with (below) a bronze Egyptian khopesh from the tomb of Tutankhamen. The fluting on the metal would have given the weapon extra strength. Canaanite weapons were often copies of weapons used by the Egyptian occupying forces. Very little is known about Israelite weapons from this period, although it is assumed that they also followed Egyptian precedents. The distinctive blade probably evolved from the shape of an axe, and in Dynastic Egypt the khopesh also had a ceremonial function. The Assyrian sword - the sapara - also followed this design.
Were we to read this exact same account of the conquest of Canaan in an [8]other-than-scriptural source, and were we to view Joshua simply as a figure from history in the light of these events, we surely would conclude (if we have any moral values) that here was a conqueror who truly gloried in slaughter, as ruthless in his nature and in his deeds as any Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan – or even any Babylonian despot from his own world. Instead, as we know, the Book of Joshua became canonical scripture, and its commander is looked upon as the worthy successor to Moses who led his people into the Promised Land. Normal human decency has been stood on its head, and a man who otherwise might have – with every deserved justification – become known to history as the Butcher of Canaan ends up instead being described as a man of honor.


Part Two: The Square Peg of Scriptural Genocide, the Round Hole of Moral Acceptability

Justifying the genocides: I am aware of the various Apologist (Wolterstorff, Copan, Flannagan, et al) justifications for the genocides in the Book of Joshua, which claim that they are intended to be taken symbolically in some way. But such Apologist explanations for this scriptural trail of death fail to address the moral premise that, real or not, these massacres are stated in scripture as being executed with the blessing of God. Whether the massacres were symbolic, allegorical, etc. becomes immaterial to the stark fact that in scripture God was okay with all this, and actually approved of it (hence the Israelites' sweeping victories with improbably negligible losses to themselves). Indeed, at the battle of Gibeon (Joshua 10:10 and 14) we are told that God personally joined in the slaughter. My point stands: what does this say about the Israelites as a people, and about the deity who guided them?

An ivory Canaanite game board with gold inlay, complete with counters or pegs of gold, Late Bronze Age. This is one of the few such boards to survive relatively intact. Such sophisticated craftsmanship and luxurious styling present a different picture from the one of an [3]‘idolatrous and dissolute’ people put forward by those who seek to demonize the Canaanites in order to justify scriptural genocide.
The historicity of the genocides: Because of the anthropological (linguistic) and archaeological discrepancies with the purported Israelite conquest of Canaan and lack of corroboration from other contemporary sources, I personally am not convinced that the Israelites conquered Canaan at all. The most likely historical scenario is that at the time of Joshua in the Late Bronze Age many of the Canaanite cities that were reported as being conquered by the Israelites were already in a state of semi-ruin (which is what the archaeology on the ground indicates) from the Egyptian conquest and occupation. Almost a full millennium later, the Israelites, who in all probability emerged from the Canaanite diaspora that was displaced by the Egyptians, saw the ruins and exploited them by contriving a conquest by their own forebears that never actually took place. The cities already were in a state of disrepair, and the writers of Joshua, penning their tale some eight to ten centuries after the time of the presumed Israelite conquest, drew their own colourful conclusions as to who did the conquering, thus providing themselves with a fallacious conquerors’ pedigree.

The Hittites: masters of war, and men of [9]iron. The notoriously bellicose Hittites were in northern Canaan during the time frame of Joshua's own purported incursion. And yet, as with the Egyptian military forces, no mention is made in scripture of any Hittite-Israelite encounter.
In the shadow of Beit She’an: If there is one thing which confronts us with the improbability of the scriptural account of the conquest of Canaan it is the existence of the fortress of Beit She’an (a.k.a. Beth-Shean). From the Book of Joshua we learn that, having conquered the southern Canaanite cities, Joshua regrouped his forces at Gilgal and then marched north: a route that would have taken him directly up the west bank of the Jordan River Valley. He defeats the near-impossible odds of a powerful Canaanite alliance at the waters of Merom, then swings east to sack and burn the city of Hazor. In scripture these events all move along swimmingly, but a map of that time frame suggests a very different scenario.

The Location of Beit She'an Fortress 
The command centre of the Egyptian occupying forces in Canaan, Beit She’an’s highly strategic location assured its control both of the east-west routes through the highlands to the coast, and the approach to the northern Jordan River Valley. The palace of the Egyptian governor of Canaan was also situated on its heights. The route of Joshua’s forces supplied by scripture would have left Joshua no option but to pass north in the very shadow of this stronghold – and yet in scripture it is as if it does not exist.

Beit She'an as it is today
Beit She’an was considered to be near-impregnable. Only after 1100BCE was it overrun – not by the Israelites, but by the Philistines. So what did Joshua and the Israelites do – sneak past the fortress while the Egyptian military was having lunch? One hardly can imagine the Egyptian governor leaning over the parapet and shouting, “Good luck in the north, lads!” as the Israelites tramped by. For the whole time frame of the supposed Israelite conquest, Canaan was controlled by the Egyptians. And yet the Book of Joshua never once mentions the presence of the then-resident Egyptian forces stationed in Canaan, or any Israelite-Egyptian military encounter.

The idea that the Egyptians just sat back and watched as those upstart Israelites snatched a swathe of their empire from under their noses is stretching all historical credulity – and strongly suggests the way in which the writers of the Book of Joshua had drifted out of touch with the historical situation on the ground of almost a thousand years before. Egypt, remember, was still powerfully in control of Canaan after the Israelites were supposed to have conquered it.

The approved portrayal of Joshua: a suitably heroic Bronze Age figure clad in glinting armour. But his armour is from the Iron Age of centuries later, and his helmet (which also is from the Iron Age) is that of the Assyrian cavalry - the future conquerors of Israel. Evidently this artist was somewhat hazy about historical time frames.
The Christian perception of Joshua: For me to read on a North Carolina minister’s [10]blog the continuing justifications which a Christian must produce to hammer the square peg of scriptural genocide into the round hole of moral acceptability (even after admitting, as this minister does, that the conquest of Canaan was ‘brutal’) is not merely sad: it is morally repugnant. And this particular Christian blog is by no means unique. Among others I have come across is the [11]Grace Communion International website, which actually states at the outset that “Joshua is one of the Bible’s great books of courage and faith.” – but then glosses perfunctorily over the Israelites’ multiple acts of mass slaughter. Yet another Christian [12]blog indulges in the usual [13]demonizing of the Canaanites, and explains that the genocides are not actually genocides but (quoting Calvinist pastor Mark Dever) “the expiration of God’s mercy” – which for me reading it provided another WTF moment. This blogger (who apparently is a Christian missionary) then goes on to explain that the mass slaughter in the Book of Joshua does not actually count as genocide because “God owns the land, and the people in it. They are his to do with as he pleases.”

What if Joshua was a Canaanite? I am left to reflect that had Joshua been a Canaanite, and had he committed all the various atrocities attributed to him in the book which bears his name, Christians would have painted him blacker-than-black. Instead, he indulges in acts of truly bestial carnage and, apparently merely because he is ‘on their side’ (whatever that means) Christians have him repeatedly emerging smelling like a rose garden, and as an individual who enjoys the respect of three world religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). Is such selective blindness to serial acts of callous inhumanity what faith and moral awareness are about?

A special thank you to any reader who has stayed the distance over this, my longest post to date. Scripture cannot be divorced from the historical context in which it was written, any more than its moral values should be viewed as a special case, divorced from moral values which we otherwise would uphold. To endorse genocide merely because it happens in scripture is to uphold the ethics of despotism.

[1] A god of genocide: The point here is that Joshua’s god – the God of the Bible and of Christianity – is supposed to be a morally superior and more humanly responsive deity than the beliefs of the lands which Joshua conquered. But we are in a bizarre situation in which events in the Book of Joshua make it manifestly clear that this is not so. The God in Joshua (and not just in this particular book of scripture) is palpably a deity, not of principles and values worthy of emulation, but of such gross moral standards that he actually approves of and appears to encourage acts of slaughter and even genocide which are committed in his name. This is not my personal opinion; it literally is the scenario which scripture presents to us.

[2] Joshua, Jericho, the Trumpets and the Wall.

[3] Demonizing the enemy: This is quoted from the Zondervan King James Study Bible, page 274. Incredibly, this Apologists’ Bible justifies even Joshua’s acts of mass slaughter by taking pains to describe the Canaanites as “idolatrous and dissolute” (demonizing one’s perceived enemies is a standard ploy for justifying the unjustifiable) and the bloody campaign against them as being part of “a history of redemption unfolding… with its interplay of divine grace and judgement” (page 272), which is, I believe, the most astonishingly callous way of justifying genocide that I have come across anywhere. If the Canaanites were so depraved, how is it possible that one of them became the architect of the very house of God? Yes, it was a northern Canaanite (Phoenicia to the Greeks) who designed Solomon’s temple (my painting of its reconstruction above) in Jerusalem.

[4] Gods of Canaan and Israel: The justification given in Joshua is a justification of belief and of territory: the territory of claiming Canaan for the Israelites in the name of their god, and the struggle between an emerging monotheistic faith and a resident polytheistic faith. The principal Canaanite god is named in scripture as Baal. Baal is however not a name, but a titular term of address meaning ‘Lord’. Since various deities were called by this term – including originally the Israelites’ own deity – isolating which ‘Baal’ is being referred to in scripture is down to region. The Baal of northern Canaan was a rain and weather deity – likely attributes for a people for whom rainfall and a good harvest were critical. The gods both of Canaan and Israel had animal sacrifices made to them; the life blood of those animals flowed in their name. So which god could reasonably claim the moral high ground: the god of the Canaanites who was petitioned for good harvests, or the god of the Israelites who encouraged mass slaughter?

[5] The solitary exception is the woman Rahab (right) and her family in Jericho, whose life was spared after she had provided refuge for two Israelite spies.

[6] Please see my post The Amarna Heresies. Ironically, it was the pharaoh Akhenaten’s self-absorbed preoccupation with art rather than with foreign policy which gave the Hittites their foot in the door of northern Canaan. 

[7] Please see note [2] in my post Joshua, Jericho, the Trumpets and the Wall. Ethnically, the Israelites were Canaanites, belonging to the same principal language group of Hebrew, which is often a determining factor in establishing a people’s origins. The Egyptians referred frequently to the Habiru, a stateless brigandage in Canaan. It is thought that ‘Hebrew’ stems from this term.

[8] Ah, but that is the problem: there seem to be no independent historical sources for the Israelites’ conquest, which surely would not have gone unnoticed by the other regional powers involved.

[9]  In Joshua 17:18 we are famously told that the Canaanites had 'iron chariots'. Since the only people in this time frame known to use iron were the Hittites, it can be taken as a further indication of the degree to which the writers of Joshua in the Iron Age had little historical perspective of the situation in Bronze Age Canaan of many centuries before.    

[10] The Mattrix - The Canon of Glory: Joshua

[11] Grace Communion International - Joshua: Conflict and Conquest

[12] Brance Gillihan's Blog - Devoted to Destruction

[13] 'Sinful': Quoted from Brance Gillihan’s blog: “The Canaanites were wicked people. They worship demon gods to whom they sacrificed their own children by burning them alive. They engaged in perverted sexual practices as part of their worship. God is judging them for their sins.”  This picture (right) is doing the rounds of the Internet as 'Baal worship'. But the massive bronze idol is an archaeological nonsense, and the child sacrifice is a dubious anthropological one. There is no substantive evidence for such Canaanite sacrifices (the classical source for these lurid stories is actually in Carthage, not Canaan), but let’s assume them to be true. In what way is this more ‘sinful’ than all the atrocities - including the scripturally recorded killing of children - committed by Joshua which God smiled upon?

Beth Alpert Nakhai: Archaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel. The American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston, MA, 2001.
Michael Sugarman: Trade and Power in Late Bronze Age Canaan. PDF.
Ian Shaw (editor): The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press. 2000.
Jonathan M. Golden: Ancient Canaan and Israel: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Rivka Gonen: Burial Patterns and Cultural Diversity in Late Bronze Age Canaan. The American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston, MA, 1992.
Gregorio Del Olmo Lete: Canaanite Religion According to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, 2004.

The three scenes from the Book of Joshua are painted by James Tissot, late 19th-early 20th-centuries. The artist of Joshua crossing the Jordan (incorrectly attributed on the Web to the author and minister J. W. McGarvey) and the artist of the imagined portrait of Rahab are both unidentified. The Canaanite khopesh is from Baidun Antiquities. The Egyptian khopesh is in the Cairo Museum, as is the statue of Akhenaten. The statue of Ramesses II is in the Turin Museum. The Canaanite board game is in the collection of the University of Chicargo. Reconstruction of Solomon's temple and the maps and timeline by Hawkwood, © David Bergen Studio, All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Coats of Skins

“Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.” This statement (Genesis 3:21) is made immediately after Adam has named his wife Eve. Before this we read of the terrible consequences of the Fall, of the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and God’s curse upon the Eden couple and the serpent. What follows is the expulsion from Eden, before Adam and Eve can reach the tree of life, eat its fruit (which apparently is the antidote), and so regain their immortality.

Artists' interpretations can have a profound influence upon our thinking. This 20th-century version by Stephen Gjertson of the expulsion from Eden perpetuates the misinterpretation of the original Hebrew texts and keeps the coats of skins determinedly literal.
In all different versions of the text in English, the phrase is either ‘coats of skins’ or ‘garments of skins’. And in this single three-word phrase is a world of difference: the difference between a pedantic [1]literal reading of scripture and a seeking for deeper meanings, for a greater understanding of what is actually being expressed. A pastor’s comment which I came across on a [2]webpage makes it clear that the pastor is left rather puzzled about what kind of nakedness is being referred to. He presumes that, being post-Fall, God covers their shame with those coats of skins before sending the couple out into the hostile world. But this puzzlement arises from a literal reading of the words – and from ignoring what the original Hebrew text says.

This picture postcard of the expulsion from Eden also follows the literal scriptural text.
If we take the phrase at its most literal, what we are asked to believe is that God slaughtered one or two of the animals which he had recently created (thus promptly making them extinct, because this was before they went forth into the world and multiplied), dressed the hides, and did a spot of bespoke tailoring in order to clothe Adam and his wife in suitable cave-man attire. Really? But ‘coats of skins’ is not what the original Hebrew texts actually say.

The 19th-century symbolist Franz von Stuck shows us a line in the sand which cannot be recrossed, and an Eden couple wearing their own 'coats of skin'.
The original Hebrew word used is not ‘coats’. It is kethorneth, conveying the idea of an all-covering tunic-like garment of some description. The word lavash implies an act of covering. Already things are looking rather different from the cave-man clothes scenario. The couple’s own solution to the awareness of their nakedness – the ‘aprons of fig leaves’ (Genesis 3:7) – apparently was an inadequate penance for their transgression (think about it: fig leaves are pretty scratchy things with which to cover one’s genitals). God’s solution was infinitely more final, and more profound. He equipped the couple with some sort of all-covering apparel that was fundamentally different from their appearance while in Eden. Their actual appearance – their very state of being – was altered in some way.

Another 19th-century symbolist, Max Klinger, powerfully conveys the expulsion as it is intended: a stony road into the world which now must be trodden. Radically original as always, Klinger shows us an Adam supporting a swooning Eve as they both struggle to come to terms with their new bodies of flesh.
Eden was not in the world. It was a state [3]beyond the physical realm, in which Adam and Eve were immortal as long as they did not eat of that forbidden fruit. Their transgression denied them their immortality. They now had no option but to live out an earthly life, with death waiting at the end. The bodies which they had in Eden were now changed. But what was this change? Only one letter’s difference separates the Hebrew words for ‘light’ (rut) and [4]‘skin’ (rug). The first couple’s transgression in Eden ensured their descent into the world of matter, of an incarnation into an earthly existence. Their non-material light bodies became transfigured into material bodies covered in skin, and all the joys and sorrows, all the pains and ecstasies of a life on Earth were now theirs to experience.

[1] When it comes to uncritical statements of faith on which I can shine a questioning spotlight, my Zondevan King James Study Bible is a gift which just keeps giving. In the editors’ annotation to Genesis 3:21, page 9, they explain that: “God graciously provided Adam and Eve with more effective clothing to cover their shame. God’s act of clothing them with skins, thus requiring the deaths of innocent animals, is symbolic of the merits of Christ’s future sacrifice… It is possible that it is here that God instructed Adam and Eve concerning the need of animal sacrifice as a part of worship.” WTF?? So let’s get this straight: God actually appreciates us killing the animals he has created, as long as such killing is done as a needful part of an act of worship to him. We know this, because God himself set an example of animal sacrifice when he clothed Adam and Eve in animal skins. Seriously?


[3] Whole books have been written about the possible location of Eden, and many theories have been put forward. Scripture appears to tease us with a specific geographical location. The four rivers which flow out of Eden are named, two of which are given as the Hidekel (Tigris) and the Euphrates. It must then be somewhere in the Middle East. Other theories place it in the Hindu Kush, or in a location which is now underwater, or in the Persian Gulf region, or even in the Americas. Still others (clinging to literalism) reason that it cannot be found because it would have been covered by the waters of the Flood. I would maintain that it cannot be found because it never was an earthly location in the first place. One cannot have a non-corporeal immortal body and live a life in the material world.

[4] The familiar phrase 'coats of skins' is therefore more accurately translated as; 'covering of skin', and the change from the plural ('skins') to the singular ('skin') becomes critical.

The top image is a detail from the painting So He Drove The Man Out, by Stephen Gjertson, private collection, 1982. The artist with the initials R.L. for the postcard is unidentified. The Expulsion from Paradise, by Franz von Stuck, 1891, is in a private collection. The work by Max Klinger comes from his Eve and the Future cycle of etchings of 1880, appearing in Graphic Works of Max Klinger, Dover Publications.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Amarna Heresies

His presence in the world would have seismic consequences for his time. His wife would secure a reputation as one of the most beautiful women in history, and his son who briefly succeeded him as an obscure and ineffectual ruler would, by a strange twist of fate, become one of the best-known names ever.

For three thousand undisturbed years the Ancient Egyptians had worshiped their many gods and goddesses, and the pattern of their lives and religious beliefs had continued unchanged from one generation to the next. And for those three millennia the two cities of Thebes in [1]Upper Egypt, and Memphis in Lower Egypt, were their sacred capitals. In those many centuries nothing really changed during what was probably the longest-lasting period of constancy in human history. And then the pharaoh Amenhotep IV came to the throne.

The pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten and initiated a one-man cultural and religious revolution.
Just six years into Amenhotep's reign, something happened. This pharaoh, who otherwise was supposed to be the servant and representative of the gods on earth, grasped history in his hands and moulded and shaped it into a new form. This form was so radical, so heretical, that it needed a new name to define it. The name which the pharaoh coined was Aten, the one true god, the invisible presence who had created all, and from whom all life flowed. The [2]visible manifestation of Aten was the life-giving sun itself: the golden sky disk which shed its rays like a blessing on the world below. The pharaoh, now the servant of this divine oneness, sealed this recognition of his servitude by changing his name to Akhenaten – Spirit Of Aten. But things did not stop there.

Egypt during the reign of Akhenaten. The new sacred city of Akhetaten emerged on the eastern bank of the Nile midway between the former residences of the gods at Memphis and Thebes (now Luxor), and the religious as well as the regional map of Dynastic Egypt was rewritten.
Deserting any loyalty both to Thebes and to Memphis, Akhenaten determined to create a new sacred capital, symbolically midway between these two, on the eastern bank of the Nile. At what is now the site of Amarna, Akhenaten laid out his new capital Akhetaten – The Horizon Of Aten – and moved his entire court with him. It was possibly the first time in human history that the idea of a single creative deity was used as the basis for a religion. That is how radical Akhenaten was being. Inevitably, for the many former priests of the usurped old gods these were something more than extreme heresies. Their pharaoh had at a stroke made them [3]redundant, and in so doing had undercut their own power base in a way that would cast long shadows into his future dreams and plans.

Blessed by the glorious rays of Aten, the pharaoh and his consort relax with three of their daughters. Such an informal family scene was unprecedented in the art of Ancient Egypt.
The astonishing one-man revolution continued, with Akhenaten now turning his attention to artistic traditions. Rigid rules of proportion and conventional standards of royal portraiture were abandoned in favour of a daring new realism. To our eyes this new style might not at first appear to be so markedly different from what had gone before, but for its time it was extreme, even shocking. Perhaps the most shocking is the appearance of the pharaoh himself. The expression on the royal face is certainly imperious enough; but with its full lips, broad hips, waspish waist, and suggestion of breasts and rounded stomach, the figure is almost female. So extreme is the exaggeration that it is thought that, if this is indeed a faithful physical portrayal, the pharaoh could have been suffering from Marfan syndrome or Antley-Bixler syndrome: conditions which can produce the elongated limbs and skull deformities suggested by his portraits.

This bust of Nefertiti has become one of the most famous sculptures of the Ancient World. Seen here with two other unfinished versions, it was found in the sculptor’s workplace, and would have served as a prototype for other portraits of the queen.
Her name means The Beauty That Approaches, and when we look at the portraits of her which have been preserved we need not doubt that her name was well chosen. Queen Nefertiti is most famously known by the painted bust now in the Berlin Museum, but I recall seeing a small unpainted portrait of her carved in wood in London’s British Museum that was in every way as stunning as this better-known version. And in keeping with the pharaoh’s new dynamic realism, his consort was shown as being as susceptible to the march of time as any mortal.

Defying artistic conventions but not the passing years, this remarkable carving shows a Nefertiti who has now reached middle age. The beauty is still there, although the jowl is heavier, and her figure is no longer that of a young queen. Nefertiti seems to have enjoyed considerable autonomous power of her own, and reigned on after her husband’s death, only to vanish from history into an unknown obscurity.
Akhenaten and Nefertiti had six daughters, and even these appear to have had their own remarkable physical characteristic: all of them are shown with a strangely elongated skull. We are left to wonder whether this was a new artistic convention, or whether this as well was an accurate portrayal of some physical deformation, and that the elongated headdresses of their parents actually concealed more than they revealed.

Portrayals of the daughters of the royal couple show pronounced elongated skulls. Head binding of infants was unknown in Ancient Egypt, and we are left to wonder whether deformation or artistic stylization was the cause.
But the pharaoh had one son by a lesser consort, [4]Kiya. This son, whom he called Tutankhaten – The Living Image Of Aten – also appears to have had the same elongated skull as his daughters, and it was this son who would succeed his father to the throne. Like his father, this son also would undergo a change of name, and this change tells its own story. We famously know the son as [5]Tutankhamen. He had a brief reign of just eleven years, dying mysteriously before reaching his twentieth year. The extraordinary revolution in culture and religion which his father had initiated proved impossible to sustain. Following Akhenaten’s death the priests of the old gods seized their chance and moved in to reinstate both the gods and themselves. The glorious architecture of Amarna was ransacked to create their temples anew, and the likenesses of its king and queen were defaced or removed from their pedestals.

Unlike the daughters, we have Tutankhamen’s body to examine, which leaves no room for doubt that the elongated skull was a physical feature. This forensic reconstruction of the living boy pharaoh and the scan of his actual head supply us with all the hard evidence necessary – but an explanation of the phenomenon is still lacking.
Tutankhamen’s name embodies the reinstatement of the god Amen and his pantheon. Cloistered in his palace, accompanied by his radiant queen, and surrounded by sumptuous art, his father had spent more time preoccupied with introducing a new religion and its culture than he had with actually consolidating what he had created. Following Akhenaten’s death, there was in Amarna no power base left to continue the worship of Aten, and every religion needs a power base of some kind to sustain it. And as we know, the strange twist of fate that in the 20th-century saw the discovery of Tutankhamen’s intact tomb with its priceless treasures is what rescued the boy pharaoh from what otherwise would have been an indifferent obscurity.

Tutankhamen’s gold funerary mask has become the iconic image of Ancient Egypt. We admire its fabulous craftsmanship, but behind the mask was a boy still in his teens who became the pawn in a religious power struggle. Emerging serenely from a Nile lotus, the bust on the left is the same boy when he was still Tutankhaten and the machinations of rival priests were still in his future.
But the revolution initiated by Akhenaten was not in vain, despite what at first appears to be its failure to sustain itself. A heresy is only viewed as a heresy because it is not an approved majority view, not because it is ‘wrong’. The pharaoh’s heretically extreme idea of a single supreme deity endured. Within decades of the pharaoh’s death another Egyptian would take up the idea and spread it to a new territory and a new culture, and this time it would take root. It is more than coincidence that names such as Moses and [6]Thutmoses are so similar, and that we end each and every prayer with the muttered word ‘Amen’. But that, as they say, is another story.

For all his royal status a pharaoh is still a man, and few fragments from Antiquity are as poignant as this: the hand of Akhenaten continues to clasp the hand of his beloved Nefertiti over three millennia after the couple defied generations of tradition and changed their world.
Names may change, but Akhenaten’s radical and heretical idea of a single formless creative deity has endured. And a certain poetic justice also endures: even with all his great and radical vision, Akhenaten never could have imagined that his [7]'Hymn to the Sun', which in its devotional beauty has been compared to scripture's Psalm 104, would be hauntingly set to music by contemporary American composer Philip Glass and live again - almost three and a half thousand years after the heretic pharaoh had composed it. 

[1] The terms 'upper' and 'lower' refer to the distance from the river's source, so Lower Egypt was actually closer to the Nile delta in the north than Upper Egypt in the south.

[2] It is simplistic to think that Akhenaten actually believed that the physical sun was the god Aten. The sun was merely the material manifestation of the formless deity behind it: an idea which also surfaces in my previous post 666: The Number of the Beast.

[3] Akhenaten might also have been driven by political expediency as much as by sincere belief. His father, Amenhotep III, was already disturbed by the growing power of the priesthood. Akhenaten's sidelining of the old gods and their priestly servants also could have been an attempt to curtail this potential threat to the throne of the pharaoh. If that is so, then events showed that he made his move too late, and fatally opted to pursue a course of self-absorbed artistic flowering rather than military backup.

[4] Recent DNA tests conclusively establish that a mummy known only as the Younger Lady found in the Valley of the Kings is the mother of Tutankhamen, but the identity of this mummy is speculative. DNA establishes that the mummy is Akhenaten’s sister, which might or might not mean that it is Kiya. Other possible identities include Akhenaten’s daughter Meritaten, and even Nefertiti herself. While incest was the order of the day at the court of Dynastic Egypt, it also makes DNA conclusions more speculative.

[5] Also written as Tutankhamun and Tutankhamon. Being essentially pictographs, Egyptian hieroglyphs do not express vowel sounds, so converting hieroglyphs into a contemporary written language involves multiple choices and compromise. Placing an ‘e’ between consonants has however become a preferred archaeological protocol, which is why I have opted for ‘Tutankhamen’ and ‘Thutmoses’ in this post.

[6] Akhenaten’s elder brother.

[7] Listen to the Philip Glass Hymn to the Sun recording.

Irwin M. Braverman, MD; Donald B. Redford, PhD; and Philip A. Mackowiak, MD, MBA: Akhenaten and the Strange Physiques of Egypt's 18th Dynasty. Pub. American College of Physicians, 21 April, 2000.
Eliot G. Smith: The Royal Mummies. Duckworth Publishers, 2000.

Reconstructed head of Tutankhamen by forensic sculptor Elisabeth Daynhs for National Geographic magazine, June 2005. Tutankhamen skull scan: CT Scanning equipment by Siemens AG; Data courtesy, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Arab Republic of Egypt; National Geographic magazine, June 2005. Akhenaten and Nefertiti hands photo by Bryan Jones.

Paul Docherty has created an excellent virtual reconstruction of Akhenaten's sacred capital at Amarna3D.

The Google Earth coordinates for the site of Akhetaten at Amarna are: 27°38’42.78”N 30°53’48.24”E.