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Religion: Ethics in Ancient Egypt: Inspiration for Moses?

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“Thy fault will be expelled. Thy guilt will be wiped out by the weighing of the scales on the day of reckoning.” This Biblical-sounding reference to Judgment Day is not what it seems to be —a prediction by one of the gloomier Old Testament prophets. It is, instead, one of 1,185 hieroglyphic “spells,” or sayings, which have been found on coffins that date back to the Middle Kingdom (2200-1800 B.C.) of ancient Egypt. Known collectively as the Coffin Texts, the spells contain the earliest known body of Egyptian teaching on ethics; what makes them theologically intriguing is the belief of some scholars that Moses, the founder of the Israelite religion, borrowed heavily from their ethical principles in shaping a moral code for the Jews he led out of Egypt to Palestine.

News of the Next World. The Rev. Tjalling Bruinsma, 45, former pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in Zaltbomel, is half way through the monumental task of translating the Coffin Texts into modern language. An expert in hieroglyphics, Bruinsma has spent nearly three years translating the spells, which were collected from coffins in Egypt and in the world’s major museums by his teacher, the late Egyptologist Adriaan de Buck. They were published, as hieroglyphics, in seven volumes by the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

“The Coffin Texts,” explains Bruinsma, “are literature for death. They were given to the dead to take along on their trip into the underworld.” The earlier but better-known Pyramid Texts, which were written on the monumental tombs built for pharaohs in the latter part of the Old Kingdom (2980-2275 B.C.), contain the first known written record that man believed in a life after death. The Coffin Texts, which were composed for the tombs of noblemen rather than kings, express a more complicated insight: that man in the next world will be rewarded for his good acts and punished for evil ones.

Moses, who lived about five centuries after the Middle Kingdom ended, was “brought up in Egyptian wisdom,” argues Professor John A. Wilson of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “So the philosophies contained in the Coffin Texts quite clearly could have been known to him and to the children of Israel.”

In Any Case, Poetic. Bruinsma himself doubts that there is much relation between the Coffin Text teachings and Judaic morality. But scholars find a delight all its own in the limpid poetry contained in the spells, which suggests something of the sophistication and richness of Egyptian theology. Even Ecclesiastes has little to match the curious beauty of Coffin Text No. 269: “I made the four winds that every man might breathe thereof like his fellow in his time. I made the great inundation that the poor man might have rights like the nobles. I made every man like his fellow, I did not command that they do evil: it was their hearts which violated what I said.”

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