Egypt to Be Laid Waste and Scattered for 40 Years
In the 10th year of Ezekiel's captivity, January of 587 B.C., God gives him a prophecy of the downfall of Egypt. The timing here is significant, as this is the period during which Pharaoh Hophra's forces came up to oppose the Babylonians, causing the siege of Jerusalem to be temporarily lifted. In our next reading, we will go through another prophecy of Ezekiel--given a few months later--that alludes to the outcome of this particular conflict and describes the coming fall of Egypt to Babylon. The current reading concerns the latter aspect.
God refers to the Egyptian pharaoh as a great "monster" (NKJV) or "dragon" (KJV) in the midst of his "rivers," saying, "My River is my own" (verse 3). The major "River" of Egypt is of course the Nile--which represented the entire country of Egypt, as the population was concentrated along its length. The "rivers" (plural) likely denote the many branches of the Nile in the northern delta region. The word "monster" is translated from the Hebrew tannim. "The word's meanings and its cognates range from 'jackal' to 'serpent,' 'dragon,' 'sea-monster,' 'monster,' 'crocodile.' In all O[ld] T[estament] contexts where the term is used, a fearful creature is imagined" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, footnote on verse 3). The fearful dragonlike beast of the Nile and its branches--a river-dwelling creature with powerful jaws and thick scales (see verse 4)--is surely the crocodile. "The crocodile god, Sebek [or Sobek], was very important to the Egyptians in the Nile delta area. He was considered Egypt's protector and at times was identified with the solar deity, Re [or Ra] (cf. Diodorus 1.35)" (Expositor's, note on verses 1-7). Recall from Isaiah 30:7 and Isaiah 51:9 that God referred to Egypt as a monster called "Rahab," meaning "Fierce" or "Violent"-parallel to the Egyptian name Sobek, meaning "Rager" (conjuring images of a fierce crocodile attack).
The pharaoh was identified with Egypt's divine protector. God says the pharaoh considers himself the creator of the Nile (verse 3), meaning, essentially, of all Egypt. Besides being a blasphemous concept of the pharaohs in general, as they promoted themselves as divine incarnations, "this was [a particularly apt description of] Hophra's (Apries') arrogant self-image. [The Greek historian] Herodotus implied that Pharaoh Apries was so strong in his position that he felt no god could dislodge him. In his reign he sent an expedition against Cyprus, besieged and took Gaza (cf. Jeremiah 47:1) and the city of Sidon, was victorious against Tyre by sea, and considered himself master over Palestine and Phoenicia. Such pride was consistent with the denunciation in this message ([Ezekiel 29] v. 3), for the Pharaoh felt that the Nile (Egypt) belonged to him and that he had created it for himself. This arrogance had also shown itself in an attempt to interrupt Babylonia's siege of Jerusalem--an attempt thwarted by God" (note on verses 1-7).
God says He will draw the pharaonic crocodile out with hooks along with all the "fish" clinging to his scales, meaning the Egyptians in general who clung to or followed the pharaoh (verse 4). The pharaoh and his people would be pulled from their position of national strength and left "in the desert" as carrion for the birds and beasts (verse 5, NIV). The Egyptian ruler, at least in a figurative sense, "would not even be afforded the royal burial so important to the Pharaohs. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes demonstrate how important proper royal burial was to the Pharaohs' successful journey through the Egyptian afterlife. Lack of such burial would have been [seen as] a horrible fate" (note on verses 1-7).
The imagery then changes from that of a mighty, thrashing river beast to that of a weak river plant. God calls Egypt a "staff of reed to the house of Israel" (verse 6)-just as the Assyrians had described it more than a century earlier (see Isaiah 36:6). This is an allusion to Egypt's weakness and unreliability as an ally for the Israelites--as well as the worthlessness and even danger of looking to this nation for protection. When the Israelites lean on Egypt for support, it shatters, leaving them seriously wounded (Ezekiel 29:7).
God says He will bring the sword of warfare on Egypt to lay it waste, showing that He, not the pharaoh, is the one who determines whether the nation exists or not (compare verses 8-9). The devastation would extend across the length of the land, from Migdol in the north (in the eastern delta region) to Syene in the south (modern Aswan) and even down to the border of Nubia in what is today Sudan (verse 10). The prophet Jeremiah later foretells the fall of Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar's forces (Jeremiah 43:8-13). And Ezekiel later gives more details of this Babylonian invasion in Ezekiel 29:17-30:19. The prophet placed this other prophecy right after the one we are currently reading because it follows thematically--even though it was given more than 16 years later (compare 29:1, 17).
According to our current reading, the land would remain desolate for 40 years, during which time the Egyptians would be scattered--after which they would be returned to their homeland of Pathros, southern Egypt (verses 11-14). There is no secular confirmation of this period of scattering. Indeed, we would not expect an admission of such a massive defeat in the Egyptian records. However, "a Babylonian chronicle suggests that Egypt was conquered [by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar] around 568 B.C. Forty years after this date, the Persians [having overthrown the Babylonians] instituted a policy of resettlement for many of the peoples who had been dispersed by Babylon" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 11). Pharaoh Hophra was executed at the time of Nebuchadnezzar's invasion, not long after a coup by Hophra's own general Amasis or Ahmose, who replaced him as pharaoh. Ahmose (II) remained on the throne as a Babylonian vassal and continued into the Persian period, dying a year before the Persian invasion of Egypt in 525 B.C.
Following its conquest by the Babylonians, Egypt would never again be a superpower empire. This was especially true of the original ethnic Egyptians. More than 200 years later, after Alexander the Great, the land of Egypt did emerge again as an independent power under the Ptolemaic dynasty for three centuries--but, besides the fact that it was nowhere near the great power that Egypt had once been, this was actually a Greek kingdom, not a truly Egyptian one. Afterward, Egypt became a Roman possession and then, centuries later, a province of the Islamic empire. When Egypt became an independent nation in modern times, it was as an Arab, not a true Egyptian, state. The original Egyptians today may be found among the Copts of Egypt and possibly the Gypsies (according to some of their historical traditions)--both of whom are indeed very lowly peoples in geopolitical terms.
In verses 6 and 16, God says that His purpose in punishment is to show the Egyptians that He is God. While some may have come to this conclusion at the time of the Babylonian conquest, or at least to the rejection of their own false gods, including the concept of the pharaoh as divine, the Egyptians as a whole did not forsake their false religion or come to know the true God. It may be, then, that this prophecy of Egypt is dual, with elements of it applying to the end time-just as in the prophecies of judgment on Judah's immediate neighbors in Ezekiel 25, where the purpose of punishment is also repeatedly given as teaching the recipients of God's judgment that He is really God, a fact they will not truly learn until the last days. Like the great majority of other peoples and nations of the region, the inhabitants of Egypt have for centuries been overwhelmingly Muslim, worshipers of Allah. In time they will learn who the true God is. Concerning Egypt of the end time, it is interesting to note that the future king of the North (a revival of Babylon) will invade and subjugate the nation (Daniel 11:40-42). Afterward, Egypt will be delivered under the reign of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 19:20-25)-when the nation will finally come to truly know God and learn of His ways (verse 21).