THE EGYPTIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD: One of the most important religious documents from ancient Egypt is the Egyptian Book of the Dead, (or the “Book of Going Forth By Day” to the ancient Egyptians). Throughout Egypt, archaeologists have discovered thousands of amulets, scarabs and inscriptions (including the Book of the Dead) connected to keeping the heart (jib) pure and undefiled. The heart was thought to be the true spiritual center of the person and became very important in determining what would happen to the deceased in the afterlife. According to E.A. Wallis Budge:

From first to last in the Dynastic Period the Egyptians attached great importance to the preservation of the heart of a man, and the help of the priest and the magician was invoked to prevent any evil befalling it. It was taken from the body and mummified, and placed in one of the so-called ” Canopic ” jars, and a scarab, usually made of a greenish or black stone, was inserted in the body to take its place; hence the name ” heart scarab.”[1]

The Mummy: A Handbook on Egyptian Funerary Archaeology
Heart Scarab with inscription/blessing from the Egyptian Book of the Dead
Heart Amulet

Old Testament scholar, John D. Currid, also affirms the importance of the heart in ancient Egypt:

Obviously the condition of one’s heart was the critical factor in determining whether one entered the afterlife or not. This was a form of works-righteousness: anyone whose heart was heavy-laden with misdeeds would be annihilated, while anyone whose heart was filled with integrity, truth, and good acts would be escorted to heavenly bliss. To help the deceased with the journey, the New Kingdom Egyptians frequently included with their burials funerary papyri From the Book of the Dead. They were folded into the bandages of the mummy or merely laid upon the chest (near the heart). The Egyptians believed the magical spells of the papyri equipped the dead to face judgement in the afterlife.[2]

Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament

Description: The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani. At left, Ani and his wife Tutu enter the assemblage of gods. At center, Anubis weighs Ani’s heart against the feather of Maat, observed by the goddesses Renenutet and Meshkenet, the god Shay, and Ani’s own ba. At right, the monster Ammut, who will devour Ani’s soul if he is unworthy, awaits the verdict, while the god Thoth prepares to record it. At top are gods acting as judges: Hu and Sia, Hathor, Horus, Isis and Nephthys, Nut, Geb, Tefnut, Shu, Atum, and Ra-Horakhty.

The Old Testament book of Exodus (Chapters 7-12) outlines the ten plagues as they descended on Egypt, and (by default) on Pharaoh. In Egyptian cosmology a vitally important principle which permeated all of reality was the principle of ma’at. It roughly translates as “justice,” “cosmic order,” “doing what is right,” or “truth.” As Prof. John Currid notes, ‘Ma’at was the cosmic force of harmony, order, stability and security. It may be simply be defined as universal order.’ It was the divine duty of the Pharaoh to uphold and keep Ma’at (harmony, order, & life) in all the land of Egypt. The opposite Ma’at was chaos and disorder.[3]

With the ten plagues brought on by the God of ancient Israel, Egypt’s pharaoh had lost control of maat (cosmic order) in the land of Egypt. His own heart was becoming harder (and thus, heavier) with the appearance of each successive plague (see, Ex. 7-11). His heart was under indictment, not only with his own gods, but especially YHWH, the God of the Israelites (Jer. 17:10).

OBSERVATIONS & INSIGHTS INTO THE BOOK OF EXODUS

From this brief overview of the importance of the heart in ancient Egypt, and the related concept of maat, there are a few observations we can make.

According to Acts 7:22: Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and deeds. As such, we would expect to find this kind of cultural insight that only and eyewitness who lived in ancient Egypt (like Moses) would have known.

The ten plagues in Egypt by God was the cause of much chaos, disorder, and completely undermined not only the authority and divinity Pharaoh himself, but also the existence and power of the Egyptian gods. Yahweh was the supreme ruler (the one true God), and in complete control, not Pharaoh, or the Egyptian gods he represented on earth. With this insight, we can begin to see how the Exodus narrative is a polemic against Egypt, the pharaoh, and the gods of Egypt. In a sense, the hardening of pharaoh’s heart during the ten plagues was not only a warning to the pharaoh, but also to the Israelites who likely would have also possibly known about these ideas, since they had lived in Egypt for over four hundred years. Although God would miraculously deliver them from Egyptian bondage, they too (like the pharaoh) would need to guard their hearts against being obstinate in unbelief and lack of faith. In Psalm 95, the Psalmist wrote

Today, if only you would hear his voice, “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massahin the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways’ (Psa. 95:8-10).

In Hebrews 3, the writer quotes Psalm 95 as a warning to Jewish/Christian believers against hardening of the heart, and the stubbornness of unbelief.

Beware, brethren, lest their be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said, ‘Today, if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion’ (Heb. 3:12-15).

With this fascinating insight from Egyptology, we can see clearly that one of the functions of archaeology is that it illuminates the text, and opens up the world of the biblical writers in order for us to understand the text, heed it, and obey it’s warnings.


[1] E.A. Wallis Budge, The Mummy: A Handbook of Egyptian Funerary Archaeology (London & New York: KPI, 1987 Reprint), 289-298.

[2] John D. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 98-103).

[3] Ibid.