The religion of ancient Egypt included numerous gods and goddesses, belief in the afterlife and a well-defined hierarchy of celebrants and priests. Early Judaism had many of the same attributes. Writers have made much of these similarities, maintaining that Judaism borrowed elements of its beliefs from Egypt. More recent scholarship has shed light on that concept, clarifying developmental timelines of the two cultures. Egypt was an ancient civilization long before bands of Stone Age nomads became the Israelite society. It comes as no surprise that a culture as powerful as Egypt would influence others in the region, but Egyptian archaeology shows very little interaction between the two cultures.
During Egypt’s short-lived Amarna Period in the 14th century B.C., Pharaoh Akhenaten decreed that his personal god, the Aten, literally “sun-disc,” should be the supreme deity. Scholars once believed this was the beginning of monotheism in ancient Judaism, but recent research calls that hypothesis into question. In fact, there is little archaeological evidence of any contact between the two cultures in that period. In addition, the Aten was very different from the deity of the Hebrews. Although the Aten had no personal relationship with humans other than the king, the divine being of the Hebrews is shown as often communicating with the people through prophets and signs. So although both religions were for a time monotheistic, it seems doubtful that the tribes that became the Hebrews based their conception of the One God from the Aten of the Egyptians.
The Egyptians didn't willingly accept the Aten as their sole or primary god. While Akhenaten’s attempt at expunging all other gods was partially successful, most Egyptians continued to quietly worship other gods during his reign and went back to their previous patterns after his death. The Hebrew deity was only one of many in their culture, as well. Scholars believe the Hebrews' progress from polytheism to monotheism may have taken centuries, from about 2000 B.C. to 1500 B.C. During the intervening eras, they practiced henotheism, or the worship of many gods with one as the primary deity. The Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament) has many incidents of backsliding into idolatry. In fact, the commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” doesn't deny the existence of other gods; it merely prohibits against making any other god paramount.
The greatest similarity between the creation myths of Judaism and the early Egyptian religions is that there is a creation story at all. Other traditions such as Buddhism considered the question of how the world and humanity were formed to be irrelevant. Judaism and the Egyptian religions organized their stories into days of creation, with the first day being the creation from a formless darkness of turbulent water. The second day in the Hebrew tradition concerns the creation of the sky, while the Egyptian second day concerns creation of air. The third day for the Hebrews saw the creation of the earth; for Egyptians earth and sky. The fourth day for both was the creation of day and night. Days five and six for the Hebrews saw the creation of animals, plants and humans, with the seventh day a day of rest; for the Egyptians, days five, six and seven concerned the creation of animals plant and humans.
Malevolent entities played an important part in both Israelite and Egyptian cultures. Egyptians believed these beings to be enemies of both the gods and of humans. The Israelites considered the gods of neighboring peoples to be demons. Both traditions believed these dangerous spirits caused harmful events such as illnesses.
- TourEgypt.net: Egypt: The Jews of Ancient Egypt
- University of Chicago Fathom Archive: Religion in the Lives of the Ancient Egyptians
- Tekton: Did the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten influence Jewish monotheism?
- JewishEncyclopedia.com: Monotheism
- Daily Buddhism: Creation And Evolution in Buddhism
- Comparison Between Egyptian and Hebrew Creation Myths
- Jewish Virtual Library: Demons, Demonology
- Religion Library: Judaism
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images