Jesus in Detention
The Jews solemnly lined the streets of Jerusalem as they once again watched invaders march triumphantly through their “Jewel on the Hill”. This time, it was the great Roman general Pompey. He had taken advantage of a family squabble between the formerly ruling Hasmoneans, which left Jerusalem vulnerable. The Romans had been on a tear through the area for years, consolidating power as they incorporated Syria into their ever-expanding empire.
Much to the Jewish peoples’ surprise, Pompey was friendly and respectful. He and Caesar both had trusted Jewish advisors and were familiar with the people and their customs. It was also characteristic of the Romans to allow conquered people to continue their traditions, if respect and money were paid to Rome on a regular basis. When Pompey marched into Jerusalem, he saw himself as emancipator rather than conqueror.
Unfortunately, Pompey was a general, not a bureaucrat. The Romans installed a new governor in Jerusalem, Antipater. He followed Rome’s lead and set about rebuilding Jerusalem’s pock marked and disintegrating walls and buildings. For decades, Jerusalem had been caught in the crossfire of the Hasmonean’s civil war. The city, like the people inhabiting it, were tired and falling apart. Antipater did his best to rebuild both.
A few years later, Antipater named his sons Phasael and Herod governors of Jerusalem and Galilee. A last-ditch effort by the Hasmoneans to gain control of the city resulted in Phasael’s death, leaving rule of the entire area to Herod.
Herod was ambitious, cunning, and ruthless. He went to Rome seeking control of the entire territory. The Senate named him King of the Jews and provided him all the military might he needed to reconquer what was left of the former Hasmonean territories.
For the next decade, Herod completely changed the face of Jerusalem by rebuilding it in the classical Roman form. He adapted old fortresses and dedicated them as temples to Roman Gods. He rebuilt three massive citadels to shore up the city’s defenses. He improved the water supply, renovated and expanded the entire Temple complex, built hippodromes, a theater, and an enormous palace. All in all, Herod was a good king and his Jewish subjects respected his efforts to improve the quality of life for all citizens. Herod’s beautifications also made the city appealing to pilgrims, who now came in the tens of thousands for special holidays such as Passover.
But Herod also had a very dark side. He was a paranoid maniac who would do anything to protect his position of power. Early in his reign, he had 45 of the city’s most influential aristocrats murdered. Since he was not of priestly lineage, he needed to appoint a high priest to the Temple. At his mother-in-law’s urging, he selected his sixteen-year-old son Aristobulus. As Aristobulus gained popularity, however, Herod had him drowned. Over time, Herod had all the remaining members of his family killed, including his mother and his wife. Nobody would threaten his claim to the Jewish throne.
About the same time Herod finished consolidating his power by murdering his entire family, an aristocratic carpenter and his fiancée lived in Bethlehem, about 10 kilometers away. The young couple was expecting a child, and the birth was shrouded in scandal because they were having a baby out of wedlock. Further compromising Joseph’s position in town was the fact the child was not his. There were rumors about Roman abuse and even divine intervention, but whatever the reason for the baby, Joseph understood it his duty to stay at Mary’s side. He loved her and would raise the child as his own, no matter what.
Joseph entered their house with a cheery, “I’m home, my love, and I’ve brought you a special treat!” Mary sat up in her bed and smiled at Joseph. For a moment, he thought she was glowing, a golden halo embracing her head. He shook off the hallucination and showed her the package of goat meat. “Ooh!” she squealed with delight. “How wonderful! How did you know I was craving goat tonight?”
“You just relax and I’ll fix us dinner,” Joseph said.
Mary laid down and closed her eyes. As the smell of roasting goat and boiling vegetables filled the room, Mary began to dream. She saw an Angel who told her not to worry, that everything would be alright. “You are truly blessed! The Lord is with you!” The Angel continued, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is pleased with you, and you will have a son you are to call Jesus. He will be a great king, as his ancestor David was. He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.”
Just then, Mary was startled awake by Joseph gently rocking her shoulder. “Honey, honey!” he called. “Dinner is ready, you need to eat. Are you okay? It seemed like you were having a bad dream.”
“It wasn’t bad,” Mary replied, “it was just strange. An Angel of God came to me and told me to name our baby Jesus, and that our son would be the king of our people! It all seemed so real it startled me!”
“I suppose every parent wants their child to become a great leader,” Joseph said. “But you know Herod as well as me. That lunatic will never give up the throne. He’ll find a way to rule even after he dies, which can’t be soon enough in my book.”
“Don’t you talk like that!” Mary scolded Joseph. “If one of these Romans overheard you they would… they would… I can’t even think about how they’d torture…” Mary’s voice trailed away and she began sobbing uncontrollably. Joseph took her in his arms and did his best to calm her. “I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t mean to upset you. Please, have some dinner and try to get some rest. I won’t cause trouble. Herod can’t hurt us here. He doesn’t care about people like us, anyway. Please… Rest.”
A short time later, Mary gave birth to their child. Remembering the dream, she and Joseph named the baby Jesus. He was healthy and active, and the entire village embraced him. For the next three years, life was splendid. There was plenty of work in the new town Herod was building just outside Bethlehem, and Jesus was healthy and happy. Mary delighted in watching their child grow and play with the other kids in the village. Jesus giggled with delight chasing a chicken around in circles, and Mary imagined that life couldn’t get any better.
That evening, as the family put out the oil lamps and prepared for bed, Mary took Joseph’s hand, tenderly kissed him, and said “Thank you.”
“For what?” Joseph asked. “For being wonderful and bringing joy to our family. I love you.” Joseph took Mary in his arms, held her tightly and said, “I am but a reflection of the joy you and Jesus bring to me, my love.” They laid down to sleep, imagining there were no two happier people in the world.
As Joseph closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, he had a dream about an Angel. “Get up! Hurry and take the child and his mother to Egypt! Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is looking for the child and wants to kill him,” the Angel said. Joseph awoke with a start, covered and sweat and short of breath. “What is it, my love?” Mary asked with concern and fear. “What’s wrong? You’re drenched! Did you have a bad dream?”
Joseph caught his breath, looked at Mary and said, “We have to leave. Right now.”
In Jerusalem, three ambassadors from different lands visited King Herod. “We bring you greetings of peace and offerings of respect form our Lords,” they said. “We have seen a sign in the sky and traveled for three years to see the infant, the new King of the Jews! Where is he?”
This was shocking news to Herod. A new king of the Jews? Over his dead body! Better yet, Herod thought, over this kid’s dead body. I won’t let even an infant usurp my power. I’ve murdered my entire family to stay on the throne, I won’t hesitate to kill someone else’s.
But Herod hadn’t maintained power all these years by giving his true intentions away. He shrewdly said, “A new king of the Jews, you say? How wonderful! I am getting old, and I have no heirs. It would be wonderful to have someone I could call my son to take the throne when I die. Unfortunately, this is the first I’ve heard about this! Do you know where the child is?”
One of the ambassadors from the Far East said, “I am sorry, sire, we do not. That is why we are here. Perhaps you could ask your priests if they know?” At that, Herod summoned the high priest, who explained the ancient prophecy: that a child would be born in Bethlehem, in the lineage of the great King David, and that the child was destined to be the King of the Jews. “From David’s line!” Herod exclaimed. “This is wonderful news, indeed!”
He told the ambassadors what he had learned, and sent them to Bethlehem to find the child, bring him gifts, and return him to Herod to be raised a prince. The ambassadors were thrilled and excited, and hurried on their way.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus were hiding in the back of a tin trader’s wagon. Their only chance for safety was in Egypt, but Egypt was under Roman rule, and Caesar Augustus had recently restricted immigration from Israel.
When Herod realized the ambassadors had no intention of bringing the prophesied child king to him, he ordered the wholesale slaughter of every child under three in and around Bethlehem. This caused a mass exodus of Jews looking to protect their children in what was essentially a different Roman province. Rome, however, had its hands full with other issues in Egypt, and was unconcerned about what they considered one of Herod’s paranoid quirks. If Herod wanted to slaughter thousands of Jewish children, it was of little concern to Rome.
However, Augustus succeeded in creating the great Roman Empire in part by showing mercy and respect to conquered provinces. Rome almost always improved the lands they conquered, bringing advanced irrigation and sewage engineering techniques, roads and education with them. Since the Empire was at the beginning of these massive public works projects in Egypt, they were unprepared for this sudden influx of refugees. Not wanting to get involved in what he saw as a Jewish squabble, but also recognizing that thousands of discontented Jews could mount a serious rebellion, Augustus ordered the Egyptians to hastily prepare a series of detention camps.
Fleeing Israelites were herded into the camps like cattle. While their children were safe from Herod, the camps themselves were as dangerous as the streets of Jerusalem late at night. Pickpockets, thieves, mercenaries, and other unsavory characters looking to make a quick drachma made the camps extremely volatile.
The Egyptian border was now heavily patrolled. All transports were subject to search and seizure. Foot traffic was delayed at the border for hours, sometimes days at a time. Joseph hoped that by hiding under a pile of tin in the trader’s wagon, they might pass through to Egypt, avoiding the detention camps. Once past the border, Jews who had lived in Egypt for many years could safely guide them to synagogues, where they could remain hidden and safe for several years, if necessary.
It was a good plan, but once at the border, Joseph heard the guards rummaging through the tin cups, pots, shields and weapons of their merchant savior. The baby Jesus started to whimper, afraid of what the sound heralded. Mary tried to comfort him, but his fear overcame him and he began to bellow, loud shouts of anguish shaking the tin in sympathy.
“What do you have there, merchant?” The border guard shouted angrily. “Tell me or I’ll slit your throat and kill everyone I find in your cart!” The merchant stammered, “I.. I… I was only trying to help these poor people.”
“We have a system for Israeli refugees. Open up,” the guard said.
The merchant reluctantly revealed the trap door under a mountain of fake tin pots. The guard threw it open and found Joseph, Mary, and their baby Jesus staring up at him, abject misery and heartbreak emanating from their souls.
“Get up,” the guard said, and the family did as they were told. There was no point resisting now, they would go to a detention camp, and that would be that. At least Jesus would be safe until they could return home to Bethlehem, Joseph thought.
He quickly changed his mind when they arrived at the detention center. They were brutally shoved from one processing station to another. “Names,” a processing agent said emotionlessly. “Joseph, Mary, and Jesus of Bethlehem, sir,” Joseph meekly proclaimed.
“Purpose for visiting Egypt?” Visiting, Joseph thought. Does this guy know what’s happening, why all these people are here? The processing agent repeated the question again, louder and slowly: “PURPOSE. FOR. VISITNG. EGYPT.” Joseph didn’t want to say the words. He knew their fate if he told the truth. They were refugees, fleeing a maniac king who had no legitimate right to the Jerusalem throne. But Herod was a vassal of Rome, Joseph couldn’t insult him. So, he sighed dejectedly and simply said, “We want to settle in Egypt, land of our forefathers.” The processing agent seemed satisfied with this answer. He sealed a piece of paper with his ring and a small amount of wax, handed it to Joseph and gestured to the next line.
Joseph shuffled to another processing line. Jesus, tired, hungry and confused, began to cry and whimper. Mary held him close and whispered, “Don’t worry, little one, it will all be alright. God told me so.”