Although ancient Egypt and ancient Israel are geographically close to each other, their religions are near polar opposites, and this affected their individual cultures immensely. Ancient Israel’s religion was a conservative monotheistic faith. The Ancient Egyptian’s religion was an opulent, polytheistic belief system. These two were similar in many ways, such as, the women of their cultures held similar rights; yet they have more differences than similarities.
The ancient Israelites believed in a god called Yahweh who had shown special compassion towards their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants, intervening in events on their behalf in many spectacular ways and establishing a special relationship with them known as the “covenant”. They believed Yahweh rescued them under the leadership of Moses from slavery and oppression in Egypt, and led them through the wilderness of Sinai to a land he promised would be their own.
They practiced animal sacrifice under the supervision of a hereditary priesthood, and observed a unique set of religious and moral instructions revealed to them at Sinai. The core of these are the “Ten Commandments”, less commonly known as “Decalogue”, which prohibited the worship of other gods, the use of images, and all kinds of work on the Sabbath, as well as murder, adultery, stealing, lying and coveting (Ancient Israelite Religion, 2013). In contrast to Ancient Israel, Ancient Egyptian religion was a complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals which were an integral part of ancient Egyptian society.
It centered on the Egyptians’ interaction with many deities who were believed to be present in, and in control of, the forces and elements of nature. The practices of Egyptian religion were efforts to provide for the gods and gain their favor. Formal religious practices centered on the pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Although he was a human, the pharaoh was believed to be descended from the gods. He acted as the intermediary between his people and the gods, and was obligated to sustain the gods through rituals and offerings so that they could maintain order in the universe.
The state dedicated enormous resources to Egyptian rituals and to the construction of the temples. Individuals could interact with the gods for their own purposes, appealing for their help through prayer or compelling them to act through magic. These practices were distinct from, but closely linked with, the formal rituals and institutions. The popular religious tradition grew more prominent in the course of Egyptian history as the status of the pharaoh declined. Another important aspect was the belief in the afterlife and funerary practices.
The Egyptians made great efforts to ensure the survival of their souls after death, providing tombs, grave goods, and offerings to preserve the bodies and spirits of the deceased (Ancient Israelite Religion, 2013). Egyptians and the Israelites were influenced greatly by their religions. The Israelites were encouraged to be humble, and not to stoop to extravagance. In contrast, the Egyptians loved to be extravagant, and much of Egypt’s wealth went into the building and sustaining pyramids and temples. The religions also affected the people’s daily lives. In both Jerusalem and Cairo going to the temple and worshipping was central.
While in both cultures attending services was required, the Egyptians had to constantly “appease” multiple gods. In Egypt the women did have more freedom than in the surrounding lands, but for the common woman, life was restricted to running a household (J. H. Johnson, 2002). The Egyptian religion is male centered, as most cultures of this time. Similarly in ancient Israelite culture the man was the head of the house and the woman was the helpmate, but they were to work together for the benefit of each: the outcome was to be a partnership. The husband was obligated to support his wife, but she could keep her own property.
It was assumed, however, that married couples were an economic partnership, and if the man was bankrupt and unable to pay his debts she would be sold into slavery along with him (Women in Ancient Israel, 2013). There are many ways to compare and contrast ancient Egypt and ancient Israel. Both believed in some kind of afterlife; however their ways of achieving it were contradistinctive. Like other cultures around them they are male dominant, yet they show respect for their women. Ancient Israel and ancient Egypt are close geographically, but are socially far apart.