Repentance in ancient Egypt

What can we learn from the 'Baboons of Righteousness'?

September 28, 2008 15:46
Repentance in ancient Egypt

rosenberg88. (photo credit: )


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At this time of the year, before the Days of Awe, our rabbis put a strong accent on acts of repentance. Together with prayer and charity, they say, it can avert the evil decree. But the command to repent our sins is not that clear from the Torah. Is there in fact a mitzva to repent? The great 12th-century sage Maimonides thought there was, and based himself on a verse in Numbers 5:7 that reads, "Then they shall confess their sin which they have done; and he shall make restitution for his guilt in full, and add unto it the fifth part thereof." According to Maimonides, confessing and making restitution are the essentials of teshuva, of repentance. Not surprisingly, the 13th-century commentator Nahmanides disagreed, pointing out that this verse refers only to the restitution of property by force, and he based the command to repent on another verse: "For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee." (Deut. 30:11) What, asks Nahmanides, is this commandment? It is everything, he replies. "All the commandment which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do, that ye may live" (8:1), and if you do not do it, "Thou shalt 'repent' your heart among the nation." (30:1) We can see that both Maimonides and Nahmanides struggle to find a proof-text in the Torah on which to base the mitzva of repentance and, unlike the sacrifices, no exact procedure is laid down for this commandment. In ancient Egypt, the physical act of repentance was also not too clear, but a complex procedure was devised. While the Egyptians do not seem to have had an actual word for repentance, they quite literally considered it to be a "swallowing of the heart," which we would call a change of heart, which of course it is. So much is clear from the famous Book of the Dead, consisting of 189 spells, which every wealthy Egyptian of the New Kingdom placed beside him or herself in the coffin. To the Egyptians of the 14th century BCE, the heart was the seat of good and evil; a light heart was good, and a heavy heart was evil. The Torah was aware of that concept, for when Pharaoh "hardens" his heart, as he does after most of the plagues, the Hebrew reads, literally, he made his heart heavy (kaved), meaning he made it evil. As an Egyptian approached death, his or her greatest wish was to live on into the next world and for that he or she had to pass a number of crucial tests. The first one was to have one's heart weighed against a feather. If the heart was not heavier than the feather, one could pass on to the next test, to be introduced to Osiris, the Pharaoh of the Underworld. During the weighing procedure, the supplicant made a lengthy confession, recorded in Spell No. 125. He or she had to declare that they had not committed any of the 42 basic transgressions against the gods, against Pharaoh or against their fellow men - everything from "I have not stolen the god's offerings" to "I have not copulated with a boy" and "I am not wealthy except with my own property." There were 42 minor gods (sometimes only 14) watching to see that the procedure was fair and to check that the supplicant, and his heart, were telling the truth. The whole procedure was carried out by the jackal-headed god Anubis, representing the dead, and the result was recorded by the ibis-headed god Thoth, the scribe. If the heart was too heavy, and there was a suspicion of untruth in the declaration, the supplicant was likely to be swallowed by the Ammut monster and never to see life (or death!) again. But there was an alternative. It was the opportunity to have a "swallow of the heart," to change one's heart, that is, to make repentance, but how was that done? One way of course was to cheat and replace one's heart with another one. It seems this was sometimes achieved by the mummification process, when the real heart was removed and replaced by the effigy of a scarab. The scarab was a magical symbol reminiscent of single-entity creation, because the scarab beetle was considered to have been the only creature that could reproduce singly, without a male and female element, the Egyptians not noticing the subtle differences between the male and female of the species. The replica scarab heart was, therefore, able to outwit the scales and test positive. However, there was another possibility. The supplicant would proceed to the next spell, to Spell No. 126. This is a picture of four baboons sitting around a pool of fire, They are the Baboons of Righteousness, who will also hear the supplicant but who can cleanse his or her sins if they so desire, assuming they have had a change of heart. In this case, the supplicant was no longer perfect and confesses to them that he or she had committed sins and asks the baboons to destroy the sins so that he or she can become one of the beatified dead. They can then proceed to the country of Osiris, where they can live on by obtaining "cakes, ale and sweetmeats, and have their name proclaimed each day on the horizon." Although Spell No. 125 had implied that the supplicant had done no wrong whatsoever, in the next spell it is clear that there were persons who had committed sins, and the supplicant had to persuade the Baboons of Righteousness not to throw him or her into the pool of fire around which they sat, but to eradicate the sins, which he or she has confessed and tried to purge by a "swallowing of the heart." These procedures of the ancient Egyptians may appear strange and quaint to us. However, they are central to the concept of an afterlife which the supplicant was trying to attain, so that his or her "Ka" (personal soul), may continue to live in the everlasting future. This idea of "the world to come" is not strange to us and is part of Orthodox Jewish belief. The differences are rather in the method or procedure for obtaining that desired end, and the concept of the One before whom we are to appear. Regarding the sins, the Egyptians confessed to avoiding 42 of them, while we confess to 44. When the ancient Egyptians considered the weight of their hearts, they were in fact weighing up their prospects for the afterlife, and they realised that their deeds on this earth would affect their life in the next. They did not conduct the examination themselves but it was conducted by the Anubis god and recorded by Thoth, the scribal god, in front of a court of 42 deities, who witnessed the weighing of each person's heart. Except for our monotheistic beliefs, is not the procedure of what we are doing during the Days of Awe indeed very similar? Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg is Fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.

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