A digital reconstruction of the Temple of Khonsu at Karnak.

Improving Scholarship with Digital Humanities

Some of us can relate to the following conversation with a student.  A student proposes a dissertation where he or she wants to catalog all the instances of some niche topic.  And then you pose that terrible question.  What do you hope to get out of aggregating all that data?  The student’s heart sinks.  And you receive that deer in the headlights look as if this question had never occurred to the student.

The sciences use computers every day to answer meaningful research questions.  The digital humanities and digital archeology have become the new norm in academic scholarship.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of digital humanities projects use computer technology for primarily data aggregation.

The Problem with the Digital Humanities

Without the same history as the sciences, the humanities have not developed a methodology to maximize utility of computer technologies.  Many digital humanities projects involve building large databases or open access publication of data sets in the hopes that if we build it, they (the researchers) will come.  And like our hypothetical student, many digital humanities projects have conflated scholarship with publication.

Too often magical thinking invades a project by throwing a bunch of data into a database and hoping that the computer will conjure a meaningful result.  Computers are not wizards that live inside a little metal box.  Computers crunch mathematical formulae at amazing speeds but understand none of it.  Any understanding that a computer has is only present because a human being has programmed that understanding into the machine.

Overlooked are the foundational questions.  What problem are you trying to solve?  Do you have access to the funds, time, and talent to see the project to completion?  What are you expecting the computer to do that a human being cannot?   How do you expect a computer to go about solving the problem?

A Better Approach to the Digital Humanities

I would suggest a methodological approach that I hope will raise the bar for the digital humanities.  And that method is simply to ask a research question that requires the help of a computer, see if that question is appropriate for a digital humanities project, and have the researcher and computer together solve the problem.

Experiments done with chess players and computers have shown that a good chess computer can beat almost any human player.  But a human player using a chess computer can beat practically any chess computer on its own.  This is the next step in the digital humanities: the digital and the human engaging difficult research questions that neither alone is capable of solving.

update, ark in Ethiopia is a replica

Beyond Indiana Jones: Backpedaling on Ark Claims

After my blog last week expressing skepticism over the news story announcing the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant, LiveScience.com has walked back its story.  The fact is that, lurid tales of killer priests and fabulous treasure aside, a Western professor has seen the ark in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.


The Man who Saw the Ark

Edward Ullendorff saw the ark inside the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  Ullendorff was a professor at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).  He also served as an army officer attached to the British armed forces in 1941.  And he was with them, when British forces took Ethiopia from the fascist Italians.   With soldiers to his back and no one to stop him, Ullendorff had access to the ark within the church.

When he was still alive, Ullendorff gave an interview to the L. A. Times in 1992 debunking Graham Hancock’s claims.  Ullendorff stated that he saw “a wooden box, but it’s empty.”   He described it as a “Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.”  He maintained that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion possessed a medieval period replica of the ark.


Ethiopian Replicas

These replicas are a common feature of Ethiopian Coptic churches, and none of them are the real Ark of the Covenant.  They serve an important role as an idealized place of veneration and religious focus.

These arks function like the altars in Roman Catholic churches.  In Roman Catholic churches, the altar is not really a place were consecrated offerings are incinerated with fire — they are technically offering tables that are called altars.

The tabot (or “ark”) in Ethiopian churches serve a similar purpose.  The word tabot comes from the Aramaic tebuta, which descended from the Egyptian tbt, “box, chest.”  The purpose of the tabot is to remind the onlooker of the Mosaic law and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

But this is not a the first time an outsider has seen an Ethiopian ark.  In 2002, a Scottish church returned a tabot to Ethiopia.  Photographs of these tabot show that they are nothing like the original Ark of the Covenant.  They are small wood boxes that a single priest carried over his head.  In contrast, the original Ark was 2.5 cubits (45 inches) long by 1.5 cubits (27 inches) wide and high (Exod 25:10) and the priests carried it on poles (Exod 25:13-14).

No doubt exists that these Ethiopian arks remain important religious and historical artifacts.  But they are only historically significant to the medieval world of Axum, not the late bronze age world of Israel.


A computer render of the Ark of the Covenant

Beyond Indiana Jones: A Dodgy Ark of the Covenant Claim

Few bible topics seem to attract as much prurient excess like the Ark of the Covenant.  Studies on the Ark have typically followed two unhealthy extremes.  These studies either follow the path of extreme skepticism after Julius Welhaussen, Gerhard von Rad, and the biblical minimalists.  Or they follow the treasure hunting of Ron Wyatt, Graham Hancock, and a large host of other weird players.

What makes this issue timely was a story on Fox News yesterday re-announcing that “Bible scholars believe the legendary Ark of the Covenant may have landed in Africa…”  The ‘scholar’ who announced this was Bob Cornuke who is a self-styled adventurer after the likes of Indiana Jones.  He has searched for Noah’s Ark, the biblical Golgotha, the ‘real’ Mount Sinai, and now the Ark of the Covenant.


Treasure Hunters

Treasure hunting is hardly new when it comes to the Ark.  In AD 1899, Freemasons and British-Israelites destroyed the archaeological site of Tara in Ireland looking for the Ark.  More recently, the upsurge of dispensational premillennialism in the 1970s renewed interest in end times events.  That interest in eschatology also kindled an interest the Temple and Tabernacle inviting an influx of speculative theories.  Ron Wyatt fed upon this fervor in the late 70s and into the 1990s.

Graham Hancock (1993) used the legend in the Kebra Negast and sterile speculation to suggest Solomon impregnated the Queen of Sheba.  The son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba returned to Axum (Ethiopia) to take up his throne.  Solomon, loving his son, made a copy of the Ark for the son to take back with him.  But the alleged son swapped out the real Ark with the fake.  The son returned to Ethiopia and the Ark ended up in a church where it supposedly still resides today.

The problem with the Kebra Nagast is that it is a mashup of unrelated historical characters and places that could even make the plot lines from Doctor Who seem plausible.  Part of that mashup confuses kingdom of Axum with the unrelated kingdom of Saba.  Axum is a region in northern Ethiopia that did not become a kingdom until ca. AD 100.  Saba was a southern Arabian kingdom that began ca. 1200 BCE and lasted until ca. AD 275.   Axum and Saba are in no way related historically or geographically.  It is historically impossible for the Queen of Sheba to be monarch of Ethiopia.

Many others writing on the Ark have regurgitated selections of Hancock’s hypothesis.  Bob Cornuke and David Halbrook repeated this hypothesis in 2002, Stuart Munro-Hay in 2003, and Randall Price in 2005.  These books typically involve an ‘expedition’ to Ethiopia to meet the Guardian, an enigmatic figure connected to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.  The Guardian verbally affirms that the church holds the true Ark of the Covenant.   Heaven forbid that any of these scholars make an extended expedition to a library.  Needless to say, Hancock’s hypothesis is perhaps the most plagiarized hypothesis when it comes to the Ark.

Moreover, these treasure hunters take their readers on vicarious voyages of faith, confusing truth with possibilities.  Voyages of faith are a necessary aspect in how we come to believe.  But such voyages without a firm foundation in fact neither educates nor illuminates.  Thus, such literature has degraded into the pulp fiction of biblical publishing.


Problems with  Cornuke’s Hypothesis

Cornuke apparently holds a Ph.D. in Bible and Theology from Louisiana Baptist University.  However, questions have been raised about the quality of that dissertation, “Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant and Mount Sinai in History and Tradition.”  Some have suggested that his dissertation was a mishmash of Ron Wyatt’s and Graham Hancock’s theories.  Credentials aside, Cornuke’s hypothesis and the related news article have serious problems.

First, the idea that bible scholars believe the Ark landed in Africa is ridiculously weak.  The article makes it seem that there is consensus among bible scholars that the Ark is in Ethiopia.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact is that most bible scholars don’t believe that the Ark existed at all, let alone resides in Africa.

The other fact is that the actual number of scholars that specialize in the Ark is remarkably small.  These scholars normally complete of a Ph.D. dissertation on the Ark or its related archaeology or literature.  Among scholars that have done this there are less than a half-dozen subject matter experts worldwide; I happen to be one of them.  Of real experts on the Ark, none to my knowledge believe the Ark is (or ever was) in Ethiopia.

Also, the hypothesis supplies a narrative but no evidence.  Cornuke believes the Israelites transported the Ark up the Nile during the reign of King Manasseh.  He believes that Israelites stole the Ark when they established a colony at Elephantine.  He thinks this took place when Manasseh introduced pagan worship into Israel.  Where is the evidence for any of  this?

Furthermore, the biblical text contradicts the hypothesis.  2 Chr 35:3 quotes King Josiah ordering the priests to bring the Ark into the Solomonic Temple.  The priests removed the Ark and placed it in temporary housing when the Temple fell into disrepair.  Josiah ordered the restoration of the Temple (2 Chr 35:20) and the Ark returned to its place.


What Became of the Ark… And Why it Doesn’t Matter

Finally, the Prophet Jeremiah records in Jer 3:16:

“It shall be in those days when you are multiplied and increased in the land,” declares the Lord, “they will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ And it will not come to mind, nor will they remember it, nor will they miss it, nor will it be made again.”

Jeremiah was active from the 13th year of Josiah until after the destruction of the Solomonic Temple.  His writing stating “nor will it be made again” implies that the Ark no longer existed.  In other words, Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the Ark and no one would rebuild it.  And like the people who mourned over the destruction of the Temple, some mourned over the destruction of the Ark.

After the priests brought the Ark into the Temple, the Lord’s glory departed from between the wings of the cherubim, and the glory of the Lord filled the Holy of Holies (1 Kings 8:11).  After that, the Ark was no longer important.  The thing that made the Ark special was not its physical existence or its value in gold.  The  truly valuable thing about the Ark was the presence of God dwelling in the sacred space between the cherubim.

The Ark does have a rich ancient history.  And as an artifact, it is an object worthy of study.  But to get something meaningful from such studies, we need go beyond both beyond extreme skepticism and beyond Indiana Jones.

A Mount Tabor Oak tree. The other vanilla flavor source. Photo © Jean Stephan.

Not So Sweet Vanilla

At the 2018 ASOR conference, Vanessa Linares of Tel Aviv University gave the paper “Long Distance Trade: Vanillin as a Mortuary Offering in Middle Bronze Meggido.”  In this paper reported by Science News, Linares used organic residue analysis to find vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde on three small jugs.  These jugs were recovered from an elite tomb at Meggido that dated to the middle bronze age (ca. 1650-1550 BCE).

A Vanilla Hypothesis

Linares notes that seed pods of the vanilla orchid contain both vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde compounds.  She claims that the current belief that the vanilla was first domesticated in the New World is wrong.  And she concludes that vanilla flavoring must have originated from Africa, India, or southeast Asia.

From the results of her organic residue analysis on three jugs, Linares constructs a vast global-wide middle bronze age trading network in vanilla.  And there is no denying that such vast trade networks could (and probably did) exist.  But there is a problem with her theory.

Another Source of Vanillin

Vanilla is not the only source of vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde.  Oak trees also contain vanillin and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde.[1]   A quality we see used today in alcohol production.   For example, bourbon is aged in oak barrels to impart a vanilla flavor profile.

And the fact is that oaks are native to the Levant.  The varieties of oak trees found in the Levant include the kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), the Palestine oak (Quercus calliprinos), Aleppo oak (Quercus Infectoria), and the Mount Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis).  And these trees have been in the Levant since ancient times.

The ancient Israelites used oaks as landmarks (Gen 12:6, 13:18) as such trees could reach 18 meters in height.  Because of their use as landmarks, people passed by these trees frequently, which also made these areas desirable for graves (Gen 35:8; 1 Chr 10:12).  And other ancient peoples even used oak groves for divination (Judg 9:6).  So the oak was a well-known tree in the Levant.

A Less Sweet Bias

I would not go as far as to say that the ancient Levantines used oak wood to age the substances stored in these middle bronze age jugs.  Nevertheless, they could have used oak containers and utensils in a wide variety of industrial processes.  Oak as a source of vanillin seems to me much more likely than the hypothesis proposed by Linares.

While Linares may be correct that the source could be the vanilla bean, she is a long way from proving it.  And in whipping up this elaborate hypothesis, Linares has become mired in a confection of confirmation bias.   And this produces research that is a lot less sweet.



1. Philip J. Spillman, Alan P. Pollnitz, Dimitra Liacopoulos, George K. Skouroumounis, and Mark A. Sefton, “Accumulation of Vanillin during Barrel-Aging of White, Red, and Model Wines,” Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 45 (1997): 2584-2589.   Jose Miguel Oliva, Felica Sáes, Ignacio Ballesteros, Alberto González, Maria José Negro, Paloma Manzanares, and Mercedes Ballesteros, “Effect of Lignocellulosic Degradation Compounds from Steam Explosion Pretreatment on Ethanol Fermentation by Thermotolerant Yeast Kluyveromyces marxianus” in Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals: The Twenty-Fourth Symposium, eds. Brian H. Davison, James W. Lee, James D. McMillan, and Mark Finkelstein (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2003), 150.

Ramesses II defeating the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh.

Parting of the Red Sea

Movie versions of the exodus portray the parting of the Reed (Red) Sea as massive vertical walls of water that the Israelites passed between.  The Egyptians are shown blindly following after the Israelites, possibly out of fear of Pharaoh.  But I have to ask.  Who in their right mind would enter into a box canyon of water?

The story of the Reed Sea is more nuanced than it may first appear.  In a previous blog, we discussed that the Reed Sea was one of the marshy lakes located near where the Suez Canal exists today.  It was in the estuary where the Pelusiac branch of the Nile emptied into the Mediterranean.

But some details of the account are often overlooked that reveal much about the story.  The first is that the “wall” of water mentioned in Exod 14:22 and 29 is חוֹמָה, the type of wall surrounding a city (HALOT, 297).

Walls of Water

In ancient times, these walls could be anything from the great stone walls of Middle Bronze age fortifications to the sloped teminos walls that were not so much a barrier as impediment.  Teminos walls often marked the precincts of ancient temples.  They served as a warning to the uninitiated that they are trespassing upon holy ground.  If what we are dealing with is a teminos wall, then the height of the water would seem deceptively less intimidating to those passing through the midst of the walls of water.

The other thing to consider is that the bitter lakes were not that deep.  The water was probably no more than 20 feet in depth.  But this is more than enough to be deadly.  While the bottom of the lake was like dry land for those passing through by foot, Pharaoh’s army was using chariots.

Egyptian Chariots

The Egyptian chariot was a weapon of speed and intimidation.  A pair of soldier operated each chariot: a driver and an archer.  The driver would control a team of horses and focus on driving, while the archer could fire his arrows off in practically any direction.  The combination of driver and archer made the Egyptian chariot deadly and fast, a fearsome weapon.

The wheels on these chariots were thin, like the wheels on a ten-speed bicycle.  This was an adaptation of the Levantine chariot to Egyptian sandy conditions.  These chariot wheels were designed to cut through sand, and the carriages were made out of light-weight materials.  So if the chariot got stuck in sand, it could be lifted out of the sand easily.

However, this same design that worked so well in dry sand had the opposite effect in silt.  The wheels cut into the mud which caused them to get stuck and even caused the wheels to break off from their axils (Exod14:25).  And in the morning, the Israelites found the Egyptians dead on the seashore (Exod 14:29).  With the charioteers stuck and burdened with heavy armor, even 20 ft of water proved too much.

The polynomial texture map of Sinai 349.

Tools for Modern Epigraphy (Part 2)

Last week, we touched upon three new technologies that have revolutionized the field of epigraphy.  These technologies have changed the way epigraphers see their inscriptions.  Today, we will introduce another four technologies that have changed epigraphy in the 21st century.

Multi-Spectral Photography

With the proliferation of digital cameras, many people now have a second (or third) DSLR camera just lying around.  As epigraphers, we don’t need to have those old cameras go to waste.  Instead, we can send them to a conversion lab to have them converted for multi-spectral photography.

Most of the photodiodes in DSLR cameras are already sensitive to infrared and ultraviolet light.  This is normally a bad thing as these light wavelengths cause false colors with visible light photography.  So camera manufacturers add filters over the photodiode to screen out infrared and ultraviolet light.

By removing the infrared filter and adding a visible light filter, you can get an infrared camera.  Infrared cameras are useful for infrared luminescence.   By removing the ultraviolet filter and adding a visible light filter, you can get an ultraviolet camera.   Ultraviolet cameras are useful for detecting the pigments and minerals that fluoresce in the ultraviolet spectrum.

Multiple Light Photography

With advances in photography has also come advances in photographic setups and procedures to capture difficult to obtain information.  One of the most rudimentary of these is the multiple light setup.  With multiple light photography, the camera is kept in one position and the light sources are moved around the piece in progressive small angles.  Typically this this done in a 180 degree arc.

The advantage of this is that it can capture the fine details in the recesses of the piece, which can be exposed just by moving the light to another position.

Polynomial Texture Maps

This technique scans the surface of an artifact and recreates the surface of an object as a high resolution map of polygons.  Using this you can see the object from various angles and shine artificial lights upon the map to see the details.

Furthermore, the contrasting topography of a piece can be emphasized so that you can detect small details in the texture of the piece.  PTMs are often the next best thing to being able to see an object in person.  In the featured photo above, we see two images of Sinai 349 with the polynomial texture map to the right.

Strobe Lighting

Sometimes, none of the above techniques are all that helpful.  And the epigrapher just has to examine an artifact in person.  Perhaps, the contrast between the inscription and the matrix is too low.  Or maybe the inscription is too shallow to see or photograph clearly.  There is one more advanced technique that is helpful.  While not strictly speaking new, strobe lighting has recently found new usefulness in epigraphy.

When you look at a stela with only discrete color differences between inscription and matrix, your vision adjusts faster than your brain can figure out what you’re seeing. In a tenth of a second, your visual cortex becomes saturated and those discrete color differences between inscription and matrix wash out.

What strobe lighting does is prevents your visual cortex from saturating. This way you can continue to see the fine differences between the inscription and stone matrix. The net result is that visual features not seen previously begin to emerge. 



A split photo of the petroglyphs from Stein Park. The right half is enhanced by DStretch.

Tools for Modern Epigraphy (Part 1)

The field of epigraphy has under gone a silent revolution over the last decade.  The problem of epigraphy has always been the same.  That is, being able to read inscriptions that are hard to see.  The process was laborious with readers taking weeks to carefully examine and untease a difficult to read inscription.

Today, while reading an inscription still can take weeks to unlock, the following advanced technologies transformed epigraphy into a more scientific endeavor.  The difference is not so much how long things take, but that epigraphers are now able to engage ever more difficult inscriptions.

In fact, the way that epigraphy is done today would hardly be recognizable to the epigrapher of a decade ago.  Gone are the days of crudely magnifying blurry photographs taken on site.  A host of new technologies now exist that would put the space shuttle to shame.  Today’s bog will give the briefest introduction to three of these tools.

Digital Photography

Digital photography is the foundation of 21st century epigraphy.  Even as late as the 1990’s, black and white film photography was preferred over digital images because of the detail captured by film.  Today, that is no longer true.  Even older DSLR cameras can capture an image resolution that exceeds many film photos.  But more importantly,  DSLR color images can capture color information that is simply not preserved by film photography.

Furthermore, in the old days, if you wanted to manipulate an image, you needed to digitize a photograph with a scanner.  Even the best scanners resulted in some image degradation.  A DSLR camera can create a RAW image that preserves what the camera sees directly from the camera sensor.  More image data means a greater capacity to extract information from an image.


Photoshop is the Swiss Army knife of the epigrapher.   And the ability of Photoshop to manipulate photographic information is practically limitless.  Photoshop can enhance a single image, and it can composite many smaller images together.

With Photoshop, the epigrapher can amplify the color curve of a photo.  This can make a photograph with low contrast easier to read.  Photoshop can also convert a color image to black and white using existing color information.  This can provide not just one, but many black and white images that can show different aspects of the same photo.


One of the more interesting advances in the last decade has been the invention of DStretch.  The developer of DStretch sells the program as a plugin used with ImageJ, a free imaging software package.   The plugin pulls the colors of red ochre from an image and allows the epigrapher to see the image more clearly.  For example, I used DStretch to make the petroglyphs from Stein Park, BC (photo by Sebastian Rakowski) easily seen.

While originally designed for prehistoric anthropologists to extract hard to read petroglyphs from rock faces, others in the fields of archaeology and epigraphy have found the tool exceptionally useful.   Roland Enmarch has used DStretch to read inscriptions at the quarry site of Hatnub.  I have also found it useful to separate out damage from inscription in one of the early alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim.

An image taken from the Ramesseum showing Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh.

The Reed (Red) Sea

After the Israelites escaped Egypt through the Wadi Tumilat, they did something hard to fathom.  Instead of making a clean break down the west coast of the Sinai as they had intended, they turn northward.  They made their way towards the Way of Horus, the military road that runs along the north Sinai.  After that, they “wandered” in the wilderness aimlessly to lure Pharaoh into thinking they were lost (Exod 14:3). From a strategic perspective, this move makes little sense.  The Israelites essentially boxed themselves in.  Pi-Hahiroth was to the west, desert to the south, Pharaoh’s chariots to the east, and their backs to the sea.  Strategically, this was the worst possible position to be in.  Trapped with nowhere to run.   And yet, the sea opened up and the Israelites escaped what would otherwise be certain death. In several sections, the biblical narrative simply calls this body of water the “Sea.”  But some texts (e.g., Exod 13:18 and 15:22) refer to it as the yam suf (יַם סוּף).  The translation of yam suf as the “Red Sea” entered into English Bibles through the Greek Septuagint (ca. 250 BCE) translation Ερυθρὰ θάλασσα. However, in Hebrew yam suf means “Sea of Reeds.” This place name most likely comes from the Semitic-Egyptian pȜ ṯwfy, “The Reeds.”  Papyrus Anastasi III (2:11-12) mentions this body of water and states that the “foliage and greenery” of Pi-Hahiroth was nearby (Papyrus Anastasi III, 3:3).  Thus, the pȜ ṯwfy was probably one of the lakes (possibly Lake Ballah or Lake Timsah) that were part of the marshy area along what is now the Suez Canal. P. Anastasi III mentions three toponyms (Piramesses, Pi-Hahiroth, and the “Reeds”) in a geographic sequence similar to that found in Exodus.  This suggests a strong correspondence between what the Egyptians knew about the region and the biblical record of the sites.
A bust of Akhenaten from the Louvre Museum.

Atenism, was it really monotheistic?

I have recently given a lot of thought into the relationship between Atenism and monotheism.  Donald B. Redford (1976) described Atenism as after having stripped mythology from Egyptian religion, all that remained “were the concepts of universalism, dependence of life on the sun, transcendence, creativity, cosmic regularity, and absolute power,” concluding Atenism was a monotheism.  But was Redford correct? Amunist theology viewed Amun-Re as the “king of the gods.”  However, Atenism denied other divine authority so Aten was simply “the king.”  The Aten also held the role of creator and father.  But the Aten was not a universal father like the God of Judeo-Christian theology.  He only had this paternal relationship with his unique son, the king:
Aten living daily content in the sky, Your offspring, your august son, Sole one of Re; The Son of Re does not cease to extol his beauty, Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re. I am your son who serves you, who exalts your name. Lichtheim, Literature, 2:91-92.
The theological implication of this is important.  James Hoffmeier summarizes this situation as “the anointing of the king to make him the Son of God.”  Kingship in Atenism is the manifestation of the incarnate Aten. The reference to a unique son speaks to a common theme in ancient Near Eastern literature, which is the idea of an offspring that will carry the legacy of the parent.  This motif appears in the inheritance laws of ancient Mesopotamia.  It also is found in early Israelite thought with the promise of a son to Abraham even though he already had a son in Ishmael.  In ancient Egypt, inheritance often was associated with the passing on of a title or occupation as well as property. Atenism differed from classical Egyptian thought in the belief of creation.  Traditional Egyptian belief focused upon creation myth as foundational.  But Atenism disregarded physical creation altogether while maintaining the Aten as creator.  Akhenaten extolled the Aten as the “creator of all, who makes them live, Great Falcon, bright of plume; a beetle who raised himself, he who was self-created, he who was never born.”  Atenism accepted the idea of immanence in the act of continuous creation.  The substance and breath of the Aten made every living being alive.  “You are One, yet a million lives are in you, To make them live <you give> the breath of life to their noses.” Aten was bidirectionally eternal.  That is the Aten was in eternity past the same as he is today and going forward will remain the same.  Thus, the answer to the question of origins always centered upon manifestations of the Aten. This sort of divinity was not quite henotheism in the classical sense nor was it any kind of monotheism per se.  Because Atenism popularized “the One and the Many” theology, Akhenaten’s religious reforms transformed Egyptian religion from a plurality of gods to one deity radiating from a single source incorporating the substance of all other gods. Atenism was the ultimate deconstruction of deity that Amenhotep III had first attempted, carving out of Egyptian religion a monolatrous pantheism. The preceding  preview was an edited extract taken from a book chapter recently submitted to Oxford University Press.
Seti I relief from Karnak Temple (Illustration from A. H. Gardiner, JEA 6 [1920], pl. 11), with the Migdol.

The Tower Migdol

After the Israelites fled Pharaoh, they took the Wadi Tumilat to leave Egypt but God told them to double back (Exod 14:1).  So they moved northward camping between Pi-Hahiroth, the sea, and Migdol (Exod 14:2). Migdol was one of the fortresses on the Way of Horus.  The Way of Horus was the road that hugged the northern coast of the Sinai peninsula.  Several fortresses on this road controlled the flow of traffic from the Levant. The Egyptian version of this name, mˁktir actually derives from a Semitic loan word מגדל, “tower”.  The location of Migdol is unknown, but the name appears in a couple of extra-biblical sources. Papyrus Anastasis V (20:2-3) implies that the fortress was built by Pharaoh Seti I of the 19th dynasty.  This is the same king who first established the city of Piramesses.  According to a map of the Way of Horus found at Karnak Temple, Migdol (Karnak map, “E”) is east of the Dwelling of the Lion (Karnak map, “D”). The Dwelling of the Lion has been located at Tell el-Borg, near the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula and the estuary of the Ballah Lakes. The Egyptians reconstructed the site multiple times, as evidenced by its multiple phases including a destruction layer. Eliezer Oren excavated a different Migdol, which survived as a fortress into Roman times, but this site has no Ramesside period remains. Thus, if this is “the same” Migdol, then the site migrated over time.