SS Christmas Studies: Matthew 2:13-23

Matthew 2:13-23

This study looks at the third (and final) section of the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:13-23. It has a clear structure comprised of three episodes:

    • Angelic Appearance—Call to go into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
      —Joseph’s Response
      —Scripture (Hos 11:1)
    • Slaughter of the Children by Herod (vv. 16-18)
      —Scripture (Jer 31:15)
    • Angelic Appearance—Call to come out of Egypt (vv. 19-23)
      —Joseph’s Response—with added detail
      —Scripture (Isa 4:3 ?)

(On the use of the Angelic appearances and Scripture citations to structure the Infancy narrative as a whole, see the outline in the previous study.)

The section is framed by the two Angelic appearances to Joseph, each narrated in nearly identical wording, and parallel to the earlier appearance in 1:18-25. As in the first appearance scene, Joseph’s faithfulness is indicated by his obedience to the Angel’s message (v. 24). Here, however, this is enhanced by having the description of Joseph’s act match precisely the words of the Angel (2:14-15a, 21f).

Each of the episodes in this section contain a Scripture quotation illustrating how the events were the fulfillment of prophecy. Both of the Angelic appearances relate most directly to the first Scripture cited (Hos 11:1; v. 15)—that is, both episodes, taken together, fulfill the prophecy. The historical and narrative context is established in the central scene, involving the danger posed by Herod (v. 13b) which continues into the last scene in the person of Herod’s son (v. 22).

The narrative itself is clearly patterned after, and corresponds to, the story of Israel’s entry into Egypt (Joseph Narratives) and Exodus out of it (Moses Narratives). The events narrated fulfill Scripture, not only through the specific passages cited, but in their typology and correspondence with the Old Testament narratives. Note the essential structure:

    • Israel goes down into Egypt—Joseph Narratives, with the motif of communication/revelation through dreams
    • Slaughter of the children by the wicked King—Moses’ childhood (Infancy Narrative: Exod 1:15-2:10)
    • Israel comes up out of Egypt—the Exodus under Moses’ leadership

The central Scripture narrative is prominent—the birth of Moses parallel with the birth of Jesus. The correspondence is even more definite and closer if we take into consideration details from later Jewish tradition (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.205-223). Beyond this, it is also possible to glimpse in the Matthean episodes three additional scenes from Israel’s history, indicated by the specific Scriptures cited in each:

    • The Exodus—Hos 11:1
    • The Exile—Jer 31:15
    • The Messianic Age and redemption for the faithful Remnant—Isa 4:3 (?), etc

The first theme can be further divided into two main lines of tradition, parallels that are at work in relation to Matthew 2:13-23:

    1. The Birth and early Life of Moses
    2. The theme of the Exodus
1. The Birth and early Life of Moses

Three elements from the narratives in Exodus 1-4 (and related Jewish tradition) can be isolated, each of which relates to the three sections in Matt 2:13-23 and help to define the structure of the passage:

    • A wicked king who seeks to destroy a divine/chosen child who is prophecied to become ruler/savior, and the rescue/escape of the child (vv. 13-15, also vv. 1-9)
    • Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)
    • Death of the wicked king, which allows the chosen child to return (vv. 19-21[23])

As should be clear from the points above, this narrative structure not only draws from the Exodus stories but reflects an archetypal narrative found in traditional tales (myth/folklore) around the world. This has caused many commentators naturally to question the historicity of the narrative in Matthew. In passing, it may be helpful here to summarize the basic positions which have been taken (in relation to the Exodus/Matthew parallels):

1) They reflect a special historical synchronicity between (entirely factual) events
2) Historical events (in general) have been shaped (by the author or earlier tradition) under the influence of the Exodus stories (in literary detail)
3) The Gospel writer records/adapts an original tradition (of uncertain/questionable historicity) which draws from the Exodus stories
4) The Gospel writer has essentially created an episode of historical fiction, in imitation of the Exodus stories (and related traditions)

Many traditional-conservative scholars would opt for #1, while at least some critical scholars suspect #4; the majority of moderate commentators (on all sides) probably would adopt some form of #2 or 3. On purely objective grounds, #2 would seem the most plausible, but I will leave it to thoughtful and informed readers (believers) in humility to judge the matter for themselves.

a. The Wicked King and Chosen Child (Matt 2:13-15, and vv. 1-9)

Exodus 1:8-22 records that the new Pharaoh feared the increasing Israelite population and eventually sought to cut down their numbers by killing the newborn males (attempts are made by two different means, vv. 15-19 and 20-22). On the face of it, this does not seem to be an especially close parallel to Matthew’s narrative; however, at the time of the New Testament, several details had been added to the Exodus story within Jewish tradition (attested earliest by Josephus):

    • Pharaoh is warned by his “(sacred) scribes” that a child was about to be born who would deliver Israel and bring low the kingdom of Egypt (see Josephus Antiquities II.205)—in subsequent Rabbinic tradition, astrologers advise Pharaoh to drown the Hebrew children (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.18, cf. also b.Sanh. 101a); also in some versions of the story, the warning/prophecy is foreseen by Pharaoh’s ‘magicians’ (see b.Sotah 12b), or in a dream which they interpret.
    • The prophecy of this child caused fear and dread for Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Jos. Ant. II.206, 215), a possible parallel to Matt. 2:3. See a second attempt to kill the child Moses, instigated by Pharaoh’s scribes in Ant. II.234ff (cf. also II.255).
    • There is also a legend of a light which appeared at Moses’ birth (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.20), and that the stars above gave homage to the ‘light’ of Moses’ birth (cf. Sefer ha-Yashar [67]).

These details bring the Exodus story closer to Matthew’s narrative, and may have been familiar to the Gospel writer and/or its original audience. For more on the Moses story, see my article on the passage in the series “The Birth of the Messiah”.

The escape/rescue of the child (vv. 13-15)—This is narrated in Exodus 2:1-4ff, but note the version as recorded in Josephus (Ant. II.212-216, 219ff), whereby Moses’ father (Amram) is warned and encouraged by God in a dream, after which he takes steps to protect the child (in Ex 2:2-3, Moses’ mother initiates the hiding); all of this, again, brings the story closer to Matthew.

There is a second “escape” of Moses (as an adult) recorded in Exodus 2:15. Note in particular the phrase “he [Pharaoh] sought [ez¢¡tei] to take away [i.e. kill] Moses” (LXX), compared with the angel’s message to Joseph: “Herod is seeking [z¢teín] the child to destroy it” (v. 13). Again Josephus’ narrative is a bit closer overall to that of Matthew, cf. Ant. II.255-256.

b. Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)

There is here only a general parallel between v. 16 and Exodus 2:22; the lack of corresponding detail could be seen as confirmation of the historicity of vv. 16-18. There is conceivably a faint correspondence between Pharaoh being ‘tricked’ as it were by the midwives (Ex 2:17ff) and Herod provoked to anger at being ‘tricked’ [lit. played with] by the Magi (v. 16). The narrative here is so brief (a single verse) that it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison.

c. Death of the wicked king (vv. 19-21[23])

This provides perhaps the closest parallel between the Exodus and Matthean narratives (precise or close verbal and syntactical parallels are indicated with italics):

Exodus 4:19-20 (LXX)

19But with [i.e. after] these many days the king of Egypt was finished [e)teleu/thsen], and (the) Lord said to Moses in Midan: “Walk! Go from (here) into Egypt! For all the (ones) seeking your soul have died“.

Matthew 2:19-21

19But (at) Herod’s being finished [teleuth/santo$ i.e. having died], see—a Messenger of the Lord shone forth [i.e. appeared] by a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20saying: “Rising, take along the child and his mother and travel into (the) land of Israel, for the (ones) seeking the soul of the child have died.”

20And taking up the woman and the child, Moses put them up upon a (beast) under-yoke [i.e. beast-of-burden] and turned about [i.e. returned] into Egypt… 21And rising, the (man) [i.e. Joseph] took along the child and his mother and came into (the) land of Israel.

Especially noteworthy is the virtually identical Greek phrase in Ex 4:19/Matt 2:20: “for the ones seeking the soul” … “have died” (see below).

2. The theme of the Exodus

This is applied very simply to the narrative of Matt 2:13-23, interwoven through the Moses/Pharaoh paradigm, as can be illustrated by the following chiastic outline:

    • The wicked king seeks to destroy the chosen child (divine announcement [in a dream]), and the rescue/escape of the child—v. 13
      • Entrance into Egypt—v. 14-15
        • Newborn children killed by the wicked king—v. 16-18
      • Return (Exodus) from Egypt—v. 21ff
    • Death of the wicked king (divine announcement [in a dream]), allowing the return of the child—v. 19-20

To emphasize the symmetry here, I have taken the liberty of reversing vv. 19-20 and 21ff above.

It should be noted, of course, that the Exodus theme appears specifically in the Scripture citation in verse 15; indeed, the original context of Hosea 11:1 is simply a reference to the Exodus, with Israel as God’s “son” (in a symbolic/covenantal sense). A common idiom for the Israelites (people of Israel) is “sons of Israel” —almost certainly we should understand a correspondence here between the child Jesus and the sons [children] of Israel (as much as between Jesus and Moses) in the Gospel narrative. For more on this Scripture as it is used here in the Infancy narrative, see my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.

The Slaughter of the Children (Exile theme)

The central scene in this episode (vv. 16-18), the second Herod scene of the narrative (the first being in vv. 1-12, cf. the previous study), deals with an historical tradition—the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem—that many critical commentators have questioned. Their skepticism is based on two points: (a) the lack of any other reference (in Josephus, etc) to the event, and (b) the obvious parallel with the Moses Infancy narrative (see above). There can be no denying the literary parallel, the type-scene of which can be found in literature and folklore worldwide. For more on this subject, and for an examination of the Moses narrative itself, see my earlier article in the series “The Birth of the Messiah”.

At the root of the scene, in the context of the Matthean narrative, is the conflict between the child Jesus as the “King of the Jews” and Herod (the reigning king). This is part of the wider theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity (i.e., as the royal Messiah from the line of David), which I have discussed at length in the earlier studies (cf. the previous study on vv. 1-12).

The Scripture citation for this episode (see above) is Jeremiah 31:15. In applying this Scripture to events surrounding the birth of Jesus, the Gospel writer (as in the case of Isa 7:14, etc) has taken the passage out of its original context. While Matthew treats it as a prophecy of future events, the original passage is an evocation of the prophet’s own time. It is part of a larger section (30:1-33:26) promising future restoration for the people of Israel, with messages specifically directed at the exiled Northern tribes (“Ephraim”) in 30:1-31:40. Even in these two chapters one also finds the message being applied to the Southern kingdom (Judah), by Jeremiah himself or a later (exilic) editor. In any event, the theme of a reunited Israel is prominent, culminating in the famous passage of Jer 31:31-34, where God promises to make a new covenant with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”.

Rachel, as the mother of Benjamin and Joseph (Ephraim/Manasseh), represents the Northern tribes (closest to Judah); her weeping and mourning is a dramatic and evocative depiction of the (Assyrian) Exile, but it may be an echo (or foreshadowing) of the (Babylonian) exile of Judah (cf. the association of “Ramah” in Jer 40:1). According to Gen 35:16, Rachel died somewhere between Bethel and Ephrath and Jacob set up a pillar at that location, which is confirmed by the reference to “Rachel’s tomb” in 1 Sam 10:2-3. Gen 35:20 has a parenthetical statement (presumably an editor’s gloss) that “Ephrath” is (near) Bethlehem, representing either an scribal mistake or a competing tradition. The Gospel writer clearly identifies this Ramah with Bethlehem.

Rachel’s weeping is actually just the opening setting of this oracle of hope, for vv. 16-17 exhort the mother to cease weeping—her sons will return to their own land. There is no indication that the Gospel writer means to infer the wider context of the prophecy; he rather narrowly applies it to the “massacre” of the newborn males in Bethlehem.

However, it should be noted that he does narrate a return—that of the infant Jesus and his parents out of Egypt back into their own land (2:14-15, 19-21, see below). Consider also the quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2 [8:23-9:1] in Matt 4:14-16: the original prophecy offers the promise of deliverance to the people of the Northern kingdom, now being fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Isaiah 9:6-7 [5-6] are the concluding words of the section 6:1-9:7, and, traditionally, one of the most famous ‘Messianic prophecies’ applied to the birth of Jesus.
(For a text-critical examination of the use of Jer 31:15 in context, see my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.)

The Return from Egypt—the Messianic Age and Redemption

The final scene of the narrative (vv. 19-23)—the third (and final) Angelic appearance to Joseph—draws upon both of the earlier themes noted above (Exodus and Exile), combining them into a narration of Jesus’ return from Egypt.

The parallels with the Moses Infancy narrative have been noted above. Perhaps the clearest example of literary dependence on the Moses narratives is how closely the wording in Matt 2:20 resembles that of Exod 4:19 LXX:

“And after those many days, the king of Egypt completed (his life) [i.e. died], and the Lord said toward Moshe in Midian, ‘You must walk (and) go (away) from (here) into Egypt, for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died‘. And Moshe took up his wife and the children…” (Exod 4:19-20)
“And (with) Herod (hav)ing completed (his life) [i.e. died], see! a Messenger of the Lord appeared by a dream to Yosef in Egypt, saying, ‘Rising…you must travel into the land of Yisrael, for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died. And, rising, he took along the child and his mother…” (Matt 2:19-21)

The italicized words above are nearly identical:

teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte/$ sou th\n yuxh/n
“for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died”
teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte$ th\n yuxh/n tou= paidi/ou
“for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died”

Moreover, in both narratives we have the common location of Egypt—traveling into and out of the land, though in different directions. Verses 22-23 serve as an additional climactic notice to the return from Egypt:

22but having heard that “‘Chief-of-the-People’ {Archelaus} is king against [i.e. in place of] Herod his father”, he [i.e. Joseph] was afraid to go from (where he was and return) there; but being advised (in the matter) by a dream, he made space again [i.e. turned away/aside] into the parts of Galîl {Galilee}, 23and having come (there) he put down house [i.e. dwelt] in a city counted as [i.e. called/named] Nazaret, so that the (word) uttered by the foretellers might be fulfilled that “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'”.

The Scripture Citation

The quotation “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'” is problematic, in terms of the Scripture-citation pattern of the narrative, since it does not correspond precisely to any specific verse in the Prophets (or the rest of the Old Testament for that matter). This being the case, there are several possibilities:

    • The author (or his source) is citing from a book or passage otherwise unknown to us today. While this is conceivable, it is not especially likely, and should be considered only as a last resort.
    • He is citing a specific (canonical) passage, but in a form quite different from any surviving (Hebrew or Greek) version. Certainly there are a number of quotations in the New Testament (even in Matthew, see Micah 5:2/Matt 2:6) where the wording departs significantly from any known version.
    • It is a free citation, combining more than one passage. Again, this is fairly common in the New Testament, and could be suggested by use of the plural “foretellers [i.e. prophets]”. The references need not be limited to the Prophetic books as we understand them, for conventionally the Psalms and Historical books could come under the general label “Prophets”.
    • The citation is taken from a compendium of ‘Messianic’ prophetic passages (drawn up by early Christians), which the author accepted, but which does not correspond to any specific Scripture. Again, this ought to be considered only as a last resort.

The third option is, I think, fairly close to the mark. The Gospel writer (or an earlier source) has taken a particular verse (probably Isaiah 4:3) and, it would seem, adapted it by means of some subtle and clever wordplay. For detailed discussion of the matter, consult my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” and another in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

Given the importance of the theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity, throughout the narrative (and continuing in 4:12-17), it seems likely that there is an intentional wordplay here, relating the place-name designation (“Nazorean/Nazareth”) with similar word-forms. Two, in particular, are worth noting:

    •  n¹zîr (ryz]n`)—The Hebrew means “[one] dedicated/set-apart”, and is often transliterated in English (as a technical term), “Nazirite” —that is, one dedicated or set apart [nzr] to God by a vow [related word ndr]. The legal prescription and details of the Nazirite vow are recorded in Numbers 6:1-21. The most famous Nazirites in the Old Testament are Samuel (1 Sam 1:11) and Samson (Judg 13:4-14), so dedicated from birth; according the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:15), John the Baptist also seems to have been a Nazirite (from birth).
      The Greek adjective hágios (“holy”) generally corresponds to the Hebrew; and the phrase hágios kl¢th¢¡setai (“he will be called holy”, Isa 4:3, see above) could be given an interpretive translation back into Hebrew as “he will be called a holy (one) [n¹zîr]”. Moreover, n¹zîr could also be transliterated in Greek by Naziraíos, and thus the phrase in question as Naziraíos kl¢th¢¡setai (“he will be called a Nazirite” ), which is reasonably close in form to “he will be called a Nazorean“.

    • n¢ƒer (rx#n@)— “[new] shoot, sprout” (also rendered “root”, “branch”), a word partly synonymous with ƒemaµ (jm^x#, in Isa 4:3, see above). Now n¢ƒer came to be a designation for the Messiah, largely due to Isaiah 11:1ff, which begins: “and a (small) branch will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a (new) shoot [n¢ƒer] will grow [lit. bear fruit] from his roots; and the spirit of YHWH will rest upon him…”.
      Isaiah 11:1ff was one of several key Messianic passages current in Jewish literature at the time the New Testament was written—see especially the Qumran texts 4QpIsaa, 4Q252, 4Q285, 1QSb 5; cf. also Psalms of Solomon 17-18, Testament of Levi 18, and 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 13. The shoot/branch of Isa 11:1 was closely identified with the expression “branch [ƒemaµ] of David” (see esp. Jer 23:5-6; Zech 3:8), a key Messianic designation. It is an intriguing parallel, but it is hard to say whether (or to what extent) the Gospel writer may have had this in mind.

Note—beginning next week, the Saturday Series will return to its weekly (Saturday) format.

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