Jesus’ experience as a refugee
God stands with us in the deepest struggles of our lives. We can be confident of this fact because God came into our world as one of us and experienced with us the deepest struggles of human life.
One of the deep struggles Jesus experienced—at a very young age—was the struggle of fleeing for his life and living in a foreign country as a refugee.
Historians recognize a recurring pattern in the life of King Herod. According to an article by Gordon Franz in the Dec. 8, 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology, “He would hear a rumor that somebody was going to bump him off and take over his throne, but Herod would kill that person first. He would then go into depression. After a while he would come out of his depression and would build, build, build. He would hear another rumor and would kill that person, then go into another depression. After a while he would come out of this depression and would build, build, build. This cycle repeated itself a number of times in which numerous people were killed, including one of his ten wives as well as three of his sons!”
Franz claims that Herod “became extremely paranoid in the last four years of his life (8-4 B.C.).” In 7 B.C., he had 300 military leaders executed. Later he had several Pharisees executed after he learned that they predicted to the wife of his younger brother Pheroras that “by God’s decree Herod’s throne would be taken from him…and the royal power would fall to her and Pheroras and to any children they might have.”
As Franz points out, “With prophecies like these circulating within his kingdom, is it any wonder Herod wanted to eliminate Jesus when the wise men revealed the new ‘king of the Jews’ had been born?”
So, with Jesus’ life threatened, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped to Egypt.
In the January 1, 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology, Joan Taylor argues that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were not alone in their flight to Egypt. She asserts, “Many epitaphs and inscriptions, as well as historical sources, testify to a thriving Jewish expatriate community in Egypt made up of earlier refugees that could be joined by others. However, just like today, new refugees were not welcome. A letter of the emperor Claudius, written in 41 C.E., states that Jews in Alexandria lived in ‘a city not their own’ in which they were ‘not to bring in or invite Jews who sail down to Alexandria from Syria.’”
Taylor adds, “For new refugees, as anywhere, life would have been very hard. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria tells us of the consequences of poverty, which could result in enslavement. Presumably, Jewish charity and voluntary giving through the synagogue would have helped a struggling refugee family, but they would also have been reliant on the kindness of strangers.”
William Murray sums it up well: “Jesus, as a small boy, knew the pain of fleeing a bloody land where the innocent were slaughtered. He saw the terror in His mother’s eyes as his family fled at night, hurriedly and quietly under the cover of darkness for fear of discovery. A death sentence had been issued by Herod the Great for him and every male child under the age of two.”
Through His own experience, Jesus knew well the pain and fear and struggles of a family that has to flee for their lives to another nation that does not welcome them warmly but who resented their presence.
No wonder Jesus had such compassion for the downtrodden and rejected during His life on earth, and no wonder He calls for such compassion from us. No wonder He says to us (in Matthew 25:40), “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brother of mine, you did for Me.” And no wonder He says to us (in Matthew 25:45), “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.”