13 Feb 2014 by Yeo Tek Thiam-
Most of our images of Egypt are about a dry, sandy land, saved only by the River Nile that flows right across the length of the country. It is this gift of the Nile that makes Egypt hospitable for life, and that sustains its civilisation over the millennia.
From our perspective today, that is true. In fact, the English word, ‘desert’ is derived from an Egyptian word that aptly describes the barrenness of the land. It is ‘desret’ in Egyptian, meaning ‘red land’.
But the soil was good, and that was how the Egyptians saw it. They called it ‘Kemet’. It means ‘black land’ in Egyptian.
The Arab conquerors in the 7th century saw this also as ‘black land’, for they referred to the strange Egyptian texts as ‘al keme’ — from Kemet. That is the origin of the word, alchemy, of our world. So then, words that hardly seem recognisable imperceptibly seeped into our common use!
But this description as ‘Kemet’ indicates that Egypt is hardly a barren, sandy land such as we perceive.
A long time ago, perhaps five thousands years or more, we would not have such a confined impression of deserts and sands. It would not be quite the ‘desret’ that we think, but there would be something more of a 'kemet'. The land was fertile and it had decent rainfall in a larger part of the country than we know today. Egypt was not totally desert.
In fact, the Sahara and much of the Middle East were much more fertile than today. For the land stretching from Ur of the Chaldea in the Persian Gulf to the Nile delta, formed a rich region that we referred to as the ‘Fertile Crescent’ in its glory days. Egypt was the granary of the Roman Empire.
And this is not about the abundance of oil in the Middle East that speaks of luxuriant vegetation millions of years ago.
It seems so unlikely! For we think of Egypt as the land of pyramids and the sphinx — dry country where sparse rainfall spared those colossal monuments from early decay and erosion. Yet, if the evidence is examined from another perspective, its past need not be so limited.
The lower half of the Sphinx suffered evident erosion, but this erosion was not by wind or sand storm. The evidence seems to confirm that this erosion was by water precipitation, that is, good rainfall — that over time, caused the characteristics of the Sphinx’s lower half’s erosion!
It is with this possible background that we can picture to ourselves the meaning of the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh’s seven good years and seven lean years. For Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain in the time of famine. It was also a time when the Pharaoh was more civil!
So also, in the Exodus, the Israelites complained bitterly that they always had plenty to eat in Egypt, in contrast to their sojourn through the wilderness of Sin to Mount Sinai! Thus, the Israelites said to Aaron and Moses, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Exodus 16:3
It was ironic. One picture has to do with our image of starving slaves in a dry environment. The other has to do with unenlightened slaves. Here were the Israelites, saved from slavery, yearning to return to bondage again, for sake of another meal!
And it was in response to this grumbling and bitterness that God gave them — manna. Their bread would come from heaven, not from man, or the earth. Exodus 16:11.
But one wonders anew why the desert came over Egypt and much of the land from the Sahara to the Middle East in recent millennia. If God made manna come over the desert, through dew in dry air on the sands, it seems so strange why God allowed the deserts to encroach!
So then, we ponder — who was it that Isaiah spoke of, when he wrote of the demise of the king of Babylon:
“Is this the man who shook the earth
and made kingdoms tremble,
the man who made the world a desert,
who overthrew its cities
and would not let his captives go home?”
Perhaps then, the Exodus is also not exactly a story only about wretched slavery in Egypt. Goshen where the Israelites lived was a fertile area, and the Israelites were there for 430 years.
Note: Mr Yeo Teck Thiam is a retireer who used to work as a chemical engineer, specializing in food and perfume chemistry for an international food company and perfumer. His other main interest is astronomy and other mathematical matters, relating to the Biblical passages.
References for pictures