Once again we find ourselves riveted to news of the Middle East and this time it’s not because of trouble between Israelis and Palestinians. This time, all eyes are on Egypt. A friend who was leading a recent tour in Egypt recounted the group’s journey as they left the country before Hosni Mubarak stepped down. It sounded like a combination of movie scripts, including “The Raid on Entebbe” and “Escape from New York”!
Chaos throughout the country has captivated attention all over the world. As we watch and wonder at the success of the protesters and the toppling of a regime, we can see the hopeful faces of the Egyptian people, many of whom are just seeking a better life for themselves and their families. At the same time, fears that all this might result in the ascendancy of an extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism may be well founded. What would that mean for Israel and the prospects for peace in the Middle East? How does Egypt factor into our understanding of Scripture and God’s plans for the future? How are followers of Jesus to understand what is happening there now?
Egypt is an unquestioningly important nation that figures prominently in God’s plan of salvation—past, present and future. Most of the over 500 Bible references to Egypt are to remind the Jewish people of God’s great deliverance of Israel as recorded in the book of Exodus. But there are other significant references.
For the people of Israel, Egypt has been a place of blessing and curse, an incubator of protection as well as a crucible of persecution. The very first scriptural reference finds our father Abraham going to Egypt to escape the ravages of famine (Genesis 12:10). Ironically, another such famine led to the promotion of the Jew, Joseph, to the second highest rank of Egypt’s government. That same famine and that same Joseph made Egypt the perfect place for Jacob (also called Israel) and his sons not only to survive the ravages of famine, but also to grow into the mighty nation of descendants that God had promised Abraham.
Of course this “safe haven” changed radically with the ominous ascendance of “a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). The severity of suffering that he inflicted on the Jewish people is beyond imagining. The slaughter of newborn Jewish babies is unfathomable, a curse almost too great to bear. Yet the Lord says of His people during this time, “I know their sorrows” (Exodus 3:7c). There in the midst of trouble and sorrow in Egypt, God heard and answered the cries of the people. Deliverance became the central motif of Israel’s relationship with the Lord. He is the God who preserves and protects His people. He knows our sorrows and delivers us from trouble and pain and death.
Yet Israel’s deliverance from slavery came in the context of God’s judgment on Egypt. Israel’s grief and mourning over all the newborn boys Pharaoh had condemned to death was matched by the horrible suffering Egyptian families endured when their firstborn sons died as a result of the tenth plague.
Blessing and curse, protection and persecution, trouble and deliverance seem always to go hand in hand when God is doing His work of saving and judging people. So Egypt became more than a place where these things happened; it became a symbol of these mighty works of the Lord. It is a place of refuge and safety, and also a house of bondage from which deliverance will come.
The Gospel of Matthew tells how the Lord appeared to another Joseph in a dream, centuries later. It was Joseph, the husband of Miriam (Mary), who was warned to flee to Egypt in order to protect the child Y’shua from the murderous plans of King Herod. There in the Land of Egypt, God protected His own Son and preserved our salvation. This had been prophesied when Hosea declared, “out of Egypt I have called My son” (Hosea 11:1b). The Messiah was protected in Egypt in order to bring salvation to Israel and to the whole world.
Since the days when Messiah walked this earth, the peoples of Israel and Egypt have had a tenuous relationship with one another at best. The blessing and curse motif has continued; at times, Egypt has been a place of safety and security for Jews. Large communities of Jewish people have lived and prospered in Egypt. During the Middle Ages, for example, Jewish people were suffering greatly in Europe. Egypt became the incubator for what could be called a golden age for the Jewish people of Egypt—a safe haven to such great Jewish leaders as Maimonides and Judah ha Levi.
In the early twentieth century nearly 100,000 Jews were prospering in Egypt. Now fewer than one hundred are estimated to live there. Once again, the safe haven became a place of horrible persecution and death. Cyril Gordon, one of our Jews for Jesus missionaries in Los Angeles, was born into a Jewish family from Egypt; now none of his relatives lives there. What happened? The modern state of Israel was born, and since then Jews no longer find themselves welcome in Egypt.
Ironically, Egypt has been considered a great partner for peace with Israel. But despite the treaty that was forged in the 1970s, great tension still exists between the peoples of both countries. Trouble in Egypt does indeed mean trouble for Israel. Likewise, the hope of religious freedom in Egypt could mean hope for the entire region.
Does the Bible say anything specific regarding today’s events? Perhaps, but we can’t know until we see what unfolds. I believe we should be cautious about trying to correlate today’s headlines with verses of Scripture.
The patterns of God’s dealings with Israel and Egypt continue and His character and His promises remain the same. We can draw great encouragement from these truths. The peoples of Egypt and Israel both need to hear that God knows their sorrows and that He has sent deliverance in His Son, the Lord Jesus. As we pray for the peoples of the Middle East, let’s remember there is no form of government that can save people’s eternal souls; it is only Jesus. He is our only hope for peace in Egypt and everywhere else. Therefore, we must love and pray for the people of Egypt, and support the evangelical church there, giving to those who are earnestly attempting to share the gospel.
The Bible does make it quite clear that there will be times of terrible trouble in Egypt, but there will also be ultimate deliverance. The prophet Isaiah refers to these troubles as “The burden against Egypt” (Isaiah 19:1) and certainly much of what is described in that chapter sounds all too familiar to us today. Trouble sometimes comes as God’s judgment for sin and rebellion, and sometimes trouble comes to turn people’s hearts to the only one who can truly deliver. God is interested in the salvation of troubled Egypt through His Son, Y’shua. He has a great plan for Egypt and eventually, great blessing.
Times like these can be opportunities for the gospel of peace to penetrate the hearts of those who are desperately looking for truth and hope for themselves and their families. Just as suffering Israel cried to the Lord from Egyptian bondage and God heard their cries, so Egypt will cry to the Lord, “and He will send them a Savior and a Mighty One, and He will deliver them. Then the LORD will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day …” (Isaiah 19:20b-21a). For that day we must all earnestly look, long and pray.