Down through the ages Egypt and Israel have had a checkered history of periods of close economic, cultural and military ties as well as occasional bitter confrontations. In light of the sudden thawing of relations between these two nations, a brief overview of the historical interaction of these two ancient lands provides an interesting backdrop to current Mideast peace efforts.
The earliest biblical record of an Egyptian-Hebrew encounter is found in Genesis 12:10-20, involving Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt. The next time the two nations are mentioned together, Abraham’s great grandson Joseph (who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers) had worked his way to the top of the Egyptian governmental hierarchy with the help of God, who gave him the prophetic interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream of seven years’ plenty followed by seven years of famine.
Joseph’s family subsequently settled in Egypt and over the centuries grew into a populous nation which was finally forced into slavery by a pharaoh who “knew not Joseph.” The harsh and pitiless treatment of the Hebrew slaves at the hands of their Egyptian overlords set the stage for the Exodus and the devastation of Egypt by divine plagues.
The next account of Israeli-Egyptian contact occurs during the time of Solomon, an age of unprecedented world peace and international cooperation. Here we have recorded the absolute zenith of positive relations between the two nations. We read of an “affinity with Pharaoh King of Egypt” in I Kings 3:1, and of a state marriage between Solomon and Pharaoh’s daughter at this time. After Solomon died and Israel split into the northern and southern kingdoms, the Egypt-Israel/Judah relationship steadily deteriorated into a series of military conflicts. Following the demise of the Judean monarchy, the area of present-day Israel and Egypt was conquered and absorbed in turn by Babylon, Persia, the Greco-Macedonian empire of Alexander, the Greek Ptolemies, Roman forces, and the Byzantine empire.
Palestine, conquered by Arab forces in A.D. 640, enjoyed a brief period of quasi-independence and freedom from foreign domination temporarily during the time of the medieval Crusades, but afterward was controlled by various Moslem powers right up until the twentieth century.
The Jewish-Egyptian relationship during this twenty-five-century period of foreign domination varied from amicable to strained. Some Jews lived in an autonomous military community at Elephantine. Egypt, in the 4th century B.C., and they were an influential and controversial segment of the city of Alexandria during the later Hellenistic periods. In the time of rule of the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt (10-12 centuries A.D.), the two peoples experienced somewhat happier relations. When the Jews in the Middle Ages were being persecuted in Europe (primarily in Spain), it was Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East to which they fled. This resulted in a measure of religious tolerance, cooperation, and coexistence.
One footnote to this history is the New Testament comment that shortly after the birth of Jesus Christ His parents were told to flee for their lives from Herod, the Idumean king of Judea. It was Egypt that provided the place of safety (Matt. 2:13-15), fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy (“out of Egypt I called by son” – Hosea 11:1).
Throughout the Bible there were situations in which God sanctioned Israel’s having contact with Egypt, such as in the days of the patriarch Joseph and in the time of Jesus (Matt. 2:13). But God also had very stern words against alliances with Egypt at other times, such as in the time of Jeremiah, as recounted in Ezekiel 17:15).
How can we reconcile this seeming paradox? How can God be favorably disposed to Egyptian-Israelite relations at one time and opposed the next?
The answer may be deduced from Jeremiah 42:14-16 and Ezekiel 17:15. In these two accounts, God specifically chastises Israel for placing their trust in Egypt and not in Him.
God explicitly told the Jews of Jeremiah’s day not to put their trust in Egypt for deliverance from Nebuchadnezzar’s armies. But they defied God and sought an alliance anyway. God further instructed Israel not to send ambassadors to Egypt to procure “horses and much people” – in other words, instruments of war, which again indicated a dependence upon Egypt, not God, for national security.
The Bible prophecies that there will be another future glorious golden age of peace between Israel and Egypt and their neighbors (Isa. 19:24-25): “In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’”). But for such a positive state of affairs, to occur at this time in human history, God would somehow have to be invited into the relationship. It remains to be seen in which direction the present remarkable new Egyptian-Israeli rapprochement is headed.