When we left off, the Magi, because of a message from God in a dream, left the house where the infant Messiah was staying in Bethlehem and returned home without going back to tell Herod where the child could be found. It would seem that almost immediately after they departed, Joseph had another word from an angel in a dream telling him to flee from Bethlehem with his family and go directly to Egypt, because of the plot of Herod to kill the baby.
Joseph obeyed without hesitation.
Matthew doesn’t give us any more detail than that. I too have traveled from Bethlehem to Egypt; I took a bus. What method of travel did Joseph employ a bus, a train… or maybe a donkey or a camel or on foot? Where did they end up in Egypt? I went straight to Cairo; Egypt is a pretty big place, but we have no information from Matthew…
What we should remember is that Matthew is not writing a travel story, he’s showing us who the baby was, for He was a rather special little Person. Egypt had long been a place for political refugees in Israel to go to when in danger (cf. 1 Kings 11:40; 2 Kings 25:26; Jer. 41:16-18; 26:21; 43:1-7). We begin to see what Matthew is up to in verse 15, for rather than tell us any details of their flight; he tells us that this fulfills the words of Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hos. 11:1).
Next, in verse 16, we find out how terrible a plot Herod had in mind; he would have all boys 2 and under murdered… in fulfillment of yet another prophecy, this time it’s Jer. 31:15:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (v. 18)
Do you see what Matthew is doing here? He really isn’t giving us a historical narrative of the life of a very young Christ at this point; he is pointing out who He is.
In the remaining verses, verses 19-23, we discover that upon the death of Herod, Joseph has another angelic visit in a dream in which he is given the “all clear” to return home, and once again, Joseph complies promptly, ending up in the dusty town of Nazareth of Galilee. Joseph seems to have gone there to avoid the new king who happens to have been Herod’s son, a little tidbit he seems to have acquired in yet another dream. Nazareth must have seemed perfect to Joseph, being very remote and off the beaten path as it was (and still is), but it just happens to fulfill more prophecy, although Matthew cites none in particular, preferring to use the plural; “prophets”.
In fact, the word “Nazarene” is not found in the Old Testament, and this gives scholars a bit of a research problem. As you might guess, there are many theories resulting from this issue, ranging from the suggestion that Matthew’s work is unreliable to some others that are rather fantastic. Personally, after studying and reflecting on many of the ideas out there, I think the solution is something along these lines:
Matthew is playing on words, for there is an interesting similarity between the Hebrew word for “branch” and the Greek for “Nazarene”. There is a phonetic word play there… and if this is what Matthew was thinking, then the Hebrew word in question tsemach ( צֶמַח ) is found in some interesting places (cf. Is. 4:2; 11:1; Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Zech. 3:8; 6:15) in which strong emphasis is placed upon Jesus’ Davidic roots in a clear messianic context. However you might interpret this, Matthew in both the first and second chapters has been very keen to demonstrate the identity of Jesus as the son of David and His inherent characteristic as Son of God.
Next time, we’ll begin chapter 3, and as you will see, Matthew skips over about 30 years and resumes with the story of John the Baptist: Does anyone expect to see a prophecy f or two being fulfilled in that story?