“Egypt is a beautiful calf” Jeremiah 46:20


“They are marching with an army”, “destroying the forest”, “more numerous than locusts”, and “cannot be counted”: so in this week’s haftarah the prophet Jeremiah describes the Babylonian army about to destroy the old Egyptian empire with Pharaoh “and those who trust in him”. And here it gets delicate.

We may have assumed that this verdict on ancient Egypt may be good for Israel, but beware. Yes, the prophet talks about similar themes as the sidrah, but the perspective is the opposite. Jeremiah talks not about slaves suffering under Egypt but about the kingdom of Judah and its political ally.

Why does Jeremiah seem to be almost threatening his Israelite audience after the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE, in which Egypt was defeated, when he prophesies that the Babylonians will soon go on to invade Egypt like an army of locusts, bringing dark times and death to the Egyptian Empire?

This is a message for those “who trust in Pharaoh”, hoping for his support of Israel. The prophet proclaims: “Pharaoh won’t be able to! Relying on him is a folly.” Jeremiah’s announcement is thus no good news for Israel, but a warning of disaster to the then so-called “Kingdom of Israel” and its political allies.

Today do we not resemble more the Israel of the haftarah than the Israel in the sidrah? Do we not think, too, that it would be sensible to trust in good, powerful and rich connections, not in God or at least not in God only?

The plagues in the Torah symbolise a fight between the one God of Israel and the powers of Egypt. In the Torah Israel will leave Egypt to serve the Eternal One, their God, redeemed from alliances with worldly powers.

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