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Living and Writing in the Natural World

King Tut's father and Moses

The young Tutankhamun and his queen

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing historical novels, for me, is the interesting things you bump into during the research phase. I’ve just finished a major revision of my second Sherlock Holmes novel, set in 1923, in which Holmes is called to Egypt to unravel whether the co-discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, Lord Carnarvon, is being poisoned. (The historical Carnarvon in fact died of “blood poisoning” four months after entering Tut’s tomb with his archaeologist, Howard Carter—thus originating the “Curse of the Mummy” phenomenon.)

One of Howard Carter’s chief collaborators was an American Egyptologist from the University of Chicago, one James Breasted. Privately wealthy and cosmopolitan, Breasted primarily translated hieroglyphic inscriptions for Carter, though he came to be a trusted adviser on a range of issues.

Breasted was fascinated with Akhenaten, the pharaoh preceding Tutankhamun. Best known to the lay public for his queen, the ravishing Nefertiti, Akhenaten fascinated Breasted by virtue of a much more daring action on the pharaoh’s part: he completely overturned the religious establishment of centuries in ancient Egypt, kicking the long-dominant priests of the god Amun out of the temples, along with the priests of all the other gods in the polytheistic system. And astonishingly enough, Akhenaten proceeded to declare that there were not in truth many gods (of whom Amun was the most prominent), but in fact was only one God—Aten, represented by the disc of the sun.

Akhenaten was thus the “inventor” of monotheism, to Breasted’s way of thinking. Breasted credited Akhenaten as “the first modern man” by virtue of this accomplishment.

It didn’t last, of course; never get on the wrong side of the priestly class. Upon Ahkenaten’s death, the young King Tut (son of Akhenaten by a minor “wife”) came to the throne, under the regency of Nefertiti, probably. (The reign-name of the briefly-ruling pharoah between Akhenaten and Tut is ambiguous; it could have been Nefertiti, or one of Akhenaten’s daughters, or various other personages.) But within several years Tut comes of age (probably nine years old), and assumes the throne himself (where he lasts for about ten years before his own sudden and mysterious death). The priests of Amun soon prevail upon the young, weak Tut to abandon the sun-disc God Aten, and the old polytheistic religious order is promptly restored. Mention of the short-lived Aten and His sponsor, Akhenaten, are zealously scrubbed from friezes and monuments.

All very interesting—but we’re just getting started. It is just at this end of the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom that a figure of huge historical and religious importance appears on the stage: Moses. Interestingly enough, Moses appears at about the same time that the God Aten is overthrown by the priests of Amun early in Tut’s reign. It is impossible to reliably date Moses with any precision. Both rabbinical scholarship and western scholars, however, place Moses within a “window” of plausible dates that overlap with the reigns of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, as well as the next pharaoh Horemheb.

For Breasted, Moses appearing in Egypt and leading “the Jews” out of Egypt at the same time that the One God Aten is overthrown cannot be a coincidence, particularly in view of the fact that Aten’s followers were described as Aten-mose, or “Son of Aten.” Breasted suggests the possibility that “Moses” was an Egyptian prince determined to save Akhenaten’s monotheism, and that he fled Egypt with a group of slaves who also had the concept of One God in their culture: the Hebrews.

What about Moses, then?

A broad spectrum of opinion exists on the question of Moses. At one end, Christian fundamentalists, biblical literalists, and indeed conventional Christians claim him as an historical person with the experiences recounted in the Bible: an abandoned Jew, saved by the daughter of the Pharaoh, raised in the royal court, who performed many miracles as he led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt to the border of the promised land, where he gave them to Joshua and died at the age of 120, being buried by God himself at an unknown location. This is the account taught to countless children (including myself) in Sunday School lessons.

Then there are Biblical scholars of a Christian bent, such as the late American William Albright, who claim that the biblical account is basically correct, but that perhaps the biblical Moses represents a combination of several historical figures who were important in the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Some Jewish scholars would fit into this part of the spectrum.

To move toward the other end of the spectrum, some scholars who approach and interpret the Bible from an objective, scientific view, such as the late German Martin Noth, see much evidence suggesting that Moses is a mainly fictional representation that provides a coherent narrative account of a long, confusing process whereby several related semitic bands, one of them descended from Egyptian slaves, gradually encroached upon Canaan and finally established themselves there, forming the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

In this view, the portions of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) which use the word Elohim for God (the “E Source”) are likely describing the band that emerged from Egypt in the New Kingdom, struggling between a monotheistic concept of God (whom they called Elohim) and worship of the golden calf so frequently portrayed in Egyptian iconography (as in the several Egyptian cow gods, Apis and Hathor, for example). A charismatic leader (or leaders) led them out of Egypt into the Sinai desert, and persistently brought them back to Elohim even as he punished them for falling back upon the calf god (as “Moses” is represented as doing in the Bible).

On the other hand, those portions of the Torah that use the word Jahweh for God (the “J Source”) are thought to represent groups long in the vicinity of Median in the Sinai desert, with Jahweh being originally a local mountain/volcano God. The “Moses” who is represented in the Bible as a shepherd and son-in-law of the shepherd Jethro in Median represents this group.

The Egyptian band of proto-Jews in time met up with the Sinai band of proto-Jews, allied with them to conquer Canaan, and their two differing histories and names for God were melded together uneasily, resulting in the “Moses” figure of the Torah and the E and J sources for the document (in addition to a later priestly source).

Like Breasted, Sigmund Freud argued (in Moses and Monotheism, 1929) that the “Moses” emerging with a semitic band from Egypt was probably a nobleman from the royal court of Akhenaten, a believer in Akhenaten’s monotheism (hence his name Aten-mose) fleeing the re-imposition of the polytheistic cults dominated by Amun after Akhenaten’s death. Freud explores and evaluates the similarities and differences between Akhenaten’s monotheism and that of the Jewish Torah. Freud took this basic approach one step further, adding his psychoanalytic theories of the band of brothers (the Israeli nation) experiencing guilt over their killing of their domineering father (Moses). While Moses and Monotheism is fascinating reading and convincing in some respects, the psychoanalytic angle is persuasive to few these days.

Of course, I tie all this into my novel, and indeed Sherlock must know it to save his own life late in the novel. Never a dull moment, eh?

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