When Passover comes I find it interesting to remember the “rhetoric of reversal” one can find between the imagery of ancient Egyptian art and philosophy and the Exodus story.
In the ancient world no matter where one looks the gods were believed to always favor the wealthy and powerful. It was no different in Egypt. Pharaoh was not only worshiped as king but revered and prayed to just as Isis, Osiris, and the hundreds of others like them. He was even believed to be the human personification of a number of them simultaneously. Yes, it was a deeply religious society that held to their gods closely but the day was coming when Yahweh would demonstrate time after time that he was the true and ultimate king of kings and god of gods.
To the upper right is the god Hauron backing up, protecting the Pharaoh making him to be seen as his beloved. Its kind of like a proud father standing behind his young son sort of moment. Yahweh by contrast sees the Hebrews, those dirty, smelly uneducated slaves in the eyes of the Egyptians as those he loves.
Now days we get this notion sometimes that if you’re successful, rich or powerful that God must love you when the truth is God loves the down trodden as much as the wealthy and powerful. This was a whole new standard in the relationship between man and God. It would lead to liberating people from oppressive cults, religions and governments all over the world.
Our first sample of the reversal of rhetoric is in the beginning of Exodus, Chapter 1, where we find relationship breaking and keeping. The then Pharaoh and Joseph had a special arrangement for Egyptians and Hebrews to co-exist. Four hundred years later and that has changed. Hebrews were feared by their hosts. They suffered every form of discrimination even forced into slavery. All co-existence, peace and tranquility was gone after another Pharaoh who did not know Joseph or his descendants would arrive.
This new Pharaoh is determined to bring the Hebrews down a notch or two. He makes an order designed to curb their prolific birth rate. He orders all their new born male babies to be murdered by throwing them into the Nile. In defiance of this command (but sort of mocking it too) the baby Moses is saved by being placed into the Nile, where he is eventually found by the childless daughter of Pharaoh.
Divine authority. In the graven image on the near left, beyond the pillars, the god Amun Re is giving Pharaoh his divine authority. The right half is a wall painting showing Osiris and Ramses II sitting back to back at the same height giving a sense of not only equal power and authority but supporting each other. The Exodus narrative says Yahweh is the god who can execute judgment over all gods anywhere; that includes the man-god Pharaoh. By example Moses, the man at the center of the Hebrew people, isn’t deified. He is only a man, but a special man with authority given by God.
Who’s the big man of Egypt? Statutes of the Pharaohs and gods are always huge in dimension. This was to emphasize their power and strength. The experts call it “hierarchical scale.” The bigger the scale the more powerful. So for Hebrew slaves or one like Moses who fled with a murder rap on his head to return and stand up to Pharaoh took great courage and nerve. It took a special kind of confidence, the kind that can only come from knowing a god, the one true god was on your side.
The images on the right show other statutes of Ramses II in a huge way to emit his power and strength. See how they’re lined up along the corridors? That’s to infer that he is everywhere! You can’t look from side to side without being confronted by him. Additionally, since ancient statutes of gods or man-gods were believed to hold the power of that god in them you never saw graffiti on them. Nor were they damaged in any way for fear of the retribution of the god they held!
Who’s the big man to the Hebrews? Yahweh, the god with no name, the god who commands there will be no images of him. He the god who knew Joseph and remembers the promise he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He will honor that promise to their descendants to make them his first chosen people and to guide them to a land just for them.
The Nile is the supplier of all life in Egypt. This image from space shows the contrast between life and death. I think an ancient Egyptian would be wowed by a sight like this. Wouldn’t we be too if we had one of it after God was done down there. Imagine all that green being reduced to shades of brown or near white like the surrounding desert after the final plague.
Come down to earth level and stand by the Nile or near it and you find all kinds of plant and animal life. Step a little ways from it and you find only death as these two images depict. The one on the near left is ancient burial chamber wall art showing the prolific wildlife of the Nile basin. The other one describes the death and poverty of those away from it.
Of course all the credit for the Nile’s abundance went to Pharaoh (who else?). His divine powers even protected the river. His authority was displayed in the graven image (bottom left) on Ramses II’s throne in Luxor. It’s the Nile flood god standing on the left and the right side facing inward. Notice his sagging bellies? These were symbols indicating success, fertility, health, prosperity. Yet Yahweh turns the Nile to blood, making it an instrument of death, and chaos, and Pharaoh is powerless to stop it.
In many images of Pharaoh he is shown demonstrating his invincibility and power with his right arm drawn back to strike. The right hand or arm was always meant to convey a man’s ultimate power since most men were right handed. The image at right from the Temple at Karnak shows him about to deal a deadly blow with a weapon in his right hand. Yet it was Yahweh’s right hand that was thanked by the relieved Hebrews in 15:6. “Your right hand, O Lord, has become glorious in power; Your right hand, O Lord, has dashed the enemy in pieces.”
Chariots were the high tech weaponry of the ancient world. Every Pharaoh had hundreds of them. They must have been pretty proud of what they could do, mowing down all their enemies. That would explain the many images of them. In Exodus 14, chariots are described often too, no less than 10 times. God was speaking thru Moses, emphasizing that those wonder weapons, used to shock and awe their enemies, were nothing against the great I Am.
The chief moral of the Exodus account is God will have his way one way or another. No matter how much man may exalts himself he stands so inferior to Him who will turn all prideful and idolatrous beliefs inside out of themselves.