The Political Background of Egypt Pertaining to the Book of Isaiah

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Introduction

Of all ancient nations, very few are of greater importance in biblical history than Egypt. Israel has had not a few occasions of dealing with the Egyptian people in political matters, so much that to highlight each case would be impossible in such a small amount of space such as in this research work. Therefore, the discussion at hand will cover just the political background of Egypt pertaining to the book of Isaiah, considering both an historical understanding of Egypt as well as biblical passages of Isaiah. Even still, such research will be concise due to the vast importance and deep discussions of Egypt in this prophetic book. Overall, by just observing the highlights and general teachings about Egypt in the book of Isaiah, one will begin to gain a better perspective as to how God has orchestrated history to glorify Himself amidst the political controversies of Isaiah’s day.

Historical Overview of Egypt

            The first pertinent question to consider is, “From where did Egypt come?” Looking at the genealogy in Genesis 10, one of Ham’s sons was named “Egypt” (Hebrew Misrayim); undoubtedly this was the original family whose community would develop into the structure of a nation.[1] The modern name “Egypt” is, however, derived from a Greek word (Aigyptos) which means, “Palace of the ka (soul) of Ptah (a god).”[2] Egypt was a culture built around the Nile River, with some sources believing that there was a separation between Upper and Lower Egypt until the first Pharaoh, Menes (or Narmer), united Egypt into one entity.[3] Gary Byers mentions that there were thirty dynasties of Pharaohs, starting with Menes, with just four mentioned in the Bible.[4]

By the time that the book of Isaiah was written (8th century B.C.), Egypt had been a nation for many centuries. Most political controversies centered on the supreme power of Assyria rather than Egypt, though the latter nation was certainly a major player in the political controversies of Isaiah’s lifetime. Based on man’s wisdom, it would seem reasonable for a smaller nation like Israel or Judah to form an alliance with a somewhat significant power such as Egypt to ward off potential threats of Assyrian domination. Essentially, Egypt’s role in the political background during the book of Isaiah was one of being a potential ally rather than a national menace against Judah. And it is to the book of Isaiah one must look to in order to witness such a case and to understand the implications. 

Biblical Observations of Egypt Within the Book of Isaiah

            The name Egypt is mentioned over thirty times in the book of Isaiah[5], most of the time regarding the political controversies of the day. Chapter nineteen is one of the first major sections that addresses Egypt specifically. According to John Martin, “Some people wanted to look to Egypt for protection against the Assyrian threat. But Isaiah pointed out that Egypt would be no help, because she too would be overwhelmed by God’s judgment.”[6] The passage proceeds to speak of the absolute weaknesses that Egypt possesses, despite its apparent significant power. And yet, though the conflicts would continue for quite some time between nations such as Israel, Egypt, and Assyria, God would eventually bring peace through His Messiah’s Kingdom (19:23-25). While that promise has yet to come into fruition, such a hope is eagerly awaited by all who love the Lord.

A second passage worth considering is chapters 30-31 of Isaiah. The message is virtually a replica of what has already been mentioned in chapter 19, though with different descriptive language. Victor Buksbazen states, “The main theme of the two chapters is Judah’s sin of seeking an alliance with pagan Egypt, rather than trusting the LORD to deliver them from Assyria.”[7] Therefore, a conclusion can be drawn that Egypt’s role in the book of Isaiah is quite simple: they are a potential ally for God’s people; but God is the only one who can really save them from Assyria, or any other threat for that matter.

One final passage should be considered that further argues the thesis of Egypt’s role during Isaiah’s prophetic ministry, namely, chapter 36. What makes this final passage somewhat distinct from previous texts is that this portion of Isaiah is more of an historical narrative from the life of Hezekiah’s reign rather than a direct oracle from God. Rabshakeh of Assyria presents an ironic declaration against the people of Judah. In verse 6 he speaks these words: “Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.” Rabshakeh spoke the truth in this verse; Egypt was not strong enough to protect Judah. But Rabshakeh was wrong in the verses following verse 6, for God was not like the gods of other nations. Isaiah 37:36 refuted the words of Assyria’s spokesman when God’s power was manifested as sufficient to save Judah and annihilate Assyria. Indeed, Judah’s alliance with Egypt was proven to be foolishness when compared to the saving authority of God.

Conclusion 

            Had Egypt been the nation to defend Judah against the seemingly unconquerable foe, it would be suggested that God would not have been glorified. The repetitive theme throughout Isaiah is the plea for God’s people to simply trust their LORD. Egypt, in reality, was not even a legitimate plan of defense for such a vulnerable nation as Judah, but when desperation heightens, even rationality escapes. The answer was, of course, to believe that God was strong enough to care for His people. Applicably, that answer is still a 21st century challenge.


[1] Gary A. Byers, “Egypt and the Bible” BSpade 17:3 (Summer 2004), 65.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joshua J. Mark, “Egypt” 2 September 2009, http://www.ancient.eu.com/egypt/ [accessed 15 February 2014]. The chronology on the Egyptian Pharaohs is debatable, as Joshua Mark calculated Menes’ beginning of leadership in 3118 BCE, whereas others believe that this date is much too early. See also David Down, “The Pyramids of Ancient Egypt,” 1 September 2004, http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/cm/v26/n4/pyramids-of-ancient-egypt [accessed 15 February 2014].

[4] Gary A. Byers, “Egypt and the Bible” BSpade 17:3 (Summer 2004), 65.

[5] 38 times to be exact (English Standard Version) – source: Logos Bible Software “Search Tool.” [Accessed 16 February 2014]

[6] John A. Martin, “Isaiah” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), Is 19:1–15.

[7] Victor Buksbazen, The Prophet Isaiah (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Israel, 2008), 257.

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