By Egypt to Galilee and Nazareth
Vs. 13-15 – The wise men depart and now God sends a messenger to warn Joseph regarding Herod’s impending plans. This isn’t the first time that Joseph had been visited by God’s messenger in this way (see Matthew 1:20). The warning is to go to Egypt on account of Herod and his treachery. Why Egypt? First, Egypt was the closest country over which Herod had no control. He could not affect those who were living in that country. Second, Egypt was no longer the place of Pharoanic power. It was a Roman province which was host to millions of transient Jews. Alexandria, in fact, was a seat of Jewish study and learning. The family could feel relatively “at home” there, though in a foreign country. It’s possible that they may have even had distant relatives there. The Jewish people were so widely diverse in this day and age. They were scattered all the way from Babylon to Rome and Egypt to Europe. Third, and most importantly, their journey to Egypt was to fulfill prophecy regarding the Messiah. God knew the evil choice that Herod would make and was so able to inspire His prophets to speak regarding the fact of Jesus’ time in Egypt.
Joseph wasted no time in obeying God’s messenger. While it was still night he took the family and departed. They would remain in Israel until Herod died. This occurred relatively shortly after their descent to Egypt. Josephus records Herod’s death in his Antiquities, Book 17, chapters 6-8. Regarding Herod, he writes, “A man he was of great barbarity towards all men equally, and a slave to his passions; but above the consideration of what was right?.”
The prophecy fulfilled comes from Hosea 11:1, which states, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” Upon initial inspection, the words appear merely to be a historical statement regarding the nation of Israel’s escape from Egyptian captivity. We must, however, remember that the nation of Israel was typical of the Christ. Israel was the name that God gave Jacob who fathered the twelve tribes. It was given to him after Jacob fought with God’s messenger in Genesis 32:26-30. The context indicates that Israel means “the prince that prevails with God and man.” Jesus is referred to in scripture as a “Prince” (Acts 3:15; 5:31). Jesus prevailed over man in that he overcame the temptations that are common to man. Jesus also prevailed with God in that he was tempted but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Moreover, Isaiah also prophecies concerning the Messianic fulfillment of the name Israel (Isaiah 49:3). We conclude that Hosea 11:1 has a double meaning. There is the direct reference made to the nation of Israel, but there is also a typical reference as fulfilled by Jesus as Messiah.
Vs. 16 – It was not the intention of the wise men to deceive Herod. They were righteous men; but they fully recognized God’s authority in such matters and chose to obey God rather than Herod (Acts 5:29). So, from Herod’s perspective, it appeared that the wise men had lied to him and thus deceived him. In truth, they had not, though Herod had deceived them. One may properly conclude from the wise men’s behavior that commitments made under deceptive circumstances are null and void. Herod’s initial deception regarding his desire to worship the child nullified whatever commitment the magi had made to return and tell Herod of the child’s whereabouts. That Herod wanted to kill the child was not the circumstances under which their commitment was made. Hence, they were under no obligation to fulfill their promise.
This, of course, greatly incensed Herod. He couldn’t see the magi’s righteousness for his own wickedness. He thus assumes that they were wicked as well and thus he flew into a rage. Herod thus orders the death of all male children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the area surrounding. A fourth century story regarding this event tells that one of Herod’s own sons was killed due to this order which prompted the historian to quip, “It is better to be Herod’s hog than his son.”
This passage also deflates the modern myth that the wise men were present at Jesus birth, seeing that Herod’s concern was with children two years old and under. That the child was at most that old was indicated to Herod by the wise men in their conversations with him. Verse eleven also indicates this in that Jesus was already in a house by the time of their visit and not still in the stable. It is sad that men so conglomerate and distort scripture to accommodate their traditions. One might think, “but this is such a small matter” to which the words of Jesus are an appropriate reply, “He that is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much: and he that is unrighteous in a very little is unrighteous also in much” (Luke 16:10).
Vs. 17-18 – Ramah was a small town near Bethlehem and thus in the region that would have been affected by Herod’s malice. Rachel figuratively represents the mothers of the women whose children were lost as they were sons of the tribe of Benjamin, the historical Rachel’s son himself.
Yet again Matthew sets forth more prophecy fulfilled regarding the circumstances surrounding Jesus birth. This prophecy, taken from Jeremiah 31:15, in its original context refers to mourning the captivity of Judah. It is yet another example of the type and antitype prophecies that are so common in the scriptures. Babylon’s siege upon Judah resulted in the starvation of many of her citizens to the point where those under siege would murder their own children and consume them for want of meat (Lamentations 4:9-10). Herod’s wicked acts in slaughtering these innocent children were comparable in nature and were a sign that Israel was in need of reformation. His act thus elicited the same outcry and fulfilled the prophet’s words.
This “slaughter of the innocents,” as the event has come to be known, elicited this “lamentation, weeping, and great mourning.” There is no tragedy quite as great as a mother losing her child, particularly when it is the result of malicious wickedness. One can never truly be comforted from such a loss, at least, in this life, and the memory of that event would have opened the wound and evoked the same old feelings and heartache attendant to their loss. Such a sad and tragic event would have left an indelible memory in the minds of the Jewish people. Matthew’s recollection of these historical facts, therefore, served to confirm his story regarding Jesus’ journey to Egypt and gave sufficient reason for his leaving Bethlehem from where the Messiah was to come.
Herod’s act is also reminiscent of Pharaoh’s command to kill the male children in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-22). It was long remembered in the Hebrew national consciousness that out of that situation God raised up another deliverer, Moses. While Matthew doesn’t specifically make mention of that fact, the parallels would have been understood in the Hebrew mind. Here is one, who, like Moses, escaped death as a child and lived to deliver God’s people, but not from physical captivity, but spiritual (Matthew 1:21).
Vs. 19-23 – It wasn’t too long until Herod’s death. Josephus records that there was a lunar eclipse near that time (Antiquities, Book 17, 167). Astronomers have been able to date this lunar eclipse to March 13th, 4 B.C. This was still a few years prior to Herod’s death, but near enough that we know that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus would not have spent a lot of time in Egypt.
God’s messenger delivers the news of Herod’s death to Joseph in yet another dream. The initial command is to return to Israel because the one who sought Jesus’ life is now dead. Hence, he is no longer a threat. Herod appears to be the only one who had sought Jesus life, but the text says, “They are dead which sought the young child’s life.” This may be a further allusion to the life of Moses. In Exodus 4:19 God said to Moses, “Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead which sought thy life.” The allusion more closely parallels with the Septuagint than the Hebrew text.
Joseph obeyed and took Jesus and Mary back to Israel. Was he retuning to Bethlehem initially? It’s not stated in the text, but since this was the place of both Mary and Joseph’s heritage (Luke 2:4) it seems likely that he was.
Archelaus was Herod’s successor and it would have been common news who was going to be to replace Herod. Hence it was most likely that Joseph heard this information en route to wherever his initial destination was planned to be. He is properly concerned as Archelaus was Herod’s son. Joseph’s fear was likely that Archelaus would attempt to finish the work that his father failed to complete. God’s messenger confirms this in a dream and Joseph, being warned, returns to Galilee from whence he and Mary had originally come (Luke 2:4) and specifically to the village of Nazareth.
It is here that we find the last prophecy concerning the locative origins of the Messiah fulfilled, namely, that he would be called a Nazarene. Matthew quotes from no specific prophecy. He says “the prophets” because there were multiple ways in which the scriptures could be here applied to Jesus. There are, at least, two senses in which this prophecy is fulfilled. First in the sense that those who undertook the Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:1-21)?to be separated, consecrated, and holy while in fulfillment of the vow?typified the purity that was to be the life of Christ. A second sense comes from an understanding of the Hebrew word for “branch” as found in Isaiah 11:1, which word is “netzer.” It is clear that Isaiah was discussing the Messiah in that passage. One who is a “netzer” is a Nazarene. It is likely this latter sense to which Matthew is referring as several of the prophets refer to the Messiah as “the branch.” See also Jeremiah 23:5 and Zecheriah 3:8; 6:12.
Matthew thus proves by the scriptures in this chapter what needed to be done in order to convince the Jewish reader that Jesus had the credentials in order to be God’s Messiah. He fulfilled the prophecies related to the Messiah’s birth location. He fulfilled the prophecies related to the events surrounding His birth and in that regard is like Moses. And he also fulfilled the prophecies in regard to the places from which he came, Egypt and Nazareth, thus refuting one of the key criticisms that was leveled at Jesus during his lifetime. Those Jewish mental barriers having been removed, Matthew proceeds in chapter three to set forth more modern day associations with prophets, namely, that of John the baptizer.