See also “Stay with the Sun” (Sun Messages, Part 2) and “The Sun in Scripture, Song, and Commentary”
This message is brought to you by the sun, both the sun of the physical universe which warms us, invigorates us, stimulates growth, and gives us light to see, especially on the cold days of winter, and the spiritual, interior sun which illumines us as well, giving hope and lighting our path, expressed in song and scripture and in the nature of God and revealed in Christ. This aspect of the sun is so powerful and universal. I am sure you will not be surprised to know that it is not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition but shared by other religious cultures as well.
I count myself fortunate to have caught on early in my life that the whole world of ideas was out there to consider, and that in matters of faith there were universal values and concepts. This led to what I call the argument for universality, that is, is something is true, it must be universally true. This is the strength and promise of true religion, and you will see the evidence of it here.
While still in high school, I came upon a book by Robert Silverberg, Akhnaten, the Rebel Pharaoh. In his introduction, he writes, “As we shall see, a current of monotheism was running through Egyptian religion long before Akhnaten reigned. But that current was submerged under a torrent of gods….He offered Egypt a single god, a god of love, a faith of simplicity and purity. Egypt rejected the offer. We remember and honor Akhnaten for what he failed to do.” Akhnaten, the god he proclaimed, Aten, and religion he founded, Atenism, were soon to be overthrown, but his faith and teaching were long to survive him, as we shall see.
Aten was already a common word in the Egyptian vocabulary. It meant, simply, the visible face of the sun, the solar disk, the sun as the sun itself, the object in the sky. It never had any religious connotation. Under Atenism it evolved into the primary symbol of God.
We acknowledge Abraham as a discoverer of monotheism, yet he was not the only one, nor the first. Even before the Aten-cult in Egypt there had also been a strain of monotheism struggling to appear. An ancient Sixth Dynasty text had placed these words in the mouth of Atum-Re another name for the sun-god:
“I am the Eternal Spirit, I am the sun the rose from the Primeval Waters. My soul is God, I am the creator of the Word. Evil is my abomination, I see it not. I am the Creator of the Order wherein I live, I am the Word, which will never be annihilated in this my name of ‘Soul’.”
Is there a feeling of familiarity in this passage? To some readers there may be because there is a connection between the Akhnaten literature and the Jewish tradition. And it can be seen in a side-by-side comparison of Psalm 104 and Akhnaten’s “long hymn” to Aten found inscribed in a tomb in Amara. Archaeologist and historian James Henry Breasted was the first to point out this kinship in his History of Egypt, published in 1905, and many have made the same observation since.
The Aten Hymn
When thou settest in the western horizon of heaven, the world is in darkness like the dead…Every lion cometh forth from his den…
When thou risest in the horizon…the darkness is banished…Then in all the world they do their work.
All trees and plants flourish, the birds flutter in their marshes, their wings uplifted in adoration to thee, all the sheep dance upon their feet…
The barques sail upstream and downstream alike. Every highway is open because thou has dawned. The fish in the river leap up before thee, and thy rays are in the midst of the great green sea.
How manifold are all thy works! They are hidden from before us, o thou sole God, whose powers no other possesseth. Thou didst create the earth according to thy desire.
Thou hast set a Nile in heaven, that it may fall for them. Making floods upon the mountains, like the great sea: and watering their fields among their towns.
Thou makest the season, in order to create all thy works…Thou hast made the distant heaven to rise therein…dawning, shining afar off and returning.
The world is in thy hand, even as thou hast made them. When thou hast risen, they live; when thou settest, they die…By thee man liveth.
Thou makest darkness and it is night, wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.Man goes forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.
The trees of the Lord are full of sap…where the birds make their nests…The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats…
So this is the great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom has thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.
He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth…
He appointed the moon for season: the sun knoweth his going down.
These wait upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season. That thou givest them they gather; thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they did, and return to their dust.
This can be no coincidence. The unknown Hebrew psalmist must have known Akhnaten’s hymn well, for he adapted many passages from it, and quoted several outright. Silverberg asks these questions: Did Moses learn monotheism from Akhnaten, and transmit it to the Hebrews? Do three of the modern world’s greatest faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—stem directly from the mind of a tormented religious fanatic who once occupied the throne of Egypt? A persistent line of thought says yes. Moses, it is asserted, was a disciple of Akhnaten. After the downfall of Atenism, Moses attached himself to the Hebrews, who happened to be dwelling in Egypt, and led them forth to Canaan to avoid the persecution then being meted out to all adherents of the monotheistic Pharaoh. And it was upon Akhnaten’s teachings that the religion of Moses was founded—a foundation later to be used by Jesus, and still later by Mohammad. The earliest known statement of this idea comes from Manetho, as quoted by the historian Josephus. Manetho told a distorted but recognizable version of the heresy of Akhnaten, in which he stated that at one point a group of heretics settled in Avaris, the old Hyksos capital in the Delta, and, led by a certain priest of Heliopolis, refused to worship the old gods of Egypt. The name of that priest of Heliopolis, Manetho tells us, was Moses.
It does not necessarily follow that Moses carried the text of the hymn with him out of Egypt, and that it was handed down through the generations of the Hebrews until the Psalms were finally written down some six or seven hundred years after the time of Akhnaten. We know that Akhnaten attempted to make Atenism a universal religion. It is quite likely that the text of the hymn was inscribed at the Atenist temples in Syria, and passed into general circulation among the Syrians, Phoenicians, and Canaanites, coming into Hebrew possession much later when they entered Canaan and displaced the earlier population. There is also the problem of this six century gap: if Moses taught this to the Hebrews, why did this definite strand of Atenism appear in Judaism after the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722 BC? Perhaps there really is no direct link, at least to Moses’ teaching, and that the Jews evolved an abstract, monotheristic, loving God independently over the centuries, with no knowledge of Akhnaten’s works.
There are other texts, however, which suggest a link. A well-known Egyptian work, “The Wisdom of Amenemope”, written some time after 1000 BC, is sure to have been absorbed into the Bod of Proverbs, although, again, at least one commentator has argued that the Hebrew text was written earlier. Here is one example:
Incline thine ears to hear my sayings,
And apply thine heart to their comprehension.
For it is a profitable thing to put them in thy heart,
but woe to him who transgresses them.
(Amenemope III, 9-12)
Bow down thine ear, and hear the words of the wise,
And apply thine heart unto my knowledge.
For it is a pleasant thing if thou keep them within thee;
They shall withal be fitted in thy lips.
But this we know from the Jewish scriptures, that the God of the Hebrews underwent changes during the hundreds of years that the Old Testament was taking shape. The warlike, jealous, vengeful God of the earlier Hebrew society, with whom he had a special covenant relationship has been replaced by the late chapters of Isaiah into a God of love and warmth, who tempers justice with mercy. [see my post “Farewell, Angry God” for a further discussion] “ ‘For a small moment have I forsaken thee’, the Lord declares, ‘but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will have mercy on thee’, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.” The God of Isaiah promises, “Ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace.” This is not unlike the warm-hearted Aten, who thoughtfully puts “a Nile in heaven…for the strangers”, who “fillest every land with…beauty, who banishes darkness and fear.” Akhnaten’s god, like the God of Isaiah, was also universal, and did not merely look after one people in one place. And, like the later Hebrew writings, it was Akhnaten’s dream that all the earth would worship him.
Three points may be made to support the similarity of Akhnaten’s god to the later Hebrew concept: First, Aten is a universal god. If the argument for universality is true and religion does not exist in a vacuum, this is ample proof. The sun is an expression of the primary symbol of light is a key to our thinking, our belief, our spiritual practice, and our hope. This is strongly echoed in the Hindu tradition, so Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do not stand alone. Second, Aten was a kindly god. “When the chicken crieth in the eggshell”, says an Aten hymn, “thou giveth him breath therein, to preserve him alive.” And so, this light is also the light of grace, as in Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:54 of the sun which rises on both the evil and the good. This grace, like the light of the sun, is at all times available to all. And so light is also the key symbol of this grace which is found in the gift of Christ, who was proclaimed by John the Baptist. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world.” Third, Akhnaten’s god was abstract. A symbol represented him, with no other representations or visualizations such as pictures or statues. Aten was the heat which dwells in the sun’s disk. The God of the Jews is similarly abstract, hidden, difficult to perceive, appearing as a cloud, appearing as a burning bush, bestowing the privilege of seeing him only to Moses, yet only “my back parts: but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:23). Further, there is a proscription in the late days of the Biblical era against graven images to be made of him, no hints of his appearance, in Silverberg’s words, “no temple, no altar, nothing tangible connected with him…God is everywhere, immanent, intangible, infusing everything, just as the Aten, symbolized by reaching hands, entered into every aspect of life: ‘thy rays, they encompass the lands, even all thou hast made’.”
The expressions of life and light do not stop here, for now we move to the Christian revelation, where in Epiphany, the season of light, we celebrate the incarnation of the unseen, the invisible God, the Aten if you will, for God is known by many names. The scriptural references are abundant: in Isaiah 9:2, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” This is repeated almost verbatim in Matthew 4:16, and elaborated further in Luke 1:78, “Through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.”, and in John 1:4 “In him was light; and his light was the light of men.” Verse 9 describes Christ as “the true light, which lightens every man who cometh into the world”, and attested by Jesus to himself in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world; they who walk in me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” In Luke 2:32 he is “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of his people Israel.” The Evangelists continue this theme: in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “In whom the God of this world hath blinded the minds of them that believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them”; in 2 Timothy 1:10, “But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”; in 1 Peter 2:9 “…that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”; in 2 Peter 1:19, “…whereunto ye do well that you take heed, as unto a light which shineth in a dark place.” A stunning manifestation of light is the Transfiguration of Christ on the mount, where, in Matthew 17:2 “and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light”. Our hymnody includes references as well, “send out thy light and thy truth, let them lead me”; “break forth, o bounteous heavenly light’; “sun of my soul, thou Savior dear”, and others.
Where there is light there is also heat, like that dwelling in that ancient Aten disk. It is most evident in the Upanishads, where repeated references occur to the Divine Person who burns out impurities, echoed in the Gospel of Thomas, where in saying 10 Jesus speaks, “I have cast fire upon the world, and see, I am guarding it until it blazes.” Behold, the Lamb of God, who burns out the impurities of the world.
We play our part as well, lighting candles as powerful symbols of our spiritual mission as light-bearers witnessing to that which comes from God in Christ. Jesus commands us in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men [to be read inclusively in this and subsequent passages as all], that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” In Luke 8:16, “No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or puts it under a bed, but setteth it on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light.”; and in 1 Thessalonians 5:5, “Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, not of darkness.” Speaking of darkness, it is no coincidence that light in its physical aspect is most welcomed and appreciated during the short days of the year leading to and following the Winter Solstice, and the reason for employing lights in our holiday celebrations. In this season, too, is celebrated the light of Christ coming to represent the Divine in physical personhood coming to illumine our dark world. I hope that you agree with me that to start with the sun and with light is the foundation to a satisfying path to religious experience and that the joy of so doing will be self-evident.
The book of Revelation has the last word (and doesn’t it always?) Christ is the light of the world and also the light of eternity, just as the physical sun symbolizes and is superseded by the spiritual sun. Revelation 22:5 tells us “And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.” This, as in Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly’s term, is the Eternal Promise for those who are drawn to and live in the light. Let us then live in the light. Amen.
I have chosen to use selections from the King James Bible, unless otherwise indicated. While its language is antiquated and must occasionally be altered for inclusiveness or a more modern sense of a term, its passages are still the most familiar to many, and its lyricism is unmatched. These, in my view, compensate for any difficulties in negotiating the text.