Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Faith Works 1-01

Faith Works 1-01-11

Jeff Gill


Out of Egypt, Up From the Depths




One of the quirks of the Christmas story that's often overlooked is the immediate aftermath.


There's the well known if rarely retold "massacre of the innocents," instigated by the great villain Herod, quisling Jewish leader on behalf of the Roman Empire. He fears the loss of his position, and craftily getting a sense of the story from the "wise men from the East" as told in Matthew 2, he quickly moves to forestall any member of the legitimate royal house of Judah from gathering a following, ordering a general slaughter of all the boy children under two. That age range hints at the idea these "magi" came along in the wake of the birth in Bethlehem, perhaps months or even years later, not on the heels of the shepherds as our manger scenes tend to show.


That part of the story is known, but more intentionally edited out than overlooked; how do you include that in a children's pageant?


What is clearly described in the story, but rarely touched on other than as a closing aside, is that to escape the clutches of Herod's minions, Joseph and Mary take their little baby boy child and flee into Egypt.


Some argue that this is a fabrication of Matthew's own agenda, with an interest in cobbling together proofs of Jesus' messiahship by creating from whole cloth neatly fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, such as where Hosea says in chapter 11 "Out of Egypt have I called my son."


You could convene a series of academic conferences just on Hosea 11 and whether or not we're talking about a reference to the people Israel coming out of Egypt (see the Book of DeMille, chapter "Ten"), or if this is meant as a foretelling prophecy about the messiah to come.


What is really not much of a stretch, though, is that in the era when Jesus and Mary and Joseph lived, there was a great deal of traffic between Egypt and Israel. The Elephantine papyri, the Gospel of Mark itself, and many other specific textual and archaeological proofs show that Jewish people were a large and vital community in Egypt in general and Alexandria in particular.


People went back and forth across a challenging, but not impossible caravan route, especially those in skilled trades, and that would surely describe Joseph, a "tekton" or highly skilled worker in wood – carpenter doesn't quite translate the word in Greek, which tells us Joseph was no casual chopper of cedar.


But what's the point? Why do we even care? Well, there's that prophecy in Hosea that a trip to Egypt will check the box for, but more to the point, it tells us something about Jesus' background and experience of the world.


Jesus spends an important part of his childhood across the Nile, and later in his adult ministry he is at ease going north of the border into Syro-Phonecia, modern day Lebanon. For an average Galilean, it's like saying about an otherwise everyday Ohioan "she's been to Mexico and Canada!" A Frenchman might sniff at said Buckeye's knowledge of the world, but for any of us hereabouts, we'd know that this is a person who's at least left Licking County and seen a little more than just German Village or Napoleon, Ohio.


"Out of Egypt have I called my son," says the prophecy, reminding Israel that the one who is the sign of God-for-us, Emmanuel, may come from a place where we're used to assuming otherness, even enmity. It's like Woody Hayes leaving behind a letter telling us "My future chosen QB will come from the State-Up-North."


From the heights of Mount Zion, the metaphoric peak of Jerusalem itself, you go down, down to the Dead Sea, down to the Jordan, but also down to the Negev desert, down into the Sinai wilderness, even further down to the depths of the Nile Valley itself. From the banks of the great river through the pagan, polytheistic, perilous provinces of Egypt, there's nowhere to go but up, and to the pinnacle of worship and promise is where God is wanting to lead us.


Every step of the way, from the depths of down-ness all the way up to the top of Zion, to Calvary, God sends someone who knows the path, all the way from the bottom to the top. In that sense, it only makes sense for Jesus to get his start in Egypt, and work his way back up. It's a necessary part of his whole life story.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about your trips up out of the depths at knapsack77@gmail.com or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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