After the magi (wise men) visited Jesus, an angel told Joseph (via a dream) to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt. The angel explained that Herod the Great was about to search for Jesus and kill him. The angel instructed Joseph to remain in Egypt until the angel told him it would be safe to leave. Joseph fled with his family during the night. By morning, they were well on their way to Egypt.
When Herod realized the Magi were not going to return and reveal Jesus’ location to him, he was enraged. He ordered all boys aged two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area be killed (he calculated the target age from the date the Magi had said they had first seen the star over Bethlehem). This fulfills the prophesy in Jeremiah which said, “A sound was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning – Rachel weeping for her children, and she could not be comforted because they were no more.”
After Herod’s death, an angel appeared in a dream and informed Joseph that Herod had died. The angel instructed Joseph to take Jesus and Mary back to the land of Israel. This fulfills the prophesy written in Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Joseph heard that Archelaus (Herod’s son) was reigning in place of Herod. This greatly alarmed Joseph. Again, having been warned in a dream, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Nazareth (located in the hills of Galilee). This fulfills the prophesy that said, “He will be called a Nazarene.”
What the story means to us today
Parallels between Old and New Testament
The story of Jesus’ flight to Egypt resembles the earlier Old Testament story of The Exodus. There are several distinct similarities (e.g. persecution, flight to Egypt, the return to the Promise Land) between the two events. This may have been prompted by God with purpose. In fact, the parallels between the two stories are further supported through Matthew’s purposeful mention of the New Testament events fulfilling prophesy specifically related to The Exodus.
A story with purpose
The story of Jesus’ flight to Egypt (and back to Nazareth) shows us that the persecution of Jesus began at a very young age. As the story of Jesus begins to unfold and additional prophesies are fulfilled, it will be easy to recognize that these events were planned – with purpose.
Additional thoughts and considerations
The disgrace to Herod the Great
The biblical translation of the words used to describe the Magi’s disregard of Herod’s orders (i.e. to return to Herod and divulge Jesus’ location) usually reflect “mocked” or “ridiculed”. This suggests that the magi’s noncompliance was especially disgraceful to Herod himself.
New Testament events relate to Old Testament prophesy
Matthew purposefully ties together the New Testament events that unfolded with Old Testament events and prophesy (e.g. “Out of Egypt I called my son” – Hosea 11:1, “Rachel weeping for her children because they were no more”). In all but one instance, these prophetic lines are easily noted in Old Testament text. The single exception however, is the last line in which Matthew notes that “he would be called a Nazarene.” The source of this quote is unknown but believed by some to be a reference to Isaiah 11:1 in which the Hebrew words used to describe the Davidic line from Jesse (David’s father), use treelike metaphors such as “stump”, “root”, and “branch”. Indeed, the place-name “Nazareth” literally means “branch”.
It is also worthy to note that the words Matthew used for “prophets” is plural. This may hint that this idea was not based on a specific prophesy but rather, on a conglomeration of multiple prophecies found in the Old Testament.
An alternate theory regarding the meaning of the last prophesy mentioned by Matthew is the inherent meaning of the word “Nazareth”. In Christ’s day, to be called a Nazarene was a term of contempt. The town of Nazareth housed the Roman garrison and therefore, few Jews would likely choose to live there lest they be branded cohorts of the enemy. Matthew’s statement that “he would be called a Nazarene” may have been intended to indicate the later contempt felt by the Jews towards Jesus.
Joseph’s change in direction
The biblical verses show us that Joseph’s movements were dictated by several instructions and/or warning issued by an angel to Joseph via dreams. In one dream, an angel informed Joseph that the child was no longer in danger and instructed him to go to the land of Israel, a directive that the verses tell us Joseph complied with. Later, Joseph learned that Archelaus, who was every bit as cruel as his father Herod, was ruling over Judea. Again in a dream, Joseph was issued a warning. The precise meaning of the warning is debatable (was Joseph simply warned that Archelaus was ruling over Judea or was he directly instructed to move his family to Galilee?) and some may wonder why God seems to have changed his mind, first telling Joseph to flee to Israel and then later warning him of the potential danger there.
The premises of “free will” and “predetermination” likely come into play here. God gave Man the ability to make his own decisions (and be held responsible for those decisions). God knows what will happen to us, but allows the course of mankind’s actions to be determined, at least in part, based on Man’s own actions. In this case, God’s instruction to flee to Israel followed by a warning of the dangers therein, is a good example of the variable nature of man-driven events and their subsequent impact.
Who was the angel that spoke to Joseph?
Although the verses do not specifically tell us the name of the angel that spoke to Joseph, given that the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to Mary, it is quite possible that the angel that spoke to Joseph was Gabriel too.
Joseph’s minor part in the story of Jesus?
To many, Joseph seems to have played a minor part in the Gospel history. It may help to recognize that Joseph served an important role in these early stories – he acted as Christ’s protector to ensure the safety of the newborn Messiah.
Rachel weeping for her children
The verse “Rachel weeping for her children” undoubtedly refers to Rachel, wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. The reference is especially appropriate given Rachel died during childbirth in the area between Bethel and Bethlehem (where this story’s events unfolded) and was buried near the northern entrance to Bethlehem.
The Science behind the story
The Bible’s record of historical events
Matthew’s account of the order to kill all infants in Bethlehem is an excellent example of the Bible’s record of historic events that would have been lost in obscurity had they not been documented in the scriptures. The record of Herod’s order to kill infant boys is not mentioned in other known historic writings but certainly fits what other historical sources tells us about Herod the Great (e.g. his atrocities and ever-increasing paranoia). Herod’s crimes were many (Emperor Augustus reportedly said it was better to be Herod’s sow than his son, referring to Herod’s penchant for killing) and understandably, only the most significant actions were recorded by historians. As such, despite the horrific nature of the order, other historic sources would naturally not record an event that may have impacted perhaps twenty or so babies in an insignificant village.
Herod the Great’s successors – a change in leadership
The historian Josephus wrote that Herod suffered from illness before his death and that during this time of illness, he wrote his final will. “Out of hatred for Archelaus and Philip”, Herod’s oldest sons, he bequeathed the kingdom to his youngest son, Antipas. Shortly before his death, Herod changed his mind and turned over the reigns of Judea to his son Archelaus in 4 BC (other parts of the kingdom were handed over to his other two sons). Archelaus ruled over Judea so badly, he was removed from office by Roman emperor Augustus in 6 AD.
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” n
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
13 After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.”
14 Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. 15 They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”
16 Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars). 17 That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:
18 A sound was heard in Ramah, weeping and much lament. Rachel weeping for her children, Rachel refusing all solace, Her children gone, dead and buried.
19 Later, when Herod died, God’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: 20 “Up, take the child and his mother and return to Israel. All those out to murder the child are dead.”
21 Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother, and re-entered Israel. 22 When he heard, though, that Archelaus had succeeded his father, Herod, as king in Judea, he was afraid to go there. But then Joseph was directed in a dream to go to the hills of Galilee. 23 On arrival, he settled in the village of Nazareth. This move was a fulfillment of the prophetic words, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
2:13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 2:14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. 2:15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”
2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. 2:17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone.”
2:19 After Herod had died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 2:20 saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 2:21 So he got up and took the child and his mother and returned to the land of Israel. 2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. After being warned in a dream, he went to the regions of Galilee. 2:23 He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. 14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: 15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. 16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Beth-lehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, 18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life. 21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: 23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.