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Matthew 2:13-23

Herod seeks to kill Jesus, which is why Jesus ends up as a refugee in Egypt, and then in Nazareth.

Tom Faletti

February 13, 2024

Matthew 2:13-23 Jesus becomes a refugee, avoids a massacre, and ends up in Nazareth


Matthew tells this part of the story to help us understand how Jesus could be the Messiah even though he grew up in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.


Why does Joseph take Jesus and Mary to Egypt?


It was common for Jews to hide out in Egypt if they were in trouble in Judea; there were Jewish communities in a number of Egyptian cities, so they would not have felt totally alone.  Still, it was a long way from home.


Jesus began his life as a refugee.  Fortunately, Joseph and Mary did not have to convince a skeptical government that the family was worthy of asylum status.  God was willing to become not only a human, not only a poor person, but a refugee.  How does that help us understand the inherent dignity of refugees and the importance of being welcoming to them?


The “fulfillment prophecy” that Matthew cites in verse 15 is not actually about Jesus or the Messiah.  It was a statement from Hosea 11:1 about the fact that God called his “son,” the people of Israel, out of Egypt, long ago.  Matthew repurposes it, perhaps to try to convince Jews that there is a huge amount of evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures pointing to Jesus.  Matthew might also be thinking that Jesus’s experience of being brought out of oppression is a foreshadowing of our own experience of being brought out of oppression by Jesus.


Matthew’s frequent use of these “fulfillment prophecies” leads some scholars to conclude that Matthew is picking out Old Testament prophecies and then creating stories to fit them.  There is no evidence that he is doing that.  Rather, it appears that he is organizing the stories he knows about Jesus and then searching the Old Testament to see if it has “prophecies” that might fit with those events.  The stories come first; not the prophecies.


When the wise men do not return to him, what does Herod do?


Bethlehem was not a large town, so scholars think this would have been a slaughter of perhaps 20 or 30 children.  While not large in number, all the children killed by Herod would have been deeply mourned by their mothers and fathers.  Some scholars think the killing of the innocents is inspired by Pharaoh’s killing of the first-born sons of the Israelites before the exodus from Egypt, but again if Matthew created the story for that purpose he could easily have made the connection explicit and he did not.


The “fulfillment prophecy” in verse 18 is from Jeremiah 31:15, where the original verse is about the Israelites being forced into exile by the Babylonians.  It is followed by prophecies that the people will return from exile.  Ramah was 5 miles north of Jerusalem, so it was 10 miles from Bethlehem.  Rachel’s tomb was thought to be in the vicinity of Bethlehem.  Matthew puts that all together and sees Jesus.


Where do you think God was, as this was happening?


God allows humans to do a lot of evil things, without intervening.  Why do you think that is?

God is guiding us to be people who as fully as possible reflect God’s image.  If he intervened every time something bad happened, we would not be able to learn the lessons of our actions and would not grow to spiritual maturity.  Also, we might stop trying to be our best selves, figuring that God will make things better if we mess up.  Allowing us to do evil is the price that must be paid for giving us the chance to grow and mature and be great: to take on the mind of Jesus, to be the Body of Christ to the world, to live in the power of the Spirit.


Jesus escapes from a tyrant by going to Egypt and then returning when the tyrant is gone.  How does this connect with Moses’s escape, as an infant, from a pharaoh who was a tyrant in Egypt, and the Israelites’ later escape from a tyrant pharaoh in Egypt?


The words “go . . . for those seeking the child’s life are dead” (2:20, NRSV) echo the Lord’s direction to Moses to go back to Egypt because the Pharaoh who wanted to kill him is dead (Exodus 4:19), setting up a possible linkage between Jesus and Moses: Jesus is the new Moses, leading his people out of oppression and giving them a new Law.


When Herod dies, why doesn’t Joseph go back to Bethlehem?


Joseph is afraid of Herod’s son Archelaus, who is given the southern territory including Jerusalem and Bethlehem by his father.  Joseph had good reason to be afraid of Archelaus.  Archelaus was so oppressive and hated so much by the Jews that he was eventually deposed from his position by Rome.  Recall that Herod’s roots were in Idumea.  Archelaus had roots in Idumea and Samaria, so he was even more suspect of not being a real Jew, and he treated the Jews so horribly that this suspicion was confirmed in the people’s minds.


Joseph goes north to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth, a place far away from Jerusalem and not under Archelaus’s jurisdiction.


Matthew’s final “fulfillment prophecy” in this chapter (verse 23) cannot be found in the Old Testament.  Scholars have searched and never found anything that matches.  So we don’t know what Matthew had in mind here.  The closest thing is a prophecy before Samson is born that Samson will be a “nazirite” (Judges 13:5), but that is not the name of a place.  Perhaps Matthew was inviting a connection to the nazirites, which were Israelites, including Samson and Samuel, who consecrated themselves to God, never drank alcohol, and never cut their hair, among other strict practices (Numbers 6).  But the connection is flawed, since Jesus didn’t live an ascetic life and refrained from the demonstrations of human strength that Samson excelled at.  Other scholars point to a possible word-play as Isaiah 11:1 talks of a “branch” arising from the stump of Jesse, and the Hebrew word for “branch” is netser, which sounds similar to the beginning of the name Nazareth.  Since Jesus fulfilled in his own person some prophecies that were addressed to “Israel,” some scholars think this word-play hinting at the branch that arises from Israel is in Matthew’s mind.  All of these are nice ideas, but we don’t know what Matthew had in mind; so this suggested quote remains a puzzle.


Even if we don’t expect God to communicate to us nowadays through dreams, how is Joseph a role model for seeking guidance from God?

When you figure out what God is asking you to do, do it!; make yourself open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit; trust that God has a way forward for your life; take care of those around you; be aware of what is going on around you in the world, but don’t be paralyzed by it.


Joseph settles his family in Nazareth.  What do you know about Nazareth as a place to live and work?


Joseph might have seen that he could find good work in the area of Nazareth, especially in Sepphoris, 5 miles away.  This is explained in Raymond Brown’s one-volume biblical commentary: “Joseph, involved in the building trade, probably settled in in Nazareth, because he could find abundant work in neighboring Sepphoris, which Herod Antipas was rebuilding as his capital at that time” (Benedict T. Viviano, O.P., “The Gospel According to Matthew,” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, para. 15, p. 636).


Historians say that Sepphoris, though a Jewish city, did not join the Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in 66 A.D., suggesting that it took a more cosmopolitan rather than strictly Jewish approach to life under Roman occupation.


How might this choice of a hometown have affected Jesus as he grew up?


Although Nazareth was a small town, it was not a backwater.  Besides being just 5 miles from Herod Antipas’s capital at Sepphoris, it was nestled in the fabric of trade routes to faraway places.  The major north-south Roman highway along the coast from Syria to Egypt ran through Israel less than 15 miles west of Nazareth.  Nazareth was also the crossroads of two smaller highways that served as trade routes, one starting at Ptolemais on the coast (modern-day Acre, Israel) and running southeast to Samaria, and the other running northeast to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee (see “Palestine in the time of Jesus, 4 B.C. - 30 A.D.: (including the period of Herod, 40 - 4 B.C.),” Library of Congress,  As a result, Jesus, as a growing child and as a young man, would have been exposed to other cultures and a bigger world even while living in his Jewish village.



This is all we get from Matthew for the “Christmas story” – very little compared to what we have from Luke.  What important points about the background, birth, and infancy of Jesus are provided to us by Matthew?

Jesus is Son of David, son of Abraham, Son of God due to his virgin birth, Emmanuel (“God with us”), perhaps a new Moses, born in Bethlehem, and raised in Nazareth.  His birth story shows how the hand of God protects a little one so that he can grow up and save us, and the first people to recognize that this little one is great is a small group of Gentiles, a bit of foreshadowing that continues to play out as Matthew shows that the gospel is for Gentiles as well as Jews.


How do you see the hand of God working subtly but decisively to bring good out of evil in these stories?


How do you see the hand of God doing the same thing in your life?


Do you think Matthew succeeds in making his point that Jesus fulfills the messianic prophecies even though he grew up in Nazareth, not Bethlehem?  Explain.


What can you take from this story of the wise men, Herod, Joseph, and Jesus to strengthen your faith or your approach to God?



Take a step back and consider this:


God could have chosen anywhere in the world for his Son to be born as a human.  He could have selected a “chosen people” anywhere.  He could have chosen any time in history for his coming.  God chose this particular people, whose particular history placed them in this particular place in the world at this particular time.  At this particular time, the Roman Empire made it easy to spread a message far and wide.  Growing up in Nazareth would place Jesus among people who could both nurture him in the monotheistic culture of Judaism and also expose Him to the rest of the world, and living at a minor crossroads could help him tailor his message to speak to both Jews and Gentiles and prepare the way so that his followers could use their location in the midst of the Roman Empire to take the gospel ultimately “to the ends of the earth.”


You also live at a particular time, in a particular place, among a particular people, at a crossroads of particular relationships and opportunities.  God desires to work through you to share some piece of his good news with some particular people by your words and actions.  How is God calling you to use the embedded realities, relationships, and crossroads of your life to bring his good news to others and make the world more like the kingdom of God that it was meant to be?


What is God calling you to do next, where you are?



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Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

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