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. Matt 2:13-15
Jesus was a child immigrant refugee who crossed the border into Egypt, fleeing violence in his homeland.
Just a few kilometers from the traditional site of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem are remains of the Herodium, a palace-fortress that Herod the Great built as a safe haven in case his Jewish subjects revolted. The fortress sat atop the hill on the above picture, close enough to Bethlehem for soldiers stationed there to keep an eye on town. It may have been soldiers from Herodium barracks who came down into Bethlehem to slaughter baby boys under age two (Matt 2:16).
We have no record of this massacre outside of the New Testament. But such brutality is entirely within character of this king of the Jews who befriended Rome and aligned Judea with the empire. Placed in power and kept in power by Rome, Herod ruled 37 BC to 4 BC and was ruthless against any internal threat. Pathologically paranoid, he executed his first wife and two sons—prompting Caesar Augustus to say, “better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” Ponder the edge to that statement in a Jewish context!
But Caesar still backed Herod. That’s how empires work, with local rulers—sometimes tyrants—propped up in client states because they serve interests of the empire. “He may be a bastard,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, “but he’s our bastard.”
Not long after spilling blood in Bethlehem, Herod lay dying—perhaps of syphilis—at his winter palace near Jericho. Believing that his son Antipater was plotting against him, Herod ordered the man to be executed. Knowing that many of his subjects would rejoice when he died himself, Herod ordered leading citizens of Jerusalem to come to Jericho. There he locked them in a stadium with secret orders that they be executed when he died. Otherwise, Herod knew, he would depart “without such mourning as people usually expect at a king’s death” (Josephus, Antiquities 17.6). Mercifully, no one carried out those executions when Herod died.
It was from this murderous villain that baby Jesus and his parents fled. Like today’s undocumented children fleeing violence in the land of their birth, Jesus sought safe haven in a nearby country–in this case Egypt, where his forebears once had been slaves.
Pray that nations receiving children and families who flee violence today will respond with the nurture and compassion we would want for the Christ child.
© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill *******************************************Join me on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land! See: From Nazareth to Rome: Holy Land, Empire and Global Mission, with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 3-15, 2014
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