Continuing reflections on reading the Old Testament, now on the beginning of Exodus.
What’s the problem with Egypt? It’s not merely the fact of Israel’s enslavement, but something constitutive about Egypt itself, something that makes the problem extend beyond the geographical bounds of the ancient kingdom and into the hearts of the Israelites in the wilderness and, by extension, all of us. We see the suspicion of Egypt lurking throughout Genesis, a sort of precarious relationship where Egypt serves as a place of refuge during times of trouble, for Abraham, for Jacob’s children, but one viewed with suspicion and trepidation. When Lot chooses to inhabit land, Sodom and Gomorrah, because it reminds him of Egypt, this is certainly not supposed to be a good thing.
There’s also the strange indeterminacy of Egypt in the OT narrative. In books awash with names and places, we get strikingly few there, no pharaohs, few cities. The vagueness is part of the point, I think.
The issue, it seems, is that Egypt is the place where humans have managed to craft, through their own efforts, the best approximation of the Garden of Eden’s abundance. A land untouched by famine-with one exception and, even here, their abundance is so great that they can successfully mitigate that famine’s effects by storing up excess grain-home to magicians with terrible power, able to replicate even some of the miracles of God.
The idea that man could gain gifts that are by rights Gods to give is repeatedly shown to be a serious problem, as in the story of Babel. The perversion can most starkly be seen in the Egyptians’ attempt to seize the greatest of divine gifts, immortality, through mummification. The perverse aspect of this is that it’s rooted in a sense of the body as immortal, which is true in one respect, but grossly false in another. Mummies are horrific parodies of the living, signs of death, not life. Joseph insisting that Jacob be mummified certainly tells us something about the degree to which Egypt has seized his heart.
But this is an eternal temptation, isn’t it? To bring reality fully under man’s control. To be “like gods.” We see that the Pharaoh takes himself to be divinized, everything in the land flows from him. He is the one who feeds, he’s the one who gives out land, he is the supreme power. He renames Joseph, striking because over and over again it is God who has this prerogative. Notice how the Egyptian gods never enter the picture. Instead, magicians, technicians of secret arts.*
Moses, though, manages to overcome this. How? Perhaps because he is humble. Compare his encounter with God in the burning bush, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” to Pharoah, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.” But, of course, Moses does not know the Lord either when he asks his question, he doesn’t even know God’s name.**
Even as miracle after miracle piles up, after the magicians have confessed that God lies behind them all, that He outstrip their own power, Pharaoh’s heart grows harder and harder in his pride. Even after he finally allows them to leave, having brought untold catastrophes down upon his own people, he rages, “what is this we have done, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” Did he somehow forget what had just transpired? Was it he who freed Israel?
Of course, the Israelites seem to forget very quickly what they have witnessed as well. Virtually every time hardship strikes them in the wilderness, they cry out for the material abundance of Egypt, where they were provided for by men, even if those men made them slaves. They may have physically left Egypt but it remains in their hearts. Indeed, the first generation that flees, save two, are never able to escape and reach the Promised Land. In one of their darkest moments, they even try to fashion their own god from the plundered jewelry of the Egyptians. How could they not know that the idol they made was not divine?
And do we still live in Egypt today?
*comp. Balaam, the prophet of false gods.
**Later, “Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person.”
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