Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Egypt Option

Roughly one hundred years before the city of Samaria fell to Assyrian invaders, King Jehu of Israel offered tribute to their king, Shalmaneser III.

We know this from an inscription on the side of a seven-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 portrayal of fiery Jehu prostrate before Shalmaneser is all-but-unrecognizable. That doesn’t mean the story represented on the obelisk is false, though it may be a form of Assyrian political propaganda. It does, however, remind us that the storytellers of secular history had vastly different agendas than 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 to only a tiny 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 detailed for us in the word of God has been studied, restudied 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, may 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 forty years prior. The occasion was different, but the principle is the same. In this case, Israel was about to do something colossally stupid, 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, Israel’s colossally stupid idea brings us back to Shalmaneser’s Assyrian 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 for Samaria, intent upon subduing and carrying off the citizens of the northern kingdom of Israel into captivity. Given Israel’s rampant idolatry and rebellion against Jehovah, we might well argue it was about time.

In the face of a looming invasion from the north, the conventional wisdom was that the smartest move for those rich enough to do it was to load up their donkeys and camels with all the goodies that remained to them in Israel and flee south to Egypt. When the unstoppable war machine knocks at your front door, it’s a good time to take an extended vacation.

Into the Memory Hole

Writing down God’s disapproval of this idea was a matter of some urgency. 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.’ ”
This institutional disregard for truth did not improve with time. The Judean religious authorities engaged in a similar sort of historical revisionism in the first century. You will remember the Lord Jesus telling the Pharisees:
“You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous … Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.”
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 GO DOWN TO EGYPT.

Isaiah’s was a message nobody wanted to hear.

Symbolic Egypt

The modern-day nation of Israel has little need to recall Isaiah’s written testimony (though they may well do so in future days). They have plenty of their own problems to worry about, and are in no danger today of running to Egypt even if Egypt were an attractive place to shelter, which at the moment it definitely is not. The Muslim Brotherhood is currently a mess, but its supporters are numerous in Egypt and have no love for Israel.

I wonder, though, whether the message Israel once blithely ignored might not be some small allegorical use to us today. “Forever and ever” is, after all, a very long time.

In scripture, Egypt is not just a literal place but also powerfully symbolic. For one thing, it stands for slavery. As Paul tells the Galatians in symbol, the Egyptian slave woman bore children for slavery. History says the same thing. The children of Israel served the Pharaohs for a good portion of the 400 years they spent there.

Not All Bad

But Egypt was not all bad by any stretch. In Egypt, the Israelites had food to spare when all of Canaan was starving. Life in Egypt was orderly in a way that life in transit to the Promised Land was not. Some people actually crave that sort of predictability; they are more concerned that dinner be served on time than whether they are eating it in chains.

For Moses, Egypt was a temptation to be rejected. As the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, the “treasures of Egypt” were his for the taking. And despite the fact that they had been enslaved there, even the ordinary people of Israel remained perpetually inclined to head back south when things got tough, reminiscing fondly of the “fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

In short, to a citizen of Samaria faced with the prospect of exile, life in Egypt might actually look pretty good, even if living there meant loss of autonomy, loss of identity, and the inability to effectively pursue the real purpose for which God had once called you out of Egypt in the first place.

An Awfully Apt Analogy

Thus Egypt serves as an awfully apt analogy for the Powers That Be of our present day, with all their false security, apparent order, perks, tax breaks and incentives … and, of course, the hidden cost of partnering with them: life in chains. Christians are not immune from these temptations.

God’s message: DON’T GO DOWN THERE.

Trust me, you’re going to be tempted to. The Assyrians are here — or at least a new world-empire-in-training that may be almost as unstoppable.

To be continued ...

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