MATTHEW 2:13-23

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, 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 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Already in the opening chapters of Matthew’s story we become aware of the guiding archetype (creative image) in his portrait of Jesus. His story is intentionally shaped according to the narrative figure of Moses.

The narrow escape in infancy from the murderous plans of an imperial ruler, a visionary experience in the wilderness where his mission is tested and confirmed, a miraculous victory over the sea, the revelation of a new ethic (commandments/beatitudes) from a mountaintop, his message of God’s kingdom, his provision in ratifying a covenant between God and the community, and his central role as liberator – such are merely the broad strokes of comparison between the Moses of old and the New Moses in Jesus.

Some of us begin to get nervous when we learn that there is no historical record whatsoever of Herod the Great’s pogrom against male infants in or around Bethlehem. And when we are made aware of the significant discrepancies between the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, we might begin to question the truth and reliability of their conflicting “reports.”

In Luke, for instance, Jesus is born in a Bethlehem manger behind an inn with no vacancy, while Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary had a house address in Bethlehem. Luke has to get the unborn Jesus from Nazareth to Bethlehem, simply because Bethlehem was in the prophecy of the messiah, and Nazareth – well, he was called Jesus of Nazareth after all. Who’s right? The non-logical answer is that they both are, depending on the story you’re in.

                                                                                                 

The reader may believe that all this comparing and contrasting of the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke only raises the possibility for confusion and a crisis of faith. Why push us to an edge where we must make a choice between one or the other, or even discard them both as ungrounded fictions?

We should note, however, that this was never the claim. The point is that we don’t have to choose one or the other, and furthermore, that they are not ungrounded fictions at all. They are indeed grounded fictions, and the ground in this case is not historical fact but spiritual truth.

Underneath the dramatic action of Matthew’s story is his personal conviction that Jesus is the New Moses. And just as Moses was the heroic liberator of God’s people from their bondage in Egypt, so is Jesus the one who sets people free from their spiritual captivity to guilt, fear, and futility.

Moreover, as Moses revealed the covenantal principles of the Law, so also did Jesus reveal the principles of a New Covenant – this time not based on the logic of retribution (“and eye for an eye” or “you get what you deserve”) but of forgiveness (“Your sins are forgiven!”). It is as if Jesus is recapitulating the life of Moses, but at a spiral turn higher up, so that salvation history is seen as shifting to a new level of fulfillment.

As long as our critical relationship to these stories is held to the task of determining (or denying) their factual reliability we will be prevented from stepping through the narrow gate of a deeper understanding.

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