And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God, “a Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.” — Deuteronomy 6:5
Scholars now believe that the liturgy associated with the presentation of first fruits (Deuteronomy 26: 5-10) is one of the oldest passages in the Hebrew canon—a prayer of Thanksgiving that has its roots in the earliest days of Israelite culture. It was already an ancient prayer when it was incorporated into the Book of Deuteronomy as part of an ancient and obligatory harvest festival.
The full confession is a liturgical history of Israel, from the beginning of its history as a people. It is the first part of the prayer that interests me here: “a Syrian ready to perish was my father.” The “Syrian ready to perish” was Jacob, who became Israel, the father of the Twelve Tribes that grew into a nation. At the height of that nation’s power, their god required them to recall every year that their ancestors were refugees who would have perished had not Egypt, the world’s greatest power at the time, given them sanctuary. The prayer leaves no doubt that, whatever its intentions, Egypt was doing the Lord’s work. It would do so again.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, (Matthew 2:13-14)
Egypt would play the role of sanctuary once again in the New Testament, in a scene that is more of an antitype than a coincidence. It occurs shortly after the birth of Christ, when the entire province of Judea is in the grip of a genocidal maniac bent on murdering children. Through an angel, the Lord warns Joseph that his family is in danger, and, Jesus himself becomes a refugee.
For some time I have been convinced that Americans misread these parts of the Bible when we read ourselves into the sacred narrative as the Israelites and the early Christians—the persecuted minorities buffeted about by the great powers of the day. We are, rather, the buffeters–the Egyptians and the Romans, and more often than we would like to believe, Babylon. But this need not be a criticism. Babylon and Rome were essential to the development of, respectively, Judiasm and Christianity. And Egypt twice provided sanctuary to refugees who would go on to play starring roles. Great powers can also be forces for good.
I have been thinking about this a lot this week as I have seen the images coming from Syria.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Fighting in the besieged eastern districts of Aleppo stopped on Tuesday, a Russian official said, just hours after the United Nations said it had received credible reports that forces loyal to the Syrian government were gunning down civilians trying to flee and killing residents in their homes. – New York Times, December 13, 2016
For Americans and other Westerners in the 21st century, “likening the scriptures unto us” means giving serious consideration to the role we play as great powers in an age of refugees. This is perhaps the most serious test that we have faced in my lifetime of whether or not we believe the things that we say we believe. The response of the current administration has been underwhelming. The response of the incoming administration has, so far, been abominable. We are failing the test.
And I know all of the rejoinders: “we can’t do everything,” “we don’t know which refugees are going to turn out to be terrorists,” “we have to take care of ourselves,” “it’s horrible, but it is not our problem.” I have said all of these things myself at one point or another. But as the Christmas season unfolds in one of the most prosperous societies the world has ever known, they all sound like excuses for Herod. Excuses for Laban. Reasons not to let Christ in our midst because we are too busy celebrating Christmas.
A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.