Ancient Egypt had an immense influence on the world, through trade links and cultural contacts, so it should be no surprise to see ancient Egyptian ideas being propagated into later civilizations. Many Biblical figures in particular had very significant links with ancient Egypt, spending important and formative years there imbibing Egyptian ideas. In the Book of Genesis, we read about Abraham and Sarah going to Egypt and staying with the royal court, presumably becoming steeped in Egyptian knowledge and culture.
“When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman.[Genesis Book 12 Verses 14-16; NIV; my emphasis]
“And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace.
“He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.”
Further, the Book of Exodus tells of how the Israelites left Egypt, and tells us that Moses was found as a baby floating along the River Nile in a basket, and was then raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter, and likewise would at first have become completely assimilated into Egyptian elite culture. Indeed, when he finally meets his own people, living in slavery, he seems at first to be more Egyptian than Israelite.
“One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people …[Exodus Book 2 Verses 11, 16-19; NIV; my emphasis]
“Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock.
“Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.
“When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?
“They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.””
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus likewise fled into Egypt, where they would have been exposed to Egyptian ideas.
“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.”[Matthew Book 2 Verses 14-15; NIV; my emphasis]
Supposedly, they stayed in Egypt for more than three years, during which time they travelled extensively along the River Nile, and apparently the first food ever tasted by Jesus was Egyptian dates.
Thus, we should not be surprised to find continuity between the ideas of ancient Egypt and those present in the Bible. One such connection is that the serpent in the Book of Genesis represents the civilization of ancient Egypt, as I shall argue in this article.
In Book 3 of Genesis, the serpent tempts Eve, and, indirectly, Adam, to eat the fruit which was forbidden by God.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” …
““You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.
““For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”[Genesis Book 3 Verses 1,4,5,6; NIV]
When God finds out, he curses the serpent to slither along, rather than walking upright, as it presumably would have done before the curse.
“And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:”[Genesis Book 3 Verse 14; KJV]
At the same time, the cleverness of the serpent is acknowledged, both in the above story and elsewhere.
“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”[Matthew Book 10 Verse 16; KJV]
As TJ Lambert has carefully explained in this article (and see also this article), the fruit of knowledge referred to in the above story seems to be grain, that is, wheat, and this Genesis story represents the shift from a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled agriculture-based lifestyle. However, I believe we can go further than this and identify the particular cultural contact that is here allegorised.
Largely thanks to the incredible fertility of the Nile river basin, which periodically flooded, ancient Egypt was one of the earliest large-scale agricultural societies, growing wheat, barley and other crops, which were the basis for their immense power and prosperity. In connection with this agricultural prosperity, snakes were immensely important both practically and symbolically to the ancient Egyptians, and this importance is reflected in the texts and artefacts preserved today.
The grain that they harvested was stored in vast granaries, which constituted the wealth of the society. In order to keep away rats, which would otherwise eat the grain and contaminate it with their droppings, snakes were kept in and around the stores of grain.
We might thus imagine that the snake was for the Egyptians a symbol of their adoption of the agricultural lifestyle and the prosperity that resulted, at least for the elite class. This idea is supported by the fact that Egyptian pharaohs, gods and other elite figures were typically depicted with snakes on their headdresses, in art, sculpture, and other important artefacts, such as the famous death-mask of Tutankhamun. Here, the cobra also seems to have been a symbol of protection, and thus, at the least, we can see that the Egyptians would have appeared to hunter-gatherer outsiders as a sort of snake-people.
Recent scholarship is finding that there was no single agricultural revolution in history, but rather that over a period of thousands of years, agriculture-based society and civilization was one option known to peoples that they variously chose to adopt, reject or move between seasonally or in some other way. In this context, it would make sense that hunter-gatherer societies and settled agricultural societies would exist alongside each other, and that there could be tensions and hostilities between such social groups. The denigration shown by the text towards the alternative society represented by the knowledge offered by the snake could reflect the competitive rivalry between two social orders at a systemic level.
We can thus easily imagine that the nomadic Eve encounters this foreign culture of permanent granaries, protected round with snakes, and a people who identify themselves with snakes, holding them in high regard, or worshipping them. Indeed, a similar example of such transmission of ideas to an outsider group has already been theorised in the case of the emergence of the first alphabet, which started around 3,800 years ago, as follows –
“… the consensus today is that the alphabet didn’t emerge from a state-sponsored initiative … Instated, its originators were probably far removed from the ancient world’s elite. Paradoxically, they may even have been illiterate … this original alphabet wasn’t used to write Egyptian words, but the words of one or more Semitic languages”[New Scientist 8th Feb 2020 p.35]
The same article goes on to speculate how this might have happened as follows –
“… illiterate miners saw Egyptians writing dedications to the gods and wanted in on the action. Given their lowly status, they were never going to persuade Egyptian scribes to teach them hieroglyphics. So they improvised. They assigned new meanings to signs in the hieroglyphic texts so they could record their Semitic language phonetically – and created the alphabet.”[New Scientist 8th Feb 2020 p.37]
Further, a sexual dimension to this allegory has always been a focus for early Christian commentators, and the knowledge gained by Adam and Eve is frequently understood as sexual knowledge even today, though there is no explicit reference to sexual knowledge in the text, but only to the knowledge of ‘good and evil’. We can speculate however that this association evolved because it could have been some kind of surreptitious sexual liaisons between elite Egyptian men and the womenfolk of these nearby nomadic people which initiated cultural transmission from Egyptians to the semi-nomadic group, thus entangling sexual knowledge with civilizational knowledge.
In the image at the top of this article, we see the primordial snake-god Neheb-kau, ‘Uniter of Ka-s (soul-elements)’, who interestingly appears to be a snake that still walk on two legs. This image is taken from a 19th Dynasty Book of the Dead, and Neheb-kau is also mentioned in earlier periods, including in the texts of the 5th Dynasty Pyramid of Unas.
“It is pleasant for Unas to be with his ka and he lives together with his ka … in order that (these four spirits) say to Re the beautiful name of Unas, and announce this Unas to Neheb-kau”[Unas Pyramid Texts, Utterance 263 (parts)]
According to these texts, it seems that after a person’s death, they will meet with this snake-god, Neheb-kau, who will spiritually unify the person in some way. This psychological aspect to the actions of the snake-god may also support a psychological reading of the Book of Genesis story, of a type that was attempted by some early gnostic Christian authors.
Snakes are highly symbolic creatures for many different cultures across the world, but in this article, I have focused on the Book of Genesis narrative and a possible connection with ancient Egypt. Similar ideas about primordial snake-gods and snake-kings are found in the Indian context, such as Śeṣa Nāga, Vāsukī and Takṣaka, which could also be investigated for illuminating thematic connections. The more we investigate, the more we are likely to find.
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Such a valuable post about ancient Egypt!