FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
December 30, 2007
Psalm 148 (13)
1a. CONTEXT: Mt. 2:13-15, 19-23
This (edited) pericope closes the Matthean infancy narrative.
Ostensibly it explains the "whence" of Jesus, as part of Matthew's
plan to lead the reader progressively through the "Who,How,Where, and
Whence" of the Messiah (R.Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 52-54).
Thus the pericope balances Jesus' being born in Bethlehem and his
being raised in Nazareth. In the infancy narrative Matthew has
clustered five "formula quotations" relating Jesus to the Old
Testament, with emphasis on place names (which are otherwise of no
concern in Matthew's use of the Old Testament). The OT miliue of the
narrative is further heightened by the numerous parallels to the lives
of both Joseph and Moses. According to brown, the narrative material
is pre-Matthean and was quite likely taken over by him in its present
shape. Matthew, however, was responsible for the addition of the OT
The NT infancy narratives are part of a larger Biblical and
extra-Biblical tradition of miraculous births. The questions of
history which we are inclined to ask, seem quite unimportant to the
Biblical writers. The existence of miracles and accuracy of
predictive prophecy are assumed. Behind the stories one discovers the
firm belief that in these human affairs, God takes an active interest.
God participates in bringing about salvation for his people. Thus the
critical interpreter is helped by standing in this tradition of
affirming God's active presence, for then these texts can be fully
appreciated as a theological witness of the highest order.
In terms of its lectionary context, Matthew's infancy narrative is
rather jumbled and, therefore, Brown's scheme is difficult to develop.
The genealogy is never read. We read Joseph's first dream on Advent
IV, the story of the Magi on Epiphany (after Christmas 2) and the
massacre of the innocents on December 28, if ever.
1. TEXT: Mt. 2:13—23
The Flight to Egypt
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Herod Kills the Children
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
The Return to Nazareth
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
English Standard Version
13αναχωρησαντων δε αυτων ιδου αγγελος κυριου φαινεται κατ οναρ τω ιωσηφ λεγων, εγερθεις παραλαβε το παιδιον και την μητερα αυτου και φευγε εις αιγυπτον, και ισθι εκει εως αν ειπω σοι: μελλει γαρ ηρωδης ζητειν το παιδιον του απολεσαι αυτο.
14ο δε εγερθεις παρελαβεν το παιδιον και την μητερα αυτου νυκτος και ανεχωρησεν εις αιγυπτον,
15και ην εκει εως της τελευτης ηρωδου: ινα πληρωθη το ρηθεν υπο κυριου δια του προφητου λεγοντος, εξ αιγυπτου εκαλεσα τον υιον μου.
16τοτε ηρωδης ιδων οτι ενεπαιχθη υπο των μαγων εθυμωθη λιαν, και αποστειλας ανειλεν παντας τους παιδας τους εν βηθλεεμ και εν πασι τοις οριοις αυτης απο διετους και κατωτερω, κατα τον χρονον ον ηκριβωσεν παρα των μαγων.
17τοτε επληρωθη το ρηθεν δια ιερεμιου του προφητου λεγοντος,
18φωνη εν ραμα ηκουσθη, κλαυθμος και οδυρμος πολυς: ραχηλ κλαιουσα τα τεκνα αυτης, και ουκ ηθελεν παρακληθηναι, οτι ουκ εισιν.
19τελευτησαντος δε του ηρωδου ιδου αγγελος κυριου φαινεται κατ οναρ τω ιωσηφ εν αιγυπτω
20λεγων, εγερθεις παραλαβε το παιδιον και την μητερα αυτου και πορευου εις γην ισραηλ, τεθνηκασιν γαρ οι ζητουντες την ψυχην του παιδιου.
21ο δε εγερθεις παρελαβεν το παιδιον και την μητερα αυτου και εισηλθεν εις γην ισραηλ.
22ακουσας δε οτι αρχελαος βασιλευει της ιουδαιας αντι του πατρος αυτου ηρωδου εφοβηθη εκει απελθειν: χρηματισθεις δε κατ οναρ ανεχωρησεν εις τα μερη της γαλιλαιας,
23και ελθων κατωκησεν εις πολιν λεγομενην ναζαρετ, οπως πληρωθη το ρηθεν δια των προφητων οτι ναζωραιος κληθησεται.
Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition
© 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;
The Greek New Testament, 3rd edition
© 1975 United Bible Societies
2. ANALYSIS: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Mt. 2:13 - Joseph receives three angelic visitations in dreams, each
of which deals with this relationship to Mary and Jesus.
Interestingly enough, prior to Jesus' birth, Mary is the focus of this
care; after the birth, one reads "the child and his mother" (cf.
There is a pattern to the dreams as follows:angelic appearance --
command to Joseph -- rationale for the command -- Joseph's fulfillment
of the command (cf. Brown, p. 108). There are, of course, numerous OT
stories in which angels bear messages critical to the covenant.
Aigypton - Egypt was the land of both slavery and refuge. Its part in
both the Exodus and Exile is prominent--although in fact its role is
reversed in the two occasions. In Mt. Egypt serves both allusive
purposes. Joseph seeks refuge in Egypt, an Exile motify, and yet in
2:15 God calls Jesus out of Egypt, an Exodus motif.
Hero(i)des - The evil king seeking the child's life is not the King of
Egypt (as in the Moses story) but the king of Judea, who was
introduced in 2:1. The slaughter of the innocents is not recorded
apart from here, it is, however, generally consistent with his
apolesai - The passion (27:20) is anticipated. Even in infancy, Jesus
has an enemy who threatens the fulfillment of the promise.
2:15 - hina plerothe to rethen; hupo kyriou dia tou prophetou
legontos. Exs Aigyptou ekalesa ton huion mou - "This was to fulfil
waht God had spoken by the prophet, 'Out of Egypt have I called my
child.' " (AILL) - Matthew adds the citation of Hos. 11:1 to an
already complete incident. The citation is not LXX ("out of Egypt
have I summoned his children") but a literal, free translation of the
Hebrew. Three things should be noted. First, the flight to Egypt is
hereby made part of god's plan. Herod's threat does not force the
hand of God. Rather, the prophet had foretold Jesus' presence there
and his being called out. Second, the Exodus itself now becomes a
type for the life of Jesus. He is Israel. Third, from infancy Jesus
is the Son of God; not by physical descent but by the prophetic word.
This is confirmed by the bat kol in Mt. 3:17, 17:5. It becomes the
confession of the Church in Mt. 16:16.
2:16 - Although not in the lection as assigned, this is a crucial
piece in the whole cycle. Herod's butchery is established and related
to the Exile through the citation of Jer. 31:15 (LXX 38:15).
According to Gen. 35:19 Rachel herself died in Bethlehem, this may be
part of the interconnection Matthew is drawing. One should look
further, however. While Rachel's weeping describes the loss felt by
Israel as children were carried in to Exile, Jer. 31:15-20 is
ultimately a message of hope--the exiles will return. The promise of
God is not negated by even the greatest human cruelty. Rather is is
made all the more certain.
2:19 - Again Joseph is visited in a dream by an angel. How long the
Holy Family lived in Egypt is never stated nor is fruitful speculation
on this matter possible. What matters in the story is that Herod is
2:20 - gar hoi zetountes ten psychen tou paidiou - -This is almost an
exact quotation of LXX Ex. 4:19 where God informs Moses that he can
return safely to Egypt from his exile in Midian. The plural indicates
not the death of co-conspirators of Herod but rather the end of the
immediate threat to Jesus' life. In 2:21 Joseph obeys.
2:22 - Joseph seems to have intended a return to Bethlehem which in
Mt. seems to be his hometown. Jesus is brought up in Nazareth only
because Joseph's fear of Archelaus, Herod's son, was confirmed by yet
another dream. Although its content is not given, the dream
presumably directed Joseph to Galiliee in general and perhaps Nazareth
2:23 - Nazaret -- Nazoraios - For Matthew, Joseph's selection of
Nazareth is no accident. (Note that the narrative, however, could
easily stop at v. 23a.) Rather scripture is again "fulfilled." Of
all the formula quotations in Mt., this is the most difficult. No
author is mentioned and no known text in the canonical OT or other
extant literature has these words. The problem is compounded by the
absence of any pre-Christian mention of Nazareth and the philological
problems with Nazaraios. It is possible that no more is intended than
to provide for Jesus' growing up in Nazareth,a parallel for the Micah
5:2 prediction that he would be born in Bethlehem (2:6). Yet there
are a number of other possibilities. An allusion to Nazir may be
present, thus associating Jesus with the OT Nazarites such as Samson
and Samuel (who also had miraculous births). But Jesus is not only
not described as a Nazarite in Mt. 11:19 would be evidence against it.
Is.11:1 could be involved. There a neser (i.e. "branch") of Jesse is
foretold. This would fit well with the genealogy in 1:1-17. None of
these possibilities is without difficulty. It is perhaps best to see
the multiple allusions in this ambiguous "quotation" as Matthew's
3. STRATEGY: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
If no Epiphany celebration is planned, the preacher may do well to
read Mt. 2:1-12 on this day. [This option is allowed by the Book of
Common Prayer for the Second Sunday after Christmas.] Alternatively
lengthening the reading (BCP, "Concerning the Lectionary", p. 888) to
include all of Mt. 2 would both meet the need for an Epiphany
celebration and allow for the exposition of the text as a literary
whole. This keeps these obviously related nativity stories together
in a way which leaves the text some kind of internal integrity. It
also saves some important stories from neglect.
Perhaps the most profitable homiletic approach is to develop the theme
of Jesus' continuity with the OT. It is easy to take the story at
face value as anti-Judaistic. Yet the specific enemy is Herod, who is
only marginally Jewish. Rather than attaching the Jewish leaders,
Matthew is anchoring Jesus' story in Israel's history. There is no
single straightforward parallel which does this. The life of Moses
parallels Jesus' infancy in that as a baby Moses too was threatened.
But his exile came as an adult. Similarly, the double allusion to
Egypt as a land of refuge and of slavery prevents us from drawing any
neat parallels. Matthew uses the OT typologically and incidentally,
rather than as a catalog of precise predictions and regular patterns
of interaction between God and God's people. Jesus fulfills the OT
without undoing it (cf. 5:17-19).
This perspective also frees us from too harsh judgment on Matthew.
Even given 2:23b, his OT citations are not forced, wooden or
arbitrary. They are creative in the best sense because they
understand Jesus in continuity with the OT. The fact that the
narrative can exist without quotations indicates that they are best
regarded as an illuminating commentary;, rather than a controlling
structure which generates legends of greater interest to folklorists
than to theologians. A bold preacher might even want to develop this
in contemporary terms. We need to see our own lives in Biblical
terms, but the profoundly Biblical is not necessary literal. Rather,
if we are open to both the old and the new (13:52), we can find
ourselves illumined and directed by Scripture.
Exegete: The Rev. William F. Fraatz
St. Barnabas, Warwick, RI
4. MUSIC SUGGESTIONS: Christmas 1
A hymn that ties together the Herod motif, the Magi, the Baptism of
Jesus and the Epiphany is WHEN CHRIST'S APPEARING WAS MADE KNOWN
(HB 131,132; LBW 85). If not already used, IN A LOWLY MANGER BORN (LBW
417) would be appropriate on this day, particularly if the strategy
above is employed which takes into account the conflict between the
infant Messiah and the earthly power structures. The Hymnbook 1982
provides alternatives in the 15th cent. carol UNTO US A BOY IS BORN!
(HB 98) and the modern hymn IN BETHLEHEM A NEWBORN BOY (HB 246), which finds a parallel between Herod and modern structures of evil. More
traditional carol-singing should surely continue through the Christmas
season (though the radio stations cease to play carols around the
Feast of St. Stephen). Among those to consider: LULLY,LULLAY
(CONVENTRY CAROL, HB 247,also on Herod), ONCE IN ROYAL DAVID'S
CITY(HB 99), GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN (HB 99,LBW 70) , O SAVIOR OF
OUR FALLEN RACE(HB 86,LBW 49) , and Richard Wilbur's lovely poem, A
STABLE LAMP IS LIGHTED (HB 104, LBW 74).
5. FURTHER READING: Christmas 1
As noted elsewhere in LEXEGETE, two additional materials valuable for
preparing Matthew texts this season and this year are:
Stendahl, Krister. "Quis et Unde", ch. 5 of Meanings (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1984).
Kingsbury, Jack Dean. Matthew as Story (Philadelphia: Fortress Press,
1986, 2nd ed. 1988), esp. chapter 2 for the Mt. 2 pericopes.