What was Egypt like in the time of Moses? Did the Hebrews build the Great Pyramid? Jimmy Akin joins us for a lively look at Moses among the Egyptians.
Want to hear the next part of this conversation? Listen here: Moses and the Egyptians (Part 2)
Cy Kellett: What do we know about the Egyptians of Moses’ time? Right now on Catholic Answers Focus.
Cy Kellett: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, joined today by our senior apologist here at Catholic Answers, Jimmy Akin. Hi, Jimmy.
Jimmy Akin: Howdy, Cy.
Cy Kellett: There were these people in the ancient world called the Egyptians.
Jimmy Akin: Oh, yeah. They had a special walk. You had to learn how to…walk like an Egyptian.
Cy Kellett: I had forgotten that, yeah. That must have been very uncomfortable to constantly have to walk like that.
Jimmy Akin: Oh, you hand to wear bangles, too, when you did it.
Cy Kellett: If you don’t know what he’s referring to, you’re just going to have to look at up on the internet. Okay, so, at one point, this well-known historical ancient people, the Egyptians, also served as the captors for the people we now know as the Jews.
Jimmy Akin: Yes.
Cy Kellett: So there’s this interaction. So I want to ask you about that in these two episodes.
Jimmy Akin: Right, yeah. So we’re going to be talking about Moses, is where we’re heading, but we’re going to set the stage by talking about Egypt.
Cy Kellett: Right. So, the society that Moses would have grown up in there in Egypt was already a well-developed society.
Jimmy Akin: Oh, yeah.
Cy Kellett: Like, your eyes got big. How well-developed was it?
Jimmy Akin: Well, we’re living two thousand years after the time of Christ, and Egyptian civilization goes back at least five thousand years before Christ. So it’s like seven thousand… we recently found a cemetery in Egypt that has… some of the bodies are seven thousand years old. Originally, Egypt was not the arid desert it is today. It was much more moist than it is now. But, over the course of time, it dried out so that the principal source, except for a few oases, the principal source of water is just the Nile River. And so you had the Nile River running down Egypt, or running up Egypt, I should say, because the Nile starts in the south and flows north to the Mediterranean Sea. That’s why southern Egypt is called Upper Egypt.
Cy Kellett: Oh, because it’s up via the river.
Jimmy Akin: Up the river. And northern Egypt is called Lower Egypt because it’s down the river. And that really shaped Egyptian culture.
Jimmy Akin: So every year, the Nile… they basically have three seasons. So I guess we’re kind of talking about the geography of Egypt right now. They have three seasons in Egypt. They have… the year begins when the star Sirius rises and that signals that the Nile is about to flood. Down at the origin of the Nile, they have mountainous snows that melt every year. And so, every July or so.
Cy Kellett: Those famous African snows we all know so much.
Jimmy Akin: Like the snows of Kilimanjaro.
Cy Kellett: Oh, yeah, right. Okay.
Jimmy Akin: And, so every July or so, Sirius rises and the Nile begins to flood. That initiates the season called “inundation.” So the Nile floods and it brings all this topsoil down through the Nile Valley, and that fertilizes the ground, so it makes it very fertile for farming. And then, they have a season… each of these seasons is about four months. Then they have a season called “emergence” where the flood waters recede and the land emerges again and you can plant it. So the Egyptians would start growing crops, specifically wheat and so forth.
Jimmy Akin: Then you have summer, which is where it’s just all dry and you’re waiting for the next inundation. Because the Nile Valley was so fertile, the Egyptians could grow more than just subsistence-level crops. They could grow more food than they needed to feed everybody. That meant not everybody had to be a farmer. You could have more complex, sophisticated ways of governing your society with people who could specialize in things besides farming. So you could have a standing army.
Cy Kellett: Oh, yeah. Because you’re rich, basically.
Jimmy Akin: Yeah. You could have an established priesthood of people who just tended to religious things. You could have an established government. So, that led to the formation of the system of pharaohs, and starting with the first dynasty, the first notable pharaoh was a guy named Narmer. He was, if I recall correctly, about 3000 B.C. So, five thousand years ago, approximately.
Jimmy Akin: So by the time of Moses, there had already been Egyptian civilization for like 1500 to 1700 years.
Cy Kellett: Okay. So, let’s just real quick, then, give a date for Moses, an approximate date for him.
Jimmy Akin: Well, you could say… there are sort of two theories that are commonly advocated. The traditional one is that Moses lived in the 1400s B.C. and that the exodus occurred around the year 1446 B.C. The more recently popular theory is that Moses lived in the 1200s B.C. and that the exodus occurred no later than 1250 B.C.
Cy Kellett: Okay. All right. So, for these Jews, then, living there, they wouldn’t have been called Jews at the time; right? They would have had another…
Jimmy Akin: No. They were called Hebrews or Israelites, because they were descended from Israel. “Jew” is a later term. It means “an inhabitant of Judah,” because of the kingdom of Judah, one of the twelve tribes became prominent.
Cy Kellett: So, they’re living there in Egypt, and Egypt is, I guess, the heart of the world at the time? Like there would have been people all around…
Jimmy Akin: Yeah. One of the cradles of civilization. It’s not the only civilization at the time. In fact, Egypt was… you know, as I mentioned, they have a standing army.
Cy Kellett: Yeah, right. Why do you need that?
Jimmy Akin: Why do you need that? Because there are other people out there. They didn’t just use their army defensively. They used it… they had a kind of view of the economy that was… It’s a zero-sum game. Wealth does not get created, it only gets taken. And so, one of the jobs of the Pharaoh was to go take wealth from other people. And so, every year or so, Pharaoh would lead the army out, they’d beat up on some foreign nation, take everything that wasn’t nailed down, bring it back to Egypt, and require what was called tribute of the people they had conquered. And any time the people… every year you’re supposed to send some of your stuff to Egypt to keep them from invading you. It’s like a protection racket. And if you don’t, then they’re likely to come back and re-invade you.
Cy Kellett: So for, say a tribe, like the Israelites…
Jimmy Akin: Oh, and by the way, there’s a famous picture. You see it in Egyptian art. Egypt was amazingly conservative socially. So like, once they set up their artistic system and their governmental institutions, they kept them for three thousand years. And, so, right back on the Narmer pallet, we have Narmer depicted in what’s called “the smiting position” where he’s got a foreigner by his hair and he’s got one of his… his other arm raised up with a club. He’s ready to smite this foreigner to show the dominance of Egypt. This smiting position you see in Egyptian art from Narmer forward.
Cy Kellett: All right, then the-
Jimmy Akin: They’re kind of like the Goa’uld.
Cy Kellett: That’s from Atlantis.
Jimmy Akin: Stargate SG1.
Cy Kellett: Sorry, yeah. So, what we think of as ancient Egypt, probably the primary image that you might get is the pyramids at Giza.
Jimmy Akin: Yep.
Cy Kellett: So, would the Israelites have been a part of building those?
Jimmy Akin: No. No. Absolutely not.
Cy Kellett: Why not?
Jimmy Akin: The pyramids are interesting. The way they got started, originally… So originally, Egyptians buried their dead in pits. They didn’t have any special way of protecting the bodies or anything. They would bury them in pits and they would naturally mummify because of the arid climate. Later, they found out ways to mummify them even better and it became a special profession. It actually took 70 days to mummify somebody. And they later did it for Joseph.
Cy Kellett: Oh, they did?
Jimmy Akin: Yeah. Oh, yeah. And Jacob. Some of the biblical patriarchs were mummified in Egypt. In any event, they initially buried people in pits, but if you don’t protect the bodies, animals are going to come and predate them. So, they said, okay, let’s try to protect the bodies. Let’s put a big stone thing over them. It looks like a bench or shoebox. It’s a big stone thing, kind of like a shoebox or a bench. And the Arabic word for bench is mastaba. And so, they would put mastabas over the dead as their tomb, as kind of like their coffin. Even today, when you bury someone in a coffin, they usually put a mastaba-like thing over it before they fill in the dirt.
Cy Kellett: Right.
Jimmy Akin: In any event, people naturally say, okay, how can we make this fancier with the course of time? And somebody got the idea, well, okay, I don’t want just a mastaba for my tomb. I want a smaller mastaba on top of the big mastaba.
Cy Kellett: Because two mastaba’s better than one. Yeah.
Jimmy Akin: It’s going to be fancier than everyone’s else’s tomb. And that got a competition going where the stylish thing to do was to start stacking mastabas on top of each other like…
Cy Kellett: I see what shape we’re heading towards.
Jimmy Akin: … like the layers of a wedding cake. And that, eventually, gave us pyramids. And pharaohs, of course, being at the top of the food chain in Egypt, they need the biggest burial structures of all. So they need their stack of mastabas to be really huge and impressive. And they didn’t always, at first… they’re experimenting how you do this. And, they didn’t always get it right.
Jimmy Akin: There’s one pyramid where they started building, and they wanted to put casing stones on it to make it smoother, so it’s not just a steppe pyramid like the wedding cake, they wanted it to be smoother. They built it at too steep an angle and it all slid off. There’s another one called the Bent Pyramid where they started building at one angle, but as they got high up, they realized it’s too steep and they had to change it to a shallower angle.
Cy Kellett: That’s the way I build things.
Jimmy Akin: Yeah. So that’s why it’s called the Bent Pyramid. There’s another one they had to just abandon because it’s structurally unsafe on the inside. If you go in it today…you’re not allowed to unless you have special permission because it’s so dangerous…but you go into the burial chamber, and they’ve got big cedar logs from Lebanon holding the stones apart to keep it from collapsing.
Cy Kellett: No way I’d go in there. I don’t want permission. Okay.
Jimmy Akin: But, by the reign of… the time of a guy named Khufu, or Cheops, to use his Greek name, they got it right. So they started building on the Giza Plateau, which is right outside of Cairo, in fact, Cairo has actually grown around it. So it’s kind of fun, if you’re driving down the freeway in Cairo, you’re looking at all these more modern buildings, and then peeking up in the background, oh, there are the pyramids.
Cy Kellett: That’s some good construction.
Jimmy Akin: Yeah. So, you had the Pharaoh Khufu build the Great Pyramid. And then, his successor built one that’s actually a little higher up, but it’s not quite as tall. And then, one of the grandsons also built another slightly smaller one there. And then, there are some ones that were built for queens, but those were all built in what’s called the Old Kingdom, around the fifth dynasty, if I remember correctly.
Cy Kellett: So that would be?
Jimmy Akin: This is more than 2000 B.C.
Cy Kellett: Oh. So they’ve been there for hundreds of years by the time Moses is there.
Jimmy Akin: Yes.
Cy Kellett: I think some movies might have gotten this wrong.
Jimmy Akin: They did, yeah. There are several different major periods in Egyptian history. The first is called the Old Kingdom because it’s the earliest. Then, their civilization kind of fell apart and they had what’s called the first intermediate period. Then they got it all back together, they restored all those old institutions that had worked for them, and they had the Middle Kingdom. Then it fell apart again and you had the second intermediate period. Then you have the New Kingdom.
Jimmy Akin: Well, we’re living in, by Moses’ time, in either the 18th or the 19th dynasty. So, the pyramids have been there for hundreds of years. So, they did not build the pyramids. The would have seen the pyramids.
Cy Kellett: Okay. So Moses himself would have seen the pyramids?
Jimmy Akin: Yeah. And they would have looked more impressive than they do today because back then, they had white limestone casing stones on them. So they would have been smooth and white.
Cy Kellett: Wow.
Jimmy Akin: Unfortunately, those stones later got taken off, and if you want to see them today, they were what was used to build the mosques of Cairo.
Cy Kellett: You’re kidding me. Really?
Jimmy Akin: That’s where they are now.
Cy Kellett: Okay. Talk about cultural appropriation. Come on.
Jimmy Akin: Yeah, really.
Cy Kellett: All right, just to wrap up this section and the next section we’ll talk more about Moses: What’s the society like then? You’ve got these great buildings. Is it an urban society? What would it have been like that Moses lived in?
Jimmy Akin: It’s somewhat urban, because everybody pretty much had… unless you were living in an oasis somewhere, you pretty much had to live in the Nile River Valley. So that led to big cities. Not everyone was in the city. I mean, there were farmers all over the place up and down the Nile Valley. But there were big cities, too. And they built these huge monuments. That was one of the things that pharaohs did, was they would conduct building projects, like temples, for the Gods and stuff. There’s a famous one known as the Temple of Karnak, which has this hypostyle hall. That means it’s massive huge pillars, or hypostyles. Just huge. And then, they would carve the deeds of the pharaoh on these monuments, which is how we know so much about Egyptian history.
Cy Kellett: That’s good for historians.
Jimmy Akin: Yeah, it is.
Cy Kellett: Thanks.
Jimmy Akin: Once we cracked the language, we could totally read this stuff. All this history became available to us.
Cy Kellett: So was Karnak the Great buried there?
Jimmy Akin: Uh, no.
Cy Kellett: Okay, because I’ve got a couple minutes: When did people begin to be able to read Egyptian, the hieroglyphs?
Jimmy Akin: It was not known. The knowledge of it was lost until the 1800s. In the 1800s, early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte conducted a military and scientific expedition to Egypt. He went there to conquer Egypt, but also to study it. And so, while they were there, his guys found what’s known as the Rosetta Stone. And the Rosetta Stone is commemorating some events, and it mentions Queen Cleopatra in it, so it’s very late. She was actually not Egyptian by birth, she was Greek. So she was one of the Greek Pharaohs. But it has writing on it in two different styles of Egyptian writing and in Greek. So, after that, scholars were able to look at the Greek, which they understood, and compare it to the Egyptian and figure out the Egyptian language. That was done primarily by a guy named Francois Champollion in the mid 1800s in France. That was what unlocked our knowledge of ancient Egyptian history.
Cy Kellett: And all those thousands of years of history became light…
Jimmy Akin: … readable to us.
Cy Kellett: So you can go read the graffiti, you can go read the inscriptions.
Jimmy Akin: Yeah. I’ve read a little bit of… I’ve trained myself to read a little bit of hieroglyphics. I can look at stuff.
Jimmy Akin: One of my favorite characters, my favorite hieroglyphs, is the evil bird. It’s a little, small bird they put at the end of things to indicate that this is evil or bad or worthless.
Cy Kellett: We need that. An angry bird. We need an angry bird for…
Cy Kellett: Jimmy Akin, senior apologist here at Catholic Answers is our guest for Focus this time and next, where we will continue our conversation by looking at the historical… or I should put a question mark. Historical? Person named that we now know as Moses. We’ll do that next time Catholic Answers Focus. Thanks so much for being with us.
Cy Kellett: If you like Focus, would you maybe make a comment wherever you get this podcast, whether it’s at iTunes or wherever else you get it? Or leave us a thumbs up or some kind of a positive comment and share it with other people. We’d really like Focus to grow and be shared with more people.
Cy Kellett: I’m Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time on Catholic Answers Focus.