Thursday, January 5, 2017

Bible Road Trips: Fleeing to Egypt

Die Flucht nach Ägypten
by Carl Spitzweg 
We all know the story of Matthew 2:13-23, when Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had to embark at night to escape to Egypt along the coastal highway.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 
 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
The Return from Egypt

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’ 

We are still in the liturgical period of these events. Epiphany (tomorrow) is the traditional day in the Western church when the Wise Men are honored, while the Holy Innocents of the story are honored in the West on December 28, and in the Eastern church on December 29.

The road to Egypt was fairly easy: the Way of the Sea, the route they presumably took, was an international highway along the coast. But the holy family were essentially refugees, on the run from an oppressive and dangerous regime. Think of "hot spots" in our world today, like Aleppo and others, where people are on the run for safety and where innocents are killed---and remember that Jesus himself was a refugee in danger for his life. (I wrote more about biblical and contemporary refugees here.)

The passage contains some key Old Testament references, two of which I discussed in my little book Walking with Jesus through the Old Testament (p. 16). The Hosea 11:1 passage ("Out of Egypt I called my son") concerns God's salvation of his people in an analogous way as God rescued the Hebrew slaves of Egypt. In Hosea's passage, God expresses pain and maternal concern for the people, who have sinned. The Jeremiah 31:15 about Rachel dates from the time, over a hundred years after Hosea, when God executes judgment against the people's sin; but Rachel, a symbol of suffering motherhood in Judaism, feels anguish for God's people, as Mary suffered for her son Jesus. In these passages, Matthew connects the difficult experience of Jesus and his family to the history of Israel and God's salvation therein. The reference to Nazarenes may refer to the holy persons of Judges 13:5, or it may also refer to the fact that Jesus was a "branch" (nezer) of the line of David, Isaiah 11:1ff. Taken together, we understand how the holy child Jesus is deeply involved in the history and witness of his people, right from the beginning.

Matthew also helps us see how close God is when life becomes distressing, including times when we mourn. The problem of why God allows suffering is a difficult, painful one, but the Bible promises God's care and closeness amid the crises both personal and global. Matthew 25:31-46 is another classic passage about the "location" of God in the world. When he was an adult, Jesus sought out and remained among those in need, but he was identified suffering people from the time of his childhood.

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