Yesterday I found myself involved, as I often am, with an entertaining conversation online about an incident that is recorded in the Bible in Matthew 2:13-15: “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”” Given that participating in discussions like this is not too unusual for me, I was quite surprised when I found that several dozen people had chimed in on the discussion and liked one side of the debate or another. Lamentably, I found that none of the people on the other side were people I would consider friendly sorts anyway, and most of them were people of openly leftist political positions that I hold in disdain, and people who viewed the Bible as mere fictional stories and not historical record, a view I also hold in derision and disdain.
Nevertheless, there were some people involved who provided at least some interesting commentary. In the course of the lengthy thread, one person dug up a quote from an author on Egypt in the Roman Empire that stated: “When Rome took over after the deaths of Anthony and Cleopatra, Egypt was considered dangerous enough to merit special treatment. Immigration was not encouraged. Those who did move to Egypt went as soldiers or administrators.” Of course, this is speaking of Roman citizens, and Joseph and Mary and Jesus were not Roman citizens–their travel to Egypt, probably Alexandria, would have been as part of that politically powerless Jewish population in the city, and it is likely that as a skilled laborer, Joseph would have been able to provide for his family through carpentry during the short time that they lived in Egypt. Although I found the arguments against the biblical account to be rather weak, I did find it interesting that the relationship of Jesus’ experience in traveling to Alexandria as a baby was compared to the behavior of illegal immigrants today. What is historical always has the chance of being mined for contemporary relevance, and we must be aware of how these matters are properly framed.
After all, there are at least a couple of levels of relevance to this particular debate that are worthy of unpackaging. First, had Jesus been disobedient to the law in his conduct, even as a child, then He could not have served as the savior of all mankind, as the author at the top of the thread made plain. Second, though, it is improper to compare the flight of Jesus Christ and the behavior of most immigrants into the United States for another reason, and that is the question of power and the role of the state. When Jesus and his mother and stepfather traveled to Egypt, they traveled as a politically powerless but economically self-sufficient group of people. They had recently received a great deal of wealth from the (likely Parthian) wise men who visited them, and were certainly able to take care of themselves. They did not come either to effect political change in the place where they visited or to draw upon social welfare programs in Egypt, for they had no political power nor was Rome particularly generous to destitute noncitizens. It was only destitute Roman citizens who got the corrupting bread and circus that so dangerously mirrors our own social welfare programs in the West and their corrosive effects on the political order of nations in the contemporary world.
Indeed, it is the political power of immigrants that has caused the greatest deal of political difficulty in the history of the United States . Periodically throughout American history, foreign immigrants have been viewed (and not unjustly) as a source of political contagion, including the present day. During the revolutionary period, Pennsylvania’s population of Germans was viewed as potentially restive, and my own ancestors changed their name accordingly as a sign of their own patriotism. Likewise, during the time before the Civil War, immigrant groups were scrutinized for their effects on the political order, and there were votes to be won both in pandering to their longings for urban corruption and in opposing it. In the period after the Civil War up through World War I problems of anarchism and socialism and Communism were attributable to the corrupt European political ideas brought through immigrants, and the same is true today. If immigrants had been viewed as politically powerless underclasses, they would not have attracted very much hostility, but their possession of the right to vote after some time and the acquisition of citizenship made the political worldview of immigrants to be of the greatest importance, as ought to be the case.
It is perhaps unsurprising that those who wish to support illegal immigration into the United States do not point to the one story that most closely resembles their own goals. In the book of Philemon, we find a story of a runaway slave who had apparently stolen from his master and absconded to (likely) Rome, where Paul was ministering during the latter period of his house arrest. What was Paul’s response to this illegal immigrant? To be sure, Paul did not turn Onesimus over to the slavecatchers for what would have been a truly grim fate. But after baptizing the runaway, Paul sent him back with a personal letter that forced Onesimus to face those he had wronged by behaving illegally while also pleading for mercy and offering to repay Philemon for the loss that had been suffered through Philemon’s theft. And surely those tenderhearted individuals who want to claim the moral high ground in the issue of immigration would do well to follow Paul’s example, to send those who have come illegally back at home and agree to repay that which has been stolen from our nation as a result of those who wish to gain the benefits of living here without going about it the right way, for one cannot be a genuine Christian without having internalized the laws of God and without respecting the laws of men.
 See, for example: