Richard Beck the other day posted this incredible painting by Luc Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1879). Joseph is sacked out on the desert floor with the donkey grazing nearby, while Mary uses the now-famous Sphinx to prop herself up with her baby – the only source of light – in her arms. Her feet dangle off the edge of the Sphinx, whose nose, you’ll notice, is still intact.
What I like most is how it properly contextualizes the recent blogosphere debates over the historicity of the flight to Egypt. Because we don’t need to say the scene portrayed in this evocative painting probably didn’t actually happen. That’s not the point.
Likewise, as someone who enjoys getting behind the text of scripture to learn the actual history – Did this happen? Could it have? What really happened? How did the text come to say what it does? – it’s a useful reminder that no matter how the text got to the point where we have it, it’s what we have. In the end, after all of the historical criticism and analysis, we must arrive at the position of Walter Brueggemann, Brevard Childs and others: What we have is from what we must learn.
So the flight to Egypt may have happened, as Tony Jones and any biblical literalist argues. It may not have happened, as James McGrath, myself and any revisionist liberal argue. But in the end, what can we learn from the story, which is what we’ve got?
The story tells us something frankly unbelievable. That almighty God, the maker of heaven and earth, the God of Genesis 1 who speaks the universe into being, would run away.
In a world of Zeus and Mithra and caesars claiming virginal conceptions and divine sonship, the God of all creation does not descend from on high with fire and trumpets, torching all those who would oppose him. Instead, he comes as a baby – covered with blood and vernix, probably having a little cone head from being squeezed through the birth canal and certainly needing someone to cut his umbilical cord. Would he have had trouble nursing the first few times, this baby born to a teenager? Would he have awoken every three hours? Two? One?
Then, on top of this indignity, he was not born in a palace or a royal household, not to a wealthy or powerful family – not even in a capital city or regional center. He was not born to power; he was born in opposition to that power. And that power knew it.
It’s not about whether Magi really followed some astronomical phenomenon to Jerusalem, or whether Herod was tipped off about the presence of a “King of the Jews” born nearby, or whether he launched some sort of massacre in response. Those things may have happened, though they seem unlikely, but again – that isn’t the point. We have these stories, and what do they tell us?
They tell us we worship a different God.
What I like about Rest on the Flight into Egypt is how it depicts, from the very beginning of his life, the homelessness of the Messiah. God is a refugee, an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land, a person of exile.
What’s so remarkable about the Christmas story told by Matthew and Luke cannot be boiled down to historicity – it’s first that God chose to identify with humanity so intimately at all, and then that he chose to identify with the lowest classes of humanity: the poor, the hurting, the homeless, the refugee, the enemy of the state. The baby God, in the arms of his mother, is forced to flee, forever identifying himself with the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of injustice and oppression.
Such a flight speaks volumes. God did not come to earth to support the power structures; he came to oppose them, and they in turn opposed him. This is remarkable; it is counter to the entire history of religion to that point, in which powerful men invoked powerful gods to grasp ever greater power for themselves and their allies.
But the story of Jesus’ flight to Egypt transcends history. Whether it’s factual is immaterial. The point is it’s true.