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Bible Dictionaries

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

Egypt

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In spite of the ancient culture and civilization for which Egypt is famous, the feature highlighted in the Bible is that Egypt was a place of bondage out of which God redeemed his people (Exodus 6:6-7; Exodus 15:1-12; Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 6:12; Joshua 24:17). Throughout their history, the people of Israel celebrated their deliverance from Egypt, reminding themselves that God’s grace and power alone had saved them (Leviticus 23:43; Deuteronomy 16:1-3; 1 Samuel 10:17-18; Nehemiah 9:16-17; Psalms 106:7-12; Daniel 9:15; Amos 2:10; Micah 7:15; Acts 7:17-19; Acts 7:36; see PASSOVER).

Egypt continued to be involved in the history of God’s people, and is mentioned often throughout the period of the Old Testament period. Even the New Testament opens with a reference to Egypt, for Mary and Joseph spent a time there with the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:13-15).

The land and the people

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Less than one twentieth of ancient Egypt was usable land, and almost the whole of Egypt’s population lived in that area. Most of the remaining land was desert. Rain fell only rarely, and the country was dependent almost entirely on the Nile River for its water supply.

Egypt was divided into two main parts, Upper and Lower. Upper Egypt, to the south, was desert except for the Nile Valley, where soil left behind after the annual flooding of the Nile made the land usable for a few kilometres either side of the river. Lower Egypt, to the north, consisted mainly of the flat and often swampy Delta that stretched from Cairo (Memphis) to the Mediterranean Sea, 180 kilometres away (see NILE).

A stream called the Brook (or River) of Egypt, which formed part of the south-western boundary of the land promised to Israel, was not the Nile River but the Wadi El-Arish. It flowed out of the Sinai Peninsular into the Mediterranean Sea. This was a very practical boundary from Israel’s point of view. It excluded the useless desert land of the Wilderness of Shur to the west, but included the usable farming and grazing land to the east (Numbers 34:1-5; Joshua 15:4; Joshua 15:47; 1 Kings 8:65; Isaiah 27:12).

The people of Egypt appear to have been a mixture of Hamites and Semites. The descendants of Ham developed their own culture throughout lands of northern Africa, and were called Mizraim by the Hebrews (Genesis 10:6; Psalms 78:51; Psalms 105:23; Psalms 105:27). From very early times, other peoples mingled with the Hamites, among them the Semites (descendants of Shem). The Semitic influence was the chief cause of the advanced civilization that was already established in Egypt at the time Israel became prominent in the Bible story.

For most of this period the capital of Egypt was Memphis, on virtually the same site as present-day Cairo (Jeremiah 44:1; Hosea 9:6; see MEMPHIS). Nearby was the city of sun worship, which the Egyptians called On and the Greeks called Heliopolis (Genesis 41:45; Jeremiah 43:13; cf. Isaiah 19:18).

Pharaoh was the title given to all Egyptian kings, and was used either by itself or attached to the king’s personal name (Exodus 5:1; 2 Kings 23:29; see PHARAOH). The people considered the king to be a god and did not question his laws.

Egyptians worshipped many gods, most of them gods of nature and therefore concerned with the Nile, on which the life of Egypt depended (Exodus 12:12). Pharaoh was considered to be a god-king who embodied one of these gods. At his death he passed from the world of the humans to the world of the gods, which explains why the Pharaohs built for themselves elaborate tombs such as the pyramids.

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Bible history up till the exodus

After about a thousand years of development and progress under successive Egyptian dynasties, the native Egyptian rulers gradually lost their power to aggressive chiefs among recent Semitic immigrants. These foreign chiefs (in Egyptian called Hyksos) eventually took over the country (about 1720 BC).

The Hyksos continued the traditional Egyptian style of government, with the leader becoming the Pharaoh. Egyptian officials handled the day-to-day administration as previously. However, during the century and a half of the Hyksos dynasties, a number of Semites (such as Joseph) were appointed to high positions in the Egyptian government. At the same time official procedures and traditions remained thoroughly Egyptian (Genesis 41:14; Genesis 41:40-45; Genesis 43:32; Genesis 46:34; Genesis 47:22; Genesis 47:26; Genesis 50:2-3; Genesis 50:26).

Egyptian princes overthrew the Hyksos and established a new dynasty about 1570 BC. This was a turning point in Egyptian history, and the next five hundred years was the period of Egypt’s greatest power and magnificence. For most of this time the capital was at Thebes in Upper Egypt. This was a magnificent city, a fact reflected in the Hebrew word no, by which the Israelites called the city (Jeremiah 46:25; Ezekiel 30:16; Nahum 3:8; see THEBES).

Meanwhile the descendants of Jacob, who had migrated to Egypt during the time of the Hyksos, had multiplied greatly. The Egyptian rulers, fearing and despising these Semite migrants, introduced laws against them and eventually made them slaves. This provided the Pharaohs with a cheap work force for their extensive building programs. One of the cities that the Hebrew slaves built was Rameses (or Ra’amses) in the Nile Delta. (It was probably the former Hyksos capital, Avaris, rebuilt.) The building program included a palace, storehouses and defence installations (Exodus 1:8-11; see RAMESES).

The Pharaohs lived in luxury and their large harems usually included many foreign women. It was therefore not unusual for non-Egyptian children to grow up in the palace (Exodus 2:10). Pharaoh also had magicians and wise men, who were among his chief advisers (Exodus 7:11; Exodus 8:19). (For Moses’ conflict with Pharaoh see PHARAOH; PLAGUE.)

Bible history during the Israelite monarchy

Apart from the events that led up to and included the exodus (1280 BC), Egypt had little to do with Israel during the five hundred years of Egypt’s greatest power. This time of Egyptian greatness came to an end about 1085 BC, and the story of the nation from then on is one of decline. The capital from 1085 to 660 BC was Rameses, renamed Zoan (Isaiah 19:11; Isaiah 19:13; Isaiah 30:4).

About 970 BC Solomon, king of Israel, married the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt as part of a treaty designed to strengthen the security and commercial life of both kingdoms (1 Kings 3:1; 1 Kings 4:21; 1 Kings 10:28-29). But when that Pharaoh died, the new Pharaoh, fearful of Israel’s increasing power, encouraged rebellions within Israel. He also supported guerilla attacks around its borders, and on one occasion he himself attacked and plundered Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:14-22; 1 Kings 11:40; 1 Kings 14:25-27).

During the time of Israel’s divided kingdom, both sections were at times tempted to rely on Egypt for help against Assyria. They were always disappointed (2 Kings 17:4-6; 2 Kings 18:21; 2 Kings 18:24; Isaiah 30:1-3; Isaiah 31:1). Also during this time Assyria destroyed the former Egyptian capital, Thebes (Nahum 3:8-10).

When Babylon conquered the Assyrian capital Nineveh in 612 BC, Pharaoh Necho of Egypt went to help what was left of Assyria to withstand Babylon. Josiah, king of Judah, opposed Necho, fearing that this Egyptian-Assyrian alliance was a threat to his independence. Judah was defeated and Josiah killed. Necho now considered himself controller of Judah and placed a heavy tax on it (2 Kings 23:28-35). But in 605 BC Babylon conquered Egypt in the Battle of Carchemish, and so became the new master of Judah (2 Kings 24:7; Jeremiah 46:2).

After serving Babylon for a time, the Judean king rebelled, bringing a punishing invasion from Babylon. Babylon then appointed a new Judean king, Zedekiah, but after a while he too sought Egyptian aid in rebelling against Babylon, a policy that Jeremiah and Ezekiel strongly opposed (2 Kings 24:18-20; Jeremiah 2:16-18; Jeremiah 2:36-37; Jeremiah 21:1-10; Jeremiah 37:6-10; Ezekiel 17:12-16; Ezekiel 29:6-9). This brought a further attack by Babylon, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC and the deportation of most of the Judeans to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21).

Gedaliah, a Judean official, was appointed by the Babylonians as governor of those who remained in Judah. He encouraged the people to submit to Babylon and not to look for support against Babylon from Egypt. But the pro-Egyptian group murdered Gedaliah. The remaining Judeans, fearing a revenge attack by Babylon, fled for their lives to Egypt (2 Kings 25:22-26; Jeremiah 40:13-16; Jeremiah 41; Jeremiah 42; Jeremiah 43:1-7).

Summary of later history

In another battle, in 568 BC, Babylon defeated Egypt again, this time not on foreign soil but in Egypt itself (Jeremiah 46:13-24; Ezekiel 29:17-20; Ezekiel 30:20-26). Babylon then forced Egypt to join it in resisting the rising power of Persia, but the attempt was unsuccessful. Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and conquered Egypt in 525 BC. Egypt rebelled against Persia whenever the opportunity arose, till in 341 BC the last native ruler of Egypt was removed (cf. Ezekiel 32:1-16).

With Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 BC, Egypt came under the rule of the Greeks. In New Testament times it was ruled by the Romans (Acts 21:38). In the third century AD it became a nominally Christian country, but in 641 AD it was conquered by the Moslems and has remained under Moslem control ever since.


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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Egypt'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bbd/e/egypt.html. 2004.


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the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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