Passover Magic II: Parallels of Egyptian Curses and The Exodus
While a crocodile showdown conjured up in Pharaoh’s court sounds incredible enough, it was only the magical warm-up for a series of 10 curses to befall the Egyptian slavers. As far back as 1844 many parallels between the Passover Plagues and Egyptian texts have been recognized.
Scholar Brad C. Sparks has identified more than 90 Egyptian texts that contain Exodus parallels. Meanwhile, Professor Gary Rendsburg has reviewed these parallels in his article ‘Moses the Magician’: “Exodus 1-15 repeatedly shows familiarity with Egyptian traditions: the biblical motifs of the hidden divine name, turning an inanimate object into a reptile, the conversion of water to blood, a spell of 3 days of darkness, the death of the firstborn, the parting of waters, and death by drowning are all paralleled in Egyptian texts, and, for the most part, nowhere else.” (p. 243).
“The Death of the Firstborn” by Charles Foster, 1897, Illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us: Containing 400 Illustrations from the Old and New Testaments: With brief descriptions by Charles Foster. ( Public Domain )
Precedent-Setting Plague Parallels
Concerning the first plague, the river of blood, we have important evidence in two Egyptian texts. First, the famous ‘ Admonitions of Ipuwer’ papyrus (~1650-1550 BC) describes a man named Ipuwer, who cries out to heaven that the world has been turned upside down, and that he should remember his religious duties and to kill his enemies. In one notable lament, Ipuwer says that “Indeed, the river is blood , yet men drink of it. Men shrink from human beings and thirst after water.”
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This of course falls into a different context than the Exodus story, but it does suggest the Torah author was familiar with this motif of the river as blood. Second, we read in the ‘Tale of the Heavenly Cow’ (~1400-1200 BC) about the goddess Sekhmet, who wreaks destruction upon an ungrateful humankind. She kills so many people that the Nile fills completely with their blood, into which she wades and begins drinking huge draughts. Attempting to stop the madness, her father Ra turns the Nile to red-colored beer, which makes her so drunk she passes out, thus averting the total destruction of the world.
I must make a quick note relating to blood and the color red. The same word was used by the Egyptians to describe the two, desher. In ritual magic , it served to symbolize evil and chaos, and was used to both ward off evil and curse enemies.
Dangerous words were written in red ink, and priests would destroy red pots on which were written the names of their enemies. In a similar way, by turning the Nile to blood, Moses and Aaron were cursing the Egyptian priests by rendering the water impure. Alternatively, by applying the color of evil to their doorframes, the Israelites hoped it would ward off even greater evil, just like the “evil eye” amulet is meant to ward off the actual evil eye.
Jumping ahead to the ninth plague, that of darkness, in the ‘Prophecy of Neferti,’ a text from the 12th Dynasty (~1900-1800 BC), we find a reference to a similar plague of darkness, caused by the invasion of foreign people. A chief lector priest named Neferti prophecies a future of chaos in Egypt, in which all the natural norms are inverted. He speaks of foreigners entering the land, bringing doom. When describing how the land is destroyed and that there are none left who care for it, he comments that: “The sun is veiled , and will not shine when the people would see; none will live when the sun is veiled by cloud.”
The most destructive plague was the tenth and final one, the “death of the firstborn.” It was during this plague that the Israelites covered their doorframes with blood to protect their families from the destructive Angel of the Lord, and it was this plague that finally “softened” Pharaoh’s heart into letting the Israelites go. Interestingly, these themes appears in earlier Egyptian literature as well.
First, the idea of Pharaoh’s heart softening related to the “weighing of the heart” ritual familiar to us from the classic scene in the ‘Book of the Dead’ in which Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased against the feather of truth (ma’at). A “hard heart” would outweigh the feather and condemn the person to damnation.
The Weighing of the Heart ritual, from The Book of the Dead of Hunefer (~1275 BC), from the British Museum. The last thing the deceased wanted was a hard or heavy heart, for that could deny him eternal life. ( Public Domain )
We also have several Egyptian references to not only the “night of the death of the firstborn” but even to the “day of the death of the firstborn.” Rendsburg documents these examples, noting the oldest comes from the Pyramid Texts . In the same Pyramid of Unas we have mentioned before, we read: “It is the king who will be judged with Him-whose-name-is-hidden on this day of the slaying of the first-born” (Unas spell 508, also in the Pyramid of Teti, spell 322).
Centuries later, we read from the Coffin Texts that: “I am he who will be judged with Him-whose-name-is-hidden on this night of the slaying of the first-born” (CT 178, spell 573, ~2000 BC) and “this night of the slaying of the first-born, and this day of the slaying of the first-born” (CT 163, spell 136). As Mordechai Gilula, the scholar who first commented on these verses back in 1977, notes: “these passages are strong evidence that a mythological tale once circulated in which some or all of the first-born in Egypt – whether gods, mortals, or animals – were slain on a certain day or night. Such a myth may very likely lie in the background of the biblical account.”
In the Egyptian examples, the notion seems to relate to judgment, and we can see a similar theme expressed during Passover, which was essentially Yahweh’s judgment upon the unrelenting Egyptians.
Parting the Sea – The Climax of Passover
The climax of Passover has to be when Moses parts the waters of the Sea, letting the Israelites cross on dry land. This miracle is memorialized every year in the classic 1956 movie ‘The Ten Commandments.’ The escape from bondage is the legacy of Passover and the Exodus, but it also offers a glimpse into Egyptian tales of magic.
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In Exodus 14:15-16, 21-22 we read:
“Then the Lord said to Moses… Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground … Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.”
Finally, after the group had passed: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians.” (Exodus 14:26).
It has been noted for over a century that this narrative contains nearly identical motifs to older Egyptian tales. From the same Westcar Papyrus as the ‘Tale of the Wax Crocodile’ we read another story of a lector-priest named Djedjemankh. In this story, Pharaoh Sneferu is enjoying a day of leisure in his boat out on the lake, being rowed by beautiful maidens. One of the maidens loses a pendant of “new turquoise” that falls into the water.
Insisting she have the pendant back, Sneferu calls for his magicians: “The chief lector priest, Djedjemankh, recited words of magic (hekau). Thereupon there was lifted up all the water from the lake from one side to the other, and the jewel was found lying in a potsherd…Now the water was twelve cubits deep and twenty-four on the other side of the lake. Then he uttered words of magic (hekau) and brought the waters of the lake back to their proper place.”
Amazingly, we see images of these “walls of water” in tomb paintings. For example, in KV-34, the tomb of Thutmose III, we see in the ‘Amduat ,’ 5th Hour a scene depicting a parted body of water, separated by vertical lines. The inscription within the parted area reads: “Water was once present and will return in deadly fashion.”
Consider how familiar that sounds to the Exodus scene. In a similar painting from the ‘Book of Gates,’ 4th Gate, we see the same body of water from a different perspective, clearly showing the divided body of water, with goddesses standing atop the watery walls and the coiled enemy serpent Apophis between them. Even though these images and themes are embedded within the funerary mythology of the king’s eternal journey to the afterlife, the fact they are present in the Passover narrative at all begs us to reconsider its historical validity.
Painting of the Amduat, 5th Hour, Tomb of Ramses IV (KV-2), showing the water parted into two walls. ( Egypt Museum )
When Moses extends his arm over the Sea and commands his followers to be still and quiet (Exodus 14:14,16), Noegel notes that he is mirroring ancient rituals known to herders who needed to ford rivers. In several tomb scenes from the Old Kingdom (~2350 BC), we see lector-priests assisting animal herders in fording crocodile-filled waters. In some scenes, they sit at the back of the boat, holding their staff and reciting magical words, while in others they stand on the shore holding their staffs, commanding the boatmen to “be quiet!”, exactly like Moses did (“you need only to be still!”)
Even more interesting is that these “magical words” are commanded to be kept secret, not to be revealed to anyone outside the House of Life. This suggests these herder-magicians were in fact high-ranking lector priests who could, via magical staffs and commandments, assist herders in fording dangerous waterways. Moses seems to fulfil this exact role when he herds his “flock” of people across the Sea, using similar techniques as the herding magicians.
Drawing of a painted scene from the Tomb of Ankhmahor, Vizier to King Teti, Old Kingdom (~2330 BC), showing a lector priest sitting in a boat, holding his magical staff and uttering magical words for protection while fording the river with the herds. A crocodile is seen in the water. (Ritner, Robert Kriech, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, 1993)
In many older paintings of Moses at the Sea, we see him mysteriously pointing his finger towards the raging waters. This was of course the exact same magical gesture often employed by lector-priests who wished to calm troubled waters.
Moses’ indomitable spirit is perhaps best brought to life in The Ten Commandments, when Charlton Heston proudly proclaims: “The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us. Behold his mighty hand!” This comes directly from the Bible, for in the Song of the Sea we read of the Lord’s right hand being majestic in power, and of the power of his arm.
Plate from ‘Illustrations to the Bible’ – “The destruction of the Pharaoh’s Host,” by John Martin (1833), using the Mezzotint technique. ( TATE)
These phrases derive from Bronze Age Egypt. As Hoffmeier explains in his ‘Israel in Egypt’ (1996): “the terms ‘strong hand’ or yad hazaqah , and ‘outstretched arm’ or zeroa netuya , used in the Pentateuch correspond to the Egyptian terms hps, or ‘strong arm’ and pr-a, or ‘the arm is extended’” (p. 151). These phrases are used later in Deuteronomy 26:8: “And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.”
Pharaoh Den from Dynasty 1 smiting a foreign enemy with his “strong arm” and “mighty hand”, traditions which were very ancient and central to Egypt’s concept of authority (~2950 BC). The “MacGregor Label” made of ivory, found in Den’s tomb at Abydos, now in the British Museum. (CaptMondo/ CC BY 2.5 )
An interesting idea suggested by Noegel concerns the Lord “battling” for the Israelites. In Exodus 14:14, Moses proclaims: “The Lord will fight for you!” This relationship has been compared by Noegel to that of the lector-priest and his "great fighter priest", or ahawa. They would assist the lector by magically cutting up the Apophis serpent and fighting the forces evil and chaos in general. Compare the similar roles of Moses as lector-priest and fording magician, with the Lord Yahweh as his Fighter Priest-equivalent, for Yahweh is described in Exodus 15:3 as a “man of war” or a “warrior”.
Even further Egyptian parallels emerge when considering the ‘Execration Texts,’ lists of Pharaoh’s enemies written on pottery that was then smashed, burnt, and otherwise mutilated in magical rituals designed to curse those enemies. These appear all through Egyptian history and were a vital magical part of priestly duties.
Similar execration language is used to describe Yahweh’s treatment of the enemy Egyptians in the ‘Song of the Sea’ that Moses composes after their miraculous escape. In Exodus 15:6-7, we read: “ Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you smashed your opponents. You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble.” In this song, Moses turns the magical practices used by the Egyptians on their enemies against them, suggesting that they are smashed, shattered, and burnt.
Further Egyptian examples can be found in this ancient song, the Bible’s oldest preserved text, dating to ~1200 BC. These include God “blowing” on the sea, “swallowing” his enemies, and creating terror and fear in his opponents – all common Execration text themes. For example, Noegel translates some of these: “fear of you circulates in their hearts ” and “his terror circulates in hearts .”
Even the pattern of the Execration in the ‘Song of the Sea’ follows the Egyptian template. Consider the Egyptian: “See that foe, who has come to break your house, to ruin your gate … O Osiris, see that the foe who…has said: “Sore be the pains of your suffering which are on you! … May you break and overthrow your foes and set them under your sandals.” to Exodus 15:9-10: “The foe said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake them. I will divide the spoils; I will gorge myself on them. I will draw my sword and my hand will destroy them! But you blew with your breath and the sea covered them.”
One last point concerns the ultimate fate of the pursuing Egyptian army. Once the Israelites cross on dry land, Moses commands the water to collapse upon the Egyptian soldiers, drowning all of them (i.e. “the water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.” - Exodus 14:28). The Egyptians viewed drowning as a noble death, and Herodotus claims that: “when anyone…is known to have…drowned by the river itself…his body is deemed something more than human, and is handled and buried by the priests of the Nile themselves.” (‘The Histories,’ Book Two, section 90).
Scene from Tomb KV-9, Ramses VI, Book of Gates, Ninth Hour, showing drowned men in water, similar to the Exodus drowning. These men will be revived again by the waters, to become Ba-birds, seen on the upper register. Meanwhile, the enemies of Horus are bound and lined up along the bottom register to meet their fate: the giant fire-breathing serpent Khet, who will consume them. ( Piankoff and Rambova, 1954 )
This is supported by several Egyptian funerary texts, specifically the ‘Amduat,’ 10th Hour and the ‘Book of Gates,’ 9th Gate, both of which portray drowned soldiers afloat in the river. The accompanying text reads: “You are those who are within Nun, the drowned who are in his following. May life belong to your Bas!” These soldiers were ultimately redeemed to eternal life.
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Regarding these seeming contradictions, Rendsburg makes clear: “the Biblical author plays by their (the Egyptian’s) rules, whereby inanimate objects may be transformed into crocodiles, the death of the first-born is an important theme, waters can be divided in order to restore joy to the royal family, death by drowning is honorific, and more. The biblical author subverts all of these notions as he leads his readers through the sustained narrative.” (p. 253).
Top: Scene from Tomb KV-35, Amenhotep II, Amduat, Tenth Hour; showing drowned men in water, similar to the Exodus drowning. These are innocent men who were denied a regular burial and who will be resurrected by Horus from drowning. Bottom: Close-up of the same panel, showing the drowned soldiers underwater, in the waters of Nun, dead but to be revived later. ( Piankoff and Rambova, 1954 )
If he is indeed correct, then we can best understand the Passover tales of magic as subverting expected Egyptian norms , to favor the underdogs, Moses and the Israelites. Everyone loves a good underdog story, and Moses the Magician lived through and then chronicled one of history’s greatest.
Passover is the most important holiday in Judaism, a week to remember its foundational event: the miraculous escape of the Israelites under Moses from bondage in Egypt. By placing the event into the historical context of the Late Bronze Age, we can better understand the role magic played in the drama of the time. Passover seems to contain so much magic because it first emerged during a time of ubiquitous magic in the world - everyone used it, respected it, and told stories of it. If anything, Passover’s resounding magical themes attest to its great antiquity.
They also argue that Moses himself was intimately familiar with and influenced by the magical tales of the lector-priests, perhaps because he was one. These magicians lived in direct contact with the gods, and Moses is known for having this exact type of direct contact with Yahweh, speaking to him “face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).
“Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh,” Gustave Doré, ‘Doré’s English Bible,’ 1866. ( Public Domain )
With his hands held high at the Sea, he was mirroring the very image of heka. The greatest practitioner of heka in Egypt was Pharaoh, and by directly confronting and even defeating him, Moses proved to the world that he was a magician equally as powerful, and that maybe he had even once been a Pharaoh himself.
Top Image: John Martin’s “Seventh Plague of Egypt” (1823), in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Ascension Number 60.1157. Source: Public Domain
Jonathon Perrin is the author of ‘ Moses Restored: The Oldest Religious Secret Never Told ,’ available in print or as an e-book from Amazon.com.
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