The Dark Side of Akhenaten
© Charles Chandler
The artifacts unearthed at Amarna, and in Tutankhamun's tomb at Thebes, portray Akhenaten as a benevolent dictator who championed a kinder, gentler, more rational world view. This is the legacy that the Hebrews inherited, who preserved it for future generations. But at Amarna, the benevolence didn't extend much past the palace. It was mentioned previously that Moses' followers complained bitterly about the harsh conditions to which they were subjected, such as having to provide their own straw for making mud-bricks.1 If this was at Amarna, and if Atenism was the prototype for Judaism, Akhenaten was curiously both the champion of the new faith and the pharaoh of the oppression.2 Unfortunately, modern archaeology shows that "oppression" doesn't fully describe the harshness of the conditions for the working class.3:3
The discovery made in 2008 of a cemetery of workers, on the site of the new capital [at Amarna], shows the terrifying exploitation to which these poor wretches were victims. The children, of which 60% suffered from anemia due to the malnutrition and/or to chronic maladies (compared to 18~20% during other periods), began to work with their bodies as soon as they were capable of lifting something. The bone damages (notably vertebral) are impressive. In the underfed, whose skeletons kept the record, malnutrition was devastating. The report of Barry Kemp is frightening: "the impact of the deaths among the teenagers doesn't have an equivalent in any other place of Egypt, and at no other historic period [...] By the age of 20, two thirds had died". And the size of Egyptian men has "never been found as low during all the history of the country".
So when Ramose killed an Egyptian for beating a slave,4,5,6 there might have been more to the story, since "beating" would have been an understatement — put more accurately, the slaves were being worked to death. Under the guise of religious and political reform, Akhenaten proclaimed himself to be the only living spirit of the one true deity, making himself the sole arbiter of truth and justice, not obligated to share authority with anyone or anything — not even his divine ancestors.3:3 What the royal artifacts do not show is the ruthlessness with which Akhenaten carried out his plans. From the perspective of the working class, Atenism was a bait-and-switch: to escape the corrupt Amun priests, a new god must be worshiped, and the workers must be exploited. The Hebrews would eventually keep the bait but lose the switch, forming a religion that actually was (and continues to be) kinder, gentler, and more rational. The major difference is that in Judaism, there is no central authority wielding totalitarian powers. The excesses of Akhenaten would have been the original reason for that enduring tradition.
Note that some historians have dismissed the possible historicity of the Torah on the grounds that the premise is false — the Torah claims that Moses' people were enslaved in Egypt, yet slavery was not common in Egypt. That might be true, but that doesn't prove that there couldn't have been any slavery at Amarna, or that such an atypical situation wouldn't have prompted a revolt — rather, the archaeological evidence of slavery at Amarna makes the revolt even easier to understand.
Now if we take a closer look, we can see that the conditions at Amarna influenced Judaism in other ways. Recent forensic archaeology has found that "advances" in the handling of livestock during Akhenaten's time, in which pigs and ducks were kept in closer proximity, created the biological conditions conducive to the germination of the bacteria that cause influenza.7 It's possible that flu epidemics weakened the population, contributing indirectly to the mortality rate. Shortly thereafter, we see for the first time a group of people settling in the Judaean Mountains who were adamant about not eating pork. There is no religious framework surrounding this practice. In other words, Jews don't spare pigs because they think that they're holy, the way Hindus spare cows. They simply consider pork to be unhealthy, and their extremely strict rules on the careful preparation of meat preclude anything that came from a pig.8 It's possible that these practices date back to a time when a pandemic preferentially attacked those who kept pigs.9:5
There is also archaeological evidence of bubonic plaque in the remains found at Amarna.10 The plague doesn't appear to have started there, since in the previous reign, Amenhotep III commissioned more statues of Resheph, the Canaanite god who protected against the plague, than of all other gods combined,11 strongly suggesting that there was already an epidemic in progress. So it rather seems that the plague was brought to Amarna from elsewhere.
The outbreak of plague at Amarna might have hastened the demise of Atenism. To understand why, we have to go back to what propelled Atenism to prominence in the first place. It was already mentioned that there was a steady theological progression, from the fusion of Amun and Ra during the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms, into the indescribable creator-god at Amarna. But the step taken by Akhenaten might not have been just his unilateral initiative — it might have been demanded by circumstances. With the plague making its way through Egypt in Amenhotep III's time,11 confidence in Amun-Ra would have suffered. Bubonic plague is typically transmitted by fleas. The ancients didn't figure this out, and rather concluded that the disease was carried by the wind from one victim to the next.12 (Perhaps this is why the Torah prohibits priests from being in the same room as a dead body, for fear of airborne contagions.13) Since Amun was the god of the wind, either he had turned on the Egyptians, or at the very least he was unable to prevent a more powerful god from usurping the wind to unleash a deadly disease. Either way, there would have been a loss of confidence in Amun. But this doesn't mean that Ra was qualified to step up and fill the void — as Amun's partner, Ra had been canonized with only half of the powers. Thus Amun was in the process of taking down the credibility of the entire Amun-Ra franchise. To maintain the pharaoh's divine right to rule, he had to directly address this credibility crisis. So Akhenaten turned to Aton (i.e., the other sun god), who wasn't so strictly defined, and who therefore could be reformulated into the indescribable Aten, assimilating all of the powers of Amun-Ra, and then some. The Aten would then be given the benefit of the doubt, escaping the stigma attached to the previous deity, and thereby renewing the pharaoh's divine right to rule. But the renewal would have expired just as soon as the plague reared its ugly head once again, this time at the newly built capital at Amarna. Needless to say, the Amun priesthood would have called attention to this failure, to the point that the Exodus was remembered in Egyptian history as just a flight from a contagious skin disease,9:5 without mention of the power struggle between the Atenists and Amunists.
The plague (or more loosely, leprosy) is then mentioned many times in the Torah, and the amount of ink devoted to the proper diagnosis of leprosy would have been disproportionate except at a leper colony.14 It's noteworthy that those who were pronounced "unclean" were required to cover the lower part of their faces.15 Modern medical science has found that leprosy is most likely transmitted by nasal mucus, meaning that covering one's mouth when coughing is important. The same goes for pneumonic plague. Jewish dietary law also has specific prohibitions against using the meat from sick animals, which (especially if not thoroughly cooked) could still be contagious.16,17:508~514 Of course, for medical practices to appear in an ancient religious text is not unusual, since the priests doubled as witch doctors. The less superstitious Hebrews treated such topics with fewer magic incantations and more detailed information on diagnoses and treatments. The unusual thing is that there is a lot of information about skin diseases, and not so much on other common maladies, such as how to set broken bones, bandage open wounds, etc. If we were to infer the general conditions at the time, based on what was in the handbooks carried by the priests, we'd easily conclude that there must have been a nasty skin disease going around.
The stigma of leprosy was attached to Moses himself, when God temporarily made Moses' hand leprous to prove His powers,18 and in the way that Moses' face was said to frighten people, necessitating that he wear a veil,19 which was a practice recommended for lepers.15 (Miriam also contracted the disease temporarily, and was quarantined for 7 days.20,21,22) We'll never know whether or not Moses actually had the disease himself, and it's somewhat more likely that this was literary instead of literal.23 A person of Moses' social status would have been well insulated from the leper camps. If he did catch the disease, it would be evidence that he didn't let the risk of infection keep him from his ministry, suggestive of magnanimity. Regardless, the Hebrews wouldn't have preserved such details had there not been any truth to them, since they just don't make a pretty story. So they should be taken as further confirmation that the Torah is rooted in fact.
Once out of Egypt and on their way to the Promised Land, the exiles hadn't seen the end of the plague, since it ultimately spread throughout the Middle East. And this is the key to making sense of some of the more bizarre passages in the Torah. Consider, for example, the story of the Midianites.
Numbers 22:1-6

1 Then the Israelites traveled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho.

Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites.

The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, "This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field."

So Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the Euphrates River, in his native land. Balak said:

"A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed."

So the Midianites were looking to put a "curse" on the Hebrews. And what kind of black magic would be invoked?
Numbers 25:1-2

1 While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods.

Were they kissing and making up? Actually, it seems that sex with the Moabite women was the instrument of the curse.
Numbers 25:6-9

Then an Israelite man brought into the camp a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman's stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

As pay-back for the biological warfare, the Hebrews marched on the Midianites.
Numbers 31:7-24

They fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man. Among their victims were Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba—the five kings of Midian. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites captured the Midianite women and children and took all the Midianite herds, flocks and goods as plunder. 10 They burned all the towns where the Midianites had settled, as well as all their camps. 11 They took all the plunder and spoils, including the people and animals, 12 and brought the captives, spoils and plunder to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the Israelite assembly at their camp on the plains of Moab, by the Jordan across from Jericho.

13 Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. 14 Moses was angry with the officers of the army—the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds—who returned from the battle.

15 "Have you allowed all the women to live?" he asked them. 16 "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident, so that a plague struck the Lord's people. 17 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, 18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

19 "Anyone who has killed someone or touched someone who was killed must stay outside the camp seven days. On the third and seventh days you must purify yourselves and your captives. 20 Purify every garment as well as everything made of leather, goat hair or wood."

21 Then Eleazar the priest said to the soldiers who had gone into battle, "This is what is required by the law that the Lord gave Moses: 22 Gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead 23 and anything else that can withstand fire must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean. But it must also be purified with the water of cleansing. And whatever cannot withstand fire must be put through that water. 24 On the seventh day wash your clothes and you will be clean. Then you may come into the camp."

Killing everybody, including non-combatants, is universally recognized as bad military practice, since once it becomes known that an army is doing this, its future adversaries will fight with infinite resolve. Was Ramose really that stupid, that he would unnecessarily harden the hearts of his foes? Or was this unavoidable? If the foes were infected with contagious diseases, and if the diseases were spreading because the Gentiles were not taking the same precautions as the Hebrews, there was no choice but to kill all of them. And the cruelty of this isn't quite what it seems, if it merely hastened the demise of people already infected with deadly diseases.
Now observe that the leaders insisted that all of the spoils of the battle be boiled and/or passed through fire, to "purify" them. They had figured out how to disinfect articles that could have been bearing the contagious bacteria.
More tellingly, anyone who had touched something that might have been "unclean" was required to stay outside of the camp for 7 days.24 This is unique in the history of warfare, and only makes sense when we consider that bubonic plague kills about two thirds of all infected humans within 4 days. So anybody who still wasn't showing symptoms after 7 days was probably OK. Miriam got the same 7-day quarantine after showing symptoms of "leprosy".20,21,22
The lingering psychological effect of struggling for survival in such an environment would have been distinctive. The elevation of cleanliness and careful food preparation to religious obligations, an enduring unwillingness to intermarry with other ethnic groups,25:b1:§7,9:5 and even preferring not to do business with people not observing the same customs,26 are all logical responses to such hardships.


1. Exodus 5:6-9. (E)

2. Rosenberg, S. G. (2013): The Exodus Enigma. Jerusalem Post

3. Benderitter, T. (2014): Akhenaten and the Religion of the Aten.

4. Exodus 2:11-12. (J)

5. Exodus 2:15. (J)

6. Exodus 3:1-3. (E,J)

7. Scholtissek, C.; Naylor, E. (1988): Fish farming and influenza pandemics. Nature, 331 (6153): 215

8. Deuteronomy 14:8. (D1)

9. Tacitus, P. C. (109): The Histories.

10. Panagiotakopulu, E. (2004): Pharaonic Egypt and the origins of plague. Journal of Biogeography, 31 (2): 269-275

11. Kozloff, A. (2006): Bubonic Plague in the Reign of Amenhotep III? KMT, 17 (3): 36-46

12. Exodus 9:8-9. (P)

13. Leviticus 21:1-3. (P)

14. Leviticus 13.

15. Leviticus 13:45. (P)

16. Leviticus 22:20-25. (P)

17. Maimonides (1204): The Mitzvot.

18. Exodus 4:6-7. (E)

19. Exodus 34:30-35. (P)

20. Numbers 5:2-3. (P)

21. Numbers 12:10-15. (E)

22. Deuteronomy 24:8-9. (D1)

23. Redford, D. B. (1993): Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times: Egypt and the Hebrew Kingdoms. Princeton University Press

24. Numbers 19:11. (P)

25. Josephus, F. (105): Against Apion.

26. Joshua 23:7.

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