Egypt in the Bible by Michael J. Chan


Egypt casts an extremely long shadow over the Hebrew Bible.  In every book from Genesis to second Kings—we refer to it as the Enneateuch—there are references to Egypt in every single book. All the major prophets, seven out of twelve minor prophets make reference to Egypt.  We cannot understand the biblical text without understanding Egypt, its culture and its history, and how the history interacts with Israel’s own history. 

And if you were to bring all the biblical authors and editors into a room at one time and say, “well, what do you think about Egypt, what is the biblical view of Egypt?” You would get so many different voices, it would be hard, it would be a cacophony of different voices, because the biblical texts don’t agree.  There isn’t one monolithic picture of Egypt. 

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Now we’re very familiar, of course, with the Exodus, which is where Egypt is really a villain, and becomes the opponent of Yahweh and, and the Israelites, of course, are freed from Egypt and that’s the story with which we’re most familiar. 

But, if you turn just a few chapters earlier into the book of Genesis, for example, Egypt is not the big, bad villain; in fact, Egypt is the place where Israel is transformed from a family, a relatively small family, into a great nation.  And, it is that great nation that poses such a great threat to Pharaoh, why he eventually engages in infanticide and increases pressure on his slave labor force, which is comprised of the Hebrews.  So, that’s just one juxtaposition where you can see where, you know, you juxtapose Genesis, where Egypt is not thought of in any, really, in a negative light, in fact, it’s a place where Israel can flourish—go a few chapters further and you have Exodus where Egypt is a villain.


Michael J. Chan

Michael J. Chan
Assistant Professor, Luther Seminary

Michael J. Chan is assistant professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, Minnesota). He is especially interested in iconography, or the study of images as they relate to the Bible and its broader cultural context. His has published numerous journal articles and authored “A Biblical Lexicon of Happiness,” in The Bible and the Pursuit of Happiness: What the Old and New Testaments Teach Us about the Good Life (Oxford University Press, 2012). Currently, Chan is coediting a volume of essays entitled God, World, and Suffering: Collected Essays of Terence Fretheim (Eerdmans, forthcoming).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

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