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EGYPT IN THE BIBLE

The main focus of this paper is to outline broadly how Victorian authors appreciated ancient Egypt.  The interest is not on academic work per se, but in popular work that could be taken to reflect the general sentiments of the age.  At the same time some recent scholarship that either supports or contests some Victorian claims will be introduced.  From the start, however, this is not a detailed presentation of the many issues that arise when considering the vast question of how ancient Egypt influenced the Bible.  As a general remark, however, Egypt and Palestine are in close proximity.  It is not surprising that Egypt plays a large role in many events of the Bible. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, went to Egypt to escape a famine not long after he migrated to Canaan from his native Mesopotamia.  When he left Egypt he brought with him great wealth.  Joseph was sold as a slave and taken to Egypt.  He was finally exalted by the Pharaoh, and his family settled in Egypt during a famine.  They settled in the land of Goshen which is thought to be located on the southeastern edge of the Nile delta. It is significant to note that at this stage the political stability in Egypt allowed for central planning that could defeat the ravages of a famine.  The people of Palestine would, on the basis of the evidence presented in the Bible, be able to travel and settle in Egypt to escape social unrest at home. This is a motif that occur several times.  

Perhaps the most notable appearance of Egypt in the Bible regards the story of Moses.  He was born in Egypt and raised as a royal prince, only fleeing his station after he committed murder.  According to the Bible it was he who freed his people and led them to the promised land.  The image of Egypt as a slave owning society, where a capricious ruler may have absolute authority, is one that is often mentioned today.  Yet, as noted previously, Egypt served as a refuge for both Abraham and Joseph, and would do so also for the parents of Jesus. According to the Bible when Herod ordered the death to the children in Palestine, Jesus was taken to Egypt. Egypt was not foreign nor exotic, at least as compared to social conditions in Palestine.  

On a more significant and of course more controversial level the religion of ancient Egypt made contributions to the cultures of the Mediterranean, including the people of the Bible. While at the beginning of the Old Kingdom in the 3rd millennium B.C., only the rulers could expect to exist in an afterlife, by the New Kingdom - some eleven centuries later - the afterlife was more socially inclusive. At this time  all Egyptians could expect some form of life after death.  Elaborate rituals for preservation of the body after death were central to this belief.  As long as the physical form of the body existed the soul could enjoy life.  This would include the objects that were present in the tomb. Yet the afterlife would not be populated by all, but would be restricted to those who could demonstrate that their faults were minor and their virtues were the major part of their life's work.  Osiris, using a scale, would weigh the souls of the departed to determine their fate.  While no one would suggest that in death there was true equality, it was clear that there was a steady trend towards moral teachings rather than ritual in ancient Egyptian religion.  The exact way this relates to the religion expressed in the Bible is open to intense debate.  What is not open to debate is that ancient Egypt in this - as in so many other ways - had a profound effect on the Bible.


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