December 30: Matthew 2:15

In the previous note, we explored the development of early Christian thought regarding Jesus—how an awareness of his identity as the Son of God was extended back to his birth as a human being, covering the entire period of his earthly life. Paul alludes to Jesus’ birth several times in his letters (Galatians 4:4 and Rom 1:3-4, cf. also Rom 8:3), but otherwise there is almost no mention of it elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Rev 12:2-5), with the notable exception of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In their written form, these narratives are considerably later, it would seem, than the Pauline references, and they also show indication of being the product of a period of development—that is, the historical traditions surrounding Jesus’ birth were developed and shaped over a number of years.

The Matthean and Lukan narratives are quite different, and yet they clearly share a common historical tradition, with at least three main components: (1) the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, (2) a supernatural (virginal) conception involving the Holy Spirit, and (3) an Angelic announcement of the coming birth to the parents (Joseph/Mary). Otherwise, however, the specific historical and literary details are thoroughly different; indeed, most of the information and detail in Matthew is not found in Luke at all (or is divergent), and vice versa.

One thing the two narratives share relates to the way that the early Christian view of Jesus has been encapsulated and expressed within the context of his birth. This includes three key elements involving Jesus’ identity and (divine) origin—viz., his identity as: (1) the Anointed One (Messiah), according to the Davidic Ruler figure-type; (2) the Savior, i.e. one who will save his people; and (3) the Son of God. The first two are primary (and most prominent) in the Infancy narratives:

Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is less clearly expressed, being found in just two locations, one in each Gospel: (a) the citation of Hosea 11:1 in Matt 2:15, and (b) the Angelic declaration to Mary in Luke 1:32, 35. Let us consider each of these briefly; today’s note will focus on the first (Matt 2:15).

Matthew 2:15

(This section largely reproduces an earlier Christmas-season article; cf. also the discussion in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.)

The citation of Hos 11:1b punctuates the flight into Egypt (vv. 14-15a), following the angelic appearance in a dream to Joseph, warning him (v. 13). The citation-formula follows in verse 15b:

“…(so) that it might be (ful)filled, the (thing) uttered by (the) Lord through the Foreteller [i.e. Prophet], saying ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son'”

The Gospel writer cites Hos 11:1b in a form closer to the Aquila version rather than the Septuagint (LXX), and is generally an accurate rendering of the Hebrew:

Hos 11:1b

yn]b=l! yt!ar*q* <y]r^x=M!m!W
“and from Egypt I called ‘My Son'”

Matt 2:15b

e)c Ai)gu/ptou e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou
“out of Egypt I called my Son”

The Hebrew verb ar*q*, like the Greek kale/w, can mean “call” either in the sense of summoning a person or giving a name to someone; it is possible that both meanings of arq are played on in Hosea 11:1, as I indicate above with the use of quote marks.

In considering the expression “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=), as well as the plural “Sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=), in the New Testament, early Christians appear to have drawn upon the three primary ways it is used in the Old Testament and ancient tradition:

    1. Of divine/heavenly beings, especially in the plural (“Sons of God”)
    2. Of the king as God’s “son” in a symbolic or ritual sense
    3. Of the people of Israel (collectively) as God’s “son”

The focus here is on the third of these—Israel as the “son of God”. There are several passages in the Old Testament where Israel is referred to (collectively) as God’s son, most notably in Exod 4:22, but see also Isa 1:2f; 30:1, 9; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6, and here in Hos 11:1. Admittedly the title “son of God” does not appear in the Hebrew Old Testament in such a context, but the Greek ui(o\$ qeou= is used of Israel in the deutero-canonical Book of Wisdom (Wis 18:13, for more on this passage cf. below). Interestingly, the Prophetic references above draw upon a basic thematic construct:

    • Israel as a disobedient son
      • Disobedience brings punishment (i.e. exile)
        • God ultimately will restore his son, bringing him (repentant/obedient) back out of exile

This is very much the context of Hos 11. A number of the oracles in Hosea are messages of judgment couched in brief and evocative summaries of Israelite history, such as we see in chapter 11:

    • Israel/Ephraim as a disobedient child (vv. 1-4), with disobedience understood primarily in terms of idolatry, involving elements of pagan Canaanite religion
    • Disobedience leads to punishment (vv. 5-7), understood as a return to “Egypt”, i.e. conquest and exile into Assyria
    • (verses 8-9, in colorful anthropomorphic terms, depict God as being torn between whether or not to proceed with the judgment)
    • God ultimately will bring his son back out of exile (vv. 10-11)

All of this, of course, is foreign to the Gospel writer’s use of the passage, except in terms of the general framework of Exodus and Return from Exile. Certainly, he would not have seen Jesus as a disobedient son, though he likely does have in mind a connection with Jesus (as Savior) and the sin of disobedient Israel (Matt 1:21, and cf. below). It would seem that the author (and/or the tradition he has inherited) really only has first verse of Hosea 11 in view, taking it more or less out of context and applying it to Jesus. There are four elements in the verse which might lead to it being used this way:

    • Israel as a child—Jesus is a child (infant)
    • The context of the Exodus narrative, especially the birth and rescue of Moses (Exod 1:15-2:10), for which there is a clear historical/literary correspondence and synchronicity with Matt 2:13-23
    • The mention of Egypt—coming out of “Egypt” is symbolic of both the Exodus and a Return from exile (in Assyria); note the exile context of Jer 31:15 as well—these themes have been applied in Matt 2:13-23 and influenced the shaping of the narrative
    • Israel as God’s son (“My Son”)

It is also possible that the birth of Israel (as God’s people, i.e. his “son”) is implied in Hos 11:1b. If we consider v. 1a as a kind of setting for the oracle—literally, “For Israel (was) a youth [ru^n~] and I loved him”, however the force of the syntax is best understood as a temporal clause: “When Israel was a youth/child, I loved him…” The context of vv. 2-4, as in Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9, suggests a child being raised (by God), who comes to be disobedient, unwilling to heed the guidance and authority of his Father. If so, then v. 1b could indicate the initial stages of life, i.e. the birth and naming of the child, in a metaphorical sense. Israel was “born” in Egypt (cf. Exod 4:22 and the death of the firstborn motif), passing through the waters (i.e. crossing the Sea), into life (the Exodus), being “raised” during the wilderness period and thereafter. It is in just such a context that God calls Israel “My Son”. Consider, in this regard, the naming associated with the conception/birth of Jesus in the angel’s announcement to Mary (to be discussed in the next note):

    • “he will be called ‘Son of the Highest’ [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai]” (Lk 1:32)
    • “(the child)…will be called…’Son of God’ [klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=]” (Lk 1:35)
    • “I called (him) ‘My Son’ [yn]b=l! yt!ar*q* e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou]” (Hos 11:1 / Matt 2:15)

There is an interesting connection here with the reference to Israel as “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=) in Wisdom 18:13, mentioned above. There, too, the setting is the Exodus, and specifically the death of the firstborn motif—beginning with the rescue of Moses (v. 5a), which is set in parallel with the tenth plague, involving the Passover celebration and the death of the Egyptian firstborn, which directly precedes and initiates the Exodus (cf. Exod 11-12). This is narrated in Wisdom 18:5b-12, after which we find the statement in verse 13b:

“upon the destruction of their first(born) offspring, as one [i.e. together] they counted (your) people to be (the) son of God”

The death of the firstborn is narrated again, even more powerfully, in vv. 14-19. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, verses 14-15 came to be associated with the incarnation and birth of Jesus, the Latin (Vulgate) rendering of Wis 18:14f becoming part of the Roman Catholic liturgy (Introit for the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas). On the one hand, this may be the ultimate example of Christians taking a Scriptural passage out of context, since, originally these verses referred to the coming of the (Messenger of) Death out of heaven (cf. Exod 11:4; 12:29). In the Exodus narrative, it is YHWH himself who comes bringing death, traditionally understood as taking place through a Messenger (“Angel”) of Death. In Wis 18:14-15, it is the personified “Word” (lo/go$) of God that comes out of heaven, and this is certainly the main reason for its application to the person of Christ. The highly evocative midnight setting was doubtless what caused it to be associated specifically with the night-time birth of Jesus. More properly, of course, Wisdom 18:5-19 would be better applied to the episode narrated in Matt 2:13-23—the “Slaughter of the Innocents”—but only insofar as both passages deal with the “death of the firstborn” motif from Exodus. In any event, it is striking that there are three different passages which combine: (a) the Exodus setting, (b) the death of the firstborn motif, and (c) Israel as “son of God”—Exodus 4:22; Wisdom 18:13; and Hosea 11:1 (as used by Matthew).

Thus, it would seem, that the reference to Jesus as God’s Son in Matt 2:15 is to be understood primarily in terms of the idea of Jesus as the Savior of his people (Israel). The major narrative themes in the Matthean Infancy narrative all point in this direction—the Angelic pronouncement of Jesus’ role as Savior (in the context of the Isa 7:14 citation), the parallel with Moses as Israel’s deliverer, and the context of Hosea 11:1 itself, with its emphasis on the sin/disobedience and restoration of Israel. In the Lukan Infancy narrative, by contrast, we find the declaration of Jesus as “Son of God” in a way that corresponds more closely with the early Christian use of the title. It is this that we will examine in the next daily note (on Luke 1:32, 35).

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