Roberta Green Ahmanson
CAIRO- Egypt was in the news this spring: Killings in Alexandria on Good Friday, suicide bombings in Sinai resorts after Easter, and democracy marches in Cairo in May.
But that isn’t the whole story. If you come to Egypt, you’ll encounter all the usual images: pyramids, sphinxes, one very long river bounded by desert, camels, the gold and glitter of King Tut’s famous treasure. But you may also learn of the power of ancient Egyptian religion.
You might know about Mesopotamian religion with its human sacrifice and male and female temple prostitution. But Egyptian religion, the other religion of the Bible, was very different. Human sacrifice was rare and not reported much at all after 3000 b.c. Temple prostitution didn’t exist. Nor did God command the Israelites to destroy the Egyptians as he did the child-sacrificing Mesopotamians.
Egyptian temples, tombs, and wall paintings often show gods and goddesses with wings; for example, a winged disc of the god Horus is on the underside of many door lintels. But Psalm 91:4 says: “God will cover you with His feathers and under His wings you will find refuge.” What would have come to mind for an ancient Israelite or even Egyptian reading that verse? God was making it clear it is His wings, not those of Horus, that protect us.
Then there are the hieroglyphs. The Egyptian hieroglyph for the “good” or the “beautiful” is nefer, written as a human heart with a cross coming out of it. There is also the ankh, the symbol of life, popularized by hippies in the ’60s: a cross with a loop at the top. Significant? Egyptian gods come in threes-a father, a mother, and a son most of the time. A parallel to the Trinity? Or preparation for the flight of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt? What about Osiris, raised from the dead?
Today Copts have shrines at the sites where Jesus lived. Then, all those tombs made it clear Egyptians believed in life after death. They even had a concept of judgment where their hearts would be weighed against a feather. Of course, there was that curious but brief period when the Pharaoh Akhenaten actually ordered everyone to believe in one god, the Sun disc. What was that all about?
Even more curious was the meaning behind the 10 plagues of Exodus. Take the plague of flies, for example. One of the highest honors for an Egyptian soldier was to receive a gold necklace with three golden flies on it. Honor turned to nightmare. Then there’s the water turned to blood. Egyptians believed the whole universe was water, Egypt and the earth a bubble in it. The whole universe would have been turned to blood and death.
Or, consider the plague of frogs. Heket was a frog goddess: Her job was to breathe life into human beings created on the god Khnum’s potter’s wheel. The goddess of midwives, givers of life, becomes the giver of death. It goes on.
In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis says that when he was an atheist he had to think all religions were totally wrong. When he became a Christian, he could see the hints of truth in them. “As in arithmetic,” he said, “there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are closer than others.”
According to one Coptic bishop, Thomas, ancient religion can be a source of light leading to the truth of the gospel. Christianity came to Egypt, probably with Mark, in the first century. Today 10 percent of the country’s 60 million people are Christians, the highest percentage of any Muslim country.
Bishop Thomas says Christianity lasted in Egypt when it had been wiped out all across North Africa “because God promised!” He points to Isaiah 19: “So the Lord will make Himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the Lord.” That promise buoys the bishop as he and his flock face enormous obstacles.
-Roberta Green Ahmanson is a freelance writer who lives in California