Pyramids—Genesis 12:10

Pyramids had different meanings at various periods and contexts. The Greek word pyramis does not have an exact equivalent in Hebrew, nor does it appear in the New Testament. Greeks used the term to describe the impressive four-sided structures that they saw in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Sudan. The Nubian kings of Sudan had built dozens of small pyramids for their kings from the seventh to the fourth century BC. They adopted the pyramidal architectural style to decorate honorary and funerary monuments, a tradition copied through the centuries by other cultures, as seen in the Apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees (13:28-38), in which Simon Maccabeus erected pyramids to honor his relatives and himself.

Hebrew employs the word Migdol to refer to the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9), which was most likely a ziggurat (temple tower). Ziggurats are stepped-pyramids made of the baked mudbricks commonly used in Mesopotamia. They had an altar on the top of the structure where priests presented sacrifices, incantations, and prayers to the gods. The belief was that deities dwelt in high places, so the Mesopotamians compensated for their flat landscape by providing artificial mountains. Nevertheless, the Egyptian pyramids are the most famous, becoming a wonder of antiquity.

The iconic structures in Egypt evolved out of funerary architecture. The simple pit burials of the Predynastic period became bench-like mastabas and eventually step-pyramids. Djoser built the earliest step pyramid at Saqqara before the second millennium (Third Dynasty). Cheops and Chephren of the Fourth Dynasty erected the most famous pyramids at Giza. Those large structures had already stood for centuries before Abram visited Egypt (Gen. 12:10-20). Once the power of the pharaohs waned, pyramid building dwindled. If Joseph lived during the Twelfth Dynasty (the Middle Kingdom), he would have seen the return of pyramid construction, but on a much lesser scale than during earlier times.

Some pyramids in Egypt and all the ones found in Mesopotamia were made of mudbrick. The most prominent pyramids, however, were constructed of different kinds of stone, mainly limestone and granite. The massive blocks used in some of the pyramids came from different quarries, some close to the construction sites (i.e., Tura, Abusir, and Giza), others from hundreds of kilometers away (i.e., Aswan, Qirtassi, and Abu Simbel). Scientists have been able to suggest how the Egyptians erected them. As robbers plundered most pyramids in antiquity, it forced the pharaohs to switch to underground tombs to protect their treasures for the afterlife.

Pyramids had many religious aspects, especially as Egyptians regarded the pharaohs as deities. The pyramidal shape was a part of their sacred landscape. However, unlike the rituals that took place on top of the Mesopotamian pyramids in Egypt, the focus was inside the pyramid. The bodies of the mummified Egyptian monarchs, food offerings, and personal possessions were stored in burial chambers. Moreover, pyramids were thought to guard the “ka” of the king, whom it was believed could intercede on behalf of the worshipers before other gods.

The connection or bridge between earth and heaven (cf. Jacob’s “ladder” in Gen. 28:12) is essential in Scripture which finds its later focus in the sanctuary/temple as God’s earthly dwelling place. The idea behind the Hebrew word sullām (“ladder,” lit. “flight of steps”) has counterparts in Mesopotamia as well as Egypt. In Egyptian tradition, the sun (in Egypt known as the god Ra) could ascend and descend on the pyramid. Similarly, in Mesopotamia, it was thought that the gods used the steps of the ziggurat to descend to Earth. (Interestingly, centuries later, the Mayans built step-pyramids where Kulkulkan, a feathered snake god, could be “seen” as a shadow on the steps during the winter solstice.)


Siliotti, The Pyramids.

Snape, Ancient Egyptian Tombs: The Culture of Life and Death.

Yamauchi, “Obelisks and Pyramids,” 113-115.