ESCAPE TO EGYPT
When they had gone away, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph. “Rise,” he said, “and take the little child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the little child, in order to kill him.” So he arose and took the little child and his mother by night and went away into Egypt, and he remained there until the death of Herod. This happened that the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”
The ancient world had no doubt that God sent his messages to men in dreams. So Joseph was warned in a dream to flee into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions. The flight into Egypt was entirely natural. Often, throughout the troubled centuries before Jesus came, when some peril and some tyranny and some persecution made life intolerable for the Jews, they sought refuge in Egypt. The result was that every city in Egypt had its colony of Jews; and in the city of Alexandria there were actually more than a million Jews, and certain districts of the city were entirely handed over to them. Joseph in his hour of peril was doing what many a Jew had done before; and when Joseph and Mary reached Egypt they would not find themselves altogether amidst strangers, for in every town and city they would find Jews who had sought refuge there.
It is an interesting fact that in after days the foes of Christianity and the enemies of Jesus used the stay in Egypt as a peg to attach their slanders to him. Egypt was proverbially the land of sorcery, of witchcraft and of magic. The Talmud says, “Ten measures of sorcery descended into the world; Egypt received nine, the rest of the world one”. So the enemies of Jesus declared that it was in Egypt that Jesus had learned a magic and a sorcery which made him able to work miracles., and to deceive men.
When the pagan philosopher, Celsus, directed his attack against Christianity in the third century, that attack which Origen met and defeated, he said that Jesus was brought up as an illegitimate child, that he served for hire in Egypt, that he came to the knowledge of certain miraculous powers, and returned to his own country and used these powers to proclaim himself God (Origen: Contra Celsum 1: 38). A certain Rabbi, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, said that Jesus had the necessary magical formulae tattooed upon his body so that he would not forget them. Such were the slanders that twisted minds connected with the flight to Egypt; but they are obviously false, for it was as a little baby that Jesus was taken to Egypt, and it was as a little child that he was brought back.
Two of the loveliest New Testament legends are connected with the flight into Egypt. The first is about the penitent thief. Legend calls the penitent thief Dismas, and tells that he did not meet Jesus for the first time when they both hung on their crosses on Calvary. The story runs like this. When Joseph and Mary were on their way to Egypt, they were waylaid by robbers. One of the robber chiefs wished to murder them at once and to steal their little store of goods. But something about the baby Jesus went straight to Dismas’ heart, for Dismas was one of these robbers. He refused to allow any harm to come to Jesus or his parents. He looked at Jesus and said, “O most blessed of children, if ever there come a time for having mercy on me, then remember me, and forget not this hour”. So, the legend says, Jesus and Dismas met again at Calvary, and Dismas on the cross found forgiveness and mercy for his soul.
The other legend is a child’s story, but it is very lovely. When Joseph and Mary and Jesus were on their way to Egypt, the story runs, as the evening came they were weary, and they sought refuge in a cave. It was very cold, so cold that the ground was white with hoar frost. A little spider saw the little baby Jesus, and he wished so much that he could do something to keep him warm in the cold night. He decided to do the only thing he could and spin his web across the entrance of the cave, to make, as it were, a curtain there.
Along the path came a detachment of Herod’s soldiers, seeking for children to kill to carry out Herod’s bloodthirsty order. When they came to the cave they were about to burst in to search it, but their captain noticed the spider’s web, covered with the white hoar frost and stretched right across the entrance to the eave. “Look,” he said, “at the spider’s web there. It is quite unbroken and there cannot possibly be anyone in the cave, for anyone entering would certainly have torn the web.”
So the soldiers passed on, and left the holy family in peace, because a little spider had spun his web across the entrance to the cave. And that, so they say, is why to this day we put tinsel on our Christmas trees, for the glittering tinsel streamers stand for the spider’s web, white with the hoar frost, stretched across the entrance of the cave on the way to Egypt. It is a lovely story, and this much, at least, is true, that no gift which Jesus receives is ever forgotten.
The last words of this passage introduce us to a custom which is characteristic of Matthew. He sees in the flight to Egypt a fulfilment of the word spoken by Hosea. He quotes it in the form: Out of Egypt have I called my son. That is a quotation from Hos.11:1, which reads: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”.
It can be seen at once that in its original form this saying of Hosea had nothing to do with Jesus, and nothing to do with the flight to Egypt It was nothing more than a simple statement of now God had delivered the nation of Israel from slavery and from bondage in the land of Egypt.
We shall see, again and again, that this is typical of Matthew’s use of the Old Testament. He is prepared to use as a prophecy about Jesus any text at all which can be made verbally to fit, even although originally it had nothing to do with the question in hand, and was never meant to have anything to do with it. Matthew knew that almost the only way to convince the Jews that Jesus was the promised Anointed One of God was to prove that he was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. And in his eagerness to do that he finds prophecies in the Old Testament where no prophecies were ever meant. When we read a passage like this we must remember that, though it seems strange and unconvincing to us, it would appeal to those Jews for whom Matthew was writing.
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