Right after the Magi left, Joseph had a dream in which an angel appeared to him and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13).
Why Egypt? The primary theological reason is to fulfil the prophecy in Hosea 11:1 that says God called his son out of Egypt. Clearly, if Jesus had to be called out of Egypt, he had to get into Egypt. Indeed, Matthew even tells us that’s the reason: “He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matthew 2:15).
But there are other practical reasons for Joseph to go to Egypt. We sometimes get the idea that after the Exodus, there were no Jews in Egypt. That’s not true. Egypt was historically a place where Jews sought refuge. Jews formed a substantial proportion of the population of Alexandria from its foundation by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. The Greek rulers even gave the Jews control over two of the city’s five districts so that they could keep their own laws. The Jewish community at Alexandria was so well established and respected, its scholars created the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. But there were Jews elsewhere in Egypt as well. Archaeologists have found evidence of a substantial Jewish community near modern Behneseh on the west bank of the Nile, and a community of Jews was known to have lived at Elephantine, an island near modern Aswan.
By going to Egypt, Mary and Joseph were fleeing to a place where they could integrate into an existing Jewish community and feel more or less at home. They would have been able to worship as Jews and keep kosher without drawing any attention to themselves.
Just as important, if they did go to Alexandria—we don’t know that they did, but it’s a real possibility—there were constant building projects on which Joseph could have easily been hired as a skilled artisan. This would have allowed him to earn a decent living.
Finally, and we can’t discount this, Egypt was under the direct control of Rome at the time. The Greek Ptolemies ruled Egypt for almost three hundred years after the conquest by Alexander the Great, who founded Alexandria. Cleopatra, the last Ptolemy and last nominal Pharaoh of Egypt, committed suicide on August 12, 30 B.C., and Egypt became a Roman province. Herod might have been able to convince rulers in other areas closer to Jerusalem to look for and hand over a child who might possibly upset his power sometime in the future, but not Rome. He was wholly dependent on Rome for his power. He couldn’t afford to upset Rome for what would have been a personal vendetta.
By going to a Jewish enclave under Roman rule in Egypt, the Holy Family was as safe as they could possibly be from Herod’s wrath. It was a wise decision, as well as a theologically important one.
“Be in good spirits under the fatherly mantle of Saint Joseph, a place of safest refuge in trials and tribulations.” –Saint Joseph Marello
Saint Joseph, when I have to make a decision as to where to go or what to do, let me take into account both God’s will and the practical aspects of life. Amen.
Image credit: Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga), Coptic Cairo, photo by Jon P. McKamey