Atenism & Early Judaism
© Charles Chandler
After the exile of the Amarna heretics, Atenism resurfaced in Judaism.1,2,3:31 So the obvious inference is that the exiles went to Canaan, where they started teaching a new faith to the Habirus. The most important parallels between Atenism and Judaism were that they were the only monotheisms in practice at the time,4 and they were unique in ancient theology for forbidding idolatry,5 believing that God is "supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay."6:5 Thus in their most fundamental conception of God, the two faiths were the same, and in stark contrast to all other faiths of the period. But that's just the beginning...
Another parallel is the similarity between the Great Hymn to the Aten, found in the tomb of Ay at Amarna and attributed to Akhenaten, and Psalm 104 in the Tanakh.7:416,8:371,9
Great Hymn to the Aten   Psalm 104
When you descend in the western sky the earth is in darkness like the dead ...and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, (20)
...Every lion comes forth from its lair. All serpents come out to sting... wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey. (20~21)
You rise in the east to shine as the godly Sun by day, driving away the darkness. [...] The people wake and get up, and it is you that raise them each morning... The sun riseth. Man goes forth unto his work. (22~23)
All cattle rest in their pastures. The trees and the plants too. Birds in the marshes lift their wings in praise of you. So too the sheep prance, and winged insects fly, because you have shone upon them. The trees of the Lord are full of sap. [...] The birds make their nests. [...] The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats. (16~18)
Ships pass up and down the Nile. [...] The fish in the river leap up before you. Your rays reach the midst of the great green sea. [...] This great wide sea, wherein [...] go the ships. There is that leviathan, whom you have made to play therein. (25~26)
How manifold are they works! [...] You made men and cattle, the large and the small, those that walk and those that fly — you made them all. [...] O, Lord, how manifold are they works! In wisdom hast thou made them all. (24)
You have set a Nile in the sky to fall for them, making foods upon the mountains [...] and watering their fields. The Nile in the sky is for service of foreigners and for the cattle of every land. He watereth the hills. [...] The earth is satisfied with the fruits of thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man. (13~14)
You make the seasons. [...] The world's people are in your hand, even as you made them. When you have risen, they live. When you set, they are as if dead. [...] By you, men live, [...] And the days of each you have numbered. These wait all upon them; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season. What you givest them they gather, thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled. Thou takest away the breath, they die. (27~29)
Note that in Judaism, Psalms isn't just another book in the Tanakh — it's the one book from which prayers are recited on a daily basis, and Orthodox Jews specifically recite Psalm 104 in its entirety every morning.
Another parallel is the similarity between the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant and artifacts found in the tombs of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun.
Exodus 25:10-20

10 "They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a molding of gold around it. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry the ark by them. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16 And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.

17 "You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. 18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.

Figure 1. Ark of Anubis, as found in Tut's tomb.
The basic idea of a "ark" (i.e., a container of some sort) made to be carried around was common in Egypt. If it was dedicated to a specific god, there might be a representation of the deity riding on top (such as in Figure 1), suggestive of a king being carried by loyal subjects. Thus the cherubs on top of the Ark of the Covenant would otherwise have been the objects of worship. This is a bit odd in the larger context of Judaism, which explicitly prohibits idolatry, and which appears to have been a compromise between the theologians, who wanted no artifacts at all associated with the faith, and the people, who periodically lapsed into idolatry in moments of weakness.
Cherubs were popular in Babylonia, but rare in Canaan, suggesting that cherubs entered the story during the Babylonian Captivity, which was much later. So what was the original story?
With the ban on idolatry, and with the prohibition against worshiping the pantheon of lesser gods, the only mythical creatures that survive in stricter interpretations of Judaism are angels, who are simply people but with wings, and who can cross the boundary between this world and the next. Similarly, Akhenaten attempted to humanize the faith of his day, eliminating idolatry as much as possible, while the only surviving mythical creatures were humans with wings.
Now if we look at Figure 2, we see that it matches the specification that there are to be beings with "their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them." The only difference is that it's a sarcophagus, not a sedan chair, so the angels are not objects of worship riding on top — the object of worship is inside, and the angels are posted at the corners to guard the contents.
See this for another example from Tut's shrine. On the sarcophagus, the figures are identified as the goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Selket, but the inscriptions were done hastily, while the meticulous detailing of the feathers was far more deliberate, suggesting that the original intent might have been different. The feathers are the insignia of Ma'at, the goddess of truth, ethics, and morality, who used a feather to weigh the heart of the deceased. The principles of Ma'at were wholly consistent with Atenism, in which the whims of the priests were subordinated to the rule of law. This is also the distinctive thing about the early Hebrews, who insisted that principles be established, published, and distributed, bringing religious faith out from behind the curtain of the inner sanctuary, and giving the people a set of standards by which to live.
On closer examination of other artifacts in Tut's tomb, we can clearly see that the humanism of the Atenist faith didn't just preclude mythical beasts. Even the "angels" were not actually supernatural — they were women with wings strapped onto their arms. (See Figure 3.) So this was a de-mystified, humanized concept of truth and justice, inconsistent with all other contemporary faiths except Judaism. (The mitzvot elaborates on the rejection of mysticism in the Torah,10 with specific prohibitions against witchcraft, astrology, seeking any manner of mystical signs or portents, or invoking charms or incantations, practicing magic using herbs, stones, etc., casting spells over snakes and scorpions, belief in ghosts or attempting to communicate with the dead, and consulting wizards.11:334-344) Under Akhenaten, these projections of the pharaoh's life-force would have been "ankhs", which in Canaan became "ankh-els" (i.e., godly life forces), which in Greek becomes "angels".3:35
Figure 2. Tutankhamun's sarcophagus.
Figure 3. Detail from Tutankhamun's shrine.
The next closest resemblance to this form in ancient archaeology is shown in Figure 4, from the previous generation at Amarna.12:11 But the wings are not stretched upward, because they had to leave room for the winged disc in the upper center. This predates Akhenaten's ban on the symbolic representation of the Aten. Since the 1312-Exodus occurred after Tutankhamun, it makes sense that the description in the Torah more closely resembles the latter form, and there is no winged disc in Jewish lore.
The same general form (i.e., two females facing each other, with outstretched wings strapped to their arms) appears in several other places in Tut's tomb (e.g., here, and here), representing Ma'at (the goddesses of truth and justice), and again 40 years later in the tomb of Seti I, who ruled . (See Figure 5.) Seti I appears to have been the pharaoh who established the first Hebrew nation, so he was sympathetic to their principles, even if Egypt had officially banned Atenism. Thereafter, Ma'at is always represented in this general form (e.g., an inscription at Abu Simbel done in ), though never matching the specifications of the Ark of the Covenant quite so precisely as on Tut's sarcophagus.
Figure 4. Akhenaten's Ark, as drawn by Nestor L'Hôte.
Figure 5. Ma'at, from Seti I's tomb.
Before moving on, we might note that the fringed linen draped over Anubis in Figure 1, and the way that it is draped, are recognizably rabbinic. (See this for a closer look, and compare the fringes to those on a modern tallit.) There is no other instance of Egyptian gods wearing shawls, so the Hebrews didn't get this tradition from common knowledge.
Another parallel between Atenism and Judaism is the names and roles of the two top religious officials under Akhenaten and under Moses.13 Akhenaten's two highest priests were:
  • Meryre II, who was the High Priest of the Aten at the Amarna temple, and
  • Panehesy, who was the Chief Servitor of the Aten at Akhenaten's temple.14
Likewise, Moses' two highest priests were:
  • Merari, son of Levi,15,16 whose descendants were responsible for the frames of the tabernacle,17 and whose name in Egyptian is Meryre, and
  • Phinehas, who was the son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron,18 whose family was responsible for the sanctuary.19 His name in the Talmud is Pinhas. The Egyptian equivalent of his name is Panhesy.
Another parallel is the name of Moses' father,13 who the Torah identifies as "Amram",20,21 or "Imran" in the Qur'an.22 This matches the second cartouche in Aten's name: Im-r-n. So Moses (born Ramose) stopped claiming that he was the son of Ra, and started indirectly claiming that he was the son of Aten (within the limits of the Jewish disdain for living gods).
Next we have the strict Hebrew tradition of keeping the sabbath (Shabbat). The word is a compound based on Sheva (i.e., meaning seven, which in Arabic is saba). But a compound of what? The Greek form is sabbaton, which is cognate with the late Babylonian sabbatum, which variously meant pacify, Sun, or light.24 This would be an odd mix of meanings, unless of course it was originally sabba-Aten, when every 7th day the people pacified themselves and worshiped the Sun god.3:36
Finally we have the very name of God. This was most commonly written as YHWH in the Tanakh, which appears to have been the god of the Shasu, a Transjordan tribe predating the Exodus, who were described as "those who move on foot" (i.e., nomads). The hieroglyphics for this transliterates into Hebrew as YHWH. But Hebrew tradition insists the name of God be pronounced as Adonai, which is too different from YHWH to be considered an alternative form of the word. So we should like to know the origin of this nickname. Adonai is the emphatic plural of Adon (similar to usage of Elohim as the plural of El). Adon, Adonis, Adonai, Adam, atum, atom, Aton, and Aten have all been shown to be cognate, meaning the first, the one-and-only, the indivisible, and/or the sole ruler.25:59-74,26:176-177 Adon, Atum, and Aten are even more closely related, being associated with Sun worship.27:212 Of course, the concept was ubiquitous, so it's not surprising that the word shows up in a lot of different forms. (Note that the letters "d" and "t" are loosely interchangeable, especially in the northern Levant, being identical in cuneiform, one of the common scripts during this period. For example, the name of the city Adana, first attested in the Amarna period,28:203 is alternately spelled Atana to this day.) So Adon was Aten, the god of Akhenaten and Ramose. When the Egyptians outlawed Atenism, it became tactless for the Hebrews to keep a written record of their defiance of the law. So they simply wrote that they were worshiping the god of their tribe (i.e., YHWH), and only in closed prayer meetings did they speak the name of their god (i.e., Adonai). Then again, observant Jews won't even write the name of God, preferring "G-d" or HaShem (which means "the name"). So if they can't use God's real name, they stop short of using YHWH or Elohim.
Atenism and Judaism have
these things in common:
  • monotheism,
  • the ban on idolatry,
  • Psalm 104,
  • the Ark of the Covenant,
  • the rule of published law,
  • fringed linen prayer shawls,
  • the names of the key people:
    • Ramose → Moses,
    • Im-r-n → Amram,
    • Meryre → Merari,
    • Panehesy → Phinehas,
  • the sabbath, and
  • the name of God.
Thus the two faiths shared the same core. To highlight the central nature of the overlap, imagine a person claiming to be a Jew, but without recognizing the supremacy of Adonai, nor observing the sabbath, nor deliberately attempting to live by Mosaic Law, nor thinking of the Covenant as the glue holding the community together, nor reciting Psalm 104 with reverence, but who does pray to figurines of mythical creatures — in no sense could such a person be considered a Jew. Hence Atenism and early Judaism were nothing short of two instances of the same faith.
So which was the source — was Atenism the inspiration for Judaism, or was it the other way around? Those who acknowledge the secular dating of Joshua's conquest of Jericho (), and then follow the Biblical chronology, which has him coming after Moses, would conclude that Akhenaten adopted monotheism from the Hebrews, and then neglected to defend Canaan against the Habirus out of respect for YHWH.29 But it's hard to believe that isolated groups of illiterate sheep-herders in the Judaean Mountains went straight from primitive paganism to the abstractions of early Judaism. On the other hand, there was a steady theological progression in Egypt, first achieving the pseudo-monotheism of the Amun-Ra cult, and culminating in the all-powerful, indescribable creator-god in Akhenaten's time.30 Next we have the 1312-Exodus, and shortly thereafter, Hebrew settlements start popping up in the Levant. So Atenism is far and away the likelier source.
And if Atenism was the inspiration for Judaism, it could have only been during this period, since Atenism was subsequently suppressed, and was unknown until modern times. Furthermore, scholars have rightfully questioned how far Atenism spread beyond Amarna. This is especially true of the type of information in question, such as prayers that only the pharaoh was allowed to recite, and tomb art that was even more secret. The implication is that the Atenist influence had to travel to Canaan on the lips of a ranking officials from Amarna. That yields a short list, with Ramose at the top.
So the hypothesis is that Moses was Ramose, vizier to Akhenaten,2,3:31,31,32:30 and that he was exiled along with his high priests to Moab when Tutankhamun abandoned Amarna in . The priests have been identified as the Levites, who were the only ones in the Torah with Egyptian names (e.g., Moses, Merari, Phinehas, Hophni, and Hur),33 and who were responsible for the Tabernacle,34,35,36,37 which has been shown to be of Egyptian design.38 (As an aside, Ramose's father in the Egyptian records was Hebi,39:203-5,303-5 or Nebi.40:105-111 In the Torah, Moses' clan was descended from Levi. All by itself, the similarity between Hebi & Levi wouldn't be significant, but if the identification of Moses with Ramose can rest on the other evidence, this might give us the identity of the founder of the clan.) Regardless, once on the East Bank, the Levites then proceeded to convert pastoral nomads to Atenism. When Horemheb outlawed Atenism in , another group of Atenists left Egypt and settled in Moab. After Ramose and all of that generation had passed,41,42 the Hebrews pressed westward into Canaan in ,8:409 claiming the land on the West Bank that had been promised to them. This caused a ruckus, prompting Seti I's campaign in to restore order to the region, and leaving the "Habirus of the Sun" in charge, thus establishing the first Hebrew nation.
Then comes the question of whether or not a handful of Egyptian dignitaries could have converted thousands of Habirus to Atenism, who then spread the faith throughout the Levant. To Transjordan Bedouins, the arrival of a troop of Egyptian nobility would have made an impressive (if not imposing) sight, and yes, they would have listened. The Canaanite idolatry unearthed from ancient Hebrew settlements suggests that Judaism was not universally accepted all at once throughout the region. This is not surprising — no new religion ever was, or ever will be. (It's also possible that Hebrews wishing not to be persecuted for Atenism found it convenient to be able to produce a miniature likeness of Ba'al on demand, even if the figurine meant nothing to them.) Still, the faith that endured bears the distinctive marks of evangelists coming out of Amarna, so somebody listened.
Lastly, we should note the most significant difference between Atenism and Judaism. It was mentioned in the previous section that Akhenaten positioned himself as the one and only instance of the spirit of the Aten, making him the sole arbiter of truth and justice in the Universe. But adherents of Judaism refuse to acknowledge living gods, and are explicitly skeptical of, and quick to turn away from, false prophets — a first in the history of theology.43,44 So while the Hebrews got the essential tenets of their faith from the Egyptians, there was one point that they rejected — the supremacy of the Egyptian at the top. This was later generalized to include anybody who pretended to be God, or descended from God, or otherwise claimed possession of any sort of mystical connection to God that was inconsistent with earlier prophesy.45 In other words, the Hebrews achieved a purer form of humanism.


1. Breasted, J. H. (1894): De hymnis in solem sub rege Amenophide IV conceptis: dissertatio. Universitas Friderica Guilelma

2. Freud, S. (1939): Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays. Amsterdam: Verlag Albert de Lange

3. Chandler, T. (1976): Godly Kings and Early Ethics. Exposition Press

4. Exodus 20:3 (P)

5. Exodus 20:4 (P)

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

7. Breasted, J. H. (1906): Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents: Volume II. University of Chicago Press

8. Breasted, J. H. (1905): A history of Egypt from the earliest times to the Persian conquest. New York: C. Scribner's Sons

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

10. Deuteronomy 18:10-12 (D1)

11. Maimonides (1204): The Mitzvot.

12. L'Hôte, N. (1839): Lettres écrites d'Egypte en 1838 et 1839.

13. Gadalla, M. (1999): Historical Deception: The Untold Story of Ancient Egypt. Greensboro, NC, USA: Tehuti Research Foundation

14. de G. Davies, N. (1923): Akhenaten at Thebes. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 9 (3/4): 132-152

15. Genesis 46:11 (P)

16. Numbers 3:17 (P)

17. Numbers 3:36 (P)

18. Exodus 6:25 (G)

19. Numbers 3:32 (P)

20. Exodus 6:20 (G)

21. Numbers 26:59 (P)

22. Muhammad (632): Qur'an 3:33

23. Eyma, A. K.; Bennett, C. J. (ed.) (2003): A Delta-man in Yebu. Universal Publishers

24. Hastings, J. (1898): Dictionary of the Bible.

25. Botterweck, G. J.; Ringgren, H. (1978): Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

26. Burkert, W. (1985): Greek Religion. Harvard University Press

27. Maspéro, G. (1878): Histoire Ancienne des Peuples de l'Orient.

28. Baikie, J. (2004): Armana Age: A Study of the Crisis of the Ancient World. University Press of the Pacific

29. Rudd, S. (2014): The 382 Amarna Tablets of the Hebrew Conquest.

30. Genesis 1:1 (P)

31. Osman, A. (1994): Moses: Pharaoh of Egypt: The Mystery of Akhenaten Resolved.

32. Assmann, J. (1997): Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Harvard University Press

33. Friedman, R. E. (1987): Who Wrote the Bible?

34. Numbers 1:47-54 (P)

35. Numbers 3:5-13 (P)

36. Numbers 3:44-51 (P)

37. Numbers 8:5-26 (P)

38. Homan, M. M. (2002): To Your Tents, O Israel. Brill Academic Publishers

39. O'Connor, D.; Cline, E. H. (2001): Amenhotep III: Perspectives on His Reign. University of Michigan Press

40. Porter, B.; Moss, R. L.; Malek, J. (1994): Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Statues, Reliefs and Painting Volume I: The Theban Necropolis (2nd Edition). Griffith Institute

41. Numbers 14:33 (P)

42. Numbers 26:63-65 (P)

43. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 (D1)

44. Deuteronomy 18:20-22 (D1)

45. Ezekiel 13:1-12

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