The Egypt saga continues. Egypt is compared to Assyria, which is compared to the cedars of Lebanon, the iconic trees of the ancient world. “Water nurtured it; the deep made it grow tall; its rivers flows around its planting, and its canals it sent forth to all the trees of the field (Ezekiel 31:4).” The trees grow taller than any others, and stronger, and more beautiful. However, because the trees grew so large and imposing, they grew arrogant, and therefore needed to be cut down. This metaphor provides an explanation for why the Egyptians needed to be similarly cut down to size. It wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion by this reading. Their size and power wasn’t the problem, it was the attitude with which they approached things. This seems to say that our fates are essentially up to us and how we treat our circumstances.
In this chapter, God continues to outline His plan for the destruction of the Egyptians, and throughout, there are many direct parallels to the fate of the Israelites. In particular, it’s the Babylonians who are the instruments for carrying out the deeds, just as it was in Israel when the people were exiled to Babylon.
“And I shall scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and I shall disperse them among the lands, and they will know that I am the Lord (Ezekiel 30:26).” This is exactly what happens to the Israelites as well. These similarities can’t be a coincidence in the context of biblical history, so they must mean something. As I’ve written previously, it’s clear that despite the Israelites being the chosen people, God has relationships with other nations as well. I’m sure there are those who would take issue with that, but it actually really works for me. If one does believe in the concept of one universal deity, it makes total sense that our God would have relationships with every people in their own way, and would be invested in their ultimate successes and failures as well.
Ezekiel’s focus shifts to Egypt. “Speak and you shall say; So says the Lord God: Behold I am upon you, O Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodile that lies down in the midst of its rivers, who said, ‘My river is my own, and I made myself (Ezekiel 29:3).'” God will make Himself known to the Egyptians, which seems like an interesting emphasis to have to make. Being that it was the Egyptians who felt God’s wrath during the 10 plagues, I can only imagine that the God of Israel must have achieved some kind of mythic status amongst their people throughout the generations. If one looks at the Pesach story from an Egyptian perspective, it’s terrifying to say the least, so I can’t imagine that the Egyptians forgot the power of God. Yet for some reason, Egypt needs to be punished again, and the land is cursed to become desolate and ruined. Only after 40 years will the Egyptians be gathered from their own exile, and return together. They’ll have to build up a new nation once again. Why is Egypt’s punishment so well-defined, while Israel is condemned to suffer indefinitely? I guess it’s always easier to be harsh on your own, and to give strict punishments within, rather than without. Still, it seems that being ‘chosen’ is a tough burden to bear for the Israelites, and provides high expectations to live up to.
The Jews are the chosen people, but God is still concerned with other nations as well. In this instance, Jeremiah receives a prophecy about Egypt, and the Egyptian army in particular. “Make ready shield and buckler and draw near to battle (Jeremiah 46:3).” God describes a major battle that will come in the future. “And that day shall be for the Lord God of Hosts a day of vengeance, to avenge Himself against His adversaries, and the sword shall consume and shall be sated, and its thirst shall be quenched by their blood, for the Lord God of Hosts shall have a massacre in the north land by the Euphrates River (Jeremiah 46:10).” It sounds like a truly epic battle to come, and it seems interesting to me that it’s described in such detail when it’s between Babylon and Egypt, not Israel. I guess it’s an ancient case of intersectionality, where the interaction between to outside subjects ends up directly impacting a third, even if the reason why isn’t visible on the surface.
This chapter opens with Jeremiah getting another prophecy regarding the Jews who are currently living in Egypt. God reminds him, and by proxy the people, of all of the evil that went down in Jerusalem. “But they did not hearken, nor did they incline their ear[s] to repent of their evil, not to burn incense to other gods (Jeremiah 44:5).” So God became angry and the disobedience, and the betrayal, and the city was destroyed. Now, God asks, why do the people feel the need to provoke Him again, leaving the land and taking on the idolatrous customs of the locals in Egypt? Then comes the inevitable threat, that those who left for Egypt will be destroyed, just like Jerusalem was. And this time, it’ll be a total destruction.
“There shall be neither fugitive nor survivor to the remnant of Judah coming to sojourn there in the land of Egypt and to return to the land of Judah, for they mislead themselves to return to dwell there, for only fugitives shall return (Jeremiah 44:14).”
This time, the people aren’t just disobedient, but outright defiant. As it turns out, the men know that their wives are worshipping other gods, which I think is an interesting aside. Why is it the women who have taken on the practices of idolatry? The men tolerate it, so everyone is complicit, but is there a reason why it’s noted that women seem to be the leaders in this regard? The people assemble, and they tell Jeremiah that they just won’t listen. They will continue to worship the ‘queen of heaven’ because they see her as they true benefactress, and not God. It’s so annoying that women always seem to be the ones who lead the forays into sin, just like with Adam and Eve. Why can’t the men take ownership of their own temptations, rather than blaming the women?
This may sound flip, but I mean it sincerely. Jeremiah easily has the worst luck out of all of the prophets so far. Again, I know Job and Daniel are coming, but at this point, poor Jeremiah can’t seem to catch a break. Johanan and his followers promised to believe him no matter what, but when Jeremiah comes back with less than stellar news from God, they immediately change their tones and accuse him of speaking falsely. They wind up doing the exact opposite of what he has told them to do, and leaving the land of Judah, the one thing they had been ordered not to do.
“And they came to the land of Egypt, for they did not hearken to the voice of the Lord, and they came to Tahpanhes (Jeremiah 43:7).” Jeremiah is still with them, so at least he’s not in jail this time. In Taphanhes, God tells him to symbolically take large stones and hide them in the mortar that is being prepared for the entrance of Pharaoh’s local palace, and to do this before the people. This is meant to be symbolic of Nebuchadrezzar, the Babylonian king, coming to Egypt to destroy the land, and with it, those who have chosen to be there rather than remaining in Judah. It definitely sounds like the troubles of the people are not even close to over, and once again, they never seem to learn.
We’re given a time reference again. “During the year that Tartan came to Ashdod, when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him, and he waged war with Ashdod and captured it (Isaiah 20:1).” Now, I have no idea what year this is, but I’m sure archaeologists and rabbis have done a great deal of research into this matter. Regardless, at this point, God talks to Isaiah, and instructs him to dress in only a sackcloth and to remove his shoes, as a symbol of Egypt and Cush. Isaiah will have been naked for three years for this cause.
“So shall the king of Assyria lead the captivity of Egypt and the exile of Cush, youths and old men, naked and barefoot, with bare buttocks, the shame of Egypt (Isaiah 20:4).” Isaiah is representative of this impending exile and humiliation of these two nations. From this verse, we see that no one, from the children to the elderly, will be spared from this shame.
“The harsh prophecy of Egypt; Behold the Lord is riding on a light cloud and He shall come to Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall quake from before Him and the heart of the Egyptians shall melt in their midst (Isaiah 19:1).” It’s currently chol hamoed Pesach, so it’s particularly interesting to read about Egypt, only days following us retelling the story of the Exodus at the seders. Now, unrelated to the plagues that hit Egypt at that time, we have another prophecy of destruction. Egypt will be devoid of spirit. The people will turn to idols and sorcerers, and the land will become dry and infertile. “And the fisherman shall lament and mourn, all who cast off fishhooks into the stream; and those who spread nets on the surface of the water shall be cut off (Isaiah 19:8).” The physicality of the land of Egypt will be ruined, but so will the spirits of the people, and by extension, the land.
“And it shall be for a sign and for a witness to the Lord of Hosts in the land of Egypt, for they shall cry out to the Lord because of oppressors, and He shall send them a savior and a prince, and he shall save them (Isaiah 19:20).” At this point, when Egypt is sent its savior, the Egyptian people will finally know and recognize God. It’s only then that Egypt will finally be healed. Even though the relationship is fraught with negativity, the relationship between God and the Egyptians is an ongoing one, and it’s interesting to see that it didn’t end when the Israelites left.
This chapter begins with some very practical advice. “A man shall not take his father’s wife, nor shall he uncover the corner of his father’s [cloak]. [A man] with injured testicles or whose member is cut, may not enter the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:1-2).” Two very odd statements. The first one seems like common sense – it’s disgusting to think about and therefore we shouldn’t do it. Of course, that’s never stopped anyone from going beyond this limit. Flashback to the dysfunctional families of Bereshit and Reuben taking Bilhah! The second statement is almost sad. A man has clearly endured some massive problem, and now he can’t come before God either? How is that ok? I’m wondering if it has to do with how important virility was in the ancient world, and still is today to an extent. If a man felt like less than a man due to some physical problem, and therefore didn’t see himself as whole, maybe he couldn’t be fully present, as is needed before God.
On the list of people who can’t enter the assembly of God, we also have bastards (until the 10th generation), and Ammonites and Moabites. This is payback because the people of Ammon didn’t treat the Israelites well when they left Egypt, and the Moabites tried to curse them. However, right after the punishment of the Moabites is a kind word. “You shall not despise an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not despise an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land (Deuteronomy 23:8).” The Torah has a long memory. Positive and negative attributes can mark a person not only for their lifetime, but through all of their descendants as well.
In addition to the laws of shmita having a biblical origin, there are also laws regarding the ancient holidays. The most classic Jewish holiday, of course, is Pesach (Passover). “Keep the month of spring, and make the Passover offering to the Lord, your God, for in the month of spring, the Lord, your God, brought you out of Egypt at night (Deuteronomy 16:1).” Pesach is inherently bound to the spring season, a time of change and renewal. And, on a personal note, is the origin of my middle name. Aviva comes from the Hebrew word Aviv, meaning spring, and I was given that name because I was born during Pesach. So, whether through that connection or a love of the traditions, Pesach has always been my favorite holiday. Of course, it looks a little different in the Torah than it does today.
“You shall slaughter the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, your God, flock, and cattle, in the place which the Lord will choose to establish His Name therein (Deuteronomy 16:2).” In addition to the sacrifice, which we don’t do anymore, the unleavened bread, or matzah, is mentioned. We don’t leaven it so that we will remember the haste of the exodus from Egypt. “For six days you shall eat matzah, and on the seventh day there shall be a halt to the Lord, your God. You shall not do any work (Deuteronomy 16:8).”
Then, we have the second iconic holiday, Sukkot. “And you shall perform the Festival of Weeks to the Lord, your God, the donation you can afford to give, according to how the Lord, your God, shall bless you (Deuteronomy 16:10).” Sukkot is a time when we are specifically commanded to rejoice. Not just the Israelites, but our children, our servants, and the strangers who live among us.
“Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you (Deuteronomy 16:20).” This is one of the most iconic lines of the Torah. The word “justice” is repeated twice. If every word of the Torah is supposed to be meaningful and count, then why do we need this word twice in the same verse? I’ve heard countless sermons about this. There are two kinds of justice, it’s repeated because we need to be just and do justice. I like most of them, and I don’t have a new profound statement of my own. But it’s a foundational concept that Jews can live by, and a value that I uphold.