Moses Mondays: Intrigue Takes Center Stage

The story has taken a turn and the focus is now on the politics and religion of Egypt. The Pharaoh Seti has only been on the throne for a little over a year and that after only a short two year reign by his father. This is a new dynasty, the first sense of continuity for Egypt since the disruption of Akhenaten’s reign, which brought about the end of the last dynasty, requiring Seti to walk a narrow line between the First Priests of the Egyptian gods, whose support he needs, and his own plans and desires. Everything works best when the “gods” favor his course of action and before he can decide what to do about this new “Hebrew problem” he has to know what all of the omens and interpretations mean, or at least what the priests of Egypt are willing to agree they mean. History stands balanced on edge of a precipice with intrigue and deception competing with honor and the law of Ma’at in deciding the course Pharaoh and consequently, Egypt, will take.

Last week we saw the beginning of these maneuverings in Chapter 10: War in Heaven. Today, the focus of the story shifts to the court of Pharaoh.

Chapter 11: Deception and Intrigue

The meaning of Pharaoh’s dream and portent found no agreement from the assembled priests. Indeed, they even argued over the meanings of the signs and portents sent by their own gods as well as how they all might fit together. It was obvious to Osiphirah, Pharaoh’s Vizier, that the others were all were eyeing Nephura, the first priest of Amon-Ra in Memphis, trying to protect themselves from having to oppose his position. While powerful, he was only the second priest of Amon Ra. The High Priest resided at Thebes, and Nephura had to be careful not to overstep his bounds.

Osiphirah thought is was obvious that the priesthood of Amon-Ra was being warned by the gods not to interfere with what was happening. However, as the debate proceeded, it seemed that somehow, the omens were always turned to the advantage of the priesthood of Amon-Ra. “These vultures are too arrogant and self-serving to be true priests,” he muttered to himself, thinking of Nephura more than the rest of the assembled priesthood.

He heard a cough off to left and turned to see his scribe signaling him from the west alcove, off of the Hall of Audiences. He leaned over to the ear of Pharaoh and said, “Sostris has arrived, O Divine One.”

Seti stood and struck the stone floor with the butt of his staff, silencing the debate. “I will retire for a while. Continue your deliberations in my absence and have an answer for me when I return,” he said. Turning, he went out through the west alcove to his private audience room. Osiphirah stayed behind on the dais to remind the priests of their duty to Pharaoh.

As Seti entered the room, Sostris bowed with exaggerated reverence. The chamber was reserved for private conferences and was situated off of the west side of the main hall. There were heavy tapestries on the wall and the floor was covered with thick rugs, all of which added to the richness of the room and more importantly, quieted the sound, enhancing the sense of privacy. The wall tapestries depicted scenes from Seti’s conquest of the Shasu, who had threatened the trade routes from Medigo in the north down through the Sinai desert. Battle-tested and victorious in the first year of his reign, the tapestries made an impressive backdrop to Pharaoh’s confidential discussions. Sostris reined in his anticipation as Seti seated himself and called for wine. After the steward brought the wine and two cups, the Pharaoh sent him away, leaving him alone with the First Priest.

“How is your new temple? Have they completed the final touches?” Seti said.

“Yes, they have just completed the work, O Divine One,” Sostris replied. “Satis is most pleased with the efforts of Pharaoh on her behalf.”

“Good. I wanted to honor my father’s commitment to the goddess,” Seti said and then was quiet for a long time. After what seemed like an eternity to Sostris, Pharaoh simply said, “An interesting day, is it not?”

Sostris knew Seti well, having spent a good deal of time with him over the last twenty years, long before his father Ramses’ ascension to supreme power. He understood that the Pharaoh was prone to severe understatement and translated his remark as saying, “Heaven-shaking events are happening, are they not?” He decided to join in downplaying the circumstances until he discovered what Pharaoh wanted and replied, “Indeed. How may I be of service to my Pharaoh?”

“I hear my sister bathed this morning in the section of the Nile that flows past Memphis to the west,” Seti said. “It is also said that she found a gift from the gods. Do you have an opinion on this situation?”

Noticing how much the Pharaoh left out of his statement Sostris carefully answered, “We have studied the matter, Divine One.” He removed the papyrus from his scribe case and started to speak but Pharaoh suddenly held up his hand and motioned him to come near.

When he was close enough Seti whispered, “The walls appear to have ears today.” He turned his head and motioned to a shadow barely visible on the floor of the alcove. Then in a normal voice he said, “This room is getting warm. I will walk for a while in my garden while the priests deliberate. Bring the wine.” Seti turned and left.

Sostris returned the papyrus to its case and tucking it in his robe he picked up the tray holding the wine and two goblets. He followed Seti through the corridors and out into a large walled garden. His feelings were now mixed. He was relieved and honored to find that Pharaoh wanted to confide in him about so important a matter, but he was concerned where this might lead. His absence from the assembly openly exposed him and Sostris did not want to give the priesthood of Amon-Ra an excuse to oppose him or Satis. He also wondered why Pharaoh had not confronted the eavesdropper. Maybe someone who was stupid enough to let his shadow be seen was more useful left unexposed. As they passed the two guards at the garden’s entrance, Seti told them he did not want to be disturbed.

Pharaoh motioned him to a seat by the fishpond, under a shaded canopy. No one could approach within earshot without being seen. They had complete privacy, a rare event in the court of Pharaoh.

“Pour us some wine,” Seti said.

“Should I taste it for my Pharaoh?” Sostris asked.

“A wise, but I think unnecessary precaution. Do so if it pleases you,” Seti replied.

As Sostris raised the cup to his lips, his heart skipped a beat as he thought how unfortunate it would be to die at this moment, when so many signs pointed toward the possibility of momentous events just ahead. However, the strong wine went down without incident, and he passed the cup to Pharaoh with a bow. Seti nodded at the container and Sostris poured a second cup for himself.

Pharaoh turned and faced him, looking him squarely in the eye. “Pity he isn’t a younger man,” Sostris thought, “There is the coolness and strength of granite in those eyes. Egypt needs a strong ruler with a long reign to overcome all the turmoil surrounding the fall of the last dynasty. His family’s reign was barely four inundations in the making as his father had died with barely two years on the throne.”

Finally Seti spoke. “I want to hear about my sister’s dream.”

Surprised that he hadn’t first asked about the child, Sostris told him the content of Asati’s night dream and also about her vision in the temple of Satis. He did not elaborate or attempt to interpret either one, but simply let the images make their own impact.

Without reacting to what Sostris described, Seti said, “Did you also have omens?”

“Yes we did, Divine One,” Sostris said. Being careful to sound neutral while he tried to gage Pharaoh’s sentiment, he related the morning’s events at the temple. “My servant, while going out to fetch water before daybreak, saw a falling star descending from the eastern sky, which appeared to hit the Nile to west.” He noticed an ever so slight tightening of the Pharaoh’s jaw at that information. “We also had two falcons land on the temple gates as they were opened. They remained there for over an hour before your sister arrived and we began the morning devotions.”

Pharaoh sat quietly for a few moments and Sostris could see a warrior’s mind working behind Seti’s eyes. For him, each omen or sign was a combatant on the battlefield, influencing the flow of the engagement: a bowman here, a chariot there. To him the gods were always battling, themselves, the elements, or us.

After what seemed like an interminable length of time Seti simply said, “I also had a dream and an omen. They seem straightforward to me,” he added, “but earlier my assembled priests couldn’t find an interpretation if the gods wrote it out and handed them the papyrus.”

“So,” Sostris thought, “he now seeks to compare the meaning of his dream to his sister’s. He is right in sensing that the signs are the most important consideration at this point. Dynasties rose and fell in the signs and if the child himself turns out to be a sign, then on that meaning might hinge the future.”

Bowing slightly he said to Seti, “May I humbly hear the Pharaoh’s dream?”