"Justice" itself, was thoroughly grounded in eschatology, in the concept of
a "Last Judgment"; and, therefore, Egyptian ethics and behavior were themselves regarded as penultimate in nature. Justification and vindication rested not
in the successes wrought by power, but in the righteousness of a supreme deity,
Re'--the maker and protector of humankind, or "his precious cattle."
The principle of ma'at, its formulation originating in the primordial utterance
of God, proclaimed that the king and his officials were appointed as temporary
herdsmen and shepherds of humanity. These privileged few were understood to
have been granted divine permission to rule and maintain order. However, they
were also given the responsibility to ensure that life in ancient Egypt was lived
according to the blessings and intentions given to the cosmos and its inhabitants
Egyptian historiographers recalled monarchs who ruled without divine authorization, nor in accordance with divine command (see generally Redford 1986: 269-75).
Morenz ( 1973: 117-20), however, calls ma'at, "a basic value" that was "established by God," and "commanded by his word," but that was "not an explicit law."
See also Baines 1991: 128.
See also Hornung 1971: 214-16. The relation of such actions to the principle of ma'at is explicitly linked in official inscriptions, wherein rulers claim to have promulgated
and upheld "order" through the construction and expansion of divine shrines and sanctuaries throughout Egypt. Benefactions to a cult were regarded as fostering the goodwill
of the gods, not only toward the king, but by extension, toward the entire country.
Conversely, the king's failure to perpetuate this system could result in disaster. In Egyptian causality, divine displeasure could be manifested by defeat in war, by the outbreak
of disease among the populace, or by low levels of the Nile, accompanied by famine--
triggering social discord and strife--which were themselves blatant signs that ma'at or
"order" had been violated and disrupted (see Morschauser 1985: 148-49).
See also Lichtheim 1976: 23, and particularly, the monograph of van den Boom 1988.
See the discussion of Lorton 1977: 29-30.
This is not to say that kings did not execute criminals (cf. the discussion of Willems 1990: 27-54). However, the fear of committing wrongful death was real and is
attested as early as the Old Kingdom. See, for example, the inscription of the courtier
Re'-Wer ( Sethe 1935: 232). There, the king accidently brushes his retainer, Re'-Wer, with
the scepter denoting "punishment." The monarch immediately decrees, "It is well!"--
that is, Re'-Wer was innocent of any crime.
On the related question of amnesty and the pardoning of criminals (or innocent parties
falsely accused or imprisoned), there are instances where the king or a royal official
administers sdjf(3)-tr(yt), "the expunging/wiping away of sin/wrong." The term--
wrongfully called a "loyalty oath"--is used for the pardoning of rebellious vassals
following their defeat in battle, and their readmittance into the Pharaonic imperium; as
well as for individuals charged with crimes (e.g., theft, embezzlement, treason). The latter
usage is interesting since sdjf(3)-tr(yt) appears to be used in legal manuevering, whereby