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
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
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
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
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
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.