The Rev. Dr. Han van den Blink
St. Paul’s Church, Troy
And [Joseph] got up and took the child and his mother by night, and
went to Egypt, and remained there till the death of Herod.
Joseph, Mary, and their little boy Jesus surely qualify as refugees. For that reason I read, with more attention to detail, the story of their flight to Egypt and return to the land of Israel this year. What struck me was that Joseph’s role was much more decisive than I had assumed.
Reading the account of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt this time around made me realize the error of my assumption that Joseph had been a somewhat passive actor whose main role in this dramatic story had been to obey the promptings conveyed to him in two dreams by “an angel of the Lord” (2:13 and 19).
Without denying the important role these dreams played in his decision making, I began to see them more as confirmations of his own shrewd sense that danger was afoot and that something needed to be done right away to avoid the massacre that Herod had unleashed on all the boys in that region “who were two years old or under (2:16).” He knew how to avoid drawing attention from the authorities by making his getaway with his wife and child at night (2:14).
When you live at the bottom of the social hierarchy as Joseph and Mary did, and have little or no power to affect the circumstances of your life, especially when you live under a merciless tyrant like Herod, you acquire the habit of scanning constantly for signs of danger, as Joseph continued to do. When he learned that Herod’s son had succeeded his father, he decided to settle in Nazareth of Galilee, as far away as possible from the dangerous seat of power in Jerusalem.
The more I reflected on this story, the more my admiration for Joseph grew. He was certainly a refugee and marked by that experience. But he also was a survivor, and a very crafty one at that. How else could he and his little family have survived their lengthy sojourn in Egypt if he had not been able to use whatever smarts and skills he had to make a living?
It is not unreasonable to assume that these experiences had a formative influence on the boy Jesus, an influence that may have enlarged his compassion for outsiders and those without power.