Pharaoh Is a Monster: Ezekiel Decries Judah’s Ties with Egypt
The prophet Ezekiel, who was active from approximately 593 B.C.E. to at least 571 B.C.E., proclaims seven oracles of judgment over Egypt (Ezekiel 29–32). This is considerably more than any other prophet does.
In addition to these oracles, Ezekiel presents Egypt as responsible for Israel’s sinful idolatry (chs. 20 and 23), claiming that Israel worshiped Egyptian gods and continued to do so after leaving Egypt. The Pentateuch never accuses Israel of worshiping Egyptian gods, thus this is Ezekiel’s own understanding of Judah’s history and its predicament in his own day.
In chapter 20, YHWH describes his first revelation to Israel in Egypt:
יחזקאל כ:ה ...בְּיוֹם בָּחֳרִי בְיִשְׂרָאֵל וָאֶשָּׂא יָדִי לְזֶרַע בֵּית יַעֲקֹב וָאִוָּדַע לָהֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וָאֶשָּׂא יָדִי לָהֶם לֵאמֹר אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. כ:ו בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא נָשָׂאתִי יָדִי לָהֶם לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תַּרְתִּי לָהֶם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ צְבִי הִיא לְכָל הָאֲרָצוֹת.
Ezek 20:5 …On the day that I chose Israel, I gave My oath to the stock of the House of Jacob; when I made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt, I gave my oath to them. When I said, “I YHWH am your God,” 20:6 that same day I swore to them to take them out of the land of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey, a land which I had sought out for them, the fairest of all lands.
Following this revelation, YHWH tells them to cast away their Egyptian gods, but the people do not listen:
כ:ז וָאֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם אִישׁ שִׁקּוּצֵי עֵינָיו הַשְׁלִיכוּ וּבְגִלּוּלֵי מִצְרַיִם אַל תִּטַּמָּאוּ אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. כ:ח וַיַּמְרוּ בִי וְלֹא אָבוּ לִּשְׁמֹעַ אֵלַי אִישׁ אֶת שִׁקּוּצֵי עֵינֵיהֶם לֹא הִשְׁלִיכוּ וְאֶת גִּלּוּלֵי מִצְרַיִם לֹא עָזָבוּ...
20:7 I also said to them: Cast away, every one of you, the detestable things that you are drawn to, and do not defile yourselves with the fetishes of Egypt—I YHWH am your God. 20:8 But they defied Me and refused to listen to Me. They did not cast away the detestable things they were drawn to, nor did they give up the fetishes of Egypt.
Nevertheless, YHWH decides to free the Israelites from Egypt, but in the wilderness, they violate the divine laws. Even after bringing them into the land, they remain attached to other gods and ignore YHWH’s statutes.
In Ezekiel’s retelling of Israel’s history, the only thing known about Israel before YHWH’s revelation to them is that they worshipped Egyptian idols. Despite YHWH’s adoption of them, they refuse to cast away the Egyptian idols, and return to their former worship constantly.
Israel’s Harlotry with Egypt
In chapter 23, Ezekiel returns to the theme of idolatry with Egypt, which is somehow bound to Judah’s entering political alliances with Egypt. This time, Ezekiel uses an extended metaphor of two sisters, Samaria and Judah, “playing the harlot” with other nations, beginning with Egypt. The metaphor of idolatry as harlotry goes back to the 8th century prophet Hosea, though Ezekiel’s use of the metaphor magnifies both its vulgar and its violent aspects.
יחזקאל כג:ב בֶּן אָדָם שְׁתַּיִם נָשִׁים בְּנוֹת אֵם אַחַת הָיוּ. כג:ג וַתִּזְנֶינָה בְמִצְרַיִם בִּנְעוּרֵיהֶן זָנוּ שָׁמָּה מֹעֲכוּ שְׁדֵיהֶן וְשָׁם עִשּׂוּ דַּדֵּי בְּתוּלֵיהֶן. כג:ד וּשְׁמוֹתָן אָהֳלָה הַגְּדוֹלָה וְאָהֳלִיבָה אֲחוֹתָהּ וַתִּהְיֶינָה לִי וַתֵּלַדְנָה בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת וּשְׁמוֹתָן שֹׁמְרוֹן אָהֳלָה וִירוּשָׁלִַם אָהֳלִיבָה.
Ezek 23:2 O mortal, once there were two women, daughters of one mother. 23:3 They played the whore in Egypt; they played the whore while still young. There their breasts were squeezed, and there their virgin nipples were handled. 23:4 Their names were: the elder one, Oholah; and her sister, Oholibah. They became Mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.
Samaria strikes up her next affair with Assyria (vv. 5–7), having learned this behavior in Egypt:
יחזקאל כג:ח וְאֶת תַּזְנוּתֶיהָ מִמִּצְרַיִם לֹא עָזָבָה כִּי אוֹתָהּ שָׁכְבוּ בִנְעוּרֶיהָ וְהֵמָּה עִשּׂוּ דַּדֵּי בְתוּלֶיהָ וַיִּשְׁפְּכוּ תַזְנוּתָם עָלֶיהָ.
Ezek 23:8 She did not give up the whoring she had begun with the Egyptians; for they had lain with her in her youth, and they had handled her virgin nipples and had poured out their lust upon her.
This leads to Samaria’s destruction at the hands of those very Assyrians who abuse her (vv. 9–10).
Samaria’s fate does not stop Jerusalem from first taking up with those very Assyrians (vv. 11–12), and then moving on to the Chaldeans/Babylonians (vv. 13–17). Soon Jerusalem abandons them as well, but by now YHWH has abandoned her (v. 18). Unrepentant, she turns back to the lover of her youth, Egypt:
יחזקאל כג:יט וַתַּרְבֶּה אֶת תַּזְנוּתֶיהָ לִזְכֹּר אֶת יְמֵי נְעוּרֶיהָ אֲשֶׁר זָנְתָה בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כג:כ וַתַּעְגְּבָה עַל פִּלַגְשֵׁיהֶם אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׂר חֲמוֹרִים בְּשָׂרָם וְזִרְמַת סוּסִים זִרְמָתָם. כג:כא וַתִּפְקְדִי אֵת זִמַּת נְעוּרָיִךְ בַּעְשׂוֹת מִמִּצְרַיִם דַּדַּיִךְ לְמַעַן שְׁדֵי נְעוּרָיִךְ.
Ezek 23:19 But she whored still more, remembering how in her youth she had played the whore in the land of Egypt; 23:20 she lusted for concubinage with them, whose members were like those of asses and whose organs were like those of stallions. 23:21 Thus you reverted to the wantonness of your youth, remembering your youthful breasts, when the men of Egypt handled your nipples.
For this, YHWH promises that Jerusalem will be punished by the Chaldeans, the lovers she rejected (vv. 22–26), putting an end to her relationship with Egypt:
יחזקאל כג:כז וְהִשְׁבַּתִּי זִמָּתֵךְ מִמֵּךְ וְאֶת זְנוּתֵךְ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְלֹא תִשְׂאִי עֵינַיִךְ אֲלֵיהֶם וּמִצְרַיִם לֹא תִזְכְּרִי עוֹד.
Ezek 23:27 I will put an end to your wantonness and to your whoring in the land of Egypt, and you shall not long for them or remember Egypt anymore.
In these passages, Ezekiel presents Israel as deeply intertwined with Egypt, religiously and politically, which ultimately blocks them from accepting YHWH’s sole rule as her God.
Ezekiel’s accusation against Egypt as responsible for Jerusalem’s sinfulness and future destruction reflects his understanding of the events unfolding in Judah in his time.
Historical Context: Political Alliance Between Egypt and Judah
In 597 B.C.E., King Jehoiakim rebelled against Judah’s Babylonian overlords. Shortly after King Jehoiakim died, his son Jehoiachin surrendered to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who took him and many upper-class residents—including Ezekiel—into exile in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar enthroned Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah, and expected loyalty from him.
Judah was a small kingdom situated between two super-powers: Babylon in the east and Egypt in the west. These two powers had been at war since Egypt joined Assyria in the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.E. This is the battle that crushed Assyria once and for all, and led to Babylonia’s supremacy in the region, as it inherited all the provinces formerly ruled by Assyria, including Judah.
Nebuchadnezzar then tried to expand his influence further west by attempting to conquer Egypt in 601 B.C.E. He failed in this attempt and Psammetichus II (595-589 B.C.E.), then king of Egypt, led a victory tour (ca. 592 B.C.E.) in the Levant to instigate a rebellion against the Babylonian hegemony. Zedekiah was apparently convinced by this display of Egyptian power and entered an alliance with Egypt against Babylon.
A Soldier’s Letter About the Alliance with Egypt
This alliance is confirmed by Ostracon III from Lachish, dated to a time before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., which speaks of a Judean army commander going down to Egypt, likely to request an Egyptian aid against the Babylonians.
עבדך. הושיעיהו. שלח. להגד לאדני יאוש. ישמע. י־הוה. את. אדני. שמעת. שלם. ושמעת. טב.... ולעבדך. הגד. לאמר. ירד שר. הצבא. כניהו בן אלנתן לבא. מצרימה. ואת. הודיוהו בן אחיהו ואנשו שלח לקחת. מזה....
Your servant, Hošaʿyahu sent to inform my lord, Yaʾuš: May YHWH cause my lord to hear tidings of peace and tidings of good… And to your servant it has been reported, saying: “The Commander of the army, Konyahu son of ʾElnatan, has gone down to go to Egypt and he sent to commandeer Hodawyahu son of ʾAhiyahu and his men from here…
It is this reliance on Egypt that Ezekiel is attacking.
Zedekiah Breaks His Oath
Ezekiel saw this alliance as foolish and even as a rebellion against God, since Zedekiah gave an oath of fealty in YHWH’s name to Nebuchadnezzar. In chapter 17, Ezekiel offers a parable about a great eagle (Nebuchadnezzar) who plants a vine (Zedekiah) in fertile soil, but the vine spreads its branches towards another great eagle (Pharaoh), hoping to get more water and better soil. This leads to the destruction of the vine.
Turning from the parable to the meaning, Ezekiel states that Zedekiah made an oath to Nebuchadnezzar,
יחזקאל יז:טו וַיִּמְרָד בּוֹ לִשְׁלֹחַ מַלְאָכָיו מִצְרַיִם לָתֶת לוֹ סוּסִים וְעַם רָב הֲיִצְלָח הֲיִמָּלֵט הָעֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה וְהֵפֵר בְּרִית וְנִמְלָט. יז:טז חַי אָנִי נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה אִם לֹא בִּמְקוֹם הַמֶּלֶךְ הַמַּמְלִיךְ אֹתוֹ אֲשֶׁר בָּזָה אֶת אָלָתוֹ וַאֲשֶׁר הֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ אִתּוֹ בְתוֹךְ בָּבֶל יָמוּת.
Ezek 17:15 But that prince rebelled against him and sent his envoys to Egypt to get horses and a large army. Will he succeed? Will he who does such things escape? Shall he break a covenant and escape? 17:16 As I live—declares the Lord YHWH—in the very homeland of the king who made him king, whose oath he flouted and whose covenant he broke, right there, in Babylon, he shall die.
Ezekiel predicts that Egypt will not come to Judah’s rescue, nor does Judah deserve to be rescued, because Zedekiah broke his oath:
יחזקאל יז:יז וְלֹא בְחַיִל גָּדוֹל וּבְקָהָל רָב יַעֲשֶׂה אוֹתוֹ פַרְעֹה בַּמִּלְחָמָה בִּשְׁפֹּךְ סֹלְלָה וּבִבְנוֹת דָּיֵק לְהַכְרִית נְפָשׁוֹת רַבּוֹת. יז:יח וּבָזָה אָלָה לְהָפֵר בְּרִית וְהִנֵּה נָתַן יָדוֹ וְכָל אֵלֶּה עָשָׂה לֹא יִמָּלֵט.
Ezek 17:17 Pharaoh will not fight at his side with a great army and with numerous troops in the war, when mounds are thrown up and siege towers erected to destroy many lives. 17:18 He flouted a pact and broke a covenant; he gave his promise and did all these things, he shall not escape.
Ezekiel’s hostility to Egypt, which he sees—correctly as it turned out—as leading Judah to its doom, explains the colorful imagery used by Ezekiel to describe Pharaoh as a תַּנִּים tanim, meaning “dragon” or “sea monster,” whom YHWH must combat. This tanim could very well be a crocodile, which in the Egyptian mythological worldview would be identified with the god Sobek, who controlled the flooding of the Nile.
Ezekiel’s oracle in chapter 29 is dated to the 12th day of the 10th month of the 10th year. The counting in Ezekiel is from the exile of the king Jehoiachin (see Ezek 1:2), and thus the date corresponds to January 587 B.C.E., in the midst of Zedekiah’s rebellion, the year before Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.
The oracle begins with YHWH accusing Pharaoh of claiming divine power:
יחזקאל כט:ג ...הִנְנִי עָלֶיךָ פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם הַתַּנִּים הַגָּדוֹל הָרֹבֵץ בְּתוֹךְ יְאֹרָיו אֲשֶׁר אָמַר לִי יְאֹרִי וַאֲנִי עֲשִׂיתִנִי.
Ezek 29:3 …I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, my Nile is my own; I made it for myself.
The oracle continues with the image of YHWH hauling Pharaoh the monster out of the water and punishing him for his hubris:
יחזקאל כט:ד וְנָתַתִּי (חחיים) [חַחִים] בִּלְחָיֶיךָ וְהִדְבַּקְתִּי דְגַת יְאֹרֶיךָ בְּקַשְׂקְשֹׂתֶיךָ וְהַעֲלִיתִיךָ מִתּוֹךְ יְאֹרֶיךָ וְאֵת כָּל דְּגַת יְאֹרֶיךָ בְּקַשְׂקְשֹׂתֶיךָ תִּדְבָּק. כט:ה וּנְטַשְׁתִּיךָ הַמִּדְבָּרָה אוֹתְךָ וְאֵת כָּל דְּגַת יְאֹרֶיךָ עַל פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה תִּפּוֹל לֹא תֵאָסֵף וְלֹא תִקָּבֵץ לְחַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם נְתַתִּיךָ לְאָכְלָה.
Ezek 29:4 I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels cling to your scales; I will haul you up from your channels, with all the fish of your channels clinging to your scales. 29:5 And I will fling you into the desert, with all the fish of your channels. You shall be left lying in the open, ungathered and unburied: I have given you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.
At the conclusion of the oracle, Ezekiel ties Israel into the prophecy:
יחזקאל כט:ו וְיָדְעוּ כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי מִצְרַיִם כִּי אֲנִי יְ־הוָה יַעַן הֱיוֹתָם מִשְׁעֶנֶת קָנֶה לְבֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל. כט:ז בְּתָפְשָׂם בְּךָ (בכפך) [בַכַּף] תֵּרוֹץ וּבָקַעְתָּ לָהֶם כָּל כָּתֵף וּבְהִשָּׁעֲנָם עָלֶיךָ תִּשָּׁבֵר וְהַעֲמַדְתָּ לָהֶם כָּל מָתְנָיִם.
Ezek 29:6 Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know That I am YHWH. Because you were a staff of reed to the House of Israel: 29:7 When they grasped you with the hand, you would splinter, and wound all their shoulders, and when they leaned on you, you would break, and make all their loins unsteady.
Arrogant and monstrous Egypt will learn that YHWH is God, and they are being punished because Israel relied on them to their own detriment.
The Chaoskampf Motif
When Ezekiel speaks of Egypt as a dragon or a monster, the prophet appropriates the motif or the tradition of Chaoskampf, or “combat myth,” a term coined by scholars to describe a motif of a conflict between the god who represents order and the monster that represents chaos. Such a motif is attested in the Akkadian myth Enuma Elish, the Ugaritic tablets of the Baal Cycle, and the combat between Re and Apophis in Egyptian funerary texts.
In many of the literary traditions in which the motif of Chaoskampf is embedded, chaos is thought to be primordial and resurgent: though it is defeated it cannot be fully obliterated. Instead, it remains in check at the periphery threatening the ordered world that was created.
In the Bible, the motif of the battle between YHWH, the god of order, and the sea monsters that represent chaos appear in various genres and textual traditions (e.g. Psalm 74; Job 40-41; Daniel 7). In these literary traditions, myth and history are intertwined, and the political and the religious are entangled. This is the case for the oracle about Egypt as monster, in which YHWH combats the chaos that Egypt represents to restore the boundaries between Egypt and Judah.
What Makes a Monster?
A monster represents the fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. Its monster status is highlighted by giving it an abnormal body, often by making it gigantic, or a hybrid of familiar creatures. Such monsters transgress the boundaries between two entities that should be kept apart and distinct.
On the surface, a monster represents what is other, but, as some theorists who study monsters have pointed out, this difference sometimes muddies commonalities or similarities between the self and the other. Thus, a monster can be a projected image of something inside oneself that one despises and fears, distant and close at the same time. We can see this dual function in Ezekiel’s Egypt-as-monster imagery.
On one hand, Pharaoh’s depiction as a watery serpent monster emphasizes the otherness of Egypt, a culture that lives off a giant river (the Nile) and worships gods who are themselves “monster-like” hybrids. On the other hand, Ezekiel sees Judah as enmeshed with Egypt religiously as well as politically. Judah worships Egyptian gods, and Egypt is Judah’s ally in the war against Babylon.
It is their shared political identity that is behind Ezekiel’s anger, and his characterizing them as monstrous is a way of distancing the Egyptians from the Judahites who follow them. Ezekiel thus paints Egypt as the real threat against Judah, and the future destruction of Egypt as the cure that will bring the people to ultimately accept YHWH as their God.
Railing Against the Doomed Rebellion
In an ironic twist, Ezekiel piles words and oracles against Egypt, which allies itself with Judah, while he defends Babylon, who attacked Judah and took its previous king—and Ezekiel himself!—into exile.
Ezekiel’s critique of Judah’s alliance with Egypt goes far deeper than his frustration at Judah’s poor political miscalculation. Apparently, Ezekiel understands the Babylonian aggression against Judah as a divine judgment (Ezekiel 12:13; 21:11–12). It is YHWH who wishes Judah to submit to Babylon, and thus joining with Egypt is literally a form of rebellion against YHWH.
Ezekiel presents the folly of the alliance with Egypt as a direct consequence of Israel’s religious and cultural fascination with Egypt. This fascination, he claims, goes all the way back to very days of Israel’s inception, when YHWH first revealed himself to them in Egypt and they refused to eschew their Egyptian gods.
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Prof. Safwat Marzouk is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary. Marzouk is the author of Egypt as a Monster in the Book of Ezekiel (Mohr Siebeck, 2015) and a number of articles including “Migration in the Joseph Narrative: Integration, Separation, and Transnationalism,” and “Interrogating Identity: A Christian Egyptian Reading of the Hagar-Ishmael Traditions.”
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