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.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18‘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.’
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20‘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.’ 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But 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. 23There 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.’
Translation: But when they had departed, behold! an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Rise, take the child and his mother and flee into Egypt and be there until I might answer you, for Herod will seek the child, to destroy him." And he rose (and) took the child and his mother by night and he went to Egypt and he was there until the death of Herod so that it might be fulfilled what had been said by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
Then Herod, seeing that he had been mocked by the magi, became exceedingly enraged, and he sent forth (and) killed all the children that were in Bethlehem and in all its borders, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the magi. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying: "A voice in Rama was heard, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and was not willing to be comforted, for they are no more."
But when Herod died, behold! an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Arise, take the child and his mother into the land of Israel, for the ones seeking the life of the child have died. And he arose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus ruled in the Judeans instead of his father Herod he was struck with fear to go there. But after being called in a dream, he departed into the region of Galilee. And he came (and) lived in a town called Nazareth so that it might be fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he will called a Nazarene.
Background and situation: As John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg note, chapters 1-2 of Matthew--Matthew's Christmas story--might be compared to a symphonic prelude. The symphonic prelude sets the stage for the whole work, and introduces themes which will be explored in the rest of the work.
One major theme of Matthew is to present Jesus is the "new Moses." As one proceeds through Matthew, thematic elements from the life of Moses will be "replayed" in the life of Jesus. For example, Matthew likes groupings of five. The number five is symbolic of the five books of Moses. There are 5 "books" in Matthew, each introduced by a major speech of Jesus.
In Matthew's Christmas story (chapters 1-2), there are five dreams. Three of them are in this week's text. In the third dream, an angel of the Lord "appeared." The word is phanetai, which means "brought forth into light." (It is the root that forms the word for "epiphany.")
Meet the new pharoah; same as the old pharoah: Joseph is instructed to take the family and flee to Egypt, which is a traditional place of refuge. (Uriah fled to Egypt in Jeremiah 26: 21.) They must flee to Egypt because Herod wants to "destroy" Jesus. This recalls Pharoah, "who sought to slay Moses" (Ex 2: 15).
There are also five Old Testament citations in Matthew 1-2. Again, three of them are in this text. "Out of Egypt I have called my son" is from Hosea. It is not a prediction of Jesus, but rather a commentary on the Exodus. (Hosea 11: 1-4) Matthew is making creative use of it to point to Jesus, who would, as Moses did, liberate his people.
Just as Pharoah commanded the murder of male children in the day of Moses, so Herod commands the murder of male children in the day of Jesus. In his history of the period, Josephus says nothing about Herod slaughtering young children, although Herod was certainly capable of this kind of thing. When he came to power, appointed by rare agreement between Octavian and Mark Antony in 37 BC, Herod murdered the entire Sanhedrin. Herod also murdered two of his own sons, which prompted Caesar Augustus himself to say, "It is safer to be a pig in a parent's household than to be a son in Herod's court." (Caesar is making a play on two Latin words which doesn't come through as well in English.)
In light of Herod's known character, underlined by Matthew yet again, one wonders about the translation of verse 16. Herod was exceptionally enraged because he had been "tricked" or "mocked" by the magi. He ordered the death of the male children after he had "diligently inquired" (KJV) the time of his birth from the magi. The word translated as "diligently inquired" is akribao. Did Herod torture the magi?
Herod knew that he would not be mourned when he died so he ordered that dozens of executions take place right before his death so that there would at least be mourners in the city. The order, fortunately for three hundred or so of Jerusalem's citizens, was not carried out. Matthew's purpose is to lift up this truth about Herod, that he was a power-mad murderer, and associate him in peoples' minds with Pharoah.
Herod wanted to kill all the male babies "in and around Bethlehem." Bethlehem itself was a relatively small town. There would be only a few male babies there. If you include "in and around Bethlehem," however, then we may be talking about Jerusalem as well since it is only about five miles from Bethlehem. The idea of killing all the male children under two years of age, in the whole region, is a way of saying that human escape from the situation was not possible.
Incidentally, this episode ought to give pause to those people who argue that Jesus' main purpose was to die on the cross. If all Jesus was here for was to die, then it wouldn't have mattered if Herod had, in fact, killed him as an infant. If all he's here for is to die, what difference does it make how old he was when it happened?
The Old Testament citation--"a voice was heard in Ramah"--is from Jeremiah 31:15 and it has to do with the Exile into Babylon c. 600 BC. Rachel--the mother of Israel--is weeping because her children are being deported. (Ramah is where the Israelites gathered for their forced march to Babylon.)
Notice that, unlike other Old Testament citations in Matthew, the murders of the children do not fulfill God's intention. (Matthew lacks the "in order that" clause which he normally uses in these cases.) The murders affirm what had already been spoken by the prophets, but do not have God's endorsement.
Nazorean?: Herod died in 4 BC. His son, Archelaus, inherited his rule of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, and lasted until AD 6 when the Romans threw Archelaus overboard and installed Quirinius. (His father's son, Archelaus promptedly killed 3000 Jewish leaders when he came to power.)
An angels appears again in a dream and instructs Joseph to go back to the land of Israel. As to the dream itself, Matthew most likely has in mind Exodus 4: 19 where God instructs Moses to go back to Egypt "for all those who are seeking your life are dead" (Ex 4:19). Matthew 2:20 is phrased similarly.
Under the circumstances, however, it is hard to see how Galilee would be a lot safer for Jesus even though Herod had died. Considering that Herod Antipas, Herod's son and, later, the slayer of John the Baptist, was now the ruler of Galilee, Jesus' level of safety has not risen a great deal.
Matthew vaguely cites "the prophets" as saying that "he will be called a Nazarene." He couldn't specify a particular prophet since none had ever spoken of Nazareth. In fact, the word "Nazareth" does not appear in the Old Testament at all.
Either Matthew made this one up because, somehow, he had to get Jesus to Nazareth since everybody knew that Jesus was, in fact, from Nazareth, or this may be a hint that Jesus had taken the "nazarite vow", i.e. that he had taken a vow, as Samson and perhaps John the Baptist had, to avoid strong drink and not cut his hair.
Matthew presents the birth of Jesus as a recapitulation of the history of Israel. He survives assassination, as did Moses. He goes to Egypt, as his people once did, and comes out again, as his people also did. He is afflicted by Herod, as Moses was afflicted by Pharoah. Rachel, the mother of the nation, is his mother too.
Thus, he is a fitting "Messiah," one who encapsulates the history of his people, and one who will lead them into a new relationship with God, with each other, and even with their enemies.
Image: Massacre of the Innocents, Nicolas Poussin