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.
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)