Biblically, we often think of Egypt only in terms of the Old Testament. But Egypt’s language and some of its people and customs form threads in the Book of Mormon tapestry. It is the source behind much of the Pearl of Great Price. It is a land that has shaped empires and been shaped by them. It is a land that God has used for his purposes throughout all earthly time. And it is a land that is recorded in the New Testament as a refuge for the young Savior.
In Matthew we are told that after the wise men had visited the house “where the young child was,” that “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.”
And Joseph “took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt,” thereby escaping a wrathful edict of the king, Herod, who ordered the death of “all the children that were in Bethlehem.”
There is no record of how long Joseph, Mary, and the young Jesus remained in Egypt, but they did return to their native land following Herod’s death, which is believed to have occurred not too long after the slaying of the children.
“When Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.
“And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.”
Joseph heard that Archelaus, Herod’s son, reigned in Israel “and he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into parts of Galilee: … and dwelt in a city called Nazareth,” where the Savior was to grow into manhood. (See Matt. 2.)
In the land of Egypt where the young Savior spent a few weeks or perhaps a few months, the sands still whisper as they did in his day. Hot breezes still blow. Dunes stretch endlessly beneath the broiling sun, and the cloudless sky. And all the sound is whisper, gentle whisper, silent whisper as the sands sift themselves and stretch, forming and reforming hills and ripples.
Sometimes, from April to June, sporadic storms force dry southerly winds up from the heart of Africa. Then the dunes howl. Sand becomes flying glass, poking at eyes, tearing at clothing, numbing flesh on the bone.
Just as suddenly the howling fades. Then it is quiet, quiet all around.
The desert was there then. It is there now. It surrounds even the great pyramids, hushing them to silence. The desert is the last master, the final master, the silent master of the land.
Except where there is water.
Where there is water, there is life. Where there is water, the Nile slices through the desert like a great green knife. In the water are the creatures and the fishes. On the banks are the reeds and the palms. Near the water are the people and the cities.
Where there is water, the ibis flies, women sing, children splash as they bathe.
“Egypt,” said 5th century Greek historian Herodotus, “is the gift of the Nile.” Without the river, the country would be wasteland. The river allows the people, the plants, the creatures to cling to the sinews of existence.
Egypt today is much like Egypt of 2,000 years ago. It is still a land of backbreaking labor, where brown-skinned fellahin (countrymen) lift water with a shaduf (a lever with a weight at one end and a bucket at the other). Poverty is extreme despite some of the highest yields in the world of such crops as wheat, rice, corn and cotton. Sixty-three percent of the population crowds the Nile’s delta and the remainder straggles upstream in villages and towns of mud huts. Only 3.6 percent of the land is habitable at all. The rest may receive no rain for years at a time.
But Egypt is also a land of industry. Dams have tapped water power, and electric lines now traverse empty stretches, carrying a new gift from the Nile. Nomads still wander from oasis to oasis, but so do highways and trucks. Modern airports and ocean liners load and deliver passengers and manufactured goods. And the Egyptians remain a friendly and hard-working people.
A land that once thrived under rulers like Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, or Ramses II, is now struggling to regain prosperity. The tombs and temples of past glory, initiated as monuments to pharaohs who would live forever, are now museums and tourist stops, reminders of human hopes and vanity.
Those who stand beside them can see to one side prosperity and hope, to the other side only sand. This is the land of Egypt, the land so often mentioned in the scriptures. To look on it is to learn that man’s efforts remain meager over time, but that God will guide his people and his prophets forever.