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Jeremiah 42:7-19

Ten days later the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. 8So he called together Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers who were with him and all the people from the least to the greatest. 9He said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your petition, says: 10‘If you stay in this land, I will build you up and not tear you down... 13“However, if you say, ‘We will not stay in this land,’ and so disobey the Lord your God, 14and if you say, ‘No, we will go and live in Egypt, where we will not see war or hear the trumpet or be hungry for bread,’ 15then hear the word of the Lord, you remnant of Judah. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘If you are determined to go to Egypt and you do go to settle there, 16then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you into Egypt, and there you will die. 17Indeed, all who are determined to go to Egypt to settle there will die by the sword, famine and plague; not one of them will survive or escape the disaster I will bring on them.’ 18This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘As my anger and wrath have been poured out on those who lived in Jerusalem, so will my wrath be poured out on you when you go to Egypt. You will be a curse b and an object of horror, a curse and an object of reproach; you will never see this place again.’

I never really understood why Jeremiah was so opposed to a Jewish settlement in Egypt. What's even more striking is that Jeremiah doesn't even bother explaining why God opposes such a settlement (as if it's self evident), he just warns them that if they will settle in Egypt then terrible things will happen to them. But why would god be so angry with them if they chose to settle there? Seems pretty harmless to me. It is true that in chapter 44 we find that the women burned incense for the queen of the heaven and pursued idolatrous practices, but there is no reason to assume that this is at all connected with life in Egypt as opposed to life in Judah, since as in their own words:

"We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. 18But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.”

So why did Jeremiah think that their idolatrous pursuits would worsen in Egypt than if they stayed in Judah, since as the text clearly states they were doing these abhorrent practices in the land of Judah already before they were exiled, so why insist that they stay there in the hope that they will stop their idolatrous practices?

What else could have prompted Jeremiah's opposition to Jews settling in Egypt? I do not believe Jeremiah was against it on grounds of Deut. 17. I believe historically the text has not been understood as a general ban to return to the land of Egypt, the ban in my opinion is purely a rabbinic invention. Furthermore, if that were the case Jeremiah would not have failed to mention this "biblical" prohibition, neither would he have waited ten days to receive the word of God, as this prohibition would have been well known to him. What else could have been the reason for the opposition? Was it politically motivated? Perhaps Jeremiah feared further disillusionment by the Jews by relying on the Egyptian empire for help as they had until then, since this had ultimately led to Jerusalem's destruction? Was Jeremiah trying to prevent another such episode? Or were there other religious grounds for opposing such a settlement?

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  • The answer to this is simple...God called them out of captivity...he rescued them as he rescued us. Choosing to go back to Egypt is to also chose to turn ones back on salvation! We are told in NT for the saved person, there is no coming back from them turning. Your back on being saved. That is the point here.
    – Adam
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 18:59
  • @Bach - apologies it took me eight months to get here, but I've revised the answer to capture the additional material you requested. Is that now sufficient?
    – Steve can help
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 13:08

3 Answers 3

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God's decreed word

God had decreed that they will be taken to Babylon and those who were repentant will survive by submitting to the Babylonian king and in later years will return back

Jeremiah 29:10 NASB

10 “For this is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfil my good word to you, to bring you back to this place.

God's integrity

So by escaping to Egypt they were thumbing their nose at God's judgement and subverting the Babylonian captivity of seventy years. God had also commanded them (Deuteronomy 17:16) never to return to Egypt which was coincidental a place were he had redeemed them from.

God's punishment

Jeremiah 44:28-29 NASB

28 Those who escape the sword will return from the land of Egypt to the land of Judah [ac]few in number. Then all the remnant of Judah who have gone to the land of Egypt to reside there will know whose word will stand, Mine or theirs. 29 And this will be the sign to you,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I am going to punish you in this place, so that you may know that My words will assuredly stand against you

So Jeremiah' strong opposition to Jews settling in Egypt was based on God's word and integrity that was at stake

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It wasn't Jeremiah that was opposed to the Jews fleeing to Egypt. It was God. Jeremiah 42:10-12 God says through Jeremiah:

  • stay in the land (Judah)
  • Don't be afraid of the king of Babylon
  • God would grant mercy and allow them to stay in their own land

However, if they refused and disobey the voice of the Lord, Jeremiah 42:13-22

  • God would send the sword and it would overtake them
  • Famine would get them
  • Those that flee to Egypt shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence and there will be no survivors (42:17).

The reason for this is that God has determined a time of wrath for the Jews (v42:18) for disobedience and he has promised mercy in his wrath if they obey (42:12)

But they refuse and will obey so they will perish (42:21-22)

So, it is not Jeremiah who is opposed, but God himself. God providing mercy in judgment is typical of his character as shown here, but it has to be done his way as also shown here to receive it. The latter is also typical of his character.

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Background

As we meet Jeremiah at the beginning of his prophecies, he is in the midst of puzzling out the punishments coming upon Judah in his day, and YHWH gradually unveils for him many various ways in which Judah was in stubborn rebellion. Despite YHWH's call upon Jeremiah to be a 'fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls' (1:18), at first he does not really seem to understand exactly why.

On three occasions Jeremiah tries crying out to YHWH to intercede for Jerusalem and asking him to relent, but each time is rebuked (Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11) and shown yet more of Judah's rebellion until he truly understands the depth of their sin and the necessity of YHWH's judgement. From chapter 14 onwards he stands firm in his calling to stand against Judah's rebellion.

I recall these facts as background not so much because of their relevance to Egypt, but rather to explain that Jeremiah himself does not begin in a place of sound knowledge about the why behind many of his judgements, and rather appears to be led by the pronouncements of YHWH in understanding the current flow of events. So if we want to understand his rationale for these pronouncements, that's where we need to begin.


How Judah's behaviour is framed (Jeremiah 2)

The setup for this entire journey is found in the second chapter of Jeremiah, which frames the whole narrative of YHWH's relationship with Judah:

2 Thus says the Lord, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. 3 Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest. All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the Lord.”

4 Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel. 5 Thus says the Lord: “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? 6 They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?’

The context of Judah's judgement is that she was rescued from Egypt in the first place by YHWH, and that He has been a faithful husband to her through all manner of sin and rebellion. Indeed, Judah now flits back and forth between Egypt and Assyria as her preferred lovers, to whom she looks for salvation.

13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

14 “Is Israel a slave? Is he a homeborn servant? Why then has he become a prey? 15 The lions have roared against him; they have roared loudly. They have made his land a waste; his cities are in ruins, without inhabitant. 16 Moreover, the men of Memphis and Tahpanhes have shaved the crown of your head. 17 Have you not brought this upon yourself by forsaking the Lord your God, when he led you in the way? 18 And now what do you gain by going to Egypt to drink the waters of the Nile? Or what do you gain by going to Assyria to drink the waters of the Euphrates?

Ultimately, this was all to Judah's shame, and would end in disaster:

36 How much you go about, changing your way! You shall be put to shame by Egypt as you were put to shame by Assyria.

As the text progresses, YHWH and Jeremiah would remind the people again and again how Judah was saved out of Egypt (7:22, 11:4, 11:7, 24:8) - Egypt is an adulterous lover and an oppressor, not a saviour. This builds on the prophecies of Isaiah, who affirmed the same view:

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. (Isaiah 36:6)


Why is Jeremiah opposed to Jewish settlement in Egypt?

Judah had clearly gotten themselves into a real mess, and as we read through the Tanakh one of the recurrent issues is that the people have forgotten what YHWH has done for them, and so this is rediscovered repeatedly from generation to generation. Jeremiah himself appears to have rediscovered much of this during his ministry as well.

YHWH himself supplies the frame for Jeremiah's ministry, set firmly in the historic context of the Exodus - YHWH rescued the people from Egypt, has been faithful to them, and they should trust in Him alone. Jeremiah has been re-educating the people on this matter repeatedly, and reinforcing the message that they were saved out of Egypt, and YHWH alone is their hope: do not rely on Egypt or Assyria for salvation.

In Chapter 25 Jeremiah lays out that YHWH's judgement (and plan) is for the people to go into Babylon, the chosen instrument of his justice in this moment. Moreover, Jeremiah witnesses the cup of YHWH's wrath (25:15), which each of the nations would drink in turn. Immediately after Jerusalem's devastation, Egypt was next in line for judgement - the people fleeing to Egypt would fall under judgement twice, whereas those going to Babylon would return to Jerusalem before Babylon itself fell.

So besides the ideological concerns around Judah going to its other lovers for safety, Jeremiah was also uniquely aware of the judgement that would fall on all who went to Egypt for refuge - and was also suitably unimpressed when he was dragged to Egypt with the rest of them.


Why is YHWH opposed to Jewish settlement in Egypt?

Aside from the reasons outlined above, we must bear in mind that the whole point of the Exile was to teach Judah/Israel to trust in YHWH alone - just as their ancestors learned during the Exodus. In one sense it's a replay of Numbers 14:4 where the people were on the brink of returning to Egypt rather than trust YHWH to enter the land, and YHWH threatened to destroy the entire community with a plague.

The problem in the first place is that Judah has forsaken YHWH and dug their own 'cisterns' of water (Jer 2:13), alternative sources of hope and strength. So until the people abandon all their cisterns and seek the one and only fount of living water, the job will not be complete.

YHWH sets out his plan clearly in Jeremiah 27 - every Kingdom has been given over to Babylon, and the 'safe path' for all is to listen to the word of YHWH and bow to the yoke of Babylon. Every man, woman and King has been given this command of YHWH, and from there the choice is to obey and drink this cup of wrath, or disobey and be crushed by it.

"Do not listen to them. Surrender to the king of Babylon, and you will live. Why should this whole city be destroyed?" Jeremiah 27:17 NLT


Conclusion: Rejecting YHWH's plan

In response to Jeremiah's message, the people confirm their reading of the situation:

Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, “You are lying! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You must not go to Egypt to settle there.’ But Baruch son of Neriah is inciting you against us to hand us over to the Babylonians, so they may kill us or carry us into exile to Babylon.” Jeremiah 43:2‭-‬3 NIV

The people are not choosing an alternative path of Exile, but rather opting out of the Exile itself, and rejecting YHWH's word which gave them clear instruction of how to obey him and where he intended to build and strengthen them.

They reject the Exile itself which YHWH repeatedly proclaimed and explained through Jeremiah, rejecting his promises to build them up and not tear them down in the land (Jer 32:10) and dispersing the people YHWH had already regathered to Jerusalem, returning to their familiar cisterns:

"So Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers and all the people disobeyed the Lord’s command to stay in the land of Judah. Instead, Johanan son of Kareah and all the army officers led away all the remnant of Judah who had come back to live in the land of Judah from all the nations where they had been scattered." Jeremiah 43:4-5 NIV

After they depart, the consequences begin to crystalize in Jeremiah 44, where YHWH continues to spell out the consequences of returning to Egypt and explain why it really wasn't a very good idea in the first place, for anybody interested in further reading.

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  • Thanks for your answer steve. If you look at my question, I suggest something similar, but the problem is I dont see how the Israelites going to Egypt for safety would be understood as an act of reliance or trust in the Egyptian empire. Simply put, the Israelites were just exiled from their land and persecuted in the most horrific ways (cf. Lam.), they did not feel safe there, and neither would anyone in such circumstances. Running to Egypt seemed the natural choice. On religious grounds I don't see why Jeremiah would be so opposed to it, and the punishment seems out of proportion.
    – bach
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 1:56
  • @Bach - I've added a further section with more details. I feel like maybe you're just not 'getting' the impetus of the Exile itself. You probably need to have a good read/listen through at least the whole of Jeremiah and Ezekiel to get the whole context, though I can start digging into Ezekiel too if that's what you need for the answer here. And to be entirely fair, the most horrific elements of Lamentations were the outcome of refusing to bow to the yoke of Babylon. It shouldn't have had to play out that way if they had listened.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Jan 2, 2022 at 3:35
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    – Steve can help
    Commented Jan 6, 2022 at 15:22

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