Understanding the Egyptians view of life, death and the afterlife can help bring to light the context within which some of the Biblical text was written and one of the cultures it emerged out of. Dr Ogden Geolet who works in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at New York University has written a commentary on the corpus of literature and traditions which constitute the Egyptian “Book of the Dead.” In his commentary, he explains that the Egyptian view of the afterlife was never completely unified. Views changed over time in part because there were no texts that were regarded as immutable. The Egyptian views were also never based on a single authoritative text like other religions. The Egyptians were a polytheistic culture which lent itself more to acceptance and accommodating pluralism in regards to religious views of the afterlife than a monotheistic culture like the Israelites. This did not mean however that there were not a common set of ideas that were culturally agreed upon and put into practice over time in regards to the afterlife. Before we take a look at the Egyptian Book of the Dead, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of how Egypt played a prominent role in the Biblical narrative and why it may be important to understand how the Egyptian religious beliefs and culture might have influenced the writing of the Bible.
Egypt in the Biblical Text
The first five books of the Bible are; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These books combined are called the Torah or the Law of Moses because Moses is thought to have written the first five books of the Bible. In examining the Egyptian view of life, death and afterlife we can see there are similarities between their beliefs and what is written in the first five books of the Bible. Scholars have pointed out several similarities between the Israelite creation account in Genesis and the Egyptian creation account. Three of the most important characters in the Bible, Abram, Moses and Jesus, all spent a portion of their lives in Egypt.
1.Abraham in Egypt
After the creation account is told in the book of Genesis, it is not long until the narrative itself takes the story to the land of Egypt. In Genesis chapter twelve, we are told that Abram went to Egypt. (Gen 12:10) After some time in Egypt Abraham and his wife Sarah lost their faith in God’s plan and decide to take things into their own hands. As a result, Abram sleeps with his Egyptian slave Hagar and together they have a son Ishmael. (Gen 25:12) Abrams and Sarah also have a son of their own, Isaac and we are told that he settled outside of Egypt. (Gen 26:2) God’s people have come into Egypt and left Egypt but circumstances quickly led them back. Already we can see that half of Abraham’s lineage will come from Egyptian descent.
2. Israel and Moses in Egypt
It is not long after this, that Issacs’s son Joseph, is sold into slavery to Egyptians by his jealous brothers. (Gen 37:28) While Joseph’s brothers meant this for his harm, God used the circumstances to bless him and he eventually rose to second in command in Egypt. (Gen 41:41) This ended up allowing Joseph to save his family from a time of famine in the land. As a result, Isaac and Joseph’s families move back to Egypt and settle in the land. (Gen 47:11) These families grow and flourish and are soon seen as a threat by the Egyptian Pharaoh. As a result, the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt for a long period of time. (see Exodus) The book of Exodus tells the story of an Israelite boy who grows us as an Egyptian prince. (Exodus 2:10) Eventually, God uses this boy named Moses, to lead his people out of Egypt and free them from slavery. (Exodus 12:31) After the Israelites have escaped the bondage of the Egyptians however they enslave themselves to idolatry, worshipping the false gods of the Egyptians. As the story of God’s people continues, God is constantly reminding the people of Israel that he is the God that led them out of slavery in Egypt and he is continually warning them not to fall back into the adulterous worship of pagan gods like their forefathers.
3.Jesus in Egypt
The Biblical account of Jesus childhood does not give us much to work with. We do not have a lot of information as to what Jesus life was like between his birth and his teaching ministry that started around the age of thirty. The gospel of Mathew, however, tells us something unique. Mathew tells his readers that Mary and Joseph were warned by an angel of a potential threat to Jesus life and were subsequently told to take the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape the threat of Herod. (Mathew 2:13) We are not told how long Jesus lived in Egypt, simply that his parents lived there for a period of time and that this was also seen as the fulfilment of a prophecy that God would call his son out of Egypt. Mathew describes this occurrence in just a few short verses and explains that Jesus returned with his parents to Nazareth from Egypt after Herod died. (Mathew 2:15)
With this context in mind, we can see how the people of God have been greatly influenced by the Egyptians. In fact, when the disciple Stephen is being persecuted in the book of Acts, he returns to tell a portion of his people’s story revisiting their escape from the land of Egypt. Stephen describes Moses as someone who was “educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds.” (Acts 7:22). For Stephen, the Exodus event was definitive of God’s relationship with his people. Stephen also says, “Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.” (Acts 7:39) Here we see how even in the New Testament the appeal to repentance involved a warning not to turn back to the gods of Egypt. So, what can we learn from the Egyptian’s view of the afterlife and how it might have an influence on our thought even today?
The Egyptian view of the Afterlife
For the Egyptians, life after death was initially only understood as something that was available for kings and royalty. Only later in their religious and cultural development did the afterlife become something that was understood as available to the lower social-economic classes. Geolet says that this idea is founded in that the burial texts of the dead first occur only in what are known as “Pyramid texts” which would have been for Pharaohs and royalty. It is only later that similar texts are found in what are referred to as the “Coffin texts.” Scholars have also observed that many of these later texts seem to be exact copies or templates created and sold to individuals who added their name in blank spaces left open to individualize the text after death. These texts have a common template or outline that is described by Geolet as the following four sections:
- A description of the deceased descent into the underworld.
- A description of the deceased coming back to life.
- The person individual appearance before Osiris the God of the Underworld for judgement.
- This person is either vindicated and sent to a version of eternal bliss or the person is destroyed and killed, often by the act of being eaten by demigods.
Comparing and Contrasting Egyptian Beliefs with the Bible
Several different aspects of life, death and the afterlife can be compared to how the Bible presents these states as well as how many Christians view these concepts today. The Book of the Dead is one of the most well-known Egyptian documents. In this specific document, the scroll traces the afterlife journey of an Egyptian man named Ani through the underworld as he experiences judgement and is eventually assigned to eternal bliss. Let’s take a look at how this document might compare and contrast how the Bible presents similar categories and beliefs.
For the Egyptians, the sea was viewed as a chaotic force that was to be feared and overcome. In describing Ani’s enemies, the Book of the Dead says, “What are they? ‘Chaos-god’ is the name of one; ‘Sea’ is the name of the other.” (BOD Plate 8-A). In the same way, the creation account of Genesis tells the story of a watery abyss of chaos that is conquered and given shape, form, and organization. The chaotic water is also something that is conquered by Moses as he parts the Red Sea to escape the Egyptians and it swallows the Egyptians in their pursuit of the Israelites. In the gospel accounts, Jesus is seen as having authority over the sea providing fish, calming the waves, and even walking on the waters. The apostle John in the book of Revelation shows God’s authority and dominion over the chaotic sea describing a conquered sea of glass in Gods throne room and later stating that there is no more sea in the new heavens and new earth. In the Ancient Near Eastern context, many cultures religious views understood the sea to be a chaotic force associated with evil. This force could only be overcome by the cultures supreme and most powerful deity.
Similarly, evil is represented by the Egyptian god Apophis who is depicted as an endless snake-like creature. The Egyptian Book of the Dead speaks of Ani’s “serpent-foe” who “has been given over to the fire” and says that this “rebel-serpent has fallen” and “his arms are bound.” (BOD Plate 1-A). This is reminiscent of the way that the Bible portraits Satan, as a snake in the Garden of Eden. If Moses did in fact write the book of Genesis it should come as no surprise that evil might be portraited as a chaotic sea and an evil snake. An interesting account also takes place during Moses’s appeal to Pharaoh to let God’s people go. When Moses presents himself before Pharaoh the magicians are able to turn their staffs into snakes just like Moses. However, Moses’s snake eats the Egyptian snakes exemplifying that his God is greater than the Egyptian magicians and their God.
2.Body Soul Dualism
Like many Christians today, but arguably unlike what the Biblical text presents, the Egyptians essential believed in a dualistic view of humanity. This was represented by the human body and the addition of what the Egyptians called the “Ka”. Geolet says this is similar to what we might call a soul today in our English language. The Egyptians thought that the Ka left the body at death and continued on existing even when the body was dead. They also spoke of a “Ba” which was a form of the soul that could revisit the body at times after death. Ani in his journey through the underworld, says to himself, “for you are my Ka which was in my body the protector who made my members hale. Go forth to the happy place.” (BOD Plate 3-A). He also warns his underworld chaperons saying, “Come for my soul, O wardens of the sky! If you delay letting my soul see my corpse, you will find the Eye of Horus standing up thus against you.” (BOD Plate 17-A).
The historically dominant understanding of Biblical anthropology has been the teaching of body-soul dualism. While many physicalists point to the adoption of this idea from the Greeks, it can actually be traced back farther to the Egyptians. This should not come as a surprise however because Plato is said to have studied in Egypt for thirteen years under the Horite priest Sechnuphis, and several other Greek philosophers are said to have studied at Egyptian schools. Could it be that the idea of body/soul dualism originated in Egypt and later took root in the Greek philosophy as a result of cross-cultural interaction between educators? While determining the origin of a specific idea in history is nearly impossible, what we can say is that the Egyptians who predated the Greco Romans did have a concept similar to body/soul dualism.
Unlike the Biblical text, the Egyptians believed in and practised magic. There is debate as to what one might call magic as differentiated from specific religious practices. The Egyptians decorated the dead with amulets for protection, they invoked words for guidance in the afterlife and performed burial rituals that they thought would be beneficial for the deceased in the afterlife. The Old Testament contains strict warnings for the Israelite people to stay away from practices involving necromancy, magic and sorcery because these were actions that engaged with demons. At the same time, other religions might very easily read the New Testament and view such actions as healing, multiplication of food and bodily resurrection as magical practices. The categories of magic, miracles, and religious practices are determined by ones preconceived notions of what is or is not possible and the paradigm or metanarrative one ascribes to.
Salvation for the Egyptians was a result of one’s heart being weighed on a scale in the afterlife. For the Egyptians, a person would be saved by works righteousness, or essentially being a morally good person. This truth is debatable however because it seems that some magical practices were used to make a person look better than they may have actually been. These incantations could hypothetically mask a person’s moral failures during their judgement getting them into the afterlife despite their shortcomings on earth. The Old Testament Law of Moses also presents what seems to be a salvation by works paradigm. The Law was followed and obeyed to receive blessing from God rather than curses. The law as seen in the book of Deuteronomy is set up on a moral code, resulting in blessing or curse, life or death. God tells his people, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deut 30:19) The New Testament, however, presents salvation as something that comes by grace through faith and is not something that can be earned or achieved through morality. This truth is seen in Paul’s statement to the church, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8)
The name for the Egyptian underworld was Duat, and Osiris was the god of the underworld. When a person died they left their body behind and were escorted through the underworld on a journey that ultimately led to their judgement before the god Osiris. The Hebrew’s, however, did not have a theology of a disembodied underworld contrary to some Christian teaching. This was a very important distinction that the Israelites held in relation to the other Ancient Near Eastern religions of their time. Most other cultures like the Egyptians had both a disembodied underworld and a god that was in charge of it. The Israelite word for the grave was Sheol and was not described as a place of activity, life or judgement. Instead, it was described as a place of destruction, decay, and lack of life. Sheol was not a place that the Israelites desired to go by any means because it was a place of no memory, relationships or praise of God. For the Egyptians however, the underworld was a desirable place to go in that it was the portal through which one could receive glorification and passage to the Field of Reeds and eternal life.
6.Death as Sleep
The idea that death was a matter of falling asleep and the deceased needed to be awoken back to life was one that is seen in the Egyptian writings of the afterlife. The corpse was viewed as a person at rest and the return of the soul to the body would awaken and revivify the body. Death as sleep is also a metaphor that is frequently applied in the Biblical writings. The Bible however never speaks of a soul or spirit reentering a body. The Bible speaks about the resurrection of the body through the life-giving spirit of God. This spirit is not an individual’s soul but is God restoring life back to his creation. One of the most beautiful examples of this is found in Ezekiel’s account of the dry bones that he sees in a vision that are given life through the breath of the Spirit of God. (see Ezekiel 37) Paul also described how the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead will give life to the bodies of those that will be raised when he returns to earth. Paul tells the church in Rome, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Rom 8:11) Notice he does not describe a soul or spirit reentering a corpse but the breath or spirit of God is what gives the dead body new life.
7.Judgement after death
The journey through the Egyptian underworld found its culmination in an individual’s judgment before Osiris. The heart of the person was weighed on the scales against a feather, measuring the purity of the person’s life they lived while on earth. For a dualist Christian, judgement also takes place directly after death. A commonly taught doctrine of many Christians is that when a person dies, they are immediately judged individually and then sentenced to an eternal life in either Heaven or Hell. Besides the anthropological problems with this belief, there are two other issues that this sort of teaching runs into. First, the Bible speaks of the resurrection of the death and a “judgment day” when all people will be judged corporately. The Bible does not speak of an individual judgement immediately following death. Second, the timing of this judgement is described as taking place after people are resurrected and not before. These discrepancies of, individual verses corporate judgement, as well as the timing of the judgment before the resurrection, become problematic when attempting to reconcile this teaching with the Biblical text.
The reward of eternal life is something the Egyptians looked forward to in the afterlife. This is very similar to the Christian understanding of eternal life. Eternal life is granted to those that pass-through judgement. For the Egyptians the criteria to pass judgement was a morally good life, for Christians, it is the confession that ‘Jesus is Lord.’ Paul states this succinctly when he says, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)
For those that did not pass judgement, punishment could be expected. For the Egyptians, if your heart outweighed the feather, you were eaten by the demigods or taken to a place of execution. This was a second death that would end a person’s life altogether. This is similar to the Biblical judgment of death as opposed to eternal life. This can be seen in a multitude of Biblical texts that juxtapose life and death. The gospel of John states, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Paul says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 6:23) Likewise, for the Egyptians, the potential outcome after judgement was either eternal life or death. The Biblical evidence also points in this direction. Three views have commonly been held throughout history in regard to the final fate of those that do not pass judgment. These three options are passing through a fire; that purifies and saves everyone, that destroys the wicked, or that is experienced eternally as punishment for one’s sins. The Egyptians did not have an afterlife concept of Universalism or Eternal Conscious Torment, their understanding of the afterlife was that the wicked would be Annihilated.
10.Process of Transformation
For the Egyptians, the afterlife involved a multi-stage process of transformation. This transformed involved invoking spells that allowed a person to take the shape of multiple different animals such as; a swallow, a falcon, a snake, a crocodile, a benu-bird heron, a lotus, and finally a god. The Book of the dead describes this opportunity by telling the deceased underworld traveler, “If anyone says this Chapter, while pure, it means going forth by day after he has been buried and the assumption of whatever of his forms which he desires.” (BOD Plate 24-A). The Christian equivalent of this transformation is the bodily resurrection and glorification. The apostle Paul describes this process in detail in his letter to the church in Corinth. He describes how the dead will rise in Christ and become a new and glorified creation taking of the perishable and putting on the imperishable. Paul says, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Cor 15:42-44) Glorification for the Egyptian was a series of transformations, finally evolving into an incorporeal spirit. In the Book of the Dead Ani says, “You glorify my spirit, you make the Osiris my soul divine.” (BOD Plate 18-B).
For the Egyptian, the desired final resting place was the Field of Reeds. Ani says, “I ascend to the sky; though I am inert, I climb on the sunshine; though I am inert, I walk on the riverbanks…in the God’s domain.” (BOD Plate 18-A) Like many religions, the afterlife was seen as an ascent to somewhere above. Ani also says, “You protect my soul in the Sacred Land, may it navigate in the Field of Reeds, because I have passed on with joy.” (BOD Plate 21-A) Like many Christians that believe they will “go to heaven” when they die, the Egyptians viewed the afterlife as a place their soul or the true form of themselves would reside. The Biblical account of heaven is different, however. The Bible never describes the process of anyone “going to heaven” when they die. Instead, scripture speaks of the death of a person as the end of their life and the only hope for an afterlife is one that rests in the resurrection of the body. Paul says, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” (1 Cor 15:17-18). The Biblical account also describes heaven as God’s kingdom that comes to earth in the final pages of the book of Revelation. The apostle John says, “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them.” (Rev 21:2-4) This is why Jesus told his disciples that the meek would inherit the earth and that they should pray for heaven, God’s kingdom, to come to earth as it is already in heaven. (see Matt 5:5 and 6:9-13)
In summary, we can see that Egypt and its beliefs had a significant influence on God’s people. Understanding Egypt and its religious and cultural views on the afterlife can better help us understand the Biblical text. While the Egyptians were polytheistic like many other Ancient Near Eastern cultures the Israelites, in contrast, were monotheistic. However, we do see similarities in their creation stories and the understanding of the chaotic forces of the sea and the role of an evil serpent. Egypt’s body-soul dualism stands in contrast to the physicalism of the Israelites as seen in their understanding of the afterlife. Unlike the other Ancient Near Eastern cultures including the Egyptians, the Israelites did not have a concept of a disembodied underworld and a god of the dead. The modern adaptation of this idea might be understood to be the Christian teaching on “going to Hell” when you die and even the mistakenly held view that Satan is the prince or ruler of Hell.
For the Egyptians salvation was a matter of life and death. This falls in line with the Biblical account and is counter to the Christian teaching of Universalism and Eternal Conscious Torment. The Egyptians also spoke of death as sleep like many of the Biblical authors. In the Old Testament, there does not seem to be a postmortem understanding of judgement in the afterlife. This differs from the Egyptian view that after death a person was judged. This Egyptian view, however, does coincide with the New Testament understanding of postmortem judgement however as we have seen the Biblical text speaks of judgement as a corporate reality that takes place after the general resurrection. It seems that many Christians today as a result of their dualism have adopted a more Egyptian view of immediate judgement that occurs individually directly after death. While the Israelites did not write of a hope of the afterlife the Egyptians had a detailed understanding of what Christians would describe as heaven. This New Testament idea and hope for an afterlife develops after Jesus teaching on the bodily resurrection.
Both the Egyptians and the Christian hope is in a transformation and glorification after death. For the Egyptians, this involved a multi-stage transformational process taking forms of different animals. For the Christian, this is the bodily resurrection and being conformed into the image and likeness of Christ.