Review of G. Galvin, Egypt as a Place of Refuge

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Galvin, Garrett, Egypt as a Place of Refuge (FAT, II/51; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011). Pp. xv + 230. Sewn paper. €59.00. ISBN 978-3-16-150816-5.

The prominent memory of ancient Egypt in biblical heritage and western culture is that of Egypt as a house of slavery. Egypt as a place of oppression and hostility towards the Israelites is found throughout the Hebrew Bible in its various genres (narrative, law, Psalms). This is not the whole story, however, argues Garrett Galvin in Egypt as a Place of Refuge. Galvin notes at the beginning of his book, “Although Scripture usually refers to Egypt as a place of bondage, Egypt also plays a role as a place of refuge for a number of prominent biblical individuals” (1). The purpose of the book, therefore, is to provide a close study of the biblical passages in which Egypt functioned as a place of refuge.

In Chapter One, the Introduction, Galvin sets up the issues that he deals with in the rest of his book. Some of these issues include the differentiation between a refuge and a religious/criminal asylum, and the portrayal of a given nation (e.g. Egypt) as a refuge place in both the ancient Near East and in the Bible. Thus various genres of ancient Near Eastern literature (e.g. treaties, narratives, etc.) are discussed in Chapter Two in order to explain the concept of refuge. Some characteristics are shared between these refuge accounts: (1) A key figure flees from a position of centrality to a liminal place; (2) In some cases the fleeing figure succeeds in moving back to a position of centrality, in other cases the refugee is doomed. In Chapter Three Galvin underlines the difference between “flight” and “refuge” on the one hand, and “permanent exile,” “diaspora,” and “criminal asylum” on the other hand. By comparing the semantic range of verbs like ברח ,נוס ,פלט “to flee,” “to escape” with verbs like גלה ,שׁבה ,פוץ “to go into exile,” “to take captive,” “to scatter,” respectively, Galvin notes “[w]hereas the verbs associated with flight involve an individual controlling his or her own destiny, diaspora and permanent exile are the lot of individuals who have lost all control of their lives” (43). The last section of this chapter looks into refuge as a topos in Old Testament literature. Galvin discusses the theme of “flight” as it appears in the stories of David (1 Sam 19; 20; 27 and 2 Sam 15; 19), Absalom (2 Sam 13–16), Adonijah (1 Kgs 1–2), Hagar (Gen 16; 21), Jacob (Gen 27–32), Jephthah (Judg 11), Jonah (1:3, 10; 4:2), Joseph (Gen 37–50) and Moses (Exod 2:15; 4:3; 14:5). Similar to the characteristics of flight stories from the ancient Near East, we find that the aforementioned biblical flight stories portray the fleeing figure leaving behind a position of centrality for a location of liminality. While in the stories of David and Jacob the fleeing character returns to a position of centrality, the stories of Absalom and Adonijah present an end of doom.

In 1 Kgs 11:14–12:24 two figures, Hadad and Jeroboam, take refuge in Egypt to flee from immanent life-threatening danger. Hadad of Edom manages to escape the massacre that Joab, the commander of David's army, conducted against the Edomite males (1 Kgs 11:14–22). Jeroboam flees to Egypt, running from Solomon, who seeks his life because Jeroboam had been promised a kingdom. The stories of Hadad and Jeroboam are told in order to underline the divine displeasure with Solomon. Galvin's discussion of these narratives, in Chapter Four, pays a close attention to literary features and textual variations between the MT and the LXX. The Hadad episode shares some literary features with other stories of biblical refuge, especially that they “… travel through the desert, interact with a nameless pharaoh, and enjoy great material benefits during their sojourn there” (116). According to Galvin, the MT of 1 Kgs 11:14–12:24 seems to portray Egypt positively as a place of refuge; after all, Hadad and Jeroboam were adversaries that God raised up against Solomon. The Greek versions LXXB and LXXL of the story of Jeroboam, however, according to Galvin, “… portray Egypt in a far more negative light as they even have Jeroboam return to Israel at an earlier point, seemingly to stir up trouble” (117).

Galvin devotes Chapter Five to an analysis of the portrayal of Egypt in the book of Jeremiah. The sixty-two references to Egypt in the book are classified in three different categories: (1) References to the exodus from Egypt; (2) References to contemporary Egypt outside of the Baruch Scroll (Jer 36-45); (3) References in the Baruch Scroll. At the outset of his discussion, Galvin notes that the differences between the MT and the LXX of Jeremiah are not crucial for the material he is concerned with, he will, therefore, “focus on the MT, while also making reference to the LXX on those (few) occasions where its portrayal of Egypt does differ” (124). The eleven references to the exodus from Egypt that appear in the book of Jeremiah (e.g., 2:6; 7:22) underline the point that Egypt is not a proper place of refuge but rather a place of bondage and slavery. Outside of the Baruch Scroll, Egypt is mentioned nineteen times, where it is acknowledged as a place of refuge, but “Jeremiah seems to want the people to accept their fate of exile in Babylon, rather than to seek refuge elsewhere” (127). Likening the ones who went to Egypt to the bad figs (24:8), the outcome of Uriah's flight (Jer 26:20–23), and the pairing of Egypt with Assyria (2:18) underline Jeremiah's evaluation of Egypt as an improper place of refuge. The Baruch Scroll (chs. 36–45), which tells the story of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and the flight of some Judeans to Egypt, castigates the Judeans who take refuge in Egypt, highlights that Israel's story “ends where it originated: in Egypt” (131), and finally points out that “Jeremiah's personal history ends in the land where Moses started” (135).

The focus of Chapter Six is Egypt as a place of refuge in the Greco-Roman period. In this section, Galvin discusses texts from the books of Maccabees, the writings of Josephus, and also the gospel according to Matthew. 1 Maccabees 15:16 mentions a treaty concerned with the Jewish refugees in Egypt, and 2 Macc 1–2 includes two letters sent from the Jews of Judea to the Jews of Egypt. The Matthean tradition, in which the Holy Family takes refuge in Egypt because of the threat that Herod poses to the baby—Jesus, “… draws on the tradition of Egypt as a place of refuge in the OT. Although Matthew makes no explicit mention of OT figures in 2:13–15 and 19–21, Moses, Jeroboam, and Jeremiah certainly stand in the background of his presentation there” (180).

Galvin's work on Egypt as a place of refuge differs from previous scholarship on the relationship between Egypt and Israel in various points. Given the limitations of the historical data and the fact that what is uncovered has been exhaustively discussed by others, the gap that Galvin's work fills is the role of genre in understanding the portrayal of Egypt as a place of refuge in the Bible. Galvin notes, “Whereas most previous studies have used a historical framework to understand their relationship, I will pay more explicit attention to the question of genre” (6). Furthermore, while most earlier scholarship pays more attention to the accounts of 1 Kgs 11:14–12:24 and Jer 36–45, His work expands the scope to include the books of Maccabees and the flight of the Holy Family in the New Testament. In addition, this work skillfully intertwines insights from three different fields on scholarship. Galvin's study of Egypt as a refuge is informed by the notion of refuge in the ancient Near East, insights from the social sciences (anthropology and sociology) on the concept of liminality, and exegetical analyses of multiple biblical texts with special attention to textual witnesses (MT, LXX). Thus Galvin's work contributes to the study of Egypt as a place of refuge in its inquiry, its method, and also its scope. This work should be applauded for its literary sensibilities and its keen textual analyses.

In the course of discussing the phenomenon of refuge in the Old Testament in general, Galvin distinguishes between “flight” and “refuge” on the one hand and “exile” and asylum on the other hand. The criteria that Galvin employs in order to make this distinction between “flight” and “exile” include the use of one of the three Hebrew verbs ברח ,נוס ,פלט (“to flee” or “to escape”). In addition, Galvin notes that the refugees have control over their destiny, while the exiled have lost all control of their lives. The flight of some of the Judeans to Egypt in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile, which Galvin discusses in Chapter Five, raises some questions to the aforementioned propositions. None of the verbs ברח ,נוס ,פלט (“to flee” or “to escape”) is used to describe the flight of these Judeans to Egypt in the Baruch Scroll. The text instead uses the verb בוא “to come, to enter” (e.g. Jer 31:17; 42:15, 17–19; 43:2, 7, 11; 44:12, 14, 28). Interestingly, outside of the Baruch Scroll, the verbs ברח “to flee” (in the MT; the verb is missing in the LXX) and בוא “to come” are used in order to describe the flight of Uriah to Egypt (26:21) and the verb מלט “to escape” is used in the Baruch Scroll in order to describe the flight of Ishmael son of Nethaniah to the Ammonites (41:15) and in order to speak of YHWH's deliverance of Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian as a reward for rescuing Jeremiah (39:18). One wonders, therefore, about the possibility that the author(s) of the Baruch Scroll avoided using the verbs that designate a sense of flight or refuge in describing the group of the Judeans who went to Egypt as a way of underlining Jeremiah's critique of this “flight,” that is, Egypt is not a safe refuge. The fact that the Baruch Scholl and 2 Kgs 25:26 use the verb בוא (“to come”) in order to describe the journey of these Judeans who escaped to Egypt “because they were afraid of Chaldeans” invites us to reconsider the criterion of determining the refuge texts based on vocabulary; taking refuge as a motif is not necessarily bound to a set of verbs.

Another issue that is worth exploring when it comes to Jeremiah's skepticism about Egypt as a place of refuge has to do with Judean politics of the 6th century, being divided between pro-Babylonian policy, of which Jeremiah was a supporter, and a pro-Egyptian policy, which Jeremiah denounced. Finally, one of Galvin's contributions to the study of Egypt as a refuge lies in exploring the notion of genre. Looking at the texts Galvin chose to discuss and noting how diverse they are, one wonders, however, whether it is better to speak of a “motif” rather than a “genre.”

In the Conclusion, Galvin notes that “Egypt's role as a place of refuge can … be an historical reality and/or literary motif” (181). Galvin's work invites further scholarship on the relation between Israel and Egypt as found in both biblical and extrabiblical evidence. Given that most biblical texts emerged at times when Egypt was not the superpower of the ancient Near East, and that Egypt and Israel/Judah interacted in the shadows of the Assyrian, the Babylonia, and the Persian empires, scholarship will need to investigate whether Egypt in these biblical traditions stands for itself or for another power, meaning that Egypt would be used as a code. More research is needed to discuss how literary and historical elements of texts that speak of Egypt as a place of refuge and those that speak of Egypt as a house of slavery interact with one another. Finally, these stories or accounts of an individual or a group who seek refuge somewhere else other than home invite us to think about how the Israelites understood their identity as “strangers” or “refugees” in relation to the surrounding nations, with Egypt as one of the most prominent among them.

Safwat Marzouk, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary