Updated: Mar 6, 2021
Christian artist Keith Green's 1980 song, "So you wanna go back to Egypt" opens with this verse:
So you wanna go back to Egypt where it's warm and secure. Are you sorry you bought the one way ticket when you thought you were sure? You wanted to live in the land of promise, but now it's getting so hard. Are you sorry you're out here in the desert instead of your own back yard? (https://youtu.be/o_No9sI69oQ)
It's a goofy ditty spoofing the Israelite's tendency to immediately want to return to Egypt, the land of their slavery, any time things got difficult. The song opens with the sound of animals lowing and closes with Keith shouting out various recipes for manna, the bread from heaven that God sent to sustain the Israelites and that they complained about due to its monotony. "Ba-manna-bread!" Keith calls out at the end of the song.
Keith Green's passing is one that I grieve, as I wonder what his prophetic voice would be saying with each passing decade. He had a tendency to both celebrate the Christian life as well as critique it, and he always included himself in the critique. In this song, he includes Christians in this Israelite tendency to go ahead excitedly with God's plan, only to let the difficulty and the monotony of life get in the way of truly thriving in one's faith. It's the parable of the sower, played out across history, first in Judaism and then in Christianity.
Multiple passages in Isaiah warn Judah to not go back to Egypt for help against their current enemies. While we have more to come on this in future chapters, Isaiah 19 focuses on the futility of relying on Egypt. Isaiah predicts that their plans will come "to nothing" and that "the officials of Zoan have become fools, the leaders of Memphis are deceived; the cornerstones of her peoples have led Egypt astray."
What are some ways that we today act like we "wanna go back to Egypt?"
John Mark Comer, in his book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, has a chapter on Sabbath in which he shows that the Exodus listing of the Ten Commandments couches the Sabbath command in the creation story while the Deuteronomy listing is "grounded" in the exodus story. He explains that Exodus' original audience was the Israelites who left Egypt, while Deuteronomy's is their children:
"Well, this was the first generation to grow up in freedom. Their parents were slaves. And their grandparents. And their great-grandparents. Slaves to an empire that had been devouring human beings, one brick, one pyramid, one edifice at a time, for centuries. An empire with an appetite so ravenous that they had to build "store cities" just to store all their extra stuff. An empire driven by a lust for more.
And Egypt, like every empire since, was an economic system built on the backs of the oppressed. To get to the lavish, opulent luxury of a pharaoh, you need cheap labor. You need slaves grinding their bodies into the ground until there's nothing left but ash and dust.
Slaves don't get a Sabbath. They don't even get a day off. They work all day, every day, until they die...Bought and sold like a commodity, a means to whatever end the rich and powerful see fit. All that matters is the bottom line.
And Egypt, my friends, is alive and well.
We live in the thick of it.
We live in a culture of more. A culture of gaping, unquenchable lust. For everything. Lust for more food, more drink, more clothes, more devices, more apps, more things, more square footage, more experiences, more stamps on the passport--more.
We have so much crap we don't need; we, like Egypt, have to build our own supply cities. We call them storage units...
Phraraoh would love the USofA.
Just like Egypt, we're an empire built on the oppression of the poor. In America's case (and many other nations), literally. What's more, we've found a way to do slavery guilt free."
The Truce Podcast (https://trucepodcast.com/) dives into the history of the Christian church as well as American history, and asks how we can do better. Across a number of episodes, Host Chris Staron makes the argument that the United States is indeed an empire and has been so for quite awhile. Materialism and hedonism is so central to the American culture that we hardly recognize these things for the sins that they are, since sin is anything that separates us from God. And it is not at all difficult to look more closely at the why and how of our materialism and see the oppression against others that lurks there.
We don't just want to go back to Egypt--we never want to leave in the first place! The milk and honey of the promised land sound awfully austere. Probably involves some hardship to get there. There's a lot of desert to cross. What if we can just worship Yahweh along with the gods of Egypt? That sounds like a winning solution!
Another way we "wanna go back to Egypt" is our nostalgia for a mythical time that in the American ethos was a golden age for some, but certainly not for all. For Boomers, this nostalgia tends to focus on the 1950s. For we Gen Xers, the 1980s and 1990s. For many of us today, perhaps a pre-9/11 era, a pre-COVID era, or a pre-2020 era.
It's rough right now. It's hard to compare our lives "before" and "after" in this current moment without feeling some sadness and nostalgia. This is natural, as their are many losses people are grieving at once, even if they don't mentally frame this transition as a loss.
Still, this general tendency to put on rose colored glasses when looking at the past can be detrimental for how we act in the present. King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 7 says,
Do not say, "Why were the old days better than these? For it is not wise to ask such questions."
Why is it not wise?
For one thing, to question the times is to question God. Earlier, Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes (in the section made famous by The Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn"!)
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven....He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (verses 1 & 11).
Secondly, such thinking can breed a spirit of negativity and complaint. Christians may feel that they are encouraging one another when they complain about this present evil age in light of a nostalgia for a prior era. Rather than blessings, has this now become the standard Christian greeting, the kind of small talk guaranteed to get a positive response from someone? Yet, is this conversation, repeated over and over again in churches every week, consistent with Philippians 4:8: "[W]hatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things"?
Finally, just because the evils of a particular era were more hidden doesn't mean that they weren't there. Those of us with a 1980s nostalgia are well aware of the caricature of the 80s as a heightened time of greed and hedonism. I know that there is much truth to this caricature and yet when I think of the 1980s, I think of the clothing, the music, friends, family, a time that felt like there was more unity, joyfulness in the Christian church, etc. These things may also be true, yet also reflect my white middle-class stable family upbringing. Despite my nostalgia, I am also aware of the casual racism and casual attitudes toward sexual assault that existed then, and is there for all to see in popular movies from that time. We are currently reaping the consequences of our government's actions in the 1980s when we actively supported international dictators (an apparently common U.S. practice during the Cold War). We are now aware of the horrible consequences of the War on Drugs on the African American community and subsequent incarceration rates. Nostalgia can blind us to these things, cause denial, and lead us to not address the present reality that was built on the sins of the past.
It does us no good to go back to "Egypt," nor do we grow and thrive if we stay there. (By the way, as a disclaimer, I would love to visit Egypt someday as a sightseer. Hopefully, by this point in the article, the reader understands the metaphorical usage of the term "Egypt"!).
May the Lord open our eyes to our present moment and what is needed for us to do there, for His glory. In 1980, with the advent of his "So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt" album, Keith Green and his wife Melody decided to mortgage their house to finance their ability to offer the album free of charge to those who couldn't afford it. He continued this policy until his death in an airplane crash. While this policy might not have been sustainable long-term, it came out of his concern for the poor at the start of the very decade I just focused on. The promotional flyer for the album read,
"The whole reason for not charging a set price for the album is simple: We want everyone, no matter how much they have (even if it's nothing), to be able to hear the ministry of new life in Jesus that springs forth from this powerfully anointed album. At Last Days, we have always had a burden for the poor....We believe that if the Lord gives you something for free then you should share it freely (Matthew 10:8)."