Has God Always Been God? Egyptian Sacred Writings and the Old Testament
Interpreting an ancient text is not always an easy task. If we fail to understand the cultural and historical context in which that work was composed, it can be easy to misinterpret its author’s intention. This is just as true of the books of the Bible as it is of other ancient works, whether that be Homer’s Iliad or the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and for that reason scholars have long sought to understand what similarities the ancient Hebrews who composed the Old Testament scriptures shared with their neighbors.
Unfortunately, this practice has led many to emphasize similarities to the point of dismissing aspects of the Old Testament which were wholly unique to Jewish thought. One striking example of this unfortunate overstep is the effort among some to demonstrate the ancient Hebrews conceived of their God as ontologically (in the nature of His being) similar to the gods of other middle eastern religions.
Boiled down to its simplest form, this argument goes as follows: Middle Eastern religions, in particular Egyptian sacred writings, describe their gods as “eternal,” while holding to a mythology in which these same gods have a beginning to their existence – an origin. Therefore, when the Hebrew scriptures apply such terms as “eternal” or “everlasting,” we must understand them in the same context.
But is this a valid argument? To decide, let us consider first the Egyptian conception of time and eternity, and then the Hebrew, allowing both cultures to define their own terms.
Egyptian Creation Myths
Since we are comparing the God of the Jews to those of the Egyptians, it would be helpful to first understand the origin of the gods according to Egyptian myth. Though Egyptian creation mythologies vary greatly, and are seemingly self-contradictory by nature, what they have in common is the idea that all things (including the gods^) emerged first from the “primordial waters” personified by the masculine entity Nun1.
Here we see our first paradox: although Nun is personified to the point of being masculine (and in many myths has a feminine consort, Naunet), Nun is not a true god, but rather a Primeval Force or Creative Element. Although all things arose from Nun, there were no temples or priests devoted to him2, and yet all temples had some symbol (such as a pool) which represented him. In early Egyptian creation myths, Nun and his consort were also together with six other creative forces which made up an Ogdad (group of eight forces) responsible for all things coming into being. Of these eight, none were afforded any place beyond a mere “Force” originally. Later, however, one of these forces – Amun, who represented the masculine form of “air” or “That which is hidden,” was considered a true divinity in his own right, particularly once conflated with the sun god Ra to form Amun-Ra, we will return to Amun-Ra later.
Egyptian Concepts of “Neheh” and “Djet”
To us who are bound by western thought, these creation myths must be unsatisfactory. There is no attempt to explain where Nun or the rest of this Ogdad of personified-non-entities stem from. Even when we interpret Nun as “nothingness” envisioned as water, we still have no sense that a true “beginning” to all things has been explained, as there is no explanation as to why gods and the world should arise from Nun. This however, is at least in part due to the fact that the Egyptians did not have a conception of “Time” and “Eternity” which we, influenced by Judeo-Christian thought, take for granted as universal and obvious.
The terms often translated as “Time” (Neheh) and “Eternity” (Djet) in Egyptian texts are merely translated that way in order to allow the reader some general grasp of what it being conveyed, yet the Egyptian terms themselves are so fundamentally different that there is no true English (or any other Western tongue) equivalent3.
Perhaps the best understanding of Neheh is to understand it as “change” or “occurrence.” The occurrence itself has a lasting effect which continues on, and this lasting effect is “Djet” – the enduring continuation or result of that which has occurred.
The Egyptians visualized Neheh as the rising sun, and Djet as the evening sun when it sets. There is no attempt to incorporate anything that lays beyond the start of the day, or what comes after the end, into the Egyptian perception of reality, there is simply Neheh, the rising of the sun, and Djet, the completion or fullness of Neheh’s effect4. The two terms are entirely temporal.
When we understand this, we see why there was no attempt to explain Nun – the waters from which all things emerged – or what came before him, or how Nun came to be. There was simply Neheh, (the first rising up out of the waters) followed by its lasting effect – Djet, and Egyptian mythology did not even think to reach beyond those two concepts.
Interpreting Egyptian Writings in light of “Neheh” and “Djet”
With this understanding, we can see a new dimension to references in Egyptian writings to a god, such as Osiris, as “Djet.” Osiris is called “he who remains matured,” he is Djet, because he endures as the fully realized effect of his Neheh* (his occurrence or origin). Osiris is not “eternal,” on the contrary, he is very temporal, as the Egyptians simply had no category for that which existed outside the bounds of his beginning and its enduring result.
Even myths from later periods in Egypt’s history do not escape these confines. Amun-Ra eventually became unique among the “Primordial Forces” as the only one to be worshiped as a true god in his own right. One sacred inscription describes him as the one who “came into being by himself,” yet virtually in the same breath says he rose out of the primordial waters (Nun) as a living fire5. This living fire rising out of the waters is the first rising of the sun (Neheh), and Amun-Ra is Djet.
The Hebrew God
From the very first line of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures draw a stark contrast between their YHWH and the gods of the Egyptians. Moses, while leading his people out of the land of Egypt, opens his account with the declaration “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.6”
Armed with an understanding of Egyptian semantics, how can we not read “Neheh” in the word “beginning?” And yet the God of the Bible does not originate at this Neheh, he preexists it. Indeed, he is the origin of this first Neheh. While the Egyptians could fathom only personal deities that exist inside the temporal framework of their understanding, Moses begins by preaching a God who existed before the beginning.
Before the Exodus, when Moses was confronted by this God in the image of a burning bush, he asks what god he should tell the Israelites has sent him, to which God replied “I am who I am,7” which can also be rendered, “I am the one who is, tell them the I Am – the existing one – sent you.” This simple response not only denies the existence of other gods, it rises above the very framework of their existence. God is the one that simply exists, not the one that came to be and is now “Djet.”
The Prologue to the Gospel of John
Fifteen hundred years after the Exodus, New Testament writers (themselves Jews) reaffirmed and strengthened Moses' understanding of God. In the prologue to his Gospel, the Apostle John affirms that the Jewish God originated all things, yet himself is without origin. He parallels the first lines of Genesis and declares “through him all things came into being, and without him nothing came into being that has come into being.8” God himself did not come into being, but all things which have such an origin are derived from Him. He simply exists.
This radically different God of the Bible becomes for us the foundation of our understanding of time and eternity. Since all things have a beginning when God created them, eternity must by necessity rest outside time, where God is. Eternity does not merely stretch forward into infinity as the result of an original “Neheh,” it stretches backward into infinity as well. Thus when we read the Bible declaring “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God,**” we cannot merely understand this as lasting from the temporal horizons of sunrise to sunset, but rather a declaration that God truly always was, is, and will be.
^ For example, in the earliest reference to the first god, Atum, it is said that a hill rose out of the water of Nun, upon which Atum “created himself,” and then began the creation of all the other gods.
* C.F. A Hymn to Osiris Un-Nefer at the opening of the book of the dead. Osiris holds all the attributes of classic Egyptian “Djet” – he is everlasting, king of eternity who traverses millions of years in his existence, yet he is the “eldest son of Nut,” begotten by Keb.
** Psalm 90:2 – “Before the mountains were born, or you gave birth to the earth, and the world, Even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.”
- ancientegyptonline.co.uk – Ogdad of Hermopolis [For a simple version of Egyptian creation mythology, see the British Museum’s presentation - http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/gods/story/page1.html# ]
- ancientegyptonline.co.uk – Nun
- Jan Assman, “The Search for God in Ancient Egypt”
- C.F. Egyptian Book of the Dead, chapter 17 – the dead are said to join “Neheh” when it rises in the morning and “Djet” when it set in the evening.
- Theban tomb 53, see Assman, chapter 9
- Genesis 1:1
- Exodus 3:14
- John 1:3 – of particular importance in this discussion is John’s use of the word “Egeneto” – “To begin, to come into existence.” - Panta dia auto egeneto, kai xwris autou egeneto oude en ho gegonen. “All through him came into being, and without him came into being nothing which has come into being”