Akhenaton was the first ruler in recorded history to advocate a type of monotheism. Originally Amenhotep IV, this 18th dynasty Egyptian King changed his title to Akhenaton (“it is well with Aton”) and reigned from 1350-1334 BCE.
Akhenaton replaced the many Egyptian deities, particularly Amun, with the sun god Aton. While this was a type of monotheism, worshipping a solar deity clearly differs from worshipping a wholly-other creator God. Along these lines, Sigmund Freud, in perhaps his weakest writings, compared Akhenaton to the Jewish prophet Moses.
The debate continues, however, as to what the ancient depictions of Aton actually depicted. Some scholars adhere to the limited solar cosmology while others, mostly New Age enthusiasts and so-called fringe theorists, suggest a more universal conception of the godhead. This debate calls to mind R. C. Zaehner’s distinction between theism and pantheism, a distinction he’s not alone in making, but one which still eludes many thinkers who lump all things and all paths into one gelatinous whole.
Akhenaton, himself, became self-aggrandized to the point of proclaiming himself as the only true mediator of Aton. This is surprising because a good number of artistic depictions of Akhenaton from this period learn toward realism, stressing human detail rather than godlike or saintly gloss. Prior to Akhenaton, Egyptian rulers were depicted in stylized, refined forms. Akhenaton, however, is sometimes visibly unattractive, marking a first for Egyptian art and influencing realism in general.
Akhenaton’s most well-known wife was Nefertiti. Together they rode in grand and imposing public processions, demanding servility and worship as their carriages passed by onlookers.
But for all his grandiose pretensions, Akhenaton had little interest in international politics. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary points out that “during his reign Egypt lost control of its provinces in Syria and Palestine.”¹ And the Amarna letters (inscribed tablets showing diplomatic records) tell us that he was preoccupied with domestic affairs and neglected the city-states of Palestine, leaving them in chaos, a chaos marked by conflict among local chieftains, turmoil and open rebellion.
¹ Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, ed. Allen C. Myers, 1987, p. 35, 46.
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