I grew up hearing it.
You did too.
What was the purpose of the great pyramids in Egypt? Well, they were tombs for the pharaohs of course!
While teaching through ancient Egypt this past semester, I actually expanded my knowledge a little bit: In Egypt’s Old Kingdom, pharaohs were buried in pyramids. Then, for a stretch during the Middle Kingdom, they were buried scattered across the desert in unmarked locations to prevent grave robbing. Finally, in the New Kingdom—the period which most overlaps with the Biblical historical period—they were all buried in the Valley of Kings.
You’ve seen films like The Mummy, and as fantastic of a film as it is, it still leaves me asking the same question: What about the rest of the population?
The pharaohs and high priests were buried with gross troves of treasures and wealth. They would sail into the heavenly afterlife like clouds on butter. After all—the materials you were buried with were what you were stuck with for eternity.
But what about the peasants? What about the millions of Egyptians who died in their huts while surrounded by their family and couldn’t afford a pyramid, or even a tomb? Those lesser-known images of a human curled up in the hole their family dug behind their home are haunting. Don’t think too long about them or you’ll choke up like I did. What possessions sail them across the river from which there is no return? A few clay pots. Jars. A fetal-positioned body in a hole?
There was a similar photo to this one in my textbook in middle school. You probably saw it too and whirled right past it. Why? Because the majestic tombs of the pharaohs are way cooler to look at. They were covered in hieroglyphics, paintings, and decorated with gold and silver artifacts!
For some reason, while preparing to teach this to my middle schoolers a few weeks ago, I was struck with an image of what this would have been like. Take a moment and follow me there, five thousand years back.
Put yourself in the shadow of Khufu’s pyramid, beside a grieving widow who can’t afford anything more than a hole in the earth for her late husband. Her best clay pots are tossed into the hole next to his curled and decomposing remains—she’ll have to save up for more pots now. Obviously he wouldn’t receive the mummification treatment, so his sacred organs would remain inside his body, causing a questionable result in his afterlife judgment.
She wishes she could afford more ornate burial paraphernalia, but she prays to Anubis that he will still be allowed entrance across the River.
A few of his slave friends stand around the hole in the sand. There will be no parade for this man like there is when a pharaoh dies.
Maybe he had kids; maybe some died as infants and were given equally spartan burials.
Tears continue running down the cheeks of the poor man’s wife as the men begin heaving sand on top of the body and the measly jars. Who will provide for her now?
Logic would tell us that this was the experience of millions of Egyptians upon the death of their loved ones. Only the tippy-top one percent of them were afforded ornate burials, pyramids and tombs. Even a sarcophagus would have cost a fortune.
Granted, in such ancient times, the psychology of ‘the self’ was drastically different, so who knows how a slave would have seen themselves or their loved ones. I don’t know if that makes it more or less sad…
The point is, who decides that some humans deserve pyramids while others deserve holes in the ground alongside their family’s treasured clay jars? Why do some humans—equal partakers of the image of God—warrant parades and the wealth of a nation in their tomb, while others (the majority) are tossed into a hole?
One of my favorite names of God in the Bible comes from Hagar, the slave girl of Abraham. After being raped by her master and tossed aside, she is in the wilderness and has such an experience with God in Genesis 16 that she gives God the name, El-Roi, or, The One Who Sees. The idea is that, when her master treated her as an object, a means of having a son and being thrown into the wilderness, who saw her? YHWH, God, The One Who Sees Me.
This inherently contrasts the Sumerian/Egyptian view of the self as well. Her identity was not predicated on her place in society—a slavegirl—but on who saw her and was with her in her suffering. She didn’t perceive herself as a necessary cog in the wheel of society, functioning to support the lives of the wealthy and powerful (as would have been the common mentality at the time), but as an individual unto herself.
Who stands beside the grieving widow with her husband in a hole? El-Roi, the God who sees the grief of the slave and the travail of the overlooked.
The same God who saw the exiled slavegirl stands atop every hole in the earth where another peasant lies curled up, weeping. Or throwing a parade.
Who needs to be buried with gold when ‘The Lord is your great reward’? (Gen. 15:1)
Romans 4 even tells us that He calls the things that are not as though they were…who’s to say that every peasant doesn’t rest in a pyramid of their own in the eyes of this hierarchy-free El-Roi?
The God Who Sees the Unseen.
The God Who puts Peasants in Pyramids.
The thing which is harder to grasp is that, although our society is far more glossy and ‘advanced’ on the surface, we still put pharaohs in pyramids and peasants in holes in the ground, so to speak.
I was curious so I made the mistake of Googling what happens to the bodies of homeless people who die on the streets. This article provided some hope of funerary services being held for the homeless, where their shelter friends could come pay their respects, but then it served up these sentences:
Many are left unclaimed at the city morgue. After 30 days, they are cremated by a private funeral home and often buried outside the city limits. There is no funeral, no head stone, just a name written in the ledger book of a Maryland or Virginia cemetery.
It blows my mind that since the days of pyramids, we have not progressed as far as we’d like to admit. There are still people slipping through the fingers of society like water, their deaths witnessed only by El-Roi as their nameless corpses are conveyed into the cremator.
My takeaway from this is simple: May we, as image bearers of God, see one another. May we not let others slip down the stream of civilization unseen until they end up in a hole in the ground.
Last night I was buying pizza at midnight at a downtown shop and a homeless man came up and started chatting with me. His agenda was clear and I was tired and hungry, eager to get home and sleep. To hurry along his spiel, I pulled a $5 bill out of my pocket and handed it to him while walking away.
Looking back on it, I did the wrong thing. I’d still give him the money, but I’d also
talk to him.
Ask his name.
Treat him like a fellow bearer of the divine spark.
Without these things, we (the world’s elite) are no better than the pharaohs of old, setting up our massive pyramids so the world can remember us after we’re gone, while the peasants outside the city walls are digging holes.