Exile – Matthew 2:12-23
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 22, 2009.
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. Many of us are enjoying the basketball season, although it does cut into sleep at times. When we’re not watching UNC, Wake, and Duke on TV, I’ve been reading P. G. Wodehouse in the evenings to the family. We enjoyed reading about the adventures of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in the car on vacation last summer, and had begun to miss them. I’m afraid that my accents for the different characters roam over much of the old British Empire, but for some reason I have the hardest time speaking like a visitor from New York. Rather than sounding like an upper crust lady, I sound like a guy ordering a bagel at Penn Station. Still it is fun to try to give voice to people like Bobbie Wickham, “the vermillion-haired menace to the common weal.” My daughter used that phrase on a red-haired friend of hers who is now studying in England. I’ll give a very long distance shout out to Laura. My students at Wake Forest have laden me with papers, which must be graded today. They seem to think they are the ones who are doing all of the work in my class.
Today is the last Sunday in Epiphany and it is the feast of the transfiguration of Jesus. This will be the last week in our study of the birth narratives of Jesus, and I’m afraid that the passage we are reading today provides a grim contrast to the glorious vision of the transfiguration in the lectionary. I’ll be preaching on that topic at Fries Memorial church right after this broadcast. Despite the apparent contradiction between Jesus’ exile and his transfiguration, there is a connection between these texts. Our lectionary text is about Jesus being revealed as in divine glory on Mount Hermon, which is a theophany or an epiphany for the disciples. The lesson for today is about King Herod’s response to the appearance of the Messiah, and it foreshadows the passion story.
Keep in mind when you listen to the gospel in church this morning that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is sandwiched between two predictions of his suffering. In other words, the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God is intimately connected with the rejection of Jesus by those in power. The passage we are studying today is harsh, and I know it can be disturbing. Many of you have been saddened by deaths of friends and family in the past week. Some of you also know the almost unbearable grief of having lost a child. Our prayers are with you, and we hope that unlike Rachel, you may comforted. People often ask me how I can believe in God when death is such a hard reality, and all I know to say is that it is God who wipes every tear from our eyes and gives me hope to face the pain of living. In fact, let us attend to the gospel.
Read: Matt 2:13-23
This is a famous story and has been the subject of some very graphic religious art through the centuries, but it presents a number of problems for modern historians. This story is not read much in churches today, but that is not because of questions about its historicity. It appears in the lectionary every third year on the Sunday after Christmas, which is one of the least attended Sundays in the year. It is very rare that Christmas pageants end with this story because it is so tragic and brutal. Who wants to explain what happened to the children born around the same time as Jesus? This is hardly the subject for a Christmas special. Who wants to think about Rachael weeping for her children while hanging stockings by the chimney? We do not like Bible stories that are “downers,” but this little story has important lessons for Christians to ponder today, and perhaps it is good that we are reading it just before Lent.
History or Literature? Many biblical scholars suspect that Matthew took two different stories and tried to work them into a single narrative. One story was about Magi from the east coming to worship the king of the Jews. The other story was about Herod trying to kill the Messiah in Bethlehem. Each story is plausible separately, but there are difficulties when we put them together. If the Magi told Herod exactly when the star appeared, why did he not know how old the baby was? If Herod was so worried by the news brought by the Magi, why didn’t he just send along a body guard with them to Bethlehem to see which child they identified as the messiah? If the star was guiding the Magi, why did they need to stop in Jerusalem to ask directions? If a group of men in foreign robes brought fabulous gifts to a house in Bethlehem, wouldn’t you expect someone to remember which house it was and point it out to the soldiers rather than having them kill everyone?
We could go on with such observations, and attempt to solve these riddles, but that would only distract us from exploring the real meaning of this story. It appears that Matthew was indeed working from older stories passed down by oral tradition, and that he assembled them this way to emphasize the fact that people responded to the good news of the birth of the Messiah in radically different ways. In other words, those scholars who think Matthew simply made this story up are probably wrong, but that does not mean that the story he tells is historically reliable. One fact in particular that has long troubled biblical scholars is that one has found any solid evidence that King Herod ever slaughtered infants in Bethlehem. There is nothing recorded in Jewish or Roman sources about such an atrocity, nor is it mentioned in the other gospels. Many scholars think it is impossible that something this horrible could have happened and it not be noted, but the sad truth about history is that so many crimes go unrecorded.
Herod: Most of what we know about the reign of Herod the Great comes from a single author, Josephus. He provides a great deal of information about Herod and his rise to power, but his account of Herod is often contradictory. Despite the breadth of Josephus’ histories, it is unlikely that he knew all of Herod’s deeds. Even in our modern time investigators discover atrocities that went unrecorded at the time they were committed. We are still uncovering mass graves in Eastern Europe, for instance. The only reason Matthew mentions the murder of the children in Bethlehem was because of Jesus.
We need to remember that this would not have been a big event in Herod’s biography. Movies and artwork depicting this crime generally magnify the scope of the event for dramatic effect. Bethlehem was a small village, and it is unlikely that there were more than a few children involved. That does not lessen the misery for the families, but it does help explain why this would not have been big news in Jerusalem. Though there is no evidence to support Matthew’s claim that Herod murdered children in Bethlehem, but we do have numerous stories about Herod that shed light on Matthew’s account.
Herod was called the Great, and it was a worthy name because he achieved much. His father was closely connected to the high priestly family that ruled Judea after the Maccabbean Revolt. Herod’s parents had converted to Judaism after their country was conquered, but there is little indication that Herod himself was concerned with religious matters other than in a political sense. He built the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem primarily as a political statement to demonstrate his power. The Talmud states that he built the Temple to atone for “having slain so many sages in Israel.” (IDB 2:590), which indicates that Herod has killed a number of scribes and Pharisees over the years.
Herod lived during the period when the Roman Republic was degenerating into an Empire, and his rise to power in Palestine was intimately connected with the civil war between Marc Anthony and Octavian. We don’t need to go into all of the details of imperial politics today. Suffice it to say that Herod was just as ruthless as any of the Roman politicians and generals of the day. Not only did he brutally suppress rebellions in his realm, he had rivals to his throne murdered. As king he was jealous of the popular high priest Aristobulus. Shortly after Pentecost he invited the young man to a party in Jericho. While they were swimming, he pretended to playfully dunk him under the water, but he held the man down until he drowned. When he suspected one of his wives of adultery, he had her lover murdered. Eventually he killed her as well – and her mother. Around the time that Jesus was born, Herod had two of his own sons executed for treason. Even the Roman emperor remarked, “in Herod’s house, his pigs are safer than his children.”
It is possible that the story of Herod murdering children in Matthew’s Gospel was based on the memory that Herod murdered his own children around the time that Jesus was born. It is certainly plausible that Herod would have killed children in Bethlehem if someone had convinced him that a child had been born that someone might claim was the Messiah. Just to make sure that no one claimed the child had lived, he would have put all children to the sword. In light of Herod’s other spectacular crimes, it would not be surprising if this atrocity was remembered only by the families who experienced it. Whether the events in Matthew’s account are historical, the story remains a grim reminder of the real politics of Jesus’ day. Herod was the kind of king who did such things, and his grandson beheaded the Baptist.
Israel: Let’s leave the historical King Herod aside for the moment and consider the story from a literary point of view. Several times we have discussed the importance of the Old Testament for understanding Matthew’s Gospel. We’ve seen that the author quotes the Old Testament frequently, apparently from more than one version of the Scriptures, and he begins his account of Jesus with a genealogy linking him to the key figures of Jewish history. We’ve also discussed the possibility that Matthew intentionally portrayed the father of Jesus like Joseph in the book of Genesis. Both men had and interpreted dreams that were important in the history of salvation. Using these clues, let’s look at this story in Matthew in light of the OT.
The most important event in the Old Testament was the Exodus from Egypt. This is the event that is remembered every year at Passover. Many scholars would say that it was the Exodus that made Israel into a unique nation under God. It was the event that revealed God as a liberator, and it was after the Exodus that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Throughout the Scriptures, prophets and priests rely on the Exodus event to describe who God is and why Israel should be obedient to God.
In case you haven’t seen the cartoon Prince of Egypt or watched Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments lately, let me refresh your memory about some of the key points of the Exodus story that shed light on Matthew 2. The story begins with Joseph who brought the children of Israel to Egypt in order to save them from a famine. In Israelite history, Egypt is both a place of refuge and a potential danger. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, Joseph has a dream that tells him to take his family to Egypt in order to save their lives. It sounds a little like the earlier story. Matthew even quotes the Old Testament to make a direct connection between the Exodus and the story of Jesus.
As the story goes, the Hebrews prospered in Egypt, but a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. The Hebrews were oppressed and are in bondage to the new Pharaohs. People in Egypt have reported to me that there are still hard feelings on the part of some Jewish tourists about this bondage 3000 years later. One of the problems with religious rituals is that they can keep grudges alive for a long time.
For reasons that remain somewhat obscure the Egyptian Pharaoh felt threatened by the Hebrews and ordered that all of the male children be killed. There is little doubt that Matthew viewed Herod as a new Pharaoh willing to kill his own children if he felt threatened. Whether of not Herod actually did slaughter the children in Bethlehem, Matthew wants us to remember the original story of Pharaoh trying to eliminate the Hebrews through genocide. One child by the name of Moses survived the slaughter thanks to the cunning of his mother, Jochebed. Likewise, the baby Jesus survived the wicked machinations of an insane king by the cunning of his father who takes him into exile.
Egypt: This account of the holy family seeking refuge in Egypt became very important to the people in Egypt who converted to Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. We often forget that there were many Christians in Africa before the rise of Islam, and to this day about 15% of Egyptians remain Christian. They are called Copts, and the Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches. It was in Egypt that Anthony sold all that he possessed and the poor. He went into the desert to live as a hermit, and this was the beginning of monasticism. It was in Egypt that Clement and Origen used Greek philosophy to communicate Christian truths and helped created the doctrine of the Trinity. Matthew tells us that Egypt received Jesus even before he was baptized.
Coptic legends give details about the flight of the holy family through Egypt along the Nile, and there are numerous accounts of miracles along the way. Stories were told about how Joseph sold the gifts of the Magi to provide food and shelter for his family. Every exile learns that no possession is too precious to sell when your family is hungry. Some of the legends in Egypt are connected with sacred sycamore trees that miraculously grew to provide shade for Mary and the baby or sacred springs that provided water. Many of those sites were earlier associated with the Egyptian deities Hathor and Osiris. When Egyptian priests converted to Christianity, they told the story of Jesus in ways that would help the pagans convert from worship of such gods to the adoration of Jesus and Mary, much the way Patrick used Celtic legends to convert the Irish to Christianity.
Exile: The story of Jesus’ exile in Egypt has become even more important for Christians around the world today than it was in ancient times. The 20th century was probably the most violent age in the history of humanity. Some of you have witnessed first hand the devastating effects of war in Europe, the Pacific, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia. Whole nations disappeared in the 20th century, leading to mass migrations of peoples across continents. For the past fifty years, Africa has been the setting for one mass exodus after another. The sight of long lines of people, many of them pulling two-wheeled carts piled with their possessions or elderly relatives is all too familiar to us. War has become the scourge of the powerless throughout the world, adding its unique horrors to the persistent suffering of the poor.
There are so many refugees and “displaced persons” in the world that the United Nations has a high commission on refugees, which attempts to ameliorate their suffering. Currently they are trying to assist over 30,000,000 people who are in exile from their homes because of war and political oppression. Many of these refugees are Christian, and this little story in Matthew’s Gospel has been a source of encouragement since it shows that the Son of God shares their suffering. Exile was a reality for Jesus and remains a reality for millions. As we read the Gospel, we should remember that there are millions of Rachels today weeping for children who could not be saved from the ravages of war.
Conclusion: For those of us living in relative comfort and security, the story of Jesus’ “first exile” should awaken our compassion. Many of those legends about the flight to Egypt include tales of strangers who had compassion on a homeless woman and her child. If you are moved by this story to show concern for those in exile, you may be interested in a conference on immigration being held in Valdese, NC on March 21. It is co-sponsored by the Waldensian Church and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. You can learn more about immigration and ways that churches can respond. Even if you cannot attend the conference, at least remember in your prayers those in exile as Jesus was.
Postscript, Nazareth: Matthew tells us nothing about the life of Jesus in Egypt. Later legends described him learning all sorts of things from the Egyptians, but the early bishops rightly rejected most of those legends. All Matthew tells us is that after Herod died, Joseph took his family to live in Galilee because he was afraid of Herod’s son who had become king. Once again, it was a dream that pointed the way.
You may have noticed that Matthew and Luke disagree on whether Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. Luke, you will recall, said that they had to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census. Matthew indicates that they always lived in a house in Bethlehem and only moved to Nazareth because of fear of the king. It is a minor detail, but it is further evidence for why we should not insist that there are no contradictions or factual mistakes in the Bible. All of the gospel writers agree that Jesus did grow up in Nazareth even if he was born in Judea. There are clues in the various gospels that some of the authorities looked down on him because he came from a hick town in the provinces, but Matthew offers a theological interpretation to Jesus being from Nazareth. He claims that this was to fulfill a prophecy.