Updated: Dec 7, 2020
With a gasp, he jerked awake. The night air struck his back where his tunic clung between his shoulder blades. He swept a hand down his face and it came away damp. He drew a deep, shaky breath and reached to be sure that Mary was beside him. She was warm and relaxed beneath his palm. Curled up in the crook of her arm was their young son, Jesus, sleeping peacefully, safe and secure. For now.
As Joseph looked at the pair, he felt a surge of protectiveness swell his heart and prickle in the back of his eyes. Sliding carefully from under their shared blanket, Joseph slipped out the door of their house for a breath of fresh air to clear his head. He stood alone under the starlight. His eyes were dragged to Jerusalem, the mighty city set atop a mountain only a few miles away. It slumbered now, but danger swelled behind those stone walls, ready to pour down the slope like a putrid mist.
The vision that had awakened him seared his mind with startling clarity. He had experienced the sensation once before—the night he found out that Mary's child was the long-awaited savior. That vision had been one of wonder. This one filled him with dread.
He whispered the angel's warning aloud, each word falling like droplets of ice in his heart. “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Joseph shook his head, frustration mingling with his fear. How could the king be so terrified of a mere child? It would be years, maybe decades, before Jesus was ready to take his place as the anointed one of God. Herod's lust for power was a poison, leaching the life from Israel's bones.
Joseph turned and gazed back at their little house. He wanted to believe that the vision was merely a nightmare. That he and Mary could stay in this house that had been their home for the past two years. They had planned to buy a milking goat next month, they had nearly saved enough. He had just taken on a building project that promised to keep food on the table for the next few weeks. Mary and Joseph were beginning to hope for another baby to give Jesus a sibling. In a few years, he and Mary had planned to send Jesus to learn from the best rabbis in the temple courtyards. Didn't the messiah deserve to grow up in sight of the temple of God?
Now they had to flee in the night like criminals. His stomach turned over with disappointment. All of their carefully laid plans were blown away as easily as a puff of breath on sawdust.
Joseph bit back a groan, worry pressing heavily on his chest. What could they take with them? Could he keep the precious child and innocent Mary safe from highwaymen? Joseph had never traveled so far, what if he got them lost? Where would they live in Egypt? Would Joseph be able to find work? Worry slid back and forth over his heart like a planer, painfully slicing away his courage.
“Who am I, God?” he whispered. “Why did you choose me for this enormous task?” He closed his eyes, waiting for an answer.
No visions filled his mind. No voice rumbled in his ears. But he felt a small, still voice speak within his heart, saying, “Trust Me.”
Joseph swallowed a huge lump, tears finally breaking free. This was God's plan. Joseph didn't have to have it all figured out. He just had to trust.
Joseph wiped his eyes on his sleeve and hurried back into the house. He lit a lamp. He knelt beside his wife, gently shaking her awake.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice thick with sleep.
“We have to go, right now,” Joseph said. “Get up and get Jesus ready.”
“Go?” she asked, sounding alert now. “What's happened?”
“I received a message from the Lord,” Joseph said, pausing before he added, “Herod wants to kill Jesus.”
“No!” she gasped, and both of them peered down on the slumbering child who slept without a care in the world. His thick lashes fanned over his full cheeks, the picture of childish beauty.
“It's true, we must go to Egypt. Jesus will be safe there.”
Mary nodded with wide eyes, seeming too overcome to speak. She rose and began to gather up their belongings into two baskets. Joseph helped her. They didn't have much, but yet there was so much they would have to leave behind. Joseph brushed his fingertips over his tools. There wouldn't be room to carry the larger ones, but he selected the expensive chisels he used for stonework. Mary would have to leave her loom. He saw her gazing sadly at the half-finished bolt of cloth in the corner.
Mary went to a small chest and shifted an old blanket out of the way. She gently lifted out the gifts she had hidden there. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gifts for Jesus. “We can sell these in Egypt,” she whispered.
“They are for Jesus,” Joseph protested. He had imagined the wealth being used to fund the start of Jesus revolution someday. Not used to put a roof over the child's head and food in his belly. That should be Joseph's job—a job he was failing. This was not the life he had dreamed for his son, the son God had given him. His shoulders drooped.
Mary caught his eye and seemed to read his heart. “How do we know that God did not send those men for this very reason?” she said gently. “These gifts will ensure that we are secure in Egypt. God has provided, Joseph.”
Joseph wrestled down his feelings of inadequacy. “Of course, my love,” he said with a tight smile.
Last of all, Mary picked up Jesus. The little boy stretched in his mother's arms, his hands making little fists, but he slumbered on. Joseph led the donkey outside and checked it's harness one last time. The light went out from inside the house as Mary blew out the lamp. Joseph blinked in the darkness.
Mary came beside him. She looked at the neighboring houses, and her voice caught as she said, “What will they say when they discover we're gone?”
Joseph felt her pain and rubbed her back. These were their friends. The family next door had a little boy only a month younger than Jesus. Mary was often popping by with Jesus so the mother's could chat while their children entertained each other. He wished he could wake the village and explain, but the angel had told them to get up and go. In his heart, Joseph knew that in the light of day, it would be too easy for their friends to convince them to stay. It was better this way.
Drawing his resolve, Joseph settled his wife and son on the donkey and took up the lead. By the light of the stars, they fled into the night.
Read this story for yourself in Matthew 2:13-15
How did Joseph feel receiving this warning from the angel? It doesn't say, but if I look around at the fathers I know, they would do anything to keep their family safe. Joseph wasn't Jesus' biological father, but he did everything a father would do--including fleeing in the night to a neighboring country.
Matthew explains to us that everything that happened in Jesus' life was a fulfillment of prophecy, words that had been treasured and pondered for generations. A common phrase in Matthew is that something happened "to fulfill". (Matthew 1:22, 2:15, 2:17, 2:23) The flight to Egypt, the slaughter in Bethlehem, the return to Nazareth, all these events fulfill prophecies spoken long before Jesus was born. Does this mean that God wanted Herod to be cruel? No, of course not. Herod had free-choice, just like the rest of us, but God foresaw events, his prophets recorded them, and Jesus fulfilled them.
In Jesus' journey into Egypt and then back again, he echoes the history of the Israelites. We see Jesus take on the history of the Israelites throughout his life, but in each moment where Israel failed, he responds in faith.
What was life like in Egypt for Jews?
There was a large community of Jews in Egypt. It is possible Joseph and Mary traveled to the coastal city of Alexandria, home to the massive lighthouse Pharos and the famous Library of Alexandria, wonders of the ancient world. Though anti-semitism grew in Roman-ruled Egypt later, at this time in history, it was a good time for Jews. They were encouraged to maintain their cultural and religious identity and were able to self-govern. Many Jews in Egypt were classically educated or artisans. Synagogues could be found everywhere in the Jewish districts of Alexandria, and one was particularly large and beautiful, with some sources describing splendor that rivaled the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Philo states there may have been up to a million Jews in Egypt in the first century!
It is strange to look back at the stories of the Exodus and then discover Jewish people flourishing in Egypt in the first century. Some historians say that this created tension between Judean Jews and Egyptian Jews, though we do know that Jews from Egypt traveled to Jerusalem for festivals. (Acts 2:10)
How long did Mary, Joseph, and Jesus stay in Egypt?
We're not sure how old Jesus was when they left, though it seems he was less than two. (Matthew 2:16) They remained in Egypt until Joseph was visited once more by an angel. We know that Herod was alive when they left, and when they returned, Archelaus was ruling the area around Jerusalem, including Bethlehem. Herod died in about 4BC. (The date set by monks centuries ago as Jesus' birth has been adjusted with new historical discoveries.) If they returned to Israel shortly after Herod's death, they were in Egypt for at most a few years, and possibly much less.
In this post, A Who's Who of Herods, I share some of the history of the Hasmoneans. Herod's son Archelaus was so violent and disruptive that he was later deposed by Rome, and a governor set up in his place. Clearly Joseph didn't think his family would be safe living so near a blood-thirsty ruler, and he took Jesus north to Galilee, where Herod Antipas ruled with a more moderate hand.
What happened to Joseph?
The last we hear of Joseph is when Jesus remains behind in the temple, causing his parents a great deal of worry. (Luke 2:41-51). Traditional interpretations are that Joseph died before Jesus' ministry, as we later hear about his mother and siblings, but not his father. Joseph is described as righteous, and we clearly see him ensuring that Jesus is raised to follow the commandments of God.
As parents, we never know how long we have on this earth. I think Joseph's life is a prime example that we need to instill the ways of faith in our children. His story reminds me that I need to teach my children in such a way that they can carry on their faith after I'm gone.
If you enjoyed this short story, make sure you check out 'As the Stars', my collection of 45 Short Stories from the Bible!