The Annunciation in Matthew (2)

Part One

The Flight to Egypt

            Joseph is told to leave for Egypt before Herod finds the child and tries to kill it.  He and Mary take Jesus away that night “until the death of Herod.”  What Matthew does next appears interpretively strained.  He claims that Hosea 11:1 is fulfilled in this incident (Matt. 2:13-15), or at least in the return from Egypt.  But Hosea 11:1 in its original setting is speaking about Israel not its Messiah.  What is Matthew thinking?  John Sailhamer offers a convincing argument that the evangelist is connecting Hosea with Numbers 24:8; I believe he is right, but then why didn’t Matthew simply cite the book of Numbers?  After calling upon Isaiah 7:14 (Matt. 1:22-23) and Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:6) to give plain-sense fulfillments of OT prophecy concerning Jesus, what is he doing here?  Surely, we cannot believe that he is suddenly changing tack and dispensing with literal fulfillment?  It has been suggested that Matthew is here employing a special Judaic form of interpretation.[1] But such things are easier to say than prove.    

 What Sailhamer and Chou have to offer is a recognition that Hosea 11 is forward leaning in its intention.  Sailhamer calls attention to Brevard Childs’ canonical interpretation, wherein the prophetic thrust of the book’s later composition furnishes a messianic expectation rooted in the declaration of Hosea 3:5:

Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They shall fear the LORD and His goodness in the latter days.

Sailhamer believes that Hosea himself did intend the arrangement which Childs attributes to later compilers.  He reminds us of his oft-repeated dictum that the historical event recorded in Scripture is not the same as its significance to the writer(s).  It is the significance of the exodus within the theology of the Pentateuch that has been missed, says Sailhamer.[2]  But not by Hosea!  What the prophet is doing is exegeting the “messianic meaning” of the Torah in a way similar to Matthew.  Three of the four Pentateuchal poems (Gen. 49; Num. 24, Deut. 32) combine to point towards the coming of the Messiah.[3]  Numbers 24:8-9 and Genesis 49:9b are especially salient here.[4]  Hence,

When Matthew quoted Hosea 11:1as fulfilled in the life of Christ, he was not resorting to typological interpretation of OT events.  He was, rather, drawing the sensus literalis of the OT description of the exodus from the book of Hosea, and it in turn was drawn from Hosea’s exegesis of the sensus literalis of the Pentateuch.[5] This appears to me to be a very plausible and satisfactory explanation of the whole problem. 

Abner Chou has come to similar, though not identical conclusions about an eschatological “new exodus” and “new David” through studying the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 18) and the “second exodus” motif in the Prophets.[6]  What Chou, Glasscock, and especially Sailhamer have done is to obviate any resort to typological interpretation in Matthew 2:15.  Matthew (and Hosea?) were exegeting a theme or messianic thread. 

Two More “Fulfilment’ Issues

            We have not left Matthew 2 and we must confront two more “fulfilment issues.”  After Herod hears about Jesus being from Bethlehem, and discovers that the Magi have left, he sends soldiers there to kill all the young males under two years of age (Matt. 2:16-18).  This odious act was fully in-line with Herod’s character, particularly in his old age.  In this incident the desperate unfairness of the world is compressed.  Innocent mothers are deprived of their children because Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  God could have prevented the atrocity, but He is not obliged to intervene in the evils perpetrated upon the earth; only to judge them. 

            The killing of the infants is interpreted by Matthew by a reference to Jeremiah 31:15.  In its original context that verse nestles within a promise of future comfort for Israel (Jer. 31:7-26), although not too comfortably.  Ramah was the town north of Jerusalem where the people were gathered before being sent into exile (Jer. 40:1).  Rachel died near Bethlehem (Gen. 35:19), which is south of Jerusalem.  Again, we have to ask, what is Matthew doing?  The answer probably is to be found in the two locations involving Rachel; one near Bethlehem, and one (her tomb, 1 Sam. 10:2) near Ramah.  Rachel’s tears are the tears of the mother of Israel (see Ruth 4:11), and therefore represents the grieving women of her land.  More tribes of Israel came from Leah than Rachel, but Leah was buried to the north (near Hebron) along with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob (Gen. 49:29-32).  So, Rachel stands for the grieving mothers, both in Jeremiah and in Matthew.  Matthew’s use of the word “was fulfilled” (eplerothe) is not in the sense of a particular fulfilment of an OT prediction, but a general fulfilment of a metaphor employed by Jeremiah and applicable in the offence of Herod.

            Matthew isn’t finished yet.  In the final two verses of chapter 2 he notes that Joseph is warned by God to avoid the reign of Archelaus in Judah, and so settles north in the Galilean town of Nazareth (Matt. 2:22-23).  Matthew claims that the saying (rheo) of the prophets that ““He shall be called a Nazarene” was fulfilled.  Notice here that Matthew is gathering this from “the prophets” and not a single source.   No OT prophet contains such a passage.

            The evangelist is not being as cryptic as might at first appear.  The root of “Nazareth”[7] and “Nazarene” is netser, which is translated “Branch” in Isaiah’s great prophecy of the coming King in Isaiah 11:1.  He is making use of the wordplay.[8]  

Matthew’s “Fulfilment” Formulas: A Summary

To summarize, Matthew has employed four fulfilment quotations in his infancy narrative: Matthew 1:22-23; 2:15; 2:17-18, and 2:23.  Only the first (from Isa. 7:14) is a straightforward surface correspondence found.[9]  The other three fulfilments involve themes; metaphors to be understood.  This fits the Jewish readership for whom Matthew first wrote his Gospel, although Gentile readers might scratch their heads.  But in each case, there is some affinity between the OT passage and the fulfilment that Matthew says it points to.


[1] E.g. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Yeshua: The Life of Messiah from A Messianic Jewish Perspective, Volume 1, San Antonio, TX: Ariel, 2020, 20-21. 

[2] Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 514-515.  His whole argument (510-521) needs to be appreciated. 

[3] Ibid, 518.

[4] Ibid, 520.

[5] 515 cf. 521. 

[6] See Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018, 107-110.  

[7] Matthew spells the name three different ways in his account, thereby lending it a somewhat elastic form by which he might more easily refer it to the Hebrew neser and thus relate it to the “Branch” of Isaiah 11:1.  

[8] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1 – 13, 40-42 has an excellent discussion of the passage.  See also Nolland, Matthew, 128-131. 

[9] Matthew also records the chief priests and scribes’ citation of Micah 5:2 (Matt. 2:4-6).  Since it is not his own interpretation, he does not include a fulfilment formula.   

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