How many journeys did Mary and Joseph take before and after Jesus' birth? Why couldn't they return to Bethlehem?
Nazareth is the hometown of Mary and Joseph. In 5 B.C., just before the birth of Christ, the Romans require them to travel to their ancestral home (they were both of the lineage of King David) of Bethlehem. The couple travels the roughly 80 miles (about 129 kilometers) to the city, where Christ will be ultimately born in a stable and laid in a manger (Luke 2:1 - 20).
Jesus' birth, which occurs on or around the Feast of Trumpets (September 2 in 5 B.C.) fulfills the prophecy found in Micah 5:2. Joseph, on the eighth day after Mary gives birth, takes the family to Jerusalem so that the Lord can be circumcised according to the law of God (Luke 2:21).
Forty days after Jesus is born, fulfilling the purification requirement of Leviticus 12, Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem's temple to present him before God. The trip is only 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) long. His parents make an offering to the temple of two young birds. It is during their visit that a priest named Simeon prophesied about Jesus' mission in life and blessed his parents (Luke 2:22 - 35).
Before Mary and Joseph leave the temple to return home a woman named Anna, a widowed prophetess who lived in the house of God, blesses them as well (Luke 2:36 - 38). The family then makes the short trip back to Bethlehem.
In Bethlehem, Jesus' family is living in a home and NOT a stable (Matthew 2:11). The wise men (Magi) from the East, guided by a star (an angel), arrive to worship the King of Kings with Mary in attendance (verse 11). After the wise men leave, Joseph is told (in a dream) to flee to Egypt (verse 13). He is informed of this because Herod the Great will soon issue a command that all male children two years old and younger, in and around Bethlehem, are to be put to death (Matthew 2:16).
Herod's cruel actions fulfill a prophecy regarding the slaughter of innocent children (Jeremiah 5:15). Their journey from Bethlehem to what is Egyptian-controlled territory (which was outside the jurisdiction of Herod) was at least 65 kilometers (40 miles).
After Herod dies in early 4 B.C., Joseph has a dream where an angel tells him it is safe to return to Israel. Mary and the family's trip to and from Egypt is a fulfillment of Bible prophecy (Hosea 11:1). They soon begin their travel back to Judea and Bethlehem.
However, as Mary and Joseph approach Judea, it is discovered that Herod Archelaus, the eldest surviving son of Herod the Great, is the new ruler of the area (Matthew 2:22). Like his father, Archelaus rules with tyranny and cruelty. John Gills' Exposition of the Bible states that one time he sent his entire army into Jerusalem's temple, at Passover, in order to kill 3,000 men suspected of sedition.
Joseph's fears about living within Judea are confirmed when God sends him a warning in a dream. The family continues their travels northward to their hometown of Nazareth (Matthew 2:22 - 23). The city is part of Galilee, which is ruled by a another son of Herod the Great named Herod Antipas. This son had a slightly less violent disposition than Archelaus.
The travels of Mary and Joseph from Egyptian territory all the way north to Nazareth is a journey of at least 106 miles (170 kilometers, see Luke 2:39 - 40)! Jesus spends his childhood and young adult years living in Nazareth (which fulfills the prophecy stated in Matthew 2:23). After the death of his step-father sometime between his 12th and 30th birthday, he continues to live in the city until he journeys to Capernaum to begin his public ministry.