The Bible names many different countries: Israel, Babylon, India, Ethiopia, Persia, Syria, Moab, Egypt, Italy, and many more. The most common one is Israel – not surprisingly, since God says that for him it is the centre of the world, the land he promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (whom he renamed “Israel”).
Judah was one of the leading tribes of Israel from the beginning and later became a separate kingdom for several hundred years. It is therefore not surprising that the nation named most commonly after Israel is Judah – although only about one third as often.
What may surprise you, however, is that the third most common country named in the Bible is Egypt, not far behind Judah in frequency.
Egypt appears in the Bible at different times as a place of both safety and oppression. Abraham went there for refuge when there was a famine in Canaan. Later, Joseph, Rachel’s son, was sold there as a slave. However, while he was there, God helped him to interpret a dream that warned of a coming famine and he rose to a position of power and saved both Egypt and his own family. Still later, though, the Egyptians made all the Israelites slaves, and God had to send ten plagues to convince Pharaoh to let them go free. In the New Testament, when Herod was trying to kill Jesus, God warned Joseph and Mary to escape to Egypt so that Jesus was not killed along with the other boys in Bethlehem.
I find it fascinating that more than 100 of the references to Egypt in the Old Testament were reminding the Israelites that God had led them out of Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan.
For example, here is one of about ten examples in the book of Jeremiah alone:
Given that Jeremiah was prophesying about 700 years after the exodus, God is reaching far back into history to make the point that he was the one who had led his chosen nation into the land he had promised to Abraham and then set them up as a nation. God does not forget the past, or his promises. He doesn’t want us to forget his actions in the past either, since they are our reason for expecting him to keep his promises in the future.
Since Egypt was one of Israel’s neighbours, it is no surprise that it is often mentioned as a place that people came from or visited. For example, Sarai/Sarah’s maid Hagar was an Egyptian, and when the prophet Uriah was running away from King Jehoiakim, he went to Egypt.
However, some of the most interesting references to Egypt are found in prophecies about Egypt.
Let’s start with a prophecy that shows just how important Egypt is in God’s plans. In Isaiah 20:1-5 we see that Isaiah went naked and barefoot for three years as a sign against Egypt and Cush (the southern area of Egypt). Apart from the shame of being naked, imagine the cold of three winters spent without the warmth of clothing in a city where snow can fall! Yet God wanted to make sure that everyone in Jerusalem understood the message that the nation must not rely on Egypt, whose support was as imaginary as the new clothes of Hans Christian Anderson’s emperor.
When Israel left Egypt during the Exodus, they were told not to return there – either for trade or for help. No chariots; no horses; nothing: but the nation looked to Egypt for support and security on and off throughout their history.
Later, when an Assyrian leader was doing his best to convince King Hezekiah to surrender, he laughed off the help Egypt could give, dismissing Egypt as a “broken reed of a staff”.
God had already given them the same message through Isaiah in Isaiah 30:1-7, which finishes with:
“Egypt’s help is worthless and empty;
therefore I have called her
‘Rahab who sits still.’ ”
Egypt had once been a superpower and continued to be more powerful than Judah, but their power was waning, and they were concentrating on their own interests, not those of Judah.
However, God not only derided the help Egypt would give, he also condemned Judah’s desire to assure their own security through treaties with other nations instead of looking for support from God. Through Isaiah he said:
“Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!”
This lesson is still there for Israel to learn from today – and for other nations too.
Zedekiah was the last king of Judah. He was crowned by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and agreed to rule Judah as Nebuchadnezzar’s servant, but after a while, he rebelled and asked Egypt for help. This was a very bad decision, because keeping promises is important to God. In the end, Zedekiah’s broken promise sounded the death-knell for the kingdom of Judah. God said through Ezekiel the prophet:
This should be a powerful warning for us: if we want to please the God of Israel, we must keep our promises. Not only so, but Jesus said (Matthew 5:33-37) that he doesn’t want us to take oaths or anything special like that, just to do what we say we will.
In the 6th century BC, Egypt’s importance in the world was waning, but there was much worse still to come for Egypt.
In 588-587BC, as Nebuchadnezzar and his army were besieging Jerusalem, the army of Egypt mobilised, and it seemed as if they were advancing to attack Nebuchadnezzar’s army in support of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar led his army away to meet them, and Judah thought their salvation had come. But through Jeremiah, God told King Zedekiah that his hopes were futile: Pharaoh would withdraw, and Nebuchadnezzar would return with his army, besieging and then burning Jerusalem.
During the 18-month siege of Jerusalem that followed, God also spoke through the prophet Ezekiel – already in captivity near Babylon. God said that Egypt would be a desolate country among all the other countries that Nebuchadnezzar had made desolate, but that Egypt would be restored after 40 years. However, from that time on, Egypt would never again be a great superpower; instead it would be a lowly nation.
History has seen this fulfilled, and it is still true today. Great Egypt, the land of the magnificent pyramids and stunning golden treasures, is not an important nation. God also said that Israel would never depend on Egypt again as they had done in the past. This too is seen in the Middle East today. Israel and Egypt are now at peace, but despite Egypt having more than 10 times the population of Israel, it is Israel that is the senior partner in the alliance.
There are also some fascinating prophecies about Egypt in Isaiah 19 that describe a much closer relationship between Egypt and Israel than exists at present. Even more astonishingly, it also presents Egypt and Assyria (modern-day Iraq) as partners together with Israel!
Political alignments in the world change over time, but at the moment, the idea of Egypt, Iraq and Israel cooperating together to build a road that joins the three nations is almost incredible.
Yet God’s prophecies about Egypt in the past have been fulfilled, and that gives me confidence that at some time in the future, we will see the fulfilment of this prophecy also:
What an amazing change from the widespread hatred that currently exists in the region!
These are just a few of the prophecies about Egypt in the Bible, and I have concentrated mostly on longer-term prophecies. Many short-term prophecies were also made at different times, such as Joseph’s prophecy of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought and Moses’ prophecy that Pharaoh would let the people of Israel go after he was forced to do so by the ten plagues. There were also others in the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel that said Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon would attack Egypt, which he did shortly afterwards (e.g. Ezekiel 30:9-16).
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|↑1||Sometimes it is hard to separate God’s love for the land from his love for the people he chose to give it to: see Ezekiel 5:5; 20:6; 38:12; Isaiah 41:8-9; Zechariah 2:8 and Jeremiah 12:14. When you think about it, it makes sense that God would give his favourite land to his best friends!|
|↑3||Genesis 16:1, 3; 21:9; 25:12|
|↑6||See 2 Kings 18:21; Isaiah 36:6. God used a similar description himself about 130 years later in Ezekiel 29:6-7.|