Journeys of Jesus: Bethlehem to Egypt

As I mentioned in my last article, the gospels of Matthew and Luke tell of Christ’s birth and his earliest days. The last few weeks we’ve looked at the narrative from Luke, where a few weeks after his birth, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem and then on to Nazareth.

This week I want to look at the narrative from Matthew. Unlike Luke, Matthew doesn’t provide much detail around the birth of Christ. Chapter 1 is almost entirely set before the time of the nativity and chapter 2 is set after. Only the last half of the last verse in chapter 1 seems set at the time of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife to himself; 25 and didn’t know her sexually until she had given birth to her firstborn son. He named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:24,25)

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1,2)

We don’t really know when these wise men arrived in Jerusalem. All the scriptures tell us is that it was after Jesus was born.  (The ESV, NIV, and NASB all say “after Jesus was born” while some translations, including the WEB say more vaguely “when Jesus was born”.) Popular cultural references give the impression that this was very shortly after Christ’s birth, but the only real clue to timing is that it was within a couple of years. 

You’re probably familiar with the story. The wise men came to King Herod looking for the “King of the Jews”. Herod was not only the official Roman-appointed king of the Jews, but a very paranoid king at that. He tried to convince the wise men that he too wanted to worship this king, but God warned them to not cooperate. So instead, Herod ordered the murder of all the innocent babies that might fit the description of this young threat to his crown.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and sent out and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside, from two years old and under, according to the exact time which he had learned from the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)

I know this is a long intro and we haven’t gotten to any geography yet, so I’ll cut to the chase. I believe that these events probably happened between one and two years after the birth of Christ. In the intervening months, Joseph and family had gone to Jerusalem, and then on to Nazareth, and it appears that they had, at some point, returned to Bethlehem where they were now staying in a house.

He sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and search diligently for the young child. When you have found him, bring me word, so that I also may come and worship him.” They, having heard the king, went their way; and behold, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them until it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 They came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Opening their treasures, they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:8-11)

So now we can get on with the journey.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:13)

So, Joseph took his young family to Egypt.

There is a long history between Israel and Egypt. Egypt is in the northeast corner of Africa. Israel forms a land bridge connecting the continent of Africa (specifically Egypt) with the continents of Asia and Europe. At times, Egypt has been a major world power and Israel lay in direct path between the imperial forces of Egypt, and those of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. 

But even before those imperial battles, going all the way back to the patriarchs, Abram and Sarai went to Egypt to escape a famine (Genesis 12:10), Isaac was tempted similarly to flee famine into Egypt (Genesis 26:2), and of course Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 39:1). Eventually Joseph brought his father and his brothers and all their families to Egypt (Genesis 46:26).

Since this journey from Israel to Egypt appears so often in scripture, we can get the sense that it was a a simple jaunt, almost like crossing the street into the next neighborhood. That is not the case.

It’s interesting, if I ask Google Maps how to walk from Bethlehem to Port Said (the city in Egypt closest to Israel and probably not far from the land of Goshen), the route is 706 km (439 miles) and would take 143 hours to walk (2 weeks at 10 hours a day). Google also doesn’t recommend a very direct route:

Why this indirect route? The simplest answer is that this is difficult terrain. 

Bethlehem, high in the Judean hills, enjoys a Mediteranean climate, with relatively high rainfall. We don’t know exactly what route Joseph would’ve chosen from Bethlehem to Egypt, but one likely choice would be to continue along the ridge road to Hebron and then on to Beersheba.

Heading south and west towards Egypt, a traveler on this route would have first reached Hebron, where the cave of Machpelah serves as the tomb of Abraham (Genesis 25:9) and Sarah (Genesis 23:19), Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah (Genesis 49:29-31), and where David first ruled over Judah (2 Samuel 2:11). Continuing on, he would come down out of the hills into the Negev, a region that takes its name from the Hebrew word for dry.

Wikipedia describes the Negev this way: “The Negev is a rocky desert. It is a melange of brown, rocky, dusty mountains interrupted by wadis (dry riverbeds that bloom briefly after rain) and deep craters.” (Psalm 126:4)

Beersheba is the largest town in the Negev and Genesis tells us that this is where Abraham lived (Genesis 22:19). Abraham and Isaac likely took a route very similar to this after the sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

Continuing south from the Negev, the traveler will enter the desert of the Sinai peninsula.  The road known as The Way to Shur is where Hagar fled from the wrath of Sarai (Genesis 16:7) and one of the main routes across the desert. Shur is likely a reference to a wall erected by the Egyptians on their eastern border to keep out raiding desert tribes. 

This is a difficult route. In Exodus, after miraculously crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites spent three days in this wilderness without finding water (Exodus 15:22).

Finally, after making it across the desert, and crossing the Suez isthmus, the travelers would find themselves in the lush region of the Nile delta. The land of Goshen, where Joseph settled Jacob and his family was probably near this border.

And perhaps Jesus’ step-father Joseph also settled his family in this same region for a time.

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Note: all scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the World English Bible which is in the public domain. 

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