The country where the Israelites had taken up their abode, was the valley watered by the great river Nile. There is nothing but desert, wherever this river does not spread itself, for it never rains, and there would be dreadful drought, if every year, when the snow melts upon the mountains far south, where is the source of the stream, it did not become so much swelled as to spread far beyond its banks, and overflow all the flat space round it. Then as soon as the water subsides, the hot sun upon the mud that it has left brings up most beautiful grass, and fine crops of corn with seven or nine ears to one stalk; grand fruits of all kinds, melons, pumpkins, and cucumbers, flax for weaving linen, and everything that a people can desire. Indeed, the water of the river is so delicious, that it is said that those who have once tasted it are always longing to drink it again.
The sons of Mizraim, son of Ham, who first found out this fertile country, were a very clever race, and made the most of the riches of the place. They made dykes and ditches to guide the floodings into their fields and meadows; they cultivated the soil till it was one beautiful garden; they wove their flax into fine linen; and they made bricks of their soft clay, and hewed stone from the hills higher up the river, so that their buildings have been the wonder of all ages since. They had kings to rule them, and priests to guide their worship; but these priests had very wrong and corrupt notions themselves, and let the poor ignorant people believe even greater folly than they did themselves.
They thought that the great God lived among them in the shape of a bull with one spot on his back like an eagle, and one on his tongue like a beetle; and this creature they called Apis, and tended with the utmost care. When he died they all went into mourning, and lamented till a calf like him was found, and was brought home with the greatest honour; and for his sake all cattle were sacred, and no one allowed to kill them. Besides the good Power, they thought there was an evil one as strong as the good, and they worshipped him likewise, to beg him to do them no harm; so the dangerous crocodiles of the Nile were sacred, and it was forbidden to put them to death. They had a dog-god and a cat-goddess, and they honoured the beetle because they saw it rolling a ball of earth in which to lay its eggs, and fancied it an emblem of eternity; and thus all these creatures were consecrated, and when they died were rolled up in fine linen and spices, just as the Egyptians embalmed their own dead.
Mummies, as we call these embalmed Egyptian corpses, are often found now, laid up in beautiful tombs, cut out in the rock, and painted in colours still fresh with picture writing, called hieroglyphics, telling in tokens all the history of the person whose body they contained. The kings built tombs for themselves, like mountains, square at the bottom, but each course of stones built within the last till they taper to a point at the top. These are called pyramids, and have within them very small narrow passages, leading to a small chamber, just large enough to hold a king's coffin.
They had enormous idols hewn out of stone. The head of one, which you may see in the British Museum, is far taller than the tallest man, and yet the face is really handsome, and there are multitudes more, both of them and of their temples, still remaining on the banks of the Nile. The children of Israel, being chiefly shepherds, kept apart from the Egyptians at first; but as time went on they learnt some of their habits, and many of them had begun to worship their idols and forget the truth, when their time of affliction came. The King of Egypt, becoming afraid of having so numerous and rich a people settled in his dominions, tried to keep them down by hard bondage and heavy labour. He made them toil at his great buildings, and oppressed them in every possible manner; and when he found that they still throve and increased, he made the cruel decree, that every son who was born to them should be cast into the river.
But man can do nothing against the will of God, and this murderous ordinance proved the very means of causing one of these persecuted Hebrew infants to be brought up in the palace of Pharaoh, and instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, the only people who at that time had any human learning. Even in his early life, Moses seems to have been aware that he was to be sent to put an end to the bondage of his people, for, choosing rather to suffer with them than to live in prosperity with their oppressors, he went out among them and tried to defend them, and to set them at peace with one another; but the time was not yet come, and they thrust him from them, so that he was forced to fly for shelter to the desert, among the Midianite descendants of Abraham. After he had spent forty years there as a shepherd, God appeared to him, and then first revealed Himself as JEHOVAH, the Name proclaiming His eternal self-existence, I AM THAT I AM, a Name so holy, that the translators of our Bible have abstained from repeating it where it occurs, but have put the Name, the LORD, in capital letters in its stead. Moses was then sent to Egypt to lead out the Israelites on their way back to the land so long promised to their fore-fathers; and when Pharaoh obstinately refused to let them go, the dreadful plagues and wonders that were sent on the country were such as to show that their gods were no gods; since their river, the glory of their land, became a loathsome stream of blood, creeping things came and went at the bidding of the Lord, and their adored cattle perished before their eyes. At last, on the night of the Passover, in each of the houses unmarked by the blood of the Lamb, there was a great cry over the death of the first-born son; and where the sign of faith was seen, there was a mysterious obedient festival held by families prepared for a strange new journey. Then the hard heart yielded to terror, and Israel went oat of Egypt as a nation. They had come in in 1707 as seventy men, they went out in 1491 as six hundred thousand, and their enemies, following after them, sank like lead in the mighty waters of that arm of the Red Sea, which had divided to let the chosen pass through.