Sunday, December 26, 2010

Parshat Vaeyra - Pharaoh's heavy heart and the Book of the Dead

Any reader of Sefer Shemot will be familiar with the concept of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Now, I know that many philosophical questions have been asked about this issue, but I would like to address this concept from the perspective of Egyptology.

Our classic commentators were fully aware of the place of Egyption beliefs and the Egyptian pantheon of gods at the epicentre of the plague drama. Rashi, for example refers to the Nile as the god of Egypt (see comments to 7:17) or the god Ra - the sun god (comments to 10:10). Lesser known is the fact that the god of the midwives took the form of a frog (link). Not only does the plague of frogs now reverberate with deep irony (echoing Pharaoh's evil abuse of the midwives), but when God proclaims, "I will execute judgement over all the gods of Egypt," (12:12) his retribution via frogs or the eclipse of the sun in the plague of darkness were a sign of God's mastery over the gods of Egypt. An in depth knowledge of Egyptology would, I imagine, reveal yet more points of contact.

In a current exhibition at the British Musum, a papyrus from the "Book of the Dead" is exhibited (link). It shows a ceremony of the "weighing of the heart," from Thebes, and dated at around 1275 BC, not distant from the period of the Exodus from Egypt.

The Book of the Dead is full of spells and rules to help a person travel safely on his journey through the Afterlife. Above, you see the king facing his last and most important test – the weighing of the heart. On the left, he and his wife enter the area where he is to be judged. The Egyptians thought that a person’s heart showed all their good and bad deeds. Any’s heart is placed on some scales and weighed by the god Anubis (with the black jackal head) against the feather of truth. If it is lighter than the feather he will survive and continue into the next world. If it is heavier then he will be eaten by the Devourer, the monster on the right who is part-lion, part-hippopotamus and part-crocodile. Next to the Devourer stands Thoth, the god of truth (with an ibis head). He is checking that the weighing is fair.

Now we understand the Torah in an entirely new context. When the Torah tells us that "I will make Pharaoh's heart heavy" (7:14, 9:7,) and similar meptaphors, it speaks to the Egyptian psyche and tells us unequivocally, in their language and belief system, that Pharaoh is evil and unworthy of entering the Afterlife. He will be fed to the Devourer.

Amazing what Egyptology can teach us about our Torah!