Often when Christian or Jewish morality is being compared favourably to other ancients civilizations, it is being compared to the Greco-Romans, who it has to be admitted, were not extremely compassionate, or the baby-sacrificing Canaanites. But there are other civilizations that they can be compared to – places like Egypt. Actually, Strabo even called the Jews “Egyptian in origin.”
Starting with human sacrifice : as with Greece and Rome, human sacrifice had disappeared by the historic period in Egypt, being certainly gone by 2800 BC, with evidence before that being questionable, but possibly indicating retainer sacrifice.
Slavery: naturally Greece and Rome come off looking bad in this comparison. However, first we need to clear up something about Jewish slave practices. While much is made of the leniency of Jewish slave practices, in fact this is only because they had two sets of rules in regards to slaves: one for Jewish slaves (7 year terms, treated more as servants…) and another for non-Jewish slaves. No such special treatment existed for non-Jewish slaves, who were, in fact, the majority of slaves. From the book “Jewish Slavery in Antiquity”:
According to the Torah, no restrictions apply to Israelites’ purchase of slaves of other ethnic origins (cf. Lev. 25: 44–5). Such slaves may be given to one’s children as an inheritance, that is, they may be enslaved permanently or as long as the master wishes (Lev. 24: 46). No particular precautions have to be taken with regard to their treatment. The Israelite master is allowed to ‘treat them as slaves’ (ibid.). Unlike Israelite slaves, whose enslavement is seen as a lapse of fortune and a reversal of the Exodus experience (see especially Lev. 25: 42: ‘For they are my servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude’), a curse rests on certain other nations such as the Canaanites and Gibeonites, a curse which justified their permanent enslavement.
The situation is Egypt is difficult to determine, partly because of how one defines ‘slaves’ – but some estimates hovering around 10% (compared to up to a 1/3 in the Greco-Roman heartland. There were many statements about the obligation to treat slaves well in Egyptian writings.
Infanticide: Strabo says this about the Egyptians (also showing their similarity to the Jews): “One of the customs most zealously observed among the egyptians is this, that they rear every child that is born, and circumcise the males, and excise the females, as is also customary among the Jews, who are also Egyptian in origin, as I have already stated in my account of them.” From Wikipedia:
In Egyptian households at all social levels children of both sexes were valued and there is no evidence of infanticide. The religion of the Ancient Egyptians forbade infanticide and during the Greco-Roman period they rescued abandoned babies from manure heaps, a not uncommon method of infanticide by Greeks or Romans, and were allowed to either adopt them as foundlings or raise them as slaves, often giving them names such as “copro -” to memorialise their rescue. Strabo considered it a peculiarity of the Egyptians that every child must be reared. Diodorus indicates infanticide was a punishable offence.
An exception to most other ancient societies, Egyptian women achieved parity with Egyptian men. They enjoyed the same legal and economic rights, at least in theory, and this concept can be found in Egyptian art and contemporary manuscripts. The disparities between people’s legal rights were based on differences in social class and not on gender. Legal and economic rights were afforded to both men and women.
Egyptian women’s rights extended to all legally defined areas of Egyptian civilization. Women could manage, own, and sell private property, which included slaves, land, portable goods, servants, livestock, and money. Women could resolve legal settlements. Women could conclude any kind of legal settlement. Women could appear as a contracting partner in a marriage contract or a divorce contract; they could execute testaments; they could free slaves; women could make adoptions. Women were entitled to sue at law. This amount of freedom was at variance with that of the Greek women who required a designated male, called a kourios, to represent or stand for her in all legal contracts and proceedings.
On executions and the value of human life. From “Social Justice in the Ancient World”:
…the monarch himself was responsible and liable for pronouncing sentences in capital cases. It is significant that kings are occasionally depicted as reluctant to execute criminals. Indeed, monarchs who were not troubled by this responsibility could be suspected of acting unjustly.
For example… a literary composition dating to about 1600 BC, contains a portrayal of the Old Kingdom monarch, Khufu… the king is told of a man named Djedi who is reputed to have the ability to restore to life a person who had been decapitated…
“‘Is the rumor true that you are able to re-attach a head that has been severed (from its body)?’
‘Yes, I am able, my sovereign, my lord.’ Djedi answered.
Then the king said, ‘Have a prisoner who is in jail brought to me, and execute his sentence!’
But Djedi said, ‘No, my sovereign, my lord – not to a human being! Behold it is forbidden to do such a thing to the precious cattle (of god)!'”
…the attitude and belief expressed by Djedi to the king should be regarded as a widely held tenet of ancient Egyptian morality. Human beings, even criminals, were ultimately considered to be under the watchful eye of the divine… and were not to be killed on a whim. Royal power was limited by divine injunction.
More on Egyptian ethics
Early Tomb Inscription (From “Social Justice in the Ancient world”):
I have carried out justice for my lord;
I have satisfied him with what he loves.
I spoke truly; I did what was right;
I spoke fairly, and reported accurately.
I held onto what was opportune, so as to stand well with people.
I adjudicated between two, so as to content them both,
I rescued the weak from one stronger than he, as much as was in my power.
I gave bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, water to the thirsty.
I brought the deceased who could not afford transportation to the cemetary;
I buried him who had no son.
I furnished transportation for him who lacked it.
I respected my father, and pleased my mother, rearing up their chldren.
‘This basic list… is further expanded as time goes by to include such statements as, ‘I was one who was father to the orphan, and who gave aid to the widow’ (Sethe 1928: 79); ‘I was friend to the lowly; well-disposed to the one who had nothing. I helped the hungry who had no goods, and was generous to those in misery’ (Sethe 1928: 80-81); ‘Whoever was lost, I put back on the road, I rescued the one who was robbed’ (Sethe 1928: 7).
Inasmuch as such statements appear consistently in tomb inscriptions and funerary stela over millenia and are also alluded to in legal stipulations, judicial documents, and wisdom-texts, one may refer to these tenets of ma’at as being in a real sense, ‘canonical’ – precepts to which all segments of ancient Egyptian soceity were expected to adhere.
It should be pointed out that literature of this type – used to educate scribes and employees of the royal administration – is attested for millenia; and this fact suggests that such appeals on behalf of the needy, again, represented a widely held standard of morality, undoubtedly embodying the very requirements of ma’at [Justice].
More moral texts from ancient Egypt:
The Instructions of Amenemope (c. 1300-1000 BC)
Do not jeer at a blind man nor tease a dwarf,
Neither interfere with the condition of a cripple;
Do not taunt a man who is in the hand of God [insane],
Nor scowl at him if he errs.
Man is clay and straw,
And God is his potter;
He overthrows and he builds daily,
He impoverishes a thousand if He wishes.
He makes a thousand into examiners,
When He is in His hour of life.
How fortunate is he who reaches the West,
When he is safe in the hand of God.
Do not expose a widow if you have caught her in the fields,
Nor fail to give way if she is accused.
Do not turn a stranger away your oil jar
That it may be made double for your family.
God loves him who cares for the poor,
More than him who respects the wealthy.
Also: The maxims of Vizier Ptah-hotep (c. 2200 BC)