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The Danger of Yearning for Egypt

by Larry J. McElroy

Understanding why ancient Israel desired to return to Egypt helps ensure we do not lose sight of our calling.

Three pyramids at Giza towering over a vast desert. Linen-wrapped mummies. The Sphinx. The Nile River. The treasures of King Tut.

For the average person, these images come to mind when they hear the word Egypt.

The term may draw another response: biblical Egypt. Where Abraham sojourned for a short time. Where Joseph came to be second in command over the kingdom. Where the Israelites were enslaved and later rescued by God through His servant Moses.

Yet Egypt should not be relegated to the setting of Bible stories, historical factoids, or news headlines. Rather, it should represent something much more important to a Christian.

In I Corinthians 10, the apostle Paul outlined the Israelites’ miraculous journey out of slavery into the Promised Land: “Moreover, brethren, I would not that you should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (vs. 1-5).

After this, Paul stated the reason for bringing up these events: “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (vs. 6).

Understand. Ancient Israel is our example. Their journey provides a physical analogy that types the spiritual conversion process. They left Egypt, as the Christian leaves the world, which can be likened to a “spiritual Egypt.” Israel was “baptized” in the Red Sea (vs. 2), just as we were submerged and became part of “spiritual Israel,” the Church. As the Israelites were led by God to the Promised Land, Christians will enter the kingdom through God’s guidance.

But the analogy runs deeper. The second half of verse 6 states why: “we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.” As physical human beings, we are still in danger of falling into the same sins as the Israelites in the wilderness. For example, verse 10 states, “Neither murmur you, as some of them also murmured.”

Often, this grumbling took the form of yearning for the comforts of Egypt: “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic: but now our soul [body] is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes” (Num. 11:5-6).

The fact that physical Israel murmured and longed to return to physical Egypt means that spiritual Israel is in danger of yearning for spiritual Egypt.

Vital Importance

Most professing Christians do not seriously study the Old Testament. Aside from finding a few comforting phrases in Psalms and Proverbs, they tend to ignore it in favor of the New Testament.

The apostle Paul recognized that this thinking can also find its way into the Church. Notice how I Corinthians 10 begins, before detailing the parallels between physical and spiritual Egypt/Israel: “Moreover, brethren, I would not that you should be ignorant…” (vs. 1).

Paul wanted Christians to understand the importance of what happened to ancient Israel. In the Greek, the phrase “should be ignorant” means “not to know (through lack of information or intelligence) by implication to ignore (through disinclination).”

English dictionaries define the word “disinclination” as “a reluctance or lack of enthusiasm” and “a preference for avoiding something: slight aversion.” Without careful consideration, a person can easily begin to show a “lack of enthusiasm” and “slight aversion” toward historical accounts in the Old Testament.

When reading about ancient Israel, you must apply each story to your life in the same way you would the list of the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians, or the lessons of Jesus Christ in the gospel accounts.

Are we “ignorant” of some of the spiritual lessons from ancient Israel because we have not wholeheartedly delved into the meaning and history of these stories?

Pleasure-centered

For close to 3,000 years, the Egyptian empire dominated the world.

The longest body of water in the world, the Nile River, was the lifeblood of Egyptian society. Yearly floods enriched the soil, which made it possible to grow vegetables such as leeks, onions, garlic, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbages and radishes. Fruits such as grapes, figs, pomegranates, melons and dates were available continually. Fish and fresh produce were main components of most Egyptians’ diets. Grains were used widely to make bread, pastries and cakes flavored with olive oil, nuts, honey and dates.

“Advances in the kitchen arts came in Pharaoh’s Egypt, along a fertile river valley famous for its abundant foodstuffs,” The Good Book Cookbook states. “The stonework of the Egyptian tombs has left us pictures of the kitchens, bakeries, gardens, and fisheries of the second millennium before Jesus. Here in Egypt the arts of baking and brewing blossomed.”

One of the unifying characteristics of the empire was its religion. Egyptian culture contained a myriad of gods. People worshipped everything from Pharaoh (considered a god by the people) to animals such as cats and crocodiles. Temples were everywhere, and people had shrines inside their homes. Popular gods included Ra, the sun god; Hapi, god of the Nile; Isis, goddess of motherhood, magic, medicine and peace; and Osiris, god of the afterlife.

Because of Egypt’s mild outdoor climate, the upper strata of society often enjoyed sunbathing, water-related recreation, and sumptuous dining.

In addition, constant partying, promiscuity, fashion and cosmetics characterized those who ruled Egypt. Pharaohs often married their sisters, half-sisters, cousins or even their own daughters. Full public nudity was a part of Egyptian lifestyles, as preserved in carvings and ancient artifacts.

The book Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt explains: “From the archeological and iconographic date it appeared that…‘sexuality’ pervaded so many aspects of Egyptian social and ritual life that it was a truly embedded concept, free of…moralistic connotations…”

Sex in any form in ancient Egypt was considered acceptable and was woven into almost all religious rituals. Statues and wall carvings of women’s bodies—and sometimes men’s—showed that they were scantily dressed, often wearing tight-fighting or see-through material, and wore heavy makeup on their faces. Prostitutes tattooed themselves on their breasts and thighs, and were even said to have walked through the city naked.

Many believed the gods themselves had sex with mortals and that intercourse could occur in the afterlife. Practices such as committing adultery, incest, homosexuality, masturbation, bestiality and necrophilia were both common and accepted. These practices formed part of the hedonistic mindset that existed before Israel left Egypt.

Abundance of food. Focus on sex and physical beauty. Acceptance of homosexuality and other “alternative lifestyles.” Moral degradation. Vast wealth. Pleasure seeking.

Does this sound familiar?

Tainted Memory

While Egypt was a satisfying place for native Egyptians, it was not that way for the Israelites. After Joseph’s death, many Egyptians became afraid that the multiplying Israelites would turn on them and decided to “set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens” (Ex. 1:9-11).

History records that Israelite enslavement likely began with Ahmose I, but that persecution against them intensified under Thutmose I and II. The Bible uses words such as “bitter affliction,” “sorrows” and “oppression” to portray the Israelites’ lives under slavery.

Exodus 1 states, “And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigor: and they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigor” (Ex. 1:13-14). The Hebrew word for rigor, perek, means “harshness, severity” and “cruelty.”

Verses 15-22 record that the king of Egypt even commanded midwives to kill any newborn Israelite males. Because they feared God, some midwives chose to defy the pharaoh—even though it could have resulted in their own deaths.

It was not until Pharaoh Amenhotep, who reigned from 1453 to 1443 BC, that the Israelites’ bondage became unbearable. As part of their slavery, the Israelites were forced to make bricks that were often more than five inches thick, as recorded by the book Light from the East: “The annual inundation of the Nile left behind it large quantities of mud admirably suited for the making of bricks, which dried in the sun, formed a durable building material in the rainless climate of Egypt. The bricks made from Nile mud require[d] straw to prevent cracking…”

This was backbreaking work. It required that mud be dug out of the ground, molded into heavy bricks, and then carried to a building site—all during 100-degree Fahrenheit temperatures—without the kind of water breaks laborers have today. Men regularly died from dehydration.

Soon after Moses approached Pharaoh about God’s desire for the Israelites to leave Egypt to worship Him, the ruler forced the Israelites to find their own straw to make bricks, an almost impossible task. When the Israelites could not keep up, they were whipped or beaten.

The Israelite people also did not have access to the riches that many Egyptians did. Because they were slaves, they had only the clothes on their backs and minimal possessions. It was not until they were leaving Egypt that “they borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required” (Ex. 12:35-36).

Unbelievably, a short time after leaving Egypt, the Israelites could not remember why they had wanted to leave in the first place! They forgot the hard forced labor under Pharaoh and the fear they experienced while living under his rule.

Grumbling and Complaining

Because of their forgetfulness, the children of Israel murmured against God and Moses.

The Bible records at least 10 instances of this. The first time, when the Israelites saw Pharaoh’s army pursuing them after leaving Egypt, is recorded in Exodus 14:11-12: “And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Wherefore have you dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell you in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.”

When the Israelites became afraid, their first reaction was to blame Moses for freeing them from bondage! They did not remember that they had actually “sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage” (Ex. 2:23).

There were other times when the Israelites had a skewed vision of how their lives had been in Egypt:

  • “And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:3).
  • “And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” (Ex. 17:3).
  • “And wherefore has the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Were it not better for us to return into Egypt? And they said one to another, Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt” (Num. 14:3-4).

Miraculous Deliverance

Forgetting that they were in hard bondage was not the only thing that slipped the people’s minds when they yearned for the comforts of Egypt.

Psalm 105:36-42 summarizes Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. As you read, count the miraculous events that the Israelites witnessed: “[God] smote also all the firstborn in their land, the chief of all their strength. He brought them forth also with silver and gold: and there was not one feeble person among their tribes. Egypt was glad when they departed: for the fear of them fell upon them. He spread a cloud for a covering; and fire to give light in the night. The people asked, and He brought quails, and satisfied them with the bread of heaven. He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; they ran in the dry places like a river. For He remembered His holy promise, and Abraham His servant.”

Remember, ancient Israel is our example.

In order to free us from the spiritual bondage of sin, God also performed mighty miracles, namely being called out of the world and baptized, receiving the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. Also, consider the healings regularly occurring in the Church, look at the awesome Work being done in a rapidly darkening world, and how you can understand Bible prophecy and apply it to current events.

Return to the book of Psalms, which shows how Israel forgot all of these miraculous events: “Our fathers understood not Your wonders in Egypt; they remembered not the multitude of Your mercies; but provoked Him at the sea, even at the Red sea…They soon forgot His works; they waited not for His counsel: but lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert” (Psa. 106:7-14).

Again, ancient Israel is our example. As physical human beings, we too can forget the works of God, lust exceedingly, and tempt God.

As Christians, we have God’s Spirit, which means we can see the error of Israel. Looking at their situation, it is difficult to grasp how they could “soon forget His works.”

Yet the threat is there for us today, if we allow ourselves to lust for material goods—the latest high-tech gadgets, gleaming cars, a status job, a house, and wealth—if we look longingly at people in the world who appear to have carefree lives. If we look back on spiritual Egypt, we will also forget the hard bondage of living in sin.

Yearning for spiritual Egypt also crowds out memories of miraculous events. We become like the seed sown among the thorns in the Parable of the Sower: “And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). Lusting after this world will limit how the Holy Spirit can work in our lives.

Without ample amounts of God’s Spirit, we become like physical Israel. It is then that spiritual Egypt—the world—begins to look pleasing to our eyes. When this happens, we too will “soon forget God’s works” in our lives.

Look Forward

Notice what Paul stated in I Corinthians 10 after showing how ancient Israel fell into idolatry, committed fornication, tempted Christ, and murmured: “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples [types]: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (I Cor. 10:11).

Ancient Israel did not get it. Despite the constant miracles and blessings—they crossed through a parted Red Sea!—they picked up manna from heaven six days a week!—drinking water flowed from a rock!—stiff-necked Israel looked back on the “niceties” of Egypt, and forgot the hard bondage there. Stop and ponder this!

Christians must grasp that without staying close to God, they are also in danger of desiring to go back to Egypt. This is especially true for those surrounded by today’s amoral society. Each account is “written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world [age] are come.” Realize that this verse has increased importance as the end of the age is drawing ever near.

If we do not take these admonishments to heart, we are in serious danger. Note the very next verse: “Wherefore let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (vs. 12). Take heed of all that happened to ancient Israel. Read and re-read Old Testament accounts and take to heart every warning against yearning for the world.

We must reject the appeals and enticements that could cause us to return to spiritual Egypt. The path may not be smooth or visible—as when Israel traveled in the wilderness—but we have the sure promise of God: “There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it” (I Cor. 10:13).

Instead of looking back on our past lives, we should look upon the many blessings the Father has bestowed on us and mirror the attitude of Paul: “I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).

Forget about spiritual Egypt that lies behind. The kingdom of God lies just ahead. Let’s all press toward the mark!