One of the great powers of the ancient Near East, Egypt dominated the international stage during the prestate life of Israel. By the time of the united monarchy, Egypt had entered the long twilight of its power and influence. During its decline, the Nile kingdom remained a potential threat to the Hebrew state as exemplified, by the attack of Shishak in the fifth year of Rehoboam ( 1 Kings 14:25 ), but this threat diminished over time. To the independent states of Israel and Judah, international threats increasingly came from the north.
Despite its diminished historical role, Egypt remained a potent theological symbol. Throughout the Bible, Egypt fulfills a dual role both as a place of refuge and a place of oppression, a place to "come up out of" and a place to flee to. This role begins with Abraham. He seeks refuge in Egypt because "there was a famine in the land" ( Gen 12:10 ); yet he must leave when Pharaoh wants to place Sarah in the royal harem. This is also the first recorded encounter of the divine ruler of Egypt and Yahweh the God of Abraham.
The story of Joseph gives a much more detailed picture of Egypt and the ambiguity of its role. Egypt is a place of oppression, as Joseph is initially enslaved, eventually ending up in prison. Egypt is also a place of hope and refuge as Joseph is raised to be second in the land. From this position of great power he is able to provide a refuge from famine for his family. One of the themes of the Joseph story is that God is not restricted by national boundaries. He blesses the property of Potipher (and, by extension, Potipher himself) when Joseph is his overseer ( Gen 39:5 ). Egypt had a reputation as a place of wisdom, and Joseph appeals to this aura by calling on them to find a man "discerning and wise" ( Gen 41:33 ). Of course, Joseph is the man they need, one of the Wise, those who know the way the world works in both a divine and a human sense.
The place of wisdom, the land of refuge and hope, becomes the land of slavery when "a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt" ( Exod 1:8 ). The harsh experience of the Israelites in Egypt colors all later references to the land. Throughout the course of the struggle between Pharaoh and Yahweh, Egypt comes to represent all that is opposed to God. The fabled wisdom of Egypt is revealed as false wisdom, powerless to help the Egyptians defeat the God of Israel. Even the divine Pharaoh is unmasked as a man subject to death like his people.
The equation of Egypt with oppression becomes foundational to the people of Israel, providing the setting for the fundamental religious ritual of Passover. For the Deuteronomist, the right of God to demand worship from his people is based partly on his historic role as liberator. "Do not forget the Lord; who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" ( Deut 6:12 ). This was done because "the Lord loved you and brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt" ( 7:8 ).
By the time of Solomon, Egypt is no longer an oppressor but a trading partner ( 1 Kings 10:28 ), diplomatic relation, and cultural influence. The writer of 1 Kings declares that Solomon's wisdom is "greater than all the wisdom of Egypt" ( 4:30 ). The Egyptian role as oppressor of the people of God soon shifts to Assyria and Babylonia.
In an ironic twist, Egypt becomes a place of refuge after the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem. Yet it is a false refuge, as the fleeing Hebrews place their trust in a dying nation rather than in the living God. Like the people lost in the wilderness, some of the survivors of the destruction of Judah would rather live in relative peace in Egypt than be available for God in Palestine. Jeremiah delivers the verdict of God: "I will punish those who live in Egypt with the sword, famine and plague, as I punished Jerusalem" ( Jer 44:13 ).
God speaks of his love for his people in an oracle of the prophet Hosea: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son" (11:1). Yet the people reject God and he laments, "Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent?" (v. 5). In this oracle, Egypt functions again as a place of oppression, this time under Assyria.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Egypt is both a place of refuge and a place to come out of. One of Matthew's goals in writing his Gospel is to present Jesus as a new Moses. Matthew reports that Joseph was warned in a dream to take Jesus and his mother "and escape to Egypt" ( Matt 2:14 ). After the death of Herod, an angel tells Joseph to return to the land of Israel. Matthew applies the oracle of Hosea 11 to this situation, further linking Jesus with the historic suffering of the people of God ( Matt 2:15 ). Like Moses, Jesus comes out from Egypt, escaping the temptation of luxury, ease, and a peaceful life. Instead, he will fulfill the will of God and follow the lifelong road to Jerusalem.
Thomas W. Davis
Bibliography. D. Hill, The Gospel of Matthew; J. M. Miller and J. H. Hayes, A History of Israel and Judah.
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