Perspectives from the Past-Reflections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Writings in 1932-33

One of the gifts of reading more deeply into the lives and experiences of people in the past is the perspectives they can give us into our own time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor during the critical time leading up to and including the Second World War in Germany. In his collected works we can see not only the evolution of a thinker but we can also read in his letter, preaching and teaching the impact of the events on his teaching and thought. For example, in the critical time of 1932-33 (represented by DBWE 12) we see Bonhoeffer struggling with the Aryan paragraph and how the church can respond (especially in the context of a state church). While Bonhoeffer would consider this statu confessionis (an item that if adopted the church ceases to be the church) many of his colleagues, even in the Confessing Church, would not agree. Perhaps two of his most telling quotes come out of this time. First from his Christology lectures:

There are thus three possibilities for action that the church can take vis-à-vis the state: first (as we have said), questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any social order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community…The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. (DBWE 12:365)

And the second from immediately before the Reichstag elections where the Nazi party would emerge as the strongest party preaching on the letters to the churches in Asia in Revelation 2:

The church is doing a tremendous amount, very seriously and even sacrificially. But we are all doing so many things that come second, third, and fourth; the church is not doing the works it did at first. And that is precisely why it is not doing what is crucial. We celebrate; we attend the events where we should be seen; we try to be influential; we set up a so-called Protestant movement; we do Protestant youth work; we provide social services and care for people; and we have anti-godless propaganda—but are we doing the very first works, the one that epitomized what we are all about? Do we love God and our neighbor with that first, passionate, burning love that is willing to risk everything except God? (DBWE 12:444-445)

Posted in Book Reviews, Historical Reflections | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Matthew 3: 13-17 The Baptism and Revelation of Jesus

Francesco Albani, Baptism of Christ (1600s)

Matthew 3: 13-17

Parallel Mark 1: 9-11, Luke 3: 21-22

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew’s careful narration of the ministry of John the Baptist reaches its climax with the baptism of Jesus, and just as the identity of John the Baptist and the content of his ministry pulls on the prophetic imagination, particularly from Isaiah in this short narrative of the baptism the hope of Isaiah mingles in with the poetic waters of the Psalms as we continue to wonder who this Jesus who meets us in the midst of the waters is. In the previous section I highlighted Isaiah 43: 1-7 where the people are reminded by the prophet Isaiah:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you. Isaiah 43:2

We heard John proclaim that one who was more powerful was coming after him, one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, and as we are introduced to Jesus we wonder Matthew invites us into the water to wonder about this one who is coming after John. The day that comes after the announcement of Elijah in Malachi 4: 5-6 is the day of the LORD, could the coming kingdom of heaven and the day of the LORD truly be at hand in this moment Matthew narrates to us? In Matthew 1 we were introduced to a title for Jesus, Emmanuel: God with us, could this Jesus who stands amid the waters with the reconstituted people of Israel in some way be the God of Israel? Mark’s gospel may have made continual allusions and hints that in Jesus we were encountering more than just a Messiah but Matthew continues to link suggestively in ways that would be shocking to those attuned to hear the imagery of scripture referenced in this way that in Jesus we are somehow meeting ‘God with us.’

Jesus reenters the gospel by approaching John at the Jordan and journeying away from his home in Galilee and approaches John to be baptized with the people. Matthew’s short narrative spends longer on this scene than either Mark or Luke wanting us to hear John’s protest and identify Jesus as one who is greater than him, as one who should be baptizing him.  Jesus’ response places him with the people of Israel, those who have come to the waters, those who have turned their hearts to God, those who are repenting and he enters into this space where they have come seeking God’s promised kingdom and is joined to their story. Jesus is not only linked to the story of Israel in the birth narratives, his narrative begins to take on the shape of their story and his identity is typologically joined to the identity and vocation of Israel. As Richard B. Hays proposes:

I would propose that Jesus’ acceptance of a baptism of repentance, performed at the Jordan River, is meant to signify his symbolic identification with sinful Israel (the people whom he will “save from their sins”), and the figurative beginning of that new Israel’s entry into the land of promise. (Hays, 2016, p. 116)

I think it is also important to realize that a continual theme throughout the scriptures is God’s desire to dwell among the people. The kingdom of heaven is being brought to earth rather than the citizens of earth being transported to heaven. God’s desire in the Exodus was to dwell among God’s people in the tabernacle at the center of the community and the sin of the Golden Calf threatened this because God’s anger at their betrayal posed a threat to the people, and yet God forgave and did dwell and go forward with he people. The entire birth narrative of Matthew suggests that this incarnation, to use the language Christians would assign to the birth of Jesus, is God in a new and unexpected ways coming to dwell among God’s people for the sake of the world.

Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist reintroduces us to the concept of righteousness. We first encountered Joseph as a righteous man and righteousness is far more important word to Matthew than to either Mark or Luke who rarely use is. One the one hand, righteousness in the gospels is held as a contrast to sinners, sometimes in surprising ways, as Jesus will later say, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9: 13) and yet the followers of Jesus are to, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Matthew 6: 33) Jesus becomes the fulfiller of what righteousness will look like and the one who can interpret how one is to live a righteous life. Here Jesus models righteousness in standing with the people who are striving for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, later in the Sermon on the Mount he will interpret how to approach the Torah (Law) and what the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven will look like. While Jesus has come to ‘save the people from their sins’ he is not leaving them alone in this, but instead he will walk with these new disciples and model and teach them what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness, how they can embody a righteousness greater than the scribes and the Pharisees, and how they can seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

Matthew in his unique way wants to highlight this story in a way that accents it differently than Mark and Luke. One of the differences between Matthew and Mark is what happens to the heavens. In Mark’s gospel the heavens are ripped open (the word in Greek is schizomenos, the schizo root is where we get schizophrenia-a ripped open mind) but for Matthew they were opened a far less violent act. This may relate to Matthew’s belief that the creation itself cooperates in bearing witness to who Jesus is and what Jesus means, like the star at the birth and the convulsions in the heaven and earth at the crucifixion. This is a significant change because the schizomenos word forms a bookend for the beginning and end of Mark’s gospel and Matthew chooses to narrate the story without using this rare and noticeable word. There is an intentionality in Matthew’s narration of this scene and the way he carefully chooses vocabulary to fit his vision of what is occurring.

Additionally, in Matthew’s narration of this scene, we see the only gospel where the declaration of the voice from heaven being for everyone present and not only for Jesus. In both Mark and Luke, the voice declares, “You are my son”, but in Matthew the declaration is, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus may be the only one who sees the heavens open and the Spirit descend but the voice declares for those who have ears to hear that Jesus is given the titles of Son, Beloved and one with whom God is pleased. The proclamation in this form will be echoed at the Transfiguration in Matthew 17 and we are meant to hear the connection between these event that allow reveal who Jesus is. It also links us to the centurion’s declaration at the crucifixion that “This man was God’s Son.”

In this declaration of the voice we also hear the echo of another major scriptural current that will flow throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the poetic flow of the Psalms. Here the words go back to the words of Psalm 2 and its words lifting up God’s chosen leader and the close identification between God and that leader:

I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.  You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”  Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Psalm 2: 7-10

Just as Isaiah was one of the major rivers flowing into the deep sea of Matthew’s Gospel, so the Psalms will be one of the other major bodies of water contributing its language and rhythms to the gospel and helping the evangelist to find language to describe who Jesus is and what he means. For the identity of Jesus is critical to those who will pass through the waters with him.

I continued the quotation of Psalm 2 longer than most writers, though most catch the allusion to this Psalm, because there is in this public declaration a challenge to the existing powers. The gospel is a political statement and the kingdom of heaven does challenge the underlying assumptions of any empire: whether Egypt, Babylon, Rome or even a modern world power like the United States. In Jesus’ day it was well known that Caesar Augustus, who reigned during Jesus’ birth, and Emperor Tiberius, who reigned during Jesus ministry, both made claims to be the son of a god. Later in the gospel when Jesus asks for a denarius (Matthew 22:19) it likely bore an inscription stating Caesar Augustus Tiberius son of the divine Augustus. Yet, Jesus being declared Son of God by God’s voice occupies this role in a way that Caesar cannot, Caesar’s divine right may be defended by the might of the empire but for Matthew’s gospel the voice of the God of Israel’s declaration is the only one that matters.  A challenge to this vision of what God’s reign through the Beloved will look like will be encountered next in the temptation narratives of the following chapter.

Matthew also slightly modifies the language around the Spirit of God from Mark in a subtle but important way. In Mark’s gospel the Spirit of God comes down ‘into’ Jesus and the will ‘throw or cast out’ Jesus into the wilderness, but in Matthew the Spirit of God comes down and appears to Jesus and will later ‘lead’ Jesus into the wilderness. For Matthew it is important that Jesus remains in control and that the Spirit of God partners with Jesus rather than controlling or possessing Jesus (which you could argue for in Mark’s gospel).

This critical piece of the story once again points to who this Jesus is. It has been a topic introduced throughout the opening chapters and there have been multiple answers that continue to give richness to the answer Matthew wants us to hear. Yet, Matthew wants us to hear this close identification between Jesus and the God of Israel in an emphatic way that is reinforced throughout these chapters. As O. Wesley Allen can state:

What the angel declared to Joseph, what the magi understood the star to mean, what the prophetic texts confirm, and what John himself proclaimed is now summed up in God’s own voice. (Allen, 2013, p. 38)

Jesus’ identity will present a challenge to both the ruling authorities who desire to claim divine authorization for their own rule and it also reframes the Jewish expectation of the ruler who God reigns on God’s behalf. Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures stretches their imagination of how God comes to dwell with the people farther than the Psalms or the prophets would have dared, and yet it is the language of the prophets and psalms that underlies the proclamation of the evangelist. Matthew is making bold claims about who Jesus is and how he is related to God. Matthew’s carefully chosen words, along with the words of the other gospel writers, Paul and the other authors of the New Testament would give birth to the Trinitarian way in which Christians would talk about God. Yet, Matthew nor any other writer of the New Testament, would have developed the vast Trinitarian language that forms the creeds of the early Catholic and Orthodox church, that language evolved around the explanation of who Jesus is to a Greek philosophical mindset rather than the mindset immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew is far more interested in letting the disciples of Jesus know that in Jesus they are somehow meeting God with them than attempting to describe how Jesus can be fully divine and fully human, or how Jesus, God and Spirit can be one being. Matthew would probably be ambivalent to these philosophical questions but instead would want us to know how the scriptures bear witness to the hope, promise and identity of Jesus and what it means for Israel and the rest of the world.

 

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Gospel of Matthew | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Matthew 3: 1-12 The Herald of the Kingdom of Heaven

Cristofano Allori, John the Baptist in the Desert, 17th Century

Matthew 3: 1-12

Parallel Mark 1: 2-8, Luke 3: 1-17

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Some time later we arrive at the beginning of story of Jesus as an adult and to set the stage for that story we are introduced to John the Baptist who will share a common message with Jesus but a different role within that message. John will be the Elijah character who proceeds the promised messiah, but there is much more to the story than just preparing the way for the messiah’s coming. Here the story builds on what was revealed to us in the first two chapters to prepare us for the advent of the kingdom of heaven.

Place matters in the gospels and the wilderness of Judea along the Jordan river is a place that is rich in meaning. Wilderness indicates a place away from Jerusalem, Judea and all the inhabited region along the Jordan. It is unsettled and because of that it has the connotation of being a place where one may encounter danger or the divine. The wilderness is the place of baptism, of being joined to the community of the faithful and it is the place of devilish temptation where one’s identity is continually questioned. It can be a place where the voice of God may speak to the one who is listening, and it can also be a place where the demonic voices drive a person to madness. Israel had to pass through the wilderness to become the people of God, they would pass through the Red Sea on leaving Egypt and the Jordan on entering the promised land. The wilderness can also be the place where God’s creative power does new things, particularly the rich language of Isaiah is relevant here:

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43: 19, see also Isaiah 35 and Jeremiah 31: 2)

The beautiful and hopeful language of Isaiah 43 along with Isaiah 35 and Jeremiah 31 add resonance to this theme, these hopeful passages spoken to an exiled people about God making a way in the wilderness and creating a new people enrich our hearing of the hope embodied in this strange prophet in a wilderness space.

The message that John the Baptist is summarized with the exact words that Jesus will use later in the gospel (Matthew 4: 17; 10:7). Both Mark and Luke include the ministry of John the Baptist to introduce the ministry of Jesus, but Matthew links the proclamation of John the Baptist explicitly to the later proclamation the good news that Jesus will proclaim. Both will run into challenges with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herod and the other political powers, yet according to Matthew they are both sharing a common proclamation. As O. Wesley Allen Jr. state, “the difference between John and Jesus is not their message but the role they play in relation to that message.” (Allen, 2013, p. 35)

Scripture now speaks to give its direct voice to the role that John the Baptist will play in this story. Matthew instead of adopting the mashup of multiple verses used in Mark uses Isaiah 40:3 to identify John as “the voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight.’” Isaiah 40 is a message of comfort and hope to a people who have been exiled and may have felt forgotten by their God, but now Isaiah announces that God is indeed coming and that the people shall see the glory of the LORD together.

John is linked visually with Elijah by wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” As mentioned above there was an expectation that Elijah would proceed the coming of the messiah, this hope comes both from the manner that Elijah’s death is recorded in 2 Kings 2 and in Malachi (the book that immediately proceeds Matthew in the way many bibles are organized) in the final chapter we hear of a time when God will judge the unrighteous and will lift up the righteous and in this judgment and exaltation:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4: 5-6)

The God of Israel is a God who desires repentance. As the prophet Joel can remind the people, “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Joel 2: 13, see also Deuteronomy 30:2, this portion of Joel picks up the language of the thirteen attributes of God from Exodus 34: 6-7) and we hear in Malachi that the expected Elijah was to go before the advent of the Lord to turn families back to the way they were intended to embody so that they would be among the righteous and not the unrighteous ones. They would be those who were greeting the advent of the kingdom of heaven with joy instead of with lamentation.

This first herald of the advancing kingdom of heaven is not the lavishly dressed and well fed ambassador we might see attempting to negotiate a peace treaty between two nations but is instead a strangely dressed (but typologically familiar) prophet who eats the diet of the poorest in the desert (but which was ritually clean). In a kingdom where the poor in spirit are blessed and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, where the merciful and peacemakers are those who embody what this kingdom is about, the kingdoms of this world will look more like the kingdom of Egypt that the Israelites escaped from than their hoped for reign where God was their king in the promised land. This heavenly kingdom will be different than the kingdom of Judea or the empire of Rome, but that doesn’t mean that Rome and Herod Antipas wouldn’t hear this proclamation as a challenge to their own kingdoms and wouldn’t oppose it with every tool at their possession.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees arrive in the wilderness to investigate what is occurring with the movement around John the Baptist, we may be surprised by the confrontational language that John uses towards them. For most people who have been trained in reading scripture recently there has been a reappraisal of the Pharisees and Sadducees viewing both movements in a more positive light than the previous generations of scholarship. Often the Pharisees and the Sadducees became embodiments of a legalistic and rigid worldview in Christian writing and like Judaism in general most writing about these two movements was polemical in nature. Hopefully I can provide a more nuanced approach to the topic as we move through the gospel, but it is worth noting that in general both the Pharisees and the Sadducees will find themselves aligned on with the forces opposed initially to John and later to Jesus. Neither group is completely aligned with the goals of the political powers of Herod Antipas in Galilee or Pontus Pilate in Judea, but they have negotiated a way of working with these powers and maintaining their position. There is no separation of church and state in the ancient world, and any close look at the political world of the time of Jesus will quickly illuminate a connection between the religious authorities and the political.

The Pharisees and Sadducees are both movements within second temple Judaism that are connected with both local and national power, and they have struggled with each other for influence for generations, but they are still tied to the existing networks of power. I believe this alliance with the existing networks of power is behind the criticism of John the Baptist when he calls them a brood of vipers fleeing wrath and challenges them to bear fruits worthy of repentance. In John’s view their reforms are not enough, God is doing something new. This symbolically rich baptism of repentance is reconstituting Israel to begin again in a new and forgiven state. The Pharisees were a reform movement attempting to be faithful to the law by reclaiming practices of holiness and the Sadducees were focused on maintaining proper worship at the temple by the priesthood, but John stands within a long line of prophets who continually call the people of Israel to see that repentance is more than ritual or religious practice. As Anna Case-Winters can state, “If they “change their minds” it will change their lives. Where is the evidence of this? Ritual purity without righteousness counts for nothing. This message is strong in the ethical tradition of Judaism.” (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 46) [1]

Matthew wants us to hear John the Baptist in concert with Jesus and just like John using the language of the kingdom of heaven to introduce what his proclamation is about we will also hear almost identical words come from Jesus’ mouth towards the Pharisees about being a brood of vipers and bearing fruit worthy of repentance.

Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12: 33-37)

Jesus, in Matthew, can be both gracious and direct. He will embody both the prophetic hope and the prophetic critique. John foreshadows this by letting us know that Christ’s coming and the advent of the kingdom of heaven will not be a painless process for everyone. Forgiveness often means that something must die, repentance means that one must turn one’s back on something to turn towards that which you are returning to and grace while it is given freely may indeed cost the recipient much in terms of their relationship with family and the existing power structures of the world. The coming of Jesus means that some trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire so that those with good fruit have the space to flourish providing their fruit in each season for the healing of the nations.

Even though Matthew begins his telling of Jesus’ story with a genealogy he lets us know early that genealogy is not enough. Here in John’s accusation taps again into language from the prophet Isaiah:

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. (Isaiah 53: 1-2)

In Isaiah’s time he is speaking to an Israel that has already drained the cup of the Lord’s wrath (Is. 53:17) but now John is speaking to a people who are being offered a cup at the banquet of the Lord, but like those who will later refuse their place at the wedding banquet (see Matthew 22: 1-14) they will find themselves receiving the king’s judgment because they refused the invitation to turn away from the things that concerned them, their own negotiated settlements with the powers of the day and instead would mistreat and abuse the messengers of the banquet.

J.Ross Wagner in 2000 published a work called Heralds of the Good News: Paul and Isaiah in Concert in the Letter of Romans and if you haven’t guessed by the string of quotations from Isaiah referenced in these initial chapters I believe that Matthew as a herald of the kingdom is placing John the Baptist and later Jesus’ ministry in a key that would be in harmony with the prophetic hope and challenge of Isaiah in particular and other prophets as well. For years Christians have mined the prophet Isaiah for prooftexts that, cut off from their context, could be used as predictors for Jesus’ life and ministry but what if, instead, we actually allowed Isaiah’s words and hope to provide language and richness to the experience of Jesus narrated by Matthew. As I have argued from the beginning of these reflections, Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ story is a uniquely Hebrew way of reading the story of Jesus and as we immerse ourselves in Matthew’s gospel we should expect to be swimming in waters deeply infused with the words of the law, the prophets, the narrative and the poetry of the Hebrew people. Yet one of the major rivers flowing into the deep sea of Matthew’s gospel is the prophet Isaiah with his vision of hope and reinterpretation of what Israel’s identity is to be.

We are introduced here with the actions of John the Baptist baptizing those coming into wilderness a key piece of what Matthew will continue to reinforce: the identity of the chosen people. In a context where the people of Jerusalem and all Judea is now attached to the Roman empire and its emissaries (including the religious authorities in Jerusalem) John is making a prophetic break from the temple and its leaders. What will define the reconstituted Israel will be the God of Israel rather than the newly rebuilt temple but instead an orientation towards the approaching kingdom of heaven. They stand at the Jordan river awaiting a new Joshua to bring them into the kingdom that their Lord has promised them. And to use one final image from the prophet Isaiah they are reminded:

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear for I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you, Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43: 1-7

Yet John the Baptist is merely a herald of the good news, but the gospel (and the play on words here is that gospel and good news are the same Greek work euangellion) is not merely about the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven but its advent. One greater than John is coming, John can stand in the waters of the Jordan and reorient the people of God, but he cannot bring in the kingdom. Ultimately, for Matthew, he wants us to see that God will be with the people calling them by name, passing through the waters with them and gathering them from the ends of the earth. John sees God’s harvest approaching where the faithful will be gathered together and not consumed by the flames that are to come.

I’ve hinted that this will be a gracious reading of Matthew’s gospel and if John the Baptist and Jesus both can advocate this type of division between chaff and wheat some might ask from our context where the grace can be in the judgment. Working through Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms,  Jeremiah and Revelation you have to come to terms with the judgment of God against those forces either within or beyond the boundaries of the community which have set their will against their creator: Egypt, the people of Israel and Judah, Babylon and Rome all come under God’s judgment for the sake of the life and witness of God’s people and the prosperity of the world. Yet, God’s judgment is always preceded with an opportunity for repentance, with a chance for those who will be sorted to return to the Lord who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is not content to allows things to remain the way things are, to allow the ways of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or Rome to be the truth. As Miroslav Volf can state insightfully, “In Pilate’s world, truth and justice were fruits of Caesar’s sword. In Jesus’ kingdom, truth and justice are alternatives to Caesar’s sword.” (Volf, 1996, p. 275) John in heralding the advent of the kingdom of heaven is offering the people to turn to an alternative to Rome or Herod Antipas’ reign, the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the empire of Rome. A God who changes the world without judgment is, in Volf’s words, a pleasant captivity of the liberal mind[2]. (Volf, 1996, p. 304)

The challenge of John to the religious authorities of his day should also give pause to those with ears to hear when they are tempted to closely align with the political powers of their own day. As one of my readings outside of the work I’ve done on Matthew I’ve been going through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings in the critical years of 1932-33 where the National Socialist Party rose to power and successfully asserted influence on the state churches (Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed) in Germany and effectively coopted the majority of practicing Christians into the rise of the policies that would unfold while the Nazis remained in power until the end of World War II and the destruction of much of Germany. Even though in the United States there is a separation between church and state there is still a great lure to being closely situated to those in political power. Like the people of Israel being reconstituted here in the wilderness of the Jordan, there are times where we will need to return to our own baptism and be reminded that our trust is in the Lord our God who created us and who passed through the waters with us and that we as people of God are called to an alternative to the empires of this world.

[1] See for example Isaiah 29: 13 or Amos 5: 21-24 as two examples of times where God speaks to a people who may be worshipping correctly and yet are not living reformed lives, I also believe that this is behind much of the critique of the prophet Jeremiah during the reforms in reign of Josiah: the people may be worshipping correctly but their lives are still oriented around a way of life that does not reflect the values God desired for Judah (and Israel as a whole).

[2] The liberal mind has little to do with liberal verses conservative politics and instead references the liberalism that arose with the age of Enlightenment upon which both conservative and liberal political groups find their reference. Key to this disenchanted view of the world is a God who is no longer active in the secular sphere but is concerned only with the spiritual realities. This is a very different God than we encounter in the Bible.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Gospel of Matthew | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Matthew 2: 13-23 Hearing Hope in Tragedy

Jean-Marie Pirot (aka Arcabas) The angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph in a Dream

Matthew 2: 13-23

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

This is a scripture shaped story. In ten short verses Matthew will reference two of the major events in the story of Israel and Judah: the Exodus narrative where God takes Israel out of its slavery in Egypt and the Babylonian exile, already highlighted by one of the major breaks in the genealogy in Matthew 1: 1-17. Matthew will adopt a practice used frequently throughout the bible using the language and imagery from one event and recasting it to bring additional light on the meaning of a current event. Matthew is not looking for prooftexts to prove a point but instead is using this recasting to shed additional light on a densely packaged story which is full of meaning.

Joseph, as in Matthew 1: 21-22, is once again approached in a dream by the angel of the Lord and twice in these ten verses the angel’s message in a dream will set Joseph, Mary and Jesus in motion on a path that will model the story of Israel in Genesis through Joshua. Joseph, like his namesake, will go down to Egypt but unlike the Joseph in the book of Genesis he is not going as one going into slavery but instead as a refugee fleeing the murderous policies of a paranoid king. Jesus has been linked to God, David, and here again he is linked to Israel and their story.

Scripture is again given a voice to interpret what is happening in this narrative when Hosea 11:1 is quoted: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea 11 taps into the central defining event for the Jewish people, the Exodus, and uses that event to engage the struggle of the people of Israel in the time before they are conquered by Assyria (722 BCE). In Hosea, God refuses to give up on this people even though they have abandoned God’s ways. Within this chapter in Hosea God proclaims that he will call them back from Assyria and Egypt and they will return to their homes. More than simply the remnant of Judah, in this story somehow all of Israel now has an opportunity to return. Egypt is also one of the major sites for diaspora Judaism and as Jesus, embodying Israel, goes to Egypt we also tap into Hosea’s hope that, “They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.” (Hosea 11: 11)

In addition to tapping into the larger context of Hosea, the quotation of Hosea brings us into the larger narrative of the Exodus and this story will recast the Exodus narrative in some powerful ways. Within this echo of Exodus we see the king of Judea, Herod the Great, acting in the role of Pharaoh by ordering the death of infants who he fears will challenge his power. With Herod now being cast as Pharoah, Jesus now occupies the role of Moses who is saved from the murderous policies of a tyrant, and yet ironically this new Moses is saved by going to Egypt. The rhetorical effect of this is similar to the way the Civil Rights movement was able to use the way the United States adopted the Exodus narrative as their own in being the new Israel and instead prophetically cast the leaders who opposed the Civil Rights movement as embodying Egypt instead.

Francois-Joseph Naves, The Massacre of the Innocents (1824)

Knowing some of Herod the Great’s story may make the actions attributed to Herod in Matthew’s gospel understandable in his worldview and yet this story seems shocking to our modern ears. While the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is not recorded in any sources external to Matthew, I do believe it is consistent with not only Herod but also the violent nature of the ancient world. Bethlehem was a small town and the number of children killed would have been smaller than an event like Columbine or Sandy Hook in our times, yet for the people of Bethlehem (and Columbine and Sandy Hook and others) these children would become one more example of the terror that violence can bring into families and communities without notice. As humans we attempt to make sense of these stories of violence and Matthew attempts to do this by linking this prophetically to the reign of terror in Egypt. Herod in this story is not a ‘King of the Jews’ but is instead a new Pharaoh whose policies bring death to those he is to shepherd.

I think we also need to remember that the world at the time of Jesus was a violent place and that there were no news reporters to carry the violence to the broader world. In recent times we saw ISIS beheading people as a terrorist act and are rightly horrified, but I think it is worth remembering that in Jesus’ time beheading was a noble way to die, especially in light of crucifixion and other practices. The ancient world was a violent world and the death of innocents rarely makes it into recorded history. Yet, within the gospels we do see a willingness to embrace the prophetic voice that was willing to challenge those in power and in many ways by his very being Jesus becomes a challenge to the Herods of the world.

Scripture speaks for a second time in this section by quoting Jeremiah 31: 15, and with this quotation the additional frame of the Babylonian exile is introduced into the narrative. Rachel crying for her children would be particularly poignant for Bethlehem because it is the site where Rachel is buried according to Genesis 35: 19-20:

So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb which is there to this day.

Now this matriarch of the Jewish people which cried out at the at the loss of her children during the deportation to Babylon mourns with the mothers who have lost their children as a result of the actions of Herod. Now Herod who attempts to build his credentials as the King of Judea by building the temple is also framed as Nebuchadnezzar who is the destroyer of Jerusalem and the temple. Yet, within this particular choice in Jeremiah is the broader context of hope coming out of the destruction, Rachel’s weeping proceeds a prophesy of the end of the exile. As the next two verses of Jeremiah can state:

Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD: they shall come back from the land of the enemy;  there is hope for your future, says the LORD: your children shall come back to their own country. Jeremiah 31: 16-17

The allusions and quotations of scripture in this chapter point to something larger that Matthew wants to communicate about who Jesus is and how he embodies Israel’s story. Matthew’s carefully constructed gospel wants us to understand through tapping into key portions of Israel’s story a bigger picture of who Jesus is and what he will mean for Israel and by extension for the rest of the world. As Richard B. Hays can describe Matthew as an interpreter of scripture:

Matthew is not merely looking for random Old Testament prooftexts that Jesus might somehow fulfill (as is sometimes suggested); rather, he is thinking about the specific shape of Israel’s story and linking Jesus’ life with key passages that promise God’s unbreakable redemptive love for his people. That is why Matthew’s comments on Herod’s slaughter of the children by selecting a citation from the same chapter in Jeremiah that also promises “a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” (Jer 31:31) (Hays, 2016, p. 116)

O. Wesley Allen highlighted that Matthew modifies his normal word pattern when introducing a direct quotation from scripture. Normally Matthew will say that something happens ‘so that’ (Greek hina) but instead Matthew simply says “then (Greek tote) was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah.” For those who are familiar with the recurring pattern in scriptures it shouldn’t be surprising that God’s action to set people free is met by violence by those invested in the current order. Yet, even though this violence may be a response to God’s initiative that does not make it God’s will. The slaughter of the innocents may be in Matthew’s view a fulfillment of scripture but unlike the other places where scripture is quoted it doesn’t link this to divine causality. (Allen, 2013, p. 32)

Herod the Great’s death makes the return of Jesus and his family to Israel possible. Herod’s death doesn’t remove his family from the scene and Herod Archelaus (simply called Archelaus here) is reigning in Judea. We aren’t given any clues why Herod Archelaus would be perceived as a threat and his brother Herod Antipas (ruling in Galilee) was not, perhaps it was merely a return to Bethlehem that would have caused questions by those in power. Joseph continues to be guided by the angel of the Lord appearing to him in dreams and this places the family in Nazareth for the beginning of the Jesus’ adult story. Perhaps to answer the perception we see in the gospel of John voiced by Nathanael, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1: 46) Matthew includes this what final attribution to the prophets that Jesus will be called a Nazorean. Matthew is referencing the tradition of Nazorites who were set aside for the Lord as holy (see Numbers 6, both Samson and Samuel were Nazorites).

Even though Matthew will reference multiple pieces of scripture and allude to two major stories of the Jewish people to frame this passage he is also communicating that in Jesus, God is doing a new thing. The original texts will have their meaning broadened and expanded upon. As Anna Case-Winters can state,

For Matthew, new meaning break forth from these texts as God is doing a new thing. Matthew reimagines these texts, if you will, to make a theological claim that God is at work in all these happenings and is bringing to fulfilment what was promised of old. (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 32)

Even though the Herods of the world may seem to be the ones who wield power in these texts, Matthew wants us to understand that God is at work in ways that may seem hidden, but which to a person familiar with the rhythms of scripture are familiar. God is speaking both through scripture, the angel of the Lord, through dreams and the stars in the heavens for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. The king of the Judeans may be acting as Pharaoh, but God has heard the cries of God’s people and even in this time to use Martin Luther’s words in a Mighty Fortress “this tyrant’s doomed to fail: God’s judgment must prevail! One little word shall triumph” (A Might Fortress is our God, verse 3 Fredrick H. Hedge translation)

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Gospel of Matthew | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Matthew 2: 1-12 Magi, the Creation and Scriptures Point to Jesus

James Tissot, The Magi Journeying (Between 1886 and 1894)

Matthew 2:1-12

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I am a person who loves to read fantasy novels and to play games set within worlds filled with magic and yet I know that for most of the history of both Christianity and Judaism people who were looked upon as magic users were viewed as dangers to the faithful, at a minimum, and sometimes enemies of the faith aligned with demonic powers. It may be tempting to mock conservative Christians who forbid their children to read the Harry Potter novels, for example, but to understand the scandal of the story of the wise men we need to begin with the beliefs of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus about those who used things like astrology as a tool to understand their world. The advisors to Pharaoh who attempted to replicate the signs and wonders God did through Moses, Balaam who was called upon to curse Israel in Numbers 22-24 and the medium that Saul employs to talk to Samuel are all viewed as cautionary tales that warn against putting one’s trust in those who employ the magical arts. Numerous places in the law prohibit various types of magical practices, for example:

9 When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10 No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God. 14 Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the LORD your God does not permit you to do so. (Deuteronomy 18: 9-14, see also Exodus 22: 18 and Leviticus 20:27)

Contrary to our world where we assume magic belongs to the realm of fantasy, a part of the disenchanted worldview that we live in; in the ancient world magic was viewed as a real and dangerous thing. For the Jewish people it was viewed as a temptation which often lured people away from their faith in the God of Israel (and given the number of kings of Israel which would embrace the very practices that Deuteronomy prohibited they must have been a persuasive alternative). Even within the New Testament we hear the story of Simon the Magician in Acts 8 who views the gift of the Holy Spirit in terms of magical power and is condemned by Peter and John and responds by asking for their prayers. Simon, we learn, believed and was baptized and seems to have given up his former magical practices seeing the evidence of the Spirit’s power in the apostles. Likewise, in Acts 19 several former practitioners of magic burn their magical texts as a part of their acceptance of the faith of Christ. Yet, these wise men would not have been looked upon by most Jewish people as simply foreigners, but they would be both foreigners and people whose practices would be viewed, in Deuteronomy’s language, as abhorrent.

The magi were likely Zoroastrians from the Parthian Empire (also known as Persia, modern day Iran) who were known for their practices of discerning events from the stars. The description of the wise men as being from the East also lends support to the idea that these magi were coming from Parthia. Parthia also represented, for the people of the Roman empire, the external threat—they were people from beyond the boundaries of the empire and that in the century before Christ’s birth had harassed and humiliated the Romans and even briefly driven Herod the Great into hiding at Masada (until Rome would regain control of the region).  The star was seen beyond the beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire and those who came searching to pay tribute to the King of the Jews may have also been potential collaborators with a foreign empire. The magi were not kings themselves, but they were practitioners of a strange religion from a hostile empire. Yet, in line with the scriptures, the God of Israel frequently uses foreigners and even the movement of empires to be a part of God’s working in the world.

Another theme that will occur in Matthew is the way that creation itself reacts to the presence of Jesus. Even though the Jewish people may not have been looking to the heavens for a sign in the stars to let them know that the long-awaited Messiah has come, the creation shows signs that those who know how to see can observe. Many solutions for the start that the magi follow have been proposed, an interesting one is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn three times in 7 BCE. Jupiter was known as the “royal” planet and Saturn was thought to represent the Jews, (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 27) but ultimately we will likely never prove exactly what the magi observed. Yet, for those able to see, the creation provides multiple witnesses to who Jesus is and this will be highlighted in the crucifixion scene where Matthew includes not only darkness but also an earthquake which opens the tombs and the resurrection of many who are dead. For Matthew the presence of Jesus, the Emmanuel (God with us), provokes a reaction from the earth and stars as they respond to the presence of their creator.

When I was growing up, I imagined this scene as literally following a star that was in motion like a comet, but likely the magi observed the signs in the heavens and moved to where they anticipated the observed phenomenon occurring. This may be the reason they end up in Jerusalem, in looking for the one born King of the Jews it is only natural to look at the center of power, both religious and spiritual, of the Jewish people. Bethlehem, while it was the birthplace of David, was a seemingly inconsequential place compared to Jerusalem with the temple and with King Herod’s palace. The magi come to the center of power looking for a king who is to be born and probably assume that the king is affiliated with he current king reigning in Jerusalem.

Herod the Great, the ruler of Judea was a shrewd political leader who could be merciless even on his own family. Herod was now Jewish, he was born in Idumea which is south of Judea, but he was raised religiously as Jewish by his father. Herod would reign as the King of Judea for roughly thirty-six years, dying in 4 BCE (shortly after the events narrated in these chapters) and his domain would be divided between his remaining sons. Even though Herod was granted the title ‘King of Judea’ by the Roman Senate his reign was dependent upon the favor of those in power in Rome, his ability to maintain the flow of tax revenue from his region and his ability to navigate the numerous internal threats to his reign. From a modern perspective we may view Herod as paranoid and power hungry, but the world he lived in was much more ruthless than our own and those who held power. Herod’s reaction is foreshadowed by the words that ‘Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;”

The chief priests and scribes of the people are called upon to unravel the mystery of this child whose birth is written in the heavens and who these magi come seeking. In Matthew’s gospel the ability to read what is going on in the heavens only takes the magi so far, to complete their journey they need the gift of what is written in scripture. The chief priests and the scribes, who along with the ruling authorities like the Herods and the Romans will find themselves frequently at odds with Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, are now called upon to interpret the voice of scriptures. The chief priests and the scribes can, from the scriptures, pull the correct answer. The words in Matthew are closest to Micah 5:2

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

As Stanley Hauerwas can remark Herod, the chief priest and the scribes may ultimately oppose Jesus, but they have a role play in the narrative of the life of Jesus. As he states, “without Herod the wise men might not have found the one they sought. The enemies of the kingdom often serve the movement begun in Jesus.” (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 40)

Throughout the gospel Matthew will use scripture to begin to illuminate who Jesus is and what he means. Just as in the genealogy we are linked back to the line of David and the promise of a new David that would lead the people. In the two explicit references to scripture at this point we have heard that Jesus is ‘’God with us” and “the ruler who is to shepherd Israel” (a role that in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel is claimed by God in opposition to the current shepherds). The scriptural claim about a new ruler from an ancient line who is to shepherd the people of Israel also undercuts Herod’s tenuous claim as king of the Judeans due to his political alliance with Rome and his political maneuverings in Judea.

Herod meets with the magi in secret, again this points out the scandal of the magi in a Jewish worldview. King Herod, ever attentive to threats to his power, passes on the information the magi need to complete their search by giving them the location where the scriptures reveal the child is to be born, Bethlehem. With this final piece of information, the search is completed, the heavens align, and these Gentiles can find the new king of the Jews that the chief priests, the scribes, and even King Herod had not. God uses foreigners who are not in possession of the law to be a part of the revelation of God’s story. Just like the genealogy with Gentiles are singled out as a critical part of the story of God’s chosen people and Matthew foreshadows that this gospel, although a Jewish gospel, will be open in the most expansive prophetic hope to the Gentiles who will come to be a part of what God is doing in Israel.

The magi bring their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. There are three gifts, but there are not necessarily three magi. Later tradition would attribute the names Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar with the magi of this story, but in Matthew they are unnumbered and unnamed. Unlike the song “We Three Kings of Orient Are” they were probably not kings and probably not three. Yet, these Gentile magi come from outside the empire and outside the Jewish faith based on how they see the stars move to pay tribute to this one born as a king.

Within the gospel there is an openness to the faith of the outsider and some of the greatest witnesses of faith will be non-Jewish in Matthew’s gospel. These magi are outsiders and yet they too show great faithfulness in coming in search of Jesus, bringing their gifts and paying him homage. They also, like Joseph, will be attentive to the way God will speak to them in dreams and in obedience to the vision they have in the night they leave the country without returning to Herod to report on Jesus and his family.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Gospel of Matthew | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Brief Introduction to Herod the Great

Herod the Great

The World Around Judea in the Time Before Herod

After the Maccabean Revolt in 167-160 BCE the Judean people had a time of independence and were ruled by Hasmonean kings who were descendants of the Maccabees who are credited with, in tradition, of leading the revolt that would grant them independence from the collapsing Seleucid Empire (the northern half of the former Greek empire).

The Macedonian Empire and the Kingodm of the Diadochi in 301 BC and 200 BC Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911 courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin, Seleucid Empire shown in yellow on map

The Hasmoneans ruled Judea autonomously from 140-63 BCE when Pompey conquered Judea. The Hasmoneans retained their titles once Rome established Judea as a client state, but they no longer had the autonomy they once did. The Hasmoneans continued to vie for power, and it was during the power struggle between two brothers (Hyrcanus and Aristobolos) that Antipater (Herod the Great’s father) was able to attain the position of Chief minister of Judea with the responsibility of collecting taxes for Rome.

The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE brought instability throughout the Roman empire and while Marc Anthony and Octavian battled for dominance and the Parthian empire pushed against the divided Roman forces. Antipater would be assassinated by a rival, Malchus, in 43 BCE but Herod and his brothers, Antipater’s son would avenge their father’s death.

Herod the King of Judea

In either 40 or 39 BCE Herod is appointed King of Judea by the Imperial Senate at Anthony’s request. Because of the ongoing civil war between Anthony and Octavian and the continued Parthian incursions Herod was left with autonomy to deal with both civil unrest, particularly in Galilee, as well as internal threats from his own family.

There are times where Herod’s reign sounds like something out of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, where the intrigue between family members is often lethal. The Hasmoneans still had influence in both the political and religious spheres when Herod assumed power and Herod has married Mariamne I, the daughter of the Hasmoneans Alexander and Alexandra. To attempt to regain some of their lost power Herod’s mother-in-law, Alexandra, appealed to Cleopatra, now married to Marc Anthony, to help place her son, Aristobolus III, as high priest for Jerusalem.  While Herod did grant Aristobolus III the office of high priest he ensured that both Alexandra and Aristobolus III were kept under tight surveillance. In 36 BCE Herod would have Aristobolus III killed. In 29 BCE he would have his wife Mariamne I executed for adultery, and his mother-in-law Alexandra is executed after she declares Herod unfit to rule and attempts to assume the crown for herself. In 28 BCE he executes his brother-in-law Kostobar for conspiracy. In 27 BCE an assassination attempt on Herod’s life was foiled. Towards the end of his reign his sons became the threats to his power with his two sons from Mariamne I executed in 7 BCE, and his first born son, Antipater, who had been his heir was executed in 4 BCE while Herod was dying a painful death to an unknown illness.

In addition to navigating the internal threats Herod also had to navigate the tricky relationship with Rome during an unsettled time. In the civil war between Anthony and Octavian Herod had sided with Marc Anthony. When Octavian (who later assumed the title Augustus) defeated Marc Anthony’s forces in 31 BCE Herod had to demonstrate that he could be a loyal client king of the new Roman emperor. Herod was able to make the argument that his continued reign in Judea would help retain Rome’s access to the resources of both Egypt and Syria. Herod’s efficient administration of Judea, in Roman eyes, and his ability to keep local revolutionaries contained meant that Rome granted Herod a large amount of authority in relation to the people of Judea.

Herod rule would be viewed as despotic in modern terms and it is impossible to judge the reaction of the average person in Judea to his reign. Herod did use secret police to monitor and report on the population and that he had a large personal guard which was composed of both Jewish and mercenary forces. Herod’s building projects, including the rebuilding of the temple, harbors, fortresses and several cities for non-Jewish portions of the population in Judea placed a great tax burden on the people in addition to the taxes that Herod would send to Rome and to other dominions.

Herod, because of his Idumean background and in contrast to the Hasmoneans who came before him, had to maintain his identity as a monarch of the Jewish people. Yet, he also continually had to play the role of a client king of the Roman empire. Herod, even though he was brought up Jewish, sometimes displayed a poor judgment of Jewish sensitivities (or perhaps at times didn’t care). Herod’s most famous blunder was erecting a golden eagle at the gate of the temple which many Jewish religious leaders felt was idolatrous. Herod managed to stay in power for roughly thirty-six years facing both internal and external threats and was probably both efficient and ruthless. Herod did not tolerate threats to his continued reign and as the Roman writer Macrobius (c. 400 CE) would report that Emperor Augustus, on hearing that Herod has ordered the death of his own sons, said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son” Herod, attempting to maintain a Jewish identity, would never slaughter a pig to eat, but Herod did put to death several of his sons and other relations.

Josephus in his two major works the Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities gives several details of Herod the Great’s reign roughly seventy years after his death. There is a lot of scholarly work on Herod the Great and his role in both Jewish and Christian narratives. His life can be confusing to attempt to follow because it occurs at the intersection of many large historical events. After Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE his reign is divided among four of his remaining sons, the map below shows the reach of Herod the Great’s reign.

The Herodian Tetrarchy as establish by Augustus in 4 BCE until 6 CE when Herod Archelaus is ousted and Judea is annexed by Rome shared under creative commons attribution-share alike 4.0

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Gospel of Matthew, Historical Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Matthew 1: 18-24 The Birth of Jesus

Jean-Marie Pirot (aka Arcabas) The angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph in a Dream

Matthew 1: 18-24

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

 which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 Matthew’s birth narrative is extremely short and yet, in its efficiency, it links us into the story of God’s people and introduces us to a pattern for what the life of the people of God will look like in this new age. Most Christians know the two highpoints of the church year are Christmas and Holy Week which form the bookends of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The ancient creeds of the church (the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed) spend almost all their words about Jesus focused on the birth, death and resurrection. Matthew simply tells us, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” And then in seven short, but packed verses, takes us from the announcement of Jesus’ impending birth to the birth and naming of this child from the Holy Spirit.

In contrast to the Lukan birth narratives which primarily focus in on Mary and her relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary is in the background of Matthew’s narrative. Mary is found to be with child, Matthew informs us that it is from the Holy Spirit, but Joseph initially is placed in the position of having to decide about his betrothed who is suddenly pregnant. Marriages were negotiated between families and during this time men typically were significantly older than women when they married so they could establish a household. The natural assumption by Joseph is that Mary has had intimate relations with another man during this time of betrothal. The legal penalty for her in the law is outlined in Deuteronomy 22: 24-27

23 If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, 24 you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
 25 But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 You shall do nothing to the young woman; the young woman has not committed an offense punishable by death, because this case is like that of someone who attacks and murders a neighbor. 27 Since he found her in the open country, the engaged woman may have cried for help, but there was no one to rescue her.

The practice of stoning was probably no longer used for adultery in the time of Mary and Joseph, but Mary’s public humiliation by Joseph could place her in a vulnerable state and labeled as a sinner and an outcast from the community that she knew. Joseph is called a righteous man, and in the character of Joseph we are exposed for to what righteousness will look like for Matthew’s gospel. Instead of righteousness being a strict adherence to the letter of the law it will be a far more gracious understanding of righteousness. Joseph’s resolution to quietly end the engagement and not expose Mary to public shaming is viewed as a model for the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. Joseph must resolve how he will interpret the commands of the law in his life and he becomes one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness and will be filled, who shows mercy and will have mercy shown to him as Jesus will later say in the Beatitudes.

Joseph’s namesake in the Hebrew Scriptures is a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, so it is fitting that Jesus’ father receives his revelations in dreams. The angel of the Lord, the mouthpiece of God in much of the Hebrew Scriptures, appears to Joseph in his dreams and reveals the origin of Mary’s child and tells Joseph to take her as his wife. The only speaker in this narrative is the angel of the Lord, Joseph acts in obedience to the angel’s words in his dream but we never hear him utter a word in the gospel. Two additional times Joseph will receive guidance from the angel of God in a dream and all three times Joseph will obediently follow the instructions of the dreams. Joseph will take Mary as his wife, Mary will bear their son, Joseph will name him, and both the angel and scripture will speak about this child to be born.

The name Jesus, or Iesous in Greek, is the adaptation of the name rendered Joshua in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name means ‘God saves’ and like the original Joshua who brought the people of Israel into the promised land, Jesus will be responsible for bringing about the kingdom of heaven. The act of Joseph naming Jesus also means that Joseph acknowledges the child as his own responsibility and a part of his own household.  But beyond the name of Jesus, we also are told by the angel what his role will be: “He will save his people from their sins.”

The role of Jesus, to save the people from their sins, has received multiple interpretations in recent scholarship. Most people have traditionally linked this to the forgiveness of sins that a person would receive in confession and that Jesus’ ministry is primarily concerned with wiping away the individual transgressions they have made. Yet, I think that Matthew is connecting this vocation with the story of the people of Israel. As Richard B. Hays can state:

Here we see an example of the hermeneutical significance of the genealogy: it compels the reader to understand the “sins” from which God’s people are saved are not merely the petty individual transgressions of a scrupulous legal code but rather the national sins of injustice and idolatry that finally led to the collapse of the Davidic monarchy and the Babylonian captivity. The Messiah, in Matthew’s narrative world, is precisely the one who saves his people from the consequences of their sins by closing the chapter of powerlessness and deprivation that began with the “deportation to Babylon.” The opening chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is strongly consonant with interpretations of Jesus’ work as bringing about an end of Israel’s exile. (Hays, 2016, p. 111)

Just as the first Joshua would close the chapter of the people’s wandering in the wilderness after their liberation from Egypt and initiate their dwelling in the promised land, so Jesus closes the chapter of powerlessness and deprivation that occurred in the exile. Something new is happening in Jesus’ birth.

The other voice that speaks, in addition to the angel of the Lord, is the voice of scripture and here the quotation comes from Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Matthew quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, where the Hebrew ‘almah is rendered parthenos in Greek. Unfortunately, any translation into another language locks in certain meanings and while ‘almah is a broader term that includes young women of marriageable age and one gloss of the meaning could be a virgin, in the Greek the term parthenos means virgin. This caused quite a stir in the history of bible translations and is one of the reasons there was a break between RSV (now NRSV) and NIV (and later TNIV) translations. When the RSV translated Isaiah 7:14 as ‘young woman’ many conservative Christian traditions demanded a translation that was harmonious and the NIV translation was formed to address this need.

Aside from the disagreement over a word requiring a new translation is the broader question about how Matthew interprets scripture and how we are to interpret scripture. The language of scripture has been the language of faith and Matthew more than any other gospel will introduce short passages of scripture that prefigure what he and other followers of Christ have experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. This is one of ten times that Matthew will introduce a quotation with, “this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”

In the original context of Isaiah 7, King Ahaz of Judah is fearful on an attack by King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel who have formed an alliance against Judah. The Lord speaks to Ahaz through Isaiah to reassure him and gives him permission to ask for a sign that the words of the Lord will come to pass. When Ahaz refuses to put the Lord to the test, the sign he is given is that a young woman will become pregnant, name her child Immanuel (God with us) and before the child is old enough to choose right from wrong Israel and Aram will no longer be a threat. Matthew applies this verse to his own time, and this is not an unusual practice in scripture-the texts seem to have a certain elasticity in how they were used throughout the bible-and hears in this verse not only a prefiguring of Jesus’ birth by Mary by the Holy Spirit but also a critical idea of who Jesus is, Emmanuel, an idea so important he needs to emphasize it by translating it, ‘God is with us.’

While Mark’s gospel throughout its narrative will allude to the mysterious way that in Jesus, somehow, we are experiencing the presence of God, Matthew will, from the very beginning of the gospel, emphasize that Jesus linkage to several title associated with God throughout the scriptures. The idea that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, forms a bookend of the gospel of Matthew. In this first chapter we hear Jesus given this title in a quotation from Isaiah and in the final chapter the resurrected Christ will remind his disciples that,” I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Somehow Jesus will embody God’s presence among the disciples and in taking the language of the scriptures and the presence of the angel of the Lord we are quickly introduced to who this child will be.

Joseph never speaks, but he does obey. Joseph dreams and acts upon those dreams. He will embody a righteousness that is both obedient and merciful. Joseph takes Mary as his wife but waits to consummate the marriage until the birth of Jesus. Joseph gives Jesus the name he receives from the angel of the Lord in the dream, but unlike Luke we don’t hear any stories of shepherd and angels from the night of his birth, instead Matthew has set the scene with the announcement and scripture of who this child is and we end this chapter waiting to see how the world will receive him.

Posted in Biblical Reflections, Gospel of Matthew | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments