Moses Mondays: Subtle Subtleties

There is intrigue and deception competing with honor and the law of Ma’at throughout the court of Pharaoh and consequently, the politics and religion of Egypt. The Pharaoh Seti is gathering his intelligence and making his own investigations while the priests of Egypt argue about the meaning of the signs that have disturbed the various temples in Memphis. Great forces are at work and everyone knows it.

Last week we saw Pharaoh and Sostris discuss the meaning of events in Chapter 11: Deception and Intrigue. This week the scene shifts to the priestly deliberations at the court of Pharaoh. As expected, the First Priest of Amon Ra is holding forth, finally giving his “interpretation”. Oh what a subtle web we weave…

Chapter 12: Subtle Positioning

Nephura could barely hold his impatience with the proceedings. As a First Priest of Amon-Ra he had an exalted position among the priesthoods of Egypt. Today, however, he saw all the hard work to recover that position since the overthrow of Akhenaten’s one-god heresy being placed in jeopardy. A wedge was being driven between Amon-Ra and his own priests in the minds of the assembled priesthoods, possibly even the court and Pharaoh himself. We are being accused, subtlety it was true, but accused nonetheless, of going against the desire of our own god in this matter of continuing to destroy the seed of the Hebrews. Something had to be done, and done quickly.

“May I suggest a possible explanation,” Nephura said, during a lull in the debate. Up to this point he had refrained from making any definitive statements. He had offered only a few clarifying questions to draw out the positions of the other first priests. Omens were always a two-edged sword, working for you or against you, depending on the interpretation. The key, Nephura knew, was gaining control of the debate and subtly guiding the augury to the desired meaning.

Osiphirah, Pharaoh’s Vizier, turned in his seat to face him and with measure tones said, “We have been waiting patiently for a guiding word from the worthy First Priest of Amon-Ra. Give us all the pleasure of your enlightened insight, most noble one.”

Nephura recognized the veiled sarcasm hidden beneath the courteous manner. He knew he had to walk the narrow path between apparent rejection by his own god and being seen as trying to manipulate the meaning of the events to his own ends. Neither result was acceptable; either could prove catastrophic to the preeminent position of the priesthood of Amon-Ra.

“It is obvious that things have changed,” he began, careful not to suggest any problem with their original position. “What is the right course in one situation and time may not be the best direction for later times. The needs of the gods and their goals for Egypt often change as the situation changes.” Nephura noticed a number of heads nodding in affirmation.

“When the heretic, may his name be cursed and forgotten, was overthrown, Egypt went through a period of turmoil and the gods labored mightily with their priesthoods to bring calm and stability to the land and its people. However, there was in our midst, a strong and numerous people who don’t listen to the gods of Egypt, who follow their own imaginary and invisible god.”

With his last words, Nephura saw small sparks of interest begin to kindle. He went on.

“These people, these Hebrews, had to be disciplined, and their festering influence rooted out of the land so the sacredness of Egypt could be restored. The gods needed to take again their rightful place before the people of Egypt. Ramses, may he dwell forever in the light of Ra, agreed and in the first moon of his reign reissued the edict of Haremheb against the firstborn Hebrew males. And then he carried it out.” Nephura saw no reason to remind them that it was he who had maneuvered Ramses into this course of action.

“The seed of the Hebrews was fed to Sobek,” he said, nodding to Obekka, the First Priest of the crocodile-headed god, “and the might of Pharaoh and Egypt grew strong on the flesh of their sacrifices.” Nephura knew that the vigorous early support for the policy had begun to falter as families throughout the two lands began to feel sorry for the Hebrews, imagining their own sons among the daily offerings. Others even felt that the offerings went against the law of Ma’at. Everything might have been different if the midwives had simply brought the babies to the temple, but they didn’t. For years after Haremheb issued the edict they claimed that the Hebrew women were exceptionally vigorous and often delivered early before they arrived. When Ramses ascended the throne, they had seen their opportunity and persuaded the new Pharaoh to begin a crackdown on Hebrew male births, along with efforts to root them out. The almost daily ritual of soldiers searching the villages for newborn infants, that when found were ripped from the arms of their screaming mothers, only added to the growing unease.

“That was over three inundations ago. Sobek has been well fed and the divine Seti, the strong son of Ramses, now rules over a renewed and restored Egypt.” An appeal to vanity seldom went astray, Nephura thought. Obekka, though yet an unproven ally, was also in a difficult position. The number of worshippers at Sobek’s temple had fallen off as the sentiment had begun to change. Even his priests had begun to detest the daily bloodshed at the Nile’s edge as the crocodiles fought over the grotesque offerings.

Nephura gathered himself. He now prepared to navigate the difficult omens and events that were overshadowing even the midday Egyptian sun. “The gods give and the gods take away,” he began. “In their wisdom, the gods have now decided to give. When the princess Asati was gifted from the life-giving waters of the Nile with a Hebrew son, it was a sign. From the waters that had swallowed up the infant sons of the Hebrews, now an infant son is given back. What better way to announce the end of the sacrifices, that they have fulfilled their purpose?”

Several murmurs of assent filtered through the hall.

“Did I not hear that a vulture spread its droppings on the head of Amon-Ra?” Osiphirah asked. “Is this not an evil omen?”

Nephura had expected this question was prepared. “That depends,” he replied.

“On what?” Osiphirah retorted, thinking to himself about the slipperiness of priests.

“On the droppings. They were watery and clear and contained no vulgarity.” Nephura knew this statement could not be refuted, as they had cleaned the statue and the Noas immediately. No one outside his immediate priesthood had seen the dirty truth. “We believe the vulture represented Satis, the patroness of the princess. The goddess was anointing Amon-Ra to announce the arrival of the child, which she had prepared for the princess. She was also alerting us, his priesthood, concerning her gift. We believe Amon-Ra accepted her offering and honored her by sending his sacred hawks to grace the gates of her temple.” Nephura knew this point was thinly argued, but after much debate he and his priests could think of no other approach to take. Their course of action depended on this argument being at least tolerated, if not accepted.

Osiphirah pondered this strange interpretation. He bit his tongue. Now was not the time to confront the priesthood of Amon-Ra. There was much to be gained by letting them save face, as long as their solution protected both Pharaoh and his sister, and it appeared that this interpretation helped everyone.

“So you are saying that the child is indeed a gift from the gods?” Osiphirah asked.

“The omens appear to say so.”

“You also seem to be saying that the gods are using this child to say that they want to stop the sacrificing of the newborn Hebrew males.”

“That is what the omens seem to say,” Nephura replied, to a growing murmur of ascent within the assembled priests.