Egyptian Religion in Rabbinic texts

Rivka Ulmer, Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash (New York: Walter de Gruyter 2009)

I just read the work and I liked her collection of materials. There is an article by Gideon Bohak on some of the same materials that I am trying unsuccessfully to get via ILL. Ulmer was interested in everything culturally Egyptian, I am only interested in the religion aspects. The translations below are hers and the rest are selections and summaries of what she concluded. All knowledge of Egypt is hers.

Egyptian religion in Jewish thought goes back to the bible itself and the rabbinic homilies on the biblical verses. The Bible paints Egypt as having magicians, priests, and many false Gods. The rabbinic texts looked to their contemporary Egypt of the first centuries to flesh out the Biblical account.

The rabbinic texts consider the Nile to have been one of Egypt’s gods. “Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshiped the Nile. Therefore, God said that he would smite their god first” (Exod. Rab. 9:9). In rabbinic texts, Joseph in his coffin was thrown by the magicians into the Nile on which it floated. This is similar with the ceremonies which feature Osiris’ body.

The Nile’s annual overflow is expanded as “…because this is the manner of the Nile it increases and it deceases, and the ministers (sarim) go and celebrate at the river, and it is to them like a festival of idolaters.” Pesiq. Zut (Lekah Tov) Gen. 39,:

According to Rivka Ulmer, the Egyptian term for the overflow of the Nile is Hapy (h pj), which is a divine figure, is the personification of the overflow, which brings abundance and prosperity to Egypt. In the later Roman era, there was a new concept of one Nile god, Neilos. “The rabbis assumed that the Egyptians worshiped the Nile. However, the transformation of the Nile into a divinity with a major cult transpired only during the Greco-Roman period. Prior to this era…fecundity figures related to the Nile” overflow… “were not major gods.”

The “Nile festival,” mentioned in rabbinic texts is very akin to the Egyptian Opet festival. According to Ulmer, the “people joined in a dramatic procession honoring Amun that commenced at the Karnak Temple and ended at the Luxor Temple.” The midrash offers a glimpse into both types of worship in Roman Egypt. A worship festival to Nelios and a dramatic procession to Amun.

It came to pass on a certain day, when he went into the house to do his work (Gen. 39:11). [R. Judah and R. Nehemiah, each has his own explanation of this]. R. Judah said: [On that day] there was a day of idolatrous sacrifice to the Nile; everyone went to see it, but he [Joseph] did not go. R. Nehemiah said: It was a day of a theatrical performance, which all went to see, but he went into the house to work on his master’s accounts.

Amulets with Serapis, the Egyptian-Hellanistic deity, and his consort Isis as well as representations of Isis lactans (Isis as a breastfeeding mother) were prevalent in late antiquity and there are numerous depictions and cameos from the Roman era depicting Isis and Serapis together. The mishnah warns against objects with “the image of a breastfeeding woman or of Serapis.”

Rabbinic texts acknowledged that the Bible may still be using terms from the Egyptian language as a means by which the God of the Israelites displaced the Egyptian gods. The best example is the Hebrew word Anokhi as the first word of the ten commandments in is associated with the Egyptian ANKH, the symbol for eternal life possessed by all deities.

R. Nehemiah said, What is anokhi (ex 20:2)? It is an Egyptijan word. Why did God find it necessary to use an Egyptian word? Consider the story of a king of flesh and blood whose son had been captured. The son spent many years among his captors, until the king, full of vengeance, went to free his son, brought him back, and then found he had to talk with him in the captor’s language. So it was with the Holy One blessed be He; Israel had spent all the years of their servitude in Egypt where they learned the Egyptian language. Finally, when the Holy One redeemed them and came to give them the Torah, they could not understand it. So the Holy One said: I will speak to them in their captor’s speech therefore, the Holy One used the word anokhi (‘nky),which is a form of the Egyptian “nwk so that the Holy One began His inauguration of the giving of the Torah with Israel’s acquired way of speaking;’ I am (anokhi(nky) the Lord, your God. Pesiq. Rab. Kah 12:24

In some rabbinic texts, Egypt has become more of a typology for assimilation or immorality than a real place. Egypt was perceived as the ultimate rejection of one’s heritage and the return from Egypt was a return to the people Israel. Joseph and Moses were used as exemplars of both he process of assimilation and the process of return.

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