Tutorial: Lesson 1
"His Eye was not Diminished"
(The Sons of Jacob and Leah in Egyptian Myth)
Everything Under the Sun
The mythological age of Egypt began and ended with the sun god Re. Not that Re was the only god or even the first, but in hindsight he was adjudged the greatest. Pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty in the Egyptian Old Kingdom conferred upon Re the status of "Creator" and "Father" to all other gods and goddesses, including those who had preceded him.1 Similarly, a ruling pharaoh in the place of Re became both father and lord of all others, including those older than himself and also to his own brothers.
Before the Great Flood came and marked the end of the divine age, Re had basked in the favor of the Mother of the Gods, Hathor. Although she was his own mother, Hathor could also be looked upon as the "Daughter of Re" and even as the "Eye of Re." The eye makes for a rich metaphor, then as it does now. In a positive sense it represents warmth and light, perfection and wholeness, acumen and knowledge, great beauty, loving care, and desire. In a negative sense, the eye can be piercing heat and anger, deviation and evil aim, surveillance and control, vanity, jealousy, and dire lust.
The epithet, "Eye of Re," suggested that Hathor like Biblical Eve was life giving as light from the sun, nurturing and healing, wandering and watchful, intricate, ecstatic, and soulful. Yet, the pleasant one could on occasion be provoked to destructive rage and be made oblivious from excessive drinking as well. Hathor possessed all the complexity and contradiction inherent to divine womanhood. Her epithet "Eye of Re" also implied that she was more figuratively (and discretely) the object of Re's sexual desire. This was manifest by another of Hathor's manifold titles, that being, "Cow Goddess." Only in this embodiment was she explicitly considered to be the wife of Re, and only when Re himself took the form of a particular type of bull, the Mnevis Bull.2
Primal Scene of the Gods
The first attempt at orderly succession among the gods in Egypt was through a junior deity called Geb. Geb represented the earth as furrowed for planting or raised up as a mound (or mountain) in height and loftiness. He can be characterized as a mighty champion; one of great strength, ruggedness, and pride.3 His most familiar title was "Heir of All the Gods." However, despite the valiant name and illustrious title, Geb was remembered in Egypt primarily for two conspicuous fits of weakness. After being forbidden to have any more sexual relations with his full-sister Nut, the incredible hulk wept like a little child, and so much so that oceans were said to have formed from his tears.4 Later on, Geb entered the palace of his absentee father and violently raped his own mother.5 In retribution for this act, the cobra on the crown of Re (symbolic of the protective goddess Hathor)6 struck and killed Geb's companions and critically wounded Geb himself.7 Although Geb was healed and thereafter exercised greater self-control and maturity as a ruler, the greater authority and throne ultimately passed from him to a younger "son" of Re named Osiris.
The new king-elect Osiris also devoted himself to a single partner, his half-sister Isis, who was herself being groomed to take the place of the aging goddess Hathor. This supreme act of selfishness (as sexual exclusivity was then seemingly considered to be) eventually provoked the wrath of deprived family members. With the blessing of Re himself, Osiris was put to a gruesome death by his older brothers named Seth and Thoth. The attempted monogamy of Osiris and Isis would be viewed in retrospect as a disastrous experiment, and more so than the relationship of Geb with Nut. In the dynastic period, it was decided that a leading queen placed in the role of Isis could and should be discretely polyandrous, even as Hathor.
After the death of Osiris, Isis "miraculously" gave birth to an heir to his vacated throne. Although considered to be the son of Osiris, this child was curiously named Horus the Younger. Horus the Elder was yet another brother of Osiris, and one who evidently did not have a hand in his death. This Horus, like Re, was both the son and consort of Hathor. In fact, the name Hathor (Hat-Hor) itself can be translated as "House/Wife of Horus." Another Egyptian legend distinguishes the younger Horus with the title, "Uniter of the Two Lands," and explicitly makes him the true son of the elder Horus by Hathor. It is reasonable then to conclude that the younger Horus was only adopted as the son of Isis, and as part of her inheritance from Hathor. Consistent with this, Isis assumed Hathor's myriad titles, including "House of Horus." (A further indication is that Isis remained barren in Mesopotamian myth under her names of Ishtar and In-Anna.)
Jacob as Jostling Judge Re, Leah as Holy Cow Hathor
The first wife of Biblical Jacob is his cousin Leah. She is characterized like the goddess Hathor as a cow8 with big beautiful eyes! The firstborn son of Leah is called Reuben. His name connotes "son of seeing," that is, one who like Geb was of great stature and enjoyed an unobstructed view over the earth he stewarded. Biblical Reuben loses the birthright (symbolizing kingly succession) even as Geb and for the same reasons - first on account of a character fault, emotional instability, and secondly for indiscretion in a sexual act.9 The Blessing of Reuben in the Book of Genesis (Chapter 49) calls this son strong, mighty, and even powerful, but also weak in the sense of lacking proper respect, good judgment, and self-control over his libido and emotions. A careful reading of this passage further reveals that Reuben was disgraced not so much for the actual affair with a wife of Jacob, but taking her in Jacob's house and upon his very own bed.
Simeon and Levi, the second and third sons of Jacob, are in turn disgraced for the murder of Hamor at the city of Shechem.10 In the Blessing of Issachar (the fifth son of Jacob), Issachar is described as a "strong donkey (hamor) . who bowed his shoulder (shechem) to bear, and became a servant unto tribute." More freely translated the Hebrew wording of this blessing conveys, "strong Hamor . was grievously overthrown at Shechem and submitted to a cruel death." The discerning reader is thus informed that Issachar had been appointed king in Shechem by Jacob and was known there by the local patristic name of Hamor.
The name Hamor connotes "redness," as of royalty, wine, and a familiar beast of burden. On the other hand Issachar means, "he brings his reward." It refers innocently enough to the greater reward (status) his birth will bring to Leah as mother (and queen). However, the deeper meaning of Issachar is as a word play on Sokar, an epithet of Osiris as the god who was tragically beaten like an animal and brutally dismembered. Among Canaanites, Osiris was known as the dying-god Shachar. Because the story of Hamor specifically takes place among the Canaanites of Shechem (Gen. 34:30), the Hebrew name Issachar readily suggests, "man (iysh) of Shachar." It further indicates, "he brings his recompense/avengement," even as the murdered Sokar/Shachar/Osiris was later avenged.
Curiously, the leading nobleman in Shechem is also given the name of Shechem, and made the son of the young crown prince Hamor/Issachar, politically speaking. In ancient Egypt, the name Sekhem signified "power" and was closely associated with the god Osiris. Armed with this knowledge, it becomes obvious that the double emphasis by the Genesis author on Shechem is part of a very important and deliberate typecasting. That is, a local king at the city of Shechem, who is also called Shechem, was being set up as an Osiris figure that he might die in the place of Jacob's own son Issachar. This is even more clear when it is realized that Osiris had himself been murdered due in part to his marriage with the leading younger goddess Isis, and that Osiris had also been accused of rape prior to that marriage.11
In the Biblical story of Jacob, the leading younger woman (princess) is Dinah.12 She is the only daughter of Jacob mentioned in the Bible. In order for Shechem to more fully act as a double for Issachar/Hamor, it was considered necessary for Dinah to first be violated (at least in appearance) by Shechem and then given to him in marriage. All goes well as Dinah openly tours the land of Shechem and lures in the hapless victim. Jacob promptly and tactfully arranges the marriage. However, his plan is foiled when Simeon and Levi demand that all the Shechemites be circumcised before the wedding. While the men are still in pain and unable to defend themselves or the city they are savagely attacked. Not only do Simeon and Levi sacrifice the designated substitute Shechem, but also their own brother Issachar and every other male of the city.
Brothers in Cruelty
The name of Levi (son of Jacob) bears a striking resemblance to Leviathan, a mystical serpent, crocodile, or sea-monster mentioned in the Old Testament books of Job, Psalms, and Isaiah. In Egypt, Leviathan was the feared Nile crocodile, an animal closely associated with and personified by the notorious accuser of his brethren and king of chaos, Set. A fuller Egyptian form of the name Set was Sutekh, meaning "destroyer" or "instigator of confusion."13 Although revered as a master of the night sky (figuratively a "prince of darkness"), this god was prone to overconfidence, telling lies, bullying, and acting impulsively. Seth, a second Hebrew epithet for this god, is derived even more directly from Set. These names Set/Seth and Leviathan would later come to represent the Judeo-Christian Devil ("Satan" and the "Great Serpent/Dragon").
The name of Levi's co-conspirator Simeon means, "son of hearing, perceiving, and renown." It is the Patriarchal epithet of Thoth, the famed Egyptian god of wisdom. According to legend, Thoth had received and could transmit all knowledge. He was more abstractly referred to as Sia, which represented the intellect, perception, prophesy, and planning. Curiously, Sia also was associated with the rite of circumcision. Thoth, in total contrast to Set, was considered a god devoted to careful deliberation, humility, mediation, and truth. He did however come to share Set's disdain for Osiris and the determination that he had to go. In Egyptian memory, Set does not kill Osiris alone, but with the help of 72 companions that included Thoth. An excerpt from the Pyramid Texts reads:
"See what Seth and Thoth have done, your two brothers who do not know how to mourn you. . O Seth, this one here is your brother Osiris, who has been caused to be restored that he may live and punish you . O Thoth, this one here is your brother Osiris, who has been caused to be restored that he may live and punish you." 14
When the Sun Stood Still (and Did Nothing)
The Biblical story of Jacob adheres closely to the pattern established in Egyptian myth. Jacob-Israel (as the incarnation of Re) removes the birthright from his eldest son Reuben (as Geb). Appointment of a younger son Issachar/Hamor (as Osiris) provokes the jealous anger of Simeon and Levi (as Thoth and Set), who then barbarously attack and kill him. The other brothers of Simeon and Levi (as "companions") help Simeon and Levi trick the men of Shechem into being circumcised so that they may be more easily engaged in battle. And even if not directly involved in the killings, we are told that these other sons of Jacob participate by looting the dead of Shechem.
Afterwards, Jacob mildly rebukes his sons and only for damage done to public relations. There is no mention that Simeon and Levi were at that time excluded from kingly succession. They would have fully understood this to be their fate regardless of their actions. In fact, the younger Issachar had as expected already been designated as heir ahead of them.15 And upon his death, the birthright went to Jacob's fourth son, Judah ("praised"), even as the celebrated Horus the Elder replaced fallen Osiris in kingship.
In honor of Isis widow of Osiris, the sixth and final son of Jacob and Leah was named Zebulun. The traditional land of tribal Zebulun was along the northern seacoast of Israel towards Phoenicia. At the great port of Byblos in Phoenicia, Isis was known by the name of Y-zebel. The root zbl means "prince." The variant Yzebel meaning, "is prince," reflects the memory of Isis as a female ruler. As such, she was called "God among women" and "Almighty."16 Isis became the prototype for queens of Egypt who donned a false beard and ruled as pharaoh. Also true to that guiding light, Isis could in the Jacob story of the Bible be represented as a princely figure.
In Phoenicia and indeed throughout the Mediterranean world, Yzebel-Isis was considered Mistress of the Wind and Waves. She was successor to Hathor in her form of Rehab/Tiamat, goddess and personification of the once wild but now navigable waters of the deep. Prayers were for that reason made to her for safety on the seas, in harbor, and in every type of distress. In the Blessing of Zebulun, the word "haven" is deliberately repeated, and is an allusion to Yzebel-Isis as the protector of ships and sailors.
Guilt by Association
In the Blessing of Simeon and Levi, Jacob expresses the hope that he will not be held accountable for his sons who in their cruel wrath "killed a man" and "mutilated a beast." The one killed, Issachar, was a man made in the image of godly Osiris. The mutilated beast (Heb. showr-aqar) is yet another reference to Issachar as Osiris/Sokar/Shachar, whose body was cut into pieces like an animal prepared as food or for sacrifice. We have seen that the Patriarch Jacob chose to perpetuate the vicious cycle of the gods, and lead his sons into the temptation of following the recurring dream after him.17 The Genesis author enters on Jacob's behalf a plea of innocence or at least plausible denial, but allows room for the reader to judge the extent of his guilt in coveting, conniving for, accepting, and then faithfully executing the role of Re as Israel, "He Rules as God."
A Time for Knowing Again
The ancient Egyptians had two basic conceptions of time. "Linear time" belonged to the gods, for it was believed that only they could bring about something that was both truly new and lasting, that is, worthy of memory and repetition. The lengthy interval spanning glorious periods of linear time was to be filled with a careful emulation of all that had taken place during linear time. For the royal family claiming descent from the gods, this meant an endless acting out of divine personalities, relationships, and events. Within such a culture the power of "fate" over any individual person was nearly inescapable.
Once a young royal had been designated as the incarnation of a particular god or goddess, the positive and negative aspects of that role were then consciously cultivated by the entire ruling family. Avoidance of an undesirable aspect associated with a role, especially a disgrace or violent death, could be achieved through the use of a substitute, but that also required cooperation from rival family members. Such was the suffocating destiny of humans trapped in "cyclical time." The best one could hope for was to keep the memory of the gods alive and one's own memory intertwined with them until the next divine visitation. Surprisingly, it is a mindset also clearly expressed in the Bible:
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look! This is something new'? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time."18
While often cruel, this outlook did bring a kind of structure and stability in a world without much recourse against the ravages of nature. More importantly to us now, we can recognize the highly predictable behavior of ancient royalty in the Near East, and follow the pattern they repeated over and over with each new dynasty. In this way, it is possible to comprehend all of ancient history known to us from archaeology and the Bible as a series of variations on the earlier theme established in the time of the gods.
- Re was not however made father of Atum (Biblical Adam), the only true primordial god, but was merged with him as Atum-Re. Only after this theological construction was Re considered to be father of the second generation deities Tefnut and Shu.
- All forms of inbreeding, with perhaps the sole exception of a brother and his full sister, were vigorously pursued in the time of the gods. Incest continued as the rule rather than the exception in the dynastic era that followed. Certain types of incest were later prohibited in Judaism, but not abandoned by Near Eastern royalty, including Hebrew royalty.
- Geb in the Hamito-Semitic language of ancient Egypt has no certain meaning, but is thought to be onomatopoeic for the sound of a goose (gb), the animal associated with Geb. (Compare a turkey's "gobble" in English) The Egyptian root gb can also mean "deficiency" and "deprivation," which is surprising for a god who stood for the fertile earth (gbb). The name Geb has important connotations for Semitic speakers, as well. The Hebrew word for "mighty" is gibbowr. Related Hebrew words denote, "hilly, mountainous, high, insolent." Geb corresponds to the god Ninurta in Mesopotamia, who was an earth and fertility god and associated with the plough (urt), just as Geb in Egypt. Ninurta like Geb was associated with famine and pestilence (deprivation) as well as plenty. The name Nin-urta (urt ~ rut/rod) connotes "Mighty Lord." Ninurta was also called a "piler of stones" (See, S.N. Kramer, The Sumerians, p 152). Consistent with this characterization Urta (Ur-Ta/Ur-Da) connotes, "finisher (ta) and defender/protector (da) of the city (ur)." Compare this with the Egyptian gbgb, "to topple over," (perhaps applied in a sarcastic sense to the fallen Geb). As a mighty warrior among the gods, Ninurta became a role model for the post-Flood heroes Cush and Nimrod. The Hebrew gibbowr is a synonym of Nephilim ("giants"), the "fallen ones," and is translated as "giant" in Numbers 13:33 and Job 16:14.
- The Ancient Gods Speak, Donald Redford, ed., p 155; Anthony Mercatante, Who's Who in Egyptian Mythology, p 49; Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin, Ancient Egypt, p 283; Dimitri Meeks and Christine Favard-Meeks, Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, English translation by G.M. Goshgarian, pp 78, 66; Religion in Ancient Egypt, Byron Shafer, ed., p 94.
- The Phakussa (Faqus) Stela, erected in Lower Egypt, Ptolemaic Period. See, Dimitri Meeks and Christine Favard-Meeks, Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, English translation by G.M. Goshgarian, pp 31, 67, 71. See also, Barbara Watterson, Gods of Ancient Egypt, p 36.
- Specifically, alluding to Hathor as the "Eye of Re." In Egyptian, eye (irt) and cobra (iart) make a ready word play.
- Margaret Bunson, A Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, p 95. See also, Dimitri Meeks and Christine Favard-Meeks, Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, English translation by G.M. Goshgarian, pp 31, 67, 71.
- Everett Fox, The Shocken Bible, p 137.
- Genesis 35:22 (KJV) "Reuben went and lay with Billah his father's concubine; and Israel heard it."
- Genesis 34
- This memory was preserved in the Mesopotamian accounts of Dumuzi's rape of Geshtinanna. Dumuzi was the primary name of Osiris in Mesopotamia. Geshtinanna is generally thought to have been a sister of Ishtar/Inanna, however the story of Jacob indicates that Geshtinanna ("Heavenly Vine") might instead have been an alias of Ishtar/Inanna ("Queen of Heaven"). A separate legend states that Inanna was raped by her father's "gardener." However, in the Akkadian version she brazenly seduces the young man. See, Jean Bottero, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, p 94.
- Dinah is the feminine form of the name Dan. In Phoenicia and Syria, the sun god was called Dan-El. The naming of Dinah is then yet another allusion to Jacob in the role of Re.
- Margaret Bunson, A Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, p 242.
- Translation by R.O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, pp 46-47. Meeks & Favard-Meeks also state (p. 31) in Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, "According to a curious and poorly documented legend, the end of Geb's reign was marked by the rebellion of Geb's son Osiris against his father's authority. Geb had to slay his own son in self-defense. But, horrified by the consequences of his act, he hastened to revive him." Meeks & Favard-Meeks conclude that this resurrection of Osiris was literal and preceded the death of Osiris after being attacked by Seth. However, it seems more reasonable that this was a recollection of Geb's participation in the murder of Osiris.
- Simeon later organized the persecution of Joseph, but this was done in order that Joseph might also fulfill his appointed "destiny." Simeon endured only a token imprisonment and as part of his designated role.
- R.E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, pp 106-107.
- In Genesis 28:10-17, Jacob sees a ladder to heaven in a dream. In Egyptian myth, the pharaoh is made to ascend to heaven upon his death by means of a ladder supplied by Re, and which can take the form of a step-pyramid. On his way up to be united with Re and Hathor he comes across various gods. Similarly, Jacob sees "angels" on his ladder, but it is not yet his time to ascend. This dream represents the offering to him of divine kingship and the promise of joining the gods after his earthly reign is finished.
- Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 (NIV). The philosophy of Ecclesiastes is connected to the ancient Egyptian notion of neheh, cyclical time, in which all things were destined to repeat. For an expanded definition of neheh and djet (linear or suspended/timeless time), see Jan Assmann,The Mind of Egypt, pp 18-19, 242-246. See also Meeks and Favard-Meeks, Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods, p 19.