Did Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Egypt because they could blend in there?

Q. Is there any truth in saying that Joseph took Mary and the young child to Egypt, since Herod was searching for him, because they would have been able to fit in there without being detected, based on the color of their skin? Some people think so.

I think the main reason that Joseph and Mary went to Egypt as a place where Jesus would be safe from Herod is that there was already a large Jewish community there, particularly in the city of Alexandria, and so they would have been able to find housing and work within that community, or at least with its help, for as long as they needed to stay. (Please see my fuller comments in this post: Where did Jesus live in Egypt?)

In terms of skin color, really anyone who went to Egypt at this time would have “fit in,” because people had long been coming there from Sub-Saharan Africa, farther west in northern Africa, and the Middle East, and so it was a place where people of many different skin colors lived together and interacted. The Egyptians, really like all ethnic groups, had a variety of skin tones themselves. So Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, whatever their own skin color was, would have blended in not because they looked like everybody else, but because nobody looked quite like anybody else, and so nobody stood out.

(As for what skin tone Joseph, Mary, and Jesus might actually have had, for one possibility, please see the icon I use as an illustration for this post: How long did Jesus live in Egypt? But of course no one knows for certain. First-century Jews themselves had a variety of skin tones. But I think this is good; we can all imagine Jesus looking a lot like us, and this helps us understand that he came to this world and became human like us in order to be our Savior.)

 

How many wise men came to see Jesus?

Q. How many wise men were there that came looking for Jesus?

The Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were. Matthew says in his account simply that “wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” and asked where the newborn king was. After that he just calls them “the wise men” or refers to them as “they” and “them.”

Traditionally it has been considered that there were three wise men because the Bible describes how they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s possible that there were three and that each one brought one of these gifts separately. But it’s also possible that there were more than three and that each one brought one or more of the gifts listed.

The names Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior attributed to the “three wise men” reflect later tradition. As I said, the Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were, and it doesn’t tell us any of their names.

How do you “honor father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family?

Q. How does one “honor their father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family? I’ve been abused and suffered much damage from my parents. I  feel so unsafe around them that I’ve had to put up boundaries such as never being alone with them. Neither of my parents are repentant or acknowledge that they have done anything wrong. Instead, my mother uses Jesus as a means to manipulate others and shame them for being bad Christians if they don’t do what she wants them to. How do I “honor father and mother” in this situation? It doesn’t matter to me any more that my parents won’t acknowledge their wrongdoings. I just want to love Jesus and love others. But I’m not sure what that looks like in this context.

Thank you very much for your question. During my years a pastor, I unfortunately encountered similar situations. However, out of those situations, I can offer you great encouragement. I have seen Christian women and men escape from the cycle of abuse, heal from the damage they suffered, become free from bitterness, and ultimately exhibit a gracious and loving spirit, honoring their parents from a safe distance in appropriate and healthy ways as a way of honoring God. I already hear something of that gracious spirit in your question, so I think you are on your way there yourself. Let me offer some further thoughts to help you along your way.

First, you are very wise to establish boundaries with your parents. You are not honoring them if you make yourself available to them to allow them to continue acting in a way so contrary to God’s intentions. Honoring them means recognizing who God created them to be and relating to them as those people—even if this means, for now, simply taking away an opportunity for them not to act like those people.

I hope you are getting some good counsel or reading some good books about establishing healthy interpersonal boundaries. This was not modeled for you in your family, so you will need to learn it as a new skill. I should warn you that in any unhealthy system (such as a toxic family), the person who points out that there’s a problem is considered to be the problem. So your boundary-setting resolve will likely be misunderstood and resisted, and you will be falsely accused of having other motives. But stick to it. Create a healthy space for yourself in life.

Second, you will need to forgive your parents. This will be good for your own soul and your relationship with God, since Jesus told us, “Forgive as you have been forgiven.” It will also be good for your health and peace of mind, since bitterness is a toxin that insidiously poisons anyone who hangs on to it. But this will also be good for your parents, too. When we forgive someone, we “let go” of what they’ve done to us. This actually frees them from being frozen in our minds and wills as the people who did that, and I believe it makes grace available to them to change. This is a further way of honoring your father and mother by helping them become the people God created them to be.

In terms of the practicalities of forgiveness, I invite you to read this post, which I wrote in response to a question that was similar to yours. Please consider the main points I make there: (1) Forgiving someone doesn’t mean letting them hurt you all over again; (2) Forgiveness is an act of the will that must be completed by emotional work; (3) Forgiveness is not a substitute for establishing personal boundaries; (4) Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.

Third, I hope that you have found (or can find) a loving and supporting community in which you can heal and grow into the person God created you to be. I encourage you to get counsel or read books about family systems and about abuse—including spiritual abuse, which seems to be your mother’s preferred means of control and manipulation. Recognize the people in your life who are able to see you as God sees you, and come to see yourself through their eyes. Believe what they are telling you about yourself. This is a means that the Holy Spirit will use to erase the negative voices and accusations in your head and replace them with gracious, life-giving truths.

Finally, under safe conditions, when you are ready, look for the ways God might show you in which you can “honor” your parents through practical means. It’s interesting that the only application Jesus ever made in his teaching of the commandment to honor father and mother was to care and provide for one’s parents in their old age. I have seen Christian men and women who were healed, freed from bitterness, and safely established behind healthy boundaries re-engage abusive parents in this way—putting on a 50th-anniversary celebration, for example, or seeing that repairs and maintenance were needed in the family home and arranging for this and helping to pay for it. These things were done not because of guilt and manipulation on the parents’ part, but because adult children wanted to honor their parents as a way of honoring the Lord.

I trust that these same things will be seen in your life as you come to understand more and more about your Heavenly Father’s love for you, find healing and freedom in that love, and so come to have compassion on your earthly father and mother.

What does it mean to “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit”?

Q. I would appreciate your teachings on “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.” Thank you.

Please see this post for an explanation of that statement:

Have I committed the unpardonable sin?

In that post I say, among other things, “The ‘unpardonable sin’ that Jesus talks about (as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke)”—also described as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”—is “the act of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. The reason this sin ‘can’t be forgiven’ is not because the person has done something so bad that it’s beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. The Bible stresses that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for the forgiveness of any and all sins that any human being might commit. Rather, if we attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, then this will make us resist the work of the Holy Spirit, and His gracious influences will not be able to bring us to repentance and salvation. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. He’s saying that it can not be forgiven, because it separates us from the very influence that’s meant to lead us to forgiveness.”

That is, the statement is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s describing the position that people put themselves in when they try to dismiss Jesus and his teachings by saying that they come from an evil source. It’s not saying that God will permanently take the attitude of “no forgiveness” towards someone who happens to say or think a certain thing. I hope this is helpful; please see the rest of the post for a fuller discussion.

Why does God say in a couple of places in the Bible that He won’t forgive?

Q. Why did the Lord say, when he was instructing the Israelites about the angel he was sending ahead of them in the wilderness, that if they didn’t obey, the angel (acting on God’s authority) would not forgive them? And why did Jesus say, after teaching his disciples the Lord’s prayer, that if we don’t forgive, the Lord in heaven will not forgive our transgressions?

I can understand why you are puzzled about these passages, because the Bible teaches generally that God’s disposition towards us is always to forgive us and restore us when we confess our sins. So why would the Bible say in a couple of places that God will not forgive us? I think there’s actually something more than meets the eye going on in both passages.

To consider the case of the angel first, there’s a verb in Hebrew that means “to lift up and take away.” It might be used, for example, in a case where someone picks something up and carries it off. However, this verb is also used just to mean “lift up,” that is, to carry or bear; or just to mean “take away.” It’s often used in that second sense to refer to forgiven sin. For example, Nathan says to David after he confesses his wrong, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” That’s the NIV translation, and it brings out the literal sense of the word. Ten other versions, however, say what it signifies, for example, the NET: “The Lord has forgiven your sin.”

Many translations also see this second sense in the passage about the angel who will go ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness. For example, the NIV reads: “Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.” However, it seems to me that in the context, the first limited meaning, “carry or bear,” could well be intended instead. As the CEV (Contemporary English Version) puts it, “Carefully obey everything the angel says, because I am giving him complete authority, and he won’t tolerate rebellion.” So the meaning is not so much that sins won’t be forgiven, it’s that disobedience will be punished. And that’s what we see happen over and over again throughout the Israelites’ wilderness journey. Forgiveness of sin was still available through the sacrifices for sin that the law prescribed, but there were still consequences for sin. (Just as David’s sin was forgiven, but he nevertheless experienced consequences in his own life.)

As for what Jesus says, right after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, about God not forgiving us if we won’t forgive others, the rationale for this is explained well in the parable he later told about a servant who was forgiven a great debt by his own master, but who then went right out and insisted on repayment of a small debt by one of his fellow servants. When the other man couldn’t pay him, he had him thrown in prison. When the master heard  about this, he brought the first servant back in and demanded, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” And the master had the first servant thrown in prison.

So once again we understand the meaning from the context: The background is that we ourselves have first been forgiven all of our sins by God. In light of this, we should certainly forgive other people who wrong or offend us. But if we won’t do that, then what claim can we make on God’s mercy? We’re asking to be treated in a way we’re not prepared to treat others. And God simply says in response, “Have it your way.” So it’s not so much that we have to meet a certain condition to get God’s forgiveness, it’s that because we’ve already been forgiven, we should forgive others.

I hope these observations are helpful.

 

Were Adam and Eve historical, and if so, does this require a young earth?

Q. Do you believe in a historical Adam and Eve? If one does, do they need to believe in a young earth?

Please see this post for my thoughts on whether Adam was necessarily a historical individual. In that post I observe, among other things, that “the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives. Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement: ‘When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.’ But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God. Note how ‘adam in that statement takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female: ‘When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.'”

In light of such considerations, I conclude that the Genesis narrative, and other Scriptures such as Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans about humanity being “in” Adam—the passages I address specifically in that other post, do not “require Adam to have been a historical individual. We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.”

But does someone who does conclude that Adam and Eve were historical individuals also have to believe in a young earth? I’m perhaps not the best person to offer a judgment about that, so let me just say that I know some people who do consider them to have been actual individuals but who do not believe in a young earth. Rather, these people I know are intrigued by the findings of anthropological genetic research that suggest that all modern humans are descended from a single female—someone scientists refer to informally as “Eve.” This does not mean that this woman was the only female human in existence at the time when she lived; the scientific perspective would be rather that her offspring survived while the lines descended from other early women died out. But these people I know suggest that God chose this “Eve” in some way to be the first bearer of the divine image, and so she was the first human “created in the image of God.”

Apparently all modern humans are also descended from the same man, although he didn’t necessarily live at the same time as “Eve.” Rather, once again, the lines descended from other early men would have died off while his offspring survived. I have no expertise in this field and for all I know the findings may have been updated since I last heard about them, so I would encourage you to search more about this topic if you’re interested. But the bottom line for our purposes here is that while I personally don’t feel that the Bible requires us to consider Adam and Eve to have been historical individuals, even if we do, that doesn’t necessarily commit us to a young earth.

(If you are interested in how issues of biblical interpretation relate to questions of the age of the earth and of the origins of humanity, you can also have a look at another blog of mine, Paradigms on Pilgrimage: Creationism, Paleontology, and Biblical Interpretation.)

 

Why does Isaac refer to Jacob’s “brothers” if he only had one?

Q. Did Jacob and Esau have siblings? When Isaac blesses Jacob (thinking that he is blessing Esau), he says, “Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.” This leads me to believe there were siblings, even though they are not mentioned anywhere else in the story.

This is a very perceptive question. I have to admit that even thoudh I’d read this episode many times before, I never noticed the issue.

I think it is unlikely that there were siblings. We learn earlier in Genesis that for a long time Isaac and Rebekah were unable to have children. Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, but he was sixty years old when Esau and Jacob were born, after “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife,” and “the Lord answered his prayer.” (As a side note, I don’t think Isaac waited twenty years before he started praying for Rebekah. Rather, I think this is an example of someone who persevered in prayer over a long time and finally had his request granted. It illustrates, as Jesus said, that we should continue in prayer and not give up.) But given these circumstances, it does seem unlikely that Isaac and Rebekah had further children, and indeed the Bible doesn’t describe them having any more.

So what, then, does Isaac mean by “your brothers” and “the sons of your mother”? Interpreters who do address the issue tend to take these phrases as referring to all related tribes. Ellicott says in his commentary, for example, that they would “include all nations sprung from Abraham, and all possible offshoots from Isaac’s own descendants” (in other words, all of the tribes and clans that eventually came from Esau). Keil and Delitzsch observe that Isaac’s entire blessing first envisions present agricultural prosperity (“an abundance of grain and new wine“), but it then looks forward to the “future pre-eminence of his son”: not only over “kindred tribes,” but also over foreign “nations and peoples.” In fact, “The blessing rises to the idea of universal dominion, which was to be realized in the fact that, according to the attitude assumed by the people towards him as their lord, it would secure to them either a blessing or a curse.”

Ironically, Isaac doesn’t realize that he is conferring all of these blessings on Jacob rather than Esau. But as events unfold and God works out His plan through the choices, good and bad, of human moral agents, Jacob becomes a transformed man, he is renamed Israel, and he becomes the ancestor of Jesus the Messiah. As a result, as Paul writes in Galatians, “the blessing given to Abraham” (and repeated to Isaac, and passed on here by Isaac to Jacob) “came to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus.” And so it is no longer a matter of being one of Jacob’s “brethren” (a member of a kindred tribe), but of assuming an attitude of loyalty and obedience to his greatest descendant Jesus as Lord, that enables a person to share in the blessings that are embodied in Isaac’s words.