“When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee. So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: ‘He will be called a Nazarene'.’” Matthew 2:19-23 NLT
Although Israel and Egypt are today quite separate countries with their own cultures and traditions, when Joseph and Mary took their toddler son to escape Herod’s murderous intentions for Bethlehem, they were doing what countless Jews before and after them did — they relocated away from the turmoil.
Although many commentators today like to classify the Holy Family as “refugees” or “immigrants”, that is not strictly true since they were not being forced out by war or political circumstances, but were voluntarily relocating within the Roman territory for personal safety reasons.
Egypt was not a far-off exotic destination to them. It was also ruled by the Romans, but with a different governor. Over centuries the number of Jews taking the coast road around the eastern end of the Mediterranean meant that most of the Egyptian cities had very sizable Jewish communities. There are credible contemporary documents suggesting that Alexandria alone had a Jewish community of more than a million people.
So the Davidson family (I know Joseph and Mary didn’t have surnames in those days, but it makes it easier for me to describe the family unit) would have settled for a while, comfortable with the language, customs and familiar culture surrounding them. But it still wasn’t “home”. It wasn’t close to other family members in Bethlehem or the Galilee so there must have been a desire to go back to their roots when the time was right.
Then hated Herod the horrible died. This is one of the independent ways we are able to deduce the approximate year when Jesus was born.
Although Herod had been useful to the Romans, he knew that there was no chance they would let one of his sons take over his entire domain, not least because he kept murdering any sons who looked like they might have the administrative skills to succeed him! It is well-documented that he murdered his wife, Mariamne, his mother-in-law Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater, and two other sons Alexander and Aristobulus. In his will he divided his kingdom into three. Judea was to be ruled by one of three surviving sons Archelaus, Galilee by Herod Antipas, and the northeast region beyond Jordan by Philip.
Archelaus was a bad king and began his reign by trying to outdo the tyranny of his father by slaughtering three thousand influential people in his territory! You will not be surprised to learn that he did not last long on his throne!
From the scripture quoted above it seems that Joseph’s first intention would have been to return to Bethlehem in Judea where most members of his extended clan were, but he was warned again in a dream not to do so. And so the Davidsons relocated to the Galilee which was safer, and settled in Nazareth which was a familiar location to raise their family. Herod Antipas was no saint — as John the Baptist was to discover — but at least he wasn’t a genocidal maniac!
Nazareth was not a provincial backwater either, but sat at the crossroads of two important trade routes, the South Road (passing through Bethlehem) that ended in Egypt, and the East Road stretching into Persia.
So the maturing Jesus would have been exposed to and been familiar with world-wide traders and their cultures as he learned his building skills from Joseph.
Scripture is mostly silent about him for nearly thirty years, but next time we will look at the clues we do have of his life preceding the start of his ministry.
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black