Holy Family – a context

Russian icon of the Flight into Egypt; the bot...Matthew 2:13-23. The Flight into Egypt 13 When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” 14 Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. 15 He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.”

19 When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “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 He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee. 23 He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazorean.”

Context.  The material in chapter 2 is unique to Matthew. It can be divided into four parts with each of them containing an OT quote, probably added by Matthew into traditional oral narrative material:

  • vv. 1-12 – The Visit of the Magi – with a quote from Micah 5:2
  • vv. 13-15 – The Escape to Egypt – with a quote from Hosea 11:1
  • vv. 16-18 – The Killing of the Children – with a quote from Jeremiah 31:15
  • vv. 19-23 – The Return from Egypt – with a quote from the prophets echoing Hos 11:1; it should be notes that “He shall be called a Nazorean” does not in fact occur anywhere in the OT, nor, as far as we know, in any other contemporary literature.  

Our Gospel encompasses the latter three parts above. However, the incident in these verses is “set up” by the star in the first part. If the star had led the magi directly to the child in Bethlehem rather than to Herod in Jerusalem, there wouldn’t be the massacre of the innocents with Joseph and the family fleeing to Egypt to protect the life of Jesus. As a general theme, life after Christmas is not all that peaceful for the Holy Family. Following the birth there is anger and murder, weeping and wailing, moving and resettling. In the same way, after our Christmas celebrations we are again confronted with the fact that the kingdom has not fully arrived. The “peace on earth” sung by the angels at Jesus’ birth (cf.Luke), is followed by death and destruction, suffering and evil (in Matthew’s account). Followers of Jesus should not be surprised if the same fate befalls them.

The passage Gospel reading on Holy Family Sunday follows immediately upon Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi and all the intrigue surrounding King Herod’s attempt to discern information about “the newborn king of the Jews.” (Mt 2:2). But in the larger context, Matthew is also setting a theme for the entire narrative of his gospel account. As Craig Keener notes:

The pagan astrologers worship Jesus; Israel’s ruler seeks his death, acting like a pagan king; Jerusalem’s religious elite—forerunners of Matthew’s readers’ opponents—take Jesus for granted. Matthew forces his audience to identify with the pagan Magi rather than with Herod or Jerusalem’s religious elite, and hence to recognize God’s interest in the Gentile mission. The God who sought servants from the pagan west like the Roman centurion (8:5–13) also sought previously pagan servants “from the east” (2:1; cf. Is 2:6) like the Magi. (The Gospel of Matthew; 97-98)

The deadly intent of King Herod leads the Holy Family to seek refuge in Egypt. There are scholars who hold that this is none but a literary device in order to have Jesus come out from Egypt, echoing the themes of the great Jewish narrative of the Exodus. Yet there is some evidence that points to something more. Second-century Jewish tradition, perhaps based on Christian claims, mentions Jesus’ stay in Egypt. It is not a positive mention; his stay is  associated with the sorcery held to be part of the Egyptian culture. There are rabbinic allegation that Jesus learned in Egypt the magical arts which enabled him to “lead Israel astray.” This motif is found as early as R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus at the end of the first century A.D., (France, 77) and became a recurrent feature in anti-Christian polemic.

And while Egyptian Christians undoubtedly eagerly developed the tradition of Jesus’ stay there, a first-century origin for their tradition is likely. In the first century Egypt boasted a large Jewish population, including perhaps one-third of Alexandria, in this period many other Jews sought refuge there. And the Holy Family became part of the flow of refugees.

Matthew expects all his readers to understand the primacy of Scripture and the centrality of Christ’s mission in Scripture; but he expects his more sophisticated readers to catch his allusion to Israel’s history as well. It is a way of assuring Matthew’s audience that Jesus identifies with his own people’s heritage. Thus there is also a literary narrative in play as it taps into two scriptural references – even if they do not fit neatly together. On the one hand, Jesus is the new Moses, and it was in Egypt that Moses escaped the infanticide of Pharaoh, and from Egypt that as an adult he fled to escape Pharaoh’s anger (Exod 2:11–15), returning eventually to Egypt when “for all those who sought your life are dead” (Exod 4:19, echoed by Matthew in 2:20).

But on the other hand Jesus is also the new Israel, God’s “son,” as the quotation from Hos 11:1 will presuppose; as patriarchal Israel went down to Egypt and came back to the promised land, so now does Jesus, the new Israel. If it is supposed that typology must depend on exact correspondences, Matthew’s typology here is decidedly loose, not only in that Jesus is seen both as the deliverer and the delivered, but also in that whereas Moses escaped from Egypt and returned to it, Jesus (like Israel) does the opposite. But typology depends on meaningful associations rather than exact correspondences, and in each of these quite different ways the mention of Egypt is sufficient to provide food for thought on the relation between the events God directed in Egypt more than a millennium ago and what the same God is now accomplishing through the new deliverer, who is identified by the prophetic text as his Son. Most significantly, Matthew teaches in this passage that in Jesus the anticipated salvation of God’s people has begun.

But there is also an element of justice that should not be overlooked. Matthew also teaches that Jesus was a refugee (2:13–14). Jesus’ miraculous escape from Herod’s clutches should not lead us to overlook the nature of his deliverance (cf., e.g., 1 Kings 17:2–6). Although travel within Egypt was easy for visitors with means, many Judeans had traditionally regarded refuge in Egypt as a last resort (2 Macc 5:8–9). Jesus and his family survived, but they survived as refugees, abandoning any livelihood Joseph may have developed in Bethlehem and undoubtedly traveling lightly. The passage then foreshadows Jesus’ rejection as an adult: the Son of Man already lacked a place to lay his head (8:20).

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