The Egyptian imperial theocracy as model?

Doubtless, the most intimate relation between political power and cult was seen on the imperial level. The imperial god who received his regular cult in the imperial temple most clearly expressed the supreme authority of the state constitution. The king represents this order in personal union of supreme priest, supreme jurisdiction and territorial ruler. With the cult of the imperial god Amun in the imperial temple at Karnak the king cyclically renews the whole empire. Both halves of the empire - and not only these - are brought visibly, or semantically, together to form a unit at such imperial cults.

The imperial cult of the New Kingdom was a very impressive event, which attracted well thousands of spectators and pilgrims. The temple in Karnak was the largest and richest temple of Egypt. At the top of his 'nineness' (Amun's children Schu and Tefnut, their children Geb and Nut and their children Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys). Amun, the imperial god, disposed of a tremendous temple property and also of a costly priesthood. At the occasion of the Opetcult Amun annually leaves his temple and is carried in procession from Karnak to Luxor, the southern Harmi. Originally the festival lasted 11 days, however in the 20th dynasty it was extended to a duration of 27 days. The same God drives every 10 days from Karnak to Luxor, from there over the Nile, to sacrifice to his ancestors, who are buried there (today: Medinet Habu). A further and very large Theban celebration was the 'valley festival'. Its nucleus: Amun the imperial god undertakes his 'exodus' to visit the three temples and burial grounds of Mentuhotep, Thutmosis III. and of the queen Hatschepsut (Deir el Bahri). In the 18th dynasty this festival became the largest and most densely attended feast of the dead at the Theban necropolis. Graves were visited and sacrifices offered to the dead.

Usually 30 years after his ascent to the throne, the king celebrated his jubilee feast for the first time. This was a very important event and from then on it was repeated in periods of 3 years. In its centre the Djedpillar, an important symbol implying long duration and structurally a reed-pillar, was erected. The king went for a run which led him around four markers in the landscape, very likely an ancient land taking ritual. At the eve of the festival the statue of a king seems to have been buried (cyclic time). Further a circumambulation with Apis was performed and an arrow shooting into the four directions took place. Note that representations of the deities of the whole state were present.

All these traditional rites were not simply irrational 'fertility cults'. They were rather part of traditional ways of securing the hierarchical order of territories and the power over them. The festivals basically had the function to display the nuclear semantic system of territorial demarcation (gods) in public. And this formed part of a locally developed system of highest ontological values. It is remarkable, that the period in which Moses lived, emphasised the intimate connections between imperial power and 'religion'. The New Kingdom builds gigantic temple compounds around Thebes for its Imperial god Amun in Karnak, Luxor and Medinet Habu (Amun). Under the Ramessides the large column hall of Karnak is erected. These temples, respectively the corresponding gods owned gigantic properties of lands. The Papyrus Wilbour shows, that in the period of the Ramessides the largest part of the country was found in the hands of the temples. <10>

Compared with these data the similarities to the Old Testament are evident. Moses state concept shows clear analogies to the imperial constitution of the New Kingdom in spite of its abstraction from physical conditions of the Egyptian case with its physically represented gods, temples, cults, and their traditional requirements (genealogies of gods, cult traditions). A tremendous process of abstraction takes place! It emerges with the merely written representation and also from very different circumstances. Moses writes a constitution for a social group which is sociopolitically still on the level of a nomadic tribal organisation. In addition, the population must acquire the country first in which it intends to become sedentary. There are no institutions yet on the level of a state, consequently no temples, no palaces, no king. The physical part is omitted in Moses constitution. The text is reduced extremely on the nuclear structure for basic support. The physical part can develop later, but the strongly reductive element remains dominant, namely the linear relationship God-Moses-people. Doubtless, this highly abstractive process has later favoured the concept 'religion'. In the following some details.

The most striking similarity are the territorial implications of the Hebrew god. The alliance with god means always primarily and above all land for the Hebrews, from the earliest indications of an alliance up to the land taking processes and to the kings. Striking is also the strong focus of the mosaic constitution on a personal figure at the top, which Moses occupies himself. On the basis of his intimate relation with the god sponsored by him, he at the same time legitimates himself. Evidently due to the particular circumstances Moses does not set up himself as a kingly figure. However, the union of his three functions as a 'leader of his people', as a 'high priest' and uppermost theocratic legislator, this all is only conceivable with reference to the model of the Egyptian state cult. The medium layer is formed by the Hebrew tribal chiefs and their genealogies (arch-fathers).

Naturally, the considerable multitude of local and provincial gods and their cults of the Egyptian prototype were omitted by Moses. He only used the higher imperial framework. Of course, this dissection, or isolation of the uppermost part would have been unthinkable in the case of Egypt! In this context it is remarkable, that Moses rigidly integrates the Hebrew folk tradition into the new state cult, for instance the slaughter festival of Passah, or the Sukkoth festival. Originally, both were doubtless of the autonomous cultic type. In comparison with Egyptian local cults, they have, however, no autonomy, but support the super structure with their autochthonous forms. These are now festivals focused on the Hebrew state god Jahwe. Seen from a modern standpoint, it needed tremendous courage to found a state with merely a written theocratic constitution. But this too can only be understood if one assumes a strong influence from the Egyptian model, in the sense that this provided what was legitimate at those times. Evidently the Egyptian imperial system knew considerable flexibilities in regard to divine genealogies.

The most admirable performance of Moses consisted in the fact, that he abstracted important structural elements from the Egyptian imperial cult and projected them in written form on the dynamic process of an organised flight, the exodus. In this dynamic process the essential points of the new constitution could be experimented with. Functionally it was related to a future place, the lands of Canaan, and to a future condition, the planned empire. Presumably, the Egyptian procession motive played an important role as a prototype. Incorporated in mobile forms (boat, 'palanquin') the Egyptian deity leaves the perennial place at the festival, enters into a dynamic phase, and ultimately, after the return, takes place at the old location again. In the case of Moses this is structured very similarly. The deity takes off from Egypt, followed by the population supporting it, the goal being to establish the deity at a new place. Upon arrival in the promised land, its population is expelled or subjected. The lands are occupied, brought into possession, and distributed to the 12 tribes. Later the state cult is instituted, priests are selected, a king is put on the throne. An empire has emerged.

Verbal abstraction from traditionally developed factual Egyptian conditions and 'transitional' validity of the script, of the alliance in view of a future factual state, these were the main conditions. The semantic dimension was omitted, the deity is represented only verbally, unquestionably this is the decisive innovation of the Old Testament: God speaks only. He is not represented physically, appears only very marginally and casually (pillar related to smoke and clouds) and, relatively abstracted, in the alliance-palanquin.

Basically related to this is also a structural characteristic which is basic for all books of Moses and his followers: God uses Moses to express His will to His people. However, this very important characteristic too might have had its precursors in Ancient Egypt. It was called 'to lay words into the mouth'. It was a normal, even basic, element of jurisdiction in Egyptian cults. The deity speaks in the voice of the priest, who interprets the fixed tradition - the 'will' - of the deity. In the interpretation of oracles it was known, and was likewise used in the formulation of decrees and prayers. Also the prophets in the Egyptian temples used this means of substitution for the pronunciation of sacred laws.

From this overall view of a state formation derived from the Egyptian prototype, another aspect becomes clear: the element of jealousy in the Old Testament, or the stereotype expression 'thou shalt have no other gods beside me'. This can be traced throughout the books of Moses and his followers. It shows a new and quite unusual significance. In fact, Moses demands loyalty to his constitution. The participation of the Hebrews at rites of other temples and their material support of other cults would have meant the weakening of Moses theocratic constitution. Not only sacrifices and contributions go to other cult systems. In case of conflicts, the supporter's spirits of resistance are lacking. And last but not least, all these 'superstructures' showed an immanent trend for expansion, according to the principle: the larger the territory, the more population, the richer the centre. It is important to remind here, that all Egyptian sanctuaries and temples on the local and provincial, as well as on the imperial level were primarily also nuclearly (not peripherally) installed border markers, which were originally preserved by cyclic renewal.

We said it already, Moses written constitution was a risky undertaking. It did not dispose of a traditional cult system, which was basic in the Egyptian constitutions of that time and naturally legitimated the territorial conditions by the factual tradition of cults and the genealogies of the deities. That 'credibility' or 'acceptance' of the population was an important theme, is shown below.

The Old Testament begins with the second book

We have considered Moses in his basic role as state founder and have tried to understand the circumstances by which his constitution came about. Now, in the following, the emphasis of our interest is more on his work. How is the hypothesis 'Moses as state founder' expressed in his books? If Moses has planned the constitution, how does this show? Consequently, the emphasis is now on his subjectively active person. That is to say, one would consider the story of his life. Surprisingly the second book quite clearly begins with Moses life. After a short mediating introduction it even directly starts with his birth. Is, maybe, this the real beginning of the Old Testament?

Let us try therefore in the following to read the Old Testament in this way as a report which is intimately related to the life of Moses. That is to say, we begin with the second book, which would then have to be considered also as the real beginning of the state founding history initiated by Moses. The text begins logically with the short curriculum of the state founder. It outlines very shortly his relationship to the court. Moses presents himself as the adopted son of a pharaonic daughter, which implies that he was brought up at the court, educated for a future position in the state-administration. With this extremely short sketch the role, which he acquires for himself, is legitimated in the eyes of the Hebrew population stationed in Egypt. In the whole process of the exodus he consequently is the main figure, the main protagonist of the books 2-5. In decisive events, he comes forth as the one, who propagates and confirms the alliance. He has the order, transmits the instructions, conducts the exodus until his last farewell-speech at Moab, where he dies.

Absolutely no doubts about Moses function as a state founder are possible with the book 'Joshua', the one that follows Moses 5th book. It is explicitly called the book of land taking. It describes very concretely, how the Hebrews conquer villages and cities, bring them into their possession. It reports quite into details, how the inhabitants of Canaan are expelled, how cities are burnt and destroyed, how the conquered lands are distributed among the 12 tribes of the Hebrews. The Canaanitic tribes are eradicated, 31 city-monarchies (e.g. Jerusalem, Hebron etc.) are conquered. Religion? Some events in this book are particularly interesting in our context, namely those, which show examples of cultic techniques of conquest. The city of Jericho was demonstratively menaced with a particular type of war-declaration to such an impressive extent that its walls collapsed naturally. Jericho was menaced during six days - every day - with one circumambulation. And on the 7th day even seven circumambulations were performed. The most important part of these circumambulations was the Holy Load, the physical representation, the mobile 'place' of the deity! (Note the parallel with the Egyptian sacred bark!). In other words, the city was symbolically occupied from outside'. The inhabitants knew exactly what this meant and opened the gates. However, after the easy conquest everything is cut to pieces, the inhabitants are expelled, the city is put on fire, all is burnt down and destroyed, except gold, silver and other metal ware. These luxury goods are incorporated into the cult treasure of the Hebrews. In other words, religion' served as a rather harsh war declaration with bloody consequences. This immanent 'cruelty' in Hebrew religion is often discussed, but not solved: maybe religion was not so much 'religion' at that time, but ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian law.

The following books too clearly outline stations of this particular state formation. The Book of the Judges tells us about the decay of the state formation process ('leaving faith of God'; holy Load gets lost!) and the books of Samuel and the Kings' report - like a chronicle - the factual construction of the kingdom.

In short, there are no doubts. The Old Testament is essentially and basically the founding history of a theocratic state. The books Moses 2 to 5 are its constitution. A deity is established, which defines this empire and protects it. The promised lands are 'developed' first on the level of the union of the twelve tribes, then, later, on the level of a factual kingdom. In this type of Ancient Near Eastern theocratic constitution God is a necessary requisite, the legal basis to it. Nota bene, the term 'alliance', which defined the relationship between Moses, the Hebrews and God, was essentially and fundamentally also a very profane legal term. Somehow this is so evident, that one wonders, how one can interpret this differently - at least today! Very probably the view on the constitutional character was covered up by the strong focus of the script on the merely verbal idea of God. It was presumably this virtual condensation which emerged with the written form, which was beneficial to the religious interpretation. Through all books the term God always remains the absolutely central reference point. God expresses himself essentially 'linguistically', as subject. He appears to be closely related with the Holy Land, but remains somehow outside as spiritual being. However, this spirituality becomes very questionable, if we read that the deity outlines realities, which can clearly be associated to the Hebrew folk tradition. Particularly astonishing are the cases where God knows how to describe the traditional Sukkoth festival with its foliage huts surprisingly exactly. Similarly in other cases where the invisible spirit enumerates the list of requested slaughtered sacrifices most precisely.

We have taken a short look at the books of Moses and his successors, and have ascertained that these books deal essentially with the process of a state formation. All the descriptions have essentially this goal. From its basic motive the work of Moses was rather a constitution, not religion.