Matthew's Gospel records that after the wise men left, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to kill him." So, during the night, Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaped to Egypt.
We're familiar with the story of the angels, shepherds, star, and wise men. But we've probably glossed over what happened next. Until recently, I'd overlooked that Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, preferring not to deal with the harsh reality of evil in the world that intrudes violently upon our popular image of a serene nativity. Herod, a ruthless and paranoid ruler who murdered his own sons to protect his power, ordered the slaughter of every baby boy in Bethlehem under age 2, mistakenly thinking Jesus posed a threat as an earthly king one day.
Borrowing a reference from Hosea 11:1, Matthew drew a prophetic connection between Israel's exodus from Egypt and Jesus being called out of Egypt to return home when it was safe. But other than fulfilling prophesy and adding further validity to Jesus as the Messiah, I somehow dismissed the fact that Mary, Joseph and Jesus lived in Egypt during His early childhood. Coptic Christians, however, find much significance in Jesus' arrival in Egypt, tracing the family's journey across the Nile delta through some 25 places.
While there is no record found in the four Gospels, their route is based on extra-biblical and Apocryphal sources, a miraculous vision of Mary by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria (384-412 AD), and Hippolytus of Rome. The sites include places where the family rested under trees, bathed Jesus, were said to have caused springs to well up, sailed on the Nile, or found shelter in a cave during a trek that may have taken two to three years. For example, near Qussqam in Assiut, where they supposedly stayed for about six months, a monastery was built where the angel is believed to have appeared to Joseph, telling him it was safe to return home.
Egypt was a part of the Roman empire at the time and a large Jewish community dwelled there. The Jews even built a temple near Memphis, fulfilling a prophesy of Isaiah (19:18-21). The Apostle Mark ventured to Egypt on his missionary journeys, and it is no accident that the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, was made for the Greek-speaking Jews in the 3rd Century.
Fascinating, to say the least, but what strikes me most about this detour through Egypt is Joseph's obedience to God's direction. Instead of returning home from Bethlehem, where family and friends likely would have surrounded them, they were told to go to a foreign land on a detour of an estimated 1,200 miles before it was all over, according to some sources. Yet, scripture simply says, Joseph got up and went wherever God's angel told him. Never mind the inconvenience, the hardships to be endured, the risks, the uncertainties, the time it would take, the need for food and other necessities. What incredible faith!
What an example Mary and Joseph are for us when life's journey gets hard, suffering and pain come our way, and things don't seem to go as we anticipated. Simply, trust God's hand to lead us onward.
"Life may feel like trigonometry sometimes. … Things can get so complicated that they simply don't add up," Tony Evans writes in his book, Detours. "But if you start with the foundation that God is sovereign, and in His sovereignty He providentially arranges all things to accomplish His goal, then you have the foundation upon which to properly solve the complexities life sends your way."
Outside of fleeing Herod's wrath, Joseph and Mary probably did not understand why their lives had been disrupted so by an unexpected detour to Egypt, rather than returning home as they probably hoped. But they knew God had told them to do so, and that He was directing their path. They believed and obeyed, resting in the assurance that God was working out all the details of their lives for good.
"What you, I, and others may look at as random events, chance encounters, or arbitrary connections are actually orchestrated events in both the purpose and plan of God," Evans explains. "Let me put it another way—this mysterious thing called providence means that God is sitting behind the steering wheel of history," he adds. On their journey through Egypt, Joseph and Mary show us what it means to place your destiny in God's hands and to trust Him with all your heart—in spite of difficult detours along the way.