Having written about one Ancient Greek philosopher who felt the pull toward monotheism, let me add another strand to that string: Amenhotep IV. After 5 years as Pharaoh of Egypt, Amenhotep suddenly changed his name to Akhenaten – which means something like ‘Useful to or Successful for Aten’. The name change was the least of the changes the king had in mind! The new moniker was part of a religious (or political – depending on who you ask) conversion. The Egyptians had been polytheists for, well, as long as they had been Egyptians. But, different ones of the gods and goddesses they worshipped were more popular at different times and correspondingly, the cult of the most popular god-de-jour gained political power for the moment. On the one hand, the Akhenaten business boils down to this sort of political struggle. First, it should be noted that the Egyptian gods ‘Amun’ and ‘Aten’ were rival cults focusing on aspects of the so-called sun god - Ra. To oversimplify just a little, Aten represented the day-time sun and life while Amun represented the sun in the underworld and that place men went after this life. The rivalry between the two cults was old and, at the time Amenhotep IV came to the throne, the cult of Amun was way out in front. The Egypt that produced the grand tombs and the mummies had a greater interest in the underworld/afterlife than in present life ‘under the sun’. Duh! In fact, the priests of Amun owned more property than the Pharaoh and exercised almost as much – if not as much – political power. In the old game of church and state – the church was gaining the upper hand.
To that extent, Amenhotep’s religious conversion to the cult of Aten and corresponding name change is often seen as a calculated political move. But the surviving documents (more on that in a bit) and the changes in behavior from Amenhotep to Akhenaten suggest a sincere religious conversion – even if it had political ramifications. At least if it was all political, it was a GRAND political scheme. Akhenaten did not seek simply to elevate the cult of Aten over the cult of Amun or the cults of the many other Egyptian gods and goddesses. He declared that Aten was the only God – the God who made and sustained everything – not only the God of all nations but the God of this entire present world and any world to come as well. He outlawed the traditional polytheistic religion of Egypt and closed the temples of all those other gods and goddesses. He ordered the destruction of statues, hieroglyphs, etc. dealing with the other gods and disbanded the various priesthoods. He moved the capital from Thebes (location of all those other temples) to a new city he had built – Akhetaten – later known as Armana. He is credited with creating the first known monotheistic state religion. Of course, it might all have been more impressive had it lasted longer – or if the world had remembered it at the time.
The truth is, Akhenaten and his doings and even his now famous wife (Nefertiti) quickly perished and were lost to history for over 3000 years. There is much argument – now that we know about him – as to whether or not Akhenaten was a good king. But the backlash against him in his own day was unequivocal. They murdered him (and Nefertiti), knocked down Armana and chiseled his name (and hers) off everything it was carved on anywhere else in Egypt. Akhenaten became – ‘he who is not to be named’. His son did become king after him – but only by repudiating his father’s legacy including changing the name he had been given at birth. Thus, Tutankhaten became Tutankhamun – if you stare at the two names for a moment the significance of the change will become clear. Either way – he is King Tut. But we didn’t know his paternal backstory until 19th Century archaeologists discovered the ruined city of his father in Tel Armana – the only place the record survived – abandoned, cursed, and buried under ages worth of sand.
Now, why should I tell you all this? I feel certain the question has occurred to you. I find the story interesting in itself but the timing even more interesting. You are already familiar with the story of a slightly earlier Pharaoh under whose administration Egypt suffered terrible plagues as Moses called for the release of the Israelites. In the day of Rameses the gods of Egypt and the nation that worshipped them suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the ONE TRUE GOD – the one who made everything and who ultimately rules over all nations. That stinging defeat would not have been forgotten just yet for as Akhenaten instituted his reforms, not that many miles distant, Joshua led a parade around the doomed walls of Jericho – another polytheistic people about to learn something about the ONE TRUE GOD.
As I said – there is argument as to whether or not Akhenaten was a good king. I posit only this. Egypt had this chance to move toward the God they might have accepted a bit earlier. God works among all peoples and nations. Again – as per Paul’s reference to Epimenides (previous post) Acts 17:22-28
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church