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.