Out of Egypt (Matt 2:13-16)

(Continuing in our pre-Christmas series through Matthew chapters 1 and 2, focusing on the Old Testament background.)  

Last week we saw one example of how Matthew takes time out from telling the story of Jesus to draw out parallels with events in the Old Testament. “That reminds me of the time when…” There’s often an immediate surface connection between the New Testament story and the Old Testament reference – for example, place names, or key words. But the primary connection is big-picture. It’s in the continuity between the way God worked in the history of Israel, and in the life of Jesus.

In today’s story, Matthew again takes time out to draw a connection with an obscure verse in the book of Hosea (11:1). But the connection isn’t all that straightforward:

Matt 2:13-16 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

It seems straightforward at first glance. After all, Egypt is in the story, and there’s a mention of Egypt. So far so good. But there are two significant problems:

Problem #1: It’s clear that Hosea 11:1 in its original context contains not the slightest hint of being prophecy. It refers to an event in Hosea’s past – the miraculous exodus from Egypt, and Israel’s subsequent rebellion:

Hos 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. 3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them…

How is this “fulfilled” in Jesus if it’s not even a prophecy?

Problem #2: Matthew has his chronology wrong. At that point in the story, Jesus was going into Egypt. He’s not called out of it until later (verses 19-21), which seems to be the more natural place for the quote. Sure, you could say that Jesus had to go into Egypt so he could be called out of it, but that’s stretching it a little.

What’s going on?

Firstly, we see the surface links: “Egypt” and “son”. What do they mean, in their original context?

“Son” is easy enough. Israel is sometimes collectively called “my son” (e.g. Ex 4:22-23). It’s a term frequently used of Israel’s king (Ps 2:7, 2 Sam 7:14). Later on, the term came to have an association with the Messiah, God’s anointed one. So although the statement back in Hosea was about Israel, metaphorically it can refer to God’s son, Jesus, the coming one from the line of David.

“Egypt” is both literally and symbolically a place of danger and oppression for God’s people (or “son”). Back in Hosea, the context is looking back to God’s protection of his son, Israel, taking them out of a dangerous place (Egypt) and into a place of safety (the land of Israel).

Are you starting to see the connection? Jesus is God’s son, who “fulfils” (i.e. completes) the pattern Hosea talks about. God looks after his son, Jesus, by taking him out of a dangerous place (Bethlehem, in the land of Israel) and into a place of safety (ironically, Egypt). Or to put it a little more confusingly, Israel is now “Egypt” and Egypt is now “Israel”.

But the principle remains: God acts to protect his chosen people so that they can fulfil the role and destiny he has for them in the world. That same protection, and that same purpose is ours. That’s how it applies to us.

For further reflection

More broadly, this is how a lot of the Old Testament applies to us through Jesus. I forget where I picked this up – and I’ve modified it myself along the way – but I find this formula helpful:

  • Everything humanity was intended to do and be – but largely failed – Jesus fulfilled. And now he enables us to begin to live up to our original calling.
  • Everything Israel was intended to do and be – but largely failed – Jesus fulfilled. And now he enables us to be “Israel” to the world.
  • Everything Israel’s king was intended to do and be – but largely failed – Jesus fulfilled. And now he enables each of us to be representatives (or vice-regents) of God in his world.

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