Egypt Through the Bibleby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Trace the history of Egypt as mentioned in the Bible. Include other sources for additional historical context.
Egypt as a place, and as a nation, is one of the most frequently mentioned names in the Bible. From the time when Abram went down to Egypt in a famine, to baby Jesus' flight to Egypt, it spans Genesis to the Gospels. It is full of meaning and symbolism, but not always the same symbolism. Egypt became a byword among the Israelites, and its prominent place in Scripture is not easy to ignore.
In the book of Genesis, Egypt is mentioned frequently, and for a number of different purposes and occasions. An early mentioning of Egypt occurred in Genesis 12:10, when Abram was struggling to survive a famine, and he made the journey to Egypt to escape the severest part of the famine. This indicates that Egypt was seen as a place of prosperity, a view corroborated a few verses later in, where Lot and Abram separate, and Lot chooses the best land, "Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar." Gen. 13:10. But it isn't all positive, since this same land is destroyed in Sodom and Gomorra's destruction. While Abram was in Egypt, he feared for his life from the Egyptians, thinking they would kill him to take his wife Sarai. This could simply be the beginnings of the traditional Jewish caution in countries where they are 'foreigners,' but it seems more likely that such things were not uncommon in Egypt.
The next time Egypt comes into the Bible in a significant way, is when Joseph, the great-grandson of Abram, is sold into slavery by his brothers. His brothers intended to kill him, but they saw some merchants with camels heading to Egypt with lots of goods, and decided they could avoid having blood on their hands by selling him instead. Egypt was still a place of prosperity, with lots of merchants and trading happening, since these merchants were carrying "spices, balm, and myrrh" and were willing to take on a slave. When they got to Egypt they sold Joseph to Potiphar, a captain of the guard, and official of Pharaoh. The land was such that Joseph was able to do extremely well for Potiphar, in his handling of Potiphar's affairs. Potiphar's wife tried to take advantage of Joseph, and when he refused to cooperate, she had him thrown in jail. While in jail, he met two very important men, the Pharaoh's baker and cupbearer. They had displeased Pharaoh and were thrown into prison, where the warden had put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners.
While these two men were in jail, they each had a dream, and asked Joseph to explain the dreams to them. He did so, explaining that the cupbearer would be pardoned and the baker hanged. When the cupbearer returned to Pharaoh, he forgot all about Joseph, until one day when Pharaoh had a dream, and none of his magicians or wise men could explain it. When Pharaoh told his dreams to Joseph, he says of the seven skinny cows "I had never seen such ugly cows in all the land of Egypt." Apparently Egypt was still a land of prosperity at that time. But the meaning of the dream was that after seven years of prosperity, there would be seven years of famine. Joseph explained what should be done to prepare, and then Pharaoh put him in charge of the process of storing grain and other food for the approaching famine. The stage was set for the people of Israel to grow in Egypt. Joseph was now second to Pharaoh, with great power and authority.
The famine came, and it filled all the land, not just Egypt, and Joseph's father and brothers in Canaan felt its ill effects, and heard that Egypt had warehouses full of grain. So the brothers were sent down to Egypt to buy grain. After a series of interesting interactions between Joseph and the brothers who didn't recognize him, Jacob was sent for, and the whole family moved to Egypt. When the Pharaoh who was indebted to Joseph died, the new Pharaoh forgot all about what the Hebrew people had done for Egypt. Before many generations had passed, the Hebrews were so numerous that the Pharaoh made them into slaves and worked them hard, in the hopes of containing them and keeping them from over running the land. Egypt became a place of captivity for the Israelites. And when the Pharaoh's grew so desperate to curb Hebrew numbers, that he ordered their baby boys to be killed, it was even worse.
At this point, Moses was born. But rather than allow her son to be killed, Moses mother put him in a basket on the river, and Pharaoh's daughter saw him and adopted him. Now a new Israelite was in the corridors of power, but Moses did not nothing to for forty years. When he was forty years old he killed an Egyptian who had been beating a Hebrew, and fled from Egypt and the Pharaoh's anger. When he was eighty, God spoke to him, and sent him back to Egypt, to free the Jews. Of course, Pharaoh was not interested in letting them go, so he had to be convinced. God caused a series of ten plagues, every one of which was an attack on some god of Egypt. The sun god was attacked in the plague of darkness, the sacred Nile was attacked when it was turned to blood, and the godhood of the first born son of the god Pharaoh was killed. And yet, the Israelites couldn't shake off their fear and trepidation that they had built up in the time of their captivity in Egypt. When Pharaoh responded by making their lives more difficult, the Israelites complained bitterly to Moses. Eventually, after all ten plagues, the Pharaoh agreed to let the Israelites leave. Not only did the Israelites leave, but they were hurried on there way by the Egyptians, giving them gifts of silver, gold, and clothing.
This time of leaving Egypt, and the time afterwards crossing the Red Sea and wandering in the desert became a major part of the Israelites history and culture. As they left Egypt, they headed east. But the Pharaoh changed his mind and brought his army after them to re-enslave them. They were up against the Red Sea, and all of Egypt's military might came against them, and they were terrified. For Egypt had chariots and horsemen galore, and these were merely slaves. Then all of that military might was destroyed when God caused the Red Sea to part for the Israelites, but to fall on the Egyptians, and drown them. Egypt as an invincible country was destroyed once and for all. The Israelites now knew God was more powerful than the Egyptians. But they failed to believe that he was able to take care of them, and throughout their many years wandering in the desert, they frequently grumbled. And in this grumbling, Egypt was a central theme. "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?" (Exodus 17:3) They began to remember Egypt as a land where they had at least had enough to drink and eat. And so they complained. This was not the last time the people of Israel looked back to Egypt when they were in hard times. It was a pattern that continued for many years.
Egypt remained a military power in the region for a long time. God gave the Israelites instructions in the book of Deuteronomy, "The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, "You are not to go back that way again.""(Deut. 17:16) God had told them not to return to Egypt, and he had made it clear that they were not to rely on military might they gained from Egypt. Later, when they Israelites were threatened by the Assyrians, they signed a treaty with the Egyptians. But when they needed help, the Egyptian army refused to come to their aid. This happened in a number of instances, where the Israelites counted on the Egyptians to save them from some other power, only to be let down in the moment of crisis. In Jeremiah's time, some Israelites returned to Egypt, despite his warning that God would not support them, and Egypt too would be defeated by Babylon.
After the Babylonian captivity, there are few major happenings with Egypt and the Israelites. Many of the prophets prophecy against Egypt, predicting the time when she would fall as she later did. Egypt remained a symbol of military power, God's faithfulness to the Israelites, and the Israelites unfaithfulness to God. But then in the New Testament something interesting happened.
In order that prophecy which said that the Messiah would come out of Egypt might be fulfilled, God told Joseph, the father of Jesus to flee to Egypt with his wife and baby son. For Herod was going to kill all the boys in Bethlehem. This is the final time in the Bible where an Israelite went down into Egypt for safety, whether from famine or fear. But this time God commanded it to be done, so rather than relying on the Egyptians, Joseph and Mary were relying on God. And the symbolism of Christ coming out of Egypt as the people of Israel had been brought out of Egypt when God saved them, foreshadowed the Messiah's mission to save every lost soul.
Egypt was a place of great importance in the Bible, and influenced the Israelites greatly. In the beginning it was simply a place with lots of food, where they could rest in comfort while waiting for God to prepare the promised land for them, but it grew into a place of captivity and oppression. God turned it into a sign of his faithfulness to his people, when he led them out of Egypt, but it remained a stumbling block for them, as they remembered the food and good things of Egypt, and tended to trust in the military might of Egypt's army over the strong arm of God. Finally, with the coming of Christ, the place of Egypt is complete in the Bible. The savior has come out of Egypt, just as all the Israelites did, when God saved them, and he has come to save and seek the lost.
Sources: 1. The Student Bible. NIV. The Zondervan Corporation. Copyright 1986
2. BibleGateway. NIV. http://biblegateway.com/
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