Buried beneath the themes of first fruits and wheat offerings lie deeper connections between Shavuot and Akhenaten. These are suggestive and persuasiv
Buried beneath the themes of first fruits and wheat offerings lie deeper connections between Shavuot and Akhenaten. These are suggestive and persuasive and go far beyond delicious foods and agricultural traditions. They involve Shavuot’s other central feature: the giving of the Hebrew law by Moses.
After the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Roman armies in 70 AD, the focus of Shavuot shifted away from agriculture towards the Torah, or Jewish law. Specifically, the giving of the Torah by God to Moses on Mount Sinai became the holiday’s chief focus, thereby ensuring its longevity. It is in these traditions of tablets, tenets, and truth that we find a mother lode of evidence connecting Shavuot back to Akhenaten.
With a Rebel Law – Connections between Sinai and Amarna
As mentioned previously, I believe Akhenaten, when he was much older, became the Hebrew prophet Moses. This has left many traces within his original work, the Torah. Probably the most prescient connections concern the law, the main point of remembrance on Shavuot. Moses gave the law, the Torah, to the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai after they escaped Egypt, on their way to the Promised Land of Israel. This all happened sometime between ~1300-1250 BC.
Mount Sinai, in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. It is believed that Moses saw the Burning Bush and received the Torah from Yahweh here (Mohammed Moussa / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Moses is remembered in history as a lawgiver and introduced the world’s first ethical monotheism at Mount Sinai. According to Torah scholar Richard Eliot Friedman in his The Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters (2017), this was a singularly important development in humankind’s ethical evolution.
Moses introduced the ideas of a sole God to worship, that he would not be contained within an idol, and that idols were blasphemous. He also introduced the idea of a covenant between his people and God, in which the people were to follow the law of God in exchange for his protection and salvation. He even introduced the idea of keeping the heart pure of evil thoughts, and of following the teachings, rules, and regulations of a single deity.
Moses on Mount Sinai (painting circa 1895–1900). (Jean-Léon Gérôme / Public domain )
Remarkably, these themes all find resounding parallels in the court of Akhenaten. The rebel Sun-king created his own rebel law at Amarna, a form of ethical monotheism that greatly prefigured that of Moses. He developed the revolutionary idea of a personal relationship with god, or “personal piety”, a theme that would not only come to dominate Egyptian literature for centuries, but also, mysteriously, come to form the core of Judaism.
He believed his deity, the Aten, was the sole god over all creation, who made the world and everything in it, nourishing it each day through its all-encompassing rays of light: “You made heaven far away just to rise in it, to see all you make, Being unique and risen in your aspects of being as ‘living Aten’ – manifest, shining, far, yet near. You make millions of developments from yourself, you who are a ‘oneness’.” (Great Hymn to the Aten, Tomb of Aye, No. 25).
He was also obsessed with Ma’at, the concept of balance, truth, righteousness, and justice, but in a completely new form. Departing from the role of traditional pharaoh, Akhenaten is described as “teaching” these new rules of righteous living to his people. We have yet to find any copies of his laws or teachings, but we must remember archaeologists have recovered less than 2% of the written records that would have been contained in the city, including papyrus scrolls.
Despite this, the inscriptions in the tombs of his courtiers give us a good indication of what his teachings must have contained. They allow us to crudely reconstruct the heretic king’s primary commandments: to live a righteous and joyous life of character and substance, one unburdened by evil, falsehood and idols, and spent continually following the sole god and his divine law, or Ma’at.
He made Ma’at a personal aspect of the Aten, synonymous with his new “teaching”. He “taught” it to his people in much the same way Moses “taught” the Torah to the Israelites. It seems that life at Amarna was all about following the king’s rules under the one God, eerily similar to Moses’ doctrine. Let them explain in their own words some of the “rules” they obeyed at Amarna:
From the tomb of Tutu, the chamberlain of Nefertiti:
“To you have I come, O living Aten, for Ma’at makes her abode in me: I am not rapacious, I do not do evil, I do nothing that your son hates. His teaching and his character are in my innermost being … I shall speak truly to his Person, for I know that he lives on it … My voice is not loud in the king’s house. I do not swagger in the palace. I do not receive the reward of wrongdoing in order to repress Ma’at falsely, but I do what is righteous to the king … for everyday he rises early to instruct me, inasmuch as I execute his teaching, and no instance of any wickedness of mine can be found … I am straightforward and true in the knowledge of the king … He hearkens to Ma’at more than to a heap of possessions!”
From the tomb of his uncle, General Aye:
“Hail to you, O Living Aten, who rises in heaven as he floods hearts with light … Your son (Akhenaten) presents Ma’at to your benign countenance while you exult when you see him … He has placed Ma’at in my innermost being. My abomination is falsehood, for I know that Akhenaten, my lord, rejoices in Ma’at, he who is knowledgeable like Aten and truly perceptive. My lord instructed me just so that I might practice his teaching. I live by adoring his Ka and I am fulfilled by following him … How prosperous is he who hears your teaching of life … I was excellent, a possessor of character…”
From the tomb of Mery-Ra, the high priest:
“How fortunate is the one who stands in your presence and turns his heart to your instructions… Adoration to your Ka, O one who lives on Ma’at, Lord of Crowns, Akhenaten, long in his lifetime; the good ruler who loves humankind, and changes violent people into peaceful ones; the good ruler who governs the living …”
Moses Descends from Mount Sinai; A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England. (Philip De Vere / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
History’s Most Famous Commandments
In particular, Shavuot sees the reading anew, particularly to children, of the Ten Commandments, the quintessential rules of Moses’ new ethical law, and Western society more generally:
1. I am the Lord your God, and You shall have no other gods before me; 2. ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image; 3. ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain;’ 4. ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy;’ 5. ‘Honor your father and your mother;’ 6. ‘You shall not murder;’ 7. ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ 8. ‘You shall not steal;’ 9. ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor;’ 10. ‘You shall not covet.”
Moses Receiving the Tablets. In it we see the themes of the solarization of God and also the sun rays emanating from Moses’ own head – oddly identical themes as at Amarna. (Gebhard Fugel / Public domain )
These duplicate many of the 42 negative confessions from the Egyptian Book of the Dead that a deceased soul had to make before it entered the afterlife. The first three, meanwhile, match Akhenaten’s precepts precisely. The first specifies Aten’s unique position above all other gods, the second his disdain for idols, and the third the holiness of his name.
Concerning the first, we have already seen how the king characterized the Aten with a “oneness” above all the gods of Egypt. Here he describes Aten on his Boundary Stela as: “the beautiful living Aten, who has no equal when he has filled the land with his rays!” This is eerily similar to the first commandment of having no other gods before Yahweh.
We also know Akhenaten despised idols, which directly prefigures the second commandment. This hatred of idols echoes throughout the Torah, and all later Israelite literature, and I believe it began in Amarna. After the city fell, we read in an inscription called the “Restoration Stela” of Tutankhamun that when the young boy king came to power, he inherited a crestfallen land in which the “cities of the gods and goddesses (had) fallen into decay and their shrines (had) fallen into ruin” .
This was a result of Akhenaten’s ruthless campaign to shutter the old temples and erase the names of the old gods. Tutankhamun goes on to claim that he made many new idols of the finest electrum and jewels after his uncle Akhenaten destroyed the old ones, and that the entire nation prayed that the departed gods may return to them.
It cannot be overstated how important these two rules were to world history, for they represented a revolutionary break with millennia-old traditions. The earliest idols appeared over 40,000 years ago, and had always formed an integral part of the human religious experience. The idea of ignoring and maligning other gods to the point of destroying their images, all under the guise of exclusivity, was therefore a shocking and unnatural development in Egypt, let alone anywhere.
Scholar and Egyptologist Jan Assmann has referred to these singularly unique commands of monotheism and aniconism as the Mosaic Distinction, and noted that while history ascribes them to Akhenaten, the Hebrew Bible suggests Moses was responsible. Could the two then in fact have been one?
The two tablets of the Ten Commandments were Moses’ most famous artifacts, and are usually imagined as two stone plates, a few inches thick and a foot or so high, with rounded tops and flat bases. On them were inscribed the ten most important laws of the new Torah. While seemingly revolutionary, these tablets were in fact identical to Egyptian stelae.
Thousands of such stelae have been recovered from Egypt, and they were particularly favored by Akhenaten. Elongated, with flat bases and rounded tops, they mirror precisely Moses’ famous tablets, and it is easy to imagine an older, bearded Akhenaten, full of earlier ideas and formulating even more abstract notions, composing and inscribing the Ten Commandments onto two tablets. We even know he loved the number ten, because he had ten flagpoles built before the Great Aten Temple to herald the appearance of Aten.
“The Ten Commandments”, a parchment from 1768, by Jekuthiel Sofer , who emulated the 1675 Ten Commandments at the Amsterdam Esnoga synagogue. Notice the dual elongated shapes, rounded tops, floral motifs, and the prominent central crown, all themes unique to Amarna. (Jekuthiel Sofer / Public domain )
Precursors to Moses’ Tablets
Akhenaten used stelae, or “stone tablets” in biblical parlance, of all sizes. From a “mini” stela with an image of the king, to the towering “Boundary Stelae” that ringed his city, some over twenty feet high, we know the king employed these stone devices for conveying his ideas. He even refers to these tablets on his tablets. After explaining his decision to stay within his new city forever, he says: “I shall not ignore this oath which I am making for the Aten, my father, continually forever; but it shall remain upon a stone tablet at the southeastern border of Akhet-Aten … It shall not be obliterated.”
A “mini” stela from Amarna, incomplete, showing Akhenaten making an offering before two incense stands. Now in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London. Note the similar shape to the classic Ten Commandments. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
He established the idea of presenting decrees and offerings on mountains before the god Aten, as we saw previously with his huge sacrifice before “the Mountain of Akhet-Aten” on which he stood in the presence of Aten, “as Aten’s rays were upon him”. He carved his royal tomb east of the city, under the “august mountain of Akhet-Aten” . These appear to prefigure Mount Sinai, Judaism’s own “august” peak on which Moses issued decrees, offered sacrifices, spoke to God, and that can so often be seen in artwork mysteriously radiating Sun beams.
Moses depicted presenting the two stone stelae of the Ten Commandments, with the rays of the Aten behind him and his people before him. From the Or Torah Synagogue in Acre, Israel. Such solar themes are commonly associated with Moses, particularly in connection with his presentation of the law. (Dr. Avishai Teicher Pikiwiki Israel / CC BY 2.5 )
One of Akhenaten’s most innovative creations was the name of his god, the Aten, and how he made it royal by enclosing it within two parallel cartouches, or sacred rings of protection. These had always enclosed the name of a king, not a god, and it was an unprecedented move never before seen in Egypt, indicative of his view that his deity was the king of the universe. These two iconic cartouches are still prominent amongst the Amarna remains, appearing in tomb inscriptions, stelae, and as statuary recovered from the city. They also convey how important the “name” of Aten was to the king, foreshadowing Moses’ commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain, but to show it respect.
In some tomb scenes, we see the king raising the cartouches of the Aten, in a similar gesture to Moses lifting the Ten Commandments. These double, elongated cartouches with square bases and rounded tops eerily prefigure the later Tablets of the Law, and convey similar ideas of divine truth and justice. Just raising the tablets was a sign of respect, for the Egyptian word meaning “to elevate” was shu, which was one of Akhenaten’s favorite words. It was also the name of the air god that “elevated” the sky above the Earth, and even the name of the light of Aten. This triple meaning took on special significance at Amarna, where we see the king elevating the name of the Aten above him, prefiguring precisely the later Psalm 145:1: “I lift you high in praise, my God, O my King! I’ll bless your name into eternity.”
Surviving limestone stela of the double-cartouche name of the Aten Sun god, recovered from the Great Aten Temple at Amarna (now in the Egyptian Museum, Turin). The resemblance to the Tablets of the Law of Moses are unmistakable. (Jean-Pierre Dalbera / CC BY 2.0 )
Every time you see the two iconic stone tablets of the Ten Commandments in a church, synagogue, cemetery, painting, sculpture, or book, held high by Moses, anywhere around the world, I believe that you can imagine and see the two elongated cartouches of Akhenaten, the forerunner of the tablets. Every time you see a crown associated with the tablets or the Torah, remember that Akhenaten first declared his god to be “king of the universe” and gave him two special cartouches to reflect this royalty. Shavuot is a time for remembering the law, re-dedicating oneself towards the pursuit of God, and for renewing one’s commitment to a better life, one that’s righteous, truthful, and joyful – and one of which Akhenaten would have been proud.
Akhenaten: Sower of the Seeds of Israel?
It is fascinating to think that many elements of Shavuot may well trace back to ancient Egypt. Behind the layers of tradition of the Dark Ages , the Roman destruction of the Second Temple and the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple, these features may trace all the way back to Moses, the prophet who first gave the law. If we can positively identify Moses with the Pharaoh Akhenaten, then so many mysteries become clear, particularly regarding Shavuot, Festival of Jewish Law.
We can see these connections in the many symbolic food offerings, such as wheat sheaves, bread loaves, grapes, milk, and honey. They also appear in more abstract ideas, like that of a supreme God over all the Earth, and the giving of his special law through a “man of God”, a primary prophet and mouthpiece of the divine. These themes took center stage at Amarna, under the heretic king, the sole mouthpiece for God: writing, truth, law, right action, and right thoughts, even in the inner soul. This mirrors Moses’ dictum to refrain from even thinking of sin (such as coveting your neighbor’s wife).
I strongly believe the seeds of Shavuot were sowed by the heretic king of Egypt, who lived on to become Moses. As the Israelite lawgiver, he infused the Spring Harvest Festival with many of the qualities we associate with it today: joyful celebration, bringing forth the produce of the land, rejoicing with the entire family, and thanking God for all his gifts. After the Jewish temple was destroyed, Shavuot was left meaningless. Thankfully, the memory of Moses inspired a shift in the Jewish population to move past the old sacrifices and focus instead on the law, and to renew their pledge to live righteously, as Moses would expect, in a new age with no temple.
Amazingly, these were the themes of Akhenaten’s life in Egypt. His general and uncle Aye summarizes life at Amarna best: “My mouth was full of righteousness. I was righteous on Earth, and (I) loved life. ” Akhenaten’s life mission was to promulgate his teaching and laws, which were focused on the belief in one god above all creation, lacking an idol, and serving that god by acting rightly, truthfully, according to the divine law, all while embracing the love and joy of God’s abundant life, bounty, nature, and promise. It is to this singularly unique and thankful joie de vivre that Akhenaten called his people, as did Moses through the Torah. Remarkably, Jews three millennia later are still heeding this very same call.
Top image: Beyond the first fruits and wheat offerings lie much deeper connections between Shavuot and Pharaoh Akhenaten, involving the giving of the Hebrew law by Moses. Pictured: Representation of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Source: rudall30 / Adobe stock
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