The Bible most often portrays the land of Egypt as the crucible in which the nation of Israel was forged. But Egypt played an important role earlier, in the lives of Abraham as well as his great-grandson Joseph. Abraham found shelter there during a famine but left in disgrace after lying to the Pharaoh about Sarai (Gen 12:10-20). Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt and became not only a great blessing to the nation, but also the means by which the rest of his family was kept safe during another devastating famine (Gen 37-46). Eventually Egypt enslaved the young nation and treated them mercilessly for four hundred years.
EGYPT THE OPPRESSOR
Because of the harsh treatment the Israelites received there, Egypt became almost entirely a negative symbol of oppression and lack of hospitality. The hard lessons learned in Egypt are remembered yearly in the Passover, and God’s common for Israel to show kindness toward aliens and strangers stands in stark contrast to how they were treated there. God expected to be understood when he said, “Never oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be foreigners because you were foreigners living in Egypt” (Exod 23:9; also see Lev 19:34; Deut 5:12-15; 15:12-18; 16:9-12; 24:17-22). Yet God exercised compassion on Egypt in ways that parallel how he treats his chosen people. Later Ezekiel is told to prophesy against Egypt:
I will make Egypt the most desolate country in the world. For 40 years Egypt’s cities will lie in ruins. They will be ruined more than an other city. I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations and force them into other countries.
This is what the Almighty LORD says: After 40 years I will gather the Egyptians from the nations where they have been scattered. I will bring back the Egyptian captives and return them to Pathros, the land they came from. There they will be a weak kingdom. They will be the weakest kingdom, and they will never rule the nations again. I will make them so weak that they will never rule the nations again. The nation of Israel will never trust Egypt again. The people of Israel will remember how wrong they were whenever they turned to Egypt for help. Then they will know that I am the Almighty LORD. (Ezek 29:12-16).
The harsh treatment the Israelites received in Egypt made it a symbol of God’s powerful deliverance. The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt was the turning point in Hebrew history, the event that is looked back on in all generations as the symbol of God’s love and care during difficult times. Exodus 19:4 tells us, “You have seen for yourselves what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to my mountain.”
One interesting sidelight to Egypt’s role in God’s master plan can be found in the birth narrative of Jesus. Faced with a threat from Herod, Joseph was instructed to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt where they remained until the king died. Matthew sees a fulfillment of prophecy in this journey: “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and left for Egypt that night. He stayed there until Herod died. What the Lord had spoken through the prophet came true: ‘I have called my son out of Egypt’ ” (Matt 2:14-15). The irony is that Egypt, the land that had enslaved Israel, was for a time the land that protected Israel’s Messiah.
EGYPT THE PLACE OF TEMPTATION
Throughout the Bible Egypt is portrayed as a place that might be visited, but living there would be dangerous. Power and temptation can be found in Egypt alongside slavery and judgment. The writer of Hebrews highlights the attraction of worldly values that Egypt symbolizes: “When Moses grew up, faith led him to refuse to be known as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to suffer with God’s people rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a little while. He thought that being insulted for Christ would be better than having the treasures of Egypt. He was looking ahead to his reward” (11:24-26). And in John’s terrible vision of the end times, two powerful witnesses for God are struck down in Jerusalem. Jerusalem isn’t named outright, but instead is referred to as the “important city where their Lord was crucified? (Rev 11:8). John goes on to stay, “The spiritual names of that city are Sodom and Egypt” (v. 8).
Egypt is the recurring symbol for those places we know we should avoid yet toward which we still find ourselves drawn. We may think we want to go back to Egypt, but we must listen to the voice reminding us that only captivity and death await us there