To the people of ancient Israel, Egypt was a symbol of Gentile world domination; the powerful culmination of humanity’s strivings without God. Biblical writers spoke much of her spiritual emptiness and moral corruption, but they also showed grudging respect for the heights to which secular culture had been able to reach in that giant kingdom to the south.
The Israelites never forgot that their ancestors had been subjugated for 400 years as a slave/working-class within Egypt. The taskmasters of Egypt became the prototype for all the anti-Semites they would encounter throughout subsequent history, from Nero to Hitler and beyond.
And yet, ironically, Egypt became Israel’s protector at two important moments in time. And each of these incidents involves a man named Joseph.
The first Joseph lived almost as long before Christ as we live after his birth. This Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, whose spiritual name, Israel, became the title of the nation he fathered. You may refresh your memory of Joseph’s exciting life story by reading Genesis 37 through 47.
Out of jealousy, his brothers sold Joseph to some Egyptian slave merchants. They thought this was the end of him, but Joseph proved to be a very competent administrator and, in time, rose to the top in the Egyptian bureaucracy. Though still technically a slave, Joseph had great power in the land.
Many years after the sale and presumed death of their brother, Jacob’s other eleven sons were forced to go to Egypt to beg for relief from a horrible famine. Who did they end up negotiating with to purchase food but the long-lost Joseph. After the shock of recognition, the brothers quaked in abject remorse and fear before him. Joseph’s kind response to them underlined God’s providence:
“Do not be dismayed or distressed with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life . . . So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me . . . a ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5,8)
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The second Joseph was the earthly “father” of Jesus. He did not sire Jesus, for God chose to send his Son into the world through birth to a virgin. But this good man became the baby’s faithful protector and provider as long as he lived.
Joseph did not know about King Herod’s plot to eliminate this potential threat to his throne represented by Jesus until one night, when:
Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:13)
Joseph obeyed, uprooting his young family from their homeland and relatives and leaving behind his established business and means of livelihood as a carpenter. Once again, God’s plan for salvation through Israel and her Messiah was preserved by a providential escape to the old pagan slave master, Egypt. Israel may seem small in contrast to Egypt, and the Baby in the manger even smaller. But in God’s eyes there is no comparison. Egypt is just a handy tool he occasionally uses for his purposes. His primary focus is on the cradle of salvation, Israel, and the Baby Savior who was born there.
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Two Josephs in Egypt, separated by hundreds of years. Most likely, neither Joseph made it into the Egyptian history books. But God’s book of salvation history is the one that matters, and in his book the two Joseph’s have played a major role, while the great Egypt is just a bit player.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* This article was originally published in the ABC Messenger of December 12, 1988.