I often meditate on how, several thousand years ago, when Israel was captive in Egypt, God took them out of the land of their affliction. One of the distinctive qualities of the Messiah is that he speaks in parables, allegorically so to speak. This is true also of all the communications of the Almighty to his people. It is most fitting to the maker of Heaven and Earth to teach his creatures in this way. In fact the entire universe and all the things contained in it are a series of lessons on the power, wisdom, justice, and love of God for his creation. Israel’s residence in Egypt is not different. God constructed a powerful lesson with countries, kings, and peoples in a way that only an all-powerful God can do. Egypt is literally a place; a region of the Middle East. For the purpose of instructing the people of God, Egypt is also a spiritual place. Abraham went to Egypt, and also Joseph the son of Jacob, then Jacob and his sons took refuge there, and many centuries later the Holy Family went to Egypt fleeing from the murderous wrath of King Herod.
For the ancient mystics Egypt was the exile of the soul. When Jacob and his twelve sons went into that country each one of them represented a tribe and a sense of the soul. Twelve sons and seventy-seven souls thus represent the concept of the soul itself. That is a very fitting parable, as we shall see. The land of Egypt represents impurity, the absence of holiness, and the absence of light. Perfect holiness is a perfect, fully illuminated soul basking happily in the light of God. If that light is removed what is left is a void, like the void of the abyss mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis before God begins to create, ordering the creation out of the primeval chaos.
When the light of God is removed from a soul then disorder (impurity) sets in. During the Lent season we are the focus of temptation. Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.” Jesus did not need purification but he endured those forty days and the devil’s temptation to show what is expected from us. Often the Spirit leads us to barren places to purify us by allowing us to bear the full brunt of temptation. Although God appears to be absent, he is not far from us in those circumstances.
Sometimes we allow temptation to weaken our defenses. Jesus illustrated the need for constant vigilance with a parable:
Matthew 12:43-46 – “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”
Notice that the wicked spirit goes to the wilderness to seek rest but never finds it. There is really no rest for the wicked because they always need something to pollute and destroy. If the soul is neatly ordered to God’s purpose, the wicked spirit unable to get in will go out and get reinforcements.
Of course a place that is utterly impure will make it easy for more impurity to come in. That is the idea of Egypt: a place where physical lust and desires are very strong. The pull of temptation can proceed from many material things that please the flesh. Some can be ordinary things like chocolate, for example. There is nothing wrong with eating chocolate but something is wrong with a person that eats a pound of chocolate in one hour, or with someone who must finish a box of chocolates once it has been opened.
We humans have strong desires, inclinations that can easily turn our soul into a dark, chaotic mess. Egypt represents that place where we cannot or do not control our bad inclinations. Jacob did not want to go to that land of impurity but he was forced because there was a great famine in his land of residence. After a long period of scarcity he decided to go into Egypt to find food, and also because Joseph his beloved son was there. Jacob felt hungry during that famine just like Jesus felt hungry after forty days of fasting in the wilderness.
No one is asking us if we want to go there or not. All must experience our own personal visit to that spiritual state. Israel and Jesus had to go; therefore no exceptions will be granted. Why do we have to go into Egypt? We have to go there because we have to have our Passover. Divine wisdom dictates that there is no Resurrection Sunday without Good Friday.
Very often people think: “I am suffering because I did something wrong” without thinking that Jacob did nothing wrong but had to go into exile anyway so his descendants could experience God’s mercy at the time of the Passover.
In Genesis 18:16-33 Abraham pleads for the city of Sodom. He argues with God that may be there are 100 just men there, may be 50, or 30, or 10. Many times we become advocates of sin when we misunderstand the mercy of God. When there is no hope of repentance and redemption our sufferings become the just punishment for our actions. When we want to repent, when we truly struggle with sin, our exile will be fruitful and there will be a Passover once our purification ends, when we are no longer slaves to the things we lust for. Abraham advocates for the city because he knows there is no hope of redemption for Sodom: their destruction will be final; there will be no Passover for them.
Genesis 15:12-14 — As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.
Notice the difference: God tells Abraham that his own flesh and blood will have to be slaves for four hundred years. Abraham did not negotiate with God this time because he understood that the promised suffering was meant to purify them, not to exterminate them. He does not say a word in defense of his future children because he trusts that God is working in them through suffering so they can see their Passover one day. Jesus said: “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” and we know that “day” included the Cross. Although the suffering of Jesus was great and thoroughly undeserved, that suffering was essential for our salvation. Without it we could not have our Passover. That is why Abraham rejoiced and that is why we should rejoice as well.
To get to the heights of the mountain of glory we must all cross through the valley of darkness.
 John 8:56