Between Egypt and Babylon

As I near the end of my year of reading the entire Bible, there have been parts that I met as old friends. The Gospels, the Psalms, the book of Genesis and the book of Revelation are all familiar to me, though they continue to unfold new insights when read in this slow and deliberate manner.

But I’ve been most surprised and delighted to find that I also have much to learn from less familiar parts, sections that previously had seemed obscure and daunting to me. In particular, the Old Testament prophets and the Epistles of Paul and other writers have given me much to think about. They countered my image of the Bible as a dusty, antiquated document and made it very real and present, with their calls to transformative action that continue to resonate today. They seemed to me to be guideposts on a journey that is still in process, and that can help to point us toward a better future.

As I read through the Old Testament, a great, over-arching story emerged. This is framed by two events, two pillars that herald cultural and personal change. The first is the escape from slavery in Egypt, and the second is the destruction of the Temple and going into captivity in Babylon.

Hans Jordaens III, Crossing the Red Sea, 1620s

These events define the experience of the people of Israel and their relationship to their God, their very identity, their I AM. They are traumatic events, massive shifts as earth-shattering as birth or death. The people meet them with great resistance and confusion, following a tortuous path that often results in disaster. But what do these events mean? What really happened there?

Egypt signifies an ancient consciousness in which people were not separated from the spiritual world. They were still guided, puppet-like, by commands that came through their ruler, who was God on earth. It was an era of great power and wisdom, but no freedom.

Sandro Botticelli, The Trials and Calling of Moses, 1481-82

To escape this mighty prison, there had to be a breakthrough, a breakout. There had to be a dividing of consciousness, so that people could develop a free awareness that was not dictated by higher realities, so that they could choose to follow laws rather than be overborne by their crushing weight. This came about when Moses heard the voice of the I AM and led the people through the parted sea.

Then follows the journey in the wilderness — the desert of the sense world as it first appears to those who have left the spirit behind — and the giving of laws to replace the theocratic dictatorship of Egypt. The Promised Land is entered and a new Temple is built to house the holy, unspeakable name, I AM. Leaders and followers struggle and mostly fail to follow the laws given by Moses, to reach through their own free capacities the moral insights embodied there. The people grow further and further from God, rather than nearer. And another disaster ensues, as the empire of Babylon threatens.

Babylon is the opposite of Egypt, as their temple design shows: their Ziggurats were all outside and no inside, where the significance of an Egyptian temple was found entirely in the death-chamber within. Babylon signifies the immersion in the sense world that forms the counter-slavery to the spiritual slavery of Egypt.

And the Israelites, having escaped from one extreme, were now falling into the other. They had built a home in the earthly world, carved out their Promised Land with great effort, but they were in danger of making it into a new prison, as their religious laws and rituals solidified and their earlier embedding in the spirit was not replaced by new, freely won capacities. The idolatry of materialism, of thinking that only visible things are real, tempted them to abandon the invisible I AM.

Edward Harrison May, Jewish Captives at Babylon, 1861

The prophets of this time tried to warn them, tried to bring about change. And their call to action is very different from that of the earlier time. Where the people who had just escaped from Egypt had to work hard to penetrate into outer matter, to the extent of ruthlessly killing those who were living in the space they wanted to occupy, the people under threat from Babylon are called to work inwardly, to change themselves.

No longer are there commands to kill outer enemies and conquer new lands. The prophets tell people to stay where they are, to endure destruction, to unite with the God who loves them and wants to be in intimate relationship with them. Through this, a new Israel will be born; a “heart of flesh” will replace their hearts of stone. And if they are patient and trusting, they will be restored and healed. Their new union with the divine, won through the sufferings of death and rebirth, will not find them slaves again, but beloved children and heirs of the Kingdom.

The escape from Egypt was meant to develop freedom. The captivity in Babylon is meant to awaken love. And between these two pillars, the invisible temple of the true human being arises.

Today, we still stand between the threats from Egypt and Babylon, between the ideological grip of authoritarian rule, and the heedless slide into hedonistic individualism. The way out of this trap lies not in following laws from a book, but in awakening to the journey of our human becoming, a path we’ve already been on for thousands of years.

The stony tablets of the old law are broken. The new law is written on the hearts of all human beings. Will we learn to read it?

Charles-Gabriel Gleyre, Egyptian Temple, 1840
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4 thoughts on “Between Egypt and Babylon

  1. Thank you for sharing your insights, in particularly the final two sentences, “The new law is written on the hearts of all human beings. Will we learn to read it?”.

    1. Thank you, I appreciate your taking the time to comment. And we will find out the answer to that question quite soon, I think.

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