Egyptian God of Wisdom, Thoth
Emmet SweeneyAbraham and Egypt
According to biblical tradition, the Hebrews were a tribe of Mesopotamian nomads who, under the leadership of Abraham, or Abram, made their way to the “promised land” of Canaan. Their wanderings did not stop there, however, for we are told that during a time of famine Abraham led his followers into Egypt.
The Scriptures tell us very little of Abraham’s sojourn in the land of the Nile, save that after an initial welcome he and his followers were asked to leave by the pharaoh. The first century historian Josephus has rather more to say and provides a curious story, evidently derived from Jewish oral tradition. According to this, Abraham was the inventor of numerous arts and sciences, and it is hinted that he taught the Egyptians the rudiments of civilized life. Pharaoh, according to Josephus, gave Abraham,
… leave to enter into conversation with the most learned of the Egyptians; from which conversation his virtue and reputation became more conspicuous that they had been before.
For whereas the Egyptians were formerly addicted to different customs, and despised one another’s sacred and accustomed rites, and were very angry with one another on that account; Abram conferred with each of them, and confuting the reasonings they made use of, every one for their own practices, he demonstrated that such reasonings were vain and void of truth; whereupon he was admired by them in these great conferences as a very wise man, and one of great sagacity. He communicated to them arithmetic, and delivered to them the science of astronomy; for, before Abram came into Egypt they were unaccustomed with these parts of learning. (Jewish Antiquities, Bk. 1)
Until now, these claims of Josephus (and similar ones in Talmudic literature) have been dismissed as little more than the patriotic boasts of a Jew on behalf of the founder of his race. His claim that Abraham had taught the arts of civilization to the Egyptians – always regarded as one of the oldest of civilized nations – has always seemed absurd.
Thus matters have long rested. But with the advent of modern archaeology in the nineteenth century strange facts began to emerge which called Josephus’ words to mind. Flinders Petrie, for example, who did extensive work on the origins of dynastic Egyptian culture, was astonished to find that the very earliest stage of pharaohnic civilization was heavily influenced by Mesopotamia. (Petrie, The Making of Egypt, London, 1939) The evidence seemed conclusive, becoming more voluminous with each dig; and indeed the pronounced Mesopotamian inspiration behind the first Egyptian civilization has now become part of received wisdom.
In the 1971 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, I. E. S. Edwards devoted considerable space to the question:
“Foremost among the indications of early contacts between Egypt and Mesopotamia must be counted the occurrence in both countries of a small group of remarkably similar designs, mostly embodying animals.” (Edwards p. 41) The artistic parallels are detailed and striking: “Both on the Narmer palette and on the seals, the necks of the monsters are interlaced – a well-attested motif in Mesopotamian art, to which the interlaced serpents found on three protodynastic knife-handles may be an additional artistic parallel.” (Edwards, “The Early Dynastic Period in Egypt,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 1 part 2 (3rd ed) p. 41)
Some Egyptian work of this period looks as if it was actually produced in Mesopotamia. A famous ivory knife-handle, for example, found at Gebel el-Araq, “portrays in finely carved relief a bearded man clothed in Sumerian costume and holding apart two fierce lions.” In Edwards’ words, “… so closely does the composition of this scene resemble the so-called Gilgamesh motif, frequently represented on Mesopotamian scenes, that the source of its inspiration can hardly be questioned.”
Even the earliest Egyptian architecture, found in the Early Dynastic mastaba tombs, has an apparently Mesopotamian antecedent: “ … excavation in Mesopotamia has revealed the more primitive wooden constructions from which this style of architecture was no doubt derived, and … the earliest Mesopotamian examples in brick are considerably older than the first mastabas of the Naqada form found in Egypt, where thy appear quite suddenly at the beginning the First Dynasty.” (Edwards, loc cit. p. 43)
In terms of writing, the Sumerian and Egyptian hieroglyphic scripts showed “certain affinities”. Nonetheless, the differences between the two are “too significant to be disregarded,” and “it is probably correct to assess the Sumerian contribution to the Egyptian science of writing as mainly suggestive and limited to imparting a knowledge of the underlying principles.”
Scholars are at a loss in trying to identify these Mesopotamian culture-bearers. Commercials intercourse is regarded as “unlikely” because “the movement seems to have been in one direction only – from East to West.” The bearers of the Mesopotamian influences were “Sumerians who migrated to Egypt and settled in the Nile valley.” (Edwards, loc cit. p. 44) This was no great invasion but the movement, over a short period of time, of small groups. “There are good grounds for believing that the numbers of immigrants was not such as to constitute an invasion and that the flow could not have continued after the beginning of the First Dynasty.” (Edwards, loc cit. p. 45)
The reader could be excused for believing that in the above sentence Edwards was actually trying to describe, in modern terms, the migration of the Abraham tribe into Egypt. But of course no such thought could enter a contemporary scholar’s mind, since biblical chronology places Abraham, roughly, around 2000 BC, whereas Menes, the first pharaoh, is dated to slightly before 3000 BC – over 1000 years earlier! Thus any possible connection between the migration of Abraham to Egypt (which Talmudic sources placed during the reign of the first pharaoh) and the very real connections between Mesopotamia and Egypt which archaeology found at the start of the First Dynasty, was ruled out even before it was considered. Yet, strangely enough, there exists a whole corpus of other evidence linking Abraham to the First Dynasty; indeed to the first pharaoh: For the character and personality of Abraham bears close comparison with that of Menes, the semi-legendary founder of the First Dynasty.
First and foremost, Menes – like Abraham – was regarded as the founder of civilized life. A whole series of arts, sciences and skills were associated with his name. Later Egyptians insisted that it was with Menes that the people of the Nile Valley became a cultured and literate nation,
Both characters were also regarded as religious innovators. Thus in Genesis 17:9 Abraham initiates the custom of circumcision, a ritual that was to stay with the Hebrews throughout their history and was to become a central religious duty. In Moses’ time, the instrument used to perform the operation was a flint knife – suggestive of the custom’s remote antiquity. (Exodus 4:12) But circumcision was also one of the most ancient customs of Egypt, apparently introduced near the beginning of the dynastic period. Circumcision seems to have constituted a type of propitiatory sacrifice, and we know from Diodorus Siculus that Menes “taught the people to worship gods and offer sacrifices” (Diodorus i, 45, 1). The names Menes, which Herodotus renders as Min, reminds us of the phallic god Min, who was one of the most important deities in early dynastic times. It would appear that Menes is but an euhemerization of this god (no pharaoh named Menes has been found in the contemporary monuments), and if this is the case then the custom of circumcision most assuredly dates from the start of the First Dynasty and the connection with Abraham before even stronger.
As well as initiating circumcision, Abraham appears to have been credited, like Menes, with initiating the custom of flesh sacrifice. We recall at this point Abraham’s abortive sacrifice of Isaac. In the biblical account the patriarch does not sacrifice his son but instead offers a ram caught in a nearby thicket. For this reason, some commentators have argued that Abraham is hereby abolishing human sacrifice. This however was not the opinion of the great Eduard Meyer, who held that the legend originated in the sacrifice of children to a god named pachad yitzchak or “Fear of Isaac.” (Meyer and Luther, Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstämme (1906)). Human sacrifice, it should be stressed, was one of the most characteristic features of religious practice during the early dynastic epochs of both Egypt and Mesopotamia.
In summary then Abraham and Menes share at least three outstanding features:
- Both were credited with initiating civilized life and being cultural innovators.
- Both were believed to have introduced now forms of religious worship including, almost certainly, flesh sacrifice.
- Both were associated with circumcision and were linked to a phallic cult.
A further consideration adds yet more weight to the argument. Abraham, as well as Menes, was clearly related, in terms of general character, to the god Thoth/Hermes. Amongst the Egyptians, Thoth was regarded as the patron of learning and it was believed he bequeathed civilization to mankind. It was said that he invented language, writing and medicine. The Greeks regarded Thoth (whom they associated with their own Hermes) as one of the oldest of the gods. He had a frivolous and impetuous nature and, it was suggested, could be destructive. It was said he assisted the Three Fates in the invention of writing, astronomy, the musical scale, the arts of boxing and gymnastics, weights and measures and the cultivation of the olive tree (Diodorus, v, 75). He was also a religious innovator and was credited with initiating the custom of flesh sacrifice, when he cut two stolen cattle into twelve equal portions as an offering to the twelve gods (Apollodorus, iii, 10, 2).
Thoth was a deity of great importance during the First Dynasty and at least two pharaohs seem to have been named in his honour. He was also, like Menes and Abraham, linked to the cult of phallus-worship. Hermes/Thoth was called “caduceus” and his symbol was a staff intertwined with coiled serpents. He was worshipped throughout the Hellenic and Roman worlds round a sacred stone phallus, or “herme”. All of these symbols are of great importance during the Early Dynastic period (the intertwined serpents are found repeatedly in artwork from both Egypt and Mesopotamia during this epoch), and are clearly linked to the personality of Abraham, whose phallicism is expressed not only in his name (“father of a multitude”) and his initiating of circumcision, but also in the story of the apparently ritual homosexuality of Sodom.
A wealth of evidence therefore links the story of Abraham to the very beginnings of literate civilization in the Nile valley. The literary evidence is supported by archaeology and elucidated by it. Therefore the millennium which, in conventional chronology, separates Abraham from Menes is an illusion and the history of Egypt needs to be brought forward by a thousand years to tie in with that of Israel. In fact, making the Abraham and Menes epochs contemporary also demands that Imhotep be identified with Joseph; and using the same chronological measuring-rod we would expect the Exodus to have occurred at the end of the Third Dynasty, which would make the last pharaoh of that line, Huni, also known as Ka-nefer-ra, identical to the pharaoh of the Oppression. The first pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, Sneferu, would also have been a contemporary of the Exodus. Without, at this stage, going into the details of the Exodus and its place in history, we should note that one legend tells of a magician parting the waters of a sacred lake during the time of Sneferu, whilst the Hellenistic writer Artapanus of Alexandria told a strange tale about the Exodus, in which the pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites was named Khenephres.