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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Out of Egypt I called my son: the rabbit in the hat trick

There are a number of well known “misreadings” of prophecy in the New Testament, where the writer, in his enthusiasm to prove that Jesus is Israel’s messiah, appears to have found a meaning in the text that simply is not there—rather as a magician pulls a rabbit out of an empty hat. It’s a great illusion. It might fool the credulous. But really! Anyone with an ounce of grammatical-historical sense will protest that it’s just a simple trick.

A case in point is Matthew’s claim that the return of Jesus from Egypt to the land of Israel fulfilled the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt. 2:15). It was mentioned by Jonathan yesterday in relation to the discussion of the messianic interpretation of Genesis 3:15. Jonathan suggests that it is an example of a rabbinic interpretive method known as remezim or “hints”. He refers to a very good article by his father on the whole subject of how the New Testament makes use of the Jewish scriptures. But I think there is something else going on here.

The prophet quoted by Matthew in this case is Hosea:

For Israel was an infant, and I loved him, and out of Egypt I recalled his children. As I recalled them, so they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baalim and offering incense to carved idols. (Hos. 11:1-2 NETS)

Hosea, of course, is not speaking of a future messiah. He is describing God’s distress over the faithlessness of his people: although he had redeemed them from slavery in Egypt, they had persistently turned away from him, preferring to worship the Baalim. The outcome would be disaster:

And ruin shall rise up against your people, and all your walled places shall disappear, as the ruler Salaman from the house of Jerobaal, in the days of battle, dashed a mother to the ground with her children. Thus will I do to you, O house of Israel, because of your evil deeds. At dawn they were cast out; Israel’s king was cast out. (Hos. 10:13-15 NETS)

This narrative may be loosely relevant—it mirrors the situation and outlook of first-century Israel. But there is probably a prior story being told in these early chapters. Matthew will shortly describe how Jesus passed through the waters of the Jordan in baptism and entered into the desert for 40 days, where he resisted the distortion of his vocation by citing Deuteronomy.

The reference in Matthew 2:15 to the exodus from Egypt, in a context that sharply highlights both the failure of Israel to fulfil its calling and the prospect of imminent judgment, clearly fits this typology. Matthew is constructing an Old Testament subtext for the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in order to present it as an ideal new beginning for the people of God. Israel initially made this journey in response to the saving action of YHWH but became disobedient. Jesus symbolically made this journey in response to the saving intention of YHWH but, when tempted to pursue an alternative course, remained obedient.

This suggests that what Matthew is doing is not reinterpreting or misinterpreting Old Testament prophecy but retelling the story of Jesus in such a way as to bring out the profound biblical significance of his ambition. This puts the onus of responsibility for the over-reading on Matthew, who has constructed the symbolic relationship between the story of Israel’s beginnings and the story of Jesus’ beginnings. He is not so much looking for Jesus in the Old Testament as looking for the Old Testament in Jesus.

Comments

What is your opinion of the historicity of the events described by Matthew? Does it matter to your understanding of the meaning of the text?

I agree that there is a narrative at work. I think that Matthew was 1) creating a narrative about Jesus that was based on his group’s understanding of the Hebrew scriptures; and 2) looking to find parallels within the scriptures for stories about Jesus that were passed down over the centuries.

The famous example of this is Matthew having Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a colt and an ass at the same time, which is not very likely, while the other gospels have him riding into town the standard way, on one aminal. Matthew is trying to justify Jesus through the Hebrew scripture.

Another example is the flight to Egypt. Luke says that Jesus was dedicated in Jerusalem 28 days after he was born, stressing how the local prophets recognized his specialness in the temple. But in Matthew that would have put him in the crosshairs of Herod, and he is trying to justify Jesus through the Hebrew scripture, so he uses the prophecy about Egypt. Yes, Matthew is telling a narrative, but that tells us more about him then it does about Jesus, IMO.

@paulf - Jerusalem really isn’t all that far from Bethlehem, it’s not a problem for the parents to want to take Jesus to the temple a month after he was born from there. We don’t know how long they stayed in that district, but it’s certainly possible that the magi visited after that.

When Herod decided the kill the children, it was all under 2 years old, so presumably some time has passed.

Daniel, while anything is possible, the stories make little sense if combined.

If in fact people within the Jerusalem temple were publicly acknowledging Jesus as the messiah, why would Herod need to kill all the boys under age 2? He just had to ask around. Certainly someone whose boy was about to be impaled would have given Jesus up.

The incident with Herod created a reason for Jesus to fulfil prophecy about Egypt and to answer why the messiah was raised in Nazareth even though the prophecies said he would come from Bethlehem. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary were residents of Bethlehem who fled to Egypt because of the dream and then resettled in Nazareth solely to avoid Herod.

In Luke, Joseph and Mary are Nazarenes who make the trip to Bethlehem solely because of the most unusual census in the history of mankind.  Then they take Jesus to Jerusalem. It might not be a problem to go from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem today in a minivan, but try making that trip on foot with a newborn. Anyway, according to the story: “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.”

In other words, when they left Jerusalem, they went straight to Nazareth. That wording would be strange – if not completely false and misleading – if in fact they returned two years later after a detour to Egypt.

Paul, I don’t dispute the problems. This doesn’t apply to the infancy narratives, but I think we also need to consider the possibility that Jesus himself contrived and interpreted circumstances and events in order to construct a narrative of renewal centred on himself. This would work for the baptism-wilderness sequence and for the triumphal entry. Whether Jesus arranged for one or two animals, depending on how he read Zechariah, wouldn’t make too much difference. I think that historical-critical interpretation has often not sufficiently considered the prophetic creativity of Jesus himself in some of these accounts, though that doesn’t exclude the possibility that tradition and the evangelists have further interpreted the event.