|Biblical Egypt||by R. David Pogge|
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.
Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
When thou settest in the western horizon,
At daybreak, when thou arisest on the horizon,
All beasts are content with their pasturage;
Creator of seed in women,
How manifold it is, what thou hast made!
The countries of Syria and Nubia, the land of Egypt,
All distant foreign countries, thou makest their life (also),
Thy rays suckle every meadow.
Thou are in my heart,
The world came into being by thy hand,
New International Version
Praise the LORD, my soul.
LORD my God, you are very great;
The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment;
He set the earth on its foundations;
He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
He made the moon to mark the seasons,
How many are your works, LORD!
All creatures look to you
May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
I will sing to the LORD all my life;
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.)
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.
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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.