We cover a lot of historical time in our liturgy this week. Thirty years give or take a year or two. Christmas we heard Luke’s version of the Nativity and on Sunday we got John’s theological poetry concerning the incarnation, but by next Sunday we will be looking at Jesus’s baptism, so today we will quickly cover the naming of Jesus, the visit of the Maji, the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and their return to Nazareth. Hold on to your hats because we are going to be traveling fast.
Each gospel writer highlighted specific details to make a specific point. Luke, whom we read concerning the birth of Jesus, tells us the story of a Jewish family living in Roman occupied Israel doing very normal things, with some miraculous details that make us realize that God’s hand is heavily involved in this family’s situation. After the visit of the shepherds and angels Luke tells us that “after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” They have gone to the temple in Jerusalem, the only place where the traditional rites and rituals can be performed since the first temple was built by Solomon almost a thousand years earlier. Joseph and Mary are devout Jews, following the law and tradition of their people. When God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants one of the stipulations was that “every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old…”(Gen 17:12) By naming him Jesus, it shows they have not forgotten Mary’s visit by the angel Gabriel before she ever conceived. Jesus’ name is a Greek version of the Hebrew phrase ”God is salvation”, God being the name revealed to Moses that is never spoken.
At this same time, Mary goes through the purification rites women were required to go though one week after giving birth to a male child as found in Leviticus 12, and the proper sacrifices were made. Leviticus mentions a lamb for a burnt offering and two doves or pigeons as a sin offering. Luke does not mention the lamb but he merges this rite with the command to “consecrate to me all the firstborn..” Ex 13:1. Exodus continues to explain that firstborn children are redeemed, not sacrificed. Numbers 18:16 specifies a cash offering, but Exodus ties this act back to the first Passover. Every ritual action is a way of keeping the story alive. I wish I could ask Luke if he omitted the lamb because he identified Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, telling this story after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but he leaves that for us to ponder.
Finally, two elderly individuals, Simeon and Anna, both described as devout and righteous, recognize the Messiah in this infant. These are rituals that happened regularly, nothing miraculous, except that these two knew immediately who Jesus was and praised God for it. Then Luke tells us that when everything that needed to be done in Jerusalem was done, they went back to Nazareth.
We now switch to today’s reading from the gospel from Matthew. Matthew’s concern is less about identifying Jesus as a Jew in Rome and more about identifying Jesus as the prophesied “prophet like me” ie Moses and of showing that he is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. In the prior chapter Matthew has already pulled out a quote from Isaiah 7:14 concerning “the virgin” and her son “Emmanuel.”
When people asked John the Baptist if he was “the prophet”, or the Messiah, or Elijah they were identifying three different people expected to arrive and help save Israel. The prophet is the one Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy 18: 15 when Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you should heed such a prophet.”
Isaiah 42:6 speaks of the servant as “a light to the nations” Luke puts these words in the mouth of Simeon, but Matthew tells us a story about Jesus’ impact, at his birth, where he demonstrates he is “a light to the nations.” Israel was a major trade route. It sits on the Mediterranean Sea and before trucks and airplanes, ships were the major way of moving merchandise. Thus, we call it shipping to this day. Large caravans of merchants would bring their wares from foreign lands to the Mediterranean to sell in other countries. These large caravans would be like little traveling towns with various service occupations represented. One coming from what we now call the Middle East would likely have with them Magi. These were holy men of Zoroastrianism who would have been able to read the stars and other signs and advise the merchants on a variety of things to ensure they would have a safe and successful trip. Remember, Israel was exiled in Babylon for many years, and the stories of the Jews would be known in what we now call Iran. Some of these Magi, knowing the Jewish prophecies and seeing an unusually bright light in the sky over Jerusalem, directed their group to Jerusalem to find out if this was a sign that the Jewish prophecies had come true.
Where would one go to find out important information about the Jewish nation? To Herod’s palace of course. I suspect innocently enough, they ask Herod “Where is the child born king of the Jews? (Matt 2:2) But Herod is frightened, and we are told all Jerusalem with him. One thing we must keep in mind is that Herod was not the rightful heir to David’s throne. In the middle of all the conquering and dispersing of peoples between the exiles and the birth of Jesus, Herod’s family, Edomites, had converted to Judaism and had come to power by cooperating with the dominant powers in the area. A rightful heir from the line of David would be cause for him to worry that he would be deposed. Herod apparently had not been keeping up with his study of the scriptures because he had to call together all the chief priests and scribes to find out what these Magi were talking about. Matthew gives us an amalgam of two verses Micah 5:2 “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” and 2 Samuel 5:2 which speaks of David, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”
Now Herod was a crafty ruler. He pulls the Magi aside and asks for the detail of their observations – and then commissions them to go find the child and bring word back to him of Jesus’ location “so that I may go and pay him homage.” (Matt 2:8) The Magi leave and find the infant Jesus and present him with three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The numbers, names and ethnicity of the magi have come to use though song and legend, not through scripture. We are not told where the Holy Family were living at the time, only that it had been about two years since the magi first spotted the star. We assume they are in Bethlehem because that is where the scriptures said he was born and where we assume the magi go to find him. Don’t let the fluidity of time in scripture confuse you. They were not worried about the details as much as they were interested in the symbolism and the universal truths the stories told.
An angel visits the magi in a dream and warns them not to return to Herod and they return home bypassing Jerusalem. It is not long before Herod realizes they have alluded him and he begins working on his plan B. He will have all the male children under two years old living in Bethlehem killed, thus eliminating the potential heir. An angel visits Joseph in a dream and warns him to flee to Egypt. Matthew sees this as the fulfillment of another prophecy, Hosea 11:1 “out of Egypt I called my son” – The full verse states “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son” which is a reference to the nation of Israel as a whole, but Jesus in Matthew’s eyes is now the embodiment of the nation of Israel. Also, just like Moses, who was sheltered in Egypt as a child, protected from the slaughter of the infants by Pharaoh, now too Jesus, the “prophet like me” is sheltered in Egypt from another slaughter of infants by Herod. Matthew then quotes Jeremiah 31:15 “Rachel weeping for her children” which lamented the death of the children during the fall of Northern Israel, but “wailing and loud lamentations” from Ramah, a town between Bethlehem and Nazareth was appropriate to Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Finally we are told Herod dies and Jesus and his family return from Egypt and settle in Nazareth, which Matthew tells us fulfills another prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean.” This one is harder to discern to what Matthew is alluding. The Harper Collins Study Bible suggest it could relate to the Hebrew word netzer meaning “branch” or the Nazirite, which refers to vows one took abstaining from wine and cutting of the hair like Sampson and John the Baptist. (Society of Biblical Literature, 2006). But as you can see, Matthew’s purpose in telling this story is to show to his audience that Jesus is the fulfillment of the scriptures and the one like Moses, the prophet, for whom they have been waiting.
This literary and theological use of parallel understandings of passages may seem strange and not completely legitimate to the way we read and analyze stories today, but allegorical interpretation was not only common but encouraged by early Christian leaders. There are four types of interpretation. The literal for historical meaning, the anagogical which deals with the future, prophecy, eschatology or end times, etc., the typological which reads Christ into the Old Testament, such as seeing Jesus as the shepherd in Psalm 23, and the moral which is used to determine how we are to live in light of what the scriptures reveal.
Beginning Jan 6th, we will begin Bible study via ZOOM on Wednesday evenings at 6:30 pm. We are going to begin with what I am calling Bible Basics, looking at the formation and structure of the Bible, tools to help make things clearer, what does it mean to be inspired, and how is it relevant today. I hope you will join us.