This week the portion from Exodus and the text from Prophets share one clear theme: Egypt is to be defeated, and its defeat must continue across generations.
On one level, this downfall involves the nation of Egypt at the time of Moses as well as the nation of Egypt as prophesied by Jeremiah in the declining years of the First Temple.
On a deeper level, and the one I would like for us to consider, there’s a way of life that is associated with the Egypt experience that is to be defeated. In other words, we must constantly be aware of an improper way of being that must be defeated, and we call that way of life, Egypt.
What is this Egypt?
Tomes have been written on this topic, and we could (and should) spend considerably more time than this short essay permits on its possibilities. Here, let’s use our time simply to look at the language in the text regarding Egypt to see what it teaches about human behaviors that ought to be defeated.
Let’s start by noting that the word for Egypt in Hebrew is mitzrayim, a word related to meitzar, which means narrow place. For reasons we well understand, narrowness is not a desirable attribute.
In Jeremiah, we begin by reading: “Pharaoh, the blustery king of Egypt, has let the appointed time go by.”
Didn’t we learn last week that God prizes one who is humble and contrite of spirit and reverential of God’s word? Blustery seems the exact opposite of all that.
Letting the appointed time go by – this has the feel of being unmindful of the appointed times in the season when we are called to draw near to God. This may be especially concerning when we miss the time to turn back to God and our fellows after we have strayed and done wrong by them.
Egypt, we read further, is “a beautiful calf,” prey for slaughtering. My mind goes to the golden calf. Does yours? A place where the material is elevated over the spiritual is a place that concerns God, and should concern us, too.
“Egypt’s voice will travel like a snake’s….” One can hardly keep from thinking of the snake in the garden, whose voice appeals seductively to act against God’s direction. It allures, but it leads to destruction.
In Exodus, we read of two plagues that afflict Egypt that also hint clearly of the condition of “being Egypt.”
The first is locusts. Is it the plague or the condition that draws the plague that is so claustrophobic? In the midst of such a plague, one is unable to know how or where to move, creating a sense of hopelessness and even further loss. This incapacity ultimately is horrifying and leads to death.
The second is a darkness that can be touched. People can’t see each other. There’s isolation from care, nearness, and any way out or forward. However physical it may be, it’s certainly, also, a spiritual or psychological darkness. Some sages tie this impoverishment of spirit back to the concern in Jeremiah: when there’s an undue emphasis on the material, especially when it leads to inordinate wealth built largely on the backs of others, there’s a darkness that can be touched. It’s become “too much Egypt,” and it must be overcome.
The text in Torah and Jeremiah both end with the promise of God’s saving hand. We’re redeemed from bondage to tyranny and worship of the material. From those narrow places, we are free to journey to Sinai and the land of promise, where living true to God’s expectations will bring us great expansiveness and blessing.