In November 2008, before our communal Christmas cards were displayed at Friends Homes at Guilford, our Art Gallery wall carried Jo Leeds’ beautiful watercolors, including one of a man leading a donkey, on which rode a mother and child. We knew exactly what that picture depicted—it was Joseph guiding his wife and her baby (but not his baby) across the Sinai desert to Egypt. Jo Leeds reported that three male residents asked if they could buy that picture, but she was not selling it. She was puzzled; why did all three requests come from men?
A year ago my thoughts were mainly focused on Joseph—how he chose not to abandon his pregnant wife but continued to love and cherish her. How he chose to heed the rumors, or dream message, about Herod’s murderous plan to rid Bethlehem of all babes in order to assure that no future challenger was likely to plot a revolution. This was genocide and ethnic cleansing, and, given Herod’s reputation, Joseph knew it had better be taken seriously. He had the intelligence and the fortitude to evade Herod’s henchmen and to pack what was needed for the arduous journey across the Sinai desert to Egypt.
In addition to being homeless—as they were in Bethlehem—they were now refugees. But why should devout Jews choose Egypt as a refuge?
My thoughts for some time now have focused on that question: why Egypt? Egypt is an Arab country, and there is a widely held view that Arabs and Jews have always been implacable enemies. However, there was an earlier Joseph—son of Jacob—who saved Egypt from starvation. In gratitude the Pharaoh welcomed Jacob and Joseph’s brothers and their families to settle in Egypt. There they prospered until a later Pharaoh perceived the expanding Jewish community as a threat and enslaved them. We remember Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt to settle in Palestine.
Since 9/11 and al-Qaida, and the Taliban, and the more recent Fort Hood massacre, the feeling has resurfaced, in a new form, that Jews and Muslims are inveterate enemies. This is a strange notion considering that the two religions share the same biblical roots. They even venerate Jesus, though neither Jew nor Muslim recognizes him as the Christ.
In fact, in the early period of Islam, from the 8th to the 13th centuries, Baghdad, an intellectual center, welcomed Jewish and Christian scholars so that they could continue their studies in alchemy, physics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, and religion, when scholarship had practically died out in Europe during the Dark Ages. During the 12th century, when Saladin was Sultan of Egypt and conqueror of huge areas of the Mediterranean world, one of the greatest Jewish scholars, theologians, and physicians—Moses Maimonides—became Saladin’s personal physician and, after Saladin’s death, remained his family’s physician. Imagine that: a Jewish doctor caring for a Muslim royal family!
And what about since then? Wolf Mendl of the War Studies Department at Kings College London has written that for centuries Jewish and Muslim communities have lived side by side until very recently, when the United Nations gave Israel some land in the Middle East, and in response Arab countries expelled their Jewish populations, tens of thousands of whom settled in Israel.
Joseph and Mary’s sojourn in Egypt presumably allowed them to create a new life for themselves without leaving the slightest residue of anger or bitterness. How else can we explain Jesus’ calling on us to love the stranger, the outsider, to venerate the Samaritan— despised by the Jews of his time. Reflection on that time in Egypt may have made him realize that love and caring can be, and should be, universal. The sojourn in Egypt may well have been the source leading to Jesus’ realization that only the profoundest unconditional love can overcome interpersonal and group hatred, suspicion, and violence.
This brief meditation about Jewish, Muslim, and Christian relations is meant to give us hope that we all, once again, may find peace and mutual love for one another.
Ted Benfey, a member of Friendship Meeting in Greensboro, N.C., offered these remarks at a 2009 Christmas Eve worship service at Friends Homes at Guilford.