Hell Part 3: Egypt in the Book of Mormon

Back when I first was invited to join T&S I started doing a series on Hell in the Book of Mormon. This is a long delayed follow up. Previously I’d discussed the three broad categories of how hell has been viewed theologically and vulcanism metaphors in the Book of Mormon. This time I want to start focusing on the metaphors and typology used to deal with hell in the Book of Mormon with a focus on Egyptian conceptions of hell.[1]

Egyptian influence on Jewish religion often gets overlooked in preference to influence from Canaanite, Babylonian, or especially Persian influences. Part of the problem is that we really have no pre-exilic writings. Instead we have late, typically heavily edited and redacted writings from the Ptolemaic era. This leads the majority of scholars to see most conceptions of the afterlife in Judaism as picked up from the exile or from the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great. We do of course know there was abundant Egyptian influence in the pre-exilic period. At the time of Lehi, Zedekiah king of Judah had allied with Egypt against Babylon. Indeed it was that alliance that Lehi and Jeremiah were prophesying against. Even before that alliance though we know from archaeological evidence of extensive Egyptian social contact in the region including many syncretic items.

Royal seals from the era of the Assyrian conquest of Israel up through the Babylonian conquest of Judah show extensive Egyptian iconography. These include solar discs, scarabs or ankhs.[2] There’s also evidence of pottery, cultic items and more. It would not be at all unsurprising that if Nephi is familiar with Egyptian writing that he was quite familiar with Egyptian religion. While scholars tend to downplay Egyptian influence on Jewish scripture, it is definitely there. The Egyptian background to the Psalms is very well known – particularly Psalms 104 which is seen as an appropriation of the Great Hymn to the Aten. Proverbs 22:17-24:22 quotes The Instruction of Amenemope. Isaiah 19 possibly is adapting an Egyptian oracle against Egypt. (The late Ptolemaic Oracle of the Potter is sometimes seen as an old version of an earlier non-extant Egyptian text) We also know that the syncretic Jewish encampment at Elephanti even had a temple that was considered legitimate. While the main encarpment is seen as happening during the Persian era, many see the colony having its origins under King Manasseh of Judah.

Given these contacts, not to mention the traditional origin of Judaism with the Egyptian Moses, it’s somewhat surprising that scholars typically see pre-exilic Jewish conceptions of the afterlife only as a sleep or at best similar to their Canaanite neighbors. By the time of the 2cd millennium Egyptian treatment of the afterlife had become democratized becoming relevant not just for gods and kings but regular people. The Coffin Texts of this era included much that had been taken over from the earlier Pyramid Texts that had previous applied to the Kings. These were typically spells that people would pay for to benefit the deceased in the afterlife.[3] They show that Egyptian conceptions of the afterlife applied to people in general. It seems quite plausible and arguably extremely likely that they’d affect Jewish ideas of the afterlife.

Some might see as deeply problematic the idea of syncretic Jewish belief as authentic Judaism. However even if mixed religion might be seen corruption, the notions and questions raised by Egyptian religion would naturally mean that the religion affected Judaism. Further even if the social nature of such syncretic religion is problematic, it may still shape the nature of rhetoric for Nephi, much as Greek philosophy did for the New Testament. It’s therefore worth looking at Nephite conceptions of hell in terms of these Egyptian ideas from the time of the Coffin Texts onward.

The big difference of the Coffin Texts over the Pyramid Texts is a focus on the subterranean netherworld as opposed to the celestial realm. They contain the tradition that all people are judged by Osiris according to their works in the Duat or realm of the dead. At night the sun god Ra would travel through the Duat and battle Apophis/Apep or the primordial chaos in order to rise again in the morning. Elements of this parallel Genesis 1 where the primordial chaos is organized. The Biblical battle of God against the primordial chaos is often seen as Canaanite, particularly the myth of the battle with Tiamat reflected in Psalms 74. A very similar tradition is in Egypt with Apep and even Sumer with Kur. In all these cases there’s a myth that creation is not a one time event but an ongoing process seen as battling chaos in general.[4] Apep becomes a symbol of evil or wickedness in general and chaos in particular. The ability of Ra to return each morning after this battle itself becomes a type for resurrection of the dead. The very conception of the Duat, particularly in the Coffin Texts, becomes the special knowledge one needs to be resurrected.

The regular dead (unlike Ra) have their heart weighed by Osiris against a feather of Maat representing justice. If the heart is heavier, then the dead person is eaten by Ammit the devourer of souls and face a second death.  Ammit (or Am-heh) according to some traditions was linked to the Hippopotamus goddess Tawaret and lived by a lake of fire where the souls of the guilty were cast. According to these traditions she doesn’t eat the souls but throws the souls into this lake of fire. The tests for the dead are not just about their works. They must also pass various challenges including passing by supernatural figures like demons. Those who passed the tests were allowed to go to Aaru or the field of rushes which was an idealized version of our own world where they lived a life like here. The details of the nature of Duat varies somewhat depending upon the funerary text discussing it.[5]

In the conception of the dead, when humans die they become a spirit (akh). When one becomes a spirit your ba, or “what is immanent” is awakened. This ba is generally seen as the visible or “material” aspect of the whole person. For royalty making this ba was part of the mummification rites. With the democratization of the afterlife this comes to be seen as available to all. With the Coffin Texts there’s also a “marked emphasis on the importance of family links.”[6]

Relative to the Book of Mormon, we quickly see that many passages that critics see as problematic in pre-exilic Judah become understandable. The “lake of fire and brimstone” (2 Nephi 9:16, Jacob 6:10, Mosiah 3:27, Alma 14:14-15, etc.)  that many see only as an anachronistic quoting of Rev 20:10 is standard Egyptian conceptions of judgment and the land of Duat. The judging by God according to works (Alma 41:3; 33:22; etc.) and even the idea of restoration (Alma 42:23) are all characteristic of Egyptian conceptions of the afterlife. While we don’t know what was in the brass plates nor what the oral traditions Nephi was exposed to were, it seems reasonable to assume that these were given a far more Jewish conception. Those who are measured against justice and found wanting are cast to the lake of fire, as in Egyptian judgement. Those who pass are restored to life and an idealized world like this one. Even metaphors such as being devoured by a feminine hell makes sense in terms of Egyptian syncretic religion. (2 Nephi 15:14)

There is an important distinction between the Egyptian conception of the afterlife and the Book of Mormon one though. Those cast into the fire or devoured by Ammit simply are not spirits. Likewise the gods and demons one encounters in the tests and judgments are not evil as such. They are simply following duties given them by the gods. It’s worth noting though that the fate of those in hell after judgment is unclear. The Book of Mormon has two judgments. An immediate one at death where one may go to hell and then a second one where one meets God and is judged. It is the second death where one ceases to be a spirit in Egyptian conceptions. (Although I’m not quite clear upon what that means metaphysically in pre-Hellenistic Egyptian thought)

In the Book of Mormon the second death is more ambiguous. One dies “to things pertaining unto righteousness.” (Alma 12:16) and to “everlasting destruction” (17) However they aren’t dead in a straightforward way (18) Of course Alma is here speaking more than four hundred years after Nephi. Almost certainly the Nephite religion has itself become transformed by contact with indigenous American religions by then – much as Judaism becomes transformed by Babylonian, Persian and then Greek religion. The only early Nephite reference to the second death is Jacob 3:11 which appears to be mixing two conceptions of the afterlife. He references the pre-exilic Jewish view of death as slumber (also in 2 Nephi 1:13) but also the fire of the second death. This idea of awaking from the slumber of death though can also be seen in the idea of becoming a spirit in Egyptian conceptions to go to the judgment of Osiris. That is, it isn’t necessarily the standard pre-exilic conception scholars attribute to Judaism.

One might object that if there was a more Egyptian form of Judaism why there’s not record of it. The presumption would be that the centralization of the cult to Jerusalem purging Judaism of Canaanite elements would also have purged most Egyptian elements. That is what’s surprising isn’t finding only a few Egyptian elements in the Ptolemaic Jewish texts but that any Egyptian elements remain. We know that Lehi, a refugee from the northern kingdom, practiced rites in a fashion that the Priestly and Deuteronomist traditions rejected. Lehi’s making thanks offerings on his own rather than in Jerusalem (1 Nephi 5:9, 7:22) would fit into that differentiation.[7]

Even if broad elements of the afterlife in the Book of can be explained by the influence of Egyptian religion, we should note the more problematic elements. As I mentioned, the gods and demons the dead encounter during their testing are not evil per se. This is quite unlike the Book of Mormon where the devil most definitely is. So Ammit who either consumes the souls of the evil dead or at least casts them into the lake of fire isn’t evil at all but is a manifestation of order. This is somewhat unlike Mot in Canaanite mythology who both is the personification of the land of the dead and the ruler of the dead. He consumes Baal, sending him to hell until Baal later gets resurrected. While Mot could conceivably be considered evil, the similar role of Ammit simply can’t.

While Ammit, who consumers wicked souls isn’t evil, Apep/Apophis typically is seen as the embodiment of evil. He is seen as a snake, serpent (paralleling Tiamat), or crocodile. Yet Apep’s origin out of the umbilical cord of Ra suggests his nature as evil is complicated.[8] While people have associated the serpent of Genesis 2 with Apophis this identification is controversial to say the least.[9] The other personification of evil in Egyptian thought was Seth who sometimes was even identified with Apophis. While it is Apophis and Ra who battle representing the battle with chaos, a similar battle occurs between Horus and Seth. Seth and Horus are brothers. Initially Seth is good, even accompanying Ra in his battle with Apophis the serpent of Chaos. Seth represented the desert (and thus red land) while Horus represented fruitful soil and black land. However Seth attempts to usurp rule from Osiris and kills and mutilates him. (Seth is portrayed either as the brother of Osiris, or his son and brother to Horus) Isis resurrects Osiris saving him but leading to conflict with Seth. The other narrative has Horus (Seth’s brother or nephew depending upon the account) battling Seth. Here they battle for the throne of Egypt and Seth is usually defeated. In these battles (which have numerous forms) typically Horus eyes are stolen or damaged and then later returned to wholeness.

The point is that there is an other deity in Egypt personifying evil beyond Apophis. Interestingly during the Second Intermediate Period (1650 – 1550 BC) Egypt was conquered by the Hyksos usually seen as semetic invaders out of the north of Palestine. These invaders worshiped a storm god, Hadad, who in some ways has features in common with the Canaanite Baal or the Hebrew YHWH. They formed a syncretic religion with Egypt identifying Seth with their storm god Hadad. This fusion of Seth with a Baal like figure likely would have been something Nephi would have recognized.

I’ll address Seth and Baal with the Book of Mormon in a subsequent post. I just want to prepare for that post by noting that Apophis isn’t the only personification of evil. Further I don’t want to portray the above as explicating all elements of hell in the Book of Mormon. In particular critics often see the Satan like figure in the Book of Mormon as owing more to Milton than to ancient Jewish beliefs about hell in either the pre-exilic period or even the New Testament era. I’ll address that next.


This is a series on Hell in the Book of Mormon.

Part 1: Hell Close Readings of the Book of Mormon

Part 2: Lake of Fire and Brimstone


[1] I should note that I am anything but well versed on Egyptian history. I’m here mainly just following standard write-ups on Egyptian religion. The image at the top of this post is actually an Egyptian portrayal of the lake of fire and brimstone. It’s from Spell 126 of the Book of the Dead.

[2] See this FAIR discussion of Greg Mumford’s thesisInternational Relations between Egypt, Sinai, and Syria-Palestine During the Late Bronze-age into Early Persian Periods Dynasties 18 to 26 about 1550 to 525 BC.” Mumford has a shorter paper “Egypt and the Levant” as well.

[3] Over time these become the Book of Breathings such as the Ptolemaic texts that were with the mummies Joseph Smith acquired and that in some way are tied to the Book of Abraham.

[4] Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil is a fantastic book on both the ancient Jewish conception of creation in its earlier creation myths but also some of the philosophical implications. I’ve often recommended it as a must read for people interested in the differences in our restoration conceptions of creation versus more traditional Christian creation ex nihilo conceptions.

[5] The main ones are The Book of Gates, The Book of Caverns, the Coffin Texts, The Amduat and the Book of the Dead.

[6] Democratization of the Afterlife, 5

[7] For a good writeup on this see Seely’s “Lehi’s Sacrifice in the Wilderness” although he doesn’t really go into the Deuteronomist and Priestly textual traditions as part of the Documentary Hypothesis. It’s quite possible that Nephi’s criticism of corruption of Jewish texts in 1 Nephi 13 reflects this centralization of the cult via textual traditions and heavy redaction of texts including those of the prophets he was familiar with like Jeremiah. (For an example of this issue of redaction see Malan and Meyer’s “Jeremiah 26-29: a not so Deuteronomistic composition”)

[8] See Robert Ritner’s “The Origin of Evil in Egyptian Theological Speculation” for the most comprehensive discussion of these issues.

[9] John Day has a nice overview of identifications of the serpent in “The Serpent in the Garden of Eden and Its Background.” It’s worth noting that most scholars see Genesis 2-3 as written during the exile and thus primarily see it through Babylonian influence. If it has a pre-exilic context then Egyptian might be more plausible although again few scholars see it in those terms.

5 comments for “Hell Part 3: Egypt in the Book of Mormon

  1. I know it’s all Nibley esque, but I can’t help but see aspects of the Temple all over the place in many Egyptian ‘artworks’. Their culture at many stages, mized in between all the intrigue and murder, certainlyseemed focused the transition from morality to eternity.

  2. There’s a lot of temple stuff out of that era. You have several main sources. The first are the Book of Breathings which comes out of the Coffin Texts and to a lesser extent the Pyramid Texts. Those are primarily ways for the soul to join Osiris in the underworld by passing various tests. That gets picked up by various mystery religions in the Roman era. So, for instance, 1 Jeu which is a well known gnostic text is largely an appropriation of the earlier Egyptian traditions (sometimes even having stylized diagrams matching earlier vignettes). It involves passing through veils where one meets guardians where one has to give passwords, seals and other things to move on. You have the Eleusian mysteries in Greece which again deal with the underworld and various symbolic movements (also influenced in some ways by Egypt – particularly the Hathor & Seth battles). You have the Jewish Hekhalot texts where you move through various palaces to meet God, typically meeting guardians and giving secrets to pass. There are also apocalypse and Merkabah texts which deal with ascents or descents to heaven. There are then other mystery religions, especially in 1st century Rome, often borrowing from Egypt or purporting to borrow from Egyptian rituals. They all affect each other as well.

    The Egyptian stuff itself also changes quite a bit depending upon who is ruling Egypt. I’ll get to this in a forthcoming post, but Seth starts out as a good guy. He actually accompanies Ra to defeat the waters of chaos. More or less that’s the Egyptian version of the Baal/Yamm battle, Marduk/Tiamat battle or Zeus/Typhon that I mentioned is also in Jewish scripture as YHWH versus the Leviathan in Psalms 74 or Isaiah 27. Yet as rule moves from upper Egypt to lower Egypt suddenly Seth becomes a bad guy and devil like figure, because originally he was a local god in upper Egypt and worshipped there. When the Canaanites take over Egypt in the Hyksos empire they see Seth as closer to their god Baal and suddenly Seth is often a good guy again. (And permanently identifying Seth with Baal) When they’re cast out he become less of a good guy and when Alexander the Great conquers Egypt he really becomes a bad guy.

    So all these myths, rituals and so forth affect one an other quite a bit. There’s borrowing, shifts in meaning and character and so forth. You see a lot of similarity in magic or secret words or names between Greek paganism, Egyptian, Greek/Egyptian magicians, gnosticism, platonic paganism and eventually hermeticism. So the divide between all these movements is blurry at best. From a Mormon perspective there’s an authentic Christian and perhaps even pre-Christian Jewish endowment. But the records we find are always corrupt and so don’t match it.

    What’s interesting to all this (and I have a post mostly done on this) is that these traditions, particularly the Eleusian mysteries (Greek rites) and the hermetic tradition (Corpus Hermeticum) get rediscovered at the beginning of the Renaissance along with Christian appropriation of Kabbalistic traditions which include the earlier Merkabah and Hekhalot traditions. Those then become the main influences on early evolution of Masonry in the 17th and 18th centuries. That then forms the type of Masonry Joseph Smith was exposed to which is a catalyst to the restoration of the endowment.

  3. Not to dismiss this rather insightful article; but don’t you kind of wish it wasn’t true? I realize that it’s a simplified view, but I would prefer it if God’s religion on the earth wasn’t influenced by their contemporary religions. I find it fascinating studying how some religions have borrowed from others, and how some are reactions to others; but I want that to not be true for those following God’s mouthpiece on the earth. I want what the Israelites believed, the Nephites believed, etc, to not have borrowed anything from anyone. I want everything in their belief system to have come from revelation; no borrowing needed.
    Still, thank you for the informative article and research.

  4. Quite the opposite. I think we should be seeking truth everywhere. Comparative religion, science, history – all can give us not only truths about what has happened but spiritual truths. When I studied Asian religions at BYU as part of my Classics class that was required in the honors department, I learned a ton that I’d consider spiritual. God is revealing things to people all over the world and all through history. While I don’t think every scientific truth comes by spiritual revelation, I think that many “eureka” moments in science come by inspiration even if the person in question may not recognize it. We should be seeking truth whereever we can find it.

    While Brigham Young wasn’t always consistent in it, during his ministry in Utah, he’d often invite non-Mormons to speak from the pulpit. According to Elder George Q. Cannon, “[Brigham Young] wanted the people to hear these men and their views. For years this was done. Prominent ministers were invited to speak to us. I remember Methodist bishops and others preaching to us… Why? Because we were willing to extend liberty to everybody.” (Conference Report October 1899, 53) While part of that was religious liberty, part was seeking after truth.

    He also said, “Be willing to receive the truth, let it come from whom it may; no difference, not a particle. Just as soon receive the Gospel from Joseph Smith as from Peter, who lived in the days of Jesus. Receive it from one man as soon as another. If God has called an individual and sent him to preach the Gospel that is enough for me to know; it is no matter who it is, all I want is to know the truth.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 11)

    “It is our duty and calling, as ministers of the same salvation and Gospel, to gather every item of truth and reject every error. Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth, it is the business of the Elders of this Church (Jesus, their Elder Brother, being at their head) to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, … to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 248)

    “Every discovery in science and art, that is really true and useful to mankind, has been given by direct revelation from God, though but few acknowledge it. It has been given with a view to prepare the way for the ultimate triumph of truth, and the redemption of the earth from the power of sin and Satan. We should take advantage of all these great discoveries, the accumulated wisdom of ages, and give to our children the benefit of every branch of useful knowledge, to prepare them to step forward and efficiently do their part in the great work.” (JD 9:168)

    The best is from Joseph. “One the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth let it come from where it may.” (July 9, 1843)

    I think a big problem of the membership is neglecting that view from the 19th century. The whole directive to seek out of the best books (D&C 88) seems tied up in this. Of course there’s a danger that people aren’t good at separating truth from chaff and become misdirected. But let’s be honest. That’s alaways a danger in even our day to day life. It’s why we need both study and prayer.

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