Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Egypt Option

Roughly a century before the fall of the great city of Samaria to its Assyrian invaders, King Jehu of Israel paid tribute to Assyria’s then-king, Shalmaneser III.

We know this not from the account of Jehu’s life in scripture, but from an inscription on the side of a six-and-a-half-foot obelisk currently making its home in the British Museum. It depicts a rather scruffy-looking Israelite monarch on his face at the feet of his Assyrian counterpart. The accompanying caption reads, “The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] spears.”

The black obelisk was carved approximately 2,800 years ago. As you may appreciate, there are not many such items around. Those that remain are highly valued by historians.

Knowledge Preserved

God has his own ways of preserving knowledge. Generally they do not require us to muck about with shovels in ancient Middle Eastern ruins. To those of us familiar with 2 Kings 9 and 10, the picture of fiery Jehu prostrate before Shalmaneser is all-but-unrecognizable. That doesn’t make the obelisk mere political propaganda, of course, but it demonstrates that the emphasis of the writers of secular history is often vastly different from God’s.

The story God is telling is always first and foremost a spiritual one. The fact that the king of a tiny nation halfway across the planet once groveled before the monarch of a rapidly expanding Eastern empire is of interest only to a miniscule percentage of modern scholars. It wouldn’t rate a footnote in most history books today. Yet the moral and spiritual subtext of Jehu’s reign as detailed for us in the word of God has been studied, considered and written up by thousands of Christians and Jews over the last three millennia.

Commemorating Colossal Stupidity

This ongoing preservation of important moral instruction, greatly de-emphasized in (or entirely absent from) contemporary secular records, seems to be what God had in mind when he tells the prophet Isaiah:
“And now, go, write it before them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, that it may be for the time to come as a witness forever.”
Isaiah wasn’t writing about Jehu, of course. Jehu was old news by then, having passed away over 40 years prior. The occasion was different, but the principle is the same. In this case, the nation of Judah was in the process of doing something highly offensive to God, and God wanted to make a note of it not just for that generation and the next few to follow, but a record that would stand as a witness for all time — or “forever and ever”, as some manuscripts have it.

Assyria on the Rise

Anyway, Judah’s bad idea brings us back to Shalmaneser’s descendants, whose stock in the world order had risen such that they no longer merely demanded tribute from distant nations; rather, they stepped out on the stage of history to conquer them. Historians refer to the Assyrian armies of Isaiah’s day as an “unstoppable war machine”. That machine was headed right into Samaria. Given Israel’s rampant idolatry and rebellion against Jehovah, we might well argue it was about time.

After a three year siege, the city of Samaria fell, and yet another monarch named Shalmaneser carried most of the surviving Israelites home with him and distributed them throughout the Assyrian empire.

Thus it was ten years later, in the face of another looming invasion from the north, that the conventional wisdom in Judah was to look to the south for help, to Pharaoh and Egypt. Turning to a powerful ally seemed the sensible, logical, rational thing to do.

Into the Memory Hole

God disapproved of their strategy. Putting that fact in writing for posterity was a matter of some importance. Isaiah was to make a back-up. With good reason: the Israelites of Isaiah’s day were inclined to “memory hole” the records of their rebellion against the expressed will of God wherever possible. The prophet calls them:
“… children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord; who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions.’ ”
When seers do not see and prophets fail to prophesy, no records are kept and no challenge to the popular narrative arises. God was having none of that, so Isaiah wrote it all down “as a witness forever”: DON’T RELY ON EGYPT.

That was a message nobody wanted to hear.

Symbolic Egypt

Perhaps we ought to pay a little more attention than Judah did.

In scripture, Egypt is not just a literal place but also powerfully symbolic. The apostle John refers to Jerusalem as “the great city that spiritually is called … Egypt.” William MacDonald says of Jerusalem:
“It is called Egypt because of its idolatry, persecution, and enslavement to sin and unrighteousness.”
The “slavery” point at least can be confirmed from the New Testament. In symbol, Paul tells the Galatians, the Egyptian slave woman bore children for slavery. History bears him out on that: the children of Israel served the Pharaohs for a good portion of the 400 years they spent there.

Egypt was also notorious for its (worldly) wisdom. And finally, in Isaiah’s day, Egypt was a source of mercenary assistance, a supplier of chariots and horsemen.

All the same, for Moses, Egypt was a temptation to be rejected; though, as adopted son to Pharaoh’s daughter, the “treasures of Egypt” were his for the taking.

An Apt Analogy

Thus Egypt serves as an apt analogy for the civilized, secular culture in which many of us live today, with all its cosmopolitan allure, its counterfeit wisdom, its visceral pleasures and treasures, its apparent power that tends to let you down at the worst possible time, and its ultimate cost of doing business: life in chains.

Christians are not immune to Egypt’s appeal. Paul speaks of his former helper Demas, “in love with this present world”, who had deserted him for the perpetual, beckoning alternative.

For us then, “Egypt” speaks of the spiritual domain we all (at least nominally) left behind when we turned to seek a heavenly reward and the reproach of Christ that goes with it.

God’s message: DON’T TRUST THAT.

The Coming Invasion

For all the sense the Egypt Option made to the people of Judah in the face of the coming invasion, it was always fated to be a bust. God says:
“Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.”
He adds, “Egypt’s help is worthless and empty.”

Over and over today we are being told, both by the unsaved around us and by liberal elements within Christendom, that in this hyper-technological, post-moral world, the only credible way forward for a shrinking church is to be more like the spiritual Egypt we once left behind us on the far side of the Red Sea.

The New Armory

To some, this new, accommodationist version of Christianity holds a lot of appeal. In the battle to win hearts and minds, a new armory of sophisticated weapons is offered to us: omni-tolerance, matriarchy, equality, inclusion, mythological interpretation and a quasi-scientific recasting of our origins. These rarely present themselves as rival deities, but assume the guise of helpful tools to aid us in explaining away the nasty, difficult, black-and-white parts of scripture that so regularly stick in the craw of liberals and drive them from the faith entirely. They are the horses and chariots of Egypt upon which some wish to rely to ensure their churches are not completely swept away by the coming wave of social upheaval that threatens every other existing institution.

But reliance on Egypt ends only in shame and humiliation. Worse, Egypt always makes slaves out of free men and women.

Isaiah wrote those words on a tablet and inscribed it in a book to be a witness “forever”.

Then the Holy Spirit kindly sent us a copy. Maybe for us, the relevant moment has arrived.

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