Biblical Egypt by R. David Pogge

Chapter 6

The Worship of Aten

Psalm 104

Section 6.1 - The Great Hymn to Aten

Many scholars have noted a similarity between Psalm 104 1 and The Great Hymn to Aten. Many (but not all) believe there must have been some plagiarism; but who plagiarized from whom?

Psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and theologians recognize the fact that man needs God. Voltaire famously said, "Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer." (If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.) Secular scholars believe that is exactly what happened. They think all religions were invented by well-meaning priests to bring order to society and meaning to life.

They can’t be blamed for thinking that because the only two possibilities are that they are right in every case, or they are right in every case except one. There can be (at most) only one true religion. Since there are countless religions in the world, the vast majority of religions must be fables invented by man to fulfill man’s need for God.

Some scholars believe Akhenaten was the first monotheist, and that Akhenaten’s short excursion into monotheism led to Judaism. Those of us who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God believe that Adam was the first monotheist, and Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses (and many others) believed in one god long before Akhenaten did.

But scholars who believe that the Bible is a fable of human origin don’t believe that any of those people actually existed. Therefore, they have to come up with an explanation for why so many religions have many gods, but Judaism has just one. They just can’t agree upon what that explanation is.

Some scholars agree with Dr. James K. Hoffmeier, who thinks that Judaism is based on Akhenaten’s short-lived experiment with monotheism; but Donald B. Redford disagrees.

“There is little or no evidence to support the notion that Akhenaten was a progenitor of the full-blown monotheism that we find in the Bible. The monotheism of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament had its own separate development—one that began more than half a millennium after the pharaoh’s death.” 2

Some scholars, who believe Judaism was invented sometime near the end of the 19th Dynasty by anonymous Jewish scribes, think Psalm 104 was written by an unknown composer at that time, and they ascribe its similarity to The Great Hymn to the Aten as just a coincidence, because it could not possibly have been remembered 400 or 500 years later. After all, the Egyptians did everything they could to destroy Akhenaten and everything he believed in. The inventors of Judaism could not possibly have known about it. It must be a coincidence.

It seems much more reasonable to me that Psalm 104 was sung by the Israelites living in Egypt. It was one of many hymns passed down through oral tradition for hundreds of years and eventually included when the book of Psalms was created by an unknown editor shortly after the reign of King David. Akhenaten heard Psalm 104, and many other hymns, sung by the Israelites. Akhenaten associated Aten with the creator the Israelites worshipped, the Light of the World. He translated the essence of the Hebrew hymns into his native language. It was written in hieroglyphics in Aye’s tomb, which is how we know about it today.

I think The Great Hymn to Aten is strong evidence that the Israelites actually were in Egypt, worshipping God during the Second Intermediate Period and the 18th Dynasty. The Israelites sang Psalm 104 (and other hymns) in praise of God during their time in Egypt, and Akhenaten heard it.

Section 6.2 - What Akhenaten Heard

Some Egyptologist claim that Psalm 104 was heavily influenced by The Great Hymn to the Aten. Here is a side-by-side comparison so you can make the comparison for yourself.

Just in case you don’t read hieroglyphics and Hebrew, here are English translations side-by-side. (Phonetic spellings of Egyptian names often differ. “Aton” is an alternate spelling of “Aten.”)

The Great Hymn to the Aten

Translated by John A. Wilson 3

Praise of Re Har-akhti, Rejoicing on the Horizon, in His Name as Shu Who is in the Aton-disc, living forever and ever; the living great Aton who is in jubilee, lord of all that the Aton encircles, lord of heaven, lord of earth, lord of the House of Aton in Akhet-Aton; (and praise of) the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, who lives on truth, the Lord of the Two Lands: Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re; the Son of Re, who lives on truth, the Lord of Diadems: Akh-en-Aton, long in his lifetime; (and praise of) the Chief Wife of the King, his beloved, the Lady of the Two Lands: Nefer-neferu-Aton Nefert-iti, living, healthy, and youthful forever and ever; (by) the Fan-Bearer on the Right Hand of the King ... Eye.

He says:

Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
Thou living Aton, the beginning of life!
When thou art risen on the eastern horizon,
Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.
Thou art gracious, great, glistening, and high over every land;
Thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all that thou hast made:
As thou art Re, thou reachest to the end of them;
(Thou) subduest them (for) thy beloved son.
Though thou art far away, thy rays are on earth;
Though thou art in their faces, no one knows thy going.

When thou settest in the western horizon,
The land is in darkness, in the manner of death.
They sleep in a room, with heads wrapped up,
Nor sees one eye or the other.
All their goods which are under their heads might be stolen,
(But) they would not perceive (it).
Every lion is come forth from his den;
All creeping things, they sting.
Darkness is a shroud, and the earth is in stillness,
For he who made them rests in his horizon.

At daybreak, when thou arisest on the horizon,
When thou shinest as the Aton by day,
Thou drivest away the darkness and givest thy rays.
The Two Lands are in festivity every day,
Awake and standing upon (their) feet,
For thou hast raised them up.
Washing their bodies, taking (their) clothing,
Their arms are (raised) in praise at thy appearance.
All the world, they do their work.

All beasts are content with their pasturage;
Trees and plants are flourishing.
The birds which fly from their nests,
Their wings are (stretched out) in praise to thy ka.
All beasts spring upon (their) feet.
Whatever flies and alights,
They live when thou hast risen (for) them.
The ships are sailing north and south as well,
For every way is open at thy appearance.
The fish in the river dart before thy face;
Thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.

Creator of seed in women,
Thou who makest fluid into man,
Who maintainest the son in the womb of his mother,
Who soothest him with that which stills his weeping,
Thou nurse (even) in the womb,
Who givest breath to sustain all that he has made!
When he descends from the womb to breathe
On the day when he is born,
Thou openest his mouth completely,
Thou suppliest his necessities.
When the chick in the egg speaks within the shell,
Thou givest him breath within it to maintain him.
When thou hast made him his fulfillment within the egg, to break it,
He comes forth from the egg to speak at his completed (time);
He walks upon his legs when he comes forth from it.

How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
They are hidden from the face (of man).
O sole god, like whom there is no other!
Thou didst create the world according to thy desire,
Whilst thou wert alone: All men, cattle, and wild beasts,
Whatever is on earth, going upon (its) feet,
And what is on high, flying with its wings.

The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,
Thou settest every man in his place,
Thou suppliest their necessities:
Everyone has his food, and his time of life is reckoned.
Their tongues are separate in speech,
And their natures as well;
Their skins are distinguished,
As thou distinguishest the foreign peoples.
Thou makest a Nile in the underworld,
Thou bringest forth as thou desirest
To maintain the people (of Egypt)
According as thou madest them for thyself,
The lord of all of them, wearying (himself) with them,
The lord of every land, rising for them,
The Aton of the day, great of majesty.

All distant foreign countries, thou makest their life (also),
For thou hast set a Nile in heaven,
That it may descend for them and make waves upon the mountains,
Like the great green sea,
To water their fields in their towns.
How effective they are, thy plans, O lord of eternity!
The Nile in heaven, it is for the foreign peoples
And for the beasts of every desert that go upon (their) feet;
(While the true) Nile comes from the underworld for Egypt.

Thy rays suckle every meadow.
When thou risest, they live, they grow for thee.
Thou makest the seasons in order to rear all that thou hast made,
The winter to cool them,
And the heat that they may taste thee.
Thou hast made the distant sky in order to rise therein,
In order to see all that thou dost make.
Whilst thou wert alone,
Rising in thy form as the living Aton,
Appearing, shining, withdrawing or aproaching,
Thou madest millions of forms of thyself alone.
Cities, towns, fields, road, and river --
Every eye beholds thee over against them,
For thou art the Aton of the day over the earth....

Thou are in my heart,
And there is no other that knows thee
Save thy son Nefer-kheperu-Re Wa-en-Re,
For thou hast made him well-versed in thy plans and in thy strength.

The world came into being by thy hand,
According as thou hast made them.
When thou hast risen they live,
When thou settest they die.
Thou art lifetime thy own self,
For one lives (only) through thee.
Eyes are (fixed) on beauty until thou settest.
All work is laid aside when thou settest in the west.
(But) when (thou) risest (again),
[Everything is] made to flourish for the king,...
Since thou didst found the earth
And raise them up for thy son,
Who came forth from thy body: the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, ... Ak-en-Aton, ... and the Chief Wife of the King ... Nefert-iti, living and youthful forever and ever.

Psalm 104

New International Version

Praise the LORD, my soul.

LORD my God, you are very great;
    you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment;
    he stretches out the heavens like a tent
     and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
    and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
    flames of fire his servants.

He set the earth on its foundations;
    it can never be moved.
You covered it with the watery depths as with a garment;
    the waters stood above the mountains.
But at your rebuke the waters fled,
    at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
they flowed over the mountains,
    they went down into the valleys,
    to the place you assigned for them.
You set a boundary they cannot cross;
    never again will they cover the earth.

He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
    it flows between the mountains.
They give water to all the beasts of the field;
    the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
    they sing among the branches.
He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
    the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
    and plants for people to cultivate—
    bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
    oil to make their faces shine,
    and bread that sustains their hearts.
The trees of the LORD are well watered,
    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
    the stork has its home in the junipers.
The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
    the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.

He made the moon to mark the seasons,
    and the sun knows when to go down.
You bring darkness, it becomes night,
    and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
The lions roar for their prey
    and seek their food from God.
The sun rises, and they steal away;
    they return and lie down in their dens.
Then people go out to their work,
    to their labor until evening.

How many are your works, LORD!
    In wisdom you made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious,
    teeming with creatures beyond number—
    living things both large and small.
There the ships go to and fro,
    and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

All creatures look to you
    to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
    they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
    they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
    they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
    they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
    they are created,
    and you renew the face of the ground.

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
    may the LORD rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
    who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

I will sing to the LORD all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
    as I rejoice in the LORD.
But may sinners vanish from the earth
    and the wicked be no more.

Praise the LORD, my soul.

Praise the LORD.

There is another, shorter version of The Great Hymn to the Aten on the Internet. 4

Comparing English translations of Psalm 104 and The Great Hymn to the Aten, I don’t think a copyright court would find any evidence of infringement or plagiarism. (But the lines of plagiarism can easily be blurred, as Robin Thicke sadly discovered. 5 ) The two hymns just aren’t that similar. Perhaps something gets lost in translation, but when I tried to match up lines in Psalm 104 with lines in the Great Hymn, I could not do it.

The Great Hymn says Aten is the light of the earth, the creator and protector of all living things, the one responsible for biological reproduction, provider of food and the controller of the weather who is too mysterious to understand and dwells in the heart. Psalm 104 says pretty much the same things, but uses different examples. There are lots of other Hebrew psalms which describe the God of Abraham using the same terms. Any of those other psalms could just as easily have been the inspiration for The Great Hymn; and I believe they collectively were.

I don’t want to be misunderstood on this point, so let me say it again, slightly differently. I believe Akhenaten was inspired to write The Great Hymn to the Aten after hearing many of the hymns sung by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, not just Psalm 104. The Great Hymn and Psalm 104 just aren’t similar enough to say that one is a direct copy of the other.

Some scholars believe Akhenaten was the first monotheist, and that Akhenaten’s short excursion into monotheism led to Judaism. Those of us who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God believe that Adam was the first monotheist, and Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses (and many others) believed in one god long before Akhenaten did. It seems much more likely that the Egyptians heard Hebrews singing Psalm 104, and several other hymns praising the creator, and based The Great Hymn to the Aten on Hebrew psalms.

I can only speculate as to why scholars would say Psalm 104 is based on The Great Hymn. I suspect they want to believe that Judaism has its roots in Akhenaten’s excursion into monotheism, and are grasping at straws for proof. (And they haven’t read enough of the Psalms to know how many other Psalms say the same thing.)

Section 6.3 - The Temples to Aten

After his conversion, Akhenaten built a new capital city called Akhetaten (known today as Amarna). The city contained two temples dedicated to Aten. There were no temples to the other Egyptian gods. The city was built in a previously uninhabited area which had not been polluted by temples to other gods. Akhenaten took the First Commandment seriously.

The Small Aten Temple had offering tables around the Great Altar right inside the front door.

The Small Aten Temple 6

The Great Temple of the Aten was much larger.

The Great Temple of the Aten 7

It is my belief that Akhenaten based his religious reformation on the religious practices he learned from the Israelites who lived in Egypt before the Exodus. The first thing he learned is that there is just one god, Aten, the God of Light, who created all things and sustains life. The description of the God of Abraham expressed in the Hebrew psalms was the basis for the Hymn to the Aten. Aten is the Egyptian name for the God of Abraham.

The architectural evidence suggests the second thing he must have learned is that offerings are important! The Great Temple of the Aten contained a total of 698 offering tables. The Small Aten Temple also had dozens of offering tables near the front door. There must have been a reason that these two temples had such easy access to so many offering tables. The primary purpose of the temple must have been to make offerings, which is why the temples were filled with offering tables.

Many people today might equate “offerings” with “waste.” The ancient Egyptians left gifts of food and gold and all sorts of other things sealed up in a tomb for the dead person to enjoy in the afterlife. They were unused and wasted (until a tomb robber took them). In some religions today, people leave food in front of idols, where it rots (until a wild animal scavenges it). Dead people and idols can’t use the offerings left to them, so the offerings are wasted.

Why did Akhenaten’s temples have hundreds of offering tables? Did the Egyptians leave hundreds of pounds of food lying around in the temple in case Aten got hungry? Certainly not.

Secular scholars believe that Moses got his ideas from Akhenaten. They have it backwards. Akhenaten got his idea about offerings from the Israelites. Israelites did not waste food the way pagans did. There is a good reason why they gave offerings to God, and you should, too, for the same reason.

The sacrificial system did not originate with Moses. Long before Moses, people worshipped God with sacrifices. Sacrifices and offerings began in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve realized they were naked because of their sin, God sacrificed an animal to get skins to cover their nakedness. 8 The death of the innocent animal which died for their sins foreshadowed the death of the innocent Lamb of God who died for our sins. Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission for sin. 9 Cain did not recognize this, so his sin offering was not accepted. 10

After the Flood, Noah sacrificed one of every kind of clean animal (which he had taken in groups of seven on the Ark 11) leaving three breeding pairs of clean animals. He did not sacrifice any unclean animals, partly because if he sacrificed one, the remaining one could not reproduce; but mostly because God is not honored by unclean sacrifices.

The Bible tells us Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite sacrificed seven bulls and seven rams. 12 Abraham sacrificed a ram on Mt. Moriah 13 long before Moses was born. Job made sacrifices on behalf of his children. 14

[Laban also said to Jacob,] “May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac. He offered a sacrifice there in the hill country and invited his relatives to a meal. After they had eaten, they spent the night there. [Genesis 31:53-54, NIV].

They didn’t leave their offerings on the altar to rot or be eaten by animals. They ate the sacrifice at a feast with their relatives.

During the Second Intermediate Period, Jacob made a sacrifice at Beersheba before taking his entire family to Egypt. 15 During the New Kingdom, Moses asked Amenhotep III for permission to take the Israelites out to the desert to offer sacrifices to the Lord. 16 The Israelites had been making offerings to God for 430 years in Egypt before the Exodus, and kept making them when they left Egypt.

Jethro was delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel in rescuing them from the hand of the Egyptians. He said, “Praise be to the Lord, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God. [Exodus 18:9-12, NIV]

God told Moses how to make offerings when they reached the Promised Land. 17

When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it or on the next day; anything left over until the third day must be burned up. If any of it is eaten on the third day, it is impure and will not be accepted. Whoever eats it will be held responsible because they have desecrated what is holy to the Lord; they must be cut off from their people. [Leviticus 19:5-8, NIV]

But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you. [Deuteronomy 12:5-7, NIV]

Offerings are intended to remind you of how much God has blessed you. You would not have any food at all without God.

Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always. But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the Lord your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the Lord will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice. [Deuteronomy 14:22-26, NIV]

The offerings were to be shared with the priests.

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Anyone who brings a fellowship offering to the Lord is to bring part of it as their sacrifice to the Lord. With their own hands they are to present the food offering to the Lord; they are to bring the fat, together with the breast, and wave the breast before the Lord as a wave offering. The priest shall burn the fat on the altar, but the breast belongs to Aaron and his sons. You are to give the right thigh of your fellowship offerings to the priest as a contribution. The son of Aaron who offers the blood and the fat of the fellowship offering shall have the right thigh as his share. From the fellowship offerings of the Israelites, I have taken the breast that is waved and the thigh that is presented and have given them to Aaron the priest and his sons as their perpetual share from the Israelites.’” [Leviticus 7:28-34, NIV]

This explains why Akhenaten’s temples had hundreds of offering tables. Hundreds of people must have been making offerings at once. The Egyptians ate there as a unified group, symbolically sharing the consecrated food with Aten in humble thanksgiving for blessing them with that food. It was a precursor to Holy Communion. The Egyptians were to be united in their thanksgiving to Aten (God) as they ate a ceremonial meal together.

Back to Chapter 5 Table of Contents On to Chapter 7

Footnotes:

1 In most English translations it is Psalm 104. Because the Psalms are numbered differently, it is Psalm 103 in the Septuagint, Latin Vulgate, and Russian Bibles.
2 Aspects of Monotheism", Donald B. Redford, Biblical Archeology Review, 1996
3 Source: Pritchard, James B., ed., The Ancient Near East - Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958, pp. 227-230. http://katherinestange.com/egypt/hymn2.htm
4 Source: Nicolas Grimal. A History of Ancient Egypt, Ian Shaw, translator, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1992 (English translation), http://katherinestange.com/egypt/hymn.htm
5 Robin Thicke was found guilty of plagiarism in his song, "Blurred Lines."
6 https://www.amarnaproject.com/documents/pdf/amarna-reports-5/Chapter-6-Investigation-of-the-Small-Aten-Temple.pdf
7 I took a screen shot of this slide in Dr. Barry Kemp’s August 14, 2021, lecture and annotated it.
8 Genesis 3:10-21
9 Hebrews 9:22
10 Genesis 4:3-7
11 Genesis 7:2
12 Job 42:8-9
13 Genesis 22:13
14 Job 1:4-5
15 Genesis 46:1
16 Exodus 3:18-20
17 See most of Leviticus and Deuteronomy for details.