The Context of Old Testament Temple Worship: Early Ancient Egyptian Rites

By John S. Thompson

John S. Thompson, “The Context of Old Testament Temple Worship: Early Ancient Egyptian Rites,” in Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament (2013 Sperry Symposium), ed. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Matthew J. Grey, and David Rolph Seely (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 156–83.

The Context of Old Testament Temple Worship: Early Ancient Egyptian Rites

John S. Thompson


John S. Thompson is a PhD candidate in Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania and an instructor for Seminaries and Institutes at the Orem Institute of Religion.


Comparative studies in religion can be useful due to the discipline’s ability to reveal ideas in one tradition because of similar concepts found in another. Bible scholars have long collected and studied the art and texts of ancient Israel’s contemporary societies in hopes that comparisons might reveal or provide greater understanding of biblical culture and ideas. Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Hallo and Younger’s The Context of Scripture, and the Society of Biblical Literature’s Writings from the Ancient World series have been important publications over the last several decades for such a purpose. [1]

Of course, care should be taken not to overstate the influence of one tradition upon another or to assume that parallel art or texts also have parallel meaning in separate traditions. [2] One must also acknowledge the differences that exist between cultures. [3] Ultimately, and this idea cannot be stressed enough, a culture’s texts and art must be studied and interpreted within the parameters of its own tradition to gain a proper understanding of the meaning they may have had to the people who produced them. But again, comparative studies can help us to view things from different perspectives and to ask questions of a text or work of art that we might never have asked had we ignored what neighboring traditions did with similar concepts. [4]

Temple worship in the Old Testament did not exist in a vacuum. Neighboring cultures also had temples that appear to share some similarities with those in the Old Testament. [5] A passage from the Book of Abraham invites particularly a comparison between the priesthood, temple, and government of the early Old Testament patriarchal fathers with early Egyptian culture, for it claims that the first pharaoh of Egypt sought earnestly to “imitate that order” established “in the days of the first patriarchal reign,” namely from Adam to Noah (see Abraham 1:25–26).

Efforts to explore corollaries between Egyptian temple rituals and the Old Testament temple traditions often conflate all of Egyptian history and their many different rituals into a single whole, which is a problematic methodology. In order to have a more focused basis for comparison, this study concentrates on one of the earliest known rituals that appears in the art of the ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom nonroyal elite tomb chapels (c. 2600–2100 BC), a sequence of rites that, at its core, also appears in the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts (c. 2350–2100 BC) and in the daily ritual program of ancient Egyptian temples until later periods. These rites, appearing in the Old Kingdom nonroyal tombs and Pyramid Texts, provide a glimpse into the temple theology and worship of this culture from its earliest times.

Ideally, in light of Abraham 1:25–26, this early Egyptian ritual program should be compared to what is known of temple worship from Adam to Noah. However, no original sources have survived from these first patriarchs. Consequently, this paper can only compare the Egyptian sources with later scriptural traditions about the first patriarchs and with the forms of temple worship and priesthood that, according to tradition, the later patriarchs received either from the earlier patriarchs directly or as a restoration of earlier patriarchal ideas by heavenly messengers (see Abraham 1:28, 31; Moses 5:58–59; Acts 7:52–53; D&C 112:31–32; 128:21). Uniquely Latter-day Saint scriptural traditions about Old Testament temple worship will be included in this analysis.

Due to the lack of details concerning early Old Testament temple worship, modern biblical scholars have concluded that the early rites of worship appear mainly to be simple sacrifices and then became more complex in later time periods. Such a conclusion serves, in part, to bolster modern scholarship’s assumptions that the most complex temple-related texts in the Old Testament, such as Leviticus and Exodus 25–40, must have been written at much later dates and then falsely attributed to earlier biblical figures such as Moses. However, the similarities of the early Egyptian ritual program (which is complex dates to periods centuries before the days of Abraham) with the Old Testament temple tradition suggests that the more complex Old Testament ritual programs have a cultural context into which they can fit dated much, much earlier than assumed.

Scriptural Perspectives on True Temple Worship in the Earliest Patriarchal Period

Scriptural tradition affirms that temple worship began in the days of Adam and Eve. Tradition mentions temple-related concepts such as Adam and Eve receiving Abrahamic covenant-like promises from God of “all the earth” as their kingdom, priesthood powers of “dominion,” and being “fruitful” as they “multiply, and replenish the earth” with their seed (Genesis 1:26–28), “worship[ping] the Lord their God” via sacrificial offerings (Moses 5:5–6), Adam’s receipt of “an holy ordinance” that “confirmed all things” (Moses 5:59), [6] as well as an “order” in which Adam became a “son of God” (Moses 6:67–68). [7] Arguably, tradition portrays the Garden of Eden as the first temple—with its eastern entrance (see Genesis 2:8, 3:24), sacred center (see Genesis 2:9), purity required to remain inside (see Genesis 3:23), seraphim guards (see Genesis 3:24), and, most importantly, the enduring presence of God (see Moses 5:4). [8] Presumably, Adam built an altar outside the Garden of Eden (see Moses 5:5–6), [9] and this altar may prefigure the sacrificial altars of later temples placed in courtyards outside their associated sacred buildings.

True Adamic temple worship seems to have continued through some of Adam’s descendants. Scripture declares that both Abel and Seth offered acceptable sacrifices (see Moses 6:3). Seth’s descendant Enoch bowed down “before the Lord,” and the Lord told Enoch to “open thy mouth” and promised him an endowment of power to move mountains and turn rivers with his words (see Moses 6:31–34). The Lord also told Enoch to “wash” his eyes, whereby he beheld premortal spirits and other things (see Moses 6:34–35; cf. Abraham 3:22, Moses 1:8, 28). Possibly referring to this same moment, Enoch also spoke of being in a “high mountain” wherein he was “clothed” and saw the “world for the space of many generations” (see Moses 7:2–4).

Prior to the Flood, Enoch’s great-grandson Noah entered the highest “order” of the temple, whereby he also became a “son of God” with some of his children (see Moses 8:13, 19). After the Flood, he built “an altar unto the Lord,” and God “established [his] covenant” with Noah and his sons, giving them priesthood dominion over the earth and also seed (see Genesis 8:20–22; 9:1–17).

Among the later patriarchs, scriptural tradition indicates that Melchizedek was tested by the “violence of fire” and ultimately was “approved of God” and thus entered into the highest order of the temple and became a “Son of God” ( [JST], Genesis 14:26–28). As a member of this highest temple order, Melchizedek received an endowment of power by means of an oath from God (see JST, Genesis 14:30–31, Bible appendix; cf. Helaman 10:6; D&C 84:35–39) and obtained supernal titles such as “prince of peace,” “king of heaven,” and “high priest” (see JST, Genesis 14:33, 36–37). [10]

Abraham also sought for these highest temple blessings. He desired to “receive instruction” that would allow him to move from a lesser to a “greater” order wherein he, like Melchizedek and the fathers before him, would be called a “prince of peace” and “High Priest” (Abraham 1:2). In connection with his marriage to Sarah, Abraham received the temple covenant promises of a kingdom, priesthood power, and seed (see Genesis 11:27–12:5; Abraham 2:1–16), just as Adam and Noah did. Like Enoch, he saw the premortal spirits of mankind and also the Creation (see Abraham 3–5). Finally, after a series of tests, Joseph Smith declared that Abraham obtained the highest order of the temple “by the offering of his son Isaac” at the figurative altar of consecration, whereupon his temple covenant blessings were repeated and confirmed or made sure with an oath by God (see Genesis 22:15–18; cf. Hebrews 6:13–17). [11]

Like his father, Abraham, Isaac married and received the temple covenant promises of a kingdom, powers, and seed (see Genesis 26:1–5). This was followed by periods of testing and actions that mirror those of Abraham and Sarah (see Genesis 26:6–22) and culminated in a repetition of the temple blessings with a more sure word or oath by God at the same well associated with Abraham’s receipt of the oath by God (see Genesis 26:23–25, 32; cf. 22:19).

Likewise, Jacob’s meeting Rachel and subsequent marriages were the immediate context for his receiving the temple covenant promises of a kingdom, power, and seed, in connection with a ladder that “reached to heaven” that Jacob stated “is none other but the house of God” and “gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:10–22; cf. Moses 7:53). After a period of testing and struggling symbolized by a culminating wrestle with “a man,” Jacob was called a “prince,” having “power with God and with men” because he “prevailed” (Genesis 32:28), and the temple covenant blessings were repeated with an oath by God, making sure his promises (see Genesis 35:9–15). In this context, Jacob poured out drink and oil libations.

During the Mosaic era, scriptural tradition suggests that God desired to give to the whole house of Israel the same temple promises given to the first patriarchs, for he would make them all a “kingdom of priests”—that is, king-priests like Adam, Enoch, and Melchizedek—via a covenant at the temple-mountain of Sinai (see Exodus 19:3–6). In connection with this desire of God, a temple building and ritual program is revealed to Moses (see, for example, Exodus 25–40).

Scriptural Perspectives on False Temple Worship in the Earliest Patriarchal Period

The scriptures contrast the above traditions of true temple priesthood and rites among Seth’s descendants with counterfeit priesthoods and temples found among other lineages. For example, Cain practiced temple rites of sacrifice and oath making (see Moses 5:19, 29); however, he “loved Satan more than God” (Moses 5:18) and distorted the use of the sacred rites for the purpose of getting gain (see Moses 5:31); consequently, Cain’s rites were not done with repentance nor in the “name of the Son” as commanded by the angel of the Lord (Moses 5:8) and were thus rejected by God. Some of Cain’s descendants also used these counterfeit temple rites or secret combinations for continuing works of darkness (see Moses 5:49–55).

The wicked “sons of men” during the days of Noah claimed that they, not Noah and his sons, were the true “sons of God” and had the correct temple worship and blessings, including marriage rites and having power in their posterity—“children” who are “mighty men, which are like unto men of old” (Moses 8:21). [12] Blinded by their own “imagination,” they hearkened not unto Noah’s words and became “evil continually” (Moses 8:22).

Following the Flood, the Tower of Babel appears to be a false temple that, like the true temples, promised its worshippers an ascension to God (see Genesis 11:4); however, the language of this false temple was confounded by God and stands in contrast to the preserved language of Jared and his brother and to the power of all those who would “call upon the name of the Lord” in true priesthood and temple worship (see Ether 1:35, Moses 6:4–7; 7:13).

The scriptures identify the Egyptians as another example of people practicing unauthorized early temple worship. The first pharaoh of Egypt was “righteous” and “established his kingdom” and judged his people “justly” and “wisely;” however, because he could not inherit the priesthood and other blessings of the covenant due to the choices of his forefathers, he could only “imitate that order” had among the patriarchs of the “first generations” (Abraham 1:26–27). It is upon the temple worship of this declared imitation we now focus.

The Earliest Egyptian Temple Ritual Sequence

Recent research has demonstrated that combining the images of priests appearing on the walls near the cult-center places of nonroyal tomb chapels in Egypt’s Old Kingdom reveals a ritual program sequence that matches but effectively predates the main offering ritual in the royal Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, the oldest known fully developed religious text in the world. [13] Due to similarities with the core daily rituals performed before deity into the later periods of Egyptian history, [14] this sequence arguably provides a glimpse into the earliest program of temple worship in Egypt. Indeed, nonroyal Egyptians claimed that their tombs were temples and that one should enter them in a state of purity as one enters the temple of a god. [15]

The ritual sequence outlined in both the nonroyal tombs and in the Pyramid Texts can be divided into four segments by means of three censings that occur throughout:

First segment. The first segment of the ritual sequence in both the elite tomb chapels and royal Pyramid Texts is a single zAT libation. The elite tombs depict this initial ritual with one or two priests pouring liquid. When two priests occur, the first typically kneels in front and receives water onto an offering table or slab poured from over his head by another priest standing behind (Fig. 1). [16] This combination creates an artistic parallel of the hieroglyphics sign for wab “to purify.” [17] In the Pyramid Texts of Unas, Teti, and Pepi I, the zAT is performed as a purification against those who “speak evil of [the king’s] name.” [18] Purifying by removing evil via water is a common initial ritual in ancient Egypt. [19]

Fig. 1. Tomb of NTr-wsr.

First censing. Between the first and second segments of the ritual sequence is a censing. In the nonroyal tomb chapels, this is typically depicted by a priest holding a censing cup in one hand while holding or lifting the lid of the censer in the other (Fig. 2). [20] In the PT offering rituals of Unas, Teti, and Pepi I, this rite consists of the command to “let the smell of Horus’s eye [the incense as offering] adhere to you.” [21] Later in the final censing of Unas’s offering list, the text states, “let your scent be on Unas and purify Unas.” [22] This suggests that censing includes the idea of removing impurities with a sweet smell.

Fig. 2. Tomb of Mrj-ttj.

Second segment. The second segment of the Old Kingdom ritual sequence includes the Opening of the Mouth ritual, featuring a washing and small meal, followed by an anointing and a clothing rite. According to the Pyramid Texts, the “Opening of the Mouth” begins with a washing with qbHw “cool water” that is mixed with natron pellets, giving the water the appearance of milk. This “milk” will “part the mouth” of the recipient, whose mouth is like the mouth of a “calf on the day it is born.” [23] The natron solution placed “on [the] mouth” appears to “clean all your bones and end that which is against you.” [24] A flint tool is mentioned, which is used in later periods to symbolically part or open the mouth, after which the recipient receives instruction to drink the “milk.” [25] Following the mouth cleansing and opening, the Pyramid Texts prescribe a small meal of onions, bread, wine, and beer, among other things. [26]

E. Otto’s reconstruction of the Opening of the Mouth ritual portrays this meal with a priest kneeling with hands palm down on an offering table, and a priest pouring water from behind over the head of the first priest (Fig. 3). [27] Following is another priest making an offering gesture—i.e., a hand extended forward with the palm up—and three more priests who kneel crossing one arm across their chests with the hand closed in a fist, while they raise the other arm to the square with hand closed in a fist as well. This latter gesture is called hnw based upon its later appearance as a determinative in the hieroglyphics for the word hnw “cheer, jubilation.” However, the actual purpose of these three priests in this context is difficult to determine. All of this takes place before a standing image of the deceased with a table piled with the opening of the mouth meal offerings.

Fig. 3. Opening of the mouth meal offering.

The priestly iconography associated with the Old Kingdom Memphite elite tomb offering lists reflect the same elements outlined above. On the west wall in the tomb of QAr (VI.4, Giza) [28] the initial zAT libation is followed by an individual who holds out a basin in front of him, a small offering before him contains a natron ball and a few food offerings. The caption above states “sending the voice with the offering necessities” (Fig. 4). [29]

Fig. 4. Tomb of QAr.

The presence of the basin, natron ball, and other edible goods on the small table following a zAT libation appear to signify both the natron solution for the mouth washing as well as the small Opening of the Mouth meal that closely follows. After depictions of the natron washing or placing of goods for the “opening of the mouth” meal, several of the elite tomb chapels include the three priests making the hnw gesture outlined above. The only two occurrences of the actual words wpt-r “opening of the mouth” in the Memphite elite tomb chapels appear in the tomb of MTn (see Fig. 5) [30].  In both cases the term appears next to a wtj priest who makes a variation of the hnw gesture, [31] suggesting that this pose does indeed relate to the opening of the mouth ritual.

Fig. 5. Tomb of MTn.

A scene of anointing immediately follows those poses depicting the Opening of the Mouth in the tomb of QAr (VI.4, Giza). [32] The first person in the scene extends out his little finger on each hand in the standard gesture of anointing (Fig. 6). [33] The accompanying label, wrH “anointing,” describes the action. Stephen Thompson demonstrated that the term wrH is the term for anointing the head throughout Egyptian history, whereas other terms appear for the anointing of other parts of the body. [34] Another person follows, carrying various jars on a table. Accompanying him is the label mrHwt “oils” and an accompanying texts that states “It is for salving him.” [35]

Likewise, the Pyramid Texts indicate an anointing with seven oils occurs after the Opening of the Mouth. In Unas’s pyramid the text reads, “Oil, Oil, where should you be? You on Horus’s head, where should you be? You were on Horus’s head, but I will put you on this Unis’s head. . . . You will glorify him under you.” [36] The text here focuses upon placing oil on Unas’s head. Thompson indicates that the seven sacred oils correspond to the anointing of the seven openings of the head—namely the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and mouth. [37] WrH does not actually appear at this point in the Pyramid Texts, but the mention of putting oil on the head of Unas implies it.

Fig. 6. Tomb of QAr.

The next rite in both the elite tomb chapels and the Pyramid Texts is the offering of two strips or rolls of linen. In the tomb scenes, priests extend both hands forward while grasping a strip or roll of linen in each (Fig. 7). [38] The label wnxw(j) “two rolls/strips of cloth” identifies the product they are holding out.

The PT seem to indicate that these are not just strips or bolts of cloth but actually represent wearable apparel. In relationship to the two strips of linen, PT 81 summons Ta’it, the goddess of linen or weaving, to awake and describes her as the one “whom the made-up woman receives” and “who adorns the great one in the sedan chair.” [39] That a “made-up” woman receives the linen personified as a goddess and that it “adorns” implies it is something one wears. Indeed, Teti’s pyramid states, “your mother Ta’it will clothe you,” linking this goddess, and by extension the linen she represents, explicitly to the idea of clothing. [40] Likewise, Middle Kingdom copies of the Pyramid Texts actually label this part of the offering list sequence as “clothing” rather than wnxw(j) “two strips/rolls of linen” indicating that is how they understood this passage. [41]

Fig. 7. Tomb of NTr-wsr.

Second censing. Between the second and third segments of the ritual sequence is another censing ritual. The Pyramid Texts repeat the text of the first incense offering immediately following the anointing and presentation of two strips/rolls of linen. [42] Likewise, a secondary censing follows the presentation of cloth in the elite tombs such as NTr-wsr’s (Fig. 7). [43]

Third segment. Following the second censing, the third segment in both the Pyramid Texts and elite tomb chapels include rites related to a meal offering of a grand scale as well as a ritual bestowal of insignia. The Pyramid Texts begins this segment by repeating the spell for the natron solution that washes the mouth in preparation for the small meal in the former segment, including the specific prescription of two natron balls [44]. The text then continues with the preparation of the offering table and a lengthy list of various food items, including several meat offerings that start with a bovine foreleg and conclude with geese, duck, and pigeon [45].

Several of the elite tombs have scenes that portray a similar sequence. Following the second censing in the tomb of QAr, two additional priests prepare a natron solution with qbHw “cool water” and two pellets of natron, exactly as the Pyramid Texts prescribe (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Tomb of QAr.

After the natron libation, several tombs portray either a kneeling priest who places offerings on an offering table or a standing priest who makes an offering gesture. [46] On the north wall of anx-mrj-Ra’s tomb, a priest kneels and makes an offering at an offering table (with lectors holding open scrolls standing by) representing the presentation of this great meal offering, while priests bearing forelegs and other goods follow immediately. [47] Many tomb chapels often display large groups of priests carrying goods towards the false door of the elite chapels carrying forelegs first and then fowl. In the tomb of KA-gm-nj, priests bear forelegs followed by other priests bringing geese, ducks, and pigeons corresponding precisely to the order of meat offerings in the Pyramid Text for this meal. These connections suggest that the long line of offering bearers bringing goods belong to the great meal portion of the ritual sequence, even though these long lines often appear outside the actual ritual sequence due to their great numbers.

The next ritual after the Great Meal offering in the Pyramid Text offering list of Unas consists of bestowing scepters, staves, and other insignia, that indicate the deceased king’s power to “govern.” [48] In this context the recipient is commanded to “get dressed” four times, including, in Teti’s pyramid texts, a leopard skin, kilt, and sandals. This stands in contrast to the simple linen cloth offerings in the previous segment. The elite tomb of @sj contains a brief sequence on the south wall that reflects this PT ritual (Fig. 9). [49] A lector priest, making the offering gesture with the label “offering things by the lector,” stands before the deceased who sits behind his offering table, possibly indicating the great meal offering represented by the offering list above the table. Behind the lector stands a figure who carries a scepter or baton in his hand. The label above him states “reciting a great many glorifications.”

Fig. 9. Tomb of Hzj.

After the bestowal of insignia, the Pyramid Texts and the elite tomb sequence indicate a wDb “reversion [of the offerings]” rite took place. [50] This is typically understood as a redistribution rite in which a priest or some other entity takes the offering goods that were given to a god, king, or private individual and then distributes them elsewhere, mainly to other subordinate entities. [51] In the elite tomb chapels, the reversion rite appears to be closely connected with the jnt rd “bringing the foot” rite, which typically includes a depiction of a priest sweeping with a broom. Not mentioned in the PT, this sweeping ritual was a terminal rite in the daily temple ritual wherein the priests swept away their own footprints after closing the shrine of the god and vacating the premises. [52]

The last two sets of squares in the offering list grid in the tomb of Mehu contains two figures with text above each (Fig. 10). [53]  On the left is an offering bearer who carries a table of offerings. The text above states: wDb xt “reverting offerings.” To the immediate right is an individual with a broom. The text above him states: jnt rd “bringing the foot.” Even though the text is oriented in the same direction as the other offerings in the grid, suggesting they are a part of that scene, the bodies of both individuals are in reverse with their feet apart, suggesting they are walking away from the image of the owner seated at the offering table. The head of the one with the broom turns to face back towards the seated owner, which is typical for this pose, but his body and trailing broom indicate clearly the direction he moves. The lector priest who is jnt rd appears, in this context, to follow the priest who has already picked up the offerings and is walking out.

Fig. 10. Tomb of MHw.

In contrast, an individual kneels at an offering table with the label wDb xt in the same direction at the main offering list sequence in KA-gm-nj’s tomb (Fig. 11). [54] To his right is a lector in reverse pose, dragging a broom towards the reversion pose. The reason the individual in the reversion pose in not in reverse as in Mehu’s tomb may simply be a difference in the representation of time. Here he is kneeling and the offering table is on the ground, whereas in Mehu he is standing with the table in his hand and walking out.

Fig. 11. Tomb of KA-gm-nj.

After the reversion of offerings, the elite tombs and Pyramid Texts indicate a double libation takes place. The first libation is a final natron-washing spell that we encountered twice before as it preceded meals, only this time there is no indication of a meal. The second libation is a zAT libation, the same libation as the one at the beginning of the sequence. The tomb of KA-gm-nj portrays this double libation in proper sequence (Fig. 12). [55]

Fig. 12. KA-gm-nj.

Final (third) censing. In the Pyramid Texts and elite tomb chapels, a third and final offering of incense occurs after the final libations. The Pyramid Texts repeat the script associated with the previous two censings; however, some material is added. Unlike the previous two censings, the text indicates that this third censing is of “great purity” and is to become “high and big,” and the king is to become pure through it. [56] The use of “great,” “high,” and “big” magnify its purpose in comparison with the earlier censings. This may indicate a progression as the recipient attains a higher or greater degree of purity than before.

Fourth and final segment. The concluding rite in the Pyramid Text offering lists is the “smashing red pots.” Sethe links the breaking of red pots to execration, which is a rite used to curse an enemy. [57] The Pyramid Text offering list indicates that the purpose of the smashing of red pots is “that you may become powerful and that he [an enemy] may become terrified of you,” providing proof for Sethe’s conclusion. [58]

In the elite tomb chapel offering-list grid of @sj (VI.1–2, Saqqara), “smashing red pots” is also the concluding rite. However, this rite sometimes occurs in the same position as the reversion of offerings, i.e., immediately after the jnt rd and before the concluding rites. In fact, the tombs of Mrrw-kA.j and Mry-ttj depict the individual “breaking red pots” in the same pose as the reversion of offerings pose—i.e., kneeling with both hands extended palm down with finger tips on a small offering table or slab (see Fig. 13and compare with Fig. 11above). The only indicator that this is a “breaking red pots” pose and not the reversion of offerings is the text label. [59]

Fig. 13. Mry-ttj.

At the end of the offering sequence in a few elite tomb chapels is a man who carries a bag. In the tombs of KA.j-m-anx and Nj-Htp-PtH, this figure crosses one of his arms across his chest grabbing the opposite shoulder as a sign of veneration (see Figs. 14–15). [60] In KA.j-m-anx he is shown in a reverse pose, and in Nj-Htp-PtH two appear in a row with a title for each—xtmw “sealer.”

Fig. 14. Tomb of KA.j-m-anx.

Fig. 15. Tomb of Nj-Htp-PtH.

Due to the lack of a Pyramid Text parallel, the purpose of the sealer in this ritual sequence is difficult to ascertain. The reverse pose of the sealer in KA.j-m-anx may provide a clue. The only other characters in the elite tombs in a reverse pose are those “bringing the foot” and “reverting offerings,” actions pertaining to leaving the offering place. A sealer departing a sanctuary at the end of a series of rites brings to mind the sealers who complete the daily temple services of the statue rites in royal and divine temples of later periods by sealing the shrine doors closed and walking out. [61]

Another idea is suggested by the hieroglyphics before the sealer’s face in Nj-Htp-PtH that relate him to a mDAt nTr “divine document.” Some tomb biographies of the Old Kingdom contain statements of the deceased regarding knowledge of such documents. For example, the tomb of Tjy declares, “I am initiated in all secrets of the house of divine documents.” [62] Since sealing, as a general practice, “was used to guarantee the identity of the sender and authenticate the contents of private, legal, and official documents,” [63] a sealer in this context may provide an official stamp of approval on the rituals by which the deceased was initiated into the secrets of the document, having the legal status of a sealed document.

Finally, Kuraszkiewicz concludes that the Xtmtj nTr “god’s sealer,” meaning the king’s sealer, in the Old Kingdom is “responsible for supplying rare and valuable materials,” [64] perhaps this title’s stewardship over goods in the royal sphere reflects some purpose of the xtmw in the elite tomb as well as goods are central to the offering rites.

Some Comparisons between the Egyptian and Old Testament Temple Traditions

The Egyptian sequence outlined above has some similarity with the Old Testament temple tradition that, outlined here, may be of use for a further in-depth study.

The three Egyptian censings and the three areas of the Old Testament sanctuary. Segmenting the rites in connection with burning incense three times in the Egyptian sequence may have some corollaries with the Old Testament temple tradition: (1) In the Old Testament sources, burning incense on the sacrificial altar (with the grain offering) and the use of portable censers for other purposes occurred outside the temple in the courtyard (e.g., Leviticus 2:1–3, 14–16; Numbers 16:17–18). The courtyard is also the place where priests were washed, anointed, clothed and ate the sacrifices (see Exodus 29: 1-9, 31-33; Deuteronomy 12:17–19). Likewise, in the Egyptian sequence the first censing appears in connection with the “Opening of the Mouth” washing and meal, followed by anointing and clothing rites. (2) In Old Testament temple worship, daily censing occurred on the altar of incense in the Holy Place in connection with the lamp lighting (see Exodus 30:7–8) and in the same room as the table of shewbread, which is meant to indicate a feast of some kind. Likewise, a second censing appears in connection with a great offering meal in the Egyptian sources. (3) In the Old Testament tradition, a third censing occurred with a portable censer, on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies, as the high priest enters the presence of God (Leviticus 16:12–13). This censing, the holiest of all, may echo the third and final censing in the Egyptian sources which was “big,” “great” and “high” in comparison with the previous censings and which preceded the final rites. [65]

Segment 1 of the Egyptian sequence and initial approaches to God in the Old Testament tradition. Additional more specific, corollaries appear in the details of the individual rituals within each segment. As outlined above, the first ritual segment preceding the first censing in the Egyptian sequence is an initial libation that they viewed as a purification against those who “speak evil of [the king’s] name.” While no initial libation is explicitly mentioned in the daily offering program of the Israelite temple, ritual libations are mentioned elsewhere. 1 Samuel 7:6 states, “And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the Lord, and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the Lord. And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh.” Pouring water out “before the Lord” because one has sinned “against the Lord” is similar to the Egyptian sources that state the water is poured out because one has spoken against the king.

In the Old Testament tradition, pouring out water signifies lowliness, repentance, and the hopeful dissipation of sin, like water seeping into the earth, as seen in passages such as 1 Samuel 1:15; 2 Samuel 14:14; Job 11:16; Psalms 22:14, 62:8. Likewise, Jeremiah, using temple imagery, pleads with Israel to “lift up their hands toward [God]” and pray, in the “beginning of the watches,” they should “pour out thine heart like water before the face of the Lord” (Lamentations 2:19). This emphasizes their need to repent as the first thing one does, at the beginning of the watch, when approaching the Lord. The pouring of the blood of the sacrifices “upon the earth as water” in Deuteronomy 12:24 may have some connection here.

Segment 2 of the Egyptian sequence and the Old Testament temple courtyard. The Egyptian rituals in the second segment outlined above include the “Opening of the Mouth” washing and eating followed by an anointing and clothing. These closely match similar rituals performed in the courtyard of the Israelite temple wherein the priests were prepared by means of a washing, clothing, and anointing ritual (see Exodus 29:4–9), followed by the eating of ram meat and bread (see Exodus 29:31–33). This Aaronic ordination includes the command to “consecrate (literally “to fill the hand of”) Aaron and his sons” (Exodus 29:9). The image of the Aaronic priests with outstretched hands ready to be filled matches the offering gesture of the Egyptian priests, who stand with one arm outstretched and palm up, in connection with these rites.

The “Opening of the Mouth” also has parallels in the preparations of Old Testament patriarchs and prophets in temple settings as well. In the temple before God, Isaiah declared himself a man of “unclean lips,” and thus a seraphim took “a live coal in his hand” and “laid it upon [his] mouth,” “touched [his] lips,” and declared Isaiah’s sin “purged” (Isaiah 6:1, 5–7). God then tells Isaiah to “go, and tell” (Isaiah 6:9). When Jeremiah was being called to serve, he stated, “I cannot speak: for I am a child,” but God “put forth his hand, and touched [his] mouth” and said, “I have put my words in thy mouth” (Jeremiah 1:6–9). Likewise, the Lord commanded Ezekiel while in the temple to “open thy mouth, and eat that I give thee.” He was given a book. Ezekiel then said, “So I opened my mouth, and he caused me to eat that roll. . . . And he said unto me, Son of man, go, . . . and speak” (Ezekiel 2:8; 3:2–4). Moses and Enoch’s declaration of being “slow of speech” fits this scenario as well (see Exodus 4:10; Moses 6:31). [66] Not only may a prophet’s mouth be ritually opened, but their eyes may be ritually opened also, as was the case with Enoch mentioned at the beginning of this study (see Moses 6:35–36). As outlined above, the “opening” and anointing in the Egyptian material include the mouth, eyes, ears, and nose.

Segment 3 of the Egyptian sequence and the Holy Place. The main focus of the third segment in the Egyptian sources is the great meal offering with its long lists of food offerings in the PT or long lines of offering bearers in the nonroyal tombs. In the Holy Place, the table of shewbread appears to represent some sort of feast as well. While bread and frankincense are the only consumables mentioned in scripture with regard to this table, the placement of all manner of vessels and utensils suggest a grander fare (see Exodus 35:13; Numbers 4:7; 1 Chronicles 28:16–17).

The bestowal of scepters and staves along with a leopard skin covering, kilt, and sandals in this segment of the Egyptian tradition stands in contrast to the simple linen offering in the clothing ritual of the previous segment. This can reflect similar concepts in the clothing differences between the more simply clothed priest and the more elaborately clothed high priest in the Old Testament temple tradition (see Exodus 28). In the earlier sources of Israelite temple tradition, the priests appear confined to the courtyard as far as temple service is concerned. Only the high priest performed the services in the holy place such as lighting the lamps, burning incense, and changing the shewbread (e.g., see Exodus 30:7–9; Leviticus 24:2–3, 8). The investiture of Joshua in the high priestly clothing of the Second Temple period is also placed in a temple context, including an associated ritual drama starring various heavenly hosts, including Satan who is cast out (see Zechariah 3). Enoch’s declaration that he was “clothed with glory” during his “high mountain” experience may relate (see Moses 7:3).

The Egyptian offering list sequence of the Old Kingdom outlined herein does not appear to have a ritual of lamp lighting that would correlate to the lamp of the Old Testament temple’s holy place; however, in the Pyramid Texts as a whole, there is one mention of lighting a lamp and it is in connection with opening the “gate of heaven” (temple doors?) and entering into the “darkness” beyond. [67] However, this appears outside the standard offering list sequence and thus would be a difference between these two traditions that could be explored further.

The last libations, preceding the final censing and final rites, in the Egyptian sequence may echo the final libation Jacob performs near the end of his life in connection with God making sure his covenant promises in Genesis 35:9–15.

The fourth segment of the Egyptian sequence and the Holy of Holies. The last rites of the Egyptian sequence have two purposes: (1) to affirm power over one’s enemies via the execration ritual of smashing the red pots, and (2) to seal, or make legally binding in relation to a “divine document,” the rituals. Likewise, as outlined in the first section of this study concerning true temple worship in the early patriarchal period, those who enter the highest order of the temple, represented by the Holy of Holies, are given great power in the priesthood with which they can confound their enemies (see JST, Genesis 14:30–31, wherein they receive power to “put at defiance the armies of nations” and “break every band.” Even “break[ing] mountains” and “divid[ing] the seas” were powers used against enemies (see Moses 7:13–14; Exodus 14:27)).

While “sealers,” “sealing,” and “divine documents” as a conclusion of temple rituals is not explicit in the Old Testament temple worship, Nehemiah 9:38 may be a distant Second Temple period corollary: “And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it.” The mention of Levites and priests sealing a writing relative to the covenant points to the temple, since the covenant itself is explicitly associated with the temple in Malachi 3:1. [68]


The above are just a few points of comparison between temple rituals of an early period in Egyptian history with the scriptural tradition concerning temple worship among the early patriarchs and those descendants who preserved it. It is hoped that these comparisons increase awareness of the similarities between these two cultures from a very early period and provide an additional cultural comparison and contrast in order to deepen understanding of Old Testament temple worship. Further, it is hoped that the complexity of the early Egyptian ritual program dating from 2600–2100 BC and its similarity to scriptural traditions concerning Old Testament worship reveals just how complex the Old Testament temple rites could actually be at a very early date, calling into question some assumptions of modern scholars concerning the dating and nature of early Old Testament temple worship in general. [69]


[1] James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969).William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture (Leiden, New York: Brill, 1997);For a current list of the Writings of the Ancient World series, see

[2] A standard and important article on the dangers of overreaching conclusions based on similarities between two traditions is Samuel Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962): 1–13.

[3] William W. Hallo, “The Bible in Its Near Eastern Setting: The Contextual Approach,” in Scripture in Context: Essays on Comparative Method, ed. C. Evans and others (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1980), 1–26, argues that comparative methods (highlighting similarities) must be supplemented with contrastive methods (highlighting differences). Blending the two makes a “contextual” method.

[4] In addition to the important essays on the comparative method mentioned in notes 2 and 3, see also Shemaryahu Talmon, “The ‘Comparative Method’ in Biblical Interpretation—Principles and Problems,” in Congress Volume: Göttingen, 1977, ed. J. A. Emerton, Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 29 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1978), 320–56.

[5] For some broad examples of shared temple ideologies, see John M. Lunquist, The Temple (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012) and his “What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology,” in Temples of the Ancient World, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 83–117.

[6] A culminating temple ordinance that confirms all things is also mentioned in D&C 124:39, wherein the Lord states that all the washing, anointings, work for the dead, solemn assemblies, revelations, statutes, and judgments are confirmed or “ordained” by “the ordinance of my holy house”(emphasis added). D&C 132:7 refers to this culminating ordinance as a “seal.”

[7] The teachings of Joseph Smith and others demonstrate that entering an “order” wherein one is called a “son of God” is more than just the initial bestowal of Melchizedek Priesthood by the laying on of hands, though it begins there. Rather, after the laying on of hands, one must progress through various orders by making and keeping temple covenants until they attain to the highest order. For example, the Doctrine and Covenants declares that temple marriage is one particular “order” of the priesthood that a person can enter (see D&C 131:2). Joseph Smith explained that the highest order, which he called the “Melchizedek order,” is entered when one has been “called, elected, and made sure.” The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin, 1991), 244; spelling and punctuation standardized. Those who enter this highest order, having first been “tried so as by fire,” are given the title “sons of God” (JST, Genesis 14:35) and are given great powers in the priesthood such as the power to move mountains and divide the seas (JST, Genesis 14:30–31; cf. Helaman 10:1–11). President Ezra Taft Benson indicated that when scripture declares that Adam entered this “order” wherein he was called a “son of God,” it means that Adam received “the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood, which is only received in the house of the Lord.” “What I Hope You Will Teach Your Children about the Temple,” Ensign, August 1985, 8; cf. D&C 124:25–28.

[8] For more discussion of Garden of Eden as temple, see G. K. Beale, Temple and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004); Donald W. Parry, “Garden of Eden: Prototype Sanctuary,” in Temples of the Ancient World, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 126–51.

[9] While the scriptures do not explicitly mention an altar built by Adam, one can be implied from the fact that he made sacrificial offerings (see Moses 5:4–5). Additionally, Joseph Smith appears to have taught Brigham Young that Adam did indeed build an altar: “Joseph the Prophet told me that . . . when Adam was driven out of the Garden of Eden he . . . built an altar of stone and offered sacrifice.” (Brigham Young as quoted by Wilford Woodruff, Waiting for World’s End: The Diaries of Wilford Woodruff, ed. Susan Staker (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 305; spelling and punctuation standardized).

[10] The title “high priest” in such contexts is indicative of one who has entered the highest order of the priesthood (as Jesus himself is called a high priest after the order of Melchizedek in Hebrews 6:20) and is a different use of the title than the office of high priest in the LDS Church today. Consequently, being “ordained an high priest” (JST, Genesis 14:27) is also different than the modern idea of receiving the laying on of hands for the conferral of an office. Rather, “ordained” can have reference to temple ordinances as Alma 13:2 (cf. 13:16) makes clear.

[11] Words of Joseph Smith, 245. Joseph Smith and the Epistle to the Hebrews give clarity to Genesis 22:15–18, wherein the Lord repeats the Abrahamic covenant after the binding of Isaac, only this time he swears an oath in order to confirm or make sure the blessings of the covenant upon Abraham.

[12] The phrase “do we not eat and drink” as a justification for the wicked’s claim to be “sons of God” in this verse may have reference to counterfeit ritual meals that they practice, especially since they mention their marriage rituals next, or, at least, it may be they are claiming prosperity as a supposed means of proving their righteousness to Noah.

[13] For the most complete treatment of this idea, see John S. Thompson, “The Iconography of the Memphite Priesthood in Egypt’s Elite Tombs of the Old Kingdom” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, forthcoming). See also Harold M. Hays, “The Death of the Democratization of the Afterlife,” in Old Kingdom: New Perspectives: Egyptian Art and Archaeology, 2750–2150 BC, ed. Nigel Strudwick and Helen Strudwick (Cambridge, England: Oxbow Books, 2011), 115–30.

[14] See, for example, A. Rosalie David, A Guide to Religious Ritual at Abydos, Rev. ed., Modern Egyptology Series (Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1981); Alexandre Moret, Le Rituel Du Culte Divin Journalier En Égypte, D’après Les Papyrus De Berlin Et Les Textes Du Temple De Séti 1er, À Abydos, Annales Du Musée Guimet Bibliothèque D’études (Paris: E. Leroux, 1902).

[15] Nigel Strudwick, Texts from the Pyramid Age (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 236, 358. Noted also in John Laurence Gee, “The Requirements of Ritual Purity in Ancient Egypt” (PhD diss., Yale University, 1998), 36, 38.

[16] Figure based on Margaret Alice Murray, Saqqara Mastabas, 2 vols. (London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt and B. Quaritch, 1905–37), I: XXIII.I would like to acknowledge Hannah Thompson and Hyrum Thompson for their work on and drawings of all the figures herein.

[17] Alan Henderson Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Griffith Institute Ashmolean Museum, 1957), Sign List, A6.

[18] PT 23.

[19] Dmitri Meeks, Pureté Et Purification En Égypte (Paris: Letouzey & Ané, 1976), 434–35; Robert Kriech Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice, Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization (Chicago: Oriental Institute of University of Chicago, 1993), 101–2, and n. 496.

[20] Figure based on Naguib Kanawati and Mahmoud Abder-Raziq, Mereruka and His Family, Part 1, the Tomb of Meryteti (Oxford: Aris and Phillips, 2004), pl. 49; James Edward Quibell and others, The Ramesseum (London: Histories & Mysteries of Man, 1896), pl. XXXVIII.

[21] PT 25.

[22] PT 200.

[23] PT 32, 34–35.

[24] PT 36.

[25] PT 37–42.

[26] PT 44–57.

[27] Figure based on Eberhard Otto, Das Ägyptische Mundöffnungsritual (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1960), 153–55, scene 69A-C.

[28] Roman and Arabic numerals as here indicate the relative dates of tombs. Roman numerals indicate the Egyptian Dynasty and Arabic numerals indicate the ruler within the Dynatsy, following the convention outlined in Yvonne Harpur, Decoration in Eqyptian Tombs of the Old Kingdom (London; New York: Kegan Paul, 1987).

[29] Figure based on William Kelly Simpson, The Mastabas of Qar and Idu (G7101 and 7102), Giza Mastabas (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1976), fig. 25.

[30] Figure based on Richard Lepsius Denkmäler aux Aegypten und Aethiopien, 12 Vols. (Berlin: Nicolasiche Buchhandlung, 1849-1859), Vol. II Bl. 4.

[31] Brigitte Dominicus, Gesten Und Gebärden in Darstellungen Des Alten Und Mittleren Reiches, Studien Zur Archäologie Und Geschichte Altägyptens (Heidelberg: Heidelberger Orientverlag, 1994), 61–65.

[32] Figure based on Simpson, fig. 25.

[33] See Stephen E. Thompson, “A Lexicographic and Iconographic Analysis of Anointing in Ancient Egypt” (PhD diss., Brown University, 1991), 255.

[34] Thompson, 253–54.

[35] Simpson, 7.

[36] PT 77.

[37] Thompson, 220–21.

[38] Figure based on Murray, I: XXIII.

[39] PT 81. See James P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, Writings from the Ancient World, No. 23 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 22.

[40] PT 417.

[41] Allen, 62, n.18.

[42] Allen’s category labels are sometimes confusing with regard to the rituals being performed. For example, he indicates the second censing spell is part of a “Libation and Cleansing” (p. 23) when in fact it is a censing followed by a natron solution cleansing so “Censing and Cleansing” would be a more appropriate header.

[43] Figure based on Murray, I: XXIII; Simpson, fig. 25.

[44] PT 32.

[45] PT 126-140.

[46] Figure based on Simpson, fig. 25.

[47] Hartwig Altenmüller, Die Wanddarstellungen Im Grab Des Mehu in Saqqara (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1998), Tafel 90.

[48] PT 224.

[49] Figure based on Naguib Kanawati and Mahmoud Abder-Raziq, The Teti Cemetery at Saqqara. Vol. 5, the Tomb of Hesi (Warminster: Aris and Philips, 1999), pl. 64.

[50] PT 199.

[51] Paule Posener-Kriéger, Les Archives Du Temple Funéraire De Néferirkarê-Kakaï (Les Papyrus D’abousir): Traduction Et Commentaire, Bibliothèque D’étude, T. 65/1–2 ([Le Caire]: Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire, 1976), 405–12.

[52] Harold H. Nelson, “The Rite of ‘Bringing the Foot’ as Portrayed in Temple Reliefs,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 35 (1949): 82–86.

[53] Figure based on Altenmüller, Tafel 58.

[54] Yvonne Harpur and Paolo J. Scremin, The Chapel of Kagemni: Scene Details, Egypt in Miniature (Reading, England: Oxford Expedition to Egypt, 2006), context drawing 31.

[55] Harpur and Scremin, Context Drawings 31.

[56] PT 200.

[57] Kurt Heinrich Sethe, Die Achtung Feindlicher Fürsten, Völker Und Dinge Auf Altägyptischen Tongefässcherben Des Mittleren Reiches. Nach Den Originalen Im Berliner Museum Herausgegeben Und Erklärt Von K. Sethe, Etc. [Abhandlungen Der Preussischen Akademie Der Wissenschaften; Jahrg. 1926; Phil.-Hist. Klasse no. 5], p. 74., pl. 33.

[58] As indicated by Ritner, 146.For a more complete discussion of this rite, see 144–53.

[59] Figure based on Kanawati and Abder-Raziq, Mereruka and His Family. Part 1, The Tomb of Meryteti, I, pl. 49.

[60] Figure based on Hermann Junker, Gîza, 12 vols., Denkschriften / Akademie Der Wissenschaften in Wien. Philosophisch-Historische Klasse (Wien; Leipzig: Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky A.-G., 1929–55), vol. 4, abb. 7; Naguib Kanawati, Tombs at Giza. Vol. 1, Kaiemankh (G4561) and Seshemnefer (G4940), The Australian Centre for Egyptology. Studies (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 2001), pl. 29, and Alexander Badawy, The Tomb of Nyhetep-Ptah at Giza and the Tomb of ʻankhmʻahor at Saqqara (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pl. 7; Richard Lepsius, Denkmäler Aus Aegypten Und Aethiopien, 12 vols. (Berlin: Nicolaische Buchhandlung, 1849–59), abb. II, bl. 71,respectively.

[61] P. Berlin 3055 3/5–8 in Hieratische Papyrus Aus Den Königlichen Museen Zu Berlin, 5 vols. (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1901), vol. 1, pl. 3.

[62] Henri Wild, “L’adresse Aux Visiteurs Du Tombeau De Ti,” BIFAO 58 (1953): 101–13.

[63] Stuart Tyson Smith, Administration at the Egyptian Middle Kingdom Frontier: Sealings from Uronarti and Askut (Liege: Université Liege, 1990), 201.

[64] Kamil O. Kuraszkiewicz, “The Title Xtmtj Ntr—God’s Sealer—in the Old Kingdom,” in The Old Kingdom Art and Archaeology: Proceedings of the Conference in Prague 2004, ed. Miroslav Bárta (Prague: Czech Institute of Egyptology, 2006), 200.

[65] For further discussions of incense usage in Israel, including its possible connection with Egypt in general, see Menahem Haran, Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel: An Inquiry into the Character of Cult Phenomena and the Historical Setting of the Priestly School (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 239–41; Paul Heger, The Development of Incense Cult in Israel (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1997).

[66] For further discussion of this motif, including Egyptian and biblical parallels, see Gregory Galsov, The Bridling of the Tongue and the Opening of the Mouth in Biblical Prophecy (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).

[67] PT 361–362 from the pyramid of Teti.

[68] For sealed documents in ancient tradition in general, see John W. Welch, “Doubled, Sealed, Witnessed Documents: From the Ancient World to the Book of Mormon,” in Mormons, Scripture, and the Ancient World, ed. Davis Bitton (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 391–444. 

[69] The explicit relationship between these final blessings of having power over the wicked and sealing appears when God swears the oath to Nephi in Helaman 10:6-10.