Biblical Nations - Egypt


Key Scripture: Exodus 20:2

Figures: Hagar, Potiphar, Shishak, Neco

This week we turn our attention to Egypt, one of the most famous and historic neighbors of Israel, and one who has appeared consistently throughout the entire Biblical narrative.  I struggled about whether or not to describe them as an empire, as they controlled or influenced vast stretches of territory at times throughout their history, but opted to simply refer to them as a people group.  Because they are one of the earliest nations to impact Abraham and his descendants, but also have continued influencing the Jewish people all the way up to modern times, it is impossible to assign them a single geographic extent.  The one constant throughout history has been the Nile River, which serves as both the symbol and lifeline of one of the world's great enduring civilizations.

Noah's son Ham gave birth to Mizraim, which is the original Hebrew name for the land of Egypt.  One of the great difficulties in understanding the history of the Egyptian people is that their records are consistently (and in many cases, hopelessly) erroneous.  Although historic evidence points to the same people group existing along the Nile Delta in northern Africa for as long as nearly any other people group on the planet, the inflated timelines of Egyptian historians can't be trusted on exactly how long that was.  By the time of Abraham, who would have been born shortly after 2000 BC, Egypt's methods of timekeeping would mean that they had already been a unified kingdom for more than a millennium.  Whether or not this is accurate, this intersection with other cultures in the midst of what is now known as Egypt's Middle Kingdom allows us to track their timeline from that point until now.  The Jewish historian Josephus mentions that Abram taught the Egyptians about arithmetic, which is fascinating if the history of civilizations along the Nile are given a more truncated timeline.  The interesting idea is that Abram, who ventured into Egypt for the first time during a famine shortly after arriving in the land of the Canaanites, could have brought knowledge of math and astronomy that he had learned in the land of the Chaldeans to Pharaoh.  This could help explain why there is a noticeable difference between the early pyramids, which are impressive but not precise, and the latter so-called "great pyramids", which are constructed exactly square, level, and aligned with the four points of the compass.  Pharaoh Khufu built the famed Great Pyramid of Giza and is considered by many to be the pharaoh who met Abram, as recorded in Genesis 12.

Abraham's first child, Ishmael, was the son of an Egyptian slave named Hagar, and this was one of several interactions between the two societies.  It wasn't until the first patriarch's great grandson, however, that they became permanently intertwined.  Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous half brothers, purchased by a royal official named Potiphar and setting off a chain of events that eventually lead to the unexpected salvation of numerous nations in the midst of a regional famine.  Joseph's rise to power in Egypt led to his entire family relocating to Goshen in the eastern Nile Delta, but the influence of the Jewish people would soon wane as their population growth became a cause of fear and distrust.  Eventually the Israelites were subjected to slave labor, possibly under the rule of Ramses II, one of Egypt's great builders.  If that's the case, it may be that the ruler during the Exodus was Tuthmose III, a great military leader who had been co-regent alongside Hatshepsut before becoming her rival.  The possibility of Moses being raised by a former ruler would explain at least some of the hostility he faced when dealing with his adoptive mother's foe.  God displayed his power to His chosen people by inflicting ten plagues against Egypt, humiliating not only their leader but the various gods they served, and as the Hebrew slaves departed He devastated their army by drowning a force of chariots beneath the waves of the Red Sea.  As the Jewish people wandered in the wilderness, however, the lure of security and comfort offered by a return to Egypt continued to be a snare that caused repeated grumblings and disobedience within Israel's camp.

After the Promised Land was conquered, Egypt continued to influence political activity throughout the region.  Solomon married an unnamed pharaoh's daughter, building her a palace and possibly writing Song of Solomon about his love for her.  Both Israel and Judah had dealings with Egypt throughout their respective kingdoms - sometimes at war, sometimes as allies, and sometimes as a vassal state.  Solomon's son, Rehoboam, was attacked by Pharaoh Shishak shortly after the northern tribes rebelled against the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.  He carried away a great deal of treasure from the king's palace as well as the Temple, including golden shields and perhaps even the Ark of the Covenant.  Judah's final "good king", Josiah, died in battle against Pharaoh Neco (or Necho II) in 609 BC as the Egyptian ruler was traveling north to battle alongside Assyrian forces against an army led by Babylon's King Nebuchadnezzar.  Egypt was eventually defeated by the Persian Empire under Cambyses II, and then later controlled by the Macedonians under Alexander the Great.  It is apparent that a minority of Jews remained in Egypt at various times between the Old and New Testaments, and by the time of Jesus it had come under control of the Roman Empire.  In fact, Egypt served as a major food producer for Rome and was the richest province outside of what is now Italy.  Jesus himself lived in Egypt for a period of time as an infant during Herod's reign in Judea, before returning home and being raised in the Galilean town of Nazareth.  Scripture repeatedly refers to Egypt when recalling God's power and faithfulness, when using them as a warning and a curse, and when promising future blessings and favor.  The same people group who have occupied the region surrounding the Nile River for thousands of years remain to this day, still a neighbor to Israel that continues to impact politics and policies of the Jewish state, but no longer the kind of power that threatens to expand control throughout the region.


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