The depth of the Spirit inspired Jewish character of the Gospels is often missed in our contemporary world. Today we will look at how Matthew thinks we are experts in Exodus “pattern” and have lots of Jewish tradition floating in our heads as he begins the story of the Messiah.
The existence of Luke shows us there was more than one way to tell the amazing story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Both Luke and Matthew, however, are stunningly Jewish in their writing though they tell the story quite differently.
Matthew’s Baby Moses “Pattern”
For Matthew, the history of Israel is recapitulated in Jesus. Jesus is Israel. Israel is the template for Jesus.
For example, it is difficult to know the story of baby Moses in any detail and miss how Matthew uses it as the pattern for the story of baby Jesus in chapter 2. Note these rather remarkable parallels Matthew fully expects us to see.
1) Matt 2.13-14: Herod desires to slay Jesus so Joseph takes Mary and baby Jesus away
Ex 2.15: Pharaoh desires to slay Moses, so Moses goes away
2) Matt 2.16: Herod commands all male boys of Bethlehem, 2 and under, murdered
Ex 1.22: Pharaoh commands all male Israelite boys to be murdered
3) Matt 2.19: Herod dies
Ex 2.23: Pharaoh dies
4) Matt 2.19-20: The Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, ‘go back for those seeking Jesus’s life are dead’
Ex 4.19: The Lord speaks to Moses, ‘go back for those seeking your life are dead’
5) Matt 2.21: Joseph took Jesus and Mary back to Israel
Ex 4.20: Moses took his wife and children and returned to Egypt
The Nativity of Moses
As significant as these are, Matthew is not done. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Moses and the Exodus in the biblical and Jewish tradition. Lots of traditions grew up about Moses, just like they do every notable person.
The writing known as The Antiquities of the Jews, written by the first century Jewish historian Josephus, retells the “nativity” of Moses. Josephus does not tell this as a tale, or legend, but seems to think it is actual history. The story, not something Josephus invented, reveals what Jews of the first century believed about the birth of Moses. If this does not sound familiar we may need to read Matthew more often.
1) Pharaoh learns that the Hebrews constitute an existential threat to his Egyptian Empire
2) This knowledge comes via a vision by a “sacred scribe.” The scribe had a vision that foretold the birth of an Israelite boy whose name would be remembered through all future generations.
3) When Pharaoh heard this news “fear and dread” come over the Egyptians. So Pharaoh decreed all male Israelite boys to be thrown into the Nile in response to the vision by the scribe.
4) Moses’s father, Amram (cf. Ex 6.20), prayed to the Lord when he learned of the decree. God appears to Amram in a dream and promises safety for the child who will grow to be a savior of the people. Part of God’s speech is worth quoting as it appears on Josephus:
“Know, therefore, that I shall provide for you all in common what is for your good, and particularly for thyself what shall make thee famous; for that child, out of dread of whose nativity the Egyptians have doomed the Israelite children to destruction, shall be thine child and shall be concealed from those who desire to destroy him. When he is brought up in a surprising way, he shall deliver the Hebrew nation …” (Antiquities of the Jews 2. IX, 3, Whiston’s translation)
5) Thus Pharaoh’s plan to destroy the child are thwarted, ironically, by the Pharaoh who saves baby Moses from certain death from the “sacred scribe” who recognized the child.
6) At this point Josephus presents Moses’s genealogy just as Matthew does.
(For a detailed study of Moses and Jesus parallels in the birth narrative of Matthew see Raymond Brown’s, The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 112-119)
What are we to make of all of this?
First, is the Christian faith and the Gospel message regarding Jesus simply cannot be divorced from its Jewish soil. To do so does incredible violence to the message that the Holy Spirit gave.
Second, Matthew is making a claim. Every Jew knew the amazing story contained in Exodus. Jews knew the stories about Moses that Josephus bears witness. The Moses story is a story of divine power being exercised in pure grace on behalf of powerless slaves. The Exodus was “unique.” It was unparalleled before and since. But Matthew’s claim is that now the God who acted then, is acting in Exodus like fashion again. The Exodus did not end with the crossing of the Red Sea. Exodus ends with Immanuel … God living with the redeemed slaves through the Tabernacle (See Exodus 40.34-38). Matthew’s story of Jesus does not end either with the birth nor the death of Jesus. Matthew’s story is that now, in Jesus, God is living with us. Matthew states this at the beginning (1.23), the middle (18.20), and the end of his Gospel (28.20).
God does not merely save. God dwells with God’s people. From the beginning Matthew tells us that the Exodus acting God is doing it again and he is not merely saving but Immanuel has come. God is dwelling with his people, not in a tent, but in a person – Messiah.
Baby Moses and Baby Jesus are powerful messages of the redeeming and dwelling God. Jesus’s life and mission follow the pattern of salvation given in the Exodus. Matthew’s story of the nativity tells us Christmas not only has a long history with infants but goes way beyond their births … all the way to “God is with us.”
Maybe we should remember that even in the New Heavens and New Earth when all God’s People will sing the Song of Moses and the Lamb.