Biblical Egypt: Land of Refuge, Land of Bondage

S. Kent Brown, “Biblical Egypt: Land of Refuge, Land of Bondage,” Ensign, Sept. 1980, pg 45

One of the most intriguing words in the scriptures—as a place, as a reference, as a symbol—is Egypt, the land of so many of our Father’s children. Biblical Egypt served both as a refuge and as a threat to the Lord’s people in Old Testament and New Testament times. From Abraham to Jesus, the prophets, patriarchs, and people had a continuous connection with the place called Egypt, and on more than one occasion they dwelt there. One of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, Moses, was called up out of Egypt. And Joseph, from whom so many of us have descended, performed his greatest service to God and His people in that land.

The emphasis in the Bible consistently falls not on Egyptians as persons but on Egypt as a place. Only rarely are individuals native to Egypt mentioned by name (see, for example, Gen. 41:50; 2 Kgs. 23:29; Jer. 44:30). Thus, when in later Christian scripture Egypt is used as a symbol of spiritual bondage, we note that the writers use the place as a symbol understood by the Jews and not a charge against the people. In the book of Revelation, for instance, Egypt is equated with Sodom, and both are used as names or symbols for a wicked Jerusalem of the latter days (Rev. 11:8). But this use of Egypt only partially reflects the attitudes of the ancient Israelites toward that place. While it was often a place of testing or bondage, it was also a frequent haven from their troubles.

A Refuge from Famine

For Abraham and Sarah, Egypt constituted a place of refuge from the famine raging at the time of their arrival in Canaan (see Gen. 12:10). Interestingly, while Abraham and Sarah enjoyed respite from Canaan’s drought, their visit to Egypt provided Sarah with one of her most difficult trials.

Most are familiar with the story of Sarah posing as Abraham’s sister (see Gen. 12:11-15). Even though Abraham later insisted that Sarah was his sister through his father, but not his mother (see Gen. 20:12), many students have felt confused with this explanation. It was not until the discovery of ancient Hurrian legal texts at the site of Nuzi, a city east of Ashur, the capital of ancient Assyria, that we obtained a clearer background for this incident.

The Hurrians were people who flourished about the time of Abraham, and later. Their kingdom included the land of Haran in which Abraham and Sarah lived for a number of years before moving to Canaan (see Gen. 11:31; Gen. 12:5). Interestingly, only in stories dealing with Sarah and Rebecca do we find the claim made that the wife was also a sister to her husband (see Gen. 12:10-20; Gen. 20:2-6; Gen. 26:1-11). Rebecca, like Sarah, spent her youth growing up in Haran, no doubt in contact with Hurrians.

The contact is important when we learn that under Hurrian law women were frequently adopted as sisters by their husbands either before or during the marriage ceremony. Such a dual status, both wife and sister, had important consequences for a woman. It guaranteed to her special legal and social protections and opportunities which were simply not available to women in any other culture of the Near East. Because Sarah had lived within the Hurrian culture for a number of years, it is not unlikely that she enjoyed this status in her marriage, a status common among Hurrians. Therefore, Abraham’s claim that Sarah was his sister upon their entry into the land of Egypt is not far-fetched in the least. Further, it is possible that Terah, Abraham’s father, had adopted Sarah before her marriage to Abraham and that this is the meaning of the passage in Genesis 20:12 [Gen. 20:12]. This particular practice, on the part of a prospective father-in-law, is documented from the Nuzi tablets. (See E. A. Speiser, “The Wife-Sister Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives,” in Biblical and Other Studies, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963, pp. 15-28.)

In Genesis Abraham is said to have insisted that Sarah was his sister because he feared for his life. The incident is clarified in the book of Abraham where we learn it was revealed to Abraham that Sarah would maintain that she was his sister (see Abr. 2:21-25).

This placed the burden on Sarah. Would she risk her own rights as wife in order to preserve the life of her husband as the Lord had asked? Indeed, Sarah’s visit to Egypt became a period of intense trial for her. Even though the Lord protected her from the pharaoh’s intent to make her his wife—and protected her virtue—the pharaoh was nevertheless allowed to take her into his household (Gen. 12:15-20). We see, then, that Egypt represented at the same time a haven from the famine and a place of testing for Sarah.

The Testing of Joseph

For Joseph, also, Egypt served two opposing functions. On the one hand, it formed a true proving ground for him, since it was here that he was most severely tested. On the other, Egypt gave him refuge from his brothers’ jealousies, which had plagued him throughout his youth. Perhaps here Joseph would be more likely to succeed or fail on his own merits rather than succumbing to the contrary winds of his father’s favoritism and his brothers’ hatred and repression.

We must bear in mind that Egypt was a transformer of cultures. Almost every culture that came into contact with Egypt sooner or later adopted Egyptian qualities in the most fundamental ways. It is stirring, therefore, to find an exception in Abraham and Sarah, who departed Egypt with their loyalty to their God intact. But they were adults already refined by experience. To say that the young Joseph resisted the enticements of the Egyptian culture in the same way his grandparents had is to pay him great tribute. He had been betrayed and sold by his brothers. He was alone in a strange land. Yet the teenage Joseph chose to remain true to the teachings of his parents and his God.

The Deliverance of the Children of Israel

For the rest of the family of Jacob, Egypt became a place of refuge from another severe famine. By the end of the book of Genesis, Egypt is portrayed as a land of plenty while Canaan, tortured by drought, was hostile to human survival. But the refuge turned to bondage when the descendants of Jacob, in the book of Exodus, came to be held captive by Egypt’s pharaoh. Suddenly the picture changed. Egypt now represented loathsome servitude for the Hebrews, while Canaan was characterized as a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8).

In a sense, the land of Egypt represented not only a place of testing for Israel but a place where they saw Jehovah in a contest with the false gods of pharaoh. Thus, the Exodus, one of the greatest dramas of human deliverance ever told, is not merely a story of one people escaping the power of another, but is a chronicle of a struggle for supremacy between the idolatrous gods of Egypt and the invading God of the Hebrews.

Interestingly, the Bible speaks of Jehovah as coming physically into Egypt in order to battle pharaoh’s “gods” (which were not gods at all) and to lead his people to another land. The result of the contest between Jehovah and Egypt’s deities underscores the idea that the God of the Hebrews was the universal god, that he was not limited by international boundaries. Generally speaking, deities in the ancient world were conceived to be limited to the territories of the people who worshiped them. When one crossed an international frontier, one also passed from the territory of one god to the territory of another. The story of Naaman illustrates this. Naaman came to Elisha seeking a cure for his leprosy. After he was freed from the disease he asked Elisha’s permission to take two donkey loads of earth back to Syria so that he could worship the Lord Jehovah on Jehovah’s own ground (see 2 Kgs. 5:17-18).

The lasting importance of the Lord’s deliverance of the Hebrews from bondage was recalled again and again in their oaths and prayers. The phrase was, “The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” (Jer. 16:14). The Lord told Jeremiah that only one other act would be as great and momentous: when, as the exalted Lord, he will gather his people for the last time. On that occasion, a new phrase would be introduced that would characterize the Lord and that work (Jer. 16:15).

Jeroboam: The Fugitive

Jeroboam is the next biblical personage whose career was affected positively by Egypt. We recall the story of how Ahijah the prophet met Jeroboam and, while symbolically tearing his cloak into twelve pieces, prophesied that Jeroboam would rule over the northern tribes (see 1 Kgs. 11:29-39). Jeroboam at the time was serving as a foreman in the public works sector of Solomon’s administration. Naturally, Solomon was alarmed by the prophecy and sought Jeroboam’s life. Jeroboam fled to Egypt until the death of Solomon (see 1 Kgs. 11:40; 1 Kgs. 12:2-3). In this case, Egypt formed a sanctuary for the fugitive Jeroboam.

Jeremiah’s Prophecy

Of the later prophets, Jeremiah had most to do with Egypt. Late in his life he was taken by force to Egypt, where he apparently lived out the rest of his life (see Jer. 43:5-7). Earlier in his ministry, Jeremiah had insisted that the kingdom of Judah should bow to the yoke of Babylonia and not align itself with Egypt. This anti-Egypt, pro-Babylonia position did not find adherents among the leaders of Judah. The results, of course, were disastrous for Jerusalem and the surrounding country.

When Jeremiah was forcibly kidnapped to Egypt by Jews who had assassinated Nebuchadnezzar’s governor, Gedaliah, it appeared that Egypt would again be a place of safety. But Jeremiah made it clear to his Jewish captors that it would not be so. In chapter 44 he addressed all Jews living in Egypt, prophesying that, rather than a shelter from troubles, Egypt would be for them a place of punishment. The Jews in Egypt would be so thoroughly destroyed, he said, that only a “small number” would return to the land of Judah (Jer. 44:28). Finally, Jeremiah prophesied, the scourge of the sword would be so great that the pharaoh himself would fall to it (see Jer. 44:30). This prophecy was fulfilled in 525 B.C. when the Persians under Cambyses overran Egypt.

The Elephantine Temple

Contemporary with Jeremiah was a military colony of Jews on Elephantine, a small granite island in the Nile River adjacent to the modern city of Aswan. Though these Jews were serving as mercenary soldiers for the pharaoh, they nevertheless wished to continue in their religious worship. Accordingly, as archaeological excavations of the site have shown, they built a temple. This temple flourished and served the Jewish colony until it was destroyed in 411 B.C. by Egyptians rioting against the Jewish God in favor of the god Khnum. We learn from the existence of the Elephantine temple that at least some Jews of that period regarded Egypt as their home. With their own temple (even though they may have been apostate) they would no longer have to look to Jerusalem as the spiritual center of their religion. That center, instead, was right in Egypt with them.

Flight of the Holy Family

Egypt served as a refuge for Israelites one final time in the Bible. That occurrence was with the baby Jesus. When Jesus and his parents fled Bethlehem to Egypt (see Matt. 2:13-14), it is estimated that up to one million Jews lived in the city of Alexandria. But in the traditions that have grown up in Egypt concerning the “flight of the Holy Family,” it has been assumed that Joseph and Mary avoided populated areas, especially those in which large numbers of Jews lived.

The biblical record says nothing about where Joseph led his family. But where the Bible has left off, tradition has continued the story. Joseph is said to have led his family into the delta about midway between the modern cities of Port Said and Suez. They wound their way across the delta, making a number of stops. At almost every resting place a miraculous event is reported to have occurred, according to the legends. The Holy Family first stopped at the town of Basta near the large, modern city of Zagazig.

Later, according to a local story, the family arrived in the delta town of Belbeis. They eventually arrived at the Roman fortress Babylon, which controlled the Nile river’s traffic at a place just south of modern Cairo. Over a cave there, in which the family is believed to have stayed, was later built the Church of St. Sergis.

After a brief stay in the cave within this large Roman fort, the family is said to have sailed for upper Egypt from the spot where the Church of the Holy Virgin in Maadi now stands. Their long trip, mostly by boat but partly by foot, took them eventually to the Qousqam Mountains. It is believed that the Holy Family lived here in a cave. It is in this cave that the angel is said to have appeared to Joseph, instructing him to take the child and Mary back to their home (see Matt. 2:19-20).

None of the details of the journey of the Holy Family can be confirmed by historical evidence. We do know, however, that the Holy Family did go to Egypt, and that fact has been a source of pride and awe for members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, descendants of the original Egyptian Christians. The theme of the flight of the Holy Family has been a favorite of Coptic storytellers and artists, although its prominence did not emerge on a large scale in Coptic art until the eighteenth century.

From this brief review it is apparent that Egypt played an enormous role in the waxing and waning fortunes of ancient Hebrews from the time of Abraham to the days of Jesus. Along with other lands in the area, the Lord used Egypt to test and train and preserve his people.
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