Plunder the Egyptians For Their Gold
North Africa has twice taught a lesson to God’s people about truth, gold, and culture. It’s time we learn it again.
About 3,500 years ago, God was arranging to rescue Israel from Egyptian slavery. He knew they would need provisions for their journey so, in a very Robin Hood move, he had them take it from their captors. In Exodus 3:19-22, God says:
But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.
And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.
Egypt was, of course, a very rich culture. Its art, architecture, military strength, and wealth were impressive. And much of that wealth had been built on the hunched backs of Jewish slaves. Egyptian gold was ill-gotten and associated with false religion. And Israel left Egypt laden with a ton of it. Ever wonder where the material for that golden calf came from? From rich Egyptians! And then something else happened to that gold that leads to a lesson. Exodus 25:1-7 reads,
The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give. These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver and bronze...”
When it was time to build a tabernacle for God’s presence, that Egyptian gold showed up again. The verses that follow describe how Moses’s craftsmen were to use the gold in lampstands, tables, the ephod, and other holy materials. The same gold that had inlaid the statues of false gods was now adorning the tabernacle of the one true God. The bracelets that adorned Egyptian concubines was made into implements for Jewish sacrifices. God uses even the riches of his enemies for his own glory.
Moses recorded the story for any who could derive a lesson from it, but it was another North African — St. Augustine — who explained the lesson many years later. Augustine extended the motif beyond material riches to intellectual ones.
If those, however, who are called philosophers happen to have said anything that is true, and agreeable to our faith, the Platonists above all, not only should we not be afraid of them, but we should even claim back for our own use what they have said, as from its unjust possessors. It is like the Egyptians, who not only had idols and heavy burdens, which the people of Israel abominated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and fine raiment, which the people secretly appropriated for their own, and indeed better, use as they went forth from Egypt; and this not on their own initiative, but on God’s instructions, with the Egyptians unwittingly lending them things they were not themselves making good use of.
In the same way, while the heathen certainly have counterfeit and superstitious fictions in all their teachings, and the heavy burdens of entirely unnecessary labor, which everyone of us must abominate and shun as we go forth from the company of the heathen under the leadership of Christ, their teachings also contain liberal disciplines which are more suited to the service of the truth, as well as a number of most useful ethical principles, and some true things are to be found among them about worshiping only the one God. All this is like their gold and silver, and not something they instituted themselves, but something which they mined, so to say, from the ore of divine providence, veins of which are everywhere to be found. As they for their part make perverse and unjust use of it in the service of demons, so Christians for theirs ought, when they separate themselves in spirit from their hapless company, to take these things away from them for proper use of preaching the gospel.
What Augustine is saying is not just that God can use resources that have been misused before, but that all good things are good because of him, even if they are used to oppose him. The riches of the Earth do not cease to be marvelous because they are fashioned into an idol.
This principle applies to more than material resources. It applies to wisdom, and truth. All of us — Egyptian and Hebrew, Christian and atheist — indwell a world that is endowed with God-shaped reality. Bits of eternity are embedded in our science, our psyche, our stories, and our souls. Every person, whether he believes in eternity or not, lives in a world that proclaims it.
Elsewhere, Augustine wrote, “But let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” R.C. Sproul created a pithy summary of Augustine’s point when he wrote, “All truth is God’s truth.”
This is why Christians have never been shy about co-opting festivals and feast-days, artistic devices and mobile devices to spread the message. The God who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike also spreads abroad his wisdom and beauty for the faithless to discover as well as the faithful.
So we’ve dug through the sands of ancient Egypt and the pages of ancient Algeria. What does that have to do with us now? Just this: even as our culture seems to dismiss ancient truths, we can find those truths even in the secular. A lewd and violent story like True Detective can deliver a message — so emphatically it might be called preaching — about the importance of faith and humility. Unbelievers can participate in the work of restoring God-given dignity to poverty-stricken people created in his image. And even politicians can be used for the greater good.
Our job is not to cry foul when unbelievers misunderstand gospel truth, but rather to point out, as Paul did in Athens, when they affirm gospel truth without knowing it.