New Egypt, new Pharaoh, new Moses
When Moses camped in Moab, he reflected on the plagues that the Egyptians suffered and the Canaanites were about to suffer. Shedding of innocent blood was right up there with idolatry among the things that made their lands unclean. He therefore pleaded with Israel not to follow their example and, through the curses of the Covenant of Moab (Deut 28:20-21), spelt out the implications for a disobedient Israel. Like Egypt, they would suffer through ‘plagues’, including: drought that would forced them to dig for drinking water (Deut 28:23-24, cf. Exod 7:24), pestilence (Deut 28:21-22, Exod 9:3-6), boils and other unspecified Egyptian diseases (Deut 28:27, 35, Exod 9:10), locusts (Deut 28:38-40, Exod 10:14-15) and confusion amidst thick darkness (Deut 28:28-29, cf. Exod 10:22-23).
Like Jacob’s sons, hunger (Deut 28:54-55, Gen 42:1-2) and loss of freedom (Deut 28:30-33, Gen 42:18-19) would blight their lives. They would, like Cain, experience crop failure (Deut 28:18, 40, Gen 4:12), fear for their lives (Deut 28:66-67, Gen 4:14) and experience expulsion from their land (Deut 28:36, Gen 4:14). Thus, Moses assured the Israelites, if they adopted a national lifestyle that did the sort of things that Egypt (and the Canaanites) did, then the land would ultimately spew them out (Lev 18:1-28, esp. 1, 21 & 25-28).
Through Rachel’s tears and the shedding of innocent blood, Matthew reminds his reader that Judah had once again rendered her land unclean. Moreover, as Herod was doing precisely the sort of things that Egypt did, the land was unclean and stood ready to spit her out. Had they paid attention to Matthew’s nuances, they also knew what needed to happen if Judah was to survive this cataclysm. From the events surrounding Rachel and Gibeah, they knew that, as self-inflicted curses consumed the mother, she needed to bring to birth a son. Furthermore, from the experience of Jacob and the Exodus, they knew that God first prepared a leader for the remnant and that he would be a wise leader like Joseph or a prophet like Moses.
Matthew has already presented Jesus as the ‘fulfilment’ of Isaiah’s Immanuel and Balaam’s rising star, both of which testify that he came to deal with an apostate nation. As he moves on to describe the flight and subsequent return of Jesus’ family, he also wants his readers to appreciate that Jesus was a leader prepared by God, under whose authority a remnant would enter into the place of refuge that God had prepared for them. He therefore provides a portrayal of Jesus infancy that is redolent of Moses’ experience, and then to ensure we interpret it rightly he cited Hosea’s words.
Fulfilling the past
Hosea uttered the words “out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1b, NRSV) over four hundred years before Jesus birth. Yet this was not a remarkable prediction, for in its original context, this poetic allusion looked back to the original Exodus. Ever since then, the Lord lamented, Israel had repeatedly failed to listen to their prophet’s call.
In claiming fulfilment of Hosea 11:1, the Apostle choose his quotation well, for whilst the events surrounding Jesus were not predicted by these words, they were parallel in purpose to the Exodus of which they spoke. Furthermore, by pointing to the Exodus indirectly, via Hosea’s reference, Matthew could help us understand how precedents established in that pivotal period were at work in Jesus’ life.
An unexpected way to leave Egypt
Hosea’s phrase is an indirect reference to the only other passage in the Hebrew Bible that has God refer to all Israel as His son. The verses in question, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me.” (Exodus 4:22b-23a, NKJV), follows just two verses after another phrase used by Matthew, “for all the men who sought your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19, NKJV). Together they remind us that before God could call Israel out of Egypt, God took Moses out of Egypt and he had to return.
The phrase “for all the men …”, serves to align the account in Matthew with that in Exodus and following it the movements of the two families parallel one another. Moses returns from the safety of Midian to Egypt where Pharaoh formerly sought his life, similarly Jesus returns from the relative safety of Egypt to Judah where Herod formerly sought his life. Thus, Moses’ Midian is equivalent to Jesus’ Egypt, Moses’ Pharaoh equates to Jesus’ Herod and Moses’ Egypt corresponds to Jesus’ Judah. For Matthew, Jesus’ return to Judea was therefore like Moses’ return to Egypt.
Matthew cleverly incorporates within his text a second witness to his Egypt/Judah role reversal. By placing his claim of fulfilment after the departure from Judah, but before the return from Egypt, he allows the quotation’s allusion to the Exodus to imply that Jesus journey from Canaan to Egypt was like the earlier Exodus from Egypt to Canaan. To heighten this sense, he stresses that the family departed from Canaan hastily and by night, as did the Hebrews during the original Exodus (Matt 2:14, Exod 12:29-33, 39)1.
As God tells Joseph to return with his family, we find yet another textual signpost to the exchanged places of Midian and Egypt as land of sanctuary. As God commands Moses to return from Midian, it is with the reassurance “for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” The prophet then returns with “his wife and his sons” (Exod 4:19-20, NKJV). Similarly, when God told Joseph to return from Egypt, it was with a similar reassurance “for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” Joseph then returned with “the young Child and His mother” (Matt 2:20-21, NKJV).
For Matthew, Jesus’ two journeys tell the same story, i.e. that first century Judah was like a later day Egypt. Moreover, he was not alone in this view. The Apostle John claimed that Christ’s crucifixion took place in a great city that was spiritually an Egypt (Rev 11:8). Furthermore, when Jude the brother of James addressed the use of grace as a license for sin, he deployed a warning that relied for its force on precisely this sort of parallel between the church’s formation and the Exodus. ‘The Lord’ (some early texts replace this with ‘Jesus’2), he wrote, ‘ saved his people by bringing them out of the land of Egypt. But later he destroyed all those who did not believe’ (Jude 5b, NCV).
A new pharaoh
Matthew, by reporting how Jesus’ movements re-enacted those of Moses, cast Herod the Great in the role of Egyptian ruler. From a Roman perspective, Herod was perfect for the part, for a famous pharaoh, such as Rameses II or Akhenaton, had sufficient authority to move their capital wherever they liked and to impose changes in the religious order3. They generally perpetuated their reputation at every opportunity and erected temples to their favored gods. Likewise, Herod established his authority, moved his capital (to Caesarea Maritima), promoted Hellenistic philosophies in Judea, change the dynastic succession of the Jewish high priests and even tried to deploy the eagle, symbol of Roman authority, over the entrance to the Jerusalem temple4. He also undertook copious works of self-aggrandisement not least the building and support of temples dedicated to a variety of deities.
To the above list of general pharaonic attributes, one can add a few that Herod specifically shared with the anonymous pharaoh of Exodus. They both subjected the numerically more numerous Israelites to their foreign rule (Herod was part of the Idumean minority in Judea). They forced their people to work without pay (under Roman law, Herod had the right to do so). They were both keen to secure their position against the possibility of insurrection (hence Herod built massive fortresses such as Masada). Furthermore, they were both ready to murder those who challenged their authority5.
Presenting parallel lives
Although Jesus nativity and Moses childhood were quite different6, the predictability of human behaviour enabled Matthew, by no more than careful editing, to make his account of Jesus childhood resemble the life of Moses, especially as portrayed within the traditional commentaries of the Talmud7.
The implication that Jesus was ‘like Moses’ emerges gradually through the text, with its first inkling coming through the magi’s association with Balaam. Both Matthew’s magi and the Talmud’s Balaam alert a ‘pharaoh’ to the birth of a rival. Both rulers then respond by calling for their advisors, both request a diligent search and both act to rid themselves of the potential competitor8. Finally, each instigates an infanticide only to see divine intervention frustrate his plans. When the Bible comments that Moses could no longer be hidden, the Talmud expands upon this by claiming that the searchers discovered him and then he escaped. In like manner, the searching magi discover Jesus before his escape to safety.
To an educated first century Jew, Matthew’s text screamed that God had sent Jesus, like a later day Moses, to deliver Israel from a new ‘Egypt’. However, Hosea’s prophecy suggests a second reason for this emphasis on Jesus’ similarity to Moses, for in it Hosea contrasts Israel’s response to Moses, with their failure to listen to the subsequent prophets. The basis for Hosea’s criticism lay in the new role that Moses received at Horeb. With his initial mission accomplished, the people asked him to continue to mediate between them and God (Exod 20:19, Deut 5:23-33). The Lord confirmed the wisdom of their request, instructing Moses to listen and then to pass on the commands he received. Those commands, provided the people listened to them, would ensure the continuity of the nation’s tenure in Canaan.
Forty years later, as Moses death approached, he was concerned that Israel would become inattentive to God’s voice. He therefore warned them not to listen to those who claimed ability to predict or control their future through occult practices (Deut 18:9-18)9, on whose account the Canaanites were about to loose their land. He then reminded them of their request at Horeb and assured them that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people,” adding “you shall heed such a prophet” (Deut 18:15 NRSV).
The promise of another prophet like Moses referred to an ongoing role, rather than a specific individual, for, having given the promise, Moses provided a simple test by which Israel could recognise such an individual (Deut 18:20-21). The ‘prophet like Moses’ had to speak in God’s name and their words had to come true10. Thus, Joshua was such a prophet when he predicted the parting of the Jordan, Gideon when he predicted the Midianite’s defeat, Samuel when he announced the fall of the house of Eli, Elijah when he declared a drought and so the list goes on. Indeed, all of the Bibles’ godly prophets met that criterion in full. Down the centuries, there had been many prophets ‘like Moses’, but through Hosea, the Lord lamented Israel’s failure to heed to their call (Hos 11:1-2).
Although any biblical prophet could be considered a prophet like Moses, there remained the sense that Moses was exceptional and that it was no small thing to be like him; teaching Israel and judging their disputes whilst delivering the nation from a terrible enemy and mediating mighty acts of supernatural power. Thus, the compiler of Deuteronomy ends the book with a phrase that is at once both a testimony to Moses apparent uniqueness and a lament, “There has never been another prophet in Israel like Moses. The Lord knew Moses face to face.” (Deut 34:10, NCV)
From prophets to Prophet
God had spoken to Moses as to a friend (Exod 33:11). Whilst others heard only parables, riddles, dark sayings or questions, to Moses God’s words were intelligible, literally ‘mouth to mouth’ (Num 12:7-8). This may perhaps explain why, amongst some schools of thought, the role of ‘Prophet like Moses’ became less generic and focused more on a single end-time individual. Both the Qumran community) and the Samaritans appear to have expected the end-time appearance of ‘The Prophet’11. The concept was still alive and well in first century Judea, for, despite qualifying as a ‘prophet like Moses’, John the Baptist had to deny being ‘the Prophet’ (John 1:21). Furthermore, amongst the crowds that followed Jesus there were those who claimed, “This man really is the Prophet” (John 7:40b NCV).
Although Matthew clearly claims for Jesus the role of ‘Prophet like Moses’, that does not mean that Jesus’ disciples had lost sight of the term’s generic sense. The apostle Peter certainly understood that all the true prophets had been prophets like Moses. Furthermore, on the day of Pentecost, he implied that the disciples had now inherited their mantle. At Sinai, the Lord descended in fire (Exod 19:18) and, according to Jewish tradition, uttered the Decalogue to all the nations descended from Noah, each in his own language and with some seventy tongues in all12. Thus, as Peter appealed for his audience to respond to these men speaking as if with the voice of God (Acts 3:21-24), he reminded them that all the prophets had spoken about the time of restoration and announced ‘these days’. Then he pointed them to Moses instruction and reminding them that God expected a ‘prophet like Moses’ to be obeyed. He was urging them to listen to the prophets like Moses who had already spoken and therefore to listen to the prophets like Moses whom they now heard speaking.
The first glimpses of a new Moses
As Matthew reminded his readers that God said ‘out of Egypt I called My son’, what might they have inferred from this recapitulation of history? Matthew’s text documents the birth of a special child, however to those who could follow his inferences, who knew the Jewish traditions concerning Balaam and had studied the pages of Exodus, it revealed far more. It gave a glimpse of the significance of the child as it began to explain his role. God had promised to provide His people with another prophet like Moses and Matthew portrays Jesus as just such a man. A saviour, fleeing from the oppression of the Pharaoh-like ruler of an Eqypt-like Judah, then called to return and lead out a people. Like Joseph, he was a righteous remnant, sent from a land where innocent blood cried out a curse, then preserved by God on foreign soil. Like Joseph, he was also to be God’s provision for His people, a man with authority over them and the wisdom to bring them to repentance. Once more, out of Egypt God had called His son and called him with a purpose.
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1 The firstborn died around midnight and Pharaoh sent for Moses by night, the Egyptians then urged a hasty departure and, with baking bread commonly one of the first activities of the day, the unleavened dough points to pre-dawn departure (Exod 12:29-34).
2 See footnote on Jude 5 in the NET.
3 Negev, “Rameses,” Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land,.n.p.; “Akhenaton,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Cited 7 Jan 2009. Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/11544/Akhenaton.
4 Hoehner, “Herod,” ISBE, 2:688-98; Shayne J.D. Cohen and Michael Satlow, “Roman Domination: The Jewish Revolt and the Destruction of the Second Temple,” in BAS Ancient Israel (Electronic ed.; ed. Hershel Shanks; Biblical Archaeology Society, 2002), n.p.
5 Cohen and Satlow, “Roman Domination,” in BAS Ancient Israel, n.p.
6 For example, Matthew has no river and there was no star to be seen in Exodus, the Talmud casts Balaam as villain whilst the Gospel gives the magi an altogether more benign role.
7 Polano, The Talmud, 128-130.
8 Polano, The Talmud, 131.
9 Those such as diviners, witches, those who interpret omens, sorcerers, mediums, spiritists, those who cast a spells and those who call up the dead.
10 In the case of the Judges this was usually a statement along the lines ‘God has given X into the hands of Israel’ where X was the latest enemy.
11 L. D. Hurst, “Qumran,”DLNT (Electronic ed.), n.p.; H. G. M. Williamson and C. A. Evans, “Samaritans,” Dictionary of New Testament background.
12 Kaufmann Kohler and Isaac Broydé, “Nations and Languages, the Seventy,” JE, n.p., Cited:13 Feb 2009, Online: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com.