Exegetical Notes on Matthew 2.13-23
by Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources
Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23
The material in chapter 2 is unique to Matthew. It can be divided into four parts with each of them containing an OT quote, probably inserted by Matthew into traditional material:
vv. 1-12 - The Visit of the Magi - with a quote from Micah 5:2
vv. 13-15 - The Escape to Egypt - with a quote from Hosea 11:1
vv. 16-18 - The Killing of the Children - with a quote from Jeremiah 31:15
vv. 19-23 - The Return from Egypt - with a quote from the prophets (note the plural! -- no known source)
Liturgically, we upset the narrative of chapter 2 by reading verses 13-23 before verses 1-12, which are assigned for the Epiphany of Our Lord, January 6.
Our text is the last three parts listed above. However, the incident in these verses is "set up" by the star in the first part. If the star had led the magi directly to the child in Bethlehem rather than to Herod in Jerusalem, there wouldn't be the massacre of the innocents with Joseph and the family fleeing to Egypt to protect the life of Jesus.
As a general theme, life after Christmas is not all that sweet. Following the birth there is anger and murder, weeping and wailing, moving and resettling. After our wonderful Christmas celebrations we are again confronted with the fact that the kingdom has not fully arrived. The "peace on earth" sung by the angels at Jesus' birth (in Luke), is followed by death and destruction, suffering and evil (according to Matthew's account). Nearly every day as we read the papers or watch the news on TV, we hear of more deaths in Iraq. We hear of turmoil in Israel. In most of our larger cities, someone will be murdered. There is a lack of peace between nations and even within nations.
Salvation for Joseph and his family meant hearing and believing the word from God and then doing it -- as one who packed up and moved last summer -- it's not fun. It's hard work.
There is also great irony in this section. Chapter 1 proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God -- Emmanuel -- God with us, but now we see "God-with-us" fleeing for his life. We see the "savior" needing to be saved from Herod's anger. Two thoughts from this "reversal": (1) It is an indication of the "emptying" of Jesus who comes as a suffering servant, rather than a powerful god. (2) For Matthew, Jesus "needed" to do these things to fulfill OT prophecies. Jesus comes "to fulfill all righteousness" (3:15). He comes to do what God requires of him and not to fulfill his own desires or the desires of the people. Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) writes: "... this text shows that God called his son Jesus to identify with the suffering and exile of his people as he identified with their exodus" (p. 112).
Matthew 2 indicates two responses to the revelation about Jesus -- Gentile Magi come to worship the child -- the Jewish Messiah! The Jewish king seeks to destroy the child -- the Jewish Messiah! It is important, especially in Matthew, to recognize that it is not all "the Jews" who reject Jesus. It is likely that in Matthew's Christian community, there were many Jewish converts.
Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading) offers this dichotomy of responses:
Chapter 2 contrasts two responses to God's initiative. (1) The empire strikes back as Herod, Rome's vassal king, and Jerusalem's settled elite of chief priests and scribes respond negatively. Herod employs military, religious, and social resources and strategies to thwart God's work. His murderous actions, allied with the inaction of the religious elite, demonstrate the oppressive structures from which Jesus is to save the world (1:21).
(2) The new creation expands through unlikely people who embrace God's purposes: the very mobile magi, Gentiles who have neither power nor valued knowledge, witness to the dawning of God's new age. And the nonelite and mobile Joseph and Mary receive angelic revelations, guard the life of "the child," and protect the divine purposes against Herod. God's purposes prevail with Herod's death, though the ominous phrase "Archelaus reigned ... in the place of his father" (2:22) warns the audience that the pernicious threat of empire is omnipresent for a marginal community of disciples.
These responses are sometimes falsely presented as a contrast between "rejecting Jews" and "believing Gentiles." The role of Joseph and Mary, and Herod's origin as an Idumean, clearly indicate that this division is not convincing. Rather the division consists of a sociopolitical dynamic between the powerful settled center (Herod, the religious elite) and the apparently powerless, insignificant, and mobile margins (magi, Joseph and Mary). [p. 73]
At Jesus' birth, it is King Herod who seeks to destroy Jesus. At his crucifixion, other Jewish and Roman authorities seek to destroy Jesus. In both cases, they are unsuccessful. Jesus is taken away for a time, and then he is brought back.
There are some connections between our text and the passion. The word apollumi is used of Herod's desire to "destroy/kill" the child in 2:13; and the chief priests' and elders' desire to "have Jesus killed" in 27:20. The word empaizo is used to refer to what the Magi do to Herod in 2:16 ("tricked" in NRSV); but its four other uses refer to Jesus being "mocked" by others at his crucifixion (20:19; 27:29, 31, 41). Our text might be used to pre-figure the crucifixion/resurrection event.
GOD IS HERE AND THERE
Verses 13-15 and 19-23 have many parallels.
Both begin with a genitive absolute and end with a (supposed) quote.
The words: "Behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph" are exactly the same in both.
The words from the angel: "Getting up take the child and his mother" are exactly the same in both.
Joseph's actions: "Getting up he took the child and his mother" are exactly the same in both.
The God who came to Joseph in Bethlehem does exactly the same in Egypt! "God-is-with-us" when in Bethlehem and when in Egypt.
OLD TESTAMENT IMAGES
Matthew through the narrative and through the quotes brings in a multitude of OT images.
The flight to Egypt and the name "Joseph" recalls how "Joseph," son of Jacob/Israel, was sold by his brothers and taken to Egypt (Gen 37:12-36) -- later to provide a place of refuge for his family during the famine in Canaan (Gen 46-47). However, since it wasn't persecution that the family was fleeing; some scholars have also looked at the Jacob/Israel flight from Laben (Gen 31) -- but this flight, as far as I can tell, never gets to Egypt.
Egypt has traditionally been a place of refuge for those fleeing tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon tries to kill Jeroboam, he flees to Egypt (1K 11:40). When King Jehoiakim wants to kill Uriah the prophet, he flees to Egypt, but he is captured, brought back to Jerusalem, and killed (Jer 26:21-23). It would be quite believable that Joseph would have fled with his family to Egypt.
The quote in v. 15 from Hosea 11:1 illustrates Matthew's loose way (by our standards) with OT scripture. First of all, he has been talking about the flight to Egypt, and the quote is about leaving Egypt. Secondly, "my son" in the quote refers to the nation of Israel -- not a specific individual. In fact, the LXX uses "children" rather than "son". Thirdly, Hosea follows the quote with a chastisement of Israel. Something Matthew certainly doesn't intend to do with Joseph and his family.
Regardless of Hosea's context, Matthew uses the quote to: (1) connect Jesus with Moses and the Exodus and (2) repeat Jesus' identity as God's son -- which can only be revealed by God (see Matthew 16:17).
The Moses connection continues in vv. 16-18 with Jesus being saved from Herod's anger and the killing of the infants as Moses was saved from Pharoah's anger and the killing of male infants (Ex 2:1-10).
It is estimated that Bethlehem was a town of about 1000 at this time and, at the most, included 20 male infants. Later legends have greatly expanded the number of infants killed to 14,000 (Byzantine liturgy); 64,000 (Syrian calendar of saints); 144,000 from Rev 14:1-5 -- the number of those "who have not defiled themselves with women".
DID THE KILLING OF THE CHILDREN REALLY HAPPEN?
There are no other records of such a massacre. No other writing in the NT mentions it. While Josephus tells us that Herod ordered the execution of three of his sons; and at his burial one member of every family was to be slain so that the nation might really mourn (Ant. XVII. 181), he says nothing about the Bethlehem massacre. His writings indicate that Herod was the type of person who could have ordered such a slaughter and the small number of children might have gone unrecorded.
The plot of a king fearing for his power and seeking to kill any possible usurpers is very common. Besides the similar incident in Moses' life, there are similar stories in Greek and Roman mythologies as well as in Egyptian and Babylonian folklore. Matthew (or an earlier story-teller) could have imported such a story and applied it to Jesus' early life.
Raymond Brown (The Birth of the Messiah) makes this conclusion:
There are serious reasons for thinking that the flight to Egypt and the massacre at Bethlehem may not be historical. Yet, at the same time, if one can trace the basic story to another origin, there are good clues to why it has been cast in its present form. A story of a massacre, based on the Pharaoh's massacre of the male children in Egypt, could plausibly be attributed to Herod, especially amid the horrors of the last years of his life. To ensure mourning at his funeral, Herod wanted his soldiers instructed to kill notable political prisoners upon the news of his death. His goal was expressed thus: "So shall all Judea and every household weep for me, whether they wish it or not" -- we are not far from Matthew's scriptural comment upon the Bethlehem scene in terms of Rachel mourning for her children. Plausible too is the Matthean story's insistence that the massacre at Bethlehem came out of Herod's fear of the birth of a rival King.... As for the flight to Egypt, ... Egypt was the standard place of refuge for those fleeing the tyranny of kings in Palestine. As with the story of the magi, such plausible details tell us nothing about the historicity but tell us a great deal about intelligibility. Matthew's story would not be fantastic to the reader who knew the history of Herodian times. [pp. 227-8]
The first time I preached on this text -- I was in seminary and was filling a vacant pulpit for a couple of Sundays -- I raised the possibility that the massacre of the innocents might not have happened historically. I was thanked by a number of people. The gruesomeness of murdering infants can keep some people from hearing the message Matthew intends. On the other hand, there are congregations where such questioning of the factual history of a biblical text would raise charges of heresy against the preacher and keep them from hearing the message.
Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) concludes: "The event is thus neither historically documented nor historically implausible" (p. 111).
MORE OT QUOTES
Like the earlier quote, Matthew's quote of Jeremiah 31:15 pays no attention to the original context. Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, is weeping for "her children" (Ephraim! in v. 18) who have been taken into exile. It is not clear whether Jeremiah refers to the Assyrian deportation or the Babylon exile. However, the LORD comforts her in v. 16 with the promise that "they shall come back from the land of the enemy." Jeremiah's message is one of joy and hope -- which is not found in Matthew's reference.
Thus Matthew picks up the two major events of Israel's history: the Exodus and the Exile in these verses. The salvation delivered by God in these two major events will be surpassed through the one called Jesus.
In words nearly identical to Exodus 4:19 LXX, Joseph is told that "those seeking the life of the child have died" -- (another connection with Moses). When Herod died in 4 BC, his territory was divided between his three sons: Archelaus received Judea, Samaria and Idumea; Herod Antipas received Galilee and Perea; and Philip received the region east and north of Lake Galilee.
Perhaps like the Exodus, Joseph is led by God through dreams "into the land of Israel" and then "into the region of Galilee," but the decision to settle "in the city called Nazareth" seemed to have come from his own volition. Perhaps as another illustration of this, Jesus has commanded us to make disciples of all nations -- that is not a decision for us to make, but the details of how each congregation and individual will carry out this command are left to one's own decision-making process.
Nazareth is never mentioned in pre-Christian Jewish writings, yet archeology indicates that the city has existed from the 7th century BC. It was an obscure city. Nothing notable about it.
The quote in v. 23 has no known OT reference. Perhaps that is why Matthew uses "prophets" (plural). It is clear that for Matthew, "Nazorean" means that Jesus lived in Nazareth. In addition, it sounds like it could be related to nazir (nazirite) which referred to one consecrated or made holy to God by a vow. Both Samson and Samuel were such people. However, Jesus didn't demonstrate the Nazirite aestheticism of drinking no wine. In the LXX, nazir is either transliterated or translated with the Greek hagios = "holy" or "holy one". Jesus was known as "the Holy One of God" (Mk 1:24; Lk 4:34; Jn 6:69). "Nazorean" also sounds similar to netser = "branch" from Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." Perhaps Matthew was a punster, and intended all of these word-play connections. [These possible connections are presented by Brown in The Birth of the Messiah.]
Although Matthew was not the first gospel written, it is the first book in the NT. As our text indicates, Matthew makes a bridge between the old salvation stories and prophecies and the new salvation event in Jesus. I think that that's one of the main messages he is trying to relay to us.
A possible application might center on forced moves: the elderly whose health or financial situation forces them to move from their home place; the young whose jobs and transfers force them to move from town to town; the expanding families who need to find larger housing, or clergy receiving a new call. This text tells us that Jesus knows what it's like to be forced to move and leave behind friends, family, and security. This text also reminds us that God is in the new place -- even if it is Egypt. Also, our comfort and security should not be centered in the old home-place or hometown or old church building, but in God.
I read an article, I think, in The Lutheran that made a distinction between "Home Church" and "Church Home." When one has moved away, one's faith and church life can't stay back in the old home church. The active life of faith needs to have a new church home.
Another application, perhaps further removed from the text is the analogy that we all deserve to die. We are not innocent infants (if they are really "innocent"), but sinful human beings. However, just as God's power saved Jesus from the death meant for him, so God's grace also saves us from the death meant for us. This "salvation" required faith on the part of Joseph -- to believe the word of God and act on it -- so also we need to believe the Word and act on it -- another key theme in the gospel of Matthew.
Carter's (Matthew and the Margins) concluding words on these verses:
God's initiative in the conception and birth of Jesus (1:18-25) is met by two responses: resistance, violence, and rejection from the center elite of political and religious power in Jerusalem, and worship, trust, and obedience from those who, in the perspective of the center, occupy the insignificant margins where God's purposes of liberation are being accomplished. The danger and evil of empire constantly threaten and oppose those purposes, places, and people. But the empire does not have the final word. God's purposes are protected. [p. 89]
MODERN REFUGEES AND MASSACRES
As we look at Joseph, Mary, & Jesus as refugees, one might also remember the millions of refugees in our century. The following numbers come from the United Nations Refugee Agency (www.unhcr.org).
Numbers at a glance – people of concern to UNHCR
In North America 1,143,000
In Latin America 3,543,000
In Europe 3,427,000
In Africa 9,753,000
In Asia 14,911,000
In Oceania 86,000
|Refugees||Africa||Asia||Europe||Latin America||North America||Oceania|
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