Saturday Series: Exodus 24:1-11

Exodus 24:1-11

The past two weeks we have examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, which are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament. To this we add a third key passage, the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. Actually, this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

    • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
    • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called “the account of the agreement” (s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

    • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

    • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
    • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
    • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
    • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb š¹µâ) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (b§rî¾) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

In each of the covenant episodes we have been studying, the agreement is accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

    • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
    • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
    • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

    • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (±ôlâ, hl*u)) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
    • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew šelem (<l#v#, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun ze»aµ, verb z¹»aµ), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

    • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
    • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the (binding) agreement which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, as we discussed, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is drawn upon by Jesus in the Gospel tradition of the Last Supper. This is found in the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic Gospels (also echoed by Paul in 1 Cor 11:25):

“This is my blood of the covenant [diath¢¡k¢] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8). In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34).

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

    • Ascent of the elders (v. 9)
      —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10)
      —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
    • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb µ¹zâ (hz`j*) in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). For next week, even as you think and meditate upon these covenant episodes we have studied, I would ask you to read on through the remainder of Exodus, considering how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Law, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition. The importance of these associations—the leadership of the people (Moses/Elders), the covenant ritual, and the Torah—must be realized and studied closely, as they relate precisely to the language and symbolism used by early Christians in the New Testament. We continue to use this language, to some extent, even today, though its fundamental meaning is largely lost in the modern age. It is possible for us to regain and restore its meaning through a critical study of Old Testament passages such as these in the books of Exodus and Genesis.

Blessings to you in your study…and I will see you next Saturday.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Matthew 2:13-23

This is the last of three notes in celebration of Epiphany: the first explored the structure of the Matthean Infancy Narrative (Matt 2) and the central Scripture (Micah 5:2) quoted in vv. 1-12, the second examined the main narrative of vv. 1-12 (the Visit of the Magi), and today’s will explore the principal narrative in vv. 13-23 (the Flight to Egypt). Of these two narrative strands, the latter is the dominant one, for it extends back into the beginning of chapter 2. I discussed the central Scripture of vv. 13-23 (Jeremiah 31:15) in an earlier note; today the focus will be on the Old Testament background for the passage.

There are two main parallels at work, each of which will be examined 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.

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. In passing, one may also note the unusual/miraculous nature of Moses’ birth in early Jewish tradition, that it was painless (Jos. Ant. II.218, cf. also b.Sotah 12a, Midrash Rabbah on Ex. I.20)—which serves as a correlation to the ‘curse’ of Eve (a similar Mary-Eve parallel related to Jesus’ birth became commonplace in Christian tradition).

There is a second “escape” of Moses (as an adult) recorded in Exodus 2:15. Note in particular the phrase “he [Pharaoh] sought [e)zh/tei] to take away [i.e. kill] Moses” (LXX), compared with the angel’s message to Joseph: “Herod is seeking [zhtei=n] 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: ga\r oi( zhtou=nte$ th\n yuxh/n (“for the ones seeking the soul”)… teqnh/kasin (“have died”).

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.

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, January 6 was the date originally established for the birth of Jesus, just as December 25 was in the West (at about the same time, late-3rd century). In the East, Jesus’ birth was referred to as “Epiphany [e)pifa/neia]” (later “Theophany”)—the manifestation/appearing [shining, fai/nw] of God [qeo/$] upon [e)pi] us. Through a ‘cultural-exchange’ of sorts, Jan. 6 was adopted in the West (associated primarily with the Visitation of the Magi), while Dec. 25 became the date commemorating Jesus’ birth (with Jan. 6 now devoted especially to the Baptism of Jesus). Baptism had already been an important theme of Christmas/Epiphany, for it was on such holy Feast days that catechumens often were brought forward to be baptized. For more on the connection between the birth and baptism of Jesus in Eastern tradition, see the daily note for Epiphany.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 2:15

Matthew 2:15

Today’s note looks at the third section of the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:13-23. It has a clear structure comprising 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 ?)

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 (cf. the prior note on 1:21). 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 really 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:

In considering the main scripture cited in the first episode (Hosea 11:1; v. 15), it is interesting to note that the quotation matches the underlying Hebrew, instead of the LXX; as cited by Matthew it is:

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

This quotation serves as a guiding theme for all three episodes, including the interpretation of them as scenes/periods of Israel’s history (cf. above):

In the Gospel of Matthew, as in the other Gospels, Jesus essentially never refers to himself by the title “Son of God”; rather, he uses the distinct Semitic expression “Son of Man”. However, Jesus is called the Son of God by others, or at least the title is used by others regarding him (Matt 3:17 [17:5]; 4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 16:16; 26:63; 27:40, 43, 54 and pars). It occurs somewhat more frequently in Matthew. On several occasions, Jesus refers to himself with the absolute “the Son” (11:27; 24:36 par; 28:19), a self-reference which is far more common in the Gospel of John, and virtually always related to (God) the Father. In early Christian tradition, the title “Son of God” came to be regularly applied to Jesus, and was connected with the title “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ). Note, for example, the first verse of the Markan Gospel (Mk 1:1), as well the conjunction of these titles in Acts 9:20-22; Rom 1:3-4; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 2:20; Jn 11:27; 20:31, etc. This association was influenced, to a large extent, by a uniquely Christian application of the Messianic interpretation for Psalm 2:7—cf. Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5, and the variant reading in Luke 3:22. Initially, in the earliest Christian preaching, Jesus was identified as God’s Son in connection with his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. Eventually, however, believers came to recognize this Sonship for Jesus in a more fundamental sense, going back to the Transfiguration scene, the Baptism, the Infancy Narratives, and even to the idea of his pre-existent (eternal) relation with the Father (John 1:1ff; Heb 1:2ff). It may be possible to glimpse something of this development in early Christian thought by examining the different versions of Peter’s confession. Mark’s is the simplest (8:29):

“You are the Anointed (One)”

In Luke (9:20) it is a bit longer:

“(You are) the Anointed (One) of God

Matthew’s version (16:16), however, is the most extensive:

“You are the Anointed (One), the Son of the living God

Interestingly, in the scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the question of the High Priest, as recorded in Matthew (26:63), is nearly identical to Peter’s confession:

“according to the living God…(tell us) if you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God

There can be little doubt that the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew) would have understood Jesus as the Son of God even within the context of the Infancy Narrative, just as we see in Luke (cf. the note on Lk 1:32). However, this identification is not made explicit until later in the Gospel (at the Baptism), just as in the main Synoptic tradition. The title “Son of God”, is discussed in more detail in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

December 28 is the traditional date in the West commemorating the killing of the children in Bethlehem (The Slaughter/Massacre of the Innocents) as narrated in Matt 2:16-18. In Christian tradition they came to be regarded as the first Martyrs, those put to death for their faith in Christ. Their numbers increased considerably over the years, from 14,000 (in Greek Orthodox tradition) to 64,000, and even higher. However, if we accept the basic historicity of the narrative, then, at the historical level, the number of male children at the ages indicated may not have been more than two or three dozen. For the Old Testament background of this passage and the Scripture (Jer 31:15) cited in verse 18, cf. the article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”

Two Deutero-Canonical Texts on the Birth of Jesus

As a special note for Christmas Eve, I will be looking at two texts which reflect two different, but equally creative, traditional ways for interpreting the birth of Jesus.

The first is another example of the tendency of Christians to find types and prophecies of Christ (and his birth) in the most unlikeliest of Scriptures. I have already discussed a number of Old Testament passages (including detailed studies on Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6-7) in prior Advent season notes. Here I will be discussing a deutero-canonical (or “Apocryphal”) passage: Wisdom 8:14-15.

Wisdom 8:14-15:

14As all things had quiet silence (round) about them,
and night was (in) the middle in (its) own swiftness
15Your all-powerful logos from (the) heavens, out of (the) royal throne,
(as) a severe warrior leaped into the middle of the earth (set) for destruction

The book of Wisdom (sometimes known by its pseudepigraphic title “Wisdom of Solomon”) is, along with the book of Sirach (or “Ecclesiasticus”), the most valued and prestigious of the so-called “Apocryphal” (deutero-Canonical) books; virtually every Church Father who mentions or cites from it, treats it essentially as authoritative Scripture. It belongs to the category of Wisdom literature, and is a poetic philosophical discourse, a product of Hellenistic Judaism—combining Biblical and Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy (Stoic and Platonic), in a manner similar to that of Philo a century or so later. The second half of the book (chapters 11-19) comprises a lengthy treatment of the Exodus, contrasting the Israelites who (should) trust in God (thereby walking according to Divine Wisdom) with the Egyptian who rely upon vain idols. The section 18:5-25 covers the tenth plague (destruction of the firstborn); I would outline this section as follows:

a. The infant Moses is saved from the destruction of the Israelite children—in the middle of destruction—in accordance with revelation and the promises made to the Fathers; the juxtaposition of deliverance/punishment is reiterated as a theme (vv. 5-8)

b. Comparison of the children of the virtuous (devout Israel) with the children of Egypt: one united in blessing, the other in common death (vv. 9-12)

c. The people (of Israel) acknowledged to be God’s son (confirmed by the failure of pagan idolatry) (v. 13)

cæ. The Logos/Word of God comes out of heaven carrying the sword of His decree (v. 14-16a)

bæ. Death and destruction brought upon the land of Egypt (vv. 16b-19)

aæ. Death comes upon the Israelites in the wilderness, but Moses intercedes to bring salvation, according to the promises God made to the Fathers; juxtaposition of deliverance/punishment within the people of Israel itself (vv. 20-25)

Above I gave a rather literal translation of vv. 14-15; in order to provide some context for the central passage, I offer here a more fluid rendering of vv. 13-16, with 14-15 in italics (translation by David Winston from the Anchor Bible series, vol. 43, p. 313, [my gloss in square brackets]):

Wholly incredulous thanks to their [i.e. the Egyptians’] magical enchantments, at the destruction of their firstborn they acknowledged your [i.e. God’s] people to be God’s son. While all things were enveloped in peaceful silence and night was midway through her swift course, your all-powerful Logos, out of the heavens, from the royal throne, leaped like a relentless warrior into the midst of the land marked for destruction, bearing your unambiguous decree as a sharp sword. Standing it filled all things with death; it touched the heavens, yet stood poised upon the earth.

Clearly, vv. 14-15 refer to the ‘angel of Death’ that strikes the land of Egypt—a curious passage to apply to the birth of Jesus! Yet there are several factors which prompted Christians to interpret it in this manner:

  1. The reference to “God’s son” at the end of verse 13. Israel as God’s (firstborn) “son” appears in numerous ways throughout the Old Testament, with specific (early) references in Exodus 4:22-23 and Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”)—this last verse is explicitly cited in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:15).
  2. The occurrence of “Logos“: the concept of the Reason/Word (lo/go$) of God as a (secondary) Divine hypostasis or personification (sometimes identified with Divine Wisdom), with its role in creation, revelation, etc., took on prominence in Hellenistic Jewish philosophy (see especially the interpretive works of Philo). All studious and devout Christians are familiar with it from the famous opening of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:1ff), from whence the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the pre-existent Logos—along with a powerful Logos Christology—was established in Christian thought.
  3. The contextual parallel with Moses—both as the infant child saved from the “violent waters” of destruction (18:5), as as the savior/deliverer who intercedes with God for his people (18:21-22). The Matthean Infancy narrative (especially in chapter 2) clearly draws on the early Exodus story, I believe consciously and intentionally emphasizing a number of parallel details. We have: (a) the infant destined to be savior rescued from death, (b) the wicked king (c) who orders the destruction of newborn male children, (d) the setting of Egypt including an ‘exodus’ out of Egypt. Indeed, the Gospel writer (2:15) applies Hosea 11:1 in a way that similarly takes the original Old Testament passage “out of context”.

Interestingly, a connection between Passover and the birth of Jesus (and so between his birth and death) developed in Christian tradition. This can be seen in dramatic fashion in the Nativity hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, cf. Hymn 4.31-34, 5.14, 27.18-22, etc. Jesus’ birth was thought to have taken place in the month of Conun (December-January), so his conception would have been in Nisan (April). In 5.14, Ephrem specifically identifies the conception with the 10th of Nisan, when the lambs designated for slaughter (four days later) are “closed up” (i.e. in the womb). The traditional imagery of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, certainly made this a natural association.

By the end of the fourth century A.D. at the latest, Christians had come to understand Wisdom 18:14-15 in terms of the birth of Jesus—cf. Chrysostom’s 2nd Homily on the Gospel of Matthew (for the moment I have not found any earlier occurrence). Eventually the passage came to be used as a reading or lesson (lection) for Christmas, and was influential in establishing the tradition of Jesus’ birth taking place at midnight.

The second text, which I will mention only briefly, comes from the so-called Proto-gospel (Protevangelium) of James.

This is a pseudepigraphic work, which is presented has having been written by “James” (§25)—presumably meant as James the Just, brother of Jesus. Scholars of all stripes agree that the composition is actually considerably later than this, probably dating from the first half of the 2nd century (c. 125-150); as such, it is far less reliable historically than the Lukan and Matthean Infancy narratives, though it may still preserve a few pieces of authentic tradition. The book covers the birth and childhood of Mary (§§1-12), follows by a narrative of Jesus’ birth (§§1-22 + 23-24) which roughly corresponds to that of Matthew/Luke.

By the mid-second century, Gospel tradition had come to be expanded and embellished with many more legendary and/or fanciful details; in particular, there was a pious (albeit speculative) interest in “filling out” pieces of the narrative not found in Matthew/Luke, such as Mary’s background, the childhood years of Jesus, what happened in Egypt (cf. Matt 2:13-15, 19-23), and so forth. The Protevangelium was one of the earliest and most successful of these works; virtually all of the later surviving “Infancy Gospels” appear to be dependent on it in some way. Moreover, it proved to have an enormous (and lasting) influence on Christmas tradition, and in establishing the Catholic/Orthodox legend and traditions of Mary.

Perhaps the most beautiful and striking portion of the Protevangelium is in §18: after finding a cave in which Mary can give birth, Joseph goes out to locate a midwife in the area nearby. Vv. 2ff is written in first-person narrative:

Now I Joseph was walking, and I walked not. And I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up unto the pole of the heaven and saw it standing still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion. And I looked upon the earth and saw a dish set, and workmen lying by it, and their hands were in the dish: and they that were chewing chewed not, and they that were lifting the food lifted it not, and they that put it to their mouth put it not thereto, but the faces of all of them were looking upward. And behold there were sheep being driven, and they went not forward but stood still; and the shepherd lifted his hand to smite them with his staff, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the stream of the river and saw the mouths of the kids upon the water and they drank not. And of a sudden all things moved onward in their course. (transl. by M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford:1924-]).

A rendering in more contemporary English:

But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking. I looked up into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still; and the birds of the sky were at rest. I looked back to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat. There hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths. Everyone was looking up. And I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air. I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking. Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course. (transl. by Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures [Oxford:2003], p. 69)

An imaginative description, to be sure; but also immensely creative! Even if not historical, in a concrete sense, the image of Jesus’ birth at midnight, when all of creation stands still, is beautiful and apt to touch the soul of believer and unbeliever alike.