Social media sites lit up with both negative and positive commentary on Trump’s recent travel restrictions and refugee security measures. Many Christians in my feed were praising the action while others strongly denounced it. One frustrated friend noted how Christians were “twisting the scriptures” to represent their own slighted positions. He commented that context was being forfeited for feelings. Of notice was his criticism of Christians using Jesus’s birth narrative and subsequent escape from Herod (Matt 2:13-15) to identify Jesus as a refugee. I began to wonder whether it is contextually correct to call Jesus by such a term? In other words, does Jesus fit the bill of a refugee in our present context? I imagine that, if anything, it will be good practice to examine the narrative in detail and at least highlight some interesting points.

For our purposes, I’ve listed the definition of the term “refugee” per the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act. This will help clarify what modern Americans mean when they speak about “refugees.”

101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act

“The term ‘refugee’ means:

(A) any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

 

Matthew 2:13-15

13 Now after they had left, 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 remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

 

Jesus: New Israel, New Exodus, and New Moses

The story of Jesus’ family fleeing Herod’s murderous threat occurs in Matthew alone. I’ll begin with verse 15 and work my way backwards. Matthew recalls Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” and invokes for his readers two important concepts: sonship and the Exodus, two concepts intricately intertwined. Israel is God’s firstborn son (Exod 4:22) and also those to whom God called out of Egypt (Hos 11:1). Importantly, Jesus will be portrayed as a new Israel on a new Exodus. Connected with the Exodus theme, Matthew clearly portrays Jesus as a new Moses as well, who likewise feared death by a tyrant leader (i.e. Pharaoh, Exod 1:22) and who “fled” only to return home after the death of the despot king seeking his life. The recasting of Jesus as the new Moses is common throughout Matthew: as Moses fasted 40 days and 40 nights (Exod 24:18; 34:28; Deut 9:9, 11, 18, 25; 10:10) so too did Jesus (Matt 4:1-2);[1] As Moses gave God’s Law on Mount Sinai (Exod 20) so Jesus gave the new Law during his “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt 5-7). Therefore, Matthew encourages us to read the Jesus’ story through the lens of Moses.

 

Paroikos: Jesus was an “Alien”

The story of Moses “fleeing” Pharaoh’s murderous intentions reminds us that Moses found himself in a “foreign land” (Exod 2:22; paroikos eimi en gē allotria) as a “resident alien” (paroikos).[2] The Greek word paroikos is a compound word from the Greek para (“besides,” “near,” “alongside,” etc.) and oikos/oikeō (“home” or “dwelling”/ “to live or dwell”), so literally meaning, “living beside.” In the OT, the noun and its corresponding verb (paroikeō) was used of those “living abroad,” whether as permanent residents or otherwise. It has close relation to our English word, “refugee.”[3] The word is consistently used of Israel’s forefathers (Gen 12:10; 17:8; 20:1 (Moses); 17:4 (sons of Jacob); 26:3 [Jacob]) as well as Ruth (Ruth 1:1), and the people of Israel. To this last group, it is a particularly important word used to describe Israel’s status while living in Egypt (Gen 15:13). Israel’s previous position as paroikoi (“resident aliens”) in Egypt later provides the context for how they will treat foreigners in their own land: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner (paroikos) in his land (LXX Dt 23:7).” Like Moses and Israel, Matthew portrays Jesus in like terms as a “resident alien” (paroikos) in the land of Egypt.

 

Pheugō: Jesus’ Life was under Threat

Linguistic parallels between Moses and Jesus are also visible in Matthew’s narrative. In a dream, the Lord tells Joseph to “flee” (pheugō) to Egpyt, utilizing the same term used of Moses “fleeing” Pharaoh in the Greek Old Testament.[4] The Greek term pheugō (“to flee”) clearly evokes flight from danger or presumed difficulty (cf. Mt 24:16, 20; Mark 14:50; Acts 7:29; 27:30). That Joseph took Jesus and Mary “by night” confirms the distressing nature of the flight. The threat to Jesus’ life clearly falls in line with the definition of a “refugee” according to 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

 

Jesus was Displaced

Jesus’ flight to “Egypt” can be interpreted positively or negatively. On the one hand there was a positive history concerning Egypt and their reception of fleeing Israelites (see 1 Kgs 11:17; 1 Kgs 11:40; 2 Kgs 25:26; Jer 26:21; 41:17; 43:4–7). However, Matthew’s parallel to the Moses story would have elicited negative connotations about Egypt, i.e. the Exodus, to his hearers. Egypt is presented as the enslaving and hard-hearted nation known to us from the book of Exodus, yet even they welcome Jesus’ family with astonishing hospitality. For Matthew, the locale of Jewish suffering in its people’s history—i.e. Egypt—becomes a refuge while the people of the  “promised land” seek to murder their expectant Messiah. Matthew’s sense of irony is thick here as he sets Jesus’ homeland harshly against the notoriously malicious Egypt. The implied “moral of the story” suggests that we ought to side with hospitality in these matters.  In addition, we are reminded that after Jesus’ return from Egypt his family lands in Nazareth, some 70 miles away from their hometown of Bethlehem (Matt 2:1) where they’ve been displaced by “fear” of the new ruler Archelaus (Matt 2:22)…another nod to the continued refugee status of the child Jesus.

 

When Did Jesus “Check Out” of Egypt?

The length of Jesus’ stay in Egypt is ambiguous. In fact, the Greek construction of “remain there until I tell you” (specifically, heōs an + eipō) in verse 13 suggests that the time of return is unknown and dependent upon the circumstances (BDAG, 423). Moreover, the verb “to remain” (eimi) in verse 13 when functioning as a predicate “denotes a relatively long stay at a place” (BDAG 284). Here, like modern cases of refugee programs, the stay is to eliminate the immediate threat to life from the refugee’s home country, though with the hopes of them returning home one day when safety is ensured.

 

Should We Call Jesus a Refugee?

Matthew’s story of Jesus’ fleeing political and religious threat provides us the context to talk about Jesus as a “refugee.” In ancient terms, a one to one correspondence is impossible, as always. Moreover, Matthew’s narrative can tell us little more than what has been considered above, and even these points are contentious and interpretations are legion. But, considering Matthew’s narrative, I think its fair game to consider calling Jesus a “refugee” without fear of being contextually soft or “twisting the scriptures.” However, these few verses by no means justify a full-scale national policy on immigration or refugees. Nevertheless, Matthew does force us to consider the facts: Christians worship a Jewish peasant born in obscurity under threat of death and on the run as a refugee. And without the generosity and hospitality of the Egyptian government, the refugee child Jesus and his family would have never escaped the murderous grips of the tyrant Herod. For Matthew, the history of salvation hinged on the kindness and hospitality of an ancient enemy, an attitude we ought to adopt.

 

Notes:

[1] Matthew clearly parts ways with Mark 1:13 (from whom he draws his story), adding “40 nights” and making the link to Moses much clearer.

 

[2] Acts 7:29 also confirms this tradition: “When he heard this, Moses fled and became a resident alien (paroikos) in the land of Midian. There he became the father of two sons.”

[3] Also, the Greek word xenos is applicable and can have a semantic range meaning, “refugee.” For example, see Homer’s Odyssey 9.270, “and Zeus is the avenger of suppliants and strangers—Zeus, the strangers’ god—who walks in the footsteps of reverend strangers.’”

[4] This is otherwise known as the Septuagint (LXX) and was the source for most Old Testament quotations in the New Testament.