Don C. Benjamin, PhD

Dean at Kino Institute of Theology
Akhenaten (1353-1335 B.C.E.) Monotheist or Federalist?
The first stipulation in the Decalogue that introduces the covenant between Yahweh and Israel is a prohibition: you shall have no other divine patrons before me (Exod 20:3). This prohibition summarizes the argument made by the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt creation story (Exod 1:7—13:16): Yahweh, and not Pharaoh, is the divine patron of the Hebrews. Monotheism as it is taught by Jews, Christians, and Muslims today argues that only one God exists. This prohibition affirms that the Hebrews have only one God. [1]

Crisis resolution by assembly was such a cherished ideal in the world of the Bible that Israel used it as a metaphor to describe Yahweh. If villages submitted all their important decisions to the assembly certainly Yahweh must do the same.[2] Divine assemblies appear in the traditions of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, and ancient Israel (Hebrew: 'edah, Ps 82:1; Hebrew: mo'ed, Isa 14:13; Hebrew: qahal, Ps 89:6 MT [ET v. 7]; Hebrew: sod, Job 15:8; Jer 23:18).

The protocol for meetings of divine assemblies appear in the Enuma Elish Stories (Babylon) and the prophetic traditions in the Bible. Following his successful battle with Tiamat, for example, Marduk convenes a divine assembly to discuss the aftermath of Tiamat's conspiracy and to create the people primeval (Enuma vi 23-43).[3]

The divine assembly was made up of the citizens of the divine plane who were not only the creators of the cosmos, but also its caretakers. These included, among others, the moon, the stars, and the planets. Prophets were regular participants as well (Amos 7:1—9:15).[4]

Generally, the divine assembly met on a sacred mountain which served as a link or hinge between the divine plane, or the heavens, and the human plane, or the earth. Among mountains designated in the Bible and its parallels are Mt. Saphon (Syria). Many traditions associated with these mountains are used to celebrate biblical sites like Mt. Moriah (Israel), Mt. Zion (Israel), and Mt. Bethel (Israel). For example, in the Inauguration of Jacob at Bethel (Gen 28:10-22), Jacob does not actually see a ladder, but the Esagila, the ziggurat or great stepped-platform – an architectural mountain -- which the members of the divine assembly used to enter and leave Babylon (Iraq). The Flood Stories (Gen 11:1-9) satirize the same ziggurat as the Tower of Babel.

The Babylonians con­structed ziggurats as liturgical mountains for the divine assembly.[5] The tradition confers the status of Gate of the El (Akkadian: bab ilim) in Mesopotamia on the House of El (Hebrew: bethel) in Syria­-Palestine. Annually the divine assembly convened to renew covenants during elaborate liturgies at sanctuaries atop these sacred mountains.

On special occasions, the divine assembly would also meet at the threshing floor. In the books of Samuel-Kings (1 Kgs 22:1-40), the monarchs and prophets of Israel and Judah meet on the threshing floor at the city gate to discern whether or not the divine assembly has authorized them to go to war against Aram (Syria). In this instance, the prophet Micaiah's vision of the divine assembly supersedes and corrects that of the 400 court prophets of Ahab and Jehoshaphat. The cognitive dissonance which results highlights the difficulties of interpreting the decisions of the divine assembly when political considerations intervene (Isa 7:3-25; Jer 28).

Today the divine assembly in the world of the Bible is often compared with the Greek pantheon or the Christian understanding of angels or of the Trinity. To a certain extent these comparisons can be helpful, but at the same time they often distort the significance of the divine assembly.

The Greek pantheon in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer reflects the world view of western Mediterranean cultures. Until 333 B.C.E. when Alexan­der the Great conquered the Near East, this world view was quite different from that in eastern Mediterranean cultures like ancient Israel. The members of both the pantheon and the assembly are divine, and both are involved with human affairs. However, the sexual and political exploits of the members of the pantheon are not at all characteristic of the more sober undertakings of the divine assembly.

Angels are heavenly helper figures in religious thinking today and certain members of the divine assembly do help humans from time to time. But angels are subordinate members of the divine assembly, whereas the members of the divine assembly themselves have the primary responsibility for both creating and maintaining the heavens and the earth.

The Christian Trinity, like the assembly, is a divine community. But the doctrine of the Trinity is a meticulously worded teaching, which reflects an agonizing struggle between 100 and 300 to reconcile Christian preaching with Greek philosophy. The divine assembly, in contrast, is a product neither of Christian preaching nor Greek ways of thinking. It reflects the efforts of eastern Mediterranean cultures from 3000 B.C.E. onward to under­stand the world where they lived.

Thinking of Yahweh as a member of a divine assembly was not primitive, ignorant or heretical. In some ways the tradition of a divine assembly offered the Hebrews advantages which the doctrine of monotheism in Juda­ism, Christianity and Islam today does not.

For example, understanding Yahweh as a member of a divine assembly emphasized the importance which Israel and most traditional cultures place on community. Monotheism, in contrast, may unnecessarily contribute to an unhealthy under­standing of God as the ultimate private person who lives in splendid isolation.

Likewise, describing Yahweh as a member of a divine assembly allowed Israel to develop a wider variety of meditations on divine characteristics. Some members of the divine assembly nurture, others protect. Some coach humans, others punish them. Monotheism often limits the understanding of God to being powerful. For example, monotheism forces many humans to hold diametrically opposed theologies. They want God to be just when punishing their enemies, but forgiving when dealing with their faults.

And finally, the human mind can only learn by subdividing. It cannot simply absorb reality as a single entity. A God who cannot be subdivided, as monotheism teaches, cannot be understood by humans.

Monotheism is certainly a fundamental doctrine for Jews, Christians and Muslims today. Each tradition of biblical spirituality points to monotheism as its distinguishing characteristic, and their strongest common bond. Consequently, scholars have continued to search for the time and place when monotheism develops in the world of the Bible.

Mainstream scholars argue that early Israel was not monotheistic, but henotheistic. Yahweh was their divine patron, not the only divine patron.[6] The prophets may have been a catalyst for the development of monotheism in ancient Israel.[7]

Nonetheless, there continues to be a strong popular interest in connecting monotheism to Moses, and Moses to Pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1335 B.C.E.). A good example of popular interest in tracing monotheism back to Moses appears in the made-for-television documentary Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? produced by the Discovery Channel in 2004. [8]

Kent Weeks (American University at Cairo) is the only professional and working archaeologist in the piece, although Kenneth Kitchen (University of Liverpool) a accomplished Egyptologist and expert on the era of Ramesses II (1290-1224 B.C.E.) makes a cameo appearance.[9] Weeks’ Theban Mapping Project, -- and specifically his excavations in KV 5, the tomb of the sons of Ramesses -- are the starting points for the piece. Weeks’ involvement with the Discovery Channel gives the piece credibility, but Weeks himself does not link his work to the suggestions made in Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? by Charles Sennott, a journalist stationed in the Middle East; Alistair McGrath, who specializes in popular theology at King’s College and Robert Feather, a professional metallurgist with a long time, amateur interest in religion and archaeology.

Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? assumes that Akhenaten was the first monotheist in the world of the Bible. Akhenaten successors, and particularly Ramesses II, persecuted Egyptian monotheists after Akhenaten’s death. The documentary claims the most zealous persecutor of Akhenaten’s followers was Ramesses, and that Moses, as an Egyptian prince, was the leader of these monotheists. The piece suggests that Moses may have murdered Amun her Kehepeshef, Ramesses’ heir or first born son, which is where the documentary link to Weeks’ research on human remains from KV 5.

Rameses: Wrath of God or Man? also argues that the firstborn who died in the Plagues Stories (Exod 1:7—13:16) were not the infant heirs of all the households of Egypt, but the assassination of Amun her Kehepeshef who was some 30 years old. It was the death of Ramesses’ first born which set the exodus of the Hebrew slaves under the guidance of their royal patron Moses in motion.

Akhenaten, however, was more a federalist than a monotheistic. He was less like Moses, and more like Abraham Lincoln. Like the division of powers in the government of the United States today, power in ancient Egypt was balanced between the priests and the pharaoh. By moving his capital from Thebes to Al Amarna Akhenaten was shifting the balance of power away from the priests and onto himself as pharaoh. The strategy was more political and economic than theological.

Thebes was the theological capital of Egypt, and for some time, also its political capital city. The priests of Amun Re commanded almost absolute control over the affairs of state, in great part due to the immense wealth of the sanctuaries of Karnak and Luxor at Thebes. Their divine patron, Amun Re, was father of the divine assembly, and his priests were the fathers of the households of Egypt.

Pharaoh’s during the period all competed with the priests of Amun Re, some more successfully than others. Pharaohs bribed priests with donations of land and livestock, while they amassed their own wealth from wars and mining in Syria-Palestine. Nonetheless, the priests as the legislative branch of government in ancient Egypt dominated the executive branch represented by the pharaohs.

Akhenaten made a bold move to asset an imperial presidency by replacing Thebes by founding a completely new city -- Akhetaten -- at el Amarna at the exact geographical center of the Egypt of his day. The divine patron of the priests at Thebes was Amun Re – the sun. Akhenaten chose as his divine patron the Aten – the disc of the sun. Theologically, the aten was a privacy wall behind which Re was enthroned. Humans saw only the aten, not Re, whose creative rays streamed around the aten to bring life to the land and the people of Egypt. Aten and Akhenaten stood between Amun Re and the people and the land of Egypt. They were the vicars of the divine, who was cared for in secret by the priests. Akhenaten attempted to remove the priests and their divine patron from the public life of Egypt, and exile them to the divine plane. As pharaoh he alone was responsible for daily life in Egypt.

Consequently, Akhenaten was not a theologian; he was a politician. His reform failed, and after his death the priests installed Tutankhamun (1333-1323 B.C.E.) who returned to Thebes, and returned the priests of Amun Re to their traditional place of power over Egypt. The priests rewarded their young protégé not only with divine wealth, but divinity itself. Tutankhamun was an incarnation of the priests themselves and their position of power over Egypt.

In conclusion, monotheism played no role in the decisions of Akhenaten, or in the Stories of Moses (Exod 1:7— 7:13) in the book of Exodus. Both Akhenaten and Moses engaged in power struggles with formidable opponents. Akhenaten contested the priests of Thebes and their divine patron for control of the land and the people of Egypt. Moses contested the pharaoh of Egypt and his divine patron for ownership of the Hebrew people. Although Akhenaten failed, Moses succeeded in defining the Hebrews as the people of Yahweh, not the people of Pharaoh.


[1] Don C. Benjamin, The Old Testament Story: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Fortress Pr, 2004), 100.

[2] Samuel Noah Kramer, From the Tablets of Sumer: Twenty-Five Firsts in Man's Recorded History (Indian Hills, CO: Falcon's Wing Pr, 1956), 71-96.

[3] Thorkild Jacobsen, "Mesopotamia : The Cosmos as a State; the Function of the State; the Good Life," in Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Chicago: Univ of Chicago Pr, 1977), 156.

[4] Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel, 1250-587 BCE (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Pubs, 1993), 124-126.

[5] Benjamin, The Old Testament Story: An Introduction, 70-71

[6] Mark S. Smith and Patrick D. Miller, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, Vol. 2d ed (Grand Rapids; Dearborn, Mich: Eerdmans; Dove, 2002).; Mark S. Smith, "Monotheistic Re-Readings of the Biblical God," Religious Studies Review 27, no. 1 (01/01, 2001), 25-31.; Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[7] Bernhard Lang, "No God but Yahweh : The Origin and Character of Biblical Monotheism," in Monotheism (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1985), 41-49.; Bernhard Lang, Monotheism and the Prophetic Minority: An Essay in Biblical History and Sociology (Sheffield: Almond Pr, 1983).