The ancient Egyptians created one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Over the centuries a united Egypt blossomed under its god-kings into a glorious kingdom that lasted more than 3,000 years. Best known for gigantic pyramids and imperious pharaohs, strange hieroglyphs and priceless treasures, Egypt was a byword for power and majesty.
Yet this great civilization declined, succumbing successively to the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. When the latter turned Egypt into a province, the reign of the pharaohs came to an end, and the once proud kingdom became but a shadow of its former glory. By the fourth century, most Egyptian temples were closed, and eventually the local and national gods ceased to be worshiped, being replaced by the new official religion of the empire, Christianity.
But ancient Egypt is remembered in other contexts as well. The Israelite patriarch Joseph rose to be second in command of Egypt, and there he sheltered his father, Jacob (Israel), and his family during a time of intense famine. About 200 years later the Israelites, now grown great in numbers, were downtrodden and persecuted by the pharaoh who then ruled Egypt. In a spectacular act of deliverance, Moses, an Israelite brought up as a prince of Egypt, led his people out of the country in the Exodus. In the process, the pharaoh was humbled by 10 remarkable plagues, at the culmination of which God declared that He was executing judgment against the Egyptian pantheon of gods (Exodus 12:12).
Most people have never stopped to consider that it was ancient Egypt’s proud reliance on its gods that led to their civilization being brought low. What follows is the remarkable story of Egypt and its gods, how they were dramatically humbled, and how the nation is destined to rise again as a great civilization, although dramatically different in character.
The Black Land
The Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt the gift of the Nile because it was inconceivable that the nation could have thrived without it. This great river is the longest in the world, snaking its way northward 4,160 miles from sources deep within the heart of Africa, before splaying out in a 120-mile-wide delta into the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile created a narrow, fertile valley bounded on all sides by inhospitable deserts. The otherwise barren land was transformed by this 750-mile-long oasis.
When the river overflowed its banks during the annual inundation, its rich silt acted like a fertilizer, giving rise to an abundant variety of agricultural produce that in turn brought great wealth. The Egyptians referred to their homeland as the Black Land, a reference to the color of this silt-enriched soil.
The Nile was also Egypt’s major source of travel and transportation. Indeed, the economic health of the kingdom depended on the river’s reliable flow. It enabled the Egyptians to become a settled agricultural society rather than a nation of desert nomads. In times of famine, Egypt became the regional granary capable of feeding surrounding peoples, as the Bible records it did for the early Israelites.
The surrounding desert brought security and created an effective barrier to foreign invaders. It also largely preserved the Egyptians from outside influences, and perhaps as a result, they became intensely inward looking, isolated and parochial in their thinking. In Egypt the sun always shone, there was little rainfall, no snow or fog, and normally plenty of water. All this produced a long-lasting culture of extraordinary homogeneity in which the continuity of religious belief and political authority was only rarely disrupted.
Life and the Nile
Perhaps not surprisingly, the waters of the inundation dominated Egyptian life: too much or too little could lead to havoc and reduced amounts of food—even famine. To an ancient Egyptian there were just three seasons of the year: Inundation (July to October), when much of the land was covered with flood water; Springing Forth (November to February), when the floods receded and the fields were sown with seed; and Deficiency (March to June), when the land was dry and the crops were harvested.
The Egyptians, like most ancient peoples, sought to understand their natural circumstances and the inevitable questions regarding life by relating them to various deities. They relied on a complex mythology and religion based on their own cyclical experience of life. The gods were simply the embodiment of natural forces whose power seemed otherwise inexplicable.
Herodotus called Egyptians “religious to excess, far beyond any other race of men.”
Over time, for a variety of reasons, many of the deities merged, mutated, multiplied, separated, intermarried and procreated in a confusing process of syncretism. Egypt became arguably the most polytheistic nation of the ancient world, with a vast pantheon of gods being worshiped at various times throughout the land. Herodotus called Egyptians “religious to excess, far beyond any other race of men.” Religion came to pervade every aspect of Egyptian daily life, with no separation between religious and governmental affairs.
Serving the Gods
The official state religion was concerned with maintaining the welfare of the gods. Egyptian gods did not live in heaven but in their resplendent temples on earth, where they ostensibly looked after the well-being of the country. Indeed the entire economy of Egypt was organized around these temples. They were set in large estates with a dedicated priesthood attending to the gods’ every need. The daily routine reflected the domestic life of ordinary people: the deities got up, ate breakfast, attended to the business of the day, and then ate again before retiring for the night.
Egypt was effectively run by an elite civil service of officials, who were often the highest of the priests themselves. Many lesser priests and other temple staff were not as well educated and were employed on a part-time basis only.
The ordinary people rarely came near the gods in their temple setting. Only the various orders of priests, as domestic servants to the gods, could do that. Consequently there is a fundamental difference between Egyptian worship and what we in the modern world are used to. “The Egyptian temple was nothing like a church, mosque or synagogue,” writes Barbara Watterson in Gods of Ancient Egypt (1984, 1996). “It was not a place to which one might go for spiritual comfort, to praise god, to discuss theological points or to be instructed in religious matters.” The majority of priests were not called upon to deliver stirring messages or inspired sermons; neither were they recognized as spiritual leaders or as authorities on religious law.
In theory, the chief priest at every temple was none other than the king of Egypt, the pharaoh. He was variously viewed as a god or as the son of a god—specifically, the son of Re (or Atum), the sun god, greatest of the cosmic gods, head of the Egyptian pantheon, and anciently the official national god. Either way, the pharaoh was regarded as having a divine nature, and he was therefore venerated as the highest priest in the land. He became the interface and intermediary between all the gods and the nation, and was viewed as the personification of all the gods in the pantheon, becoming each as the occasion demanded. His status was one of the most important aspects of Egyptian religion.
The pharaoh himself was deemed ultimately responsible for maintaining cosmic order on earth.
The pharaoh, then, was the linchpin of Egyptian society and the main unifying factor in the life of the nation. The Egyptians believed that the forces of chaos always threatened their existence, and these forces continually manifested themselves. Because the people believed that only the gods could keep chaos at bay, and because the pharaoh held sway over the gods, the pharaoh himself was deemed ultimately responsible for maintaining cosmic order on earth, including the fertility of the land and the proper function of the Nile. He presided over numerous rituals and annual festivals that were meant to ensure such order.
Egypt Meets Another God
All this background sets the scene for events recorded in the biblical book of Exodus, chapters 5 through 12. As that account states, the Israelites had been forced into bondage by the Egyptians and turned into a downtrodden slave people. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus records that the Israelites were made to build canals, city walls and pyramids during their period of servitude.
The Old Testament records that God foretold this period of slavery (see Genesis 15:13). But He also promised a most remarkable deliverance (verse 14). The result was the epic story we know as the Exodus. This deliverance involved a series of catastrophes that God used to humble the Egyptians and undermine faith in their gods and their pharaoh. Through 10 successive plagues and the deliverance of the Israelites, God taught the Egyptians, and particularly the pharaoh himself, that it was He who was the true God (Exodus 7:3–5).
Each time Moses asked the obdurate and proud pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt, the ruler hardened his heart and refused. The plagues struck right at the heart of the pharaoh’s role as guardian of Egypt’s economy and the incarnation of its gods. Each plague amply demonstrated the impotence of the pharaoh and the other Egyptian deities, exposing the emptiness of the people’s worship. Eventually the pharaoh’s own servants pleaded with him to release the Israelites. “Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” they asked him (Exodus 10:7). It seems that confidence in the pharaoh and the gods he represented began to evaporate as the kingdom was brought to its knees.
What lessons might we learn today from this remarkable account?
The ancient Egyptians were a proud and self-assured people. In fact, historian Paul Johnson describes them as “perhaps the most self-confident people the world has ever known: . . . [They] did not regard themselves as a chosen people; they were, quite simply, people. Other humans fell into another category” (The Civilization of Ancient Egypt, 1978, 1999).
The Egyptians, led by their proud god-king, worshiped a multitude of gods that were shown not to be gods at all but human inventions. The God of Israel, whom the Egyptians rejected, was demonstrating through the 10 plagues that all expressions of nature are in reality the handiwork of just one true God.
The apostle Paul, writing about the pagan Romans of his day, maintained that this true God could be known and understood by His creation. “Ever since the creation of the world,” he declared, “his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20, Revised Standard Version).
“They became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.”
When people rejected this God, something happened to their minds: “They became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. . . . [They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (verses 21–23).
This appears to be an apt description of the ancient Egyptians’ mindset, so often repeated by other cultures down through the ages. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (verse 25).
God of Israel and Egypt?
Egypt was one of the first and greatest of human civilizations. Yet its magnificence and splendor came to an end. Why? Just as God said He would, He executed judgment on all of Egypt’s gods. He taught Pharaoh and his people a lesson: that He is the one true sovereign God whom they should acknowledge and obey.
The leaders of Egypt never really learned this lesson. Almost a thousand years later, God foretold that Egypt “shall be the lowliest of kingdoms; it shall never again exalt itself above the nations, for I will diminish them so that they will not rule over the nations anymore” (Ezekiel 29:15). Over centuries of decline and invasion, this is exactly what happened.
This is not the end of the story, however. Whereas ancient Egypt’s rejection of God led to disaster, the Scriptures proclaim that Egypt will one day come to know Him and look to Him (Isaiah 19:19–25), and that He will heal the nation. Furthermore, they will learn to live in peace with erstwhile enemies and together with them “bow the knee” as the people of the true God. At that time, because “righteousness exalts a nation” (Proverbs 14:34), Egypt will become truly blessed and in turn become a great blessing to other nations.