All families have stories to tell, regardless of their culture or their circumstances. When parents share family stories, their children benefit in many ways. They demonstrate better understanding of other people’s thoughts and emotions. And they more often have higher self-esteem, more robust identities, better coping skills, and lower rates of depression and anxiety.
In Psalm 78 the Israelites are reminded of lessons from their history so they could to tell the next generation about what God had done. The main historical event recalled is the exodus from Egypt (Ps. 78:13-13; 42-53).
Egypt reminds me of two great characters in the Old Testament. Joseph and Moses both rescued God’s people. Joseph rescued them from a famine and Moses rescued them from slavery. Joseph led them into Egypt and Moses led them out of Egypt.
The events in Egypt described in the Bible range from the safety of a refuge to the tyranny of slavery.
A refuge from danger
Famine was one of the dangers in the ancient world. Both Abraham and Jacob’s family (the Israelites) travelled to Egypt to avoid a famine (Gen. 12:10 – 13:1; 46:1-7). Although Abraham’s visit was short, the other visit was for about 400 years. The longer visit was enabled by Joseph who rose to a position equivalent to that of Governor or Prime Minister.
There are some similarities between the life of Joseph and the life of Jesus. They were both rejected and betrayed. But their suffering saved many (Gen. 50:20; Jn. 3:16). And they were about 30 years of age when Joseph was put in charge of Egypt and when Jesus began His ministry (Gen. 41:46; Lk. 3:23).
Others fled to Egypt to escape danger. Jeroboam fled to Egypt because Solomon wanted to kill him (1 Ki 11:40 – 12:2; 2 Chron. 10:2). After the invasion of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC, some Jews fled to Egypt (2 Ki. 25:25-26; Jer. 41:16-18) and later a group of Jews forced Jeremiah to go with them to Egypt (Jer. 43:6-7). And Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt because Herod was killing all male Jewish infants. Joseph was divinely directed to take Mary and Joseph to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod (Mt. 2:13-20).
On these occasions Egypt was a safe refuge that people could run to for protection.
Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt. But he rose to be second to the king and his family thrived in Egypt. Later they were subject to slavery when a new Pharaoh cruelly used them for slave labor. They were only delivered from this under the leadership of Moses after the miraculous ten plagues. The Bible says, “the Lord at one time delivered His people out of Egypt” (Jude 1:5NIV).
There are some similarities between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus. They both narrowly escaped being killed by a king who was murdering baby boys. They both performed miracles. They both led God’s people out of captivity, being from slavery to Egypt in the case of Moses and from slavery to sin in the case of Jesus. They both mediated a covenant between God and humanity. And the Bible says that Jesus is a prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22; 7:37).
The exodus was a great victory of the God of the Israelites over the gods of Egypt, which was to be remembered in the annual Passover Festival. After the exodus, Egypt came to represent all that is opposed to God. After the decline of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon become the main distant enemies of the Israelites.
On this occasion Egypt was an oppressive place of punishment that people wanted to run away from. But during the journey from Egypt to Canaan the Israelites were tempted to return to Egypt.
An idolatrous nation
The Egyptians worshipped many gods (polytheism). And their Pharaohs were considered to be divine. Whereas the Israelites worshipped the true God and they were forbidden to marry idolatrous and immoral foreigners because they would cause them to be unfaithful to God (Dt. 7:1-4; 1 Ki. 11:1-13; Ezra 9:1-2, 10-12, 14).
When Moses was on Mount Sinai during the exodus, the Israelites built a golden calf idol (Ex. 32). So they disobeyed God and worshipped Egyptian gods instead.
Later when Israel was settled in the promised land, King Solomon married an Egyptian princess and many other foreign women who turned him to idolatry. Because of this disobedience, God caused the nation to be divided into two kingdoms (1 Ki. 11:9-13).
And when Jeroboam returned from Egypt to establish the northern kingdom of Israel, he set up calf images in Dan and Bethel (1 Ki. 12:26-33). These may have been Egyptian gods (or those of the Canaanites). Jeroboam’s sin was idolatry (1 Ki. 14:9). And subsequent kings of Israel followed his wicked example. Finally, God allowed the kingdom of Israel to be invaded by the Assyrians because of their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23).
Likewise, many of the kings of Judah also worshiped idols. And finally, God allowed the kingdom of Judah to be invaded by the Babylonians because of their idolatry (Jer. 44:1-6). When some of these Jews fled to Egypt they were warned of disaster because of their idolatry (Jer. 44:1-30).
So Egypt was one of the nations that influenced the Israelites to worship idols instead of the true God. This idolatry led to the downfall of the Jewish nation when they were driven from their lands just as they had driven the Canaanites from their lands 770-900 years earlier.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from the role of Egypt in the history of the Israelites? They lived under the old covenant of Moses, whereas Christians live under the new covenant of Jesus.
First, God cares for His people. As He cared physically for the Israelites, so He cares spiritually for those who trust in Him through Jesus today. Their salvation is assured.
Second, God is powerful. As miracles accompanied the Israelites deliverance from Egypt (ten plagues; crossing the Red Sea), so miracles accompanied Christ’s act of salvation (Christ’s resurrection) and will accompany Christians deliverance from the presence of sin (their resurrection).
Third, God’s people needed to obey Him in order to benefit from His care and power. Obedience leads to blessing. To be delivered from Egypt the Israelites needed to obey God’s instructions given by Moses. Likewise, to be delivered from sin, we need to accept God’s gift of salvation through Jesus. Have you done this?
Fourth, disobedience and idolatry (following something or someone else than the true God) leads to God’s judgment. God wants His people to be faithful. Are idols keeping you from living for Jesus?
What can we tell the next generation about what God has done for us? That’s the best kind of family stories to tell.
Egypt is mentioned in the Bible more times than any other place outside Canaan/Israel (in 673 verses of the ESV). Egypt and Israel shared a border in antiquity as they do today. And Goshen in Egypt is about 400km (250 miles) from Jerusalem. Egypt (Mitsrayim in Hebrew, Strongs #4714) is named after the grandson of Noah (son of Ham) who settled there after the global flood (Gen. 10:6).
Israel is located between the Nile river (to the southwest) and the Euphrates river (to the north east). Nations thrived in these fertile river valleys and they were great powers in the ancient world. And it’s not surprising that the inhabitants of Israel were influenced by superpowers such as the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians.
Written, December 2017
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho