Jesus, Egypt, and the mothers of Bethlehem

… so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet…” Matthew 2:15

Something a little different – even a little technical – this time.

That prospect might put you off! – but I hope you will fasten your seat-belt and stick with me, because it’s all about how we should read and understand the Bible, not least various passages which we tend to skim over without really thinking about them – and passages in which people sometimes see a problem.

Last time we looked at the story of the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt to escape the murderous venom of King Herod (Matthew 2:13-23). The story is clear enough: no problem there.

But three times in just eleven verses Matthew quotes Old Testament passages and states that they find their “fulfilment” in the events he is describing. Christians have, as a result, often referred to these passages as fulfilments of “prophecy” – in other words, that events predicted by the prophets are now coming true in Jesus.

But is that so? The fact is that in none of the three cases are the prophets’ original words looking to the future. So how can they be said to be predictions of things that happened to Jesus?

Let’s take them in turn…

  1. Matthew 2:15: “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’.”

The quote is from Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I have called my son.”

It’s very clear that Hosea is looking not forward to Jesus, but backward to the events of the Exodus under Moses. The word “son” refers not to Jesus, but to Israel as the people of God.

  1. Matthew 2:18: “A voice is heard in Ramah… Rachel weeping for her children…”

This quote (I’ve only quoted part of it) is from Jeremiah 31:15. This long chapter is one of the gems of the Old Testament, bursting with hope and joy and climaxing in the wonderful promise of a “new covenant” (verses 31-37). But tucked away in the middle is this solemn verse about “mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children… because they are no more”. In the original context it probably refers to the mothers of Israel heart-broken as they see their sons led away into captivity by the Babylonian army.

  1. Matthew 2:23: “… he will be called a Nazarene”.

This is a mystery – the words “Nazarene” or “Nazareth” simply never appear in the Old Testament! Yet Matthew says that these words were “said through the prophets”. Really, Matthew? What prophets?!

Various theories have been put forward to explain this, and I don’t have the space (not to mention the competence!) to open them up here: if you want to do so, I would simply encourage you to get hold of a couple of good commentaries and do your own research. (And if you find a convincing explanation, please let me know!)

But what about the other two quotes?

The answer is in fact fairly straightforward: when the New Testament talks about events in Jesus’ life “fulfilling” Old Testament passages it doesn’t necessarily mean that those passages directly predicted those events.

No: it means that those Old Testament references somehow prefigured, or hinted at, things that would happen in the life of Jesus. (The technical word for this is “typology”.)

We could put it this way: while of course God never simply repeats himself, his workings in history often take on a pattern, a “type”, which, so to speak, shows his finger-prints. “God is at work! God is on the move!” the writers seem to be saying – “and we sense this because memories are stirred of things that happened in the past!”

So… as Matthew reflects on the fact that Jesus spent time in Egypt, it reminds him that ancient Israel too spent time in Egypt; and just as Israel was liberated from captivity in Egypt under Moses, so the new Israel will be liberated from sin under the new Moses, God’s Son Jesus.

And so, for him, Hosea 11:1 glows with a new significance; it receives a new “fulfilment”.

Likewise, as he reflects on the terrible story of Herod’s “massacre of the innocents” and the heart-break of the parents, Jeremiah 31:15 springs to mind: “Rachel weeping for her children”. Another verse takes on a whole new significance, a new “fulfilment”. Yes, God will deliver his people: but there will be pain and sorrow along the way.

So there isn’t in fact a problem at all – we just need to understand how the minds of the Bible writers worked as they pondered the way God acts in history.

If nothing else, Matthew’s use of these Old Testament passages – seeing “fulfilment” where we might see only coincidence – reminds us that God is, indeed, “working his purpose out as year succeeds to year”, as an old hymn puts it.

As we stand on the threshold of 2019, perhaps we too should look for God’s finger-prints in world events today!

Lord God, you are sovereign over all creation. Help us to see your hand at work in the unfolding of human history – especially when events are confusing and you seem to be far away. Amen.

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