When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (Hosea 11.1).
On Christmas Day we marked the birth of Jesus the homeless stranger. Today we remember him as a temporary refugee, as we remember Herod’s massacre of innocent Jewish boys in and around Bethlehem. The foreign Magi had travelled to pay homage to Jesus, and then gone on their way; now the local king and the leaders of Jesus' own people conspire to kill him. The pattern of the Hebrew scriptures, which are so important for Matthew, receive a strange twist at this point; for now it is not a foreign enemy (like Pharaoh of old), but God's own people, colluding with Herod, who are the oppressors. So instead of an escape from Egypt - land of his people's ancient slavery - Jesus and his parents flee into Egypt. He was born to save his people from their sins; but first he must be saved at the cost of other children's lives.
The twisting, the reversing, of the ancient patterns continues to this day, as killings continue in the Land of the Holy One. Then it was the Romans against the Jews of Palestine; today it the Jews against the Palestinians, and vice versa: boys and girls and adults killed in tit-for-tat reprisals because their peoples cannot find a way of living at peace together in the land. And this particular piece of political instability fuels the wider conflicts within the Arab world, which has produced refugees by the million. Meanwhile the Christians of Palestine continue to be squeezed between Jews and Muslims, and leave their ancient homelands in despair. In years to come it may only be foreign Christians who are there to celebrate Christ’s nativity in Bethlehem. Matthew would have found this sadly ironic.
So back to his careful unfolding of God's plan - a specific plan which, for him, must be shown to be built on the foundation of the Jewish scriptures: this pattern of prophecy and fulfilment - the Jewish template, if you like. As we shall see, the way Matthew does this is not without its problems.
Out of Egypt have I called my son, a verse from Hosea, provides the crucial link with the tradition of the Exodus. It was from Egypt that Moses and the children of Israel came. They were, says the tradition, descendants of Joseph and his brothers, who had found hospitality in Egypt at a time of famine. Joseph had been sold into slavery there but rose to prominence by his adroit handling of the economy. But then a new and hard-hearted Pharaoh arose who knew nothing of what Joseph had done for his people, and he began to oppress the people. He forced them to work in the brickyards and he ordered the midwives to kill the new-born boys, because the Hebrew people were too fertile. In time, Moses, found in the bulrushes and brought up in the royal household, chose to identify with the oppressed rather than their oppressors, and so began the campaign to ‘let my people go’ (a slogan as persistent as 'Get Brexit done').
Matthew sees a repetition of these events in the infancy of Jesus (who is to become the new Moses). Once more a king is killing Jewish children; and just as Moses was saved by being hidden, so now Jesus is saved by flight. God’s purpose will be fulfilled, because God will call God's son out of Egypt. But there is more to Hosea’s prophecy; the brief quotation would have reminded the hearers of the rest of the oracle from which it comes, an oracle about God’s fatherly, tender love for God's children, which originally referred to the whole people Israel. The more I called them, the more they went away from me, God says; I taught them to walk, I took them up in my arms, I led them with cords of human kindness and bands of love, I bent down to them and fed them; but they refused to listen to me, they were determined to turn away from me to false gods. So they will go back to Egypt, back to slavery. Yet how can I give them up, and hand them over? My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. Whatever else happens, the prophet is saying, whatever vicissitudes befall them, God - who loves God's people as a father loves his children - will not let his people go. The son, then, is both Israel and Jesus (who elsewhere is described as the true Israel), and who will resist the temptations to which Israel in the wilderness succumbed.
As we have seen, there is a key difference between the tradition of the Exodus and its re-run with the birth of Jesus. There, it is the king of Egypt who is the enemy of Israel; here a king of Jerusalem is the enemy. There, Moses fled for safety out of Egypt and then returns; here, Jesus is taken into Egypt for safety and then returns. There, Egypt and Pharaoh are the symbols for unbelief and hardness of heart; here, Jerusalem and Herod fulfil this role; and the Jews’ hardness of heart is to become an important theme in Matthew’s gospel.
So it is in the holy land itself, close by the sacred city, that the innocent ones are slaughtered, and Matthew makes a link with another prophecy, this time from Jeremiah. A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more. After a time of anguish, Joseph, recipient of dreams, takes the child Jesus back to Israel, just as the patriarch Joseph, expert in dreams, at last returned to Egypt (Gen 37.19) after the anguish of their mother.
Again, the reference is not quite as straightforward as it seems. Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin (literally 'son of my sorrow'), had died in childbirth, and the sons' father Jacob had buried her on the road to Ephrath, now Bethlehem, says Genesis (35.19). In fact the Genesis account had muddled Bethlehem (SW of Jerusalem) with Bethel (near Ramah to the north), the site of Rachel's grave. Matthew uses this mix-up to make a connexion to Herod’s massacre in and around Bethlehem, and implies that Rachel was weeping because she had lost her sons when they went down to Egypt. In fact Jeremiah was using that story in a different way, as a lament for the period of exile in Babylon in his own times, several centuries after Rachel's death and several centuries before Christ. For him, Rachel’s children were the exiles who were being taken into captivity - passing through Ramah on the way. Unlike Hosea, Jeremiah is rather less sure that God’s people have any kind of future if they fail to keep faith with him.
There is a third reference to a prophecy being fulfilled, just after the end of today’s reading: he shall be called a Nazarene. Matthew gives this as the reason for Jesus settling, not back in Judea (where one of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, was now king, so still unsafe) but in Nazareth in Galilee, in the district ruled by Herod Antipas. He does this to deal with the question that had been raised about Jesus: Surely the Messiah is not to come from Galilee? Doesn't scripture say that the Messiah is coming from the seed of David and from Bethlehem (John 7.42f). Matthew, having given Jesus the background he needs in Bethlehem, now settles him where he was known to have lived, in Galilee. The only problem is that the prophecy he rather vaguely refers to does not actually exist. There is no such text in the OT. But there are those called Nazirites, or Holy Ones, such as Samson in the Book of Judges, dedicated to God from his mother's womb. And there is also the well-known verse in Isaiah 11.1 - there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (in Hebrew neitzer) shall grow out of his roots. So perhaps Matthew hoped his hearers would also pick up these allusions.
What is clear from all of this is that Matthew the evangelist saw a hidden purpose - the hand of God - in every detail of the birth stories, and tailored the way he wrote them to take account of this. This is not the way we do history; and it seems especially strange when he is writing about acts of brutality and political instability and Jesus becoming a temporary refugee. For the one thing that all refugees experience is a sense of chaos and confusion. There is no purpose in their flight; they are victims of forces beyond their control, they simply have to get up and go. Even though an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, he would not have made much sense of it at the time.
But even here Matthew has a kind of answer. The word he uses first for their departure, and then for their withdrawal to the district of Galilee - in Greek, anachorein - is a word he will use again a number of times in the ministry of Jesus, to describe how he departs from one place to another because of unbelief.
It is a word which was used for withdrawal from public life, withdrawal into oneself in contemplation. It was used in Egpyt to describe withdrawal into the desert by peasants who were oppressed by taxation - a kind of strike action. And in later Christian times it became the technical term for monasticism - withdrawal from the word, a movement that was especially strong in Egypt; it is from this that we get the term anchorite. So if there was any purpose in these wanderings, it was to point to a movement that would characterise the whole of Jesus’ life. He was drawn by God away from those places where lack of faith hampered God’s work, and made his home in those places where there was openness to God: in the wilderness, in Galilee of the Gentiles, in the hearts of those who would hear his message.
And today, in a world that is full of refugees, and of political turbulence of every kind, in a world where holy innocents are still abused and killed, we pray that hearts may still be open to the unfolding of God's plan, and to his tender love for his children, shown to us in Jesus.
Richard Young (Rector)