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Jesus and Messianic Prophecy: Matthew and a Third Alternative

January 20, 2014

In my last article I looked at the prophecies Matthew cites in his first two chapters and demonstrated that most of them are not particularly good citations in the normal sense.  I went on to say that most people see two ways out of this: to grant Matthew special permissions to use Old Testament material in ways we would never accept from anyone else or to give Matthew an F and laugh at him.  I also promised a third alternative.  This is it.  Matthew is not finding special meanings nor is he botching his citations.  He is simply using the Old Testament in manner where the specific words are less important than the stories.  To demonstrate this I will go back through the list of prophecies that Matthew cites and describe a different way to read them.

First there is Isaiah 7.  Matthew quotes 7:14 but I am interested in Isaiah 7 as a whole.  In this chapter Ahaz, King of Judah, is worried about being invaded by Aram and Ephraim.  Isaiah meets him with a prophecy: he is worried about Aram and Samaria but the Lord of Hosts will give him a (somewhat cryptic) sign.  A boy will be born and before he is old enough to tell right from wrong1 the bulldozer of the Assyrian Empire, a “razor hired from beyond the River”2, will obliterate the threats to Judah and the land will be at peace.

7:14 is the tipping point of Isaiah 7.  Ahaz is worried and has refused to ask for a sign and so Isaiah tells him that his unwillingness to hear about God’s deliverance is annoying God and that God will give him a sign, this cryptic child. God is serious about fixing the problem.  I propose that this is what Matthew is drawing on: look, here’s a prophecy that we can fit into this situation.  Maybe it doesn’t fit exactly right, maybe it fits better in translation than in original, but this is God’s sign to us that He’s serious about fixing the problem.  Worried about Rome?  You won’t be.  In the sweep of God’s history the great threat of today is the half-remembered ruins of tomorrow.  God has this under control.  God is with us.  It may not, in this reading, even be important to Matthew whether Isaiah meant to prophecy about Jesus or whether the correlation between the child in Isaiah 7:14 and Jesus is an odd echo, a repeated pattern in God’s grand plan.  What matters is that just as the child in Isaiah 7:14 was a sign to Ahaz so Jesus is a sign (of approximately the same thing) to the people of his time.

This perhaps makes more sense of the odd omission when Herod gets bits of Micah 5 quoted to him.  He gets verses 2 and 4 but not 3.  Micah 5:3 tells of how Israel will be abandoned until the correct time and then a ruler will arise who will set things right.  Sure, this prophecy really does fit the circumstances (it identifies the correct town) but the omission, which would be jarring to someone who had memorized the passage (much as it would be odd to hear someone sing a song and skip a few lines), covers the time Israel has been in.  Israel has been abandoned but now the ruler arises, hint, hint.

Hosea 11:1 is where this sort of reading really comes into its own.  Under other readings this citation tends to be a dud unless you are willing to allow Matthew to take any words anywhere in the Bible, extract them from context, and repurpose them (which, unfortunately, a lot of people are happy to allow).  However, Hosea 11:1 “out of Egypt I called my son” is also a perfect poetic hinge-point to allow us to see Jesus enacting Israel’s history.  Jacob’s journey to Egypt with his family and the Exodus are not all that much like Jesus’ movement to and from Egypt until we cast the Exodus in poetic language: Israel is not a vast horde of people but God’s son.  Here again is God’s son going down to the land of slavery and coming back.  I do not have time to develop this theme further but I believe that Matthew sees Jesus enacting Israel’s history so that he can be Israel but get it right this time.  However, the point of citing Hosea 11 is to cite Hosea 11 and the Exodus not to rip words from sentences and repurpose them.  Hosea 11 tells a story of an Israel who comes out of slavery and turns away to idols immediately (within the compressed timeline of the poem).  Jesus restarts at Hosea 11:1 but avoids the mistakes of 11:2.  That’s the point – Jesus is doing Israel’s thing but doing it right3.

By now it should be clear what I will claim about Jeremiah 31:15.  It is not at all important whether anyone in Ramah ever felt the effects of the Bethlehem slaughter for Matthew (I think), what is important is that this is a cycle we have seen before.  Once it was Babylon, now it is Herod (perhaps emphasizing the fall of Israel and its dire need – now Israelite children are slaughtered by Israel’s protector) but the pattern is the same.  But that’s the point – the pattern is “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,”declares the Lord.  “They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descendants,” declares the Lord. “Your children will return to their own land.”  Interestingly, if we take this whole section more literally (rather than simply as “now the Lord is stepping in to set things right”) and we envision the missing children returned to their mothers we would have to imagine the resurrection of the dead.  This may be pushing it but maybe not – I think Matthew is laying groundwork for a lot of things with these citations here.

This leaves only the Nazarene who might be a Nazirite.  This is a hard one mostly because it’s unclear what is being cited.  Obviously being a resident of Nazareth (a Nazarene) isn’t actually anything like being bound by the meticulous Nazirite oaths4 but Jesus was devoted to God as a Nazirite was.  If the reference means to bring in the story of Samson then we also have a story of Israel’s savior.  The Samson story actually includes, “He shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines,” mere words away from the instructions to dedicate the boy Samson as a Nazirite.

So what is Matthew doing with his citations of prophecy?  In short, I think he is using them to retell Jesus’ story as the story of Israel.  Much as John introduces Jesus as the divine Logos, the Word Who was in the beginning and moves from there to a flesh-and-blood man in Galilee Matthew is (rather obviously in other ways) establishing Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s history.  Using prophecy to tie Jesus to other parts of Israel’s national narrative is not always what we expect (we may expect prophecy to be mere future-telling) but it certainly fits with what Matthew is doing with the rest of the birth narrative.


[1] The upper limit for this age is probably 13, the modern Jewish barmiztvah.  It might also refer to a much younger age when a child first understands the idea that some actions are wrong.

[2] Which is really great language that, unfortunately, gets a little weird when this razor apparently shaves off the pubic hair of enemy kings.  Let this be a lesson in reading the Old Testament like it takes place in 21st century America: it really, really doesn’t.

[3] There’s a whole theme of inversion in Matthew’s birth narrative as well – the foreign astrologers come to worship the Jewish Messiah while the Jewish king forces him into exile.  This theme in some ways highlights Jesus’ covenant obedience to God.  The rest of Israel is actively running off the track and so Jesus is not fixing a historical mistake but going back to the roots of a current problem.

[4] Which prohibit drinking alcohol and possibly creating gallons and gallons of it from water.

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