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Egyptian/Mesopotamian/Hebrew Religious Beliefs
The religious views of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Hebrews all have important implications on each cultures unique view of life and death, including the afterlife. Mesopotamia was known as the land between the rivers. Each religion developed according to the history and reality of the people living during their time. The Egyptians and Mesopotamians developed a polytheistic religious outlook, while the Hebrew people developed a monotheistic culture. However the Hebrew religion is much more similar to the Egyptian religion considering it's positive outlook and affiliation with a God or gods, unlike the Mesopotamian belief system which may be considered very negative. Ultimately, though each of these religions are different, they developed as a result of the physical and cultural influences of the people living during ancient times.
The religion of the people of Mesopotamia was all encompassing, the center of daily life (fortunecity, 2003). The Mesopotamian views on religion include a belief in gods that represent the good fortunes of life. The Mesopotamians also believed that their did not exist any all-powerful king or god, but rather that power should be shared among many small government systems, and that kings, as they were mortal, were ultimately subject to the will of the gods (fortunecity, 2003). The Mesopotamian also lived by the code of Hammurabi, to be discussed further. Like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians also believed in worshiping many "gods" and attributed the good things that happened in life to the appeasing of their gods. The Egyptians, much like the Mesopotamians, relied on the gods for their good fortune, and those in some sense perhaps lived their lives in an effort to appease the gods. The Hebrew religion, as discussed in the readings, is very different from these two religions. Hebrew religion centers around the idea of monotheism, or one god over all. This is a drastic change from previous belief systems, but perhaps ultimately the result of the influences of Hebrew peoples being enslaved under Egyptian kingdom.
The Hebrew religion, for the most part challenged other perspectives; The Hebrews believed in only one God, a God that ruled all and was above nature, and a God that was good. The Hebrew religion ultimately might be considered a foundation of Western tradition and revolutionary of belief systems during ancient times. Interestingly, the Hebrew religion emphasizes man's ability to choose between right and wrong. The Hebrew religion dictates that man is given a choice to follow God's laws, but ultimately should follow the Ten Commandments or suffer evil from not following these laws. The Hebrew religion focused on personal freedoms and responsibility, and saw problems as the result of punishment from God for not following his laws. This is the one similarity that the Hebrew religion shares with the Mesopotamian and Egyptian views; The Mesopotamians and Egyptians both believed that in order to live a good and happy life, people must appease their gods and dutifully perform the tasks asked of them, or suffer the consequences. However, unlike the Hebrew religion, which seems almost positive and optimistic, the Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions often have an undertone of negativity.
The Mesopotamian people searched for eternal life at the center of life; they believed in divine laws for all society, even the king and believed that no one was above the will of the gods. According to the Code of Hammurabi, by which the Mesopotamians lived, the divine wishes of the gods were to be obeyed by all, men were the head of the family system, and class distinctions existed within society (UCSB, 2003). How do Mesopotamian belief's relate to Egyptian belief systems about religion?
The Egyptian religion came into being a little after the Mesopotamian religion. The Egyptian religion is similar to the Mesopotamian in that the Egyptians believed in a polytheistic society. However, the Mesopotamian take on the gods was much more negative than that of the Egyptians. The Egyptians were thought to have felt a close relationship or affinity with the gods, believed that they were made in the image of the gods (UCSB, 2003). This actually trickles down to later time when the Hebrews, choosing to believe in a monotheistic God, believed that they too were made in the image of their God. The Egyptians believed that the gods would help them through their daily struggles, a startling contrast to the Mesopotamian belief that the gods had enslaved mankind, in an effort to "feed" off of man (UCSB, 2003). Again, the Egyptian religious belief, similar to the Hebrew belief system, is overall much more positive (UCSB, 2003).
The Egyptian religion looks favorable upon the afterlife, which is evident in the elaborate mummification process people endured upon dying, to assure a happy existence in the next life. The Egyptians felt that those individuals who had lived a good and decent life would be rewarded in the afterlife (UCSB, 2003). The Mesopotamian view of death varies greatly from this perspective however, and involves a loss of identity and a world of despair and terror, under leadership of the god of the underworld (UCSB, 2003).
The Egyptian gods are very homogenous, they represent the earth, sky and sun. In general the Egyptian gods bring fertility and awareness; The Mesopotamian gods however often are predictably destructive and bring despair; The Mesopotamians for example, have a god of the storm whereas the Egyptians do not (UCSB, 2003). The Hebrew religion, developing a little after the Egyptian, follows this pattern of positive experience.
Each of the religions that developed in time, whether Mesopotamian, Hebrew or Egyptian are reflective not only of cultural attitude but of societal realities. The Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions are most closely related by their having a polytheistic society. However, if one considers the positive nature of the Egyptian religion, it may be more closely related to the Hebrew religion. The Hebrew peoples were once enslaved by the Egyptians thus it is feasible to deduce that the Hebrew people's positive attitude toward religion derives from Egyptian influences. The Egyptians also shared an enormous thinking and consideration toward the afterlife, as did the Hebrew people.
The Egyptian religion likely took a positive turn due to the fertile land, luxurious life and generous experiences most people endured. Egyptians during ancient times enjoyed a long spell of prosperity, domination and peace. It is important to consider this when comparing the Egyptian religion to the Mesopotamian. The Mesopotamian religion, unlike both the Hebrew religion and Egyptian religions, was much more pessimistic and negative in nature. People of Mesopotamian upbringing did not have a positive outlook on the afterlife. They lived their lives rather, in fear of the gods, and felt their gods used them to do their bidding. This perhaps resulted from the chronic fighting, wars and chaotic state that the people of Mesopotamia often endured. Unlike the prosperous Egyptians, the Mesopotamians were forced to endure an environment full of war, conflicting people's and often terrible storms, which may have resulted in their negative outlook (UCSB, 2003). It is very likely they felt themselves at the mercy of the gods.
This perhaps explains how the Egyptian religion, though influenced by the polytheism of Mesopotamia, turned positive. Rather than experience battling and negativity the Egyptian people endured a long period of prosperity and domination. The kings of Egypt ruled over the Hebrew people for some time. They attributed their success to the generosity of their gods, and had a strong enough sense of culture and self-esteem to believe that they were made in the image of their gods.
It seems reasonable to conclude that the Hebrew people may have developed the idea that man was made in the image of their one God, from their Egyptian suppressors. Given their daily life, it is also reasonable to conclude that the Hebrews resented the oppression and enslavement experienced in their culture as a result of Egyptian rule. It is likely that the development of a monotheistic belief is due in part, to the desire to worship a religion different from that of their oppressors, yet still grounded in a basic sense of positive outlook and a just afterlife for people who lived a good life.
The Hebrew people during the course of their history experienced a series of victories and defeat. As such they likely saw being ruled or living independently as punishment or reward for breaking the laws of God. This is what ties the Hebrew religion into the Mesopotamian religion. Though overall the Hebrew people believed that God is good and made man in his image to prosper, it is also true that God would punish man if he didn't follow his commandments. This is very similar to the negative sentiment expressed in Mesopotamian religion, the idea that man was to do the will of their gods. Interestingly, one thing that ultimately separates the Hebrew religion from that of the Mesopotamian or Egyptian belief systems is the idea that human beings should be emphasized. Much of the Hebrew religion focuses on the experience…[continue]
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