Matthew 2:13-23

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Matthew 2

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” 19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Matthew’s account of the holy family’s flight to Egypt is fascinating and theologically rich. David Platt writes that “when Jesus and His family flee to Egypt and then later return from Egypt, Matthew helps us see that Jesus inaugurates the new exodus.” This seems clear enough. Matthew, whose interactions with Old Testament texts and themes is so very powerful and thorough, is depicting Jesus as the new and greater Moses in this text. Platt then adds that “[t]he flight to Egypt for Jesus and His family was about much more than simply running away from Herod; this was about painting a picture…”[1]

I like that: it was “about painting a picture.” That is a helpful idea, and true! And what is the picture that is being painted? Again, is the picture of Christ as the new and greater Moses leading His people out of bondage. This is true, but what is really amazing is to see just how nuanced and detailed the picture that Matthew paints of this scene truly is! In this recasting of the Exodus in the person and work of Jesus, Matthew truly touches on the primary aspects of the great episode in Israel’s history. In doing so, he lifts it to new heights showing how it was but a foreshadowing of the person and work of Christ.

In the holy family’s flight to and return from Egypt we see a Pharaoh.

In this Exodus story recast, we do indeed find a Pharaoh figure, a murderous ruler intent on oppressing and destroying God’s child. In Matthew 2 and the flight to Egypt, that figure is King Herod. We begin with the angel’s second appearance to Joseph, this time to warn him of Herod’s murderous intent.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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.”

Herod, understanding the threat that this child-King posed, moved to “destroy him.” His concern turned to rage when once he understood that the wise men had not done as he had asked, had not, in other words, returned to inform Herod where the promised King was. What Herod did in his rage is truly hard to hear:

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

In behaving thus as the holy family flees to Egypt, Herod truly established himself as the Pharaoh of this Exodus story retold. Craig Keener points out that “Jesus goes to Egypt like Israel under the first Joseph, and like Pharaoh, Herod slays male Israelite children (Ex 1:16-2:5, Ps-Philo 9:1).”[2] The Exodus passage to which Keener points is as follows:

15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.

Yes, Herod, like Pharaoh, sits on a throne of fear and rage and orders the killing of Israelite males. Historians point out that the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem was utterly consistent with Herod’s reputation. Keener explains:

When Herod’s young brother-in-law was becoming too popular, he had a “drowning accident” in what archaeology shows was a rather shallow pool; later, falsely accused officials were cudgeled to death on Herod’s order…Wrongly suspecting two of his sons of plotting against him, he had them strangled…and five days before his own death the dying Herod had a more treacherous, Absalom-like son executed…Thus many modern writers repeat the probably apocryphal story that Augustus remarked, “Better to be Herod’s pig than his son”…[3]

This evidence concerning Herod’s character is important because many detractors point out that there is no historical record outside of scripture that mentions the killing of Jewish boys in Bethlehem. But this should not surprise us, as James Montgomery Boice points out:

…Bethlehem was a small town, having no more than one thousand residents (perhaps as few as three hundred, according to some estimates). There would have been no more than a dozen or so young children. In an age of atrocities, the murder of these children would have been merely one additional cruelty and not a particularly striking one at that.[4]

That last sentence, that this atrocity would have been a fairly insignificant one in that time and region, is telling. The story has survived in scripture because of how it ties into the cosmically-important events of the birth of Jesus.

We begin, then, with the villain: Herod. Herod was a wicked man, a man who lived in fear and suspicion. The news of the birth of this new King undid him. As a result, he lashed out in fury and murderous sin. In doing so, however, he only succeeded in heaping greater and greater condemnation upon himself.

Peter Chrysologus, the 5th century Bishop of Ravenna famed for his sermons and preaching skill, powerfully condemned Herod and his actions thus:

Wickedness bewails having been tricked; cruelty raves against the escape. Deception howls over being cheated; fraud is turned back upon itself. Herod gnashes his teeth, falling prey to his own trap. He now unsheathes his barbarity, hitherto carefully concealed. He takes up the weapons of treachery, in which he has full trust, and in terrestrial madness he searches for the one he knows is heaven-born.

            Reaching for the highest he sinks from on high; beating on the doors of heaven, he enters the abyss. In his advance against God, he opposes himself. He who seeks to slay the living can only slay himself, for the damned cannot seize salvation…Herod, who rules his earthly kingdom by force of arms, now attacks the heavenly realm. He who covets earthly lands now hurls himself against divine ones, wickedly pursuing Goodness itself.[5]

Yes, that he does. But Herod will die without having achieved his great goal: the destruction of the King of Kings. Herod, for all his pomp and pride, is a small and sniveling thing before the mighty love of God. In Herod, we see another Pharaoh breathing murder against God’s son: earlier, Israel, but here, the Son.

In the holy family’s flight to and return from Egypt we see a people.

Yes, Matthew’s Exodus story has a Herod. It also has a people. And we see this in Matthew’s usage of an Old Testament text that speaks of Israel’s deliverance out of Egyptian bondage.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Most of us do not have positive thoughts when we hear of Jews in Egypt. Our thoughts are understandably dominated by the oppression of Israel in Egypt years before. But, as John Broadus points out, Egypt in the first century was a much more hospitable place for Jews to go.

Egypt was now thronged with Jewish residents. Alexander the Great, in laying out his new city of Alexandria, assigned a place to the Jews, granting them equal privileges with the Macedonians. The early Ptolemies pursued a similar course, transferring some from Palestine by force, and encouraging the immigration of others. In Egypt was made the greater part, probably the whole, of the famous translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek, commonly called the Septuagint. About 150 B.C., a separate temple was built for the Jews in Egypt, at once evincing and tending to increase their importance. Somewhat earlier began the succession of Jewish Alexandrine philosophers, the most remarkable of whom, Philo, was now twenty to thirty years old. In a treatise written about A.D. 40, he says the Jews in Egypt numbered near a million…A late tradition names the village of Matarea, near Leontopolis, the site of the Jewish temple, as the residence of the “holy family.”[6]

So there was a certain logic, from an earthly perspective, in going to Egypt. Even so, Matthew’s appeal to an exodus passage shows that God was indeed, as David Platt pointed out, painting a picture in sending them there and calling them back.

Actually, it might be argued that the holy family’s going to Egypt is perhaps best paralleled by Joseph’s brothers going to Egypt to buy grain in Genesis 42 (i.e., running to Egypt for salvation and safety). Even so, the holy family’s coming out of Egypt is clearly intended to point to Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in the exodus. This is evident in Matthew’s commentary in verse 15: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” Here, Matthew quotes Hosea 11:

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

This is clearly a reference to the exodus. Craig Keener suggests that “the language [of v.14, “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night”] might also evoke Jewish readers’ memory of Exodus 12:31 [Then he summoned Moses and Aaron by night and said, “Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said.”].”[7]

Thus, Jesus’ coming out of Egypt is depicted by Matthew as the ultimate fulfillment and goal of the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage. In other words, Christ offers the ultimate deliverance. The deliverance He offers is not merely political and geographical. Neither is the deliverance of Christ merely temporal. Rather, Christ’s deliverance is eternal, ultimate, and eternal-life-giving. But for our purposes at this point we must also note the distinction between the people’s: in Exodus it is Israel who is delivered from bondage but in Christ it is a deliverance offered to the whole world! Whosever will may come out of the Egypt of their own sin into the promised land of salvation and the Kingdom.

Christ is therefore the greater Moses and the people of Christ from all the nations are the children of promise.

In the holy family’s flight to and return from Egypt we see a Savior.

Dominating Matthew’s entire telling of the story is the person of Christ. He is the object of Herod’s hatred. He is the object of God’s love. He is the greater Moses, the world’s Savior!

14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Notice that Israel, in the passage from Hosea 11, is called God’s son. This was not an uncommon term for Israel. But Christ is God’s Son in a unique way, being coeternal with the Father. Thus, again, in the application of the word “son” to both, Matthew is saying that the story of Israel finds its fulfillment in the story of Christ. He is the promised end and beginning to all that came before.

We see Christ’s flight to Egypt, yes, but also the holy family’s deliverance. Jesus is brought back into the land of the promise and truly wherever Jesus is the land of promise!

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

That’s an interesting phrase in verse 20, “take the child and his mother and go.” “Matthew does not call Jesus Joseph’s child,” writes Craig Blomberg, “perhaps to remind his readers of the virginal conception.”[8] Perhaps. But what is also telling is that the child is mentioned before “his mother,” as if to say, “This child: this is the hope of the nations! This child must live!”

Here we see Christ the Savior being saved by the Father who sent Him mediated through the father who raised Him. Joseph takes the child and His mother and flees, but only to return. And this is vitally important: the saving plan of God is cannot—cannot be­—thwarted by the ravings of a madman! Herod cannot dethrone the King of Kings! Christ is the Savior and the hope and life He offers is to all men.

There is something particularly poignant in the fact that Christ goes to Egypt. We saw earlier how the sending of the wise men to Jerusalem sounded a universal note of gospel hope. That is, the fact that Gentiles were sent highlights once again the fact that Christ Jesus comes and offers life to the nations. But, in a sense, so does Christ going to Egypt. The holy family flees to the place of Israel’s greatest bondage and oppression: Egypt. They flee to the land of painful memories. They flee to the realm of wrongs and atrocities committed. As the wise men came west to Jerusalem so Jesus goes west to Egypt. And here too is a note of hope to the nations. The author of the Incomplete Commentary on Matthew waxed perhaps too poetically but nonetheless insightfully when he said this about the flight:

And why did he go to Egypt? It was not because there was no other land, was it? Egypt, you see, had always been hostile toward his people. But because the Lord, who is not angry beyond all bounds or offended forever, remembered how much evil he had brought on Egypt, he sent his Son there and gave it a sign of great reconciliations and a pledge of perpetual friendship, that one medicine might be able to heal the ten plagues of Egypt, “The right hand of the Most High has changed” so that the nation that previously had persecuted the firstborn people later became the guardian of the only-begotten Son. Those who had violently lorded it over that people now serve Christ with devotion. No longer do they go to the Red Sea to drown there, but they are called to the waters of baptism in order to come alive. So was fulfilled the word which was said: “Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt.”[9]

Is he reaching here? This is “poetic license,” I would argue. For surely his central point remains: in the coming of the Savior, this King above all Kings, the land of pain is transformed into the land of salvation and memories of agony are transformed into shouts of hallelujah. In Christ Jesus, even an Egypt now has hope, for even Egypt has been visited by the God who loves us.

Yes, I give this anonymous writer a pass on his flight of eloquence, for if ever there was a time for men and women to lose themselves in flights of praise and wonder, it is this time: when Christ the Lord is delivered so that He can deliver, is saved so that He can save, is brought to Egypt so that He can be brought home, and, with Him, all who call on His name.

 

[1] Platt, David. Exalting Jesus in Matthew (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (Kindle Locations 841-843). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Craig S. Keener, Matthew. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Vol.1 (Downers Grove, IL: 1997), p.71.

[3] Craig S. Keener, p.71-72.

[4] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), p.39.

[5] D.H. Williams, trans. and ed., Matthew. The Church’s Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018), p.33.

[6] John A. Broadus, Commentary on Matthew. An American Commentary on the New Testament. Ed. Alvah Hovey. (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), p.22.

[7] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p.50.

[8] Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary) (p. 66). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[9] Thomas C. Oden, ed., Incomplete Commentary on Matthew (Opus imperfectum). Ancient Christian Texts. Matthew, vol. 1. Trans. By James A. Kellerman. Ser. Eds., Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.39.

 

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