The Egyptian Book of the Dead and Psalm 8


Because of cultural proximity, thematic or etymological overlap is bound to occur in ancient literature.  Yet, at the same time, overlap is textual evidence in ancient polemics too.  Nevertheless, Israelite monotheism stands in stark contrast to neighboring religious cultures, whether it had borrowed, was drawn from, or had argued against the ultimate source of morality, and even though there may be similarities and some overlap amongst neighboring cultures in their sacred texts, the truth will perpetually be sourced in the Person of Jesus Christ (John 14:6) as He was revealed in the Old and New Testaments.

The main point of contact between the Hymn of Praise to Ra, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and Psalm 8 is its overall theme, The Hymn Praise to Ra stands as a “Homage to thee…. thou glorious Being, thou who art dowered [with all sovereignty] …. Thou passest over the heights of heaven… the lord of heaven, the lord of the earth, the King of Truth, the lord of eternity, the prince of everlastingness, thou sovereign of all the gods.”  For the Hebrews, God was “O Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is your name!” heralding Him who “has set your glory above the heavens.”  Ra, the “King, Life, Strength, and Health [be to him], the maker of the gods,” is compared with the “Lord…” the heavens are the “work of your fingers” and mankind, “you have made him,” giving every living thing life, “all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”  Another point of contact is that “Ra, who art Heru-Khuti, the divine man-child, the heir of eternity, self-begotten and self-born, king of the earth,” can be compared with the author’s reference to Jesus Christ in Heb. 2:7-9 to Psalm 8:5-6, the only begotten Son of God (Heb. 1:3-5; Psa. 2:9; 45:6-7).  In Psalm 8, it is from the Lord in “the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger,” and Ra, who carried away the by the “hind legs’ the “Serpent-fiend Sebau hath fallen headlong, his forelegs are bound in chains,” with “his arms are hewn off, the Knife hath severed his joints.”  God and Ra are both victories over their foes.

The differences between these two texts are striking, in that the hymn refers to a polytheistic structure as opposed to a monotheistic worship.  For Ra, he is surely the maker “of all the gods,” while at the same time god as “Thoth and the goddess Ma’at mark out thy course for thee day by day and every day.”  Ra, although overarching amongst all gods in the text, is nevertheless reliant on their interaction with him, and there are “those who are in the following of Horus,” indicating that the pantheon consists of many gods whom their subjects had worshipped and venerated them.  For God, He is supreme and sovereign, and needs nothing from man to exist (Job 42:1-2; Isa. 14:27), He is all that He is (Exo. 3:14) and is to be worshipped solely (Exo. 20:1-3; 34:14; cf. Matt. 4:10).  He is eternal and everlasting, uncreated and unchanging.  “Yahweh’s existence and power did not derive from a preexisting realm, as was the case with the gods of other peoples.”[1]  The Hymn of Praise to Ra shows no interaction with mankind, while God is mindful of mankind, and cares for Him deeply “crowning him in glory and honor,” giving him dominion over His creation. The Lord calls on mankind to become steward of His creation (Psalm 8:6-9; Gen. 1:28).  For Ra, mankind wasn’t the steward of creation. 

The contention to whether the monotheism of the Hebrews developed from polytheism[2] tends to circumvent the likelihood that skeptics often misunderstand the nature of the theology surrounding the divine council.[3]  Hebrews were always solely monotheistic from the very beginning, yet there are hints to the divine council in the Old Testament (1 Ki. 22:19; Job 1:6; 2:1; 15:8; Psa. 82:1, 6; Isa 14:12-13; that tend to obfuscate skeptical opinion which then peripherally tracks into polytheistic conclusions.  In contrast, what essentially occurred was that surrounding cultures misapplied and/or misinterpreted the true revelation given to the Hebrews, regardless of whether this took place before or after the onset of polytheism, and it was through the Israelites, that God’s truth was nevertheless revealed, which was proleptically fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  The obviousness of textual and thematic overlap is unavoidable, as these cultures existed alongside themselves, borrowing from each other in a variety of ways.  I tend to lean towards with Emmanuel Tov and William Albright as far as textual diversity is concerned, and the Masoretic Text can be sourced in the Babylonian Text (the exile) by which it was in various places polemically addressing the surrounding cultures.

Bibliography

Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, James Jacob, Margaret Jacob, Jonathan W Daly, Theodore H. Von Laue, Western Civilization 11th Edition.

“Egyptian Book of the Dead: Hymns of Praise to Ra.” In Daily Life through History, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Accessed July 11, 2018. https://dailylife2-abc-clio-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/Search/Display/1824795

[1] Marvin Perry, Myrna Chase, James Jacob, Margaret Jacob, Jonathan W Daly, Theodore H. Von Laue, Western Civilization 11th Edition, Ch. 2-2, par. 5.

[2] Ibid., Ch. 2-2, par. 1.

[3] Ibid., Ch. 2-2, par. 3.