In the Book of Exodus, God descends from Mt. Sinai and delivers the Ten Commandments. Moses has tried to prepare the people for the event, but they are still scared by the celestial special effects:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance.

(Exodus 20:18)

They beg Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Exodus 20:19). Their request is fulfilled: God and the people have no direct contact. Rather, they speak to each other through Moses (and Aaron).

Compare this with Psalm 25:

Make me to know your ways,

O Lord;

teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me,

for you are the God of my salvation;

for you I wait all day long.

Be mindful of your mercy,

O Lord, and of your steadfast love,

for they have been from of old.

Do not remember the sins

of my youth or my transgressions;

according to your steadfast love remember me,

for your goodness’ sake

O Lord!

(Psalm 25:4–7)

The psalmist has no agent or interpreter. He does not find God unapproachable or frightening but speaks directly to him. He even makes precise requests of God: “Lead me,” “teach me,” he beseeches.

In his 1976 classic The Treasures of Darkness, the late, great Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen cited this psalm as an example of personal piety, which he defined as “a religious attitude in which the individual sees himself as standing in close personal relationship to the divine, expecting help and guidance in his personal life and affairs, expecting divine anger and punishment if he sins, but also profoundly trusting to divine compassion, forgiveness, and love for him if he sincerely repents. In sum: the individual matters to God, God cares about him personally and deeply.”1

Psalm 25 meets all three of Jacobsen’s criteria (as he noted): It expresses a belief that God is willing to help (“make me to know your ways,” the psalmist implores), a belief in divine retribution (“remember not the sins”) and faith in God (“remember me for your goodness’ sake O Lord”).

According to Jacobsen, the concept of personal piety arose first in Mesopotamia, in the early second millennium B.C.E. It appeared in Egypt in the late 13th century B.C.E., during the Ramesside period. A late 13th-century Egyptian prayer to the solar god Re-Har-akhti has the same combination of elements found in Psalm 25:

Come to me, O Re-Har-akhti,

that you may look after me!

You are he who does,

and there is no one who does without you,

unless it be that you act with him.

Do not punish me for my many sins,

for I am one who does not know him


I am a man without sense.

I spend the day following after my

own mouth,

like a cow after grass …

Come to me … you who protects


and rescues hundreds of thousands,

the protector of the one who cries out

to him!2

The prayer expresses expectance of divine care (“Come to me, O Re-Har-akhti, that you may look after me!”), fear (“Do not punish me for my many sins”) and trust (in “the protector of the one who cries out to him”).

As Ogden Goelet notes in the accompanying article, theophoric names—which invoke the blessing of a deity on an individual—are also manifestations of personal piety; they too became popular in Egypt during the Ramesside period. At the same time, religious ceremonies in Egypt began to allow more personal contact between the people and the gods. Lay people were allowed inside temples for the first time, and statues of the gods were paraded about during festivals.

The relief above depicts a team of priests carrying on their shoulders a barque containing a shrine of the god Amun-Re (the god’s statue was concealed inside the box-like shrine). During the annual Opet festival, the statue of the supreme creator deity Amun-Re was carried (and/or transported by boat) from Karnak to Luxor and back again. Crowds lined the banks of the Nile to watch it pass by. The relief comes from the Temple of Amun built by the Macedonian king Philip Arrhidaeus in the fourth century B.C.E., but the ceremony itself dates to the New Kingdom. By the first millennium B.C.E., the practice of personal piety was widespread throughout the Middle East.