Chapter 5.1 Out of Egypt
Flight into Egypt, original oil painting on canvasboard by L. Lovett, size 16 x 20 inches, August 1990
Flight into Egypt, original oil painting on canvasboard by L. Lovett, size 16 x 20 inches, August 1990
(CLICK on the image above for a LARGER version)

The strange visit of the magi, the lavish gifts they had brought, and the story of how they had been guided on the long journey westward from Arabia had caused considerable talk in Bethlehem. At a time when they were just becoming comfortably situated there, Joseph began to wonder how safe they were. He had heard stories about Herod’s jealous behavior concerning any threat to his throne and worried about what to do next. As he lay down attempting to sleep, his mind surveyed all the possibilities that lay before them, but could find nothing reassuring in any of them. Finally he slept from sheer weariness and began to dream.

Immediately an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, “Get up and escape to Egypt with the child and his mother. Stay there until I say it is safe for you to return, for Herod is going to kill him.” Once again he heard the voice of the angel who had spoken to him when he was considering ending his engagement to Mary after learning that she was already with child. As on that other occasion, the angelic voice resolved his uncertainty.

Awakening, Joseph did not hesitate to obey. Rousing Mary, he whispered, “An angel appeared to me just now. Jesus is in danger from Herod and we must flee at once to Egypt! Make preparations for the journey.”

Mary did not hesitate. She gathered their clothing together and bound up only the barest necessities into packs which could be strapped on the back of the donkey. Then she carefully secreted the magi’s gifts in the middle roll containing their sleeping pallets. These gifts could be readily exchanged in Egypt for lodging and other necessities of life. What food was in the house she wrapped in a cloth so it could be tied to the animal’s back along with the water skin and a few cooking utensils. Joseph could buy tools and anything else they needed when they arrived in Egypt.

It was almost dawn before they finished loading their belongings. Jesus had been sleeping in his cradle, and their last act before leaving Bethlehem was to strap this on top of one of the packs. Whatever dangers and discomfort Joseph and Mary were to experience in this abrupt flight from their homeland, they were determined that Jesus should feel as little of it as possible. They were saddened to leave Bethlehem, Joseph’s carpenter trade, and the kinsfolk and friends who had welcomed them, but the danger to Jesus put all other considerations from their minds.

The town still slept when Joseph led their faithful donkey carefully so his footfalls wouldn’t waken anyone and cause a need to explain their hasty journey. Only one route of flight seemed at all safe, that southward by way of Hebron.

As they left Bethlehem behind, pink dawn was breaking over the range of hills to the east that hid the surface of the Sea of Judgment (Dead Sea) and the sulfurous mists rising from relics of brimstone which had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

First they took the road south to Hebron, about seventeen miles away. It was the home of kinsfolk Elisabeth and Zechariah, to whom Mary had gone after the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ conception. If anyone questioned them, they planned to answer merely that they were going to visit this well known priest and his family.

While Joseph led the donkey, Mary watched dawn turn into a spectacular sunrise over the wilderness of Judea as they fled with Jesus through hallowed ground toward Egypt. Hebron was rich in Jewish history and a city of refuge, but Joseph knew the reputation of Herod and dared not rely upon his respecting that ancient tradition. They paused there only long enough to spend the night with Zechariah and Elisabeth, and to see their son John, born to them after the angel’s announcement to Zechariah in the Temple that their child was to be a prophet of the Most High. Some six months older than Jesus, John was a fine strapping boy, the fulfillment of God’s promise to his elderly parents. Little did any of them know how intertwined the lives of the two boys would later become in the beginning of the Messiah’s ministry.

Early next morning the trio of travelers, well rested and with more food and water, set out again on the road, heading west toward the shore of the Great Sea (Mediterranean). When they reached the coastal road, they joined a caravan bound for Egypt and hid themselves among the travelers. On some other occasion Joseph and Mary might have enjoyed journeying through this region that was so sacred to the history of Israel, but now they could not help feeling sad about leaving the land they loved. The caravan crossed the bleak Sinai and Negev deserts and came to the River of Egypt; then at Migdol, the frontier fortress, they passed through the customs and were finally safe from Herod.

To a Jew, Egypt was a land of opportunity second only to his homeland. It had been a traditional land of refuge for centuries. Whenever drought or famine struck, thousands would immigrate to the fertile farms along the Nile River. Greatly favored by Alexander when he had conquered Egypt, about a million Jews had migrated into the country. Here they had prospered, notably in Alexandria, but were also found in smaller communities throughout the land. When Joseph settled in Tanis, the first large city east of the border, he had little trouble in gaining membership in the guild of carpenters. Here in a friendly and warm land at the mouth of the Nile he settled his family and began to work with new saw, adze, chisels, and drills.

Both Joseph and Mary yearned for beautiful Galilee—the hills, valleys, and rushing streams of that mountainous land which was particularly lacking in the flat Nile delta—yet they did enjoy being in Egypt. Jesus, too, thrived and was soon toddling about, exploring the exciting world of early childhood.

Herod’s Revenge

Meanwhile back in Jerusalem after Jesus was safely on his way to Egypt, Herod had grown more and more impatient as he waited in his palace for the magi to return and betray the whereabouts of the infant Messiah. Soon his patience ran out and he sent an envoy to Bethlehem in search of them. When the envoy came back with news that the wise men had already gone, the king realized they somehow had been enlightened about the true nature of his interest in the child, and had taken the alternate route homeward to avoid revealing his location.

Enraged at being outwitted in his intention to kill the future Messiah and King of the Jews, Herod next did a thing of sheer horror that eclipsed any of his previous crimes. He issued an order that all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem and its immediate environs should be killed. At least Herod knew that the star had been seen by the magi only a little more than a year before, and he thought this brutal slaughter of innocent babes would be a certain way of destroying the child Messiah. Hebron was not included in the sweeping edict, and the son of Zechariah and Elisabeth was spared.

But there was weeping and wailing in Bethlehem as had been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah who said long ago, “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing in bitter grief; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, because they were no more.” King Herod was no doubt satisfied he had done away with the infant Savior, but the one baby he had wanted to kill was the only one who escaped. Time was running out for Herod, too.

Return to Nazareth

About two years later, the angel of the Lord came once again in a dream to Joseph while his family was living quietly on the banks of the Nile, “Get up and take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”

Herod’s death in 4 B.C. ended a reign of thirty-seven of the bloodiest, yet strangely enough, the most prosperous years Israel had ever experienced. His will divided up the kingdom to his sons, and Archelaus was made ruler of Judea. Echoes his reign of terror had come even to Egypt and Joseph was afraid to return to Bethlehem. Then in another dream he was warned to go directly into Galilee.

Again they traveled, this time openly, with a caravan heading east and then north, following the Way of the Sea, one of the oldest caravan routes between the cities of Egypt and Damascus. Following the shoreline by way of Gaza, Ascalon, Jamnia, and Lydda, Joseph and his family kept Jerusalem well to the east. From Lydda, following the eastern border of the Plain of Sharon and leaving the Roman capital of Caesarea on the seacoast to the west, they turned northeastward then toward Nazareth in the hills of southern Galilee. This fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets concerning the Messiah, “He will be called a Nazarene.” At last, their long journey had ended. They were home!

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