Bible Study | February 15, 2018

Refugee Jesus

The Flight into Egypt by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899) Public domain.

Three verses. The story of the flight into Egypt takes up only three verses in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew. 2:13-15). How often have I rushed through these verses to get from the Christmas story to the baptism of the adult Jesus and the message contained in Jesus’ teachings?

I have known about the story of the family’s flight into Egypt for a long time, but I have not engaged with it—at least not at any deep level—until recently. When I did, it struck me like the proverbial bolt from the blue. Jesus was a refugee! Mary and Joseph were refugees! How could I have overlooked this for so long?

In the New Testament, the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt can be found only in Matthew’s Gospel. It contains two motifs that characterize Matthew’s Gospel story: revelation through dreams and fulfillment of prophecy. In Matthew it is Joseph, not Mary, who receives instruction from an angel sent by God. Joseph receives this information through dreams.

First, an angel tells Joseph about the upcoming birth of Jesus to Mary (1:20-21). Second, an angel tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt (2:12). Third, an angel tells Joseph when it is safe to return home (2:19-20). Joseph asks no questions of the heavenly messenger. Each time, he follows instructions without delay. When told to take his family to Egypt, Joseph apparently does not even wait until morning light, but rather gets up and, in the middle of the night, the family leaves for a foreign land.

Some Bible readers have negative feelings toward Egypt. The story of the enslavement of the Hebrews in that land sometimes overshadows other positive mentions of Egypt in the Bible. Popular culture may have something to do with this. Think The Prince of Egypt (1998), The Ten Commandments (1956), or Veggie Tales: Moe and the Big Exit (2007).

In fact, in the Bible Egypt becomes a place of refuge for some, and the Bible records several “flights into Egypt” before the one we read about in Matthew (see 1 Kings 11:17, 40; 2 Kings 25:26; and Jeremiah 26:21; 41:17; 43:17). By the time of the Holy Family’s flight in the first century, a sizeable population of Jews lived in Egypt. Many lived in the city of Alexandria, but Jewish settlements existed throughout the country. Matthew doesn’t tell us where in Egypt the Holy Family went or how long they stayed. Knowing there were Jewish communities in Egypt, we might assume they found temporary shelter among other Jews who lived there.

Once we pause on these verses long enough to think about the practical realities of a flight like this, we might wonder how long such a journey would have taken in the first century. Estimates vary widely, because Matthew does not tell us precisely where in Egypt they went. If we imagine they went to Alexandria, which had a large Jewish population in Roman times, the journey would have been between 300 and 400 miles and taken them on a route along the Mediterranean coast and through the Nile Delta region.

No doubt they went on foot. Perhaps as artists suggest, Mary, holding the infant in her arms, rode a donkey. This could have taken them two to three weeks, or more. Following the completion of the New Testament, traditions arose that offered more details about this event in Jesus’ infancy, but we should probably consider these traditions traditions as imaginative attempts to fill in the gaps of Matthew’s story.

The “flight into Egypt” has been a favorite subject for artists. In the 19th century, the American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) painted this subject some 15 times. Tanner’s father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, so it is not too surprising that Tanner frequently painted biblical subjects.

Tanner paints the fleeing family as ordinary folks. We see no halos or other distinguishing features that might identify this refugee family as the Holy Family. In fact, the facial features are hard to distinguish. Perhaps this allows us to recognize the universal dimension of the experience, rather than seeing it only as a one-time event in the life of Jesus. Tanner’s colors and brushstrokes give a sense of the danger this family faces and the hastiness of their journey. They run from Herod, but they also run into new and unknown territory. What will they encounter on the way? How will they be received when they arrive?

We see another characteristic Matthean motif in this narrative, especially if we expand it to include verses 16-19. Matthew tells us that what happens occurs to fulfill prophecy. The messages of the prophets of old take on new life for Matthew. The flight itself fulfills the word of God spoken by Hosea (11:1), “out of Egypt I have called my son.” Herod’s massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem fulfills the word spoken by Jeremiah (31:15) about Rachel’s weeping for her children.

In the 8th and 7th centuries BC, when Hosea and Jeremiah delivered their messages, these words related to the experiences of the Israelites and Judeans of that time period. Matthew infuses them with new meaning as he relates them to Jesus.

The source of the third prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean,” is less clear. Matthew may be relating Isaiah’s prophecy of a branch growing from Jesse’s roots to the family’s decision to settle in Nazareth (the Hebrew word for “branch,” which is used in Isaiah 11:1, sounds somewhat like the word Nazorean).

Having slowed down to reflect on Matthew 2:13-15, what have I learned? After meditating on Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings, how do I respond? Perhaps my former hasty reading of these three verses came about because I cannot identify personally with this family in flight. But I follow the news, and I know that we currently have over 65 million people who have been forced to leave their homes. As I write this, an e-mail appears in my inbox suggesting that I learn more about the refugee crisis by going to the website of the United Nations Refugee Agency (

Those who have been forced to abandon their homes and possessions— either permanently or temporarily— may find solace in learning that Jesus and his parents knew the refugee experience firsthand. Matthew tells us that Jesus is Immanuel, “God- With-Us.” God is with refugees.

For the rest of us, those of us fortunate enough not to know the refugee experience firsthand, our challenge is this: What shall we do? Other words from Matthew’s Gospel come to mind—the words of Jesus in chapter 25. When disciples feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit prisoners, and welcome strangers, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40b).

Christina Bucher is professor of religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.