Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, 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.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt and remained there until Herod’s death. This was to make full what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the scholars, he was infuriated, and he gave orders to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under according to the time that he had learned from the scholars. Then was made full what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father, Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
I suggested earlier that ‘Matthew’ is the decidedly Jewish gospel. The writer of ‘Matthew’ is intimately familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures as one steeped in them, and more than any other gospel ‘Matthew’ is written in the First Testament’s literary world. Thus, similar to the genealogy, when we see a biblical place name like ‘Egypt,’ the chance that it bears no intended connection with the First Testament is nil. As much of the First Testament as ‘Matthew’ might call to the reader’s mind, at least as much should be brought to bear on the reading in some way. Egypt through the Bible holds the connotation of sort of refuge, a plan-B to which Israel frequently looks. This was the case for the family of Jacob during the drought in Canaan as for the kings of Judah looking for military aid against Assyria, yet the true nature of Egypt for Israel is perhaps best captured in the Assyrian quip, ‘Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it!’ (2 Kgs 18:21). Egypt is of course also frequently a snare for Israel, capturing their hope away from Yhwh and leading them into bad foreign policy, just as the success of the Hebrews in Egypt turned on them into the bonds of slavery. All to say, ‘Egypt’ is not an empty-set place name, and if we have already supposed through our reading of the genealogy that Jesus is to save Israel from its national sins insofar as he lives into the sinful history of Israel, the first years of Jesus’ childhood appear to mirror the first years of Israel’s peoplehood.
In speaking of Matthean theology, this is sometimes known as ‘recapitulation,’ the idea that Jesus re-performs the history of Israel in order to give it a better ending. If this is the project, then there are few better ways to begin the story than with a man named Joseph—who receives prophetic dreams, let’s not neglect—traveling from the Promised Land to Egypt under duress. If we feel like we’re missing Abraham in this version, let’s also not forget that we have a ‘child of the promise’ just like Isaac. Never mind some jumbling up of the figures, Jesus flees to Egypt in order to escape out of Egypt as a way re-preforming Israel’s history of immigration to and exodus from pharaoh’s land, and this positions Jesus in the figure of Israel as the story develops.
This seems to be what is meant by the quotation of Hosea 11:1, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son,’ which ‘Matthew’ declares hereby ‘fulfilled.’ Now, we should be careful in understanding this common formulation of ‘fulfilled’ Scriptures in ‘Matthew,’ however—else we think, on the one hand, that the First Testament doesn’t stand with its own integrity of meaning or, on the other, that the gospel writer is a terrible proof-texter who doesn’t know how to read Scripture in context. Hosea 11 is clearly not a messianic prophecy, as we can see from the text itself:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. / But the more I called Israel, the further they went to me. / They sacrificed to Baals, and they burned incense to images.
On the face of it, then, Hosea 11:1 isn’t anything to be fulfilled; it’s a retrospective spoken by Yhwh about the people Israel in a historical view. Surely the writer of ‘Matthew’ doesn’t mistake this recapitulation as a foretelling. Surely, then, this is not what ‘Matthew’ means by fulfillment. Above I opt for a more awkward translation of ‘made full’ simply in order to draw us away from the idea of fulfillment as a ‘making-come-true’ or ‘making-future-present’ and closer to its everyday meaning, wherein prophetic fulfillment would be bringing a prediction to completion, or, filling up its potential for meaning. In this sense, the Hosea passage, as with all of our later ‘fulfillments’ in this gospel, respects the native meaning of the text on its own terms while also suggesting that it had always had the potential for one more referent: that Jesus might be understood in the figuration of those words. Thus, Jesus’ childhood as a refugee finally fills up the meaning potential of ‘Hosea’s words, as well as of the Exodus event. This is of course no small claim being made at the outset of the First Gospel, that is, that the most defining events of Israel’s history were always actually ultimately about this Jesus of Nazareth.
‘Matthew’s co-option of Jeremiah 31:15 is similar, claiming that the lines about Judah’s contemporaneous suffering under military siege is at least as much about a relatively small massacre in a minor city, now that it can be reflected upon. Until this event, in other words, there was a true application to ‘Jeremiah’s words that remained to be known and, after this event, they could never have a more complete meaning than they have now that Jesus’ life events are understood within their fabric.
Finally, the Bethlehem massacre also brings home the legitimacy of the disquiet felt by Jerusalem at Jesus’ birth. When the balance of power is upset, the powerless can be the first to feel the violent effects, while the powerful insulate themselves with the powerless. We can be sure too that the far-off scholars were enjoying the peace of their own stable regime while those within the path of this brewing storm would have to receive the gospel of Jesus’ birth with greater trepidation and uncertainty. We’ll see still more of this when later the mounting Jesus’ popularity comes to a head.
Bringing it Home
This portion of the First Gospel delivers to us at least two points for reflection. The first reminds us of the figure that Egypt plays in Israel’s stories, always at least on the edge of their imagination of the world—a refuge but not a very good one, perhaps a staff for support but one that will splinter and pierce one’s hand. In sermons and devotionals we can sometimes talk about ‘Egypt’ as the place that escape form as Jesus leads us out of our various bondages. Rarely do we seem to talk about the ‘Egypt’ that we flee to, or, even that we hold in an escape plan in the back of our minds. I know that I have many such ‘Egypt’s. Sometimes they’re the same as the enslaving things the Gospel leads me out of—like pornography, like the pseudo-empowering ideations about suicide—but sometimes they’re far more benign by appearance—like my back-up plan of going back to graduate school if ministry doesn’t seem like it’s working out, or going to law school, or getting my teaching credentials, or . . . . Bottom line, I tend to keep a lot of back-up plans, and insofar as I imagine that these are things that I always have to rely on if I need to, I don’t have to rely on Gød; sure, the Promised Land will make a great home, should Gød ever come through, but I can live a good life in Egypt all the same. And with just that enticement, I render myself indifferent to the faithfulness of Gød.
The second point builds off the idea that we’ve been building thus far, especially considering ‘Matthew’s ‘fulfillment’ formula—that Jesus is not dropping down onto and supervening sweepingly over Gød’s work with Israel. The First Testament in ‘Matthew’s theology stands completely on its own terms; it wasn’t waiting for Jesus to make sense of it, but it was needing the Messiah to continue it forward toward completion. Gød does this by layering Jesus over the whole story of Israel in order to triple reinforce his place in the continuity of Israel, because this is what redemption is: not the overwriting of failure but the turning that very failure into good. As it is with Israel and with the First Testament, so is it with our own lives. Gød’s redemption doesn’t look like scrapping who you are and what your life has been; it looks like Jesus inhabiting you are now to redeem, to bring to completion and fullness everything your story has been. We can imagine from the vantage point of Heaven saying about some event in your life where Gød acts, ‘This was to make full that time twelve years ago when . . .’ and not long after, ‘And this was to make full when . . .’
Some questions for reflection, then: What does that ‘Egypt’ look like that promises to be a refuge but would only keep you a safe distance from the faithfulness of Gød? What are some of the ways that Gød has brought redemption to parts of your story by layering new significance onto its texture?